A Review of The Charnel House Trilogy
I want to like The Charnel House Trilogy, really, I do.
It's an atmosphere-heavy point-and-click adventure game by a small indie company. It's got a strange plot like nothing else I've really played, except maybe for Downfall. The art has a handmade feel to it that reminds me of older adventure games, so it has the nostalgia factor going for it. And let's be honest, as someone who enjoys Jacob's Ladder and horror games a little more than anyone would ever admit, there is really no reason that I shouldn't have had an amazing time with The Charnel House Trilogy.
But as much as I'd love to trumpet Charnel House to the heavens, I found that the game falls a little short of what it could possibly deliver. While there are some great ideas overall in The Charnel House Trilogy, there's too much here for me to suggest giving this anything but a miss.
The Charnel House Trilogy is three linked adventure games in one: "Inhale", the first chapter, introduces the character of Alex, a young woman living in New York City who is about to take a train voyage to a place known as Augur Peak. Before her big trip, a series of mysterious events occurs in her apartment, including a blackout, a strange apparition, and sudden panic attacks.
"Sepulchre", which can be downloaded for free from Owl Cave's website, picks up sort of where the first game left off, with Professor Harold Lang, Alex's fellow passenger on the late train to Augur Peak, as he wakes up after a nap to find the train completely empty save two members of the staff. From there, he is drawn into a surreal investigation that hinges on his past, and the massive black bags present on every room of the train but his.
And "Exhale" concludes both the story of the train and Alex's story, revealing some (but not all) of the truth of what is actually going on. In this segment, Alex awakes on the train to discover that while it isn't deserted, there is something strangely familiar about all the denizens of the train and its compartments...
So first, this is a game that gets what a lot more horror games should get about horror: Horror trades on atmosphere. Entirely on atmosphere. Horror is the hardest-working genre out there because it has to unsettle you from the norm. It has to get into your head. It has to disturb you. And The Charnel House Trilogy gets that. The game starts out with an oddly subdued feeling that everything is slightly off. The feeling only grows as the story progresses, beginning with a few gently surreal quirks and then building to full-on disturbance by the final scenes. In terms of mood and setting, the story is fantastic.
The setting is great, too. The three chapters take place in very confined spaces-- the first in Alex's apartment, and the second two on the train. Because there isn't a huge diversity of setting, the places in the game begin to feel familiar. Like you've been there for a while. When the plot really kicks into high gear, it affected me because these were places and people I remembered. It also made backtracking a little easier. But even with a lack of people, the train had a great sense of place.
But there are some serious issues that have to be addressed.
First, I strongly suggest that you go into the advanced settings menu for the game and disable the voice pack. I wouldn't disable the music, because in spite of the annoying radio (and the even more annoying DJ) during "Inhale", the music is actually pretty good. But the voice acting ranges from "Pretty decent for an indie game" to "a script read for the first time in the recording booth at knifepoint", with all but maybe three roles congregating near the bottom end of the spectrum. And the few roles where they got someone who did sound good aren't worth the ones where they didn't. It got so bad that the voice acting actually started to pull me from the narrative, rather than draw me in, and I made a neat metagame of guessing whether the characters weren't supposed to be reacting to the things going on around them, or whether the actors were just doing a bad job of conveying emotion.
Second, speaking of things that break immersion, there were a a few in-jokes that, even knowing what they were talking about, felt forced and took me out of the experience. The big one is a scene near the beginning that talks about drama involving a game reviewer giving a game a low score. I'd be fine with this if it were something optional, something you could click through, something you could find as you go through the game.
But making it something you have to see to progress through the game, forcing me to read your comment on modern game criticism and drama, isn't going to start me out on your side. I also thought the Phantasmagoria references in the later segments were a little forced.
Finally, while repeated play-throughs did clear up some of the less coherent story elements, the plot winds up going...nowhere. The story picks up speed as it goes along, and there's no way I'd want everything tied up in a nice neat little bow, but the pacing is way off. Most of Alex's character arc is resolved by a single villain's monologue, a lot of the story threads are left dangling, and then the story ends on a cliffhanger that sets up the sequel...a year from now. I'd like to stress, I'm fine with the central mysteries being somewhat open to speculation or unsolved. But even the most feverish droppings from Suda51's brain-anus are going somewhere. They're saying something.
They're doing something other than shrugging. There's obscuring, and there's having to play a game multiple times to figure out something where the plot points tend to obfuscate for no reason, come out of nowhere at times, and wind up ending on a big question mark and the words "to be continued". The second one shouldn't be done.
Another issue with this is that "Sepulchre", arguably the strongest chapter of the three by virtue of its self-containment, is kind of orphaned amidst Alex's story. It feels like a side-plot while "Inhale" and "Exhale" are going on, something that reveals more of the train's nature, but ultimately doesn't matter when taking the story holistically. Doctor Lang is barely introduced as a side-character to Alex's plot in "Inhale", and is only seen sleeping at the end of "Exhale", while "Sepulchre" focuses on him. I'd have liked to see him interact more in the plot during the "Exhale" chapter, which, while it might have diminished Alex's story a little, would have made the connections between the two characters seem a little stronger.
In the end, it's a good game weighted down by its own self-indulgence, and I can't in good conscience give it a positive review when that's the case. But, since it's not entirely a bad game, I have a solution. If you really feel like playing this, either download Sepulchre from the link above, or simply play the "Sepulchre" and "Exhale" chapters with the voices turned off. You miss nothing by skipping "Inhale", there's a chapter-select screen on the main menu, so there are ways to make it work.
But as a whole package, this is one train I'm glad left me at the station.
Score: 3 out of 5
Full Disclosure: The writer of this review received a review copy of this game.