Halloween Stories – Invitation

Boys and girls of every age, wouldn’t you like to see something strange? Come with me and you will see, this game that they have made. This is Halloween Stories! This is Halloween Stories!

I’m back, ladies and gentlemen. Sitting here, typing on my new computer, I realize it’s been way too many months since I updated and there are multiple reasons for this: work, computer problems, lack of inspiration, just… things in general. But instead of wallowing in why my input has been limited, let’s just move forward.

Because it’s Halloween!

Halloween Stories: Invitation
(Elephant Games, 2017)

You’ve been invited to the best Halloween party in town together with your friend Joe. All dressed up, you arrive to find the party in full swing. But it doesn’t take long for things to go horribly awry when it’s revealed the hosts are actually beings from another dimension. And only you can stop them.

That sounds cliche, I know, but there’s not really much else I can say. The story is extremely simplistic and the characters practically non-existent, every twist and turn easily predictable long before they occur. And for a Halloween game it doesn’t really utilize its setting and time of year particularly effectively. But more about that later, first let’s just talk more about the game in itself.

Halloween Stories is the first in a new series of games… probably. Obviously it’s impossible to tell if Elephant Games intend to follow up on this but given their history with Christmas Stories, I find it difficult to believe they intend this as a one-off and I have no doubt that it’ll sell reasonably well. Much like with Christmas Stories, the story takes place during Halloween and is themed around that, at least in theory.

Starting off with the graphics, they’re kind of… middling, I guess? The environments looks really nice for the most part but character animations are truly awful and what little 3D there is… well, I’ve seen better in HOPA. It didn’t help that the game was loaded with cutscenes either. Normally I approve of cutscenes in HOPA because they have a tendency to avoid that which often leave narratives undeveloped but here they added so little and the animations were a bit… off, simply put.

I also found that the game got less interesting as it went on in terms of graphics. The first house you go to feels a lot more Halloweeny than the second one, it’s just incredibly strangely designed if you look at it as a normal house. The first house being “Halloweeny” made sense because it’s a trap but the second house is just normally decorated with skeletons, pumpkins and spiders, I guess?

If there’s one thing you can always count on HOPA-villains for it’s that they always dress and design to fit the job.

The hidden object scenes weren’t much better, in all honesty. Adequate for sure, some were even a little bit tough, but sitting here now, the day after finishing the game and… well, I just don’t remember them. They cycled through various type of hidden object scenes, like regular lists and fragmented objects and silhouettes, the typical stuff so that part I’m not complaining about.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I didn’t like the hidden object scenes but much like Eipix’ game it just feels like they’re recycled from previous games. Not graphically, of course not, but design wise. As if they have a formula and they’re sticking to it, just plonking down new graphics. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone had developed an engine where you just feed it a background and some random objects and it just kind of plops things down itself.

Or maybe that’s a bit too sci-fi still. I’m sure some human input was required at some stage but don’t come to me if the artificial intelligence uprising start in the HOPA arm of the game industry. Just saying. I saw it coming.

Some more immediate complaints I have about the hidden object scenes was that the interactive sections of the scenes were very poorly highlighted or indicated. The little cursor turning into a hand or similar wasn’t much of a help because the area of interaction was absolutely tiny in some cases. I even had to use a the hint function to find an interactive bit at one point and when revealed, all I could say was “I so clicked that area multiple times.” The area of interaction was absolutely minuscule.

Not okay.

And again, there was a distinct lack of… Halloweeness here as well. Again, a couple of pumpkins scattered about, a bat or two and a witch, of course, but… well, I’ll get into what I think Halloween is later.

But where the game does really well in my book is in the puzzles department.

Not all of them were particularly hard and some do suffer from the “just a very complicated lock”-syndrome I’ve talked about before but some are actually really difficult. Hell, one I almost got entirely stuck on until I figured out the trick. And others just required you to think ahead. Some of these you could brute force your way through but for the most part they were just cleverly designed.

True, they were mostly modified versions of puzzles you’ve probably seen a gazillion times before. But they were modified in such a way that they were actually different and difficult enough that it didn’t feel like I was just repeating the same steps as in every HOPA. And I welcome that sort of thinking where they take something old and just… tweak it enough that it feels new. I’m not asking people to reinvent the wheel here, just… add enough unique touches.

Besides the puzzles there were also a handful of little minigames. The one pictured was agonizingly annoying because it was very bad at sticking to the rules, or so it seemed. So much so that I genuinely couldn’t understand what I was doing wrong through most of it and still don’t. But that’s besides the point, they’re there and they mostly work.

So why don’t I like this game? I’ve definitely liked games with far more problems than this game, good lord have I ever. But for some reason I just cannot appreciate this game any more than in a shallow “I guess it’s alright” way.

And I think the best way I can explain why is this: this game does not celebrate Halloween. Not in the same way that Christmas Stories celebrate Christmas, for instance. Pumpkins are used as set dressings and all we ever see from the classic monsters, like Dracula, are little awesome collectibles. Very little of the game, design-wise as well as thematically, revolves around Halloween and if you cut out the part about the Halloween party at the beginning, it could take place at any time during the fall.

And that’s… not good enough. They could’ve done more, tying more of the Halloween traditions to the fact that the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is at its thinnest and while this is touched upon a bit, it’s not really tied into the story well at all. It speaks of a family of seers that go back years yet we see very little of how they combated the evil outside of a short look in a journal or something.

Was this why Halloween came about, this family of seers combating evil from another dimension on the one day they could cross over? That’s… actually a pretty cool story, when can I play it? If not that, where are all the classic elements of Halloween of today? Vampires, werewolves, pumpkin monsters, mummies, witches, all of them relegated to collectibles? Weak. When I first saw the trailer I genuinely thought the premise was “Everyone turns into the costume they’re wearing” and while that’s been done before, I still think it’s a premise worth exploring, especially in a far more serious setting than Buffy the Vampire.

And the game isn’t shy about death and actually features one of the more shocking deaths in HOPA that I can draw to mind. Possibly the only surprise in this game was this death because I did not see it coming and it was probably the first time I’ve seen the heroine in a HOPA fail. And it was great.

But the story simply doesn’t move at a good pace. Instead of focusing on a single, scary house and let you explore that and slowly untangle the mystery, you’re whisked through the game and narrative at such a startling pace I almost forgot at one point that we were in a completely different house than where we began. Which is unforgivable. And sometimes the game can’t even invent a good reason for you to get somewhere so it just conjures up some deus ex machina to get you in the right spot.

I’m not even joking, at one point they genuinely teleport you where you need to go. In a very bizarre turn of events too, the plot moving so quickly I almost got whiplash in the process. If the environments were interesting I can put up with this, other games also whip you from place to place indiscriminately but at least they build the game around this somehow or justify it on a basic level. Here it comes out of nowhere, is never mentioned again or even utilized despite being hugely helpful.

Even worse, the game spends so little time fleshing out the alternate world that the antagonists are reduced to typical bad guys with little to no motivation beyond “we are evil”. Why do they want to come into our world? What are their plans when they’re here? Have we tried peaceful discussion? Before the family of seers protected us, what then? How many kind of “Beyonders” are there?

I need answers, dammit!

What it comes down to, is that when I play Christmas Stories, it FEELS like Christmas. When I play Halloween Stories, it feels like any generic HOPA in the last ten years. Nothing justifies the Halloween tag, not the story, not the setting, not the design.

Is it a bad game?

No.

Is it a good game?

It’s adequate. Nothing amazing.

And I definitely hope they continue it next year and perhaps rethink what makes Halloween.

Hell, there was barely any candy in the game…

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