It’s with a sense of nervousness that I return to the blog after a long hiatus. Partly because I haven’t written anything here in a good, long while. But also because I have to pick up with a series where I left on a high note. And now it’s in the hands of another developer.
Haunted Hotel 4: Charles Dexter Ward was a surprise favorite of mine that did just about everything it could right. The sound was great, the plot tight and the environments fantastic. So already knowing that it was handed over to Elephant Games had me quite worried. I definitely do not dislike Elephant Games’ games but I don’t think they could make such a grueling, terrifying HOPA such as this.
And while I may spoil my final verdict a bit, I am both pleasantly surprised and a bit disappointed with the game.
You and you friend James are renown for solving the toughest of crimes. Together you’ve solved multiple crimes that stumped the regular law enforcers. But this case may test you to your limit and then some. A hotel has come under siege by strange events and there’s talk of magics and spirits. But underneath it all, there’s an even more sinister plot brewing. One that threatens to end the world as we know it.
Coming into this game after Charles Dexter Ward, I had a lot of expectations on it. Not all necessarily lofty, I had already partly accepted that the likelihood of it being similar or of the same style was slim. This isn’t a riff on Elephant Games, their style is, or was, just so different from what SpecialBit did. And if you want to build a franchise out of something like this, chances are you’re gonna have to make it a bit more generic for future development.
Although Dark Tales has been running for a while now so I’m definitely not suggesting basing it on a author’s dark tales isn’t possible. Although there’s also the fact that the Cthulhu mythos might simply be too dense and not as audience friendly as Edgar Allan Poe.
That’s, of course, merely speculation on my part. They might revisit the plot of Haunted Hotel 4 some time further down the line but judging from this game, I doubt it. It simply isn’t a good fit for Elephant.
But with all of that said, I’d be hard pressed to call this a bad game. Detach it from the legacy of Charles Dexter Ward and remembering that I didn’t particularly like Haunted Hotel 1 through 3 allows the game to shine better on its own terms. It’s a pretty signficant step up graphics wise, the music is pretty good and for the most part I enjoyed both the puzzles and hidden object scenes.
Unfortunately the plot lets it down a bit. Although it’s perfectly servicable, it does itself a disservice by not going more indepth, a problem a lot of HOPA have. There’s plenty of lore and information on display and there are attempts to explore but it’s ultimately so shallow that no enjoyment comes from it. Various beings are here; werewolves, vampires, witches and spirits and what not. But little of their presence is ever explained or tied into the plot in any significant way.
What I did like was how you came across various murder scenes and as you explored the hotel, you found various clues that were put together and a little vignette played, explaining who the murderer was and how. Little by little, the murders stop adding up or, rather, they add up to something much bigger which is what I thought the whole game should’ve been framed around.
If the cases had been weaved into the fabric of the game’s core, it would’ve been much better for it. Instead it felt like I only got half a story while I trudged through an all too big hotel. Everyone can have their own opinion about this but I just felt like six or seven supernatural murders would’ve been far more appealing to explore and learn about than what the plot of the game actually was. In fact, there’s only so many times that you can save a world from some evil plot and way too powerful artifact before it becomes droll.
Now, solving fairy tale murders? That I can get hyped about.
Despite what it might sound like, however, I didn’t mind the plot all that much. It did its job well enough, leading me through the hotel. If anything it was the design that infuriated me the most. For one, the map only shows you one thing you can do at a time if you’re stuck and unsure of where to go next. This isn’t that big of a problem on its own but coupled with the fact that the chains of events weren’t always intuitive (and not because of supernatural elements) and that the game was really lousy at highlighting important areas in a scene, often the map hints were far less useful than simply trudging about. It didn’t help that what it was pointing at wasn’t necessarily what you needed to do to advance, just A thing you could do right now.
Like: “Use this item here. Oh, that revealed a lock to which you don’t have the key yet. Now go here and do a completely unrelated thing.”
It wasn’t being as helpful as it thought it was. At one point I had to actually look in the walkthrough because I was so stuck and the map clue was so cryptic it was either the guide or use a Hint. And in that case I’d rather just use the guide.
Some aspects of the design was more appealing to me, though. It struck a pretty fine balance between endless backtracking and just a complete railroad. True, sometimes it did get a bit too “backtracky”, regularly sending me between two or three rooms to solve a single puzzle which isn’t great. But on the same note, it had a sprawling hotel for you to explore and it never closed anything off behind you, preserving the feeling that you really were exploring and not just along for the ride.
Another thing it did that I absolutely loved was that many of the objects you picked up weren’t used just one time but you carried around some items for quite a while. Some inventory got used so many times that once they did disappear it felt like I had a hole in my pocket where the item used to be. The screwdriver saw a lot of use early on in the game and several other tools were put to the test more than once. This surprised me a great deal cause I’ve gotten so used to items being done and dusted once you’ve used them and it’s something I’ve been suggesting for a while now. Reusing tools and items is not a flaw or lazy design, it builds familiarity and streamlines tedious processes.
And with the picture above, I feel like I need to talk about the graphics a bit. On one hand, it was good. Well defined and with plenty of colors, it was a beauty to look and to take in. The 3D animations were surprisingly good for a HOPA, used frequently too. On the other hand, the game was terrible at highlighting important areas that you needed to interact with. This should be through clever drawing of the art but if all fails, some simple sparkles can typically help draw your eyes. But in this game, some areas were lit up like a Christmas tree while others were left totally in the dark. There were interactive areas in the beginning of the game that I completely missed for an hour or two which is… not good design.
The Bonus Chapter that came with the Collector’s Edition was particularly egregious in this area. That whole thing was a poorly designed string of events that crisscrossed in such a confusing pattern not even the walkthrough could help me at times. Areas of interactions so tiny it was mere luck if you spotted them or not. And it didn’t help that the cursor that denoted interactive areas was such a slight change from the normal that even dragging it around to find all interactive areas wasn’t a viable option all the time.
Moving characters weren’t particularly well animated either. Luckily they were few and most of the time when they talked they were mere paper cut outs against a still background.
But whenever they tried to make the paper cut outs move it immediately turned a bit… awkward. But this was the phase when HOPA in general tried to move away from real life actors and 3D animation in favor of, what I call, 2D morph animations and the results were… not good. I still dislike the practice today but some studios have gotten halfway decent at it so it’s not as bad as it was back here.
What kind of confounds me with this is that Elephant Games opted to have both 3D animations and 2D animations in this game and the 3D animations were pretty darn good. The choice doesn’t make a lot of sense to me since I’d rather take a sort of lifelike 3D animation of poor quality over… whatever the hell the morph animations were supposed to be in this game. Or any HOPA, for that matter. And they were quite proficient with it back in the day too. Considering their work on the Hallowed Legends-trilogy, I’m not sure why they optedfor this method in this game considering Ship of Bones came out in the same year.
Obviously I’m not up to speed on cost effectiveness and designer preference at Elephant Games but as a consumer, all I can say is that 2D morph animations are not the end all of animation. But I’ve been harping on about this for so long now even I’m getting bored with it.
Speaking of graphics, I inevitably must speak about the hidden object scenes as well. And they were quite nice. There’s not much to say here, it’s a five year old HOPA, back when we still called them HOG, and studios were just beginning to play around with the concept of what a hidden object scene could potentially be.
So it’s pretty much exclusively list-based scenes but for what they are, they’re done quite well. Although not particularly difficult on their own, the objects are logical in their placement (something you couldn’t be too sure of in 2013 still) and some are quite cheeky in their placement. But they’re quick and fun to play, overflowing with different colors and just enough interactivity to keep things appealing.
If I have to complain about something it’s that you never revisited hidden object scenes. Each scene when unlocked was a fresh delivery of unsorted knick-knacks and once completed, never seen again (except for a small minigame in the bonus section).
For what they were, I enjoyed them a great deal. While I do prefer an assortment of different scenes, I’ll take a well designed list-scene over a poorly designed bevy of different kinds. And Elephant Games tend to do quite well in this area so perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, they’ve stayed in the business this long for a reason. Probably because they release a lot of games but their quality probably figures into things too.
They do well with their puzzles too. Often, anyhow. Although I’ll admit their presence in my memory is fading fast, despite only finishing the game recently, the ones I do remember, I remember fondly.
Although the library of puzzles consists primarily of firmly established kinds, such as memory games, jigsaws and the like, many also came with their own little twists and turns that made them, if not much harder, at the very least worthy of a good try. A few were easily brute forced while most required some thought to get through. I actually ended up skipping one puzzle, one of the last ones in the main game, cause it was just giving me an absolute headache. Well, I say skipped but I looked up the solution in the walkthrough because after about ten, fifteen minutes of trying, I just… didn’t feel like it anymore.
I did end up skipping it when it came around the second time in the Secret Room in the Extras but that doesn’t count!
They also felt well integrated into the setting itself, with a flimsy excuse for why the hotel was built the way it was. Plus the addition of magic and eccentric people. But also in terms of style and graphics, they just seemed to overall fit in the places where they were which isn’t always the case in HOPA. Sometimes you find yourself scratching your head as to why ancient civilizations built with apparently modern technology in mind or why super advanced installations relied on outdated mechanisms.
But here it felt like they fit. There were still moments where locks were unnecessarily complicated for no good reason. It’s always confounded me why some people lock their kitchen cupboards with locks that require you to have three different pieces and then solve a complicated puzzle. Just doesn’t seem worth it most of the time…
If I compare it to Charles Dexter Ward I come away quite disappointed. That game perfectly represented one aspect of HOPA that I adore, the ability to deal with mature themes and ideas targeted at adults. With the rest of the industry so focused on the teens and children to make their money, an arm of the industry focused on adults above 40 years old, I wish more games would take the chance to say or do something more sinister with their games.
But if I judge the game based on the whole Haunted Hotel series up to this point and as a HOPA in general, it still comes out looking quite favorable. It’s still rough around the edges, there’s a lot of design decisions here that I don’t agree with and much of the Extras felt like wasted space. But I enjoyed the main game almost entirely from beginning to end and it did enough to endear itself with me that I’m still interested in the rest of the series.
Especially now that they’ve announced Detectives United: Origins.
With this in mind, I’ll probably be taking a longer look at Elephant Games in the coming weeks. I’ve decided I need to clear away some older games so I can get more modern in my reviews so keep an eye on this space to see what’s what in the near future.