First posted on 10 April 2013. Last updated on 10 April 2013.
Haunted is a game obviously created by developer Deck13 Interactive to please its own fans—the adventure game crowd fond of the studio's previous releases—but takes little chances to bring in a new audience who is not already in on the joke. A comedic romp through contrived puzzles, humorous groaners, and a narrative about rescuing a kidnapped child, Haunted is a technical marvel of a game with a soul that feels somewhat mechanical.
The farce that is in Haunted begins as you step into the shoes of Mary, a young Londoner who wants to track down her lost sister Emily. Within minutes after the game starts, you are quickly introduced to the game's villains, the cartoon logic of its Victorian world, and the puzzles in it that will serve as your constant nemesis. Despite its eerie name and creepy setting, Haunted is a comedy in disguise, though it bores as often as it dazzles, frustrates as often it enchants, and delivers groans as often as chuckles.
You will travel across a handful of locations throughout the game, mostly in urban England but also a few notable jaunts elsewhere including Scotland. You will even take a brief detour to Romania and the famed Transylvania.
Like the developer's previous games, Haunted is a traditional point-and-click adventure with a number of inventory puzzles. Inventory items appear at the top of the screen. At the bottom of the screen is a gear button which allows you to access the main menu (from where you can save your game at any time). In addition, activating the handy "eye" button there highlights every item you can inspect or interact with in the current scene.
By far, the game's most innovative feature is how you can recruit ghosts to join Mary as her traveling companions. You will meet a braggart pirate, William Wallace, Confucius, even an ancient pope, among others. Each ghost has a special ability—Wallace has great strength, Confucius can shapeshift, and the pope can decipher any language—that is essential to interacting with the world and solving its arcane enigmas. Once a new ghost joins your party, they will have an icon in the lower left part of the screen that you can click on to activate their special abilities.
As soon as you begin playing, you will be struck by the game's gorgeous graphics. For a classically styled adventure game, the art direction offers the perfect backdrop. The world is highly stylized and a living breathing cartoon that perfectly matches the game's thematic elements. Some of the animations and lighting effects are especially impressive. The ghost effects are superbly done. Watching Mary climb a tree or swing from an improvised rope is a visual treat. The graphics are not without hiccups, though. From time to time, the 3D modeled characters walk through obstacles, falling leaves have box shaped shadows, and body parts can slide unseemly (and unnervingly) through clothing.
While the art is fantastic, the humor is—politely speaking—an acquired taste. When the humor gets too silly, it can take some effort to not roll your eyes. Although there are moments of surreal enjoyment to be had with such absurdity, they are all too rare in the game. Your ghostly comrades' incessant insults often fall disastrously flat, other characters in the world are played as bumbling stereotypes, and the vaudeville relationship between the villains is as predictable as it is lame.
The gameplay in Haunted is a puzzler in itself. Each set piece is wrapped around a number of puzzles which are supposed to be consistent with game's own logic. Yet, there really is not much that is logical. If you love puzzles in which objects in the world and items in your inventory can be pressed, prodded, utilized, and combined in overly convoluted ways, then this game is for you.
Every puzzle in Haunted is a rubber ducky. For example, a particular sequence involves a pirate ship (with a fish bone for a rudder), an iceberg, and a hastily constructed bomb to create lightning. The game is fairly long, so your willingness to struggle with each of these puzzles will determine your playtime.
Without giving any spoilers, the game makes a few references to some of the most celebrated games in the adventure genre that are hard to miss and even harder not to appreciate.
The sound effects and musical scores in Haunted work to add drama when necessary, without being a distraction otherwise. All of the characters are voice acted. Some of the voices are terrific. Mary herself is played particularly well, straddling the line between intensity and bemusement deftly. The pirate Oscar is a charmer when his dialog is not forcing him to be a comic disaster.
The story itself, unfortunately, is somewhat pedestrian. Mary's quest is to track down her younger sister who is, or is not, a ghost, while wrestling with her own inner demons about her responsibility for her sister's fate. The motivations behind her ghostly companions coming along for the ride never seems entirely explained. Throughout her trek, Mary moves from puzzle set piece to puzzle set piece and recruits new companions while trying to put together clues about her sister's whereabouts and staying ahead of the villains who are chasing her down. In essence, the narrative functions solely as a way to add these new puzzle set pieces.
With its European sensibilities and humor, there is no escaping that Haunted is squarely made for the niche adventure crowd in those countries. There is also no escaping that Haunted does not offer a living, breathing world. While the game is technically dazzling, its humor and story remain happily juvenile. In its defense, Haunted is not meant to be a mature game with involved characters—from story to puzzle, Haunted is a cartoon adventure. If juvenile humor still tickle your funny bone and cerebral calisthenics is your idea of a party, then you will not find a better contemporary adventure than what Deck13 Interactive offers with Haunted.