Editor's Note: This review was written using a review copy furnished at no cost by Owl Cave Games.
The Charnel House Trilogy is an adventure game deleoped by Owl Cave Games and published by Mastertronic. Few games these days that claim to be point and click manage to evoke the same certain emotions I would get while playing old classics like Sam and Max hit the road, the Monkey Island series, and Beneath a Steel Sky. Even the brand new spate of Telltale titles have for me been missing some of that old-school charm evident in puzzle games of yore. The latest Back to the Future games and Sam and Max have been fun no doubt, but it always felt like something was missing. I wasn't sure what would happen when I was assigned The Charnel House Trilogy. Truth be told I was a tad reluctant to even start it, always managing to find something a bit more important to help me procrastinate on it. It was just one of a few reviews I needed to get through and the others seemed to take precedence. After exhausting my excuses and reasoning with myself to play what I expected to be less than entertaining, I found myself becoming engrossed. I wasn't sure why, and couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then it hit me.
The disturbing plot of Charnel House is its strength by far
The Charnel House Trilogy is primarily story based—being one of its strengths, it unravels much in the same way that traditional point and click games do. You start in the shoes of the main character going about their boring menial life—in this case Alex, the main character. She wakes up and blathers on in a rather angsty way about how pointless her life is within the city she lives in. She considers herself nothing special and truth be told at this point I felt like shutting the game off and trying again at a later date. Cooler heads prevailed and I persevered. I opened up the computer, located the book to find the password and I was off. The first part of the game wasn't anything special, and the story was slightly at times confusing. The game is broken up into three parts. Inhale, Sepulchre and Exhale.
The first part of the game Inhale, has you playing as Alex. It's fairly short, the puzzles are extremely basic, and while nothing really happens until towards the end, the build up fits. The voice acting is for the most part surprisingly good, and apart from Alex being quite morose and full of angst, the plot chugs along fine. The characters in the first part of the game aren't really remotely likable—due in part to there only being one or two, and Jim Sterling's delivery of Rob's lines aren't exactly stellar. The story doesn't have much to it, only really picking up in the second part when you lose control of Alex. I won't spoil anymore of the plot, but suffice to say Sepulchre and Exhale is where it all starts to be fleshed out. It's actually a very confusing story at first if you don't pay close attention to certain events. Every little thing seems to be relevant from candle light, bags, windows and even dinner meals. The heart of the story is horror in the vein of I Have No Mouth and I must scream, or Scratches.
The story was actually quite disturbing and at times made my skin crawl—impressive for a pixel-art point and click title. You'll constantly be second guessing yourself in regards to events and the game plays on confusion and tricking your memory—all to great effect. I found I was unable to put it down once I got past Inhale, and the story just kind of sucked me in—something I had certainly not expected. The atmosphere was almost palpable in some instances, with the environment being unnerving. I can't say much more without giving away major plot elements, but suffice to say all the elements work together in unison well to create a deliberately oppressive experience.
Gameplay is very generic and familiar to those whom are fans of point & click adventures
The game-play is like any other point and click. You guide the character around environments using the mouse. You can pick certain objects up, while others have no relevance to puzzles and are only there to add game-play elements of the world. You can investigate certain elements on the map, picking up clues and observing how the story plays out. The game even had an authentically awkward as hell inventory, Ala Escape from Monkey Island which brought me right back to my childhood and while it was functionally somewhat awkward when needing to combine items or search through possessions, it nailed the old-school feeling. What was also nice was if you double clicked on an element in the game, the character would instantly teleport to it, allowing you to skip the boring wait for your character to walk to its vicinity. This was a nice little aspect. The puzzles are quite clever and provide adequate hints in order to finish them, without causing you to go stir crazy. If you do get stuck, you usually just need to leave a room and backtrack a little bit to progress the story.
The production values on offer are pretty decent
Graphically the game is quite detailed in the pixelated sense. The artist has put a lot of time and effort into the pixels with shading and coloring. the characters look human, without any uncanny valley effect going on. The colour tones of the game are quite dark, and the set-pieces aren't all that varied. There's roughly three or four different set-pieces across all three parts, though one of those is quite large and varied—without giving anything away. The visuals are quite noticeably disturbing with the visual imagery making my skin crawl at times. Sitting with headphones on in the dark while playing is quite unpleasant atmospherically, and will at the least make you feel uneasy.
Adding to the uneasiness is the sound design of the game which is quite frankly nothing short of fantastic. You'll want a decent pair of headphones or speakers while playing, as audio panning is utilised and sound effects most certainly add to the atmosphere. The music is eerie and haunting in most of the game, while being somber and beautiful at the same time. The music always fits the scene and nothing feels out of place. A lot of effort has been put into the sound design of The Charnel House Trilogy and it's refreshing to see. The quality of the sound is also crisp and clear, with the only complaint being a particular voice actor. Sterling however improves throughout the game from his initial appearance and the main character's development is helped along by surprisingly good voice acting from such a small title.