Haunted House - Old Scares, New Systems
Yet again the spooky season arrives, and while for many, their preferred game might be something delightfully dark and macabre, there are others who prefer something a little more light-hearted. This is what Atari and Orbit Studio aspire to bring to the table with Haunted House, the latest reimagining of an Atari 2600 classic, but for as much as it brings to the table, the final result doesn’t quite hit the mark.
You play Lyn Graves, the niece of legendary treasure hunter Zachary Graves. Old Uncle Zachary has disappeared inside his house, and Lyn decides to investigate and find him, bringing some friends along the way for a bit of backup.
Disaster strikes upon entering, resulting in her friends being taken captive, and now with the help of Spooky, a (surprise, surprise) friendly ghost Lyn must explore the mansion to find the three pieces of an urn that can break the curse and set things right.
While the original game had you restart for every attempt, this one brings two modern conventions along for the ride – the first is the need for stealth, with the second being to structure the game in the tradition of a Roguelite.
For the stealth side of things, as you work your way through each room, you’ll need to watch for the movement patterns of any patrolling critters, whilst being sure to not disturb those sleeping. I found it simple as it works well enough, particularly around the goal to not make too much noise, or being sure to avoid knocking over any tables, lest you awaken a sleeping critter.
Patrolling ghosts also have a vision cone indicating their current line of sight, and this helps with avoiding their patrols. However, I wish it was more visible as the semi-transparent red widget was obscured by the scenery. So instead of just taking a quick glance to see who was nearby, I had to pause and focus a bit more which kind of got in the way of the flow.
It has to be said the most important reason for good stealthiness is as a means to dispatch those ghastly ghouls. It so happens to be the objective for some rooms, so it’s worth getting a little practice where you can. Basically, sneak up being one and wait for the indicator to pop up, then use your lantern and they’ll be blasted with a blinding light.
I found you needed to be in an almost pixel-perfect position before the prompt appears, and if you get it wrong, they’re likely to be angered and give chase. If this happens, watch out as they move fast and hit hard, so you can lose plenty of health while you try to evade.
Should you run out of health, that’s where you’ll find the Roguelite side of the game kicks in. You’ll be taken back to the foyer and can try again, but with the rooms shuffled about for your next attempt. Which thanks to the small number of rooms available, means things get repetitive quite fast. Especially if you’re frequently restarting runs as I found myself doing.
I found this frustration was amplified by some room layouts, as more often than not, avoiding enemies was all but impossible in them. One example of this was a room where you needed to collect items needed to dispatch the level’s big bad. Despite being told I should be able to sneak on by, there was barely enough room to do so, meaning I’d be given no choice but to run continually and wake up other critters in the process in order to survive.
You’ll also find other activities that provide some distraction from the main quest. Finding rogue kittens, lost kitchen utensils or misplaced Atari 2600 cartridges, and returning them to members of the staff can earn you rewards, but there’s also finding gems that can be used to buy upgrades for your squad. Said gems can also be spent on aesthetic improvements to the house, which I found to be a bit of a waste, especially with how slowly you accumulate them during your attempts.
Which I guess is where my larger frustrations began to settle in. I mean, if you’re stuck trying to conquer the same rooms without little to show for it, and no way to get the wall, then you can feel trapped even at the best of times. So I was thankful to find one of the basement keys which (eventually) led me to free one of Lyn’s friends. Each character has their own attribute set which helps in various ways – and I was certainly able to get somewhat further in clearing out a level as a result.
But by this point, the fun had really dried up for me. Which wasn’t helped by the bugs I encountered. They might not be numerous, or game-breaking, but they’re irritating enough to sap the motivation to get back in that after a run ends.
The most glaring one for me is the map breaking when starting your second run. Sure, you can jump to another area if it’s open, but you won’t always have alternate areas available to explore.
The real pain was in finding the occasional soft lock. One such example was finding an eye that offered a permanent upgrade, but was situated in a place where you’d eventually need to double back. When I came back through the room, the quest was active, but I couldn’t complete it because I’d previously done so.
Having to end a run and restart might be okay if you weren’t at it that long, but if you’re like me, doing it after 20 or so minutes saps one’s desire to continue. This is ultimately what made me put the game down – I’m cool with the general nature of Roguelites, and though I wished there was a larger pool of rooms to make each level from, the game’s narrative set-up was unique enough for me to pique my interest.
It’s just encountering those bugs, even as sporadic as they are is enough to make me question why I should spend more time with this one, instead of games which are more exciting for me.
I’ll admit: I’m not at all nostalgic for the original Haunted House, and so approaching this from a position of curiosity instead of nostalgia meant I was able to approach this with a clean slate and on its own terms.
As much as Haunted House offers a unique take on the Roguelite formula alongside some neat mechanics and challenges, it’s a game that truly needed a bit more sweating of the details for it to truly shine – both in the number of potential rooms to explore, but also in squashing all those minor bugs which dull the experience.
Haunted House was reviewed on PS5 with code kindly supplied by the publisher