Ever since I was a kid, I've loved movies about people trapped inside a house filled with evil spirits; the claustrophobia, the helplessness, and the wild desperation the characters must feel strike a nerve in me that's untouched by other horror flicks. Toss some devil worship, secret societies, and transmigration of souls into the mix, and I'm even more entranced. I guess that's why I can't stop playing Realms of the Haunting, the latest creation from Gremlin Interactive and Interplay Productions. It walks the fine line between action and adventure as elegantly as any game I've seen, blending healthy doses of first-person shooter action with puzzles that are skillfully woven into a plot that unfolds at just the right pace.
The game is set in England, present day. You play Adam Randall, a young man who has been plagued by nightmares of an evil house ever since his father passed away some six months before. A few weeks after his father's death, Adam was visited by a priest named Elias Camber, who informed him that his father - who was a pastor - had sent him a series of letters before his death concerning some disturbing events taking place at a house in his parish; he also sent Camber a box containing stone fragments which Adam senses have some sort of power. The mystery intensifies when Adam does a little research and discovers there is no priest named Elias Camber, and when his dreams become even more disturbing he finally decides to journey to the house and try to sort out just what's going on.
All this is recounted through the use of some nicely done full motion video, proving that FMV does have a place in games if it's used tastefully and in the right amounts. Video is also used at various points within the game itself whenever you stumbde across a new piece of the puzzle, and while some of the segments could have been shortened a bit, the overall effect is impressive.
As you begin play, you've just entered the house - and because the doors have locked behind you there's no turning back. It may take some players a little practice to get used to the smoothly scrolling, first-person interface because you must "steer" with one hand and aim with another (you can move using just the mouse, but I don't recommend it). After you've grabbed a pistol and a few clips of ammo, you're ready to start laying waste to some supernatural baddies - just because they're dead doesn't mean they're immune to lead! But don't think this is merely a shoot-'em-up with an occult twist: You've got to use the objects you find to reveal new areas of the house and uncover new details of the mystery.
Before long, you discover the reason you felt compelled to make the journey to the house: Your father's spirit is imprisoned here, and only you have the power to free his soul from torment. But once you begin searching for clues that might shed light on how you can help your father, you slowly begin to suspect that there's a lot more at stake here than the soul of a parish priest. Freemasons, the Knights Templars, secret occult orders, crop circles - all the fave topics of conspiracy/occult fans crop up as the game progresses, keeping you constantly striving to learn more about what terrible evils were committed in the house and why it appears that you're the only one who can set things right.
An especially nice touch is adjustable difficulty levels for both the arcade action and adventure portions of the game. Choose hard for puzzles, and you must choose the appropriate item from your inventory to use in a given situation; choose easy, and the object's automatically placed in your hand. And because you can set the arcade sequences - i.e., fighting demons and creatures - on any of four difficulty levels, even someone who can't hold their own at Quake will get to revel in the joy of gunplay.
The 3-D-modeled creatures you encounter are a tour de force, brought to life (or should I say "undeath?") with motion capture technology so smooth you'll swear some of them will just keep on coming right out of the monitor and into the room with you. Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but I will say that my hands got a little sweaty the first time I found myself surrounded by three or four shambling apparitions moving inexorably toward me. The musical score, too, is first-rate, always serving to create atmosphere but never drawing attention to itself.
As much as I've become wrapped up in Realms of the Haunting, there are still a couple of design decisions that bug me. Reading the letters you find scattered about the house is a pain because often you must scroll to see all the text, and in the lower-res video modes the ends of lines are clipped, forcing you to not only scroll up and down but also to shift the page left and right. Maps and parchments are even more troublesome to examine due to their large size; these documents are rendered nicely and give the game a nice air of "realism," but I'd sure like to be able to see the entire map at once.
And while the video clips are very good, the voice-overs during gameplay sometimes sound a little... well, tired. I mean, come on - if you saw a bunch of robotic knights backing you into a corner, you wouldn't say "This gets better all the time" in a bemused monotone. Particularly mundane are the lines delivered by Rebecca, a psychic you meet early in the game who joins you in your adventure: She sounds more like a windup occult handbook than a living, breathing character.
Then again, you'll probably be so busy blasting said knights with a shotgun that you won't even notice what your character's muttering, and Rebecca's insight is important enough that you won't mind if she sounds bored either. I've already invested quite a few hours in this game, and judging by its size - four CDs, though much of that's undoubtedly used for video clips - this is one that very, very few people will breeze through in a day or two. If you're at all interested in horror-adventures - or if you think you might be - grab a copy of Realms of the Haunting. You won't be disappointed.