Huntsman: The Orphanage prompts many questions. Who is the huntsman? How did 12 orphans vanish without a trace from a rural Illinois orphanage in 1897? For that matter, where can I pick up that sweet smartphone that talks to the dead and never loses a charge? Huntsman doesn't answer all of these questions, but some of its chief pleasures lie in rummaging among old suitcases and piles of dusty prosthetics for clues to the answers. When paired with its creepy namesake, it's a premise that manages to deliver some genuine chills, but it's not long before its web of creepypasta stories ensnare you more than any sense of dread. That's both a blessing and a curse.
ShadowShifters, the studio behind the project, created a game that frightens more by ambience than with the jump scares, blood, and violence that define many horror games (and movies) these days. Many of its most effective chills actually spring from the expectation of scares common in horror games that came before it, and indeed, the first tentative steps of the game lead you down a wooded road, past a phone booth, and up to the wrought iron gates of a decaying institution. A casual onlooker could be fooled into thinking you were playing through the start of Outlast.
But there's no blood here, and if there were, it's had over 100 years to fade away. Perfect opportunities for jump scares present themselves and pass, and even 20 minutes into the game you might still believe that this really is just an abandoned complex in modern Illinois, and that the falling crosses and self-closing doors really do owe their existence to nothing besides the wind. By the time I came across the rare wonder of a chalkboard writing a helpful tutorial by itself, I found myself not so much spooked as grateful for the novelty.
Thank goodness you have the best smartphone in the world at your disposal. Its constant presence puts Huntsman: The Orphanage in the same class as "weaponless" horror games in the vein of Outlast and Amnesia, and most of the time you use it as a flashlight but, alas, with none of the dread that springs from losing battery power. The phone's existence comes into its own, however, when the voices and images of the 12 missing children come crackling through it, begging you to find their favorite belongings and return them to their graves so their souls can be free of the dreaded huntsman.
Sometimes they interrupt you with flashes of video when you get near said items. Sometimes they pop up and tell you stories with clues from their past when you hover the phone over the portraits scattered throughout the orphanage. And in most cases, the excellent voice work for the accompanying stories makes up for some of the limitations of the surrounding visuals. Tales of chopping off hands at the woodpile suggest that these orphans aren't angelic innocents, and some of them speak with just enough hints of menace that you might balk at placating them with gifts. They don't even let up on the creepy act after you've found their junk and tossed it on their hidden graves.
It's fitting that the voice work excels over so much of the rest of the experience. (If there's a drawback to this focus, it's that you have to stare at their photos the whole time to hear the full narration.) The orphans spill their lines, dropping hints based on their histories, and then you set out to dig in and around the inky-dark ruins of the orphanage to find the relevant items. It's tougher than it sounds. The relevant items don't glow or otherwise make their presence known, and since you can't interact with some of them unless you crouch or lie down, you may not even know you're looking at one even though you're staring right at it.
Some of its chief pleasures lie in rummaging among old suitcases and piles of dusty prosthetics.
It's here that Huntsman's overused visual assets unexpectedly come in handy. Dozens of copies of the same Dutch painting and black-and-white group photo litter the rooms of the two-story orphanage, and you grow so used to them and the sight of the same books and blue suitcases that anything else stands out in stark contrast. Good thing, too. Huntsman may be a game about exploring, thinking, and listening at heart, but on many occasions, you find the pieces just by dumb luck. It's sometimes challenging enough with the current design; it might be a nightmare in more detailed environs.
Speaking of nightmares, what of the huntsman? His comparative absence in the review so far may show just how weak of an impression he tends to leave. Oh, he starts out scary enough. You see him first by the light of your phone in the enveloping darkness, with hairy arachnid legs and an upper body that looks like a steampunk dandy sporting a Renaissance plague mask, and his presence is heralded by the sound of what resembles the ticking of a dozen grandfather clocks. Knowing that this fascinating thing awaits somewhere in the dark creates much of the game's early tension.
Regrettably, it's a sensation that doesn't last long. The cacophony of ticking makes him absurdly easy to avoid (particularly when paired with stereo headphones), and once I found him just staring off into space as if ruminating over his poor life choices over the last century. Even when he catches you and sucks you into limbo, the G-rated fade to black might make you wonder if the game's not simply bugging out if you didn't know better.
Once you start to put the children's items back on their graves, however, the experience changes for the better. The catch is that all their graves lie scattered in a sprawling, overgrown hedge maze, and that's when you should look forward to playing in the dark with the door closed and your headphones firmly clamped on. You can always hear the tick-tocking of the huntsman, yes, but the design thrives on the realization that any wrong turn might dump you right in front of its face. With enough repetition--there are, after all, 12 children--it's possible to learn the general layout, but in those early moments, Huntsman: The Orphanage does much to live up to its horror label.
Huntsman: The Orphanage does manage to convey a sense of terror in its quiet moments, but they're more benign chills than you find in bloodier horror adventures that let you fight back or at least present enemies who do more than engulf you in darkness. Its greatest frights lie in the anticipation that anything could lurk in the darkness, but once you realize that it's just you and a clockwork Spider-Man, you might find that you're no longer as afraid of the dark as you once were. And in a horror game? That's just scary.