Amongst the well-read (and even the not-as-well-read), Neil Gaiman is a familiar name, and renowned for such works as Coraline, The Sandman, and The Graveyard Book. So it’s with some excitement that I discovered that Mr Gaiman was helping to work on a video game. The game—Wayward Manor—is now available for purchase via Steam, and I’ve taken to haunting houses to review it for you. Take my hand and I’ll show you just how wayward an entire manor can get.
Wayward Manor tells the tale of a house and his beloved ghost occupant, and the horrible Budd family that has infested the house. Somehow, the ghost had been locked up in a trunk in the attic, but thanks to a young orphan girl, the ghost—whom you take the role of—is free. Over the course of the game, you haunt objects in each room in an attempt to get rid of the pesky Budds and their staff for good. The story itself is told from the point of view of the Manor itself, and not the ghost, which makes for an interestingly different narrative.
Wayward Manor plays a lot like 2003’s Ghost Master, in that you choose which objects to haunt to create an effect. Unlike Ghost Master, Wayward Manor is more puzzle game than strategy game, and you can happily continually haunt the wrong object and continually not get a response from the persons you’re supposed to be scaring away. With each successful scare, your power over the room grows, and you’re able to haunt more and more objects until with one final poltergeist masterstroke, you make everything in the room float and spin about, scaring the occupant screaming from the room.
On paper, it sounds like a most amazing idea: a puzzle game focused around haunting the family out of the house, with a plotline written by Neil Gaiman. In practice, it’s far less stellar than I’d hoped. The game encompasses a total of five stages, with five levels (seven in the final level) per stage. It takes less than 5 or 10 minutes to complete each level, and the entire game can be completed in just under two hours. There are also optional objectives per level for added difficulty (and achievements), but since you’ll grab about half of them on your first go through the game without any effort on your behalf, you can probably add another half an hour total to the game. That’s disappointingly short, and the puzzles don’t pose much challenge either, sadly. It’s marketed as a casual game, but even so, there are so few objects in each room that simple trial and error will get you to the answer just as quickly as sussing it out.
To give you an idea of the kinds of puzzles, take this example from early in the game. You need to scare the maid off, so you use the statues lying around to lure her close to a giant mouse hole. Once that’s done, you haunt the mouse hole to make it look like a demon rat lives there, sending her off to the other side of the room. It satisfies the prankster in me, I’ll tell you that.
The game has a charming art style, reminiscent of the 1920s era, and there’s a hint of whimsical playfulness with the character designs. The characters are all fairly unique in their execution and style, but the graphics are often glitchy. Objects display no solidity, and cascade through each other clumsily. The sound design, too, exhibits the same glitchiness. While the soundtrack is excellent and possibly the best part of the game, it is hampered by bugs in the way sounds play. Let me explain: each character in the game has their own unique musical motif that plays whenever they are scared or do something interactive in the rooms. Further, there’s a beautiful acapella piece that plays whenever you fully spook the character (your own ghost motif, I suppose). The problem comes when the character’s motifs play over each other messily, or when the motifs play over your own, giving the feeling that even though the level has ended, the sound hasn’t. The motifs are a nice touch, but they do go on for a second or two longer than they should.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, errant problems notwithstanding. In spite of its length-to-cost ratio, it’s can still be good fun to play. The story, while mildly interesting at first, picks up a lot in the last act of the game, and you can see Mr Gaiman’s influences far more clearly here. Further, none of the puzzles’ solutions, or even their alternate solutions, are obscure (I’m looking at you, Monkey Island!). You won’t be left scratching your head in befuddlement—although this can be a two-edged thing. If you like your puzzles a little more hard-wearing on the cranium, you’re better off seeking elsewhere, I’m afraid.
Two hours’ play for $10 seems a little steep, though, especially when it seems that your $10 can get you something that lasts a little longer. It’s difficult to fault with otherwise. It’s fun to play, and the story is indeed enjoyable. But the sensation of wanting more at the end is just so tangible it’s…haunting.
Final Score: 6 haunted prawns out of 10
Developer: The Odd Gentlemen
Publisher: Moonshark Inc