Review: Realms of the Haunting

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One of the reasons I like revisiting games from the 80s and 90s is because there was so much diversity to the experiences being offered. Nowadays, the vast indie gaming scene is left to provide titles that aren’t battle royales and open-world collectathons, but in the earlier days of gaming, even prominent developers were experimenting with the boundaries of the medium. That gave us a healthy crop of full-motion video games in the mid-90s, games that fill me with a comforting nostalgia for the days of developers in ill-fitting costumes emoting in front of chunky pre-rendered backgrounds. Realms of the Haunting hails from such a place, marrying FMV drama to an unexpected mix of FPS action and point-and-click puzzling. If it sounds awkward, that’s because it is, but it also manages to be so dang charming that you can’t help but love its efforts.

Adam Randall has a lot going on in his life right now. His estranged priest father just passed away in a remote British manor, a creepy visitor entrusted him with a box of broken seals, and he keeps dreaming of demons alongside a rather lovely lady. All these ominous portends have led him to the house where his father expired, and where he immediately finds himself sealed inside. It quickly becomes clear that something greater is happening here, with ravenous beasts stalking the halls and portals to fantastic worlds dotted all around. The spirits of the manor are unquiet, your father included, and together they have a tale to tell that will determine the fate of all humanity.

I could go into more detail on the story, because there’s a lot to unpack there, but it’s much more fun to see how this epic sprawls out from the humble haunted house beginnings. The story winds through mythology, history, religion, and its own unique cosmology to spin something that’s honestly a little too ambitious for the scope available. This is a pretty long game, clocking in between 12-15 hours for your first playthrough, and much of the story is found in whole volumes of supplementary reading pulled off of library shelves along the way. As much fun as the FMV sequences are, with some legitimately great performances from some of the actors, they’re not really paced to fill in the story as much as they are there to punctuate the more notable moments.

“A little too ambitious” is probably the best way to describe the game as a whole, especially once you start drilling down on the gameplay. Realms of the Haunting is equal parts first-person shooter and adventure game puzzler, all playing out across a dizzying network of connected, wide-open levels. The manor serves as something of a hub for journeys into catacombs, caverns, and stranger places still. It’s not exactly a small manor, either, and while the scope of the maps is impressive, they can be very confusing to navigate given the now-antiquated graphics and a distinct lack of detail many of the areas have. The worst offenders are easily the mazes, of which there are several, and which all tend to use the same repeating texture for every wall, floor, and ceiling. Fortunately, there are some interesting puzzles to balance out the confused wanderings, and only a few places where you might get hung up figuring out what to do next. Again, for a game of this scope, that’s not bad at all.

The other half of the equation is the first-person shooting, and it’s…well, it exists. Realms is hampered by an extremely outdated keyboard/mouse layout that can be alleviated by editing the game files, but definitely isn’t ideal for shootouts. Your weapons actually follow your on-screen cursor during combat, which means you’re not going to be guiding your view with the mouse and will have to click on foes to fire at them. The arsenal is an eclectic one, starting with a familiar handgun and shotgun and then progressing into a selection of powerful magical devices. These are nice and impactful, but require a long time to recharge, leading to most fights being long strings of cycling through your inventory as weapons power back up. Foes themselves have unique looks but mostly wander around aimlessly and take potshots at you, or try to charge you only to end up stuck in a doorway.

Definitely don’t come for the combat, is what I’m saying here, but do come for the ambitious story and charming puzzling. The developers of Realms of the Haunting tried to cram an audacious amount of content into an engine that doesn’t seem particularly suited to it, and mostly pulled it off. You’re sure to notice some strange pacing and spots where content was clearly cut, but don’t let that distract from the achievements this game managed. I know this isn’t the strongest recommendation in the world, and it shouldn’t be. Realms of the Haunting is a fascinating relic, a cult classic with a lot of heart, but it asks a lot of a modern player to see its sprawling tale to the end. I think it’s definitely worth it, and if you hold any love for strange adventures and FMV, you’ll probably agree.

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