The Charnel House Trilogy Review (PC)
The Charnel House Trilogy is game that ebbs and flows. It’s a game that sucks you in and then confuses you. It takes your hand and intentionally leads you into uncertainty and fear. Sometimes you don’t know until you’re already caught up in it and sometimes it tells you right from the get go. Owl Cave’s indie horror point-and-click certainly does things a horror narrative should do. In my time with it, I was sometimes confused, sometimes uncomfortable and often compelled to move forward. At other times however, I wanted more. I felt like it was guiding me a little too much, but spending far too long never telling me where we were going.
As the title implies, The Charnel House Trilogy is a series of three chronologically sequential episodes titled “Inhale”, “Sepulchre” and “Exhale”. “Inhale” and “Exhale” place you in the role of Alex Davenport, and in “Sepulchre” you take on the role of Dr. Harold Lang. Their fates are intertwined when they board a train to go see Alex’s friend and Dr. Lang’s assistant Katarina at a mysterious place known as Auger Peak. However, along their journeys to and aboard the Old Gloria train, they find themselves faced with bizarre abnormalities and soul-scarring crisis.
The story does a good job of drawing you in and giving you a compelling reasons to continue onward. The brand of horror here is subtle and suspenseful; those looking for a jump-scare thriller should look elsewhere. Still, the content of the story is bizarre and, at its apex, genuinely unsettling. I do, however, take issue with the trilogy format of the game. “Inhale” and “Sepulchre’ are much too short, but give you context you need prior to the much more rich “Exhale” chapter of the game. All three parts present something important to the overall experience, but this game certainly isn’t the three distinct courses that it is presented it as; it’s more like two appetizers and an entree. The whole thing could be completed easily within five hours.
Charnel House’s retro aesthetic provides some nice visual appeal. Its style--the pixelated sprites and portraits--are reminiscent to me, like something from the original Clock Tower. There are several variations on each character portrait that do well to display the emotion that the character is feeling at given points. When a character feels pain or fear, there’s a distinct sense of it in the expressive portraits shown under such scenarios. The character sprites also do a good job of expression with limited materials. For such an old school, pixelated game, I rarely had issue telling what an object was or what action was happening even without the benefit of the characters explaining.
Speaking of the characters explaining, the game is fully voiced. Alex or Dr. Lang drive the narrative at most times, and the voice actors in this game generally do a good job of delivering their lines with a strong aspect of believability. In a game so rich with dialogue, the music does great work keeping with the ebb and flow of the tensions, emotions, heights and drops of character speech. It works to deliver a tandem dramatic flair that builds the atmosphere around the scenes wonderfully. I would point out that there was one character that drew me out of it only because it seems as though there is a pinch echo behind her recorded lines. It’s even more noticeable because she’s set amongst other characters that are recorded better. She plays a minor role in the overall experience, but nonetheless, it mars a game that has some otherwise well done voice work.
The interface is another thing that’s fairly nice. It’s a pretty simple system: left click interacts with objects and right click observes objects. Left clicking anywhere will walk your character there and double-clicking will fast travel you between rooms. You’ll find any items you carry by hovering your cursor near the top border of the screen. Whether you’ve played point-and-click adventure games or not, this system shouldn’t leave anyone boggled at how to figure out what to do. Unfortunately, that simplicity carries over to the flow of the game almost entirely too well.
There are a ton of adventure games that leave obscure clues or leave the player struggling to find the next step. The Charnel House Trilogy has none of that frustration. Instead, it seemed to have held my hand so much that there was never a mystery of where to go or what to do, even in the game’s handful of puzzles. The path of advancement in this game is so blatantly laid out that I would occasionally try things I knew were not part of the next solution or step in order to see what results they would incur. Sadly, this very seldom produced anything other than being told that what I was doing was not part of the solution. There are no “deaths”, no penalties. It’s not that I expect a game to jump out at me, but in a horror themed game, it’s kind of a shame that there’s such bland correctional stimuli for making wrong choices.
At the end of it all, The Charnel House Trilogy does a lot of things right. I enjoyed my overall journey through it as the suspenseful, yet easily accessible adventure it was. That said, there was a definite lack of challenge that made it feel more like a visual novel than an actual game at times. There was reference made to a possible future release, and based on what I’ve seen here, I’d probably go along for the ride. However, I say this with the hopes that when Owl Cave makes its next outing, it’s just a bit more polished.
This review is based on a download code of The Charnel House Trilogy provided by the publisher for PC.