The Charnel House Trilogy Review
The Charnel House Trilogy Review
Worth playing if you’re looking for a shot of horror on a Friday night.
Posted: 05/10/15 | Category: Review | Developer: Owl Cave | Publisher: Mastertronic | Platform: Windows

Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure 
Release date: April 16, 2015

You may have already heard the buzz about The Charnel House Trilogy, a new horror game from Owl Caves, a new game studio comprised of such top names in the adventure and horror communities as Madeleine Roux and Jim Sterling. Formed around the shell of a former free-to-play title, Sepulchre, the full trilogy tells a complete, interwoven horror story that is meant to unsettle and repulse in 16-bit graphics. The execution is a bit less clear-cut. The Charnel House Trilogy is a slight, lukewarm horror game that will provide a pleasing distraction for hardcore horror fans but probably won’t satisfy the casual gamer.

The Story
 

The story of Charnel House was assembled out of order and the structure shows it. The middle “chapter” (the one that was created and released first) centers on Harold Lang, a museum curator who finds himself on a haunted train that reveals itself to be rife with things dark and sinister and altogether gross. You wander up and down the train, opening new doors and encountering strange scenes, not totally knowing what you’re hurtling toward until you’re in way too deep to escape.

The bookend chapters introduce Alex Davenport, a young woman who lives in an unbelievably spacious New York City apartment despite being apparently unemployed. She's preparing to take a train trip to visit a friend. Her life beyond the train is more fully formed than Lang’s -- there are frequent allusions to an ex-boyfriend, an ill-fated party, a nosy neighbor, and a mysterious stalker -- and the drama of her own life mingles with the horrors she encounters on the nightmare train.

Calling this game a “trilogy” is a huge stretch given that it should take you just over two hours to finish all three parts, and especially due to unequally weighted chapters. The first two will only last about 35 minutes, but the last chapter will run nearly three times as long. This serves the story but left me feeling s though the entire first section, which sets up Alex’s presence on the train, was unnecessary.

Gameplay/Puzzles
 

The structure of the game is fairly unswerving. The train set contains a series of constantly shifting rooms that flip from sinister to innocuous as you enter and leave them. It’s never uncertain where you should be going. Once you’ve investigated a strange noise in the dining car, for example, a character will suggest you check on the even stranger noise coming from one of the sleeping rooms. This structure works well for the game; it feels like walking through a haunted house, knowing new, unavoidable terrors are around the next bend.

The game controls are classic point-and-click to interact but occasionally buggy. The arrow keys, a possible method of ambulation, didn’t actually work (not a big deal, given it makes the most sense to move via clicking, but this still feels like a large oversight on the part of the gamemakers). Sometimes I could move my character too far up into a scene so that it looked like he was floating in space. This is not something that prevented me from enjoying the game, certainly, but these kinds of rough edges cause me to doubt the product in my hands.

Atmosphere
 

The uneven tone of Charnel House is the reason this game is decent but not great. Though the game has some unquestionably unsettling images and scenes, it 's just as often inadvertently goofy. This could be partly attributed to my own tendency toward distraction when I play horror games -- questions such as “Is this decrepit train station in the woods supposed to be somewhere in New York City?” or “Why do they keep drinking these cocktails that cause them to hallucinate?” keep flooding my mind, diverting me from what the game is supposed to be making me feel. In particular, the vocal performances (provided by the design and writing team) sometimes veer toward feeling like community theater, overperformed and noisily trying to be sinister.

And some of the elements are just plain funny. My favorite “character” is a cloaked creature that bears an arresting resemblance to Emperor Palpatine and says such things as “…hutthhhaaahahtha...” Is this sound a croak? A laugh? A cough? We’ll never know for sure, and it's impossible to take this mysterious figure seriously (especially after giving him a lighter to play with, which seems to stir within him a childlike delight).

huthaa

There’s nothing wrong with something that dances on the line between scary and funny, but in this case, I think the dichotomy is unintentional and you’ll enjoy the game more if you know what to expect going in. Sometimes, tonally, this game is The Shining, sometimes it’s Clue.

Final Thoughts
 

The Charnel House Trilogy, though at times lumpy and goofy and far from scary, is still worth playing if you’re looking for a shot of horror on a Friday night. It’s a worthy substitution for the slasher movie of week (and will take you the same couple of hours in the dark to complete) and ends on a genuinely unsettling note. Maybe not the same skin-crawling terror the gamemakers were looking for, but something that still sat heavy in my chest after I’d finished. The best moments are when Owl Cave ditches the boxes of worms and sepulchers of dirt and tapped into the obsession and pain and real human misery at the center of the story. The result is something sad and strange and hard to look away from that’s worth giving a try.

 
Grade: C+
 
Unsettling, efffective ending
Creepy images
An intriguing main character
Abundant (though sometimes inadvertent) humor
 
Uneven structure
Tonal inconsistencies 
Schmaltzy acting performances
 
 Logo
 
 
System Requirements
 
MINIMUM PC:
OS: Windows XP Service Pack 3 / Vista / 7 / 8
Processor: 1 GHz processor
Memory: 512 MB RAM
Graphics: Integrated Graphics (512MB VRAM and above)
DirectX: Version 9.0c
Hard Drive: 200 MB available space
Sound Card: DirectX 9.0c compatible
 
Specials from Digital Download
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