What do you get when you cross a surreal, nightmarish, Poe-like story with Jim Sterling’s soft yet creepy voice? You get the Charnel House Trilogy of point & click adventure games.
Genre(s): Adventure (Point & Click)
Developer: Owl Cave
Release Date: April 2015
Played: Main Story (3 Episodes)
Purchase At: Steam
I heard of the Charnel House Trilogy from one of its voice actors, Jim Sterling, one of the video game critics I follow. I purchased the game during a very good sale and only recently got to play it.
It’s difficult to say what the Charnel House Trilogy’s plot is. It’s a grim story of loss, and obsession. It’s about pain and how difficult it is to let go and just how easy it’s to spiral when dealing with these emotions. But there’s also something sinister about it all, about the old train the characters are travelling on and its passengers. At times, it feels like a nightmare—or hell. There is a lot going on that we don’t know and ultimately don’t find out, as the trilogy is just the prologue to a larger story.
Let’s take it from the start. Alex Davenport is preparing to take a trip to Augur Peak Island, where her friend Kat, an archaeologist’s assistant, is working on some ruins. Alex is still recovering from a messy breakup, and wants to take the trip to find herself. But before she can leave she needs to get the train tickets. Thankfully, Rob, her neighbour, a mild-mannered man and close confidant, has the tickets and brings them over and offers to be there is Alex needs to talk. After he leaves and before Alex does so as well, she receives a call from the hospital. Her father just died. Alex walks to the nearest window and says goodbye, if you can call it that, before picking up her bags and walking out.
At the station she meets Dr. Harold Lang, an archaeologist heading to the same destination. To help with his boredom Alex gives him her first edition copy of the Charnel House Burial, a pulp horror novel by Louis Cassel, a writer from the same island, Augur Peak.
They board the train and that’s where the first episode ends, the other two dealing with the strange experiences they each have on board of old Gloria. I won’t talk about them as I wouldn’t want to ruin the experience.
What I will say is that the Trilogy ends with the promise of a future game that will continue where this one left off, making this a very short prologue to perhaps a greater experience. Having said so, the storytelling for the three episodes is phenomenal and when it gets creepy, it does so brilliantly. I was shivering at times with the Charnel House Trilogy, especially during the second and third episodes.
For such a short game I wouldn’t have expected deep characterisation, yet Alex surprised me with how well-rounded a character she is. She’s experienced loss, and at the start feels it again, yet she marches head on with her plans and faces every situation, even if they turn weird, creepy or downright scary, especially at the end of episode 3, when her neighbour makes another appearance. She understands what’s going better than most, and accepts the the situation. I loved her as a character.
Harold Lang on the other hand is just as good though he doesn’t so much face the situations and persevere as descend in a spiral of despair. And through conversations with the bartender, Floyd, you can tell there’s a past there with alcoholism and a partner. I would’ve liked to know more about him but I feel I learned a lot in the short time I was with him.
And perhaps that is the greatest accomplishment for The Charnel House Trilogy, how it makes you care and empathise with characters you’ve met for only a few minutes and whom you won’t likely see ever again. It draws you in and makes you part of the story, and in doing so offers a rich gothic horror experience.
Gameplay is shallow, the pointing and clicking just there to see and go from point A to point B. There are a few puzzles but they’re few, far in between and quite simple. There’s really no depth to them, but they serve as pauses in the horror storytelling. It’s clear they’re not the focus of the game, as the title seems more akin to a visual novel than an adventure game. Storytelling’s the most important thing here.
In terms of visuals, it’s another Adventure Game Studio title, with the pixelated sprite style I’ve come to call Wadjet Style. They look good but I always feel they stand in contrast of the beautiful environments, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The character portraits are also fantastic and rich and colourful.
Sound design is one thing I love about The Charnel House Trilogy. There are of course melodies, but they’re somewhat subdued, adding just enough mood to the experience, but letting the situations themselves carry the shock and horror. The one thing that stands out is the occasional dissonant tone in the background, a grating yet eerie sound that keeps you on edge as things escalate. It’s a fantastic use of sound to help the horror. Voice acting is superb and I have to say Jim Sterling did a really good job as Rob, being both thoughtful and mild-mannered and downright creepy by the end of the game—as I expected him to be right from the start!
The Charnel House Trilogy might be short, and it’s really short but it’s undoubtedly one of the finest point & click gothic horror experiences in the world. I just wish we’d had the entire story and not just this prologue.
4/5 – Exceptional