The Holy Grail War on the Moon Cell is over and you’ve won, but victory is short-lived as a new threat looms on the horizon. This is Fate/Extella: The Umbral Star.
You’re in a dilapidated school with one of your friends. There are bones and corpses everywhere, and something in the shadows hunting after you. No, it’s not Shia Labeouf, it’s a bunch of scary Japanese ghosts. This is turning into a Corpse Party.
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
The Wolf Among Us is an episodic visual novel game developed by Telltale Games based on the Fables comic series from Vertigo (DC comics). It stars Sherriff Bigby Wolf as he investigates a series of murders happening in the Fabletown community in New York City.
- Beautiful art-style
- Strong voice acting
- Interesting plot and choices
- Good introduction to the Fables universe
- Quick-Time-Event action sequences are dull
- Fables readers won’t find much excitement
The Wolf Among Us uses the same gameplay you’ve come to expect from Telltale’s latest games, a mix of multiple choice conversations with time limits, split paths and quick-time-event based action and fight sequences. It’s solid gameplay if a bit shallow, but let’s look at each of them.
If you’ve played Telltale’s The Walking Dead, you know what it’s all about: Unlike adventure games where you go from place to place solving puzzles in order to move the plot along, in this game you’ll mostly talk to other characters, your choices in these conversations deciding how these characters feel about you. These choices affect future encounters and some of the different outcomes for the season. Some of the conversations and choices are time-based, so you don’t have the luxury of weighing down your options before committing to one, instead having to decide quickly or just follow your gut. It’s workable gameplay but it does feel like if you’re not fast enough the choice is taken from you, which works really well in The Walking Dead but not so much here where the situations are rarely life or death.
When you do move around on your own, it’s a typical 3D point & click affair. You move throughout the area and there are hotspots you can click and interact with, but unlike regular point & click adventures where you need to find the hotspots, here they’re pointed out for you so you can move along. There aren’t any puzzles, though, just simple interactions to get more information. Again, it works but it lacks depth.
The other side of the gameplay comes with the action and fight sequences and these are purely Quick-Time-Even driven, as they’re essentially interactive movies. You might get a few choices on how things play out, but you don’t control combat, it’s just a cinematic. The game might prompt you to quickly press W or A or mash Q for an effect, but it’s nothing exciting. In fact, in one of the later episodes Bigby chases suspects through rooftops and avoiding cars and the only thing you do is press the W key when prompted. The scene itself looks really good and it would’ve been exciting if you could do more than just watch and tap.
But, you don’t really play Telltale Games for the depth of gameplay—which is a sad thing to say to be honest. You play them for the characters and story and the different twists and turns that come during a given season. This time around, Telltale drew from the Vertigo Fables comic series. Your protagonist is none other than Sheriff Bigby Wolf—as in the Big Bad Wolf. You see, everyone living in Fabletown is part of a fairytale or folklore. Fables came to our world to escape from an enemy who would’ve destroyed them all and they’ve now settled in their own little community in New York City. Fables are mostly immortal and can heal from almost any wound, though with sufficient damage they die like anything else. But with them being so old, they’re not exactly the same people you read about, not all of them, and not anymore at least. Take Bigby for example, he’s the evil wolf from Red Riding Hood and Three Little Pigs, but he’s in charge of keeping the town safe and one of his best friends is one of the three pigs. Snow White divorced Prince Charming because he was a cheating bastard (consider that in Fables, Prince Charming is the same guy involved with Snow, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty). Things change, even for Fables. Non-human Fables live in the city only if they have glamour spells to hide their appearance, otherwise they’re sent out of town to The Farm, but glamours are expensive so there’s a black-market, which is one of the central topics explored in this season.
The story is a prequel, set before even the first issue of the comic series. It opens with Bigby getting a call for domestic disturbance at Mr. Toad’s building. The altercation is between the Woodsman, a long acquaintance of Bigby’s, and a prostitute named Faith. Things can quickly get out of hand and I for one kicked Woody’s ass. Then it gets weird when Faith’s head turns up at the Woodlands, the big apartment building where the Fabletown government officials and some of the richer Fables live, such as Bluebeard, Beauty and Beast and Snow.
Tracking the killers take Bigby throughout Fabletown, tracking leads on his own or with Snow. Their chemistry is really good and their scenes together are fantastic, though having read the series I’m a bit biased because I know how things turn up, so a part of me wanted to direct events to match what I knew. The different characters you find fall into two categories: those created for the game and those adapted from the comic book and all of them are excellent. The original ones fit right in with the others, and I wouldn’t even blink if I saw them suddenly appearing on the pages of the series. The adapted ones are just brilliant. Bluebeard is his insufferable self, entitled and violent; and Beauty and Beast cling to their love and marriage while desperately trying to keep their noble lifestyle (though Beast makes a comment about that later in the game that made me want to reach in and smack him).
The season consists of five episodes, each slowly drawing you to the conclusion in a plot similar to a Noir story, filled with false leads and where everyone is guilty of something. In the end you realize it’s all meant to distract you, to keep you hooked until the main villains appear and the puzzle is ready for you to fit it all together (and, if I can be cynical for a moment, you have bought all five episodes), but even so, you will enjoy every moment of it. As a Noir fan, I saw a few things coming and I knew the main villains and the damning evidence wouldn’t appear until the last possible moment, but there was enough for me to keep coming back.
The problem here lies with Fables fans and readers. Since this is a prequel and not a “what-if” scenario, we know how things turn out so a lot of the tension and adrenaline and excitement from the game just falls flat for us. We know who’s still around and who’s kicked the bucket, so when it comes to main characters and the developments, the game will struggle to excite us. In my case it was the plot itself, the mystery and the investigation that hooked me, but not the fate of Fabletown, because I know how things play out. It’s the weakness of dealing with established characters. If this had been about another set of characters, all of them completely independent from the comic book stories, then it would’ve been better for Fables fans.
Adding to the Noir mood and atmosphere is the outstanding music. The opening title music is especially good and coupled with the opening sequence itself it gives you a definite Detective Story vibe that I honestly found irresistible. Voice acting is superb from Bigby and Snow to every other little character. They, quite surprisingly, sounded exactly as I expected them to when I read the comics.
The comic-book cel-shaded look works perfectly with The Wolf Among Us, both because it’s a comic book adaptation and because plenty of the characters are inhuman, for the lack of a better term. The cartoonish look helps portray them, as a photorealistic approach would have made them less than appealing.
While the game is mostly smooth, there are a few glitches I encountered, the main one being the game bugging out and showing me multiple “This Choice is Blank” dialogues before jumping to different locations and finally returning me to the opening sequence of the episode. Thankfully a simple reload fixed the issue, but it was jarring to say the least.
There was one visual thing that struck me as a bit lazy in the last episode. After pursuing suspects to a brothel, Bigby is in his werewolf form (Fables fans, if you’re reading this, he does take on his Wolf form near the end. I whooped loudly when it happened) and of course his clothes are tattered. Thankfully for him, there’s a clothesline nearby with shirt and pants, which he puts on and when we next see him he’s wearing his full attire, shoes and tie included. It’s a minor thing but I felt it was a bit lazy and incoherent.
Despite the shallow gameplay, The Wolf Among Us delivers what Telltale has proven they know how to give, an outstanding story and wonderful characters. And with multiple choices, there are plenty of reasons to go back and give it another go, if you don’t find the QTE that tedious.
The Mental Attic Score: Worth Buying. You’ll enjoy every minute of your visit to fabletown.