Haunt: Review

Is there anything that Tim Schafer can’t do? If he isn’t running a company that consistently releases charming new intellectual property then he’s being interviewed on talk shows, offering witty and intelligent responses that make the game industry look a damn sight better than it should. And when he isn’t doing any of that he’s helping to make Sesame Street-style games that Arcadian Rhythms people might actually play.

Now the mere presence of his voice is incentive enough to drop 800 Microsoft Points on a game I know almost nothing about. In fact, until Shaun and I booted the game a few weekends back, I knew exactly 3 things about Haunt:

1)      It was a Kinect Required game.

2)      It had Tim Schafer as the voice of one of the main characters.

3)      It was called Haunt.

This was not a lot to go on, but fortunately the game turned out utterly charming.

Haunt’s premise is that you wake up in a haunted house after taking a tumble into the cellar. The tumble is never explained but you are given a hint that, given the jovial nature in which you are greeted by the owner of the mansion, there might be a more nefarious reason for your accident. Tim Schafer plays the mansion owner with cheery aplomb; resigned to haunt the paintings littered throughout his house he is part merry, lovable trickster and part care-free sociopath.

Tim Schafer pictured

Regardless of how you feel about the idea you find yourself on a quest to retrieve four ‘phantaflasks’ – the purpose of which is not made clear until very late in the game. To get each of these flasks you must enter an area of the haunted abode and complete puzzles and dodge phantasms as well as do battle with some of the more troublesome ghouls.

You might have been able to divine from the screenshots so far that this is not Rise of Nightmares. There are no dour half-dead abominations nor psychiatrists who want to have sex with crazy people. Instead everything is brightly coloured and each ghost is drawn in a Ghostbusters style rather than that of Ghosts of Mars.

I’ve used the word before and it pains me to do again but the game is genuinely sweet. In fact, if someone had said that it was a Double Fine-produced game I would not have batted an eyelid. Haunt has enough charm and odd humour to allow it to stand proud alongside anything that Double Fine has produced. It is fitting to have Tim Schafer provide voice talent and also act as the glue that holds the game together.

Cleverly avoiding the approach of simply going for gags every second, the writing is underplayed; everything is funny without offering a punch line. This leads to an easy humour that never gets in the way of letting Haunt build up its atmosphere.

Each of the three challenges is split into its own distinct area, introducing new mechanics and enemies at a steady trickle, and the overall experience ends up benefiting from this. Rather than relying on the same couple of attacks and puzzles the game mixes things up in each area. Sometimes you will be forced to yell at ghostly opponents to stun them, and other times you will need to trace a pattern to ensnare them or jump to avoid damage from a wave attack.

This guy requires you to reach forward and mimic pulling his goggles off then letting go so that they smack him in the face.

Haunt keeps the traversal engaging by never repeating itself enough to incite boredom. It also uses some of the Kinect’s less obvious accoutrements for comedic effect while recognising that these should be limited in their scope; in Haunt they are used for easter eggs rather as the main hook of gameplay. This makes them gratifying to discover rather than a grating toil.

One example of this is when you find a projection room; here there is a simple puzzle to place the lenses back in the ageing projector. Once this is accomplished, rather than unlocking  the next room the projector displays video footage of yourself, captured during your playthrough without your knowledge and now repeated on the yellowed canvass in front of you.  The effect is both amusing and startling.

Haunt is a better proposition as a single player game than most of its Kinect compatriots. Each ‘chapter’ is compartmentalised, allowing you to stop playing at appropriate times. The challenges are never so taxing that the gestures leave you in a game over situation and the support the game offers is suitable for the kind of game it is supposed to be.

On the downside, this is also not the longest game in the world. A single evening will be sufficient to play the game from beginning to end. This might have been something to grumble about a little more sincerely but it is not as if you are paying full price for it.

Haunt is most definitely worth the punt if you already have a Kinect in your house; it is certainly not a reason for purchase on its own but there is enough content, humour and variety for a drunken weekend. The visuals and story remain consistent to the tone throughout; imagine it as a more  more colourful Twilight Zone or a funnier, more clued-up R.L. Stine book.

Haunt is also a step in the right direction, with most of the functions of Kinect being adopted well to a more conventional experience, while at the same time managing to be its own game rather than genre X adapted to fit the Kinect.