Let’s start with something home-grown for spooky month, a game from the same UK studio that brought us Amiga classics like Switchblade, Lotus Turbo Challenge 2, the basically perfect K240 (fight me), as well as the nineties mascot bandwagonner [shudder] Zool. The point of time we’re looking at today is either very late in 1996 or very early in 1997 depending on where you get your dates from: Resident Evil is not even a year old, an entirely new concept for most people, and really, really, good.
Gremlin’s Realms of the Haunting couldn’t have launched at a better time – the game-buying public were in love with this new breed of suspense-driven horror titles and proven willing to hand over money for unusual adult experiences that didn’t fit neatly into the old “Shooter” “Platformer” “Racing” “Point and click”, etc. genre labels that we’d been stuck with since the early eighties. Realms reviewed well and sold… several… copies (Gremlin Interactive, like so many other British studios, is sadly no longer with us) – and rightly so! However while other titles from that era (within this twelve month period PC gamers were also blessed with Blade Runner as well as the first Age of Empires to name just two stand-out titles) have remained in the general gaming consciousness Realms of the Haunting, even with it’s straightforward availability on both Steam and GOG, is rarely on anyone’s lists when they come to mention the era, the format (all hail DOS!), or the genre in question. Maybe that’s because the screenshots only show us things bitter gaming experience has taught us to steer well clear of – live-action FMV tacked on to an old first-person shooter that looks like some sort of Hexen knockoff? That’s a “I’d love to give it a go but this sock drawer’s not going to alphabetise itself” kind of game if ever I saw one.
Which would be a terrible mistake because Realms of the Haunting is very much a Resident Evil-style survival horror title if the visuals had been done the opposite way around – instead of solid 3D characters on top of a 2D environment, Gremlin’s game places 2D enemies and items within an incredibly detailed 3D world.
And it really does have a phenomenal amount of mood-enhancing detail in there: You start off alone, in the dark (Ha! I didn’t even mean to do that one), and armed with nothing more than your bare fists. Lightning briefly illuminates the corridor to your left, strange sigils glow brightly on every door you can see, and your soft lantern light plays across the intimidating paintings covering every wall. Functional light switches can be flipped on an off wherever they may be found for no reason other than “Because that’s what light switches are for”, bushes move and sway convincingly in the chilling night breeze, and this is one rare game where the mirrors are clean, unbroken (unless you choose to destroy them yourself), and actually reflect the contents of the room – including an animated version of yourself (a surprisingly effect jump scare, that).
Appearances are definitely deceiving: This isn’t the game to play if you want to blast hordes of monsters – this is an adventure game that happens to have guns (and swords! And magical staffs!) in it, where ammo must be searched for in the corners of potentially dangerous rooms and every shot must count, where being smarter is more important than being stronger. The weaponry on offer is deliberately underpowered when compared to superficially similar titles: Even when you do have plenty of bullets and a selection of offensive choices to hand guns are still more of a defensive choice than anything else – they exist to protect you from sudden attacks, not to help you cut a confident path through the dark. Not that you’ll encounter a lot of monsters anyway – enemy spawns are tightly scripted and handled with the perfect sort of balance that always makes you think there could be a monster around the corner, even when there never will be. To give you a crude idea of how restrained Realms of the Haunting is with its hordes of the damned – there are more monsters in some early levels of Doom than Realms has all game. Different genres for sure, but it would have been simpler for the game that looks like an atmospheric FPS to tick marketing-safe boxes like that than to stand so firmly by its own less-is-more vision.
So this means that more often than not you’ll be cautiously creeping around in the dark, solving puzzles and picking up the ominous notes that flesh out the game’s ambitious backstory while trying to unravel the mystery behind the adventure than fighting off the forces of Hell, the horror coming through a combination of subtle audio cues (like ghostly laughter, creaking floorboards, or a faint heartbeat), some remarkably inventive visuals (in one instance you make your way through a dark and surreal landscape only to end up in a nightmarish courtyard filled with whispering statues and a tree filled with hanged skeletons), and that uneasy feeling that while you’re not in danger right now that fact is definitely going to change sooner rather than later.
We now have to talk about the live action FMV footage that ties the plot together – live-action from the days before even the shining beacon of glory that is Tim Curry could be wheeled in to unleash the
cheese ham magnificent dialogue upon us all. I have just checked my writer’s rulebook and according to that I’m supposed to immediately mock any and all grainy FMV footage I come across but… actually, the scenes here are really well done.
For the time, that is. This isn’t an overlooked theatrical masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. But it does still genuinely feel like these scenes are being used to convey the story in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible rather than for the sheer novelty of having a game on a CD and nothing to fill it with, and it’s clear that a lot of effort has gone into the technical aspects of these sequences – the trouble they went to just to match the physical lighting on the actors to the occult digital light sources added later are exceptional for the era and it rarely feels as artificially greenscreened as you’d think something like this would. The lead himself is a relatively interesting chap for a haunted house tale: Adam’s comments don’t do anything silly like break the fourth wall but there’s a definite dash of realism to them – remarking on the absurdity of certain situations or making a sassy quip when he’s feeling confident. Most importantly of all his reactions generally come across as reasonable and natural – he’s curious and determined to see this through but he’s not eager to throw himself at the nearest pentacle in the name of the greater good either. The snags with this aspect of the adventure honestly feel more to do with the format than anything else: Some lines come across as stilted more due to the game stopping to offer the player multiple-choice questions (within a movie!), forcing the characters to loop back on themselves until every option’s been exhausted, or because when the lead voices a description or thought about an interactive object he only has one line of dialogue to offer – circumstances which would make even the greatest deliveries from the finest thespians the industry has ever known quickly sound wooden. It’s worth mentioning that having almost everything you can pick up, examine, or interact with have at least one descriptive line of spoken dialogue as well as additional reflections, discussions, and comments by your companion would feel pretty extravagant even in a big-budget title today, yet this game was already doing it over twenty years ago and should be applauded for taking the time to include such an immersive, enriching, and easily-skipped detail.
Realms of the Haunting isn’t a flawless horror title – some of the closing puzzles and one particular late-game collectathon would have been better off in the bin than in the game – but even then these issues feel more like disappointing missteps than game-ruining brick walls and on the whole the game’s an inventive, committed, and bloody brave experience that I’d say is so unique it actually feels “outside” its own era: Bar the obvious technical advances that have been made between now and then you could believe this game would play out largely as it already does no matter when it was made. A revolutionary classic? Nope. But a tense, sinister, dreamlike experience that has you feeling uneasy even in familiar places to the very end? Oh yes.