Realms of the Haunting (1997)

Realms of the Haunting (1997), published and developed by Gremlin Interactive, starring David Tuomi, Emma Powell, Gerry Hinks, Dave Roberts, Marc Finn, Mark Byron

Every time I see a game like Realms of the Haunting I wish that FMV games wouldn't have turned into the marginal thing they are nowadays, only to be reserved for small indie titles. This is really the way I'd always wanted to see FMV being used, as a tool of narrative, like it is in here or something like the Tex Murphy games. The FMV is not the game, but only a method of telling a story. The game itself can be a point 'n' click adventure or even an FPS title, like Realms of the Haunting is. Not that RotH is a great game, but I do think the FMV scenes bring some genuine charm to it.

Though calling Realms of the Haunting only an FPS is selling it short, as it is more like a hybrid between an adventure game and an FPS game. You do spend some time shooting enemies, that is true, but you also have some genuine, adventure game style puzzles you need to solve in order to proceed. And the horror-infused storyline has an important part as well, as the game is story driven. There are no levels in a sense of FPS games like Doom, just you in an old mansion, when the evil forces of the world decide to start pushing through. You can't access the whole mansion from the getgo, mind you, more paths open up gradually during the process of the story.

After his father (Gerry Hinks) died not so long ago, Adam Randall (David Tuomi) has been suffering nightmares of an old mansion he has never seen. And then there was the woman (Emma Powell) as well, more pleasing thing to dream of, but still unfamiliar. After receiving a parcel brought to him by an unpleasant man, claiming to be an acquaintance of his reverend father, Adam decides to travel to the remote village, where his father met his end.

It doesn't come as a surprise, that the village where Adam's father met his fate also houses the mansion he has dreamed of. So with the contents of his father's final parcel in his pockets, Adam ventures to the old, derelict house.

After popping in the underground caverns, accessible by a secret door inside a study of the mansion, he has learned that his father's soul is imprisoned to the eternal damnation and that Adama is the only one that can free him. Then there's the ancient spirit of a knight Aelf (Dave Roberts), who says Adam has to stop an ancient evil threatening the world. Lastly, there's the woman from Adam's dreams, Rebecca, who has come to the house looking for him. So after a moment of solitude, Adam has a companion on his travels.

Rebecca isn't actually a playable character, but she tags along and can give her own insight on things they see, as she is more knowledgeable of the occult. Not only is she seen during the FMV cutscenes, but you can also talk to her directly during the game as well and pick her brains about the occult items and symbols you see and collect.

What really is surprising, is the quality of the cast. While it's not cast with high profile actors, for an example David Tuomi who plays the lead role of Adam Randall has no other roles on his IMDb page besides Realms of the Haunting, the acting is quite good overall. Back in the 90's the FMV games with actually good acting were an exception rather than the norm, so it is always nice to see a title where the acting is actually good. Cheesy and b-movie appropriate, but still surprisingly good.

As far I know, the engine Gremlin used for Realms of the Haunting is the same they used for Normality, another 1st person adventure game. There where Normality was a cartoonish comedy, Realms of the Haunting is anything but. The graphics are moody and atmospheric and the sound design fits a tee for bringing out the creepiness of an old, mansion filled with demons. It's isn't as fluid as something like the Doom Engine or the Build engine that was used for Duke Nukem 3D, but still, the developers have managed to pull out some nice atmosphere from it.

As I stated, RotH isn't a pure FPS. In fact, as an FPS game, it isn't at its best, as the enemy AI and the weapons do leave a lot of room for improvement. The AI for an example usually gets stuck in doorways, making enemies easy pickings that way. But then again, it doesn't really try to be an FPS game like Doom or Duke Nukem 3D were, as the shooting you do happens in small patches. And at times, you meet enemies you can't shoot, so you need to use the environment and traps to kill them.

Really, the FPS portions of the game would be actually far simpler than they are now if there would be an easy way to make more modern FPS controls function in the game. WASD movement, with a proper sidestep, combined with a mouselook system would make mowing down the enemies pretty easy task.

There actually is an American version of the game, where you apparently can change the keybindings to your liking. And you can also change a difficulty level, whereas the version you can get from GOG and Steam is the version originally sold worldwide, locked on the difficulty level that is the hardest one in the American version.

The puzzles are not limited only to killing monsters, as there are quite a bit of adventure games style puzzles as well, where you need to use correct items in the right place and so on. It's not in the same level of adventure gameplay as something like the Tex Murphy games are, but they do bring some variety to the game itself, albeit there's a lot of walking around in empty rooms after you've run out enemies to shoot during the intervals of triggering the next segment of the story.

What is a real shame though is, that as a game and a story, RotH really loses its steam after a while. Like I said, it isn't a great shooter and as far the puzzles of the game go, it's not particularly great at that either. It's somewhat like two mediocre games mushed in together in the hopes of that two of them would turn into something better. I do think it would have been for the best for the developers to focus on one or the other, but not both, not with the engine used at least.

Horror as a genre, be it games or movies or whatever, is a hard thing to do. It usually doesn't take long for the viewer to figure out what are the means the makers are trying to use as the scare tactics and after you've done that, the tactics turn stale. There's a reason why I never did complete Dead Space for an example: if you're not scared, there's very little reason to continue if you're not otherwise compelled.

Realms of the Haunting falls into that same trap, as it aspires to be some sort of a horror fantasy hybrid, as far storytelling goes. What begins as an atmospheric haunted house story turns into a sprawling, yet technically too clunky FPS game splattered with horror fantasy. If the FPS portion, which is most of the game, would be at the same level as Doom, it would be easy to overlook other issues with the game, but as that isn't the case, the point where the game turns from technically clunky but fun just to technically clunky happens sooner rather than later.

I do admit, that the FMV alone could have been compelling enough of a reason to play till the end, but at the same time, the gameplay just isn't there. A game can have the greatest story in the world, but if the gameplay isn't there to endorse it, what is the point of playing?  You can save yourself the effort and just watch those FMV bits from Youtube without the hassle of the gameplay.

There are aspects in Realms of the Haunting I genuinely like but there are more aspects of it, that makes it less enjoyable.  With a tad better 3D engine what is now somewhat technically odd and clunky experience, RotH could have been cheesy FPS salted with horror fantasy.  Or it could have been a cheesy horror fantasy adventure salted with FPS. Now it's kind of half in half and tied to at times a bit gimmicky level design, it just isn't a winner.

A remake is often seen as a curse word, but in the case of Realms of the Haunting, I'd really welcome one. I can easily imagine this one turned into something like Bioshock, where the narrative and the gameplay are much better entwined. Something, where the FPS works well enough, allowing the story, the atmosphere and the puzzles to bring out a unique flavour to it. There are all the ingredients for a fun game in it, but they just aren't in the right place.

If you want to play Realms of the Haunting yourself, you can get it from GOG or Steam.