An Unsettling Masterpiece
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Tick tock. Tick tock.
Illinois, June 17th 1898. The night twelve young souls disappeared without trace from Grimhaven Orphanage. Some say it was Jasper Croad, the Scottish caretaker, who murdered the wee bairns and hid their bodies. He himself claims responsibility, so maybe that's true. Or maybe it's just guilt that he didn't do more. Didn't try to save them. Protect them. Because others say something else dwelt in that old orphanage. Something which lay in wait, feasting on the fear and despair such places bring. Something they call The Huntsman, patient as a clock waiting for its hands to reach their appointed hour.
Yet others say he's still there. Still waiting. And now, as you venture in search of the truth, the seconds are ticking down.
Huntsman, The Orphanage is the first ever title from indie developer Shadowshifters. Starting its life on a laptop on their kitchen table, it grew into a cohesive, compelling game which earned Greenlight status on Steam and began generating some serious excitement. Shadowshifters wanted to produce a deep gaming experience which didn't rely on blood, sex or gratuitous violence. Instead they wanted a game whose meat (ahem) boiled down to story and character.
On the home screen you get to choose between two distinctly different protagonists. Scarlette is a bubbly, enthusiastic young woman. Annoyed by her colleagues' sexist attitudes, she's off to track down a real mystery, show the doubters how it's done. The one she's most excited by is the Huntsman. Rumors of him go back 500 years, but that's in Europe, so she's starting at the orphanage, where the first report of the Huntsman in the United States took place. The thing she's most worried about - her old car won't make it all the way to Illinois. Vincent is more cynical. He admires the scientific method and wants proof. If there's this so-called Huntsman out there, how come no one's proved it? Drawn to the Huntsman myth, he reckons he either won't find him, or he'll fall prey to him and, hey, from Vincent's point of view, it's proof whichever way it turns out, right?
The role you choose will give you the voice you hear when things start happening. You'll arrive in the dark. The orphanage and its surrounding grounds have been abandoned for over a century, so they're dark, too. Your only light comes from the small arc of luminance provided by your cellphone. Exploring is going to be a case of slow-down and feel your way forward.
As you turn to get your bearings, a ringing phone booth draws you closer. Approaching to investigate, you soon realize this trip is going to be 'interesting.' Along a gravel path you pass a dried up fountain, beyond which are a pair of cast-iron gates. Grimhaven Orphanage.
No new children were brought to the orphanage after the disappearances. The adults who survived tried to carry on, but eventually packed up what they could and left, haunted and forever changed by what had happened. All except old Croad, who, torn with guilt and grief, planted a maze on the grounds and set headstones there, one for each young life.
The building is rambling, creaky and filled with debris and old furniture. The walls are mold stained, the floor littered with filth. Finding out the truth is going to take some doing, and some courage, as the atmosphere is charged with menace. This place may have been abandoned a century ago, but it's far from empty, and, while the humans may be gone, something else has made it its lair.
Your cellphone acts as more than your light. It can pick up signals undetectable to human senses. Thus the screen crackles to life when you least expect, revealing a chilling image and a voice from the past. It's enough to stop you in your tracks, but that's not the worst thing. Your light attracts. You might want to turn it off now and again. Just saying.
Portraits have been left in various places, in memory of the poor souls taken or destroyed by the events of that night. Find the portraits, learn about that person and discover a way to help them. Because the children aren't dead.
Unlike the adults at Grimhaven, who aged and died long ago, the twelve orphans are still there, captives of the Huntsman. Like a spider, sucking juices from its prey, it keeps them alive, tangled in its dark, otherworld web, feeding on their despair and loneliness. You can end their torment, set each child free. But, like most things, it isn't that simple. For a start, you have to find all the portraits, and some are not so easy to discover. You must work out what each child's special treasure is and find it, wherever it now lies among the ruins of the unkempt orphanage. Then you must find their headstone and take it there. And. You have to do it all while the Huntsman is stalking you.
If rumor alone wasn't enough to make the Huntsman a frightening entity, his guise - that of a plague doctor from the 15th century - makes him terrifying. I played a beta version of this game where the Huntsman wasn't present, but, like a wisp stroking your face as you walk into a room, you know something scuttling and leggy is lurking close by, right now, even though you can't see it. The Huntsman's evil aura oozes from the stained walls and seeps from the shadows. Although I knew he wasn't there while I played, there were times when I got distinctly nervous, wondering if, somehow, he'd appear anyway, and suck me into the dark limbo of Game Over.
Face-like stains on begrimed windows, unexplained tocking which would pulse in and out of existence as I moved around, the sudden flaring into life of the phone at the corner of your screen. Even without an enemy, the nerves are set tingling, flesh goosing at every passage, every staircase.
The game's audio salts the atmosphere with malice and terror. The voices over the phone are crackly and often blood-freezing, coming at moments when you're wondering if you really want to open that door, or go down to the cellar. Doors opening and closing of their own accord, or the fingernail-curling sound of chalk on the board transforms the sense of disquiet into primal fear. It's a rich spicing, but not overdone.
The voice acting is strong, and it needs to be, with each character delivering a fairly long narrative through the portraits, or in strident flashes on the phone. Each person has a vivid accent and distinct personality, adding color to an otherwise sepia environment.
There weren't hundreds of graphic artists toiling away to achieve photo-realism for this game, and the graphics reflect that. In which case, the fact that it still achieves an unsettling and menacing atmosphere is a credit to the developers. Besides, this game is set in darkness. Who needs pretties? The drab colors used throughout give the orphanage a time-stained, faded patina, making it feel adequately neglected and unloved. Animations (such as I saw) were achieved by live action. It was nicely integrated using a scratchy filter resembling an old, silent movie. The image on each portrait was given lots of detail, and each character was carefully made up to reflect their personality. It would have been nice if the portraits were also animated while the characters were speaking, as there's not a lot else to look at while they're telling their tale.
In terms of gameplay, you have no weapons but your wits and the ability to run from danger should you find it. This vulnerability ramps up the stakes in terms of encountering the Huntsman, because you can't confront him. That way lies your doom. You will need to be on the lookout for him at all times because he's on the lookout for you. So, vigilance will be paramount as you scour the rooms and corridors for the items, of which you can carry only one at a time. Because it was the beta version I'm not sure how you can tell if the Huntsman is closing in (or if you get any warning at all). I was aware of a ticking sound in various places, and wasn't sure if this indicated somewhere he's likely to lurk, or if a clue might lie nearby, but the correlation between him and the ticking seems borne out by the messages on the blackboard.
The emphasis is on patience and paying attention. There are no puzzles as such, aside from working out which item belongs to which child. Each portrait, when approached, will start talking and in this way you piece together the story of the children and the adults who cared for them, from their own point of view. Some of the monologues are quite lengthy, meaning you have to wait in one place to hear it all. The accompanying audio gets quite creepy and the tales are compelling, but you need patience to hear it out and get your clues. For this reason, The Huntsman may not appeal to everyone, but then, what game does? The thrills come from exploring a dark, creepy environment, where cloth dolls are nailed to walls and artificial limbs dangle from ceilings, all the while anticipating the swoop of a leather coat and an eye-less, beaked face emerging from the shadows.
I found the game (while it was yet to be the actual game) already pretty creepy. I can only imagine how terrifying it will be to explore the orphanage knowing the Huntsman could be lurking around every corner, behind ever door.
The full release will also include the maze built by Croad, where the children's headstones lie. This will become accessible after October 31st, opening up more places in which to become lost and set upon by the Huntsman. Fleeing from a monster when each next turning might be a dead end. Good luck with that. It can only add to this game's fear factor, and make the experience a heart-pumping challenge.
As a beta version, there were a few bugs and technicalities still to be ironed out, but I was heartened to see that Shadowshifters are working hard on that, liaising with actual players, and releasing regular fixes. By the look of it, the game should be running perfectly by the time it's released on All Hallow's Eve.
This is not a money spinning enterprise by a multi-million dollar corporation, but a labor of love from a family who wanted to build a game for gamers by gamers. Their mission to also make it a bloodless, non-violent scare-fest (something they term alt horror) which delivers mystery and adrenaline-pumping fear in equal measure is both fresh and exciting.
So keep your cellphone charged, and listen...Do you hear ticking?
Martine Ashe is happy on either the PS3 or Xbox 360. She'll pick up anything with a good story and strong characters but has yet to find an FPS that doesn't make her barf.