First-person shooter and point-and-click FMV adventure games usually don’t gel well together, but Gremlin Interactive’s Realms of the Haunting succeeds and is a perfect candidate for Halloween gaming.
Realms of the Haunting (PC)
(USA 1997, developer: Gremlin Interactive (defunct), publisher: Interplay, platform: PC)
Adam Randal returns to his dead father’s estate after having received a letter from him and is soon drawn into an age-old battle between good and evil.
Time- and spaceless story
What starts out to be a creepy ghost story soon turns into something much bigger. So big that one doesn’t stay in the house of Randal’s father for too long and suddenly travels from one wonderful or dark place and realm to another. The way how these realms are connected to the story is marvelous, because unlike many survival horror or adventure games, there isn’t simply one antagonist and the player never knows where the story takes him or her. With each chapter new people and beings are introduced, making it even more difficult to keep track of a story that spans different times and ages.
Reading through letters of correspondence or diary entries is essential to understand past, present and future events. Despite some spelling mistakes and obscure handwriting, these texts are always an interesting read, as they give background information about certain characters, places and story-relevant parts. As there are pages and pages to read, one shouldn’t be averse to longer reading sessions, although they’re worth it, because they immerse the player even more.
Genres and styles in union and discord
The story is a great if often convoluted mix of fantasy, horror, and biblical themes. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say that there’s simply nothing quite like it in gaming or even movies. The closest would be Eternal Darkness on Gamecube or the Prophecy flicks, although none has the ambition or quality writing of this title. It doesn’t come without its problems, though, as Adam’s sidekick, Rebecca, who soon joins him on his quest, isn’t much else than a medium who goes on about all kinds of supernatural topics without becoming a memorable character herself. While the same could be said about Adam and his out-of-context one-liners during battle, he’s still a better main character than in typical FPS games.
There isn’t only a high amount of text to read, but one can make Adam discuss any relevant topic or person with Rebecca. These conversations can be quite long and vary in quality. On the one hand, they help to lighten the mood with snappish remarks by both characters. On the other hand, one gets a better sense of their motivations and often summaries of and opinions about recent events they went through or characters they met. As in every adventure game, one can click on almost everything and get a comment about items or the environment. Some are helpful to solve puzzles, some are quite funny, and some are just obvious text fillers.
FMV done well
The game isn’t simply presented with a first-person view, as cutscenes in which it’s also possible to choose dialogue answers and make decisions are full motion videos. As in every FMV game, the question is if the acting doesn’t have a negative impact on the atmosphere. Fortunately, despite not involving any well-known actors or actresses, they do a surprisingly good job. It’s not Oscar material, but it isn’t Golden Raspberry, either. There are some overacting and awkward pauses between characters, but overall the quality is very high, compared to what one usually has to endure in adventure games.
Puzzling combat exploration
Offering the player an expansive world to explore often creates all sorts of problems, namely that one doesn’t know where to go or what to do. While this can happen in some instances, the game usually succeeds in leading the player from one scene or place to the next without making the mistake of open-world aimlessness. Revisiting some areas is necessary, and there are quite a few parts when one has to remember that a certain item is needed elsewhere to open doors or doorways, e.g. portals allowing travel to different realms.
Using objects with the environment isn’t restricted to finding keys to open doors, as it also involves solving puzzles. Sometimes one even has to combine objects, and in one particular chapter of the game this goes so far into point-and-click adventure game territory that one forgets the shooting and spell casting elements. While these are quite fun and offer variety in the use of lethal guns and powered up staffs, one would rather forget about horrible platforming and labyrinth segments. Unfortunately, these occur as frequently as the enemies’ A.I. fails, souring a great adventure experience.
Controlling in different ways
It should also be mentioned that there are two versions of the game, with the US Director’s Cut the preferred one, because it offers the ability to look up and down with the mouse and use the WASD shooter-standard keyboard layout, which means much more intuitive controls. These are another weak point of the game, as they’re cumbersome in inventory management and combat.
Graphics aren’t everything
Like many older FPS games, the graphics haven’t aged well, with textures and background graphics looking quite ugly, which becomes especially problematic when reading text on walls, as the writing is often unintelligible with certain quality settings. Enemies aren’t 3D models, but they’re still detailed enough to be scary. The low resolution of videos results in loss of details and even some delayed lip sync. Even if the graphics engine isn’t the best, there isn’t any slowdown and the environments don’t only offer some nice lighting effects, but also some detailed paintings or even fantastic structures.
Sound is everything
The sound design is excellent with creepy wind and thunder effects as well as creature screams and distant laughter. Music is also quite varied, ranging from orchestral to foreboding or even fantasy themes. The only downside is the low MIDI quality. Voice acting is rather hit and miss with Adam’s and Rebecca’s conversations or comments, as there are way too many pauses in between and too many lines spoken in a monotone voice.
A forgotten classic to be remembered
Realms of the Haunting isn’t simply a game that consists of usually disparate and colliding genres that actually work well together. It’s an unforgettable experience with a story that requires the imagination of the player. I played it back in the 90s and it even made me write a 400-page book about it. It has never been released (or translated) due to obvious legal problems and most probably because it was written by a 16-year old, but something like this never happened again with any other game. This just shows how great and unique Realms of the Haunting was and still is. It doesn’t look good today and certainly has its fair share of gameplay problems, but unlike many games, the way it was presented has never been done again on any platform or in any other medium since.
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