The Charnel House Trilogy is a three chapter psychological horror adventure that borrows from what could be Stephen King’s pile of unused story ideas. Presented in a “retro” low res format, the game details the events that take place on a train headed towards Augur Peak Island, a destination supposedly set on the American East Coast, yet the near-English can’t mask the game’s European origins. Using point and click controls to bypass very simple puzzles and scenarios, the player is taken on a journey that makes the player question everything - and not in a good way.
Charnel House is not a very long game. The entire story can be played to completion in under two hours, leaving very little time for it to make a lasting impression. Divided into three sections, each charts the experiences of Alex, a Millennial suffering through a bad breakup, the death of her father, and a crazed stalker. To get away from life for a bit, she purchases a train ticket to Augur Peak Island to be with a friend. While waiting for a train (the station itself abandoned and boarded up, though no one seems to care), Alex bumps into Howard Lang, a museum curator going to the island to investigate ruins. The peacefulness of riding a train in winter is broken through the course of an evening when an odd series of events suggests something greater and malevolent about the old-fashioned locomotive.
Honestly, Charnel House is a weird game. While it succeeds at creating an atmosphere of tension, psychological mind fuckery, and swift and sudden violence, these scenes lack a the cohesion needed to tie these situations together. These jarring events are further hampered by characters who suffer from illogical behavior and personality quirks that elicit more than a few “why the hell would you do that?” moments. Such speed bumps make it difficult to get wrapped up in the game’s purposefully guarded story. On the one hand, that is usually how pscyhological horror behaves. It puts the viewer and protagonist in the same boat, forced to encounter seemingly random and out of place events that suggest something greater than they is in charge. States of confusion slowly melt away as subtle clues hint towards a reason behind the madness. With Charnel House, these hints and suggestions don’t really go anywhere, specifically during Harold Lang’s storyline. Because the “shock” moments are often the strongest, I get the impression that these scenes were designed first and the segues to and from each moment written haphazardly. That would likely explain all of the plot holes and behavioral irregularities.
Each all too brief chapter in The Charnel House Trilogy is packed with narrative and world building. The first episode, which lasts about twenty minutes, begins with Alex in her apartment, talking about the place as if she was seeing it for the first time. While poking around the modest home, she casually remarks about tucking away packages in plants, dropping them behind radiators, and resting them up against the wall behind a lap on her desk. What’s especially weird about this is the absence of such items on the play field. Thank god none of the packages were needed to complete the chapter, otherwise there would be no indication that these items exist beyond clicking on the environment. Other weird dialog choices include two distinct room details that both relate and contradict each other. There’s also a scene where Alex ruminates in a way that suggests a woman with an incredible grasp of language and philosophical thought that is never seen again, replaced by her constant need to say “fuck” every other word. When she arrives on the train, her behavior becomes even more questionable. One could argue that the events cause her change in behavior but that might be giving the writers a bit too much credit. The most vivid example is a scene where Alex witnesses a ticket inspector disappear before her very eyes. When she returns to the spot of his disappearance a moment later, she completely ignores the fact that he has reappeared and never calls it to attention for the rest of the chapter.
The game’s deficiencies are not limited to the character’s inability to react appropriately to the world around them. Charnel House has a very specific path for the player to follow and there is an order of operations that must be followed. And it feels so painfully restricted. Other adventure games let you go almost anywhere and pick up items every object in sight. That isn’t the case here. Progression is tightly controlled; the game won’t advance until dialog has been exhausted and you’re not allowed to pick up some object until the story is ready for you to do so. In the case of Harold’s chapter, the puzzle elements and the story really don’t mesh well in a way that I’m comfortable with.
Charnel House does have its moments, though they are few. While the setups for the game’s scares leave much to be desired, the moments themselves are often unsettling. The game’s visuals, specifically the backgrounds and character profiles, are elegant and show great detail despite their pixelated state. Just like The Last Door, the game manages to do a lot with its frightening imagery in the face the art form’s limitations. Another element of the game I enjoyed was the voice acting, several of which are members from the game development and journalist community. The voices behind Harold and Don the ticket inspector do a great job playing their role as, respectively, the confused and terrified bystander and the sagely grandfather who knows far more than he lets on. Longtime video game critic Jim Sterling turns in a fine performance as a character closely connected to Alex that grows increasingly unhinged as the player works through her story. I don't blame the voice actress for that though, just the dull script.
Because of the limitations of gameplay, the core strength of the point-and-click genre is a strong story. It’s unfortunate for The Charnel House Trilogy that frequent plot holes, unrealistic character behavior, and unresolved character arc hurts the atmosphere it tries very hard to cultivate. Charnel House is too eager to scare its audience and in its rush to do so, it leaves some of its plot behind.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.