#14. Realms of the Haunting
Developer: Gremlin Interactive
Systems Released on: DOS
Release Date: 12/31/1996
Realms of the Haunting is without a doubt the greatest first person shooter ever made. The lowest score it ever received from ANY website, magazine, or form of video game journalism was an 8.5/10 or 85%. Not even Half Life, Half Life 2, or either Halo’s can claim that distinction. In fact the ONLY reason RotH is not the measuring stick for every single first person shooter ever made is a simple one: it’s obscure as hell. I’m hoping that in these few brief pages, I can convince you to pick it up and see why it is universally considered the best in its genre by anyone who has ever picked up the game.
RotH places you as one Adam Randall. Adam returns to his home in Cornwall for the funeral of his father. However, upon returning home, Adam is plagued with horrible and disturbing nightmares. Then before he is about to leave, a clergyman friend of Adam’s father hands him a strange parcel. A parcel that will act as a catalyst for Adam unwitting drafting into an eternal war between Heaven and Hell. It’s rare that a game is able to grasp such an intimidating concept like the Apocalypse and doesn’t turn it into something trite or into an overly dramatic cliche fest riddled with emo whiny characters. Instead, you’re getting something that’s a little bit Robert Bloch, a little bit Richard Matheson, and a lot of bullets to the noggin of skeletons, occultists, and the occasional cyborg from Erebus.
There are twenty two chapters to Realms of the Haunting, and it quite possible the longest first person shooter ever. I know I’ve yet to play an FPS that rivals an RPG in length besides this one. Through the game, Adam Randall will be exploring a haunted house, dealing with the machinations of a French sorcerer, and even doing battle with Belial and other arch dukes of hell as well. Throughout it all, you’ll be fighting to keep the forces of Lucifer from opened the final seal that will trigger the apocalypse and also save your father’s soul from the demons who are keeping it in eternal torment.
Interwoven with the shooting are some incredible full motion video segments. It’s these scenes that really flesh out the story and the characters you’ll encounter. You’ll encounter angels, a mysterious woman named Rebecca, and many other characters. RotH really does have the strongest and deepest plot out of any FPS ever made, and that was one of the things that really made the game stick out too me. Too many games, like the Doom trilogy, lack any real plot and seem like nothing more than an exercise in shooting things ad nauseam. Vapid, shallow little games catering to the more rudimentary gamer. The fact that nearly a decade on this game gives you so much story it’s almost embarrassing compared to modern day FPS’, should be enough to make even the most skeptical of the genre to give this game a try.
In its heyday, Realms of the Haunting was one of the most striking video games out there. The three-dimensional graphics impressed every gamer who saw them, even though today we’d call them on par with late generation PSX games. The monsters will well designed, especially the demons in later stages. The Father of Lies for example…well, I’ll make you play the game to see just how amazing he looks. It’s also one of the few first person games, whether shooter, adventure, or whatever, where you can look into a mirror and actually see not only your own reflection, but your own actions mimicked. When you also factor in all the full motion video (approximately 90 minutes), it’s no wonder that ROTH was four CD’s of graphical innovation and jaw dropping brilliance. To a modern or casual gamer, the screens will look quite pixilated, but this is due to the fact that in 1996, 3D accelerators were as commonplace as finding a game of the year candidate from Acclaim. However, the atmosphere and dark nature of the RotH should be able to keep the non graphics obsessed gamer enthralled. You just might even find yourself jumping at a moment or two.
RotH was not just a game of shooting up demons and Freemasons. It also contained a lot of elements from the Adventure genre, such as some truly great puzzles. A lot of first person shooters have puzzles that consist of “Get item, run really far. Use item. Shoot things. Run back. Get new item. Repeat.” Not so with Realms. There are typical mix items together puzzles as are common place in Adventure games, but there are also some brain teasers as well. Again, my usual disdain for FPS’ dissipated when this game gave actually had me using my logistics skills. A thinking man’s shooter? Such a thing had never been done before, and has yet to occur since. I tell you, RotH mixed so many genres together, and flawlessly at that.
RotH even has two different play modes: Arcade and Adventure, both with various difficulty selections. Arcade refers to the damage both you and the monster you encounter will take in the game, while Adventure’s difficulty controls the puzzle solving aspects of the game. You can even mix and match the two, so that you are on easy in regards to the Arcade bits and hard on the Adventure for those of you that prefer thinking to shooting.
The sound effects and music in RotH are wonderful. The score of the game feels like it was ripped straight out of a Lon Chaney (Senior OR Junior) film. It’s ominous, creepy, and it gives RotH the feel of a truly classic game. The voice acting however… Well, to be honest, it’s not that bad. There is the occasional wooden line or sarcastic comment that feels out of place, what with being chased down by demonic bulls and what not. The game still remains at or better than B-movie level acting. Again, this was pretty ahead of its time, and it still holds up fine today.
Really the only down side I can think to this game is that the length but linearity of the game makes it hard to play more than once for me. Then I remind myself it’s hard to think of any FPS’ that aren’t overwhelmingly linear in nature, and my one reoccurring dislike about the game dissipates.
If you’re interested in playing Realms of the Haunting, you can generally buy it for under ten dollars online in various locations. it’s also abandonware now, so you should be able to download it without any ethical dilemmas. It WILL run on Windows XP even though it was designed for Windows ’95, but I suggest you Google for “VDMSound” and download the program so that the music and voice acting synchs up properly. As well, you can always go to the Unofficial RotH website and download music from the game, the Full Motion Videos, and even check out the mirrors they have of the original US and European websites. Even the demo of the game is on this site for easy downloading. So you have no excuse whatsoever why you haved at least played that.
Realms of the Haunting was considered the most original and innovative First Person Shooter ever made when it came out. Even when put up alongside its descendents, it’s still impressive and in all but one way (guess which!) superior to games earmarked as “system sellers” in this day and age. Was RotH really that far ahead of its time, or have we just become willing to label mediocre as good in this current era of video gaming? If you’re a fan on adventure games, good stories, First Person Shooters with easy and smooth controls, or are just looking for a game that’s arguably the best of its kind ever made, then you need to get your hands on RotH. I’ve yet to read anything by anyone who doesn’t call the game near perfection. So I’m happy to contribute my little bit towards the praise of this little known but very adored game. Get it. Play it. Love it.
Publisher: Dreamcatcher (North American Release), Microids (European Release)
Systems Released on: PC, Microsoft Xbox, Sony Playstation 2
Release Date: 10/01/04 (Europe), 04/06/05 (North America)
For a game called Obscure, this little title really did get a lot of attention from the press. Even USA Today did a really nice feature on it about this time last year. For me, Obscure has three things that really make it stand out from the pack of survival-horror games, and has me wondering why several reviewers from the A level sites called it a Resident Evil knock off. Especially as aside from one puzzle (which was 99% the same as one in the first RE), they are absolutely nothing alike.
The big selling factor to me, even though I prefer terror to horror, was that unlike any other spooky video game ever made, Obscure actually looks, feels, and plays like a horror film. At times you’ll be wondering when, not if, this game will be optioned for an actual movie. let’s just hope Uwe Boll doesn’t get a hold of this one.
The game starts off with a very typical Movie montage opening, which lets you know right off the bat Hydravision is trying to make a B-Movie Teen Slasher pic into a video game. You’ve got your indie rock blaring as you see a few guys screwing around playing hoops in the gym when each main character gets a big close up and their name written across the screen. You start playing the game as Kenny, the big dumb jock of the gang of high school stereotypes. He’s hanging out in the gym one night after everyone else has left, and then when he finishes up and heads towards the locker room, his bag is stolen. Kenny takes off in hot pursuit and ends up foolishly following his stolen possessions down a creepy cellar into an underground labyrinth. And you find yourself going “You stupid twat! Shouldn’t your spidey-sense be tingling about now?” Just like you always do with those Friday the 13th or Halloween movies.
I won’t spoil what happens, but I will promise you Obscure give you the best opening of any horror game ever made. Yes, better than Clock Tower 2 (Clock Tower 1 in the US) and Eternal Darkness. If you’re a fan of this genre at all, you owe it to yourself to get this game just for that beginning.
Obscure also gives you FIVE playable characters, and you will be using them all throughout the game. Much like the venerable Friday the 13th, when one character dies, you’ll simply switch to another. The ending you get will also change depending on which characters survive. Each character has their own special talent, but the farther you get into the game, the less inclined you’ll be to use anyone but the two characters that are quite good at fighting.
Not only do you have the multiple characters to choose from, but all of Obscure is co-operative play. Yes, for the first time since Nightmare on Elm Street for the NES, you and a friend can play a survival horror game TOGETHER. It just boggles my mind that such a concept hasn’t been exploited until now. Playing Obscure with a friend just increases the enjoyment, as you’re blowing away foul beasties trying to take over your school with a friend. Just like real life. if you don’t have any friends, that’s okay, because the computer will happily play for you. And unlike 99% of CPU controlled characters throughout the history of video gaming, your partner is actually programmed to be helpful and intelligent! Holy shit! I know! Yet another reason why Obscure is an incredible deal. Just make the computer play as the jock girl, give her the gun and watch her go to town.
The control scheme of Obscure is wonderful. Again, I have to question why this game was called an RE knock-off, consider Resident Evil games are generally frustrating as hell control wise. The gameplay of Obscure is smooth and pretty flawless.
Let’s break these down for you. We’ve got the A button which is your standard shoot/use/take button. The B button is clicked if you want to change an item in your inventory and then you use a control stick to cycle through your items. The Y button lets you use your character’s special ability. Kenny runs real fast, Ashley has a special attack for each weapon, Josh lets you know if there’s any secrets or hidden objects in the room, Shannon gives you hints when you are stuck, and Stan picks locks really quickly. The L trigger activates your Flashlight and the boost for it. The longer you hold the L trigger down, the brighter the flash will be while holding it, but you can’t hold it for too long or you’ll overload it. The Right trigger aims your weapon, and if you find some tape you can actually tape the flash light to your gun to have both out at once and to help you aim. Nice touch that I really found amusing and fun. Finally the D pad lets you give you computer controlled partner commands, like stay, follow me and so on.
Really the only control problem I had was with using melee weapons. There’s some collision detection issues I feel, but that’s why I stick to guns. Or give my computer partner the gun. That bitch don’t miss!
Graphically Obscure isn’t amazing when it comes to backgrounds and character models. It’s good, but nothing truly different from the norm. Where Obscure really does stand out is in regards to lighting, shadows, and darkness. Light and darkness (in the literal, not metaphorical) sense plays a huge part in this video game. This game’s strong graphical point comes from the layers of varying light sources, the realistic shadow effects, and the other atmospheric visuals that are really subtle in nature. Sadly, as all the innovation in this game graphics are so subtle, you most likely won’t appreciate them until you’ve beaten the game and moved on to something else. It’s only the comparison between Obscure and really any other game that involves shadowing effects that will really make you stand up and take notice of the things they do here.
The soundtrack of Obscure is pretty extreme with itself. Half the music comes from bands like Sum 41 and Span (neither of whom I’ve ever heard of, but I hear they’re popular. Now if they had Echo & the Bunnymen or Juno Reactor, then I’d know the bands!) The other half is your typical horror soundtrack that makes you think that at any moment something is going to jump out of the chemistry lab or your locker, or any of the other locations in this very large and creepy school. Methinks Obscure takes place in Howard Phillips Carter High School.
Due to the release of Resident Evil 4 around the same time, Obscure ended up being well, Obscure even with the mainstream praise. When compared to each other, Obscure does offer a better plot, controls, and the ability to have two friend play simultaneously, whereas RE4 has better graphics, sound (unless you like Sum 41 a lot I guess), and name recognition. I’d take Obscure any day of the week over RE4 as controls and plot mean the most to me in a game. If you do manage to see a copy of this sitting on your local video game’s store, doesn’t hesitate to pick it up. Everyone I’ve recommended this game to have come away loving it for its originality and co-op play. If you can’t find it in a store, you can easily order it online from the North American publisher, Dreamcatcher. Obscure is in their online store, and at only $20.00, it’s an amazing bargain.
Another two games down. Only a dozen to go. Next week we’ll be looking at two of the more “outside the box” titles on the list. One is possible the most interactive video game ever released. The other is simply a very obscure favorite of mine that revolves around the first recorded serial killer in the United States. I’ll see you next week.