Review: Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward Collector’s Edition (PC)
by Aaron Sirois on June 18, 2012


Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward Collector’s Edition
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Developer: Specialbit Studio
Genre: Hidden Object/Adventure
Release Date: 06/11/2012

When it comes to hidden object games bases on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, I’m the one to call! I don’t know why, seeing as I only read a couple of Lovecraft stories back in high school, but what can I do? Earlier this year, I found Cats of Ulthar to be a decent title that mostly played on it’s Lovecraft roots to drum up interest. While Haunted Hotel is by a different developer, I went in hoping it could right the ship.

As a side note, Specialbit Studio puts out a lot of games under the “Haunted Hotel” banner. Charles Dexter Ward, or CDW for short, is the latest in a series of five or six. Only a couple of these seem to be related though, and CDW is the only one based on Lovecraft from what I can tell.

Anyways, let’s get down to brass tax here. Is HH:CDW any good?

Story

This game is inspired by The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, by H.P. Lovecraft. That book follows a doctor as he investigates the history and whereabouts of the title character. Being a Lovecraft title, it quickly turns into a tale of the occult, rife with body snatching, grave digging, and necromancy.

This tale is not quite based on it, but sort of serves as a prequel if you will. You play as Charles’ sister. Charles senders her a letter that details how he’s been left a hotel by a previously unknown relative. However, by the time the sister arrives, Charles vanishes in a puff of black smoke, and it becomes clear that some supernatural force is work. Before long, she’s digging through rooms and wading through swamps in order to find some way to release Charles from a spell. She has three days to perform a ritual, or else an evil force will possess her dear brother.

The story is actually quite good. Each of the three days is prefaced by a short cutscene where the sister goes over what’s happened and what needs to be done. On top of that, the supernatural forces are a constant threat, keeping the dangers at hand. This isn’t a game that forgets its story until the end. A lot of back story is given through journal pages and other such articles. These are easy to find, and can be read at will. Overall, it was quite nice, and had a fun ending.

It should be noted that this game does not follow the Lovecraft story perfectly. I don’t recall a haunted hotel coming up at any point during the synopsis, and many of the important characters didn’t make it to the game. However, this game does good by its inspiration, including references to the Elder Gods and not butchering the tale in any way. Don’t expect a retelling, and you’ll likely enjoy it.

Graphics

One thing worth mentioning when it comes to the graphics for CDW is the live action scenes. All of the cutscenes involve real actors and objects. A filter and some digital effects are added to give each shot a specific look. It works out quite well, and was a nice change of pace from the other hidden object games I’ve played. It was so nice to not have to stare at ugly human models the entire time.

In fact, Charles is the only human you come across, and he has very little to do in terms of moving around. Most of the game is spent with him lying in a magic-induced coma. Pretty much the entire game is the hotel and surrounding area. It creates a creepy atmosphere that feels isolated and dangerous. The evil looking portrait above the staircase and carvings of the Elder Gods help a bit too.

CDW is above the competition for effects. The sky is alive with storm clouds and lighting strikes, running water looks good, and there are plenty of other effects to keep things looking interesting. While these effects might not cut it for higher end games, most casual titles don’t feature anything as strong.

Audio

Let’s start with the music. CDW takes a different approach compared to a lot of the other hidden object games I’ve played. Instead of going for spooky and foreboding, the tone of the tunes is somber and depressing. The tunes use simple melodies and deep sounding instruments to create a truly depressing atmosphere. Best of all, the music is never intrusive. I found it definitely above average for the genre.

Voice acting is another plus. While there are only a couple of voiced characters in the game, they were done reasonably well. There were no awkward pauses, pathetic attempts at shock, or any of the other annoying little consistencies I’ve seen. This was some decent stuff, and I have no complaints.

Effects were probably my favorite aspect of the aural experience. The game is relentless with creaking noises in houses, thunder getting ever closer, and other noises to set the player on edge. These noises didn’t stop when switching to a mini-game or hidden object section, which I was quite impressed with. The developers didn’t forget how a strong aural design can really sell a game. I was quite pleased.

Gameplay

If you’ve played one hidden object game, you’ve played them all. CDW does nothing to deviate itself from the pack, though there are some minor differences that make it a tad bit better.

Most of the game is navigating the environments and interacting via an inventory. An item of interesting can be picked and up placed in your inventory. If you want to use it on an environmental puzzle, all you need to do is click and drag. Some items can be combined to create new ones, but this mechanic is very limited. You can only combine items with items they were intended to be combined with. There’s no experimentation.

Hidden object sections appear from time to time. These are as basic as they get. You have a list of items to find, and a static screen to find them in. Some are quite well hidden, but most will pop right out. If you use a hint for these sections, you’ll have the luxury of choosing which item to reveal. This was helpful, as a “bow” could be one of several things. There’s nothing I hate more than finding out I was looking for a weapon when I should have been looking for a tie.

CDW loves mini-games. These are standard puzzles that you’ll find all over the place in these types of games. There are slide puzzles, coin puzzles, gear puzzles, and just about everything else you can think of. Like most games, you can skip these sections if it gets too tough. These are fine for what they are.

The hint system is a little different here. Every game in the genre I’ve played so far has the same hint system. If you’re in the wrong room, it will point you to the right one. If you’re in the right room, the hint will circle the item you need to interact with. For this game, any time you use a hint, a message pops up that outright tells you what to do. I found this very useful, even if the game did tell me to “take the metal pipe in the shaft.” I felt that was a bit much.

Anyways, this is about as basic a hidden object/adventure title as you can get. The basics are all here and represented well. The controls work, as they are simple point and click mechanics. CDW does it’s job and does is satisfactorily.

Replayability

To play through the story, you’re going to need to spend anywhere from four to five hours. The game is roughly the average length for the genre, so it wins no points there. However, there are achievements to consider. There are a number of these to earn. While it is possible to earn them all on the first go through, you’re likely to miss a few, as you can’t skip puzzles or use hints for some of them. This feature isn’t much, but it does give some incentive to go back.

The collector’s edition, as per usual, comes with a bonus chapter. This picks up the story right where it left off, though it isn’t essential for your enjoyment of the plot. The bonus chapter gives you a few new rooms to explore and a whole new mess of mini-games to complete. Honestly, they were more common than in a Professor Layton title. Playing through this bonus chapter adds another thirty minutes to an hour to the experience. It has achievements as well, so that’s a bonus.

While CDW isn’t quite a one and done game, I wouldn’t call it highly replayable. Still, it at least tries to get players to come back, which is more than I can say for most games in the genre.

Balance

These games are meant to be accessible. With the way the hint system works, the only time you’ll get stuck is when you’re waiting for the meter to fill up. The good news is that you usually always have an idea of what to do. I rarely used the hint, except in cases where I managed to miss an item and needed it progress. I skipped a couple of mini-games, but that was because I wanted to see if skipping would affect trophies (it does) and a couple of puzzles I just didn’t want to take the time to complete.

There are two difficulty settings. Casual is the pinnacle of accessibility. The hint meter fills up quickly, and areas of interest sparkle. Getting lost or stuck is next to impossible. The higher difficulty setting slows the hint meter and gets rid of the sparkles. Nothing else gets tougher though, so it’s still not hard.

The real challenge of these games is to resist the temptation of using the hints so much that the game practically plays itself. After all, you can brute force yourself through the game if need be.

Originality

This is yet another hidden object game that’s “inspired” by a work of fiction. It uses the same mechanics and tricks that fans have been playing for years. It offers nothing new. Still, the point of these games is to keep it familiar and accessible. It’s not a direct copy of another game, so there’s no need to berate the game for its lack of originality.

Addictiveness

I pretty much played through the game in one sitting, including the bonus chapter. That says a couple of things. First, the story was interesting enough to see me through. Second, the game isn’t really that long and I had four hours to kill. That will help earn the game some points, but don’t expect the score to skyrocket. After all, there’s a big difference between playing a ten hour game in one sitting and playing a four hour game in one sitting.

CDW uses tried and tested mechanics, spins a decent yarn, and has plenty of atmosphere. That certainly helps it stand out from the crowd. Fans of the genre are sure to find enough to love to push them through the game rather quickly.

Appeal Factor

Lovecraft fans need not apply. This isn’t one of H.P.’s more famous works, and the game doesn’t really follow the story to a tee. There’s some nice art and a good atmosphere, but only hidden object fans will truly enjoy this game.

For casual fans, don’t let the Lovecraft association turn you off. This is your kind of game from top to bottom. The story is inspired by the author’s work, but is the kind of tale that you’re used to. I found it very similar is style and tone to other HO games I’ve played.

The game is accessible and enjoyable. For ten bucks, it’s not a bad deal at all.

Miscellaneous

For bonus features the game does a pretty bang up job.

Firstly, there’s that extra chapter. Most collector’s edition include such chapters, so it might not stand out. However, more gameplay for your dollar is always appreciated.

The soundtrack is available for free play. In addition, the game will let you copy the tunes to your computer directly from the menu. That’s pretty nifty, and something I haven’t seen from one of these games yet.

The big feature is the “making of” videos. These videos show you how they created certain effects, as well as the scouting of a location that was used as inspiration. These videos don’t have voice over, but were fun to watch either way.

Oh yeah, there’s some concept art as well. Overall, the game offers more than usual for the CE price. I was quite impressed. There’s some quality stuff here.

The Scores
Story: Enjoyable
Graphics: Above Average
Audio: Good
Gameplay: Enjoyable
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Worthless
Addictiveness: Enjoyable
Appeal Factor: Above Average
Miscellaneous: Good
Final Score: Decent Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

Haunted Hotel: Charles Dexter Ward is a pretty decent game. It has a fun story, good atmosphere, and avoids any real flaws. It worked as a pretty effective time killer, and I had some fun with it. The Lovecraft connection is misleading, but that didn’t hurt the game at all. By not butchering the source material, it avoided earning my ire. If you’re looking for a fun, spooky hidden object to fill a time void, CDW will certainly get the job done.




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