Haunted House: Cryptic Graves (PC) Review

By Jordan Hurst 12.12.2014 3

Review for Haunted House: Cryptic Graves on PC

The continued existence of a company called Atari as a major game publisher feels downright offensive. The name that once defined the medium for at least an entire console generation is now just that - a name. For almost two decades, the company formerly known as Infogrames has been wearing the skin of the real Atari, cashing in on cheap nostalgia and brand recognition for a brand that hasn't actually existed for a long time. The company has sunk dangerously close to the bottom of the barrel several times in the past, but it is now officially scraping it. Haunted House: Cryptic Graves may be the worst game of the year. Its only competition for that title is the garbage that Steam Greenlight periodically pumps out, but unlike most of those games, this wasn't made by a one-man team desperately cobbling together public domain assets. This has the Atari logo on it. Come to think of it, go read up on the history of the Atari brand. It'll be a lot more interesting than playing their game.

The game is a reimagining of the classic 2600 proto-survival horror title, Haunted House. That sentence alone foreshadows almost all of the game's flaws. To start, the term "reimagining" implies that some imagination was used in the game's conception. Instead, the game is Amnesia/Slender clone #4672, and stars Anya Graves, a psychic paranormal investigator who is told she will inherit vast wealth if she spends a night in the titular house. As horror premises go, the only thing more hackneyed is "built on a Native American burial ground." The haunted house in Cryptic Graves, however, was actually specifically built from pieces of other notoriously haunted structures, as players are told through poorly-justified exposition. For some reason, the game feels it is important to explain this, rather than answering other questions like, "Why does Anya's partner already know everything about the house's history even though Anya - the actual heir - is completely ignorant?" or "Why did he decide to tell all of this after they entered the haunted house?" or "Who the hell was asking for a reimagining of Haunted House, anyway?"

The original game's appeal was largely its immense innovation, and the genuine tension it achieved using fewer pixels than most digital watches. The property has nothing to offer in 2014. In fact, it had nothing to offer the post-Alone in the Dark world of the mid-90s. Yet here it is, with its derivative and nonsensical story, its derivative and nonsensical enemies, and its derivative and nonsensical puzzle design - a game that has no absolutely no reason to exist. That conclusion can be easily reached just by reading a summary of the game's premise and features, but actually playing the game reveals a sea of technical and design issues whose amateurism will astound even the most cynical players.

Screenshot for Haunted House: Cryptic Graves on PC

The problems appear as early as the title screen: the first image in the game is a gargoyle's face...followed by the gargoyle's textures, which appear about three seconds later. The main menu lags constantly as the mouse passes over the available options. In fact, all of the game's menus lag, but it's most embarrassing here, when the gargoyle is the only other thing being rendered. When the game starts, the window loses focus and must be clicked again before the camera can be moved (this happens every time a menu is exited). It also quickly becomes apparent that the camera is permanently tilted at a 10 degree angle to the side, presumably because the developers once heard that odd camera angles are often used in horror projects, but missed the parts about how and why. This is all within the first 20 seconds of gameplay. Players who continue on for an hour or so will discover the game's affinity for crashing, at least one save point that can't be loaded from, and at least half a dozen one-off bugs that make Assassin's Creed Unity look like a flawless masterpiece.

Cryptic Graves is more than just a glitch fest, though. Even if it were patched into a more playable state, it would still be a banal slog full of perplexingly bad design choices. To give credit where it's due, there is a span of about five minutes where it looks like the game might have some genuine horror skill up its sleeve; a recurring corpse...thing appears to intimidate the player with some creepy sound design, and the early areas are mostly narrow corridors with sharp corners that make the player wary of what might be around the bend. Unfortunately, this section is sandwiched between the underwhelming opening and the abysmal remainder of the game. Said opening drops players into a room with about eight or so locked doors and nothing to do. It then somehow expects players to realise that the plot will be arbitrarily advanced after they've talked to a supporting character multiple times - a character whose name initially appears as "Char Names" for a few seconds before the game loads the correct text.

Screenshot for Haunted House: Cryptic Graves on PC

As for the rest of the game, let's start with the level design. That opening room proves very representative of how the rest of the game is going to progress; most rooms are simply collections of locked doors. The game's "puzzles" are either absurd (i.e. replace fallen paintings on the walls, which somehow unlocks a door) or amount to examining otherwise unremarkable objects to reveal keys. These types of non-puzzles are fairly commonplace in horror adventures, but at least they usually have the decency to show the player what door has been unlocked. Cryptic Graves forces players to retest every door to find the correct path.

Furthermore, Anya has the ability to "see through the veil" and communicate with the dead, which sounds a lot more interesting and marketable than it really is. In practise, it merely grants the ability to cover the world in blue fog and static, and highlight important items. As if being little more than a paranormal hint system wasn't a bland enough implementation, the feature's usefulness is undermined by no less than four idiotic design choices. First, it completely obscures everything more than ten feet away from the player. Second, it "highlights" objects by colouring the world blue, and then colouring important objects a slightly different shade of blue. Third, its use is tied into Anya's stamina meter (which is invisible to the player), so it only lasts a few seconds and can't be used while running. To top it all off, it's not even consistent as a hint system; sometimes it just highlights pointless things, like the developers forgot what its purpose was halfway through production.

Still, all of this terrible design pales in comparison to the thing that turns Cryptic Graves from "bad, broken game" into "laughing stock of 2014": the enemies. For starters, they're invisible unless the player has turned on their all-but-unusable psychic power, they can't be damaged, and they can kill the player in two hits. A hint just before their first appearance advises using stealth to avoid them, which would be fine...except that they can see through everything, including walls. The only way to escape them is to go through a door. No need to close the door or hide afterward; just step over the threshold, turn around, toggle Anya's power, and be amazed at the murderous demon impotently scowling at the camera, vanquished by the power of empty doorframes. Not that this makes them any less irritating. They often inhabit rooms that contain puzzles, forcing players to figure out which arbitrary object will open which arbitrary door, while sprinting back and forth, hoping the invisible spawn of Satan isn't nearby when they need to pause for breath.

Screenshot for Haunted House: Cryptic Graves on PC

Of course, Cryptic Graves wouldn't be a truly cynical and lazy 2014 release without some misplaced Minecraft envy, so it also includes a hollow token crafting system. Throughout the game, the player can collect four types of items that roughly correlate to the classical elements, and use them to create spells based on recipes found in the mansion. It's hard to determine which aspect of this system reveals its unnecessary nature the most. Perhaps it's that it's entirely optional, and never once used to advance the campaign, or that the crafting menu is the most broken part of this already broken game, or that spells only need to be crafted once before they can be used infinitely. Most players won't even learn what the second available spell does, because its recipe is found in a tiny room with one of those impossible enemies, and the game doesn't pause while reading recipes or offer any way to reread them after picking them up.

Just in case these technical, narrative, and gameplay problems aren't enough to solidify Cryptic Graves' putrid status, it's also largely a failure on an artistic level. The environments look alright when nothing is happening, but the character animation is stiff and unnatural, and the amount of motion blur applied to every movement is ridiculous. If the camera is tilted all the way down, and the player jumps, it's actually possible to see streaks of motion blur trailing Anya's limbs. In addition, those god-awful enemies are made even more obnoxious by a dizzying camera filter that appears every time one of them gets close. Most bizarrely, the fog of the opening segment seems to be a particle effect emitted by lamp posts, creating a bewildering situation where standing near a light actually makes it harder to see.

Cryptic Graves feels like it was produced on a budget of whatever change Atari had lying around the office. There are no cut-scenes or story transitions of any kind; Anya just appears on the path to the mansion with her partner. That corpse thing that is the game's sole source of horror just pops out of existence once it's done groaning at the camera. Even the "game over" screen just cuts to black. Then there's the voice acting, which wouldn't sound out of place on the PS1, and the music, which would've been merely forgettable if it didn't overpower every other bit of audio in the game. Oh, but object names appear as glowing silver letters plastered across the object's bounding box, which looks kind of neat. Hooray?

Screenshot for Haunted House: Cryptic Graves on PC

Cubed3 Rating

1/10
Rated 1 out of 10

Awful

It's difficult to tell who's to blame for Haunted House: Cryptic Graves. The game's Steam page touts developer Dreampainters as the "seasoned team behind the critically acclaimed survival horror game, Anna." Considering Anna was about as well-received as a punch to the gut, it's fair to say that Dreampainters is not the most reliable developer. However, the miniscule budget, pointless brand name exhumation, and shameless copying of other popular IPs all reek of a publisher passionlessly trying to stay relevant. Regardless of who has the game's blood on their hands, it's clear the product has been mutilated beyond repair. Between the 80s design sensibilities, the 90s production values, and the consumer contempt of the new millennium, this house is haunted by more than just ghosts.

Developer

Dreampainters

Publisher

Atari

Genre

Horror

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  1/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date None   Australian release date Out now   

Comments

$20? That's really expensive for a game that managed to receive a 1/10. Even if it was good $20 might be considered a little high for a first person horror game these days I mean look at how many cost nothing!

( Edited 12.12.2014 15:34 by Sandy Wilson )

i might have to play this one.

It can certainly have a "so bad it's good" quality, but I don't know if it's worth paying for for that.

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