Realms of the Haunting

Developer:  Gremlin
Publisher:  Interplay
Year Released:  1997

Review by Steve Metzler (November, 2002)
Realms of the Haunting (hereafter, ROTH) is a relatively unknown game that arrived on the scene in early 1997; the reason for it being little-known is that Interplay apparently didn't realise they had such a potential hit on their hands and expended minimal effort in marketing ROTH. Pity.

I suppose if you had to pigeon-hole ROTH, it would fit most neatly into the horror/action genre. However, this game features some very strong adventure elements not to mention an incredible story that just sucks you right in and then runs like a frightened rabbit until the last of its 20 chapters leaves you shaking, exhausted... and triumphant.

Warning to the faint of heart: try another game
This is one of those games you're meant to play with the room lights turned down low and the sound cranked all the way up. Don't be at all surprised if you leap several feet out of your chair should someone enter the room behind you! ROTH utilises full-motion video sequences filmed with professional actors to advance the story, and the overall production level wouldn't be that far behind a decent B-movie (if there is such a thing).

You take on the role of Adam Randall, a young American chap whose father was the pastor of a small Cornish village. Your father is recently deceased, and the opening scene finds you in the dark of night in the back of a taxi on your way to a large old house that was somehow connected with your father's mysterious death. As you enter the house the front door shuts behind you, is sealed by a magical ward, and thus the game begins.

At first, most of the house is sealed off by doors that are magically warded, but as the game progresses you eventually find a way to get past each door. Soon the basement becomes available, then some very creepy caverns, then more of the house, and finally you will journey to realms beyond our own, which is ultimately what this game is all about. However, you won't have to go it all alone in your long struggle to defeat the forces of evil. Early on in the game your character meets a fetching English lass named Rebecca with whom you can discuss many aspects of the interesting reading material and people you will encounter. Unfortunately, she won't help you at all when it comes to a fight (as a matter of fact, you only actually see her during cut scenes, otherwise you just hear her speaking), but she's charming, witty, and welcome company nonetheless.

Did I just hear... something?
Down to less ethereal matters. ROTH has quite a lot of combat throughout, interspersed with some clever puzzles. Fortunately, the designers have catered for the ham-fisted among us, and you can choose between: Easy, Normal, Hard, and Very hard for the combat difficulty. I chose 'Hard', and it was just about right for me, though you have to be very careful with managing your health potions (the only way in ROTH to replenish your health). Combat is in real time, but there's nothing more to it than clicking on something with your mouse to hit it with a sword, or to fire a weapon at it. At first you will find only mundane weapons like a pistol and the aforementioned sword, but later on you come across some magical weapons that are much more powerful yet tricky to use as they take time to recharge. You can pause the action at any time by popping up your inventory, from which you can access health potions, change weapons, etc. This feature makes the combat manageable, a bit strategic, and a lot of fun. In a short time, you'll find yourself becoming quite adept at shooting, back-pedalling, and drinking potions all at the same time! The main thing that makes ROTH so very scary is that monsters can appear from out of the darkness or behind you at any time, though when they appear behind you, there's an audible cue to their arrival.

All movement is accomplished via the keyboard, and your mouse is used to interact with the environment. Clicking on most objects produces a useful description. The exploration aspect of ROTH is incredible - a sensation not unlike the one you experience when playing a Tex Murphy adventure comes over you upon entering a new area.

But what about the adventure elements you may ask? Are there real puzzles in this game, or is it the standard action/adventure fare of 'find the blue key'? Well, I'm happy to report that there are real puzzles in the classic adventure mould throughout ROTH. As with combat, the designers have created different levels of difficulty, namely: Easy and Hard. On the 'Easy' setting, all you need do is have the correct object in your inventory when you try to perform an action on another key object, and the object in your inventory will be automatically used. On 'Hard', you have to place the correct object in your hand before attempting an action. Being a supposedly seasoned adventurer, I opted for 'Hard'. And it was. Most of the puzzles are of a practical nature, such as figuring out a way to open a door, or to retrieve an object from a seemingly unreachable place. However, Chapters 13 and 14 especially contain classic adventure puzzles that require some of that good ol' lateral thinking - an adventure gamer's raison d'etre.

The game world of ROTH is realised in complete 3D, and your character sees things from a first person perspective. Though the scenery is a bit pixellated, even at the maximum 640 x 480 resolution, it was a marvellous achievement for circa 1996 - before the widespread availability of 3D accelerators. The full-motion video sequences are also low resolution, but state-of-the-art for those days, and since there is a fair amount of video in ROTH, cutting down the resolution was probably the only way to get it onto the 4 CDs it occupies. This being a horror game, the graphics in ROTH are suitably creepy and atmospheric. And it's dark. So pervasively dark, that when you spot the occasional light switch in a room, you'll be running for it like mad!

The background music is like the soundtrack from a 1930's horror film - low key pipe organs and string instruments, very spooky - and goes a long way towards upping the anxiety level. The actors voices are very clear, but everything is subtitled so deaf adventurers could play this game (though you would be missing the sound cues that alert you to monsters appearing out of nowhere). There are no sound-based puzzles in the game.

ROTH is definitely a game for those who like a lot of action mixed in with their adventuring, though you can mitigate the effects of combat by playing with the difficulty set to 'Easy'. It's big, it's scary (by far the most frightening game I've ever played), and it's got a fantastic story line with the obligatory twist in the ending.

Of course, this being at heart a DOS game, those of you running Windows XP might think you were out of luck seeing as it definitely won't run out-of-the-box on this operating system. However, there's now a wonderful free utility out there called VDMSound that captures all interactions with the DOS sound hardware, and re-routes them to your Windows XP devices. I had ROTH up and running in 5 minutes with no tweaking required. Just search for "vdmsound" in your favourite search engine.

Oh... and happy haunting! rating:  

Copyright © Steve Metzler 2002. All rights reserved.

System Requirements:
DOS 5.0 or greater or Win 95. 486DX2/66 min (Pentium 90 or faster recommended), 8 MB RAM min, 16MB for Win 95, 15 MB hard disk space (103 MB recommended), 2xCD ROM or faster, SoundBlaster or 100% compatible sound card, 1 MB VGA/SVGA video card (VESA 1.2 compliant card needed for high resolution.)