April 21, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
Rosebud Games tried to create an eerie experience in its short exploration game, House of Caravan. Telling a dark story, it hopes to get under your skin as you solve puzzles in its dimly-lit halls. The trouble is, that story isn't all that interesting or difficult to guess, meaning the bulk of what makes the game compelling has to be carried by the gameplay. That just isn't there either, and as you look for the one piece of furniture that's out of place or the item you need amidst all of the other junk you can pick up and throw away, you're left with very little reason to keep playing the game. House of Caravan simply didn't engage me on any level, and managed to feel like a slog mere moments after I had begun.
You awaken to find yourself on the floor of a child's room in the beginning, and the game tells you the few commands you'll need to get through it. You can pick up items and interact with them, turning them or looking at them closer. The trouble is, few of these items do much to further the plot or tell you anything interesting about the setting, and fiddling with them is completely pointless. Most of the time, you just find odd pots, plates, and books, and you gain nothing from spinning them about. You can learn a little bit from small notes you pick up in places, and can bring them in closer to read them more clearly, but most of these are just there to remind the player that this is an older setting. I kind of guessed that based on the paintings, black-and-white pictures, and the fact that I had to light candles everywhere. In a game where I spend most of my time by myself exploring an empty house, it would have been nice if these items had hinted at the plot or done something, but as is, most of this stuff is junk and the mechanic is a waste of time.
The handwriting and typing on the few documents that may say something interesting is incredibly small, so unless you want to squint at your screen, I suggest you wait for the documents the game narrates to you. These look slightly different than the regular notes you find, and you know you've found a special one once the game starts talking. These notes tell a dark little story, but one I found extremely predictable, guessing the entire plot after the second note. Given that this is an exploration game and the hidden story is supposed to be a major driving force for the entire game, this sucked a lot of my interest out of playing. Sometimes finding out how the plot unfolds can be interesting even if you've guessed the ending, but House of Caravan doesn't pull that off, either. The plot is just dull and easy to guess - standard creepy old house horror fare.
This leaves the gameplay to hold it up, but there just isn't a whole lot to do in the House of Caravan. Most of the time, you're just going through drawers and cabinets hoping to find some item of interest. There are a lot of places to look, too, so you'd better learn to enjoy rummaging through someone's things. Items are hard to see in the game's dim light, even with the game highlighting them when you see them, so I still found that I missed important items all the time. You need to make sure you look directly and carefully into these drawers, or you'll easily miss something you need to move on. This tripped me up an awful lot for a game that lasts a little more than an hour.
The issue also stems from the fact that many important items look like the regular trash letters and items that fill the house. There are so many things you can pick up that it made me start skipping over items that were actually important, because at times I just couldn't tell the difference and I was so tired of picking up garbage that I started rushing. Admittedly, some of the important items stood out, but when a picture is an important item and you open tons of drawers filled with papers and letters, it's easy to gloss over it when you're opening the eight or nine drawers in a dresser in a room with several more dressers and cabinets to go through. You have to really pay attention to your surroundings no matter how many drawers you've already opened with nothing in them, or else you're going to get stuck.
As you pick up those items, you will have to throw them away somewhere. If you pick up an important quest item it goes into your inventory, which is fine, but if you pick up any of the game's other items, you literally pick it up. When you do, you have the option to put them down or toss them away, and the physics here often have hilarious results that undermine the atmosphere the game's trying to create. Having a pool ball decide to orbit the pool table or a chair decide to stick to you and knock over everything in the room was funny, but I doubt it was what the devs were shooting for. It gets to be a problem when you put down something insignificant down on the floor, only to find the game thinks it's large enough to block your path. I've had to pick up and move tiny, stupid items out of my way dozens of times to get through the game, and considering how many useless items you pick up over the course of the game just to make sure they aren't important, it's hard to avoid this issue. It's a nuisance, admittedly, but a really pointless one that bugged me a lot over time.
The inventory system for that handful of important items is tedious. Instead of selecting items, you scroll through what you have with the right mouse button. This is a pokey process, especially near the end when you have over a dozen items, and you can only click them in one direction. Since I was hurrying through them to get to the item I wanted, I often passed the one I needed and couldn't scroll back, so I usually had to go through everything I had at least twice. Even if you're not in a big rush, clicking through a dozen items to get the one you need is pretty tiresome.
When you finally have all of the items you need, be careful when you save and quit. This issue may not come up for many as the game can easily be finished in a sitting, but I suffered from one glitch where I set down a pile of papers to solve a puzzle, then quit out for a while. When I came back, the game no longer let me use the item to solve the puzzle, requiring I start the game all over again. Given that the game is short it's not a huge problem, but it is a really frustrating issue.
The house you're exploring does look nice. Lighting and the decor provide an eerie atmosphere, creating a delightful tension as you work your way through the house. There is a good variety or paintings and room styles, so it was easy to tell each room apart and to enjoy the visuals. The drag is that the same music plays the entire time you're exploring the same halls, and after an hour of listening to it, the light piano track loses any appeal it might have. Every time I started to savor a room's appearance, I'd hear that same few notes from the track and get sick of it.
Exploring wasn't fun. The plot was dull. The items were tedious to look for and to use. The only thing left to keep me entertained was the puzzles, and those weren't interesting, either. You do a few of those current directing puzzles where you're turning nodes until they complete a route, look at some pictures (which don't say anything to do with anything happening to you) with magnifying glasses to find hidden numbers, and put pieces of notes back together. It's fine if you want some simple busywork puzzles, but none of them were that enjoyable. The puzzles also have problems, such as being unable to remove a puzzle piece if you screw up putting a picture together (making the puzzle impossible to solve without resetting the entire thing), and having to click the magnifying glass to specific spots rather than drag it around when looking for hidden numbers in a picture. They're all right when they work, but tiresome in their clunkiness most of the time.
Exploration games often dole out story using the items, puzzles, and environment, but House of Caravan only tells its tale through a handful of notes, with nothing else in the game really connecting with the story. It left a gap between the gameplay and narrative, leaving me feeling like I was just choking down the gameplay in hopes of finding the next piece of plot. With a weak story only told through notes to back it up, it soon became a scavenger hunt I had no inclination to complete. It was just a lot of opening drawers in hopes that I would get closer to the game's ending, with no interest in the journey getting there. If you want to walk around an old house and rifle through a few hundred drawers, it may be of interest to you, but with its lackluster atmosphere, puzzles, narrative, and ability to connect any of those together, House of Caravan held no interest to me.
House of Caravan is available for $6.99 on Steam (25% off until April 23). For more information on it and Rosebud Games, you can head to the game's site or follow the developers on Facebook, YouTube, Google +, and Twitter.