April 16, 2015 12:00 PM | Joel Couture
Horror works by eroding our faith that the world around us is safe. It creeps under your skin by telling you that things aren't entirely as you perceive them, and that forces you can't see are closing in, tightening the invisible noose around you. It doesn't have to be monsters or ghosts, either, but something a bit more ordinary in its evil. It could be the friendly neighbor, one of the people at your birthday party, or a stranger on the train, and any of them could be far more terrible than some imagined spectre. The horror in Owl Cave's The Charnel House Trilogy works so well because it erodes that faith that your life is normal and safe, chipping away at it bit by bit with the supernatural and ordinary in subtle ways. By its end, you may be left wondering if you really know whats going on with the friends you invited over or even the person sharing your bed tonight.
The Charnel House Trilogy builds on a free game, Sepulchre, that was released a few years ago for free. It follows Dr Lang as he takes a train to a place called Augur Peak, and the various shenanigans and hijinks he gets up to on board. It's a brief, creepy chapter, but the two that have been added to the game to make it a trilogy, Inhale and Exhale, add a whole lot more to the tale. To be honest, I felt that Sepulchre was a little too vague in what it tried to convey, but the addition of the other two chapters clarifies a lot of my suspicions about it. Naturally, I can't talk about any of the plot because it'd be spoiler city, but the three work as a very strong narrative unit that vastly improves on the free chapter that was initially released alone.
The game's story works well because it builds up a strong base in the ordinary before things get a little off. Owl Cave excelled in this regard, adding small objects in the environment that seemed just out-of-place enough that they kept me wondering. Something as simple as a large bag that keeps wriggling, or someone saying something that's just a bit off, slowly dialed up this uncomfortable feeling about the world I'd found myself in. You sense that something is wrong long before you have any actual proof, and even when things are just about as normal as can be, that sensation doesn't go away. You can be standing in a well-lit hall talking to the friendliest conductor ever, but you keep thinking of the odd things someone muttered, or an item that just stood out, and you can't settle down.
It also erodes the sanity as you play, constantly shifting between normalcy and strangeness. A weird thing will happen to your character, and then it's gone again. Did your character imagine it? Was it really as strange as you thought, or is your video game-addled mind giving some event or item too much weight? Having played horror games for years, I often place a lot of importance on little changes, so the smallest events or odd little word choices get me feeling that something is very, very wrong. Yet the world is bathed in light, and everyone seems hunky-dory. No one's covered in blood, and no axe-wielding maniac is after me. Everything is normal. But it's not, which is the entire point of the game's narrative. That ordinariness only means that the bad things are happening outside of your sight, leaving you unaware and unable to protect yourself. That's what's so frightening about this game. It's not that you have suddenly come upon a bad place or person, but that they were all around you for a long time and you never knew it.
The Charnel House Trilogy is still creepy when all the lights are on, and I don't say that often about horror games. The dark is the perfect place to be frightened, and few horror games manage fear in the light. The light doesn't keep you safe in this game, though. The light just tricks you into thinking everything is all right when things aren't. You think the thing creeping up behind you cares whether you flick that little switch? You think you life is in any less danger in the daylight? The forces that you are most in danger from don't scurry away just because you can see them. The game tells you that you'll look right through the thing you should most be afraid of, and that it will hide in plain sight in front of you. That's what gives the game its powerful atmosphere as it slowly whittles at your sense of safety, and leaves you wondering about the world you're sitting in and the people wandering the house around you.
It's quite easy to point-and-click your way through this story. It keeps you contained within a few small environments, so it doesn't take long to explore everything if you don't know what to do, and also makes it easy to try every item on everything else. Your options are often quite limited, so it minimizes getting lost or confused. The game is also quite good at leading the player, whether with a visual or audio cue, or just by having someone politely suggest that you go somewhere. There is a little bit of point-and-click logic where odd items are the puzzle's solution, but given the small environments, limited ways you can use things, and the subtle ways the game hints at things, it works. I was never stuck for long.
The game's pixel art style was a charming reminder of older point-and-click games, even while the material was definitely far more frightening than those games. It's quite smooth in motion, and was capable of showing a lot of detail and emotion in the character faces (shown with dialogue). There is also a cheeriness to many of the character designs that lends the game a lighthearted look in places, one that makes all of the dark events more unsettling as they occur. I love Alex's character model, but there's something almost cartoonish (well, maybe Monkey Island-ish) about her which makes things even more awful when they happen to her. It's an interesting mixture that is deathly serious but evokes childish adventures from my past, indicating through the visual style that assuming the world is safe and ordinary is a childish way of looking at the dangerously dark world we inhabit. The art style makes an excellent companion to the story.
I would like to say the audio did too, but it's a bit hit or miss. Many of the game's tracks play so quietly you can barely hear them, likely a side effect of having so much dialogue. I had to strain to listen to any of them, and while they do provide a creepy vibe, you have to work quite hard to know they're even playing. They're good tracks that supported the mood, but I'd be hard pressed to recognize any of them if someone played them for me now. I just plain didn't hear most of them unless I went out of my way to do so. The only exception is the nice piano track from the title, which is peaceful, sad, and plays clearly before the game begins, setting up a wonderful mood for the events to come.
The voice acting did little to help the game. Roux, who played Alex, did a convincing job reading a lot of her dialogue, but at times that's just what it sounded like to me: reading. I didn't get the sense that she was playing a character as much as just reading lines from the script, some of which were a little overwrought in places. Roux did a good job considering some of the bizarre things she had to say, and she did seem to settle into the role better as the game moved on, but it's still not that great of a performance.
The rest of the cast doesn't seem any more comfortable with their roles, either. Sterling did a solid job with some of the more odd things he had to say, but a lot of the acting still felt forced. Very few of the voice actors seemed to feel normal in their roles, making a lot of it sound like someone was just reading the lines to me. The only real standout who felt natural in his role was Grier as Don, who sounded perfectly comfortable and likeable in his role. His performance put all the others to shame, and helped me realize just what sounded so off about the other actors. As hard as I am being on them, their performances simply seem to suffer from lack of experience doing voice acting, and I feel that with further practice they could bring a lot of life to these characters.
It may seem strange to say that The Charnel House Trilogy does an excellent job with its story and then complain about its dialogue when the story is 99% dialogue, but I can enjoy what a story is conveying even if I don't enjoy how it is conveyed. I'm aware that this is a horror story and that people are bound to say some unhinged things, but some of this stuff was so outlandish and strangely phrased that it grated on the ear. It made it much more difficult for the voice actors to say some things convincingly since it just felt too strange. I cannot imagine the word "douchecanoe" being so hardwired into someone's head that they would use it in a moment of serious duress. Had these things been delivered without voice acting I might not have noticed it as much, but when spoken aloud, much of this stuff just doesn't sound convincing. Unfortunately, the mixture of amateur voice acting and really bizarre dialogue is a stumbling point for this game.
The Charnel House Trilogy does an excellent job building atmosphere, and other horror devs should take note with the ease in which Owl Cave makes you question your safety in the most innocent of situations. Steadily turning up the dread through the most subtle changes in the environments, the game made me wonder about my own life and what I knew of the people in it, leaving me in sorry shape to go to bed that night. While I felt there was lots of room to improve with the voice actors and dialogue, The Charnel House Trilogy provides some excellent atmosphere and a compelling story, and I'm very curious what may await them at Augur Peak as the story continues in Owl Cave's next installment in the series.
The Charnel House Trilogy is available for $5.99 on Steam (%20 for its release week). For more information on the game and Owl Cave, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on YouTube and Twitter.