One of the greatest merits of the adventure genre is the platform it gives a writer to tell a story. They can tell of thrilling exploits, amusing capers, mysteries of the world and of the mind. They don’t need to rely on flashy visuals or reaction time-testing action. By letting us step into the shoes of a character we get to learn about their life and story through their conversations and observations about the world around them.
The Charnel House trilogy, a classic style point-and-click adventure game by Owl Cave, succeeds at telling a great story. In the first chapter, Inhale, we meet Alex, a 20-something woman who seems to be working to overcome some hardships – a recent break-up that’s still in the forefront of her mind, a sick father. Alex will be going on a journey. This first act functions mainly as a set-up for the rest of the game, and introduces us to the characters and themes that will be explored more deeply later on. Act 2, Sepulchre, was actually available as a standalone game for a while and is made stronger by the bookending chapters. Sepulchre focuses on Harold, who boarded a train with Alex, and has to deal with strange events that are happening. While Harold seems to be in an almost fugue-like state, Alex is plagued by her memories, which weigh heavily on her. Act 3, Exhale, goes back to Alex and does an amazing job at tying everything together.
It’s hard to say a lot about the story without giving things away, but the titles (Charnel House, Sepulchre) should certainly give you an idea of the direction it takes. While it is a horror game, it’s not scary in the traditional sense, but provides a gradually increasing sense of unease that worms its way in and turns into dread. The writing by Ashton Raze is on point. Dialogue goes from sounding completely natural to Lynchian levels of bizarre. The best praise I can give is that from Act 2 on, no line is wasted. Everything has a purpose, and is building towards something. It’s a very well constructed story with a self-aware script, and it gets better as it goes.
For a game that maxes out at a 320 x 200 resolution, not a pixel is out of place. The style is very reminiscent of the Blackwell series (Ben Chandler did work on both this and The Blackwell Epiphany). The character portraits that pop up during conversations are lovely and the backgrounds, few that they are, are attractive.
The soundtrack often blends seamlessly into the background, but when it becomes more prominent, it’s really quite great. I highly recommend playing this with headphones, I put them on halfway through and was immediately impressed by how great it sounded. The voice acting is competent. Madeleine Roux’s Alex started off a little flat, but got better as the game went on. I have no complaints about the rest of the main players. Jim Sterling did well in his turn as a too-friendly neighbour, and the smaller parts were also generally well done. Though to be honest, I can’t hear Abe Goldfarb without thinking of Joey Malone.
The game is light on puzzles, but since the story is the star, that works out. There’s no mindless combining of inventory items or pixel-hunting for objects. Gameplay is quite straightforward, and I think more challenging puzzles would have been a distraction.
I only have one real complaint about the game. Inhale is peppered with in-jokes and nods to the voice actors. In-jokes are okay, but the first 10 or so minutes of the game consisted of little else, so that it was a bit of a turn-off. Once the game got that out of its system, the story started steaming ahead and I was more than happy to go along for the ride.
The Charnel House Trilogy took me about 2.5 hours to complete. It’s currently available on Steam for less than $5, and it’s well worth the cost. Content warning for the game – it does deal with topics such as violence, stalking, and suicide.
Verdict – Highly recommended. If you’re a fan of adventure games, horror, or just great stories, The Charnel House Trilogy is a treat. It’s a taut, wonderfully written experience kept me intrigued and I ended up finishing it in one sitting.