• James Stephanie Sterling

Haunted House: Cryptic Graves Review – Rise From Your… No Actually, Don’t Get Up

Atari squats on the floor and dumps a steaming pile of horror in front of our disgusted faces.

Developer: Dreampainters

Publisher: Atari

Format: PC

Released: November 25, 2014

Copy acquired via Steam press account

As a matter of disclosure, it’s only right that I confess to putting just over 100 minutes into this game before committing my thoughts to a review. Ordinarily, that would be a woefully inadequate amount of time to accurately assess a videogame, but Haunted House: Cryptic Graves is not an ordinary experience. Indeed, in less than two hours, I was able to witness firsthand enough glitches to fill several full videogames, while the various half-baked attempts at visual effects can induce brutal headaches in about fifteen minutes of playtime. You may disagree, and you’re welcome to wait for maniacs braver than I to play it to completion, but I am confident that my playtime is sufficient to deem Haunted House one of Atari’s most remarkable atrocities.

When I first started playing Cryptic Graves, I was genuinely surprised to find it wasn’t an untouched port of a game from the nineties. With fuzzy visuals that did not appear to be comfortable in its maximum resolution of 1080p, not to mention a muffled, robotic voiceover from the badly rendered old man standing before me, the whole thing looked like an artifact of decades long past. One particularly interesting anachronism is that, while the old man regurgitated narration to us with a voice that seemed to be ripped from an old cassette player, the protagonist answered with much clearer audio, blatantly recorded in a totally different environment. What amazes me is how there seemed to be no effort to mask this, and the jury is still out on whether or not some of the dialog was gained using text-to-speech software.

As main character Anya traipses around the titular haunted house, it’s difficult to not want to throw up. The camera wobbles profusely, and often fights with one’s mouse movements, sometimes thrashing around or jerking unprovoked. Anya can also see through walls, as walking near any solid surface clips her eyeballs through it, allowing us to see whatever lies beyond. There are chairs you can sit on, and when I say “sit on,” I mean Anya will stand through a chair, her legs clipping into the furniture. At one point, I wandered into a room to find the game had forgotten to render almost all the objects in it, leaving only a book and box of crayons floating solidly above the space that used to house tables. This wasn’t an attempted spooky effect – this was a clear case of the game failing to load items.

This failure to load and trigger things is the ultimate reason for my stepping away from the game entirely. Not once, not twice, but three times in my less-than-two hour session was my progress halted by doors that failed to open when they should have. The first time, I found a key for a door that failed to recognize the item in my inventory and remained locked. I had to quit the game and restart it, upon which the door was now magically open without me even needing to use the key. The second time, a door that wasn’t even supposed to be locked at all was locked, and I wasn’t near a save point that time – I had to reload an older save and retread old ground to get back there, whereupon this time the door could open. The third instance of doors doing what-the-hell-ever is where I gave up entirely – there’s a door with a crucial item behind it (I can see the item because of the aforementioned “ability” to peer through walls) that simply will not open. I checked online for all these glitched doors. I’ve seen videos of others opening them. I know they’re broken. This third door, I’ve been unable to find a way to unlock, and thus I gave up entirely.

There is a spiral staircase that you cannot simply walk up, instead needing to jump to traverse each individual step. There’s a spell crafting menu that I accidentally stumbled upon by pressing the “C” key, but I couldn’t close it – sometimes pressing “V” would shut it down, other times it simply remained there, and I was unable to turn or crouch while it was up. Reading diary entries from the main menu confuses the game, causing a mouse cursor to randomly appear, or stopping the player from returning to the game properly. Everything’s too dark and blurry for one to effectively navigate the house’s dismal brown rooms. The third save point Anya encounters should not be used, as it can crash the entire game with a “fatal error.”

All of this comes before the laughable attempts at jump scares, with weird elongated mummies staring at you, and the awful “Stalker” enemies that look like silly little gargoyles when you view their otherwise invisible forms with Anya’s Magic Vision. Also, the Magic Vision simulates migraine auras very well, since it’s impossible to focus on anything and horrible bright spots get in the way of things. Then there’s the dreadful blurring and static effects that crop up, the sluggish controls, and the fact that the look sensitivity settings will randomly alter themselves for several seconds at a time.

As I relay this laundry list of fetid garbage, do please remember that I’ve played just 102 minutes of the fucking thing. The amount of broken, poorly designed, aesthetically infuriating awfulness packed tightly into the game’s first hour would be unforgivable even if spread evenly across an entire ten-hour videogame. I got a “fatal error” message because I tried to load a save in order to fix a totally different error, and when that happened, it was hard not to consider the possibility that Haunted House is some kind of cruel, elaborate joke – a joke that has the sickening nerve to charge $19.99 for the dubious privilege.

Everybody knows that Atari’s fallen on hard times, but is it really so desperate as to contract the cowboys behind Anna to churn out a wannabe Machine for Pigs as an amateur-hour Unreal 4 mod? Apparently it is, and has no shame in presenting it as an alleged re-imagining of the original Haunted House in order to garner some nostalgic attention. Looking at the sad result of this woeful collaboration, one can only surmise that the budget for the whole thing was $2.50 and a tube of Pringles. If just one sale of Cryptic Graves isn’t enough to make back the money spent on developing it, then Atari paid too much. Modders have made more robust, better looking, infinitely more enjoyable experiences in their spare time for free. That this could masquerade as a professional product serves to shame the game industry greatly.

Atari has another horror reboot in the works, with Alone in the Dark: Illumination slated for an unannounced release date. If this shambles is any indication of the publisher’s current commitment to the integrity of its intellectual property, I’d say the time is ripe to abandon any faith one might have had in future releases. Then again, Illumination is in development by Pure FPS, so it might be good – we have no way of knowing since the only game Pure FPS has ever worked on is… Alone in the Dark: Illumination.

(Update: I’ve just been informed that Pure FPS is not a new developer. It changed its name after the notoriously awful Rekoil, a game so bad I once implored people with a hitherto unseen desperation to not buy it. Promising!)

Haunted House: Cryptic Graves is pathetic. The short amount of time I spent with it was literally too much time, as even if it wasn’t a broken monstrosity of a game, we’d still end up with a trudging, unambitious “me-too” horror game to throw onto the pile of trudging, unambitious “me-too” horror games. That’s not what we have, though. We have something far worse than that – something ugly to the point of actively affecting gameplay, something that requires multiple reloading of saves to fix glitched doors, something that crashes when given a chance and boasts a user interface that actively fights the player. That this saw a release and expects to sell for real human money is lunacy. Then again, that’s this game all over – sheer, unbelievable lunacy.