I’d never even heard of Realms of the Haunting back in the era when such games were considered acceptable. Still, its relative obscurity does little to hamper the overwhelming respect this title has in certain circles, and it has certainly earned mine. After all, any game that manages to successfully combine a first-person-shooter with a point-and-click adventure, while adding FMV cutscenes that aren’t a load of wank deserves a round of applause.
Realms of the Haunting, released in 1997 by Gremlin, is technically classified as an adventure game, but it’s heavy on combat and even bleeds over into survival horror territory. As well as dispatching opponents and solving puzzles, there’s a heavy emphasis on atmosphere, as players creep around underground tombs and spooky hallways, ever mindful that grotesque creatures could suddenly spawn and attack from any angle. Realms is a game that breeds paranoia, especially since any enemy that appears before one’s eyes is usually accompanied by another preparing to attack from behind. Monsters can deal pretty significant amounts of damage, while ammunition and healing items are fairly scarce, once again echoing traditional horror elements as much as any other genre.
The dark plot stars Adam Randall, who finds himself trapped in a stereotypical haunted house after receiving a mysterious letter. Standard stuff. Things get weird, however, when he starts sitting on magical thrones and entering portals to other universes. The game is famous for boasting over forty hours of content and a plot with multiple forces, each with their own goals and stories. As noted earlier, cutscenes are delivered with FMVs, which were supremely popular back in the day despite being rubbish. Pleasantly, the scenes in Realms of the Haunting are actually pretty cool. The acting is hammy, but not embarrassing, while the costumes, effects, and environments are all fairly decent looking. It’s like they put some actual effort into them, which is always a nice surprise.
In truth, I’m still playing the game as I write this, but Realms of the Haunting is one of those things you know will be special right from the outset. What truly impresses me is how well the various gameplay elements blend together. There’s a fairly intuitive control method, especially for the day, that uses a traditional point-and-click cursor that also serves as a manually controlled FPS target reticule. Context does the rest, with players shooting or interacting depending on what’s been clicked on. The only thing to watch out for is ensuring one doesn’t waste bullets by shooting at harmless targets like windows. That small issue aside, I’m shocked by how well the game controls, even by modern standards, and while it still features the limited FPS movements of the day, it won’t take too long for most players to get into the mindset.
While the graphics — powered by Gremline’s Normality engine — aren’t exactly spectacular, they are very nicely designed. There are some incredibly inventive creatures, including disturbingly animated robots with female heads, and demons with vaguely Persian design sensibilities. The environments are incredibly varied and colorful, while the music is utterly fantastic. During the game’s more intense moments, Realms’ soundtrack is always there to really hammer it home and get the blood pumping. Overall, it’s amazing how a commitment to authentic atmosphere can really make the player forget about rudimentary graphics technology. More modern games would do well to learn how design trumps any kind of visual splendor you can think of. It’s the difference between a memorable game, and a hopelessly outdated one.
My only really negative issue with the game is its convoluted inventory system. It’s often hard to know exactly what Randall’s carrying at any given moment, and opening memos or observing objects seems to take far too many clicks than was needed. Of course, this was perfectly fine back in the day, when games were allowed to waste more of a player’s time. These days, one expects a little more streamlining, but it’s certainly not a dealbreaker. You just have to get over it, alright?
Realms of the Haunting is a scary game, and at times a very challenging one. While a single opponent can be simply dispatched with hit-and-run tactics, opponents don’t really favor fighting solo. There are many moments where the player will be surrounded on all sides, and simply making a run for it can often prove the best survival tactic. It’s the kind of challenge that feels rewarding, rather than punishing. It’s tough enough to keep you worried for your life, but never feels cheap or unfair. The rules of the game are quite clearly communicated, and it’s your fault if you try and break them.
This unique cocktail of shooting, puzzling, and running like a frightened child is currently available on Good Old Games for the fine price of $5.99, and I highly recommend it. It’s a game I keep coming back to when I have snatches of spare time, and it’s thoroughly engaging stuff. It does so many things right, in ways that have not been attempted since, and it does it all with a sense of confidence and style that puts many modern games to shame. If you want to see some familiar ideas presented in a very unique way, and you’re not shy of a genre-bending experience, then you’ll most likely love it.
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