The Charnel House Trilogy

Game Review by Andrew Gordon | 25 May 2015
  • The Charnel House Trilogy
Game title: The Charnel House Trilogy
Publisher: Developer: Owl Cave, Publisher: Mastertronic
Release date: 16 April 2015
Price: £4.79

The Charnel House Trilogy is primarily about two characters coming to terms with their past, and this aspect of its story is dealt with conclusively and relatively satisfyingly in the form of slow paced, atmospheric horror vignettes. Harold’s tale sees him gradually uncover the nature of his disturbing fate whereas Alex gets a chance to revisit her past and act differently, growing as a person in the process. Frustratingly, however, the game frames these stories in convoluted mysteries it has no intention of resolving within its short running time, resulting in a “trilogy” that, especially in light of its cliffhanger ending, feels more like one long, confusing prelude than it does a coherent story with a distinct direction and structure.

To its credit, The Charnel House Trilogy goes about telling its story in a clever way. Point-and-click games tend to place more emphasis on narrative than most genres due to the relative simplicity of their interactive elements but Charnel takes this a step further, optimising the format’s capacity for storytelling by reconfiguring some of its staple features. Objects in point-and-click games traditionally serve as video game equivalent of Chekov’s gun: if you can click on something, you can guarantee you’ll need to use it at some point, and choosing to “inspect” it will most likely reveal something about its utility.

In The Charnel House Trilogy however, few objects actually serve a practical purpose and instead exist simply to tell you something about the world and its characters. As such, the game actually mandates engagement with the expressive details of its narrative, incorporating description and characterisation into its very mechanics. In practice this means that the player ends up knowing a whole lot about Alex by the time they leave her apartment - like the sort of fashion she was into in high school, for instance - simply by virtue of clicking on all her stuff. Even if some of the writing comes off as a bit forced (a fourth-wall breaking quip about the costliness of PC gaming falls flat) her sarcastic but cheerful descriptions of her environment make it easy to grow a liking for her, especially given the solid performance from her voice actor, Madeleine Roux.

There are a few useable items though, some of which are even used in puzzles, but their true function is as poetic symbols. The most effective example is a toy dog lifted from Alex’s desk. Tellingly featured in the title screen, the dog quietly reappears in different forms and circumstances across all three chapters without any further elaboration, leaving it to the player to consider its possible thematic implications. A book, “A Burial at Charnel House” by Louis Cassel, is another recurring item, but like so many other details in the game’s narrative, it ultimately amounts to an empty clue. “Augur Peak”, some old victorian photographs, the number 1318, and the aforementioned Cassel; all of the above are plot details that are treated with great importance but amount to little more than red herrings, presumably tied to prospective events in a follow-up project. Whether or not a sequel imbues these plot hooks with retroactive significance is irrelevant, as their resounding effect in their present context is to undermine what is otherwise a subtly crafted sense of mystery and good character building.

Another stumbling block is the occasional snippet of clumsy writing. Lydia, the typical innocent young girl character, gets dialogue that’s cliched and unconvincing (“boys are gross!”) while Harold is referred to on more than one occasion as a “museum doctor”, presumably the professional you call when a visitor passes out in the gift shop or the dinosaur bones are feeling a bit peaky. The voice casting is also an issue, featuring a disproportionate number of thick British accents for a game that’s supposed to be set somewhere in the vicinity of New York City. And while none of it could be described as grating, some of performances are bluntly amateurish, though Alex, Harold and Floyd’s voice actors all shine in their roles.

Fortunately though, The Charnel House Trilogy’s biggest issues are confined to its presentation. Beneath the surface, a streamlined and engrossing point-and-click game survives intact, one that’s likely to whet the appetites of those who like their horror of the psychological and understated bent. Alex is a solid character and the comprehensive world building is welcome in theory, so it’s a shame that Owl Cave couldn’t offer something more substantial than what feels like a taste of what’s still to come.