It’s 1997 and Interplay was a year away from entering the stock market with its own IPO, albeit to help drum up funding in order to shore up future projects and deal with its growing debt load. Yet it was clear that their published library was also suffering from a glut of questionable quality and that they were doing what they could to stanch the bleeding.
That year, Interplay’s published lineup included a gamut of repackaged hits such as Descent I and II to the critically panned such as Intelligent Games’ Waterworld and Cryo’s Atlantis port for the Sega Saturn.
But beneath the avalanche of disappointments lay buried a few gems that no one may have ever heard of. One of them was Gremlin Interactive’s Realms of the Haunting, an incredible first-person haunted house where FMV colluded with Doom-like controls within an epic tale standing at the very edge of the apocalypse-to-be. Even though it had combat, it played more like a free-roaming adventure game much like how Access Software’s Under a Killing Moon was to the genre in 1994.
Realms of the Haunting arrived on shelves in a big, lavishly decorated box packed with an itty-bitty manual that laid out the basics of control and set up the initial premise. Though the documentation was scarce, the game was packed with juicy lore found in descriptive, spoken, paragraphs covering everything from your inventory items to books and scrolls weaving together the terror beyond. It even came with CG rendered minutiae ranging from items for puzzles to clippings on crop circles to add to the atmosphere. The game also tracks all of the info learned about items allowing you to click on them and ask questions to NPCs that might be with you for further insights thanks to a list of topics relevant to each.
Players took on the role of a Adam Randall whose father has passed away. Returning to Cornwall and the village of Heston, he has also received a strange delivery in which lie clues to an even greater mystery that his father had left behind within his mansion. What he doesn’t realize yet, and which he and the player will discover, is that his mansion is actually a nexus point for words beyond and the final battleground between good and evil. Somehow, I think Adam would have preferred something else an an inheritance instead of the strange visions and even stranger house that he’s compelled to explore.
The story is great stuff with a cast of characters whose allegiances you’re not so sure about until nearly at the very end. There’s Rebecca Travisard, something of a psychic who apparently worked with Adam’s partner and becomes the player’s off and on buddy throughout the adventure. And then there’s Florentine, a dapper older gentleman whose Guy Fawkes looks hide the evil beneath his skin. He’s also not above taunting the character, appearing when you least expect it, but he’s not the only wickedness playing with your perceptions in this game.
One thing that the game does is try to blend ideas on the end of the world from a number of different sources making it a cosmopolitan blend of the end time, doing something like a “Deus Ex” mix of lore and superstition, boiling it all down into its own fiction revolving around a cosmic stopgap protected by mysterious Watchers maintaining the precarious balance between good and evil. This isn’t an exclusively Christian vision of the apocalypse — thought it borrows heavily from the Christian side. However, here, God and Satan are really reflections of the ultimate powers on both sides of this balance.
Demons like Belial also show up as “human” as your neighborhood milkman before transforming into terrifying horrors. There are also angels, though they’re not strictly the Biblical kind like everything else in the game paying lip service to religious concepts. The whole premise attempts to play on the idea that everything is a reflection of this greater struggle and that these familiar names and concepts are grasping at that, intangible super-conflict that the players within this story are privy to. It’s a controversial, and refreshingly innovative, way to blend familiar ideas into a great story, and Realms stands out as a fantastic example of that artistic approach.
Gameplay-wise, you had a huge inventory of apparently infinite pocket space and there were plenty of weapons with a scarce amount of ammo. Once I had the magically recharging weapons, I almost never used the other guns in my inventory because of that limitation, so it does play a little survival horror with only so many healing flasks and bullets around. You also have melee options such as a rusty sword.
Of course, having all of these seems like a little overkill considering how dumb the actual AI is. It can get stuck behind doors, wander aimlessly in circles, or shamble slowly at you allowing Adam’s even faster reflexes to dispatch them almost at will. Of course, until you find a handy melee weapon or enough ammo to make a fighting stand, doing all of that can seem like the scariest thing imaginable in this game.
Realms also brings on the atmosphere — at least in the beginning. The haunted mansion, the flickering lights, strange paintings, doors sealed with pentagrams…it all works to create this atmosphere that Adam is suddenly thrown feet first into. As he peels back every layer of the terror here, he does so alongside the player, starting as blank slates ready to confront just whatever is ahead.
By the mid-point in the game, Adam’s dispatching monsters left and right with nary a second look, and the game cleverly recognizes that it’s not so much about horror scares anymore but about solving its puzzles and saving the world from the end. It still has a number of surprises that ramp up the stakes of what awaits at the end, especially thanks to FMV that does a remarkable job in portraying each character (such as Florentine’s drippingly evil wickedness).
Interface-wise, this was a strange game when it came to controls. When I gushed about this game earlier, I mentioned how I had to hold down both the left and right mouse buttons to free look around. Aiming was handled by a combination of pointing the camera in the direction of your enemy and then moving the mouse to aim around, so you’d see Adam’s weapon-toting appendage move left and right along the bottom of the area as you moved the mouse about the screen to shot at the monsters.
It felt like I was driving a tank, aiming the turret by holding down both mouse buttons to point the camera, and then moving the mouse around for finer aim. After an hour or so, I just got used to keeping both mouse buttons held down while I walked on through the mansion and into the dungeons.
Realms’ adventure elements come on through with its context-sensitive pointer which indicates what actions can be performed on certain objects. Clicking on most brings up Adam’s pithy description of what he thinks it is or how he feels about the glowy thing in his face. Other times, he just snags whatever he can stuff into his pockets whether it’s torn up paper or a mystical doodad.
Though combat wasn’t that tough, and you could save anywhere, the game did have other things that could be aggravating such as how obscure some of the puzzles can be. In my previous writeup, I mentioned that one of the most annoying parts in the game was running all over a maze-like area to collect brains to feed into a machine. And these brains are pretty well hidden. Without an automap and given how twisty those corridors were, it was a huge letdown to see the pacing of the game reduced to a time sink like that. Other puzzles, such as jumping on moving platforms, could be just as annoying, but after making it past those, the game would always open up again for a few more hours — at least before the next maze area.
Before it appeared on Good Old Games, getting it run on more modern systems like XP took a little creative finagling with compatibility modes and in extracting the right contents of the four CD package to the hard drive so that it could play seamlessly. Thanks to efforts like DOSBox, however, and to a hardcore Realms site like this one that covers all things Realms related, I was still able to re-experience this classic on my PC. Though the graphics are pretty awful and the controls take some time to get used to, I still enjoyed every minute of playing back through the kind of horror classic that few others have dared to tackle in similar fashion.
Realms of the Haunting is truly one of those under appreciated games from yesteryear, a game that didn’t get as much press as it could have and which I remember as being the “odd game out” on shelves that no one knew what to make of. By that time, first-person shooters had come into their own with mega-hits that defined the genre, and a game like Realms wasn’t the kind of high-octane blast ’em up that some might have expected it to be.
That’s too bad. Because punching through those expectations, Realms brought a fascinating and innovative take on horror and first-person adventure games that few can claim to have done even in today’s saturated market such as Frictional Games’ wonderful bout with Amnesia. Gruesome, completely bonkers, epic, and drenched with creepy, atmospheric puzzles and characters, Realms of the Haunting is one inheritance from the past worth taking up.