Realms of the Haunting. Forged in the Gremlin Interactive studio, protected by a clunky interface, at the center of chaos lies a potentially interesting adventure game. The focus for all realms of existence is the balancing force between good and evil, Dosbox and Windows. A focal point for all energies, and the one element that has kept the consuming fury of Damiano at bay… Until now.
In the early 90s, two of the hottest things around were Full Motion Videos and, naturally, First Person Shooters. Along with, clearly, games that came on multiple CDs. So, I hear the Marketing department ask all the way from the back of the room: what if we found a way to combine all of these three things together? Gremlin Interactive sure enough rose up to the task with a very different kind of FPS with adventure game mechanics. Realms of the Haunting is a first person adventure game with major shooting sections, puzzles, mazes and riddles to solve, along with FMV sequences for most of the game plot, with no major actors involved since the budget was kept low.
Welcome to the (four) Realms of the Haunting.
Taking the good with the bad
Released in 1997, developed – among others – by the one and only Anthony Crowther, who in the making of video talks about it like it’s his baby (maybe someday I’ll ask him about it) and designed by Paul Green, Realms of the Haunting makes for a compelling design study. It surely is a tremendously ambitious title for the period, especially because it was not developed with a huge budget, as mentioned. While this was not a cheap game, Gremlin surely did not have huge money to throw at it and it was also developed in a realtively short period of time.
While playing it again all the way through for this article, I found out that some of the design choices made are still quite worthy of respect and are, all considered, still enjoyable. Gremlin managed to showcase a successful mix of different gameplay styles. Unfortunately, the more I ventured through the game, the more I had to do battle with an awkward interface and some of the typical frustrations of its time. Until I come to that one moment where, clearly, the budget ran out.
Let us first look at the story. In the shoes of Adam Randall, we’ll be called to a mansion which is, apparently, linked to our father’s death: pretty soon otherworldly things will start happening and we’ll have to use our the weapons at our disposal to survive. Using items and weapons is done in first person, via a rather poorly designed inventory system. For starters, inventory management is only controlled with the mouse, which might make sense but does lead to some problems.
Items are forcibly divided in four different categories, along with a fifth reserved for dialogue topics. The player can, thus, freely choose which hand is gonna hold the item/weapon selected. Honestly, even with all the hours spent into the game, I could not for the life of me make heads or tails of the “hands” system. Most of the time I would be holding a weapon in my left hand and an item in my right, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to manually select which hand to hold weapons or items with, nor – apparently – change it. It is not even possible to hold a sword in your left hand and a shield in your right, which one would think would be the most natural thing in the world in a first person adventure of this kind.
A small window of opportunity.
Along with the useless “hands” system, there comes another problem, made even worse in the long run: consulting maps in the inventory. Because of some design choice which – again – I cannot explain to save my life – the items are always viewed in a small window in the center of the screen. Which works fine when it is just a nice 3D animation of an item, basically just a showcase, but it is a huge problem when comes the time to read a document or check a map. So, no, the player cannot read maps in full screen, only in the small window.
Obviously, there’s no automap system either, either freeze the game and open the inventory each time to check out the map. It really just works better to keep track manually with pen and paper, which would not be a problem if the game made it clear right away! Even provided one has the patience to use the small window, it does not make for a fun game of “squinting your eyes and scrolling all around” to read a map. But would you want to use a map? Oh yes you would, Realms of the Haunting likes to throw its main character into mazes again and again. This is definitely nothing more than 90s design frustration of the best kind, one that could have been easily remedied..
Another trait of typical 90s game design is the sheer amount of sections which end up being difficult only because of what feel little more than evil design choices. The caves, which happen pretty early on, are an all around miserable time: long dark passages filled with flying enemies, the player armed only with a map that is both hard to take out and to make sense of. Balancing a lamp, the need to read a map in a small window and having to fight against enemies, is probably no one’s idea of a good time.
Today it is a problem that can be easily solved but, back in the day, I remember that this section is what made me decide to give up the game for good. Another frustrating section, right before the end, is another cave section where Adam is tasked with finding sixteen brains to power up a machine. At least, in this case, there is enough ligh to see fine, but still every nook and cranny looks the same and some people even report weird bugs when looking for the last brain part. Finally, no 90s experience would be complete without obligatory random game crashes to go along with that sweet brain hunting experience.
Nowhere at home, always on the run
The plot manages to stay engaging throughout, if a tad too long and complicated for its own good. It brings together demons, pseudo templar Knights, immortal beings, heaven, hell and immoral priests. Perhaps just sticking to that orignal simple premise of finding out what happened to Adam’s father, without venturing into the usual “save the universe” territory, would have been for the better. To Realms of the Haunting’s credit, the story manages to stay pretty much comprehensible throughout. If one missed something, and chances are that you did, there’s a middle point where everything gets neatly recapped and, well, very little happens after that.
The acting is pretty good for what is a bunch of B list actors, perhaps portraying Adam as an ordinary dude that says things like “you’re a nut-bar” wasn’t the best choice for “relevancy”, but he comes off likable anyway. Interestingly, the cutscenes are mostly used for conversations between Adam and the other characters, not for exciting action scenes. This is what I would call an excellent design choice for such low budget moviemaking. It’s also a pretty long story, featuring twenty chapters that, without using a walkthrough, will probably last a good 15-20 hours.
After a handful of chapters, Adam will also be joined by a partner, but all she does is chime in when looking at items and can be engaged in conversation to further discuss some of the plot points. Unfortunately, she doesn’t help for the action sequences nor is she – apparently – present during the FPS exploration sequences. Speaking of those, the shooter sections are alright, even though they rarely manage to be exciting.
Enemies mostly have only melee attacks: they’ll slowly lumber towards Adam while he empties his weapons at them. Magic weapons are the way to go as soon as one manages to find them, since they slowly recharge over time. Ammo for shotgun and pistol is pretty limited, which seems to go hand-in-hand with the fact that damage dealt to the enemies seems to be pretty much the same regardless of the weapon. One good design choice is that, as opposed to a certain survival horror which would make its debut in that very same year, it is possible to save and load at any moment. Naturally, I would recommend to always keep various save states if you are not looking forward to repeating entire levels, since it is possible to end up in dead ends, even though they are nothing major.
The hill where no one dares to go.
Even though it’s been more than twenty years since its release, the graphics still hold up nicely. Realms of the Haunting uses a 2.5d system (“True 3D”) similar to the one found in Lucasarts‘ Dark Forces. As mentioned, each item found can be examined into the inventory with a nice digitized animation that goes along with it.
Since by then Quake was already out, my guess is that the 2d sprites used for enemies and objects didn’t blow anyone’s mind, not to mention the rather repetitive and limited MIDI soundtrack. Unfortunately, there are no Nine Inch Nails to be found here, given the subject matter perhaps King Diamond would have been more appropriate. Still, the art design shines throughout each level with a lot of different atmospheres, from dark and foreboding to cheery bright locales with rivers and waterfalls. Considering Realms of the Haunting presents itself as a horror game, first and foremost, the amount of variety in the levels that Adam will go through will most likely surprise most people.
The levels in the mansion, from a pure gameplay standpoint, are probably among the best, along with the ones strictly dedicated to puzzle solving. Strangely enough, the puzzles are not that difficult, one might not even need a walkthrough to go through them since most are solvable even through trial and error, should it come to that kind of desperation. Paying attention to every item around Adam and each and every clue is essential.
Exploring, provided one is not being constantly under attack, is also quite a pleasure, since Adam will actually examine and comment on several of the objects found throughout the mansion, along with good amounts of lore to be found. Problem is that apparently the designers didn’t want the player to easily find out the lore, since not only some of the ink on the journals is faded (yay for realism…) but, again, having only a small window for reading quite long text is not really what I would call comfortable.
It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
Finishing Realms of the Haunting today is not exactly what I would define as an easy or accessible experience, but then again this is a game from 1996 so no one is expecting that. The game does feature a slew of typical 90s frustrations, not to mention a disappointing ending which definitely feels a bit rushed. But, overall, the game does feel like that at a certain point the budget just ran out and the surprises are basically finished, with FMVs becoming quite simpler and the plot just running out of things to say.
While there are two different endings to Adam’s journey, only one is supposed to be the actual “true” ending and, even that one feels a bit like a cop-out. No spoilers here, but let’s just say it is not very far from the “it was all a dream” idea. Still, Realms of the Haunting has to be commended for its ambition, as being one of the first atypical FPS with a cinematic plot. Its point and click adventure elements were decently integrated with the shooting secions and, while it’s easy to get lost if one is not paying attention, most puzzles are still overall manageable and not too hard to figure out. A title that has been mostly forgotten by time, still quite playable today and one that will widely reward players’ time with a nicely developed story and interesting movie sequences.
Realms of the Haunting can be found on GoG and it behaves pretty well with DosBox. There’s a patch floating around if you want to control the game via a WASD+mouse instead of the default (and clunky) arrow keys.
A title that plays in a similar way, even if it’s almost a pure FPS with some RPG elements and little to no riddles, is Clive Barker’s Undying, also on GoG. Since it’s from 2001, age was kinder to the horror FPS, most of the design choices still pretty modern and it remains playable until the end with no big hiccups. The plot is also very engaging and never overstays its welcome. Definitely recommended.