Forged in Gremlin Interactive studio and protected by a clunky interface, there lies an interesting adventure game. The center for all realms of existence, it 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 Damien at bay… Until now.
Full Motion Videos are still the hottest thing around and Quake has just been released. Is there a way to combine the two, Gremlin Interactive asked itself and develop a very different kind of FPS? Yes siree, 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.
Take the good along with the bad
Programmed 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, ROTH is a compelling design study and a tremendously ambitious title for its period. While playing it again throughly for this article, I found out that some of the choices made were excellent and still enjoyable, along with a successful mix of different gameplay styles.
Unfortunately, the more I played, the more I had to do battle with an awkward interface and some typical frustrations of its time.
Using items and weapons in first person is done via a rather poor inventory system controlled exclusively with the mouse. Items are forcibly divided in four different categories, along with a fifth reserved for dialogue; the player can freely choose which hand is gonna hold the item/weapon selected.
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 you’ll be holding a weapon in your left hand and an item in your right, there’s no advantage to manually selecting the hand nor there’a anyway to change this. You can’t even hold a sword in your left and a shield in your right.
A small window of opportunity. Very small.
Along with the useless “hands” system, comes the main problem: consulting maps in the inventory.
Because of some design choice which I can’t explain for the life of me, the items are always viewed in a small window in the center of the screen. There’s no way to read a document nor to see a map in full screen.
Obviously, there’s no automap system either, so you’ll have to freeze the game and open the inventory each time you want to find out where you are. Now, combine that “squint your eyes and scroll all around”, which could be a nice nostalgic dance of the summer, with a game that really likes to throw its main character into mazes and there you have it: cheap 90s design frustration of the best kind.
Another trait of typical 90s game design is the sheer amount of sections difficult only because of questionable 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 read and to take out. Nowadays it’s nothing that can’t be easily solved by watching a video on Youtube, back in the day this made me decide to give up.
Another frustrating level part, towards the end, is the “find 16 brains to power up the machine”: at least here you can see fine, still every nook looks the same and some people even report weird bugs when looking for the last brain part.
Also, no 90s experience would be complete without obligatory random game crashes to go along with your 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.
Sticking to its simple premise of finding what happened to Adam Randall’s father, without venturing into “save the world” territory, probably would have been for the better. The story remains pretty much comprehensible throughout; if you missed something, and chances are that you did, there’s a middle point where everything gets recapped and basically very little happens after that. The acting is pretty good for a bunch of B list actors, maybe portraying Adam as a kind of ordinary dude that says things like “you’re a nut-bar” wasn’t the best choice, but he comes off likable anyway.
The movie sequences are used to engage the player with the characters, not to showcase exciting action scenes; an excellent design choice for such low budget moviemaking. It’s also a pretty long story, 20 chapters mean that without a walkthrough, the game will last you a good 20-25 hours.
Adam wiill also get a partner after a handful of chapters, but all she does is chime in to your item descriptions and discuss some of the plot. Unfortunately she doesn’t help for the action sequences.
Speaking of those, the shooter sections are alright, even though they rarely manage to be exciting. Enemies mostly have only melee attacks, which means they’ll slowly lumber towards you while you empty your arsenal.
Magic weapons are the way to go as soon as you managed to find them, since they recharge over time. Ammo for shotgun and pistol is pretty limited; also, damage to the enemies is pretty much standard regardless of the weapon anyway. Good thing is that, even if you are dying over and over again, you can save and load whenever you want, of course I always recommend to keep various save states if you don’t want to repeat entire levels.
The hill where no one dares to go…
Even though it’s been 23 years, I think the graphics still hold up nicely: the game uses a 2.5d system (“True 3D”) similar to the one found in Lucasarts‘ very own Dark Forces.
Every item can be examined into the inventory, a nice digitized animation goes along with it. Since by that time Quake was already out, I guess the 2d sprites used for enemies and objects didn’t blow anyone’s mind, not to mention the rather repetitive and limited MIDI soundtrack. No Nine Inch Nails here unfortunately, maybe King Diamond would have been more appropriate.
Still, the art design shines with a lot of different atmospheres, from dark and foreboding to cheery bright locales with rivers and waterfalls.
The levels in the mansion, from a pure gameplay standpoint, are probably among the best, along with the ones dedicated to puzzle solving. Strangely enough the puzzles are not that hard, you might not even need a walkthrough, most are solvable even through trial and error, should you be desperate enough. Paying attention to every item around you and every clue is essential. Exploring when you’re not being attacked is usually a pleasure, since Adam will speak descriptions of most the objects he sees and there’s 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 such a small window for reading is as comfortable as a porcupine stuck in your underwear.
It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.
Finishing the game in 2019 is a bit like walking into Harlem wearing a “I hate ni**ers” t-shirt, unearthing a slew of typical 90s frustrations, not to mention a disappointing ending which feels a bit rushed.
Still, Realms of the Haunting was pivotal in 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 were manageable and not too hard to figure out. A title forgotten by time which is still playable today and rewards players’ time with a nicely developed story and interesting movie sequences.
The game 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.