The Charnel House Trilogy is like an excellent mystery horror TV show that was aired out of order and cancelled halfway through its first season. What is there is pretty damn good, but it leaves you kinda unsatisfied, and you’re not convinced that it even makes sense.

Coming from Owl Cave, the studio that brought us Richard & Alice, and expanding on the free short game Sepulchre, The Charnel House Trilogy is an eerie point ‘n’ click about a train. An evil train. Or something. Anyway, it’s made up of three parts: Inhale, Sepulchre itself, and Exhale. The first and last parts ostensibly serve as prequel and sequel to the second, but are de facto a separate narrative in the same setting.

I should warn that there are going to be mild spoilers in this review, but I will try to keep them vague. Inhale is about a young woman named Alex and her preparations to go on a train journey (plus various mysterious events). Of the three parts Inhale is the weakest. There’s a surfeit of in-jokes about the video game industry and Alex comes across as slightly annoying. A lot of her character and backstory is only revealed in the third part, leaving Inhale seeming a little pointless, at least on the first playthrough.

Sepulchre is then about Harold, a historian/archeologist travelling on the aforementioned train when everything becomes a little strange. Well, more a lot strange. Time seems distorted. Characters change personality suddenly and violently. Harold is increasingly disturbed and terrified. While I must praise Sepulchre for the unnerving atmosphere, I also must say many plot threads are left completely unresolved, meaning that Sepulchre appears more an oddity rather than an integral part of the ‘trilogy’.

CHT_2015_04_15_22_37_43_347

How can a broke person in New York have such a massive apartment?

Third is Exhale, strangely the longest, but also the best part. Alex’s narrative is picked up again as she explores the same train as Harold, but this time most of it coalesces into a gripping and horrifying climax. Unfortunately the very end does not make a lick of sense, just teasing yet another sequel. You may find the hints at a larger mythos evocative, but I was irritated by the lack of resolution. The plot is a hell of a ride, intriguing me every step of the way, but trying to understand the point of everything seems futile.

Much of the PR focusses on the voice cast, which is quite impressive for an indie game. Alex is played by author Madeleine Roux in her first voice acting role. While she has a tendency to be a little flat, particularly at the beginning, she nails the more dramatic scenes, lending Alex a real sense of authenticity.

In fact, most of the cast plays their roles rather subdued and naturally, which works brilliantly. The characters all seem like real, normal people in a deeply unusual situation. The sudden mood shifts and obfuscations are much more effective for coming from seemingly ordinary people.

On the other hand Jim Sterling, while also mostly great, chews the scenery like the offspring of Brian Blessed and Alan Rickman. He delivers his sinister lines with gusto, coming across like he’s doing a serious version of a Dismal Jesters skit directed at Jonathan Holmes. Parts of the performance, particularly the silly accent, are distracting and out of place though.

CHT_2015_04_15_22_40_51_104

When on the train of death, it’s always good to have a drink

Am I being too harsh? Perhaps. I will say that all the voice cast put in more entertaining and charismatic performances than most of the acting in adventure games, particularly the cheesy 1990’s titles that Charnel House evokes. Like I said, it’s like some obscure TV show with a fantastic cast that was still growing into its full potential. Just a shame that we never saw the whole story.

Gameplay wise Charnel House is simple. Puzzles are mildly diverting, but never taxing. The only time I was stuck was because I overthought one part and tried to combine every item in my inventory multiple times over when I just need to talk to an NPC. Progression is linear – as soon as you have done one task you are either directed elsewhere by an NPC, or Alex or Harold give a massive hint as to where they want to go next.

It is refreshing to have an adventure game with logical puzzles and clear ways to advance. It allows us to focus on the characters and plot, with the puzzles serving to keep our interest levels high and our minds engaged. If you are looking for a challenge, though, this is not the game for you.

Also the ticket inspector has a wonderful voice. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

Also the ticket inspector has a wonderful voice. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm…

Charnel House looks like it came to us from the early nineties, all blocky and two-dimensional. However, it’s a superior retro-styler, with minimalist but effective character and art design. I did have some issues. Inhale and Exhale both had a worrying problem where every time I changed screen the game hung for a couple of seconds. It did add to the tension when I was constantly worrying the game was about to crash, but not in a fun way. It never did actually crash, and I expect the issue to be fixed easily, but I feel should let you know.

The Charnel House Trilogy is disjointed and pulpy, but also insidiously scary and fun. It’s a pleasure to play a horror game that values tension-building, subtleness and well-written characters. I fully recommend you play, just try not to build your expectations too much. Perhaps we’ll see the true masterpiece when The Charnel House Quadrilogy emerges.

The Charnel House Trilogy is available here. Owl Cave’s website is here.