I was unaware that Neil Gaiman was involved in the development of a video game until a review code for Wayward Manor appeared in my inbox recently. I was kind of excited about it.
I read the Sandman back in the day, and I admire his novels, especially American Gods.
In a nutshell, I’m a fan.
So, it was with some anticipation of pleasure that I downloaded Wayward Manor and booted it up.
What I was initially greeted with seemed to meet my expectations. The premise of Wayward Manor is not a totally unfamiliar one. A seemingly conscious edifice, the manor house of the game’s title, is extremely unhappy with its tenants, a rather detestable family of gluttons, drunkards, and otherwise self involved human beings, and it has enlisted your aid in creating minor supernatural events in order to scare that family from its walls. 1988’s Beetlejuice comes immediately to mind, of course, and the plot even includes a pure hearted little girl among the otherwise less than charming family members that occupy Wayward Manor who the house tends to have an affinity towards (much as the ghosts of Burton’s film do to the character played by Winona Rider).
While similar in premise to that film, still though, the idea of haunting a house as a premise for a video game seems like a good one and not one that I can say that I have encountered before. The narration, which obviously bears the signature of Gaiman’s style, sets up that premise while also setting a tone that is both whimsical and macabre. Again, classic Gaiman.
Additionally, the cartoonish aesthetic of the game’s environments and character models are also exceptionally charming, and like the narration, create an atmosphere that seems well suited to the concept and to Gaimin’s own style. The music, especially, is perfectly suited to a tale of a haunted house and the skewering of a grotesquely prideful wealthy family.
Wayward Manor is a casual affair, a light puzzle game with a whole lot of atmosphere intended to motivate the player to proceed in order to see what happens next and to take pleasure in its silly characters and the fun of its silly scares. All of which works initially. I was drawn in by the simplicity of the interface, single clicks on objects are all that is needed to evoke minor poltergeists that knock bottles off shelves, blow windows open, or set the needle on a gramophone that no mortal has turned on.
Basically, each level requires the player to scare a member or several members of the Budd family six times in order to complete that level. Doing so means creating a few simple scares by rattling the furniture at the right times or, perhaps, linking together several ectoplasmic events that do likewise. As I said, this is a very light puzzle game, and these are essentially timing-based puzzles that require you to lure a family member towards a certain part of a room where you can shock them when they near an object that you can effect.
It is initially kind of fun to see what each room offers in terms of scare tactics and the like. However, as the game moves on the simplicity and casualness of the gameplay gives way to repetition and tedium. The game just isn’t especially challenging, and errors are merely the result of not quite beaning someone in the head with a falling geegaw at just the right time.
The narration and atmosphere at that point are all that really continue to motivate play. Unfortunately, while all of that business is charming, I waited and waited for the story to go somewhere, and it just never really does. There is a plot twist of sorts near the close of the game that you probably won’t see coming, but it isn’t anything that will blow your mind either.
By the time one reaches the final chapter of the game, the game has worn out its welcome. The final levels are exceptionally annoying, as the game shifts the perspective of the player away from an overhead view of a single room to larger rooms that one needs to essentially chase the house’s inhabitants through. These levels are often confusing in terms of what is required to move forward and also simply aren’t that much fun at all.
Finally, the controls themselves (at least in the PC version), simple as they might be, are frequently imprecise, especially if objects that the player can interact with are close together. Basically, when trying to click on one thing, you’ll often end up clicking on something else, leading to needlessly annoying moments in which you have to once again wait for the right time to initiate a poltergeist simply because you misjudged where you needed to click in the first place and ended up doing something else.
I wish that Gaiman’s debut in this medium were a better one. All of the mood, tone, and atmosphere that is established here deserve a better game to serve as the basis for the trouble that has gone into crafting them. As it is, Wayward Manor is indeed quite a wayward and often tedious experience.