Now and then, you’ll come across games that balance chuckles with creeps, ghastly humor with gooseflesh-inducing chills, in such a perfect way that they leave you wanting more even as you cower behind your chair, terrified the game is going to jump out of the screen and get you. Then there’s Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds, a self-professed pulp horror point-and-click featuring a dead protagonist. This PC title released by Evolving Poet Media back in June boasts over four hours of gripping gameplay, complete with a creepy plot and a uniquely funny twist.
The reality, unfortunately, is a little less illustrious. Clocking in at about an hour (two, tops) of actual playtime, Jack Haunt is one of the most straightforward point-and-clicks you’re likely ever to come across. The aim seems to have been to simplify the classic mechanics of the genre by scaling down the complexity of in-game interactions and the interface – a worthy goal, considering how carried away some developers get – but the end result landed the game in the unlucky position of having almost no challenge to it at all. This wouldn’t be a problem for a visual novel or even a pure exploration game, but when mysteries are involved, puzzle-solving and clue-hunting is not just expected – it’s something to look forward to. Removing such a core element of a detective story is like taking the magic out of a fairytale; it’s just not as much fun without it.
The story itself seems to be missing a few things, too, although the overall concept is fantastic. A ghostly protagonist searching for his body before time runs out, an unsolved case just waiting to be cracked wide open, an enigmatic cast of unearthly roommates, and a house full of corpses – what’s not to like? Good ideas are scattered throughout the game like Easter eggs waiting to be discovered. The plot, however, is poorly paced and plagued with sparse character development, flat dialogue, and holes the size of open graves. The story lacks the suspense so essential to a good mystery, and though a few nice touches (like the changing pictures in the hall and a semi-freaky basement sequence) keep the game from getting flat-out boring, they aren’t quite enough to balance out the more obvious narrative issues.
Another good idea the developers had was to try to put a new spin on the horror/mystery genre. The idea was to mix the typical eerie atmosphere of a serious scare-fest with an unexpected comedic touch by tossing in a little 1950’s style noir and lighthearted, cartoonish graphics. The final product, however, with average graphics and a less than spine-tingling soundtrack, lacks polish (not to mention scares) and feels more like a rough draft – albeit one with promise – than a complete work.
The good news is that Jack Haunt doesn’t come without a few tricks up its sleeve. A couple of side-quests keep the game from being completely linear, and although they follow the rest of the game in being far too easy (and obvious) to complete, they aren’t without a certain amount of charm. Like funny little snapshots of everyday afterlife, completing odd jobs like collecting stolen, half-digested diary pages and resurrecting man’s best friend give a few, tiny glimpses into Jack’s world. There is also a special bonus segment towards the end of the game that is unlocked if you complete one of the previously mentioned side-quests, which serves as an in-game behind-the-scenes tour of the environment. It’s an interesting section to play through, as it points out details the player may have missed and discusses several decisions made during the game’s creation, offering a decent amount of insight into the developing process.
In the end, Jack Haunt is an imperfect experience bogged down by bugs and more than a few flaws, but it does work as an intriguing preview of what kind of creative shenanigans Evolving Poet Media might be capable of in the future. The game can, and perhaps should, be viewed as a stepping-stone, a fun experiment from which the company can learn and grow and which gamers, as an audience, should take as a hint to keep an eye out for their next endeavor.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in taking a look at Jack Haunt: Old Haunting Grounds, you can visit the official site to either download the free alpha demo or to purchase the full game, which is currently priced at $5.
[review pros=”Unique concepts, interesting bonus content, a few amusing side-quests, some nice environmental details” cons=”Low-quality graphics, underdeveloped plot and characters, dialogue is flat, difficulty is too easy, lacks suspense and scares, anticlimactic ending” score=63]