Once again, chase a grunting little man around until the evil is gone.
Wow. That’s all that can be said really, of this pitiful entry in the Haunted Legends series. ERS Studios has become the poster child for hit-or-miss game development, and thanks to a nonsensical plot, lazy design, and sloppy execution, Haunted Legends: The Curse of Vox is definitely a miss.
The Haunted Legends series has all along featured a weird, angry little man with a giant bobble head who, while not always the main villain, serves as each plot’s proverbial carrot-on-a-stick. He appears out of nowhere like some tail-coated Rumpelstiltskin, and throughout each game, reappears again and again, just long enough to lead you onward with a grumble and a curse. (I’ve never been a fan of this little man—to me, he’s a gimmick and completely extraneous to the storylines. ERS however, seems extremely attached to him and keeps bringing him back.)
At the start, The Curse of Vox is about murder. A rich man is mysteriously killed in his family’s mansion and his sister calls you in to find out who did it. I say “at the start,” because along the way, the story is derailed by the weird little man so often and so much that by the game’s end, you might not remember what you’re doing or why. The MacGuffin here (the item around which all the game’s activity revolves) is a magic book called the Vox which somehow grants wishes. It doesn’t really matter what the MacGuffin is though; what matters is that it inspires the people who want it to lie, cheat, steal, and kill one another. It also seems to inspire lazy game design.
Handled right, The Curse of Vox could be a compelling and familiar (in a good way) story. As it is, it starts with a lazy premise and goes on to become a thrown-together game that’s unsatisfying in nearly every way. There are a couple of semi-interesting ideas but they never come to fruition: for instance, the game features a Ghost Diary that lets you track poltergeist activity. When you see a poltergeist, you click it and one of the seals on an important document in our journal opens; when all the seals are gone, you’re granted the bonus of a faster Hint button recharge. Roughly a third of the way into the game, this mechanic sort of fades away and in any case, the only bonus it ever grants is faster and faster Hint recharge. This idea could have been really interesting, had it been developed more fully and perhaps granted players more significant and varied bonuses.
The game’s other unrealized idea is the collection of seedlings to use in a customizable garden. Throughout the game, you find different plant seeds and within the Garden section of the journal, you can use the different varietals to create your own botanica. This on its own is a fun idea, but how does it fit into a story about murder, greed, and a magic book of wishes? That’s right, it doesn’t. Tossing this element into the mix seems ill-considered at best, inappropriate at worst.
Aside from leaving ideas unfinished, The Curse of Vox feels lifeless and empty. Although the artwork is nice as always, not much is actually interactive. Scenes are filled with details you’d think you could examine or manipulate, but they’re nothing but set dressing. This makes every location feel dull and implies there’s no reward for being thorough and exploratory. It also removes all sense of the player being a part of the story since the player character never, in any way, reacts to it. Gameplay fares no better than atmosphere and is boring and filled with work-a-day hidden object scenes and item usage contrivances. It’s as if the design team couldn’t be bothered to come up with puzzles that made sense within the space and so relied on totally silly things (ever seen a bread-eating plant anyone?) you’d only see in a game.
As far as the story goes, the plot’s something of a thematic crazy quilt and the locations reflect it. You move from a mansion’s interior and grounds to a village, a medieval castle, an astronomer’s lab, a train, and other tenuously related places, apparently without stopping once to consider whether or not it makes any sense. The dialog is stiff, but the onscreen text is much worse, filled as it is with typos and grammatical errors. The whole thing is quite frankly embarrassing, and the characters in the drama seem to agree, since none of them look you in the eye and instead stare vacantly over your shoulder.
The game’s bonus chapter does nothing to remedy any of these issues and in fact, makes them far worse. Post-wrap-up of the main game, you’re stranded at the mansion so you continue to look around for really no good reason and end up on (and then off) a train in the countryside. There’s really no attempt to explain what you’re doing here, and the progression through the chapter makes zero sense. Mercifully, this chapter is short and comes to a close quickly with an ending that’s terrible, abrupt, and pointless.
The game’s other “bonuses” include a strategy guide, wallpapers, screensavers, concept art, the ability to replay the game’s mini-games, videos and hidden object scenes, and a collection of photos. These last are of the game’s development team. They seem like lovely people, and seeing their faces made me feel a little guilty about leveling so many harsh criticisms at the game. No doubt the team worked very hard on this title, but sadly, their efforts were for naught.
Haunted Legends: The Curse of Vox is without question, the weakest Haunted Legends game ever made. Its premise is weak and its execution is sloppy. Although it has acceptable art, a couple of interesting puzzles and one or two compelling game mechanics, it never gets past what feels like the preliminary stages of development. The lesson here? A successful franchise and a collection of time-honored clichés do not necessarily make for a good hidden object game.