If you’re not familiar with Neil Gaiman, shame on you. He’s this generation’s H.P. Lovecraft and Roald Dahl rolled into one. His novels, comics and more have been satisfying fans of varying ages for years. Whether he’s terrifying adults with The Sandman, tantalizing toddlers with Fortunately the Milk, or providing great family entertainment by penning the best Doctor Who episode of the last 10 years, Gaiman’s name has become synonymous with both the spooky and the silly.
Sounds like an award-winning combination for a video game, doesn’t it?
Working alongside developers The Odd Gentleman, Wayward Manor is Gaiman’s first foray into gaming. It manages to capture a Gaiman-worthy mix of silly and spooky, but doesn’t quite deliver in terms of gameplay.
Playing as a ghost that’s recently been freed from imprisonment (sounds like the start of Sandman, doesn’t it Neil?), you’ll help a creeky old house get rid of a family of unwanted guests. You’ll do this by haunting different objects in each room to give the Budd family the fright of their lives.
And did we mention that the house, which serves as your trusty narrator, is voiced by @NeilHimself? If you’re looking for that authentic Gaiman feel, there’s really no substitute for the real thing.
As a premise, Wayward Manor sounds great. It’s in how the gameplay is executed that things start to come apart. Rather than offering up a true puzzle experience, scares are usually had just by clicking on highlighted objects at the right time. There’s a small amount of discovery in nailing down just what to click and when, but it’s really minor when compared to the “just click stuff until they’re scared” approach that you’ll end up leaning on.
You’ll meet different family members as you progress through the game’s five chapters, but each member is scared by the same two or three things, so you really just have to remember what to click for who — and the rooms you’re in leave little to chance. The mother is terribly vain and into fashion? You’ll need to wreck her dresses… again and again.
If elaborate puzzles were built around this concept, it wouldn’t be too bad. But most solutions are as simple as “push the vomiting doll by the dressing gown, then click on the gown so she’ll try it on.”
It’s just too easy, and as a result, rather dull.
It’s a shame too, because the atmosphere of the game is so spot on. It’s a silly, kid-friendly kind of humor, but with an appropriately spooky theme. The story, while light, offers plenty of insight into the self-indulgent and obnoxious lifestyles of its characters. And the text accompanying it is clearly the result of Gaiman’s own pen.
When a house utters “somewhere around five million footfalls I lost both count and hope,” you can’t help but be tickled pink. Neil Gaiman is pleasure to read, even in brief video game form.
Unfortunately, all the style in the world can’t change the fact that the gameplay just doesn’t deliver like it should. There are a few times when it does — in particular, the last stage of Chapter 3 and the very last stage in the game — but these do little more than give you a glimpse of what Wayward Manor could have been.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a game that sounds very similar on paper — both games are about haunting objects in a room — but while Ghost Trick offered up a point-and-click adventure level of challenge, Wayward Manor just lets you experiment with items and fall into solutions. It just falls flat.
If you look at it as an interactive piece of kid-friendly fiction, Wayward Manor should is probably worth checking out for members of the Neil Gaiman Fan Club. Maybe it would be fun for kids, too. But as a digital game primarily marketed through Steam, it seems like their intended audience skews a bit older.
Wayward Manor is ultimately a mediocre game, but an interesting first outing for Gaiman.