Last week I mentioned that I found 2 games on Steam to help me sate my hunger for Eldritch horror. While Old Gods Rising ended up being a bit more walking sim, Westmark Manor offers a far better Lovecraftian puzzler. The atmosphere is thick with a sense of dread and the manor itself is full of relics, totems and strange documents that it had that sense of living a Lovecraft story. So much was to be found in all of its 113 rooms. But is it a good game? I’m not sure. I’ll need a replay to figure it out!
I can’t deny that I did enjoy it. Like nearly every other Lovecraft game, it doesn’t get it quite right but it does maintain that sense of horror that pervades every moment so it definitely demonstrates a profound understanding of the source material. I wasn’t bothered by the top-down view either, even though I would have far preferred being able to see things in 1st person mode. And I actually liked the opening questions that I think configure your difficulty level. (This probably will help a replay in the future!) Where the game goes wrong and had me desperate to wrap it up was in inventory management. If there is a dark god in this universe, it’s the god of inventory management! You never really know what you should carry and the slots fill up faster than a madhouse in Arkham so it’s always a juggling game of “should I go put this in my stash?” The stash is lorded over by a big headed leprechaun who you can either talk to (where he says a number of useless things) or open the storage to keep things so you don’t have to put things in your all-too-limited pockets. (I’d be willing to accept that you can’t carry everything you see in life either, but we go well past that the moment we start carrying an alchemist’s case and an ax. If we’re expected to believe they fit in our pockets to begin with, I’m asking where these pockets come from…) Speaking of crazy things, you find “trinkets” in the game, and one of the recipes calls for 4 trinkets to gain 1 sanity point. Cool. Except, even though I pulled it off, I have no idea why. And the items I put together made no sense either: here take this ring, statue, mandrake root and this book. Put them together and … WOW! Increased sanity. (This makes sense, how?)
On it’s own, the inventory management wouldn’t be a big deal but for the other real letdown: light. This vast mansion is cast in shadows in a way the even a Vorlon would be worried about. So you get matches, but as everyone knows, you never get a book or even a box of matches; you get individual ones, so you get lucky if you find them, but that means you have a very finite amount of light. Did I mention there are 113 rooms? Most are not well lit so you hope to find either matches or lighter fluid for your lantern – that lasts longer, but is just as hard to find. Now darkness on it’s own doesn’t scare me, but it has a deleterious effect on the character and your sanity starts taking a plummet if you spend time in the dark. All of this is made still worse but the fact that cabinets you’ve explored refill themselves with random things so taking time to have the light and open another set of draws does pay off. But the game would have been far superior if once you explored a room, the lights would stay on. This would also help piece together the map; used like a “fog of war”, this could have changed the very nature of the game. (I’ve said before, I like a challenge; I don’t like feeling cheated!)
Doesn’t that defeat the challenge, then? Not a bit, because there are puzzles everywhere. I completed the game, but didn’t complete all the puzzles. There are some things I never got to unlock. I cracked two locks by listening for the noises like a master safe cracker and am ready to costar in Oceans 27 but that wasn’t how I was supposed to do it. After I completed them, I went online to find out the true way which involved locating the right manuscripts. I never found either (there are two). And I’ve said nothing of the curses: hands come up out of the floor from time to time and curse you. They only last for about 5 minutes but don’t think that’s a short amount of time when your lights are dwindling. One curse inverted my keyboard while another made it so that I could not use my map. Still another made my notebook become gibberish.
The crazy bit is that I felt extremely rewarded when I did crack a puzzle. The graphics are enjoyable and the tension is palpable. There are some really great moments where the ghostly image of your wife hovers behind you, just over your shoulder, though I am not confident I ever solved even her riddle. I found a giant cthulhu-like creature in a well which I never got past nor did I discover what his puzzle was all about. There was a hand with its fingers lit like candles that also needed a manuscript to solve; well, that and a few matches, so I never saw the end of that one. And there are desiccated devotees all around the manor which don’t seem to cause your character any discomfort. There’s also a giant head that is willing to trade with you: sanity points for a variety of tools – no matches though. It is definitely surreal!
As you play the game, you earn “sigils” that will accumulate so that when you have 14, you can leave the house. I made a beeline for the door only to learn my fate was as existentially dreadful as any Lovecraft would ever have committed to paper. But I was left with the feeling that I should replay it. I used to play all my games more than once, but these days, I typically go for one play-through. This one I may actually replay now that I understand more about it. It ends with a letter grade and a title, so I was a Devotee, which just made me curious what other grades there are. (I didn’t like that it made me a husk of a man living in the manor, but I’ll live with this for now!)
At $15, it’s not like you won’t get your money’s worth. I put in 8 hours and may replay it in the near future, but even if I didn’t, $2/hour is a rate I can accept. Ironically a far better dollar/hour value than Old Gods Rising. But I can’t help feel like I’ve been cheated of actually understanding the puzzles. If the game were balanced, there would be an equal number of puzzles to sigils so once you completed all of the puzzles, you could make it out. Maybe, had I waited and worked on more of the puzzles, my ending would have been better; a more pleasant denouement to the story.
By the time I was done, I felt like one of Lovecrafts cracked, gibbering protagonists. And for a game that plays to that existential dread, maybe that’s what I was supposed to feel, but I really thing the game would have been more enjoyable if it gave you some way to end things positively. Don’t forget to check out the trailer, here: