Haunted opens with a young woman fleeing down a dark street. It's a foggy caricature of Victorian London, lined with slick cobblestones and sagging architecture. The luminous, cartoon visuals combine lashings of Tim Burton with the wide-eyed stylings of a Telltale adventure. It's both grim and playful, the perfect vibe for an adventure game set to take a lighthearted look at death and the afterlife.
You play as the young woman. Her name is Mary. In the long term you're tasked with unravelling the mystery of her sister's mysterious death, but in the beginning there are more pressing concerns. Mary's search has attracted the unwanted attentions of mad scientist Lindsey Ashford and her axe-wielding grunt, Ethan. You wake up on a table in the heart of their crazed laboratory. An axe is hammering at the door. Top priority: escape.
Haunted's characters and environments are all rendered in 3D, a bold decision in a genre that still regularly favours intricately drawn 2D backgrounds to textures and polygons. Sitting in front of the game at the developer's HQ, it's easy to see why Deck 13 made the decision to embrace the third dimension. Managing director, Florian Stadlbauer is controlling the action. As Mary walks down some steps into the middle of the lab, the camera whooshes in to bring us closer to the room.
Florian puzzles his way upwards, bringing down a ladder to reach a circular walkway high above the lab. As the automated camera jets off again, we're shown the long drop from the chandelier's perspective. I can see the room Mary started in far below. Florian explains the advantages of using a full 3D engine, how it allows for less static environments that let the player to get closer to the characters. He's right. Haunted's characters aren't the most detailed, but they're characterful and expressive.
So far, the puzzles have been standard adventure game fare. Find all the objects in an area - combine them with interactive hotspots - progress, but Florian is speeding through. He's keen to introduce me to a very important character. He's short, blue, and he's wearing a tricorner hat. "This is Oscar," says Florian, "a wannabe pirate. A failed pirate. Because he's dead."
Oscar is the first of a team of helpful ghosts that'll team up with Mary throughout the adventure. Others include the spirit William Wallace, the spectre of a long dead pope and a mermaid. The banter between the growing cast of spiritual helpers will form the bulk of Haunted's conversations, and provide a comedy counterpoint to the darker story of Mary's sister. "You really have one main character, and then the five ghosts," says Florian.
"Plus the werewolf!" adds creative director Jan Klose.
"Oh yes, and the werewolf."
Each companion has a different special ability, even the werewolf (his keen sense of smell can prove useful). Instead of having to reach into your inventory for a solution, you'll be able to enlist the help of one of your ghostly companions instead. William Wallace, for example, can only interact with objects connected to death. In one scene, Florian uses him to free the trapped mermaid from the ribcage of a dead fish, his connection to the underworld letting him pry open the bones with ease. Eventually, the ghosts will be able to combine abilities to bypass Haunted's toughest puzzles.
Once recruited, each ghost can be summoned from a small pop up menu, they'll jump into the world, comment on your situation and lend a hand when you ask them to use their special ability. Deck 13 say that the ghostly dream team was based in part by party driven RPGs, but they've also drawn inspiration from some more unusual places, including the character and ability switching common in the Traveller's Tales Lego games.
But the ghost's aren't just extra tools in your puzzle-solving toolbox. The developers have limited the number of characters in Haunted to allow for more dialogue with the ghosts. Their relationships with Mary and each other will change over the course of the adventure, and each has his own side mission. Completing these will reveal more about each ghost's past (and how they died). This will also unlock extra furnishings in a hub location Mary claims for her dead friends a short way into the game, and completing all of these will unlock more secrets.
There's still a central plot thread beneath all of these extras, of course. The ongoing battle to uncover the truth about Mary's sister and thwart Ashford's plans is a full length adventure in its own right, but it's the extras that make Haunted stand out in a genre restricted by a linear storytelling tradition. Haunted's side quests introduce a dose of choice often lacking in adventure games.
It's funny, too. The ghostly mermaid you befriend has the ability to fly, a trait only granted to those who have lived a pure life. The Pope, however, remains firmly grounded. The truth behind his dark past are revealed in time. William Wallace is still coming to terms with his mistrust of the English and Oscar the pirate is desperately seeking the chance to captain a ship, a task he could never quite manage in life.
Ironically, it's the dead characters that bring a soul to Haunted. The game will get a UK release later this year, giving the ghosts plenty of time to warm up for release, when they'll inevitably steal the show.