"I'm sorry, but a good haunted house story has to have at least ONE decent jump-out-of-your-seat startle or it's a failure."
NOTE: This review is based on a prerelease beta version provided us by the developer.
Delilah is awoken from a fitful slumber by a frantic phone call from her friend Lyle in the middle of the night. Lyle can't shake the nightmare he's been having about their missing friend Trent that ends with Delilah being pregnant. Delilah thinks Lyle is being paranoid, so she grouchily hangs up...but wait! How the hell did Lyle know she was pregnant? That's been her most closely guarded secret.
Thus begins The Curse of Slate Rock Manor, the first visual novel from the Visual Novel Games division of Red Panda Games, best known for their RPG Maker game Bipo: Mystery of the Red Panda. The Curse of Slate Rock Manor follows Delilah and Lyle on the hunch that Slate Rock Manor, the place where Trent went missing two weeks ago, holds the answers to the freaky occurrences that have been dogging them since.
The bulk of The Curse of Slate Rock Manor is a standard-fare haunted house mystery. Sadly, the overall plot is pretty shallow and even after thorough completion of every path (I had 125% completion in the game's progress bar), it left a few plot threads hanging without suitable resolution. Also, some endings were abrupt, lending a rushed feel. From what I saw, the plot and characters have potential but are disappointingly superficial in their current state. These plot inconsistencies promise to be ironed out in the final, upgraded version.
The game also lacks any decent scares, or any scares at all for that matter. I'm sorry, but a good haunted house story has to have at least ONE decent jump-out-of-your-seat startle or it's a failure. The Mystery of Chimney Rock, one of my favorite Choose Your Own Adventure books, is far more frightening, deeper, and has more colorful writing...and it is a book for young readers!
Another detail that made Chimney Rock a surprisingly good horror mystery was the illustrations. They frightened me as a child and are still creepy even now. Unfortunately, Slate Rock Manor falls flat here as well. For starters, I found the title screen overdone and, dare I say, cheesy. It looks more like something out of Scooby Doo than a more earnest haunted house story. The somewhat photorealistic CG backgrounds lack any decent atmosphere and are just, well, flat. Atop these somewhat grainy backgrounds are glossy anime portraits of the characters. This creates a visual disconnect. I think more Western-style character art drawn with some grit, like in classic American comic books, would have fit better with the game's atmosphere as a whole.
The disconnected portrait art also worked against the competent voice acting. The performances offered up by members and friends of the development team were on par with many games utilizing professional voice acting. Unfortunately, some of the voices did not quite match up with the looks of the characters. For example, Trent is an excitable, quick-witted, skinny guy but had the kind of voice I'd expect to hear in a burly cartoon football player nicknamed Ox or something. The performance was fine, but the tone didn't match the visual. The recording quality was also a bit uneven, with some voices decidedly louder than others. There was almost no music and what little existed was completely forgettable.
The gameplay is standard visual novel gameplay: read text, follow story, and make choices to an outcome, though it is said the upgraded version will have two modes: a puzzle mode with various mini-games scattered throughout and a visual novel mode without. Once enough paths have been followed to enough minor outcomes, the game's completion bar will be at 100% and players unlock the path to the true ending. I myself had 125% completion. All of this was achieved in less than a day. I know visual novels are supposed to be short, but this is just insultingly short. My entire play time to 125% was about two hours. And honestly, it wasn't a very satisfying two hours. At first I wasn't too happy that I couldn't save any time I wanted to, but that didn't matter. Each path lasted mere minutes anyway, so I had more than enough opportunities to save and try new choices when the game reset to the starting point for me. Speaking of choices, none of them were challenging, many of them felt arbitrary, and too many led to common outcomes.
I always like to support indie developers and stand up for the little guy, but I can't when a product is as unsatisfying as The Curse of Slate Rock Manor. The one silver lining in this unsatisfying haunted house trip is the professional quality voice acting from non-professionals. But seriously, 125% completion in a mere two hours? Shallow plot and characters? Mismatched visual styles? No skin-crawling creeps or jump-out-of-your-seat startles? Sorry, I'm not buying it.