“Realms of the Haunting” is a strange synthesis of three major early 1990s gaming trends: adventure games, full motion video, and old school first person shooters. But while RotH seamlessly combines all three elements into a single package, it also arguably sounded their death knell in the process. Released in late 1996, it was in direct competition with “Quake,” “Tomb Raider,” and, several months later, “Dark Forces 2,” three milestone games which set the trend for gaming in the late 1990s and left RotH’s dated looking, Doom style, 2D engine in the dust. Likewise, the adventure genre was also on the wane, with just “Grim Fandango,” “Gabriel Knight 3,” and "The Longest Journey" to look forward to before going mostly dormant for nearly a decade. By the end of 1997, the short lived full motion video craze would be eclipsed by the advent of dedicated 3D graphics cards, and mammoth 8 disc, FMV epics like “Phantasmagoria,” “Gabriel Knight 2” and “Under a Killing Moon” would be relegated to historical oddities.
Given this, it’s no wonder that RotH flopped on release. It was conceived as the hottest game of 1995, but as a testament to just how quickly technology and gaming trends were moving in the 1990s, by the time it was released just under 2 years later, time had already passed it by.
Which is a shame, as this very well could have been the best game of 1995 had it been release just a year earlier. Despite the limitations of its engine, in its design the game is arguably a missing link between “Doom” and “Thief.” The game world is highly interactable, with lots of objects to click and use. Levels are also sprawling, labyrinthine, and nearly open world. They rarely close off once you finish them, so if you really wanted to you could walk from one end of the game world to the other. Plus, barring a few tedious, late game, mazes and switch throwing, the puzzles are mostly pretty fun and reminiscent of some of “Thief’s” best.
The best part, however, is the plot, which is a completely silly hodge-podge of b-horror films, 90s comic book clichés (there are undertones of both Garth Ennis’ “Preacher” and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”), and even, in the game’s dimension hoping with a female sidekick, shades of “Dr Who.” Of course, comparing RotH to any of these sources is giving it way too much credit. Its FMV sequences are often leaden and stretch on way too long, suffering from the bad, soap opera, editing technique where the video cuts to super long reaction shots of characters looking pensive after every single thing anyone says. Plus, things get nonsensical fast, and about half way through the game, the FMV sequences mostly just focus on people appearing to tell you what absurd, magical artifact you have to track down next, before disappearing. But, honestly, bad acting, z-grade special effects, and nonsensical plots are the main reason for playing 90s FMV games….so I mean none of this as a criticism.
Unfortunately, the game does show its age in some less enjoyable ways. Combat sucks, enemies tend to have way too many hit points, and strafe is locked to the “.” and “,” keys, which makes it unnecessarily difficult at times. Likewise, in the grand tradition of old-school adventure games, many puzzles come down to pixel hunts, a fact which is made all the more frustrating by the fact that you have to search pixels both above and below you, rather than just on a flat 2D plane.
That said, RotH is such a bizarre genre mash-up that could never have been made at any other point in gaming history, that I couldn’t help but find it charming, despite its flaws. This is exactly the game I dreamt of making as a kid back in 1995, when “Doom” and Sierra adventure games were my main obsessions. And ultimately its a facinating look back at an entirely unique species in the evolution of FPSs, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the fact that many of its unique genetic mutations have since been selected out of the gaming population.