Huntsman: The Orphanage – Halloween Edition
Genre: Alternative Horror
I have a strong love and hate outlook on media that comes packaged with the tagline “based on a true story”. When it comes to drama or biographies, obviously there’s a lot more authenticity to be had. It’s when it comes to my favorite genre- horror, in case you didn’t know that about me yet- that it becomes a strange mess of “facts” and embellishment. A Nightmare on Elm Street is technically based on a true story. No, none of what happens in that film is an actual part of the news clipping it was inspired by.
This is where “CreepyPasta” comes in. At its core, CreepyPasta makes up the urban legends of the current day including the now-familiar figures of Slender Man and the Rake. While it knows it’s not real from the get-go, there are some very convincing efforts to make them seem legitimate. The things you can do with technology these days make these efforts even tougher to poke holes in at times. There are some fascinating stories to take in and consequently lose sleep to.
Huntsman: The Orphanage – Halloween Edition is a game that, much like some other small indie games, capitalizes on creating its own story rather than building on an existing mythos. Shadowshifters, the developers of the game, seemed more intent on creating something like the Slender Man and Rake tales by creating an experience that was not graphic or violent in its telling but would leave the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps as to how the story plays out involving its victims. Stumbling across this game among others in one of the many Steam sales, I thought it would be neat to see how this was handled given the plethora of other modern urban legends being created in the gaming landscape.
Strange stories and urban legends are told every day among friends, co-workers, over Internet forums- they are everywhere and everyone has their own twist to them. It’s hard to tell where the fiction begins and the facts end if there were any to start with. It’s said that there is truth to every urban legend. Sometimes, it just takes some research and investigation to sort it all out.
Grimhaven Orphanage is one such place that one of these tales grew from. The story of The Huntsman has echoed from a strange occurrence that happened there some years ago. It’s said that the twelve orphans who lived on the estate all disappeared mysteriously. Even the caretakers couldn’t explain what had happened. Surely there has to be some explanation, though.
For your own reasons, you have come to find yourself just down the road from Grimhaven Orphanage, the desire to find out what happened to those twelve orphans pushing you down the unpaved dirt road, under the rusted wrought-iron archway, and right to the door of the orphanage proper. You alone will wander the halls and solve the mystery of Grimhaven.
The feeling that something else exists here is strong, though. Something that’s keeping you there until you either uncover the truth- or become a part of the stories told about The Huntsman.
While the game touts a whole new genre of horror, the mechanics are largely the same as other first-person horror adventure games. Utilizing the WASD keys to navigate through the environment, your goal as the hapless investigator of Grimhaven is to locate items within the house. You can interact with doors and some other objects around but for the most part, you’ll be interacting with three things- entryways, the items you are looking for, and most importantly, portraits.
A major part of the “alt-horror” that Huntsman goes for involves listening to the stories of the staff and orphans involved with Grimhaven in 1898. To listen to their stories, you must find their portraits throughout the house and interact with them. The stories not only unravel some of the events that happened at Grimhaven leading up to the disappearances, they also give hints as to where and what the items are that the spirits need to be saved. The real point of the game is to explore the grounds and listen to the stories carefully.
Of course, there’s a third part to the game that involves actually placing the items. As the story goes, you find that there is a hedge maze behind the orphanage that was constructed, memorial gravestones left in various places throughout to commemorate the missing children. The ultimate idea of the game is to find the correct item to go to the correct headstone, thus aiding the children in their salvation. Once you find the correct headstone, you can place the item in front of it and receive your indication as to whether you were right or wrong.
The last element is, as the name would suggest, the Huntsman. As you travel throughout the orphanage and the hedge maze, you may hear the faint sound of jingling metal. If you do, that means the Huntsman is near and you should get away or get hidden. If the Huntsman catches even a glance at you, you’ll meet an unfortunate end. Thankfully, the game auto-saves incredibly frequently so backtracking should you meet your demise is not too much of a task.
The Good, The Bad, And…
Ultimately, Huntsman claims to be experimental. Like most experiments, some elements work really well and some don’t exactly work out as intended. There are a handful of good things that the game brings to the table. The game is loaded with atmosphere without throwing jump scares at you every five minutes. Even the sudden noises or images that do appear don’t seem to be made to jar you rather than add to the element of terror in the air. The stories are almost all well told by their voice actors and by the time you’re done, you really get a feeling for the tone of the orphanage before everything happened along with the dynamics between the victims. The game’s aim for horror that isn’t “gory” or “graphic” pays off as I was on edge throughout most of my time with it- including some subtle scares you may even pass by if you aren’t looking close enough.
The game sadly also missteps a few times. For one, every time I walked into the maze, I found myself tailing the Huntsman (whose design, to be fair, is a jarring one the first time you see it if you aren’t prepared). He was always going down the path I needed to go down, rendering my trips into a very slow paced game of Follow the Leader. The game has a great ‘radar’ where when you are getting close to an item, a child will interact with you, signaling that you are near it. This doesn’t always happen, though, and even then, a couple of the items are tough to pick out. Given that there is one button for interaction, as well, there can be a tendency to accidentally drop your item that you are holding. Since you can only carry one at a time, this can be a frustrating mechanic given you have to make twelve trips into the topiaries.
The “ugly” of the game isn’t really ugly, though there are elements that should be outlined that may not gel with everyone. Listening to the stories from each portrait can be really interesting and is vital to proceeding through Huntsman. Some of the stories- especially if you stumble on the second portraits of each character- can be about three to five minutes long. If you leave the area the portrait is in, the story stops and you need to start it over. This game is not for folks who are looking to run through and find everything on their own with objectives spelled out for them on the screen. If you want to effectively work through this game, you’ll probably need to take notes and map out the maze yourself, as the game gives you no mechanic to do so. This combination of horror and external interactivity appeals to me personally. I also understand that it doesn’t appeal to everyone so be warned. Huntsman focuses on exploration and immersing yourself in the stories that it has to tell which takes patience and diligence.
Visually, this game is nice to look at. My version started on the “fastest” visual option which made it look a bit like an early Playstation game, but once I popped it up to a more detailed option, it became striking to look at. Even with the small field of light you get by using your character’s flashlight, there’s a lot to see and even the visuals that pop up on the phone are well rendered and integrate well into the ongoing action. I’ve also already stated this, but the Huntsman’s design is definitely unexpected and pretty creepy. You may not be blown away by the visuals as there are a few strange design choices (your character, for instance, waves a hand and doors open), but the game is very competent in design and interesting to take in.
The sounds of the Huntsman are solid, as well. The best part involves the voice actors, even with a couple of exceptions to the overall quality. There are subtle touches that stand out- the jingle of the Huntsman being nearby, doors shutting on their own some distance away that you left open, the occasional creak of the orphanage settling; all sounds that aren’t foreign to the genre but work really well here. There are a couple of stories and voice clips that can get a little garbled at times with the combination of ambient noise and the track itself, but the game falls squarely on the side of solid and above average in most respects.
The folks at Shadowshifters do their best to outline why Huntsman: The Orphanage – Halloween Edition is a different horse than the others in the stable from the get-go. Unlike similar games like Layers of Fear or Clock Tower, there is no plotted path to follow. You have an environment and a goal and it’s up to you to achieve that goal. By pushing forward and not taking the time to map out your surroundings, listen to the stories being told, and blindly rushing forward, you’d be rubbing against the grain of this game and most likely creating an exercise in frustration for yourself.
If you’re interested in checking out an indie developers freshman project with some mechanics that may not be commonplace, Huntsman is a short enough venture at about five or six hours to embark on and poke around at. It’s not perfect and there is the rare but existent glitch that can force a reload, but the game takes steps to try to lay out an enjoyable and mentally intriguing experience that has some genuine moments of unease and fear. It’s tough to sit on a negative or positive recommendation for this one, mostly because the style is not going to suit everybody. If any of these elements seem up your alley, give the game a shot. Otherwise, there is a host of other games that will sate your horror needs to browse through.
Plot Discussion and Therefore Spoilers
While this doesn’t entirely spoil the plot points throughout the game, there is a question that I think needs to be answered relating to this experiment.
How well did it tell its story?
The tales told by the characters involved with the orphanage all weave together well to give ideas about the uneasy feelings leading up to the incident. Much like the Slender Man and others like him, the Huntsman doesn’t receive a precise explanation. You do find out what happened to the orphans to an extent, but the matter of the Huntsman, how he came to be, and why he’s doing what he’s doing are not explained entirely.
I know I make that sound like a bad thing, but it’s actually quite the opposite. In stories like these, the less explained, the more the player/reader is left to imagine the remainder of the story. The game does cut a bit too short to leave the player’s imagination running as there is no stinger or post-credits scene once the protagonist is safe from harm. In this, I feel like the game fails at sticking the landing. After such a successful routine with setting up the Huntsman and the stories around him, it didn’t feel like the developers left me with the sense of dread that I could somehow end up coming across this nefarious creature.
This can be taken one of two ways which is really up to the person playing to decide. If you look at it from one angle, the game sets up an engaging mythos that could be used in the future and leaves a lot of questions to be answered. From another angle, it feels like the game sets up a lot of things to ponder and only delivers half of them, making the story feel unfinished. It’s all up to interpretation. I would be interested to see what Shadowshifters does with the Huntsman after this, should they go the route of universe expansion, though.