Hauntings of Mystery Manor

Review by Jen
June 2005

Cindy Pondillo, who travels the 'net as Ghostlady, is the proprietress of Mystery Manor, an adventure gaming website with a twist. The Mystery Manor site is set up as a series of 15 or 20 rooms of a house, each room devoted to a different aspect of adventure gaming. For instance, the Conservatory hosts a handful of reviews, you can download a saved game from the Attic, or you might look for game patches in the Sewing Room. Each room of the Manor is fronted by a pretty graphic of that room's interior, each haunted by a ghost or two, accompanied by a short loop of well-chosen music, and hiding a key within.

Ghostlady says, "Over the years I have had so many requests for The Mystery Manor game that I figured it was time to do something about it," and so she did. Using the Adventure Game Studio, a free development tool for independent game designers, Ghostlady has set a game within the walls of the Manor.

The result of her efforts is a polished, although quite short, point-and-click adventure game. To the outside observer (me), it appears that Ghostlady put this whole thing together in less than three months, which is, quite frankly, nothing short of amazing ... until she let slip that she is a programmer in real life and so came into her first game-making project with the neurons of her brain prealigned in that strange manner most conducive to such efforts.

Hauntings of Mystery Manor the game takes the rooms of Mystery Manor the website, adds a few new ones, and rolls them all up into an actual haunted house full of ghosts. You are the returning prodigal; first thing on entering your ancestral home, you are beseeched to free the spirits.

Exploring the house further ("what do you mean, 'exploring'? isn't this our own house? we must have amnesia") leads to meeting the ghosts and learning what ails them. Ghostlady calls this a gothic game and then goes on to give the dictionary definition of gothic, to-wit: "of or relating to a style of fiction characterized by the use of desolate or remote settings and macabre, mysterious, or violent incidents." Well, that about sums up the game, so I guess I'll stop here.

... No, just kidding! What kind of review would this be if I didn't make more words?

Each ghost will tell you, via onscreen text (there are music and sound effects but no voice work), how he died or who killed her or what her defining life's moment was, and you must search for the item(s) that will allow the spirit to shuffle off the pesky residue of this mortal coil and make for the afterlife.

The Manor consists of a foyer leading to 12 rooms, six upstairs and six downstairs. From some of these 12 rooms, you may go deeper into the house, or even outside. You locate items and figure out how they fit into the puzzles set by the specters, and then bring these things to the appropriate spirit. Some ghosts need more than one item; for others, you must create an item before you can hand it over. Once a soul has been freed, it disappears and the room falls quiet, a nice, clear signal that there is nothing else there for you to do.

All of the shortcomings of the game result from the Adventure Game Studio software. If you've ever played an AGS game before (better-known examples include 5 Days a Stranger, the Ben Jordan games, The Adventures of Fatman—go to the AGS site for a complete list), you'll know what I mean. The interface is clunky; to use something you have to mouse over the top of the screen to bring up some standard menu items, which are represented by ugly, giant-pixelled built-in icons, and then click on the inventory icon (a briefcase), select an item, click "OK" to close the inventory, and then apply the item.

Also, the choices of screen resolution are 320×240 or 640×480. 320×240? That's like something out of the Stone Age, at least in computer gaming terms. Even at 640×480, it's possible to see individual pixels with the naked eye on today's computer screens.

I feel like a shit for complaining about it, because AGS is a free tool that has enabled some talented people to make games where they otherwise might've lacked the technical skills to bring their ideas to fruition. And AGS games usually run beautifully right out of the box, so to speak. But still, in the case of Hauntings of Mystery Manor, the standard icons supplied within the AGS are severely at odds with the finely rendered images used in the game proper.

The largely static game screens are drawn by Ghostlady's friend Diz, a graphic designer who specializes in Victorian-flavored digital art. They are among the nicest images I have ever seen in an indie game. Each room of the Manor also has its own snippet of music; all of the pieces are chosen well and lend to the atmosphere and completely failed to irritate this increasingly cranky adventure gamer.

Of course, it was not necessary for me to spend a whole lot of time in any one room—I, I who have played at least six thousand adventure games, I who can occasionally fall prone to fits of hyberbole, finished the game in well under three hours, closer to two. Ghostlady said it had taken most of those who'd played around five hours to complete.

It's hard for me to say, since I got to play it for free, whether Hauntings of Mystery Manor is worth its $15 price tag; while it is unpretentious, well put together, and quite fun to play, it is easily finished in just one sitting. I suppose if I had forked over the $15 out of my own meager funds, I'd not have been at all disappointed in the game itself, only in its length.

I hope Hauntings of Mystery Manor was enough fun for Ghostlady to make that she will step up alongside Kathy Salisbury as a female independent game developer and go on to create other games. Although it was made by a girl gamer, Hauntings of Mystery Manor is not at all a girl game; it does, however, bring with it a refreshing feminine sensibility. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Cindy Pondillo
Publisher: Cindy Pondillo
Release Date: June 15, 2005

Available for: Windows

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System Requirements

Pentium 500 MHz
32 MB RAM
Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP
DirectX 5 or above
Supports all DirectX-compatible sound and video cards

Where to Find It

Mystery Manor $14.95 (download; add $3 for CD version)

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