It’s the season for it, right? Picking up some good, spookifying tales of your medium of choice. Seems to be one of the funnest things about fall for a lot of people.
This year around, even I, who am convinced that time is an illusion created by the greeting card industry, got into the horror season. Now, I’ve had an odd relationship with the horror genre. I really can’t put my finger on why, but I just stopped feeling it. Haven’t been getting the thrill, chills, and spills that people so much enjoy about it. Even so, I wanted to revisit those feelings this year. See if I could find a hint of that point of being deliciously disturbed.
So I picked up the Witch’s House. Freeware puzzle horror game made in RPG Maker by Fummy, officially translated into English by vgperson. “Freeware RPG Maker horror game?” I hear you ask. “Those are all over the place. What makes this one so unique.” Just hold your horses. I’m getting to that. Patience is a virtue, you know.
The Witch’s House starts you off as a young girl named Viola alone in the woods. You’re forced into a large mansion by virtue of your other route being cut of by a massive, impervious patch of roses. The mansion at first consists of only two rooms; a foyer and a room empty of everything save a note on the wall and a bloodstain in the middle of the floor. Assuming you survive that room (yeah, the game gets real early), the note gives you your only other direction thus far; ‘COME TO MY ROOM’, and the mansion opens up, full of deadly puzzles that you’ll need to complete in order to progress. Death comes in an instant, any move you make could be your demise, and your only saving graces are your wits and the talking cat/save point that follows you around for what he claims is his own amusement, not caring whether you live or die.
Let’s just get the summary out of the way quickly, aye? I did find what I was looking for with the Witch’s House. I did not end up scared or thrilled by the game, but it did leave me at just the right level of disturbed, and handled that aspect of it beautifully. Honestly, a lot of that comes from the way the game builds upon itself. Any single aspect of it, aside from mayhaps the plot, is relatively weak. Put them together though, and you get a game that’s decent through it’s progression, but once you reach the end and the last piece clicks into place, you end up with an experience that retroactively becomes stronger, and grows into more than the sum of its parts.
Let’s explain a bit of that, shall we? We’ll talk about the traditional horror trappings first. The atmosphere. It’s certainly… there. I suppose as much as can be given this is a sprite based game with limited technical resources available. It’s the use of the visuals that really contributes to it. A lot of stuff in the house just doesn’t make sense, and the game does really, really well at having things look very subtly off. Something moves a few pixels as you pass by. Someone just killed will reappear just as you leave a room. You hear things moving in a dark space, but they never seem to catch up to you. It doesn’t take a lot to make something seem spooky, and the fact that the Witch’s House doesn’t call a lot of attention to all the scary parts of it just makes those more powerful. Of course, they’ve got plenty of more blatant scares in there as well, to keep you on your toes. Those don’t really seem to work as well. It makes pretty frequent use of jump scares. The scares themselves aren’t as aggressive as others you might have seen; you don’t get any screamers, just monsters all of a sudden heading your way, or a mid-volume bang and a bloody handprint appearing on the wall, or something like that. I didn’t find it particularly bothersome, but the jumpscares weren’t effective at bringing up any emotion other than mild annoyance. The visuals do get disturbing at a few points, but being a sprite-based game, I think that will rely more on the power of your imagination than anything else. Sound is all free online stuff, so nothing to write home about here. Overall, I’d say the atmosphere is again, just kind of there. Doesn’t really add that much, doesn’t take anything away, but like I said, I haven’t been able to feel that which horror games try to communicate through atmosphere anyways, so take that with a grain of salt.
The gameplay mechanics are generally a bit simple. It’s an RPG Maker game, you know what you’re getting there. Imagine you’re playing like Final Fantasy IV or something without the combat. I don’t think that the game is really well served by being in the RPG Maker engine. I get why it’s used, this was a personal project put together for fun, so that was just making use of what’s available. It does lead to a few problems, mostly with the pursuers. You’re going to get chased in this game. By people trying to kill you. Just to be clear on that. The RPG Maker engine isn’t really built for quick precise movement, but that’s what you’re called to do occasionally. The game is super generous with its save points, so that keeps it from being too frustrating but it’s still notable.
Gameplay is built around puzzles. As you’re moving through the titular witch’s house, you’re confronted with locked doors. Keys do not unlock doors in the witch’s house, rather, you have to unlock them by completing certain actions. You’re given clues of various obscurity to figure out what you need to do, and it’s up to you from there. It’s really fast paced, for a puzzler, too. You’re generally able to move through the various riddles and what not really quickly. I found the puzzles hit the sweet spot, overall. Challenging enough to exercise the mind, require some solid thought, not so obtuse as to slow down the flow of the game and stop it from delivering those scares at a good rate. They’re usually relatively simple, only a few moving parts, so they’re very easy to process, get on to the next step, and move forward. Gameplay-wise, that’s really the strongest features. There’s not a lot of stumpers there, and if you do run into one, there’s a hint-through available at the official site. The puzzles do get more complex as it goes on, to the point that near the end you’re needing to juggle things across multiple rooms at once, but it’s never overwhelming, and that pace is maintained throughout.
One of my favorite parts of the game is just how effectively it plays with the player. Developer Fummy seems to have a really good sense for how people play games, because a lot of the surprise deaths come from working with really typical gameplay practices. The player’s habit of exploring literally everything that looks interesting, of always messing with the new feature when given the chance, of pursuing every bit of new content, it will use all of those against you, and it’s great. One of my favorite deaths came in the middle of a text box telling me that the object I was examining was completely harmless. This game will play you, and I love it. It really helps that the deaths are nearly all unique an interesting, too. Whereas in most horror games you should be afraid of danger, I actually found myself hunting it down, just to see the fun new ways to fall.
But the part that did really get me, the disturbing part of this game, was the plot. Which is unique in this case, because the plot is about as simple as it can get. You’re given a bit of background at the beginning, that you’re visiting a friend but her house is near a forest you’re supposed to stay away from and the witch wants you to come to her room after luring you inside her house. After that, the plot doesn’t progress at all. You’re given some info on the nature of the witch and magic and how that all works, but nothing that really progresses things. Mostly, you’re just doing odd things in surreal situations to solve puzzles. Then you reach the true ending and there’s a twist there. Really, a single twist. Any story that relies on a single twist is going to get a lot of hot or cold response. You could love it, you could hate it, probably not going to lie anywhere in between. For me, though, that twist was wonderful. An absolutely beautiful turn of events. It is the kind of twist that retroactively makes the experience a lot stronger. It was like a machine that did not work until the final gear shifts into place, but once that final piece hit, it moved wonderfully. All of a sudden, why you got pulled into the witch’s house, a lot of the more objectionable ways of solving puzzles, who and what the witch was, it all suddenly made a lot more sense. The plot, and that single twist, was the single best part of the story, and it was the kind of experience that I had to sit down and mentally sort through after it was done. I found it honestly disturbing, too. In a good way.
Not only that, but the experience even grows as you research into it further. The developer released a prequel novella, and there’s a manga based on that being released. It doesn’t seem all that easy to legally get hold of the translation of the novella, and the game’s not quite deep enough for me to justify sinking money into the manga, but looking at the summaries and analyses available online, you end up getting a lot more meaning out of the characters you encounter in game, the situations you have to puzzle your way through, and making a lot more sense out of how circumstances ended up the way they were and what would likely happen next. Reading more about it made the experience stronger.
So yeah, that’s the Witch’s House. It’s a quick, freeware game, with decent enough mechanics and spooks, but a solidly disturbing plot that won’t hit until the final moment but will shift your perspective on the game and made the experience a whole lot stronger for me. I valued my time with it. Maybe you will too!