By Jared Cornelius
When I sit down to write reviews I've found it to be pretty easy most of the time. A game like Shovel Knight, or a comic like Andre The Giant Life & Legend that I got a lot of enjoyment out of translate well to reviews because there's so much that I liked. It's easy to talk about a topic when it's robust and enjoyable, but what about when something's just ok? This week I played Wayward Manor from developer, The Odd Gentlemen, and unfortunately I found out how hard it is to write about something that's just "ok".
When you look at Wayward Manor on paper it sounds like a guaranteed hit. With design by Chuck BB from Oni's Black Metal, gameplay from The Odd Gentlemen, makers of P.B. Winterbottom, and most of all a story by Neil Gaiman. That's an all-star lineup of gameplay, design, and writing so it makes sense to have high expectations going into a title like this. Just look at the pedigree here, Black Metal has been a very successful property for Oni Press, P.B. Winterbottom was a critical hit, receiving overwhelmingly positive scores from most outlets, and Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman. Do I need to sit here and give you a rundown on Neil Gaiman's accomplishments? He's Neil Gaiman!
Taking place in a haunted manor in the 1920's a family named, "The Budds" have moved in and made the spooky domicile their own. The specter voiced by Gaiman is none too happy about the prospect of sharing his home and needs to scare the Budds into leaving the house. If there's a standout of the game, its Gaiman's smooth British pipes narrating what amounts to Edgar Allan Poe for kids. Gaiman's story has shades children's horror like ParaNorman or The Nightmare Before Christmas and while it's never scary, it does come off as charmingly creepy. The design for the Budds is something out of a rejected Weeble Wobble toy series and BB captures a fun feel with the characters that share tones with Gaiman's story. It's cartoonish and exaggerated but in all the right ways.
The soundtrack by the Brothers Stanton is another highlight, with a well thought out selection of original music. Each character has their own individual song that accompanies that series of levels, with each being represented by a different instrument. It's a little touch that adds to the game's personality.
Wayward Manor's gameplay is a mix of puzzle and point and click adventure, with players given a single room and characters to scare using objects in the environment. This is where we hit our first big snag: we're told in the beginning of the game that the Budds belongings have affected your spectral control over objects and only the green highlighted items are accessible to you. This makes it painfully obvious what you can and can't control. There's nothing overtly wrong about this mechanic, but it makes Wayward Manor feel more like the kind of game you play on one of those bar touchpads than a full release.
Once you solve the first scare puzzle the game gradually gives you more objects to interact with, creating multiple scenarios to solve the puzzle. This also runs into problems when levels reuse similar solutions to puzzles. A stage may have you scare the maid with a giant rat, but you can do that 2 or 3 more times to progress, it felt like it was put there to get people through the level without frustration, but none of the puzzles were hard enough to warrant such a simple solution.
Wayward Manor isn't exactly an epic tale either as it's comprised of 5 chapters with 5 puzzles in each chapter. No one should find Wayward Manor overstays its welcome as you can easily complete it in under 3 hours. You can stretch out the game by solving the 3 challenges in every stage, like setting a character on fire, or destroying X number of objects. It's a basic addition and it never made me feel compelled to go back and solve every puzzle. Basic is something I thought of a lot when playing, I kept thinking that Wayward Manor was designed this way to be released on tablet devices. So it needed to be stripped down, it needed to be basic to run on iPhones and Android devices.
The biggest problem with Wayward Manor is its just average. It's not terrible, it won't end up on any worst of the year lists but it won't end up on any best of lists either. Ultimately it's just ok, and it's tough to ask players to invest their time and money in a game that's just ok. The best parts of Wayward Manor are the dressings like story, character design, and music which all and fit together well. However, without the gameplay it has trouble being anything more than a forgettable puzzle game.
Wayward Manor is currently available on Steam.
Jared Cornelius is some guy from New Jersey's coast who's disappointed Neil Gaiman's game didn't turn out better. If you'd like to recommend developers who'd fit with Gaiman's eclectic style contact me @John_Laryngitis on Twitter.