House of Caravan is the debut title from developer Rosebud Games, that is based in the “Death in Candlewood” universe. Sadly, other than a few nice features and some decent atmopshere, House of Caravan suffers from a lack of innovation, at times frustratingly repetitive gameplay and several potentially game-breaking bugs.
The entire game takes place within a mansion that’s based in Candlewood, Northeast US. You play as Lester Bernard who spends the night exploring the mansion and uncovering the macabre past of the Caravan family. Having recently been abducted from his suburban home in Boston, he’s left to discover why he’s been left at this creepy locale. The “scary mansion” premise may be a little cliché, but it did leave me excited as to what spooky encounters lay ahead of me.
The Caravan estate itself is pretty well furnished – the graphics may be a little dated, but they still look good. All the usual things to keep you on the edge of your seat are there too. Doors creak, windows open themselves, there are creepy dead animals and suits of armour silently explode (yes, this actually happened). Sadly, the horror elements of this game never really amount to anything, and I was left feeling like I’d been built up for something that never came. Much like with the suit of armour, many of the jump scares just end up bugging out and fail to stir up anything other than bewilderment.
The sound design as a whole is fairly well executed throughout the game. I found turning the flashlight on and off a genuine delight due to the satisfying clicking noise that it makes. The general ambience of the mansion is also quite nicely done. There are plenty of creaks, bumps and various other sounds that wouldn’t be out of place on a ghost train ride. The music is mysterious and at times tense, which did spook me a little at first. It also changes at various key moments in the game, letting you know when you’re on the right track.
However, much like many other aspects of this game, repetition is not its friend. The sounds become very predictable after 10-15 minutes of playing and the music stays on a constant loop until you solve a particular puzzle. This removes any level of horror that these features might add and they just end up becoming something that you ignore for the most part.
Like countless other horror games, the mansion is very dark – almost every room is steeped in an eerily impenetrable blackness (light doesn’t seem to travel very far in horror games for some reason). You’re left to combat this using the tried and tested matchbox and flashlight method. During my playthrough I found so few light sources that required matches that I felt no need to use them sparingly – I never once ran out. There are also certain electrical lights placed throughout the mansion that work slightly better for lighting up areas anyway. However, both of these methods are fairly sub-par at giving you any real help in the lighting department, so you’re left to use your flashlight for the most part. Sadly, due to the fact that you’re given very few batteries, near the end of my 70 minute playthrough I was left fumbling in the dark. This was almost certainly intentional, but due to the underwhelming horror elements it didn’t have the desired creepy effect; it was just a little frustrating.
The main gameplay elements come in the form of various puzzles that have to be solved in order to progress further into the mansion. At first these are somewhat satisfying – using magnifying glasses, piecing together ripped up documents and dealing with electrical puzzles made me feel a little like Sherlock Holmes. However, they’re fairly easy to solve and they get repetitive due to the same puzzle templates being reused throughout the mansion.
Most objects you come accross can be interacted with in some way. You can pick up books, pool balls, hunks of meat, big pieces of broccoli, etc. It might be quicker to list objects that can’t be interacted with. In some instances this is a very nice feature. Books and documents can be picked up and brought towards you using the mouse wheel, allowing you to actually read them. Excerpts from “Frankenstein” and “The Raven” are among those that can be found. This little touch is nice and shows some great attention to detail.
The main issue I have with the objects is the buggy physics when you drop or throw them. More times than not, objects end up floating in mid air or levitating across the room. The scariest part of the game was when this first happened to me. I’d picked up a really freaky looking doll and when I went to set it down it started slowly floating around the room after me. After changing my underpants I realised this wasn’t intentional, it was a bug. This happened to almost every item I picked up. Also, any of the objects that can be broken create an almost impassable barrier in the level where they’re dropped, despite there being nothing in your way. This actually led to me having to restart the game at one point, as I smashed a plate infront of a doorway that I needed to get through.
Much like many horror games, the actual story and characterization elements are fairly vague. Everything is explained through letters you’ll find throughout the mansion that are narrated to you. But the voice acting is stiff and slightly robotic. The story and writing itself is decent, but I didn’t find myself compelled to discover just what was going on; I was progressing through the mansion because I knew that’s what I had to do, not because I wanted to find out why Lester was in this predicament.
Rosebud compared House of Caravan to P.T. and Gone Home in their marketing material, and it’s easy to see where they took influence from these sources, particularly the latter. However, Gone Home had an incredibly interesting story arc and the characters and voice acting were superb. P.T. terrified me more than any game I’ve ever played and had felt innovative. Sadly, House of Caravan does not compare favorably to its inspirations. Even putting aside the significant number of bugs, House of Caravan is only a mediocore clone of the games that came before it.