House of Caravan spans a single night in the life of Lester Barnard, a boy with no resources grown in the streets of a suburb of Boston. One day on his way to school he is taken away by strangers, and after a long car drive he is left alone in an unknown and inhospitable place.
As I sat down with House of Caravan for the first time, I felt nervous. You see, when it comes to horror games, I’m what you would call a pansy. I refuse to play games from the genre because they usually end with me throwing a controller and/or headset away in fear as I scream like a little girl. As I booted up Rosebud Games’ newest horror adventure game, I fully expected to be reduced to whimpers and forced to play the game with all the lights on in the middle of the day.
The game starts off with promise of scares. You play as a young man kidnapped on his way home from school and thrown into a carriage. You’re taken to a house in the middle of the woods, a place that has some sort of sinister reputation because not even the horses will venture close. You awaken in a dimly lit room, unaware why you are there, and knowing only that you need to escape. You search the room for a key to unlock the door, and soon notice two things – you’re trapped in a child’s room toys, and you need matches to light candles but they’re in short supply. At this point the game appears set up to provide the player with plenty of uncomfortable moments and jump scares.
Yet while House of Caravan promises to be like “Gone Home meets Crimson Room meets PT”, it fails to deliver any of the scares that the latter provided. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t follow through on the first two comparisons, but if you’re preparing to play a horror game, you’ll be disappointed in the lack of jump scares. Even I was able to play the game without fear-quitting, and I can’t even read creepypasta during the day without freaking out.
While I can’t say I was disappointed that I wasn’t reduced to tears by House of Caravan, I do feel that the game is strictly a first-person adventure puzzler. There are portions of the game that attempted to instill fear in the player (doors creaking, the whole house shaking, windows flying open on their own, etc.). Yet after about 15 minutes you realize this is all background noise and has no real bearing on the player. I quickly learned not to expect some murderous creature to attack me from the darkness, and that the creepy white noise was there to add atmosphere and nothing more.
Perhaps the scariest feature in the entire game was the story. As you explore this seemingly forgotten mansion, you begin to unravel the story of the Caravan family who lived there. The creators have stated that House of Caravan was influenced by the works of Edgar Allen Poe and classic horror films, and this at least is an accurate assertion. Poe had a knack for suspenseful writing, and wanting the reader to desire the next page while feeling entirely uncomfortable doing so. While I wasn’t afraid to explore the house for clues, I felt uneasy every time I began to uncover more about the family Caravan.
You see, things weren’t well with the Caravan’s. What starts out as a tale about a well-to-do family experiencing tragedy soon turns into a quest to unearth the many skeletons in their closets. All this is delivered in the form of letters found scattered around the house, as well as solving puzzles. The letters mainly tell the story whereas solving puzzles leads you closer to escaping.
A large part of the puzzles rely on you searching every nook, drawer, and dark corner of the house to find necessary items like photographs or a magnifying glass. You then often need to use these items by scrolling through your inventory with the right click of a mouse, and then interacting with a puzzle or other item via a left click. This process was simple at first when you have only a few items in your inventory, but as the game progresses it becomes cumbersome to scroll through each item to find what you need. Should you accidentally scroll past it, you have to cycle through everything once more. To remove some of the frustration, the game would’ve been best served with item hot keys or perhaps a way to scroll through items using a mouse wheel. Also, many items become useless after you use them once or twice, thus it would make sense to discard them once they’ve served their purpose.
As for the puzzles themselves, House of Caravan provides a decent mix for a short adventure, but they lack any sort of difficulty. The hardest thing is finding the pieces needed to activate the puzzles. After that, they’re a breeze, involving nothing more than a few mouse clicks to rotate paper scraps to fit together. On two separate occasions, the player needs to match a pair of letters with a number to open a box. Since you choose numbers from a counter, all one needs is to find the letters from the clues and rotate through the numbers until the box opens. This makes it less of a puzzle and more of a guess-and-check problem. Critical thinking needs not apply; just simple test-taking skills.
Furthermore, there were a few puzzles in the game that you can avoid completely. I found two separate occasions where I completed a puzzle that gave me a clue to a puzzle I had already solved. While this may not be a huge deal for a larger game, in a game as short as House of Caravan this just seems like wasted gameplay and effort on the player’s part. Perhaps the creators were going for a more open-world feel by allowing the character to circumvent puzzles with extra exploration and discovery of items. But an adventure game with only 2 hours with of material can get away with a more linear path.
While the gameplay and controls were low points, I did find the graphics for House of Caravan to be good enough for a 2-hour adventure. The game certainly isn’t going to blow you away, but apart from some odd shadow effects there were no issues with textures or rendering to speak of. In fact, I was impressed with some of the details, although when the premise is exploration one should be able to see detail in the objects they handle. Still, it’s worth noting that open books have actual and readable text inside. And toys have detail enough to show they have moving parts and are made of material like wood. In a game such as this, the job of the graphics isn’t to leave you awestruck; it’s to blend with the gameplay and be both wholly present yet inconspicuous. House of Caravan did just that.
While the game ran fairly smooth from start to finish, it wasn’t without some hiccups. There were times that I hit invisible walls, and after some trial and error found that throwing certain objects caused these barriers to spring up out of nowhere. This created a bit of frustration, but luckily it wasn’t a permanent issue as it was solved by a simple reload. Furthermore, certain objects became quite an obstacle for your character to overcome. Oftentimes I found myself unable to walk forward due to a small piece of broken glassware that flew across the room and landed at my feet. I either had to go around it, jump over it, or move the obstacle to another area entirely before I could progress. While not a huge issue itself, when combined with the invisible walls it made me wonder if items couldn’t have benefited from a little more testing.
There were some other minor issues that popped up during my time with the game. The voice acting was adequate, but at times it sounded distorted like the audio clip was corrupted. It seemed to affect only a handful of performances but for a short game it stands out. Also, there were more than a few typos as well as times when the voice acting didn’t match up with the in-game text. Apart from sound issues, some of the puzzles didn’t quite “work”. By that I mean that one puzzle didn’t complete and give me the clue once I aligned all the pieces properly. While I could still decipher what to do next from the arranged clues, I never got an in-game prompt in the form of a voiceover telling me the puzzle was solved. On another occasion, I couldn’t get a puzzle to work at all even after collecting the required pieces. Luckily this was an unnecessary puzzle because of one I’d previous solved, but it still caused some frustration (I’m an admitted perfectionist and wanted to solve every puzzle in the game).
Still, through all its faults, House of Caravan did provide one shining moment that quite figuratively blew my mind. You may recall that the game was influenced by the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and this showed quite obviously in the story that unfolds as you uncover clues. I don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice it to say that there’s a reason you’re in this mansion, and it may not even become clear until sometime after the credits have rolled. For me, it took a solid 30 minutes until the revelation hit. I literally smacked my forehead in both disgust and astonishment: disgust in myself for not catching it sooner, and astonishment in how well Rosebud Games did in crafting a hidden twist within this unassuming adventure game. It may not make up for all the game’s shortcomings, but it did give me a sense that the experience wasn’t for naught.
Rosebud Games’ House of Caravan isn’t the most polished game it could be, nor is it as challenging or engaging as one would expect from an adventure puzzler. It suffers from some sound issues. It isn’t as linear as a two-hour adventure puzzler should be. It doesn’t provide much in the way of replay value, and it doesn’t quite have the scares or feel of a horror game. But if you push through these problems, you’ll be rewarded with a story that is sure to raise some eyebrows when realization hits that you’re not in this mansion by accident. When it comes down to it, House of Caravan is good for a quick distraction if you’re a fan of first-person adventure games. Just don’t expect much else.
+ Suspenseful story
+ Attention to detail
- Lack of polish
- Inconsistent sound quality
- Buggy puzzles and game items
- Poor gameplay mechanics
- Frustrating item menu interface