Just as when I originally rented it, Mansion of Hidden Souls has tricked me again. The pictures show spooky images of a first-person adventure through a lonely mansion. “Hidden Souls” pretty obviously implies the place is haunted. The back cover describes the mansion as a place “where ghostly voices and blood-curdling screams break the eerie silence.” Sounds like it’s going to be sufficiently horrifying, yes?
In truth, this is a game about butterflies.
Granted, these butterflies are the souls of former humans, and the mansion is their forced home. But a scary game this is not. It seems to owe quite a bit to The 7th Guest, and if I had to describe it, I’d call it a kid’s version of that game. Take 7th’s style, significantly reduce the difficulty of its puzzles, take out Stauf’s insanity and all the references to the dead, and that’s pretty much what you’ve got here.
Mansion begins with an early-era 3D cutscene of the protagonist Johnathan and his sister observing a butterfly in the grass. Two adults trying painfully to act like children (“Golly sis, Gramma told us not to go near the old oak tree!”) voice the two, and lay out an off-camera discussion as the sister recklessly chases the butterfly off into the night. The camera jerkily (at about 2 FPS) follows after to reveal a ghostly mansion in place of sis. Johnathan heads in, you take over, and the mansion slowly opens itself to your exploration.
That’s pretty much the game. You’ll roam around the mansion, leisurely at first, taking in sights and clues. Only a few doors are unlocked in the beginning, and within them are the clues or items needed to open up the others. Nearly every room has its own butterfly, each of which provides you clues or vague warnings in a different stereotypical accent from regions across the globe. They may be shallow, but each soul does have a story. Some of them were trapped here against their will, some actually sought the mansion out with the intent to become butterflies, others turn surprisingly malicious and hint at a greater controlling force named The Hunter. There’s also the room full of pinned butterfly corpses on display, which never really gets referenced by anyone. You know, if I was a butterfly, trapped in a mansion belonging to some guy named “The Hunter,” I might have trouble singing the praises of becoming a butterfly to some trapped kid looking for his terrified sister.
It’s a strictly linear adventure, which works well for casual gamers and newcomers. You’re only solving one puzzle at a time, the butterflies help you along nicely, and there’s even a magic picture frame that shows you, explicitly, the object you need to investigate next. Controls could not be simpler. You navigate to pre-rendered points with the D-pad (with full transition animation; a system that’s a little more advanced than Myst), and investigate objects by pressing Up. The first press generally zooms in on a particular item in the room. The second will manipulate it if applicable. You have an inventory accessed and scrolled with the A button and deployed with the C button. Items are never combined, and the linear nature makes which item should go where seem fairly obvious. The most difficult part here will be trying a key on multiple doors to see which one it actually opens.
The only issue I have with this system is that it is extremely, rigidly linear. You can investigate areas of rooms, but won’t find the hidden object until that puzzle is unlocked. You’re passing over conspicuous items you can’t interact with until later. An early example is finding the first key. Examining a dresser shifts the camera to a pillow at its base, but you can’t do anything with it. Only after you see the dresser in your magic picture frame can you actually go and move the pillow to find the key. This frustrates, because it almost makes investigating the rooms pointless – and at that point, the magic mirror is playing the game, not you.
Seasoned adventurers won’t find a challenge, despite one or two pattern puzzles and a late-game time limit. It’s still fun to explore the mansion though, if you can look past the dated graphics. The art and music both work to create a special sort of relaxed/eerie/dreamlike mood that I at least haven’t seen in another game. It does a nice job of creating a peaceful, bemused atmosphere in the beginning – where you can explore the mansion with a certain sense of wonder – that then turns dangerous by the middle. The mansion never feels oppressive, but definitely strange, and you never feel afraid, but you do feel uneasy. That later time limit also gets your attention, as the hands keep inching closer to the deadline. I don’t know, I could be talking out my ass, but if you buy into the whole “games as art” deal, then the art is there.
If you don’t, you’re going to be left with a pretty boring game with some fairly rough graphics. You first have to contend with early CG techniques that look adequate, but nowhere near today’s realism. Furniture and textures look okay; water, stone, a not-so-round teacake, etc do not. Also of no particular help is that the animation is rendered at single-digit frame rates. The entire game is really made up of movies already exported from a separate computer (not the Sega CD), but that original computer can’t crank trips around the scene quickly or smoothly. Its resulting movies show a lot of rough transitions and very jerky movement.
That’s before it even gets to the Sega CD video compression. I shouldn’t need to say too much about this, and the common complaints absolutely apply – it’s grainy and there are too few unique colors. You’re also stuck in a letterboxed widescreen view, surely to cut down the original render load. It doesn’t look ideal in any sense, especially when a major point is the art and look of the mansion, but it’s not game-breaking. You can see what’s going on, and things turn out okay once the camera stops moving. Still, be prepared for a lot of blocking, parts of objects shifting color as you move, and areas of the image bleeding into each other to create solid blocks of color. Typical for the time and especially the console.
Sound generally works well, with a few annoying flaws. Each room has its own theme, but those themes are two-second loops. Most of them are background, ethereal kinds of notes, but the extremely short, repeating loops will start to grate if you pay too much attention. Effects are limited to your footsteps and specific noises to punctuate specific events (like a key falling, or little harp strum when you’ve found a new item). All the characters are fully voiced, and you won’t find a line of text in the game. Nothing special with the performances, though some get hit too hard with the ghostly echo effect and become difficult to understand.
Mansion of Hidden Souls is a fairly short game, clocking in at anywhere between 4 hours to 40 minutes depending on your skill. Depending on what you’re looking for, this will either mean a nice, casual game, or a waste of your time. It’s got a great “feel” to it, and some attractive art design underneath the early CG graphics, but it’s hardly a must-play, and nowhere near as scary as its marketing implies.
Pretty mansion, casual pace. Butterfly bit is a bit twee, but it works for a Twilight Zone-ian tale of something that looks attractive until you actually consider the details.
Not expressly stated, but this is pretty much a kid’s game. Easy puzzles, light scares, fairy-tale feel. Spooky, but not a horror game by any stretch.