Neil Gaiman’s name inspires a lot of emotions within certain people who like comics, urban fantasy and gothic horror. When I read his works I feel a naive sense of wonder and complete submersion into the worlds he creates. It’s not just reading a book or watching a movie: It’s a complete experience that can leave me in tears and influence me into looking at the world differently.
So when I heard that Gaiman was trying something new with videogames I was ecstatic. His dark and satirical style could work really well in an interactive medium. The possibilities with Wayward Manor are intriguing.
Set in a Victorian manor, you play as a ghost, disturbed from its slumber and coerced by the home itself into trying to get rid of the awful people living there by scaring them away. In typical Gaiman fashion, the people are quirky stereotypes: the greedy, sweettoothed children; the vain matron; the delusional grandfather who waves his gun around like its a cigarette. It’s presented in a way that is familiar to those that are into Gaiman’s work and into the horror genre populated by others such as Tim Burton and Terry Pratchett, and when you first boot up the game, there’s almost a rush of excitement. The characters with their oversized heads, rotund bodies and toadlike eyes aren’t anything new for those familiar with the genre, but they fit the tone of the game. The snooty butler’s nose is as long as his face, sticking straight up into the air. The two hungry children have tiny legs and torsos large enough that it’s hard to see how they can walk around. It’s disturbing but funny, in line with the story, where you have to upset and scare the residents because the manor likes some peace and quiet.
The added bonus here is that the manor is voiced by none other than Neil Gaiman himself. Sounds like all the makings of a great game. Right?
However, the charm quickly fades after the tutorial levels, which show you how to move objects around the room in order to properly scare your unwanted guests. Despite moving around the manor, there is little difference between the rooms, and the actions become repetitive rather than challenging. Once you discover that dropping a bottle on a person’s head makes them twitch, you can basically complete half of each level. While you get a new object to play around with every so often, breaking up the monotony, it’s not enough to keep you going, and it becomes a real challenge to complete the game before your mind goes numb.
The repetitive nature of the puzzles combined with the sometimes game-breaking bugs and incomplete level design make it not just boring but frustrating. Areas that are key to solving puzzles, such as windows, are sometimes hidden behind other objects which make them easy to miss. If you push a piece into the wrong area, there is no other way to fix your mistake besides resetting the level. People online have mentioned that characters have been known to freeze and break the game, forcing the player to reset again. When the butler comes in to relight candles that are already shown to be lit, it becomes obvious that some things were rushed and others weren’t completed.
And it’s not just the gameplay. There are five chapters, and except for the last one, which introduces a new twist to the story, there isn’t a plot to keep you interested. As previously stated, as a ghost, you have to work with the manor to scare the detestable residents out for good. There isn’t much else to that synopsis. There are character quirks to deal with, but they take a back seat to the puzzles and become repetitive as well. It doesn’t help that they are all stereotypes that we have seen before, so there isn’t much character to explore. The mother of the household is vain and obsessed with her appearance and there’s not much else to her. When completing levels with her as the centerpiece, it becomes painfully easy to scare her because all you have to do is make her look dirty or ugly. The kids love eating candy and fight over their love of candy. The only person with characteristics deeper than first appearances is the butler, and even the eventual reveal of his true nature is a stereotype in itself. The twist especially feels cheap when nothing about the gameplay changes even though your motivations transition from evil and selfishness to charity.
Talking about Wayward Manor is upsetting because Neil Gaiman’s name comes with certain expectations, but that doesn’t excuse how rushed the game feels. It seems like the developers didn’t think beyond the initial premise. Gaiman, who originated the tale the game is based on, had a good idea putting the player into the point of view of the villain in a horror story of this nature, but there’s nothing here to expand on it. The story couldn’t even help the gameplay, which also seems like it wasn’t thought out beyond step one. With more time, Wayward Manor could have been something intriguing, but what we got is a shallow disappointment. It’s not even disappointing enough to stew over after the initial play time.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.