Families can be overbearing, and few feel it particularly as much as the old house sheltering sheltering them. Set in the 1920s, Wayward Manor puts players in the role of a newly released ghost that conspires with the spirit of the house itself. It has had enough with the latest family, the Budds, and needs your haunting skills to drive them out. Developed by indie developer The Odd Gentleman, in collaboration with author Neil Gaiman (who wrote the story and voices some of the narration), Wayward Manor is a puzzle game with a lot of initial appeal to it. However, the appeal starts to wear a little thin after a few levels in.
A new guest arrives
At first glance, Wayward Manor seems like a sort of new, 21st Century, take on Maniac Mansion. Except, it's not like that at all. Characters are made to look like crude wooden dolls, and the environments are kind of drab, so it's not really a style that everyone may appreciate. Nobody gets maimed or severely injured, so it's not really a horror game. The Budds make up about several people in the house, and it's your job as the resident ghost, to shake the furniture, and cause all sorts of mayhem to tap into their darkest fears and drive them out. Scaring each individual earns a point, and your influence over each room increases with each one. Once you've collected enough scare points, you can end the puzzle by having all the objects in the room float around, causing the resident to flee.
Unfortunately, the fears you're trying to exploit through puzzles aren't very fulfilling. The mother, for example, loves her dress collection. So, you arrange for incidents, like tipping over the conveniently placed bottles of poison, to ruin the dresses. However, acts of vandalism seems less like you're exploiting her fear of dirtiness, and more like you're just being a jerk. Similarly, the father's fear is that he likes to dance while drunk, but doesn't like it when people see him cutting loose. I'm not saying that severed heads should be hanging from the ceiling, but there has to be something more exciting than annoying a family into leaving.
Wayward Mansion's gameplay is pretty straightforward, and very easy for the most part. There are a couple optional challenges that can be kind of tricky, but it shouldn't take more than a few hours to get through the game from beginning to end. Players click around the screen, looking for interactive objects, to help rearrange the furniture or draw attention from one of the characters. With the right positioning and trigger action, and the character's day worsens, and players are given more things to move around. The system is cute for one or two puzzles, but it quickly loses its charm. Challenges include setting up the room so that the mother ends up spanking one of the children, which seems fun, but not enough to justify spending too much time figuring it out.
The game would be far better if players start with simple things like moving objects around, progress to more startling actions, and ultimately make their way to bleeding walls and summoning spectral skeletons. As it is, redecorating each room and dropping bottles on peoples' heads simply isn't very satisfying. Is it reasonable to say that the mother gets frightened EVERY time she puts on a ruined dress?
Furthermore, I didn't really feel for the house's need to be left empty and alone. With the possible exception of the bratty kids, the Budds don't seem that bad. Certainly nothing that warrants tapping into their deepest fears over. In fact, you do more damage to the house while driving them out than any of the family members do. The game's plot is as straightforward as the gameplay, with a little twist that almost comes out of nowhere. It's not a story that left any sort of lasting impression. I'm generally a fan of Gaiman's writing, but even though there are a few nice lines in the narration, Wayward Mansion is not among his best work.
The game is also prone to a number of glitches, like objects not setting correctly, or trigger events not activating. Restarting the puzzle usually remedies this, but it's an extra step in a game that becomes increasingly more tedious to play.
A lonely home
Even with the challenges, there isn't a lot of replay value in Wayward Manor. Going through the experience once is plenty. By the end of it, players end up giving the house exactly what it wants. Leaving it alone to rot, empty and forgotten.
FINAL SCORE: 6 out of 10.
This review is based on a downloadable Steam PC code provided by the developer. Wayward Manor is available now digitally for 9.99.