14/10/2015

MANSION OF HIDDEN SOULS (SEGA CD)

Did you know that lepidopterophobia is the name for the irrational fear of butterflies? If you did, it's probably because you're terrified of butterflies and you have sought out others who share your morbid dread of the usually-beloved little fluttererers, looking for safety in numbers and the chance to bond with people on day-trips that most definitely do not take in any wildflower meadows. If you are scared of butterflies then I have two pieces of advice for you: don't dress as a buddleia plant and don't read about today's game. It's System Sacom's 1993 Sega CD look-around-a-creepy-mansion-em-up Mansion of Hidden Souls (AKA Yumemi Mystery Mansion)!


I'm going to apologise up front for when I inevitably call it Mansion of Lost Souls. "Lost Souls" just sounds more appropriate, you know? "Lost souls" is a phrase in fairly common usage, "hidden souls" makes it sound like it's going entail a sort of Easter egg hunt with a theological twist. Okay, so there is a lot of hunting around for hidden objects in this one, granted, but the souls aren't hidden. They are in plain sight, and very talkative. We'll get to that, though - first, let's set the scene.


Some flowers grow in the grass, attracting the fell predations of a butterfly. The butterfly is the white v-shaped thing on the right of the flowers, by the way. Difficult-to-see butterflies make up roughly eighty percent of Mansion of Hidden Souls, so get used to it.
As the camera lingers on the flowers, the plot is set in motion by the disembodied voices of two adult actors struggling to sound like children but instead coming across as though they're delivering their lines in the middle of a carbon monoxide leak. The pair, a brother and sister, see the butterfly and spend a moment cooing over the effortless grace of its flight, before the girl announces she wants to follow it. Maybe it'll fly over to the old elm tree, she says. Ah ha, now I've got your attention! The old elm tree, that's what the Sega CD's audience was desperate to see! Except no, the real set up is that the brother warns his sister not to go to the old elm tree because there are ghosts there that will turn you into a butterfly. The sister runs off anyway, saying "I think it would be fun to be a butterfly!" I'm going to throw in a spoiler now by saying that the sister will soon be eating those words, much as she will be eating nectar with her new proboscis.


She went into the spooky mansion. Why do they always go into the spooky mansion? Has your mad lust for looking at butterflies blinded you to the fact that this mansion is so spooky that it wasn't even there earlier? We learn this fact from the brother, who it emerges is the player character. His sister's name is Samantha, and they come from a land where shortening someone's name is punishable by death. Therefore they always refer to each other as Jonathan and Samantha, even in moments of extreme crisis when calling her "Sam" might save valuable seconds. Jonathan then enters the mansion to find his sister and the game begins. I hope he brought a net and a jar with a twig in it.


I'm kinda feeling like I have once again entered the world of survival horror. I know in my heart that there won't be a typewriter at the bottom of the stairs, but I also know I'll end up checking anyway.


Rats. How am I going to save my game without a typewriter?
So, if you haven't guessed yet Mansion of Hidden Souls is a first-person adventure game, in which you control Jonathan as he pokes around the spooky mansion like my grandmother used to on viewing days for houses she had no intention of buying. You gather items, explore the various rooms, talk to the inhabitants and solve puzzles, all with the end goal of finding your sister and getting the hell out of the mansion before the graininess of the FMV graphics sands away your retinas. The controls are simple - apparently this game works with the Sega Mouse, but I played it with the pad and it worked fine. The d-pad turns Jonathan's viewpoint, "snapping" onto set pathways or interesting objects, and pressing up on the pad either moves you forward or makes Jonathan lean in for a closer look. The movement is slow but smooth... a little too smooth, maybe, because I couldn't shake the feeling that I wasn't controlling a human being but rather some snake-like creature that was slithering rather than walking. That said, you never actually see Jonathan, so there's always a chance he is a giant snake-thing, although it seems unlikely. Snake-things aren't generally named Jonathan.


With no directions given, it's time to start blindly stumbling around the mansion and as we do so I'm afraid I'll have to mention the graphics. They're rough. Very rough, as though seen through a pair of spectacles made from incredibly thin slices of wholemeal bread. The smooth movement between viewpoints that the FMV footage allows for is impressive and all, but I think I'd happily sacrifice it for the ability to see more than the vague structure of the room. The lack of graphical definition means that it's often very hard to see objects in the background - and in any case the object is often hidden behind or under things - that the game quickly descends into shoving Jonathan's face down every available viewpoint in case there's something interesting there. Thankfully he'll automatically pick up any items he find while doing so, so at least there won't be too much strain on the old peepers.


This is one of the more obvious items laying around the house, but it's still difficult to decipher its true form from this distance. Is it a box? An envelope? Oh, I know, it's one of those frames full of metal pins that will hold an impression of whatever you press into them, like your face or a hand with a raised middle finger or... actually, I think those are the only two things ever to be pushed into "pinpression" toy.


Never mind, it's a diary. The diary allows you to save your game. "Dear Diary, today I had toast for breakfast and my sister ran into a spooky mansion that will turn us both into butterflies. Weather was good. Well, I'd better go. More tomorrow, unless I have grown wings."


I stumbled into the games room, where I was greeted by a talking butterfly. It seems that the transmogrification process doesn't take away your ability to speak. It even preserves the accent you had in life, which I know because this butterfly has a faintly Eastern European lilt. The butterfly expresses surprise at there being two non-butterfly people in the mansion at once, and then tells Jonathan that he'll never see his sister again. He can definitely hear her, though, and the walls of the mansion must be paper thin because Samantha is distinctly heard talking about being somewhere with lots of flowers. For his part, Jonathan takes the disembodied voice of his sister and the presence of a talking butterfly in his stride. He's unflappable, this kid. Unlike, you know, a butterfly.


Also in the games room is a magic picture frame that gives the merest scrap of a clue about what the bloody hell I'm supposed to be doing. So far I've mostly been forcing Jonathan to walk into walls and enjoying the dull thudding sound that doing so produces, but that's going to get boring after, ooh, two or three hundred repetitions, so I suppose I'd better keep an eye out for this wardrobe, too.


Still checking all the rooms available - there aren't many, as the mansion is only two storeys tall - and Jonathan stumbles into the room for which the word "boudoir" could have been invented. It's like Barbie's 19th Century French Aristocracy Dream House in here, and it also contains the wardrobe from the magic picture. Before I can get to it, though, a different talking butterfly appears and starts chattering away, warning Jonathan that most humans who enter this mansion become butterflies. The game is very keen that you do not misunderstand the salient information about this mansion - that it has the power to turn people into butterflies. You will be reminded of this fact many, many times during the game, as though you might somehow forget. If the butterflies had hands, they'd be using them to shove "So, You're Going To Become A Butterfly" pamphlets into Jonathan's hands.


Looking closely at the wardrobe - an movement that does nothing to dispel my notion that Jonathan is actually some kind of serpentine worm-creature - reveals a key hidden behind a chair. Now I feel like I'm in familiar territory, searching a spooky mansion for keys to unlock other parts of the spooky mansion. I've got this.
The butterfly in the room gets very huffy when you find the key, with the implication that she hid it there in the first place. Given that the key looks to be made of metal and is several inches long, she must have stashed it there while she was still human and she's annoyed because she's never going to be able to move it now. Or she's annoyed because I'm rummaging around her boudoir. She may be a butterfly, but she's still a woman whose privacy should be respected. Mentally, I mean. Physically you could swat her to death with one good swing from a tennis racquet.


The key unlocks an art room, which is home to paintings, key number two and another butterfly, because it's less a Mansion of Hidden Souls and more a Mansion of Talkative Butterflies. The key is the most important thing in the room, but I'm more interested in some of these paintings, especially this one.


I call it "Still Life of a Sugar Puff in Ketchup." Maybe it will look better up close?


Oh good, finally something creepy in this haunted mansion! I can just about make out some teeth and an eye. It sort of looks like the agonised screaming of a flayed teddy-bear. Just to make sure, I'm going to rub Jonathan's face right up against it.


Erm... oops? I'm not sure what's going on. Maybe the painting was a colossal LSD tab and Jonathan licked it by "accident". There never were any butterflies! This is just a regular spooky mansion, not one controlled by "the magic of the moon"!


Never mind, Jonathan was simply being transported to a hidden room. Candles encircle him, and a grumpy moon adorns one wall. There are no doors and I think you're supposed to feel like you're trapped for a while as you puzzle out what to do, but by sheer luck the first thing I did was move towards this candle. That blows it out, and a secret door opens. It felt a little underwhelming, I'll admit. The game's first "puzzle" and I accidentally solved it because I was trying to get a closer look at a grumpy moon.


This leads Jonathan into the library / butterfly corpse storage facility, where yet another butterfly pops up to have a chat. This one is the most interesting of the bunch, and he's primarily engaging because of his atrocious Cockney accent. At least I think it's supposed to be Cockney - it definitely skirts around that area, but sometimes it flies off onto strange new linguistic tangents. The best way I can describe it is to imagine Dick van Dyke's terrible Cockney accent, and then imagine that he's also trying to do a terrible Australian accent at the same time. It's really quite impressive.
Then you take a closer look at pinned butterflies and your new Cockney friend says "I collected them all when they were ugly human figures!" I'm not sure how to process that information, especially because he offers it in such a jolly, offhand manner, and the logistics are even more baffling. Was he a serial killer in his human form, and he carried the corpses of his many victims to the mansion were they turned into butterfly corpses? Or were they humans that came to the mansion only for the Cockney to kill them in his butterfly form, perhaps lulling them into a false sense of security by being a goddamn butterfly? Just as I was pondering these things, the Cockney suddenly started pestering me to turn into a butterfly and I had to make my excuses and leave. I'm not comfortable with these high-pressure sales tactics.


On the way out of the library, there's a book that can be read which gives a big hint as to what you're supposed to be doing next. It's got a picture of the dartboard from the games room, which you can see has a grumpy moon above it. Yes, the darts in the board represent the candle in the moon room, so the next puzzle will be to match the darts and the candles. Of course, this means that someone not only went to the trouble of setting up said puzzle in the first place, but they also had a book with a hint to the puzzle professionally printed and bound to keep in their library. That's the kind of dedication to a bit that will get you many years of contracting work once the Umbrella Corporation starts setting up their own spooky mansions and over-elaborate police stations, Mr. Hidden Souls.


There's one last butterfly to meet before I get to that puzzle. She's found in the music room, and she's a full-on "oh Ah do decleah, Ah believe bein' a butterfly is givin' me the vapors!" southern belle type. She asks if I'm surprised to meet a talking butterfly. Lady, if you'd asked me that twenty minutes ago, I might have been able to feign some shock. She warns Jonathan that he must escape before "The Hunter" finds him. "He will turn you into a butterfly," she says, "after that you will no longer be human." Whoa whoa whoa, hold on a minute - are you saying that if I'm transformed from a human into a butterfly then I will stop being a human and become, in fact, a butterfly?! Why was I not informed of this earlier? I'd better get a move on and solve that candle puzzle!


After finding a book of matches and solving the moon room's puzzle by lighting the candles in the correct order, a secret underground tunnel is revealed. I'm not sure why the underground tunnel is decorated with a statue of a man sitting on the toilet. For ambience, I suppose.
While all this is going on, Samantha's voice can occasionally be heard as she talks to the mysterious Hunter before deciding that she doesn't want to be a butterfly after all. I'm finding it hard to dredge up any sympathy, Samantha. I was perfectly content with not running into the spooky mansion.


My, that's an important-looking item. I'd better walk over there and pick it up!


Oops. Turns out the Mansion of Hidden Souls is also the Mansion of Severe Basement Flooding, and the water is much deeper than it appears. That doesn't explain why Jonathan shoots to the bottom of the lake as though he's got a cinderblock strapped to each ankle, though. I've been picking up a few inventory items here and there, but I don't think a couple of keys and a book of matches are enough to make someone sink like a rock.


That'll be a game over, then. The clock strikes midnight, and Jonathan and Samantha are condemned to spend the rest of eternity as butterflies, flapping around Mansion of Hidden Souls and apparently guarding the staircase, waiting for more unsuspecting humans to wander in so they can badger them into casting off their human forms.


After loading my saved game, it was time to gain access to the flooded orb by solving a puzzle. I say puzzle, it's more like basic housekeeping or the first thing they teach you in florist school - you find a flower, and place it in the one empty vase in a nearby room. See, I'm not sure I'd class that as a "puzzle." I need another word to describe this sequence of events, and "pointless busy work" feels a bit harsh. It makes a nice change from just having Jonathan rub his face up against every nook and cranny of the mansion, I suppose, and with the flower in place the water is drained and I can collect the orb.


Sorry, Jonathan, but your sister is a butterfly now. Good luck explaining that one to your parents. Still, it was nice of the Hunter to put Samantha inside a protective plastic bubble, I can shove her in my inventory without having to worry about accidentally murdering her every time I reach into my pocket.


Just as Jonathan is leaving, the Hunter himself appears! He's, erm, not what I was expecting. I'm not sure what I was expecting, really. I suspect that some deep-down part of me was hoping that a character called "the Hunter" would turn out to be a Crocodile Dundee type in a big floppy hat and a survival vest, but I knew that was never really going to be the case. That doesn't stop it being a disappointment when the Hunter is revealed to be an escapee from a pedestrian crossing signal, though.
As the pivotal figure in this spooky mansion, you'd expect that the Hunter has some important information to relay to the player. He might well do, but sadly I can't tell you what that information is - the audio levelling is so awful during his speech, and the Hunter's voice is so echoey and over-compressed, that his words are almost impossible to decipher. The odd snippet of information does manage to break through the dense soundtrack and the vocal effects to reach your ears, the most pertinent being that Jonathan and Samantha cannot escape the mansion and that "butterflies are the souls of flowers." I thought butterflies were the souls of people? I thought that was the entire premise of the game, that people were being turned into butterflies? My advice to you, Mr. Hunter, is twofold - turn the soundtrack down next time you get to speechifying, and focus up your evil schemes because this whole souls-flower-butterflies thing is all over the place.


As I was leaving the Hunter's chamber, I made the mistake of looking at the statue of the sitting man again. The statue was so perturbed by my gaze that it stood up and soundlessly trampled Jonathan beneath its big stone feet in what was definitely the game's most unsettling moment.


With my butterfly sister ensconced safely in my inventory, it's time to find a way out of the mansion. Talking to the butterflies again can sometimes reveal a hint about what you're supposed to be doing, although I'll admit that I had to look up what my next move was here - finding a candlestick and crawling through the fireplace. Talking to the butterflies also reveals that Samanthafly's wings are still red, which means she can be turned back into a human if she escapes the mansion quickly enough. Blimey, that's convenient. The butterfly curse is like laying cement, it takes a while to set. My solution would be to pitch Samantha's butterfly orb through the nearest window like a baseball and hope that counts as "escaping the mansion," but Jonathan would not entertain such a notion and instead it was back to looking for keys and secret passages.


My habit of making Jonathan walk face-first into walls finally paid dividends when I stepped into this wall. The gentle caress of his skull against the brickwork was enough to dislodge a hidden key, knocking it to the ground where I could collect it. If I hadn't immediately found this key by accidentally holding up on the d-pad long enough for Jonathan to get a mild concussion, I suspect I would be much more annoyed at just how terrible a "puzzle" this is. As it is, I can just sit back and say "that is terrible" in a much more relaxed manner.


The last stretch of the game involves figuring out the deal with this mirror. Other than it being a terrible mirror, I mean, I can't see shit in there. That means another round of looking at every part of the mansion, because there are items you can now pick up even if you've already looked right at them before and nothing happened.


For example, this whacking great crystal. I looked at this crystal earlier and Johnathan didn't think it was interesting enough to collect, but now he can't wait to get his hands on it. It's particularly aggravating because when I saw the crystal earlier I knew it looked important - important enough that the developers made it recognisable even through the kaleidoscopic pixel blizzard of the game's graphics - but I couldn't do anything with it. It's a good job it's sharing a table with a giant cake, because I was always bound to take a second look at the giant cake and hey, now I have a crystal.


I appreciate the game allowing me to shave a few seconds off my time spent trudging around the mansion by jumping over the railing to get to the ground floor. It's useful, because I'm working against the clock now! I know, being timed is usually a real pain in the backside but the time limit is very generous, and one of the more helpful butterflies even tells you to pick up a watch that shows you how long you've got left. Thanks, butterfly. While Mansion of Hidden Souls is not entirely successful as an adventure game, with only a few uninteresting puzzles and a lot of looking at everything multiple times, it does at least have plenty of atmosphere. The music and sound design is very effective, the Hunter sounding like he's speaking from the bottom of a mine shaft aside - and the different butterflies are really the main draw of the game. By talking to them you learn their stories and their foibles: the musician butterfly regrets her metamorphosis, the butterfly collector is creepily keen on you joining the fluttering fold, the artist is baked out of his goddamn gourd, and the whole thing does come together in a fascinating, dream-like bubble of weirdness. It's interesting enough to make me wish the game was better, let's put it that way.


The final puzzle is all about doors with numbers on them. Jonathan travels through a series of rooms with three doors, only one of which leads onwards with the other two spitting you back out into the mansion. The doors all have numbers on them, so I looked around for hints until the butterfly in the games room started telling me about "the number that rhymes with key," in a way that made me want to swat her and say "just say "three", this 'rhymes with key' thing is insulting my intelligence." Of course, I immediately got my comeuppance for thinking this because the knowledge that the number three was important didn't really help me any. It turns out you have to walk through the doors whose digits, when added together, are divisible by three. Before I knew this I made it most of the way through by simply remembering which doors were the dead ends, until I thought "why don't I just look the answer up?" So I did. The doors eventually lead you back to the mirror, and I figured out that you need to use the crystal on the mirror by virtue of it being the only item I hadn't used yet. One mirror/crystal interaction later and voilĂ , The Mansion of Hidden Souls is complete!


The children escape the mansion's clutches, the Hunter ineffectually shouting "Where are you going! Don't go!" as Jonathan books it out of the house. He seems like a nice young man, but I don't think anyone would begrudge him the opportunity to make a rude hand gesture on his way out. Anyway, Samantha is restored to her human form, and in a shocking twist it turns out she's Alice of "in Wonderland" fame. This is going to harm the believability of her story when her parents ask her where she's been all night, they know she's in the habit of drinking strange mind-altering substances and hanging around with pothead caterpillars.


The Mansion of Hidden Souls is an interesting game. Is it a good game? You know, I honestly can't tell. There weren't enough puzzles or thinking involved for my tastes, and the graphics were occasionally downright punishing, but I never felt bored or infuriated while I was playing it. As I say, it's certainly got atmosphere in plentiful supply, and while the voice acting is admittedly poor that's fine by me because there are few things I love more than bad videogame voice acting. It's worth checking out if FMV games and Myst-a-likes are your thing, but if you're not a fan of the genre then this isn't going to be the game to sway you. As for the Halloween-O-Meter score...


Six feels about right, because it's not traditionally Halloween-y but it does have a bizarre feel all of its own, more of a Dario Argento vibe than a George Romero one. You can add an extra two points if you suffer from lepidopterophobia, too! Also, I'm sorry everyone laughs at you for being afraid of butterflies.

6 comments:

  1. I immediately thought when you firstly found candlestick you destroyed them for heart or any castlevania sub-weapon
    But you must be doing it correctly in the first time, right?

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  2. I think you should try Night Trap. You could probably have a field day with the bad acting. It's another Sega CD game.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, and only Into Darkness can really nail the butterfly motif.

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  3. This is not at all what I thought this game would be like! For some reason, all these years I believed it to be part of the 7th Guest/11th Hour live action games. This is more interesting though. As terrible as it looks I can appreciate the dreamy atmosphere and the "smallness" of the story--a simple idea in a limited setting. Seems like it would have a cult following.

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  4. I had this for the Saturn...obviously the graphics are a bit nicer, but it seems to lack a bit of this version's atmosphere and has added silly, talking, floating heads!

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  5. Jonathan might not be a good name for a snake-person, but it's a great name for a tortoise: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_%28tortoise%29

    ReplyDelete

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