Ghost hunting has been an integral part of Darkling Room’s games since Dark Fall in 2002, but their latest venture takes the hunt to the most realistic level yet. In Incubus: A ghost-hunters tale you get to virtually explore a real-world haunted house that the developers extensively researched for themselves. You might get a bit impatient if it takes too long to locate the exact corner of the house where something is amiss, but if you approach it systematically like the highly compelling procedural it is, the creep factor rises as you probe the rooms for ghostly phenomena, making you feel as if you’re playing the lead role in a new Paranormal Activity movie.
It all takes place on Dread Pit Road, London’s East End. The three-story house is the only one in the area that hasn’t been redeveloped because no one will go near it. Not only was this site once a hotspot for the Black Death long ago, but the region was also extensively bombed during WWII. Many people perished here, and rumor has it their spirits have trouble letting go of our earthly realm. The O.P.G. team (the Oxford Paranormal Group) has assigned you to investigate.
Once you’ve passed through the front door, you can look around you 360 degrees by panning the camera with the mouse. You don’t walk through the rooms on your own but by left-clicking the available directions on-screen in a slideshow fashion. The interface is basically the same as in Dark Fall: Ghost Vigil but with free camera movement instead of clicking to turn around on the spot. It works well enough, but sadly this technique diminishes the feeling of freedom, and I would’ve preferred being able to explore the house as one huge three-dimensional environment.
This time you’re not moving through an environment rendered completely with computer graphics (except for the external locations, which are clearly CGI and look pretty fake in contrast to the indoor scenes), but made up of real photographs. Kind of like walking around using Google Street View, or perhaps more accurately in this case, some kind of realtor’s online panoramic house-viewing app. Except it’s haunted and designed to freak you out.
Right-clicking the mouse opens up both the menu options (top of the screen) and your inventory (bottom of the screen), where you can equip all kinds of ghost-hunting gear. The goal of Incubus is to move through the house to identify three ghostly phenomena per each of the fourteen “levels” of the game. These phenomena can be auditory (from the sound of crying, knocking or footsteps to actual voices) or visual (whether markings on walls, floating orbs, insubstantial flames or actual apparitions). To help you out, you can access a handy index of all possible phenomena and what you need to look out for, plus a list of all your equipment and how it can be used.
You start off with the EMF (electromagnetic fields) meter, to narrow down exactly which room is haunted – though be aware that not all phenomena will trigger this device! Then you can investigate the room in question with the rest of your equipment: a digital camera, which often shows things you can’t see with the naked eye, an infrared camera to uncover even more special visual manifestations, a radio to capture voices from the beyond, and your trusty smartphone to take pictures and communicate with the O.G.P. team.
During nighttime levels, you’ll automatically whip out a flashlight. The beam is rather small, and moving through the darkness gives quite the adrenaline rush. I constantly expected something to jump out from around the corner, a peculiar feeling that instinctively isn’t really present during the day. It’s a good thing the game alternates between night and day; otherwise my nerves would be in shreds.
Sometimes your hand-held equipment just can’t locate anything special, because certain ghosts are shy and won’t show themselves when someone is near. That’s why the house has been outfitted with several surveillance cameras. You can monitor them from your laptop in the kitchen, and you might see things from a distance that won’t appear when you’re actually standing in the room.
Presented via a handy interface, you can access a map of the house with all possible phenomena icons listed next to it. Your job is to identify the correct phenomena currently active, click the corresponding icon, then paste it like a little sticker on the correct room on the map. The fun thing is, the types of phenomena appearing in each level are randomized, so no playthrough is ever the same. With 16 possible phenomena and 11 different rooms, you can get loads of combinations. Of course, the further you progress in Incubus, the more alarming, eerie and frightening the actual hauntings will become.
An added difficulty is that sometimes the same phenomenon can manifest itself in different rooms, so you also have the option to indicate each floor as a whole on the map, and ultimately even the entire HOUSE should the same phenomenon appear on different floors at the same time.
Match three phenomena and you can forward your findings to the O.P.G. team. They’ll tell you what you got right in a kind of Mastermind fashion: not only how many phenomena you correctly identified, but also how many of the locations you got right. You’ll move on to the next level when you get a perfect score, or you can choose to go back and try again if you got one or two wrong. However, you can decide to progress even without a perfect score.
If you’re really stuck, you can ask for an in-game hint by scanning a poster with a QR-code in the kitchen. Then the O.G.P. team will tell you in which three rooms you have to look for the hauntings in that particular level, narrowing your search and making it all a bit easier. Could that be considered cheating? Perhaps, but perhaps not, since the clues are accompanied by a witness report of someone who passed by the house earlier and noticed something weird in this or that room, so it’s all well-integrated into the narrative.
And I must admit, sometimes it is very hard. Usually I could identify two phenomena quite easily, especially the visual ones like drawings or handprints on the wall. But some sounds can be tricky to hear, especially with distant traffic and birdsong masking them when you’re near a window, so I recommend playing with headphones. Your ghost-hunting equipment tends to hum as well, which might be just loud enough to mask the sound of a ghost flipping a light switch in a far corner or a gentle knock on a window. So it’s wise to sometimes pocket everything, just stand there and close your eyes for a better listen.
Then again, sometimes the opposite can be true. You might clearly hear a little girl laughing and running around, but such a phenomenon should also trigger your EMF meter according to the phenomena guide. If the meter doesn’t spike, however, then the sounds you hear don’t count.
You’re often contacted through video calls by two O.G.P. team members, Bear and Jen, to help transition between levels. They are portrayed by real actors in laggy, looping videos, hinting at the “bad connections” in a ghost-infested house. Their lines can get a bit repetitive, though. They also comment on the photos you take through text messages, but these messages often disappear way too fast, and sometimes I had to take multiple photos of the same object to be able to read everything they have to say in time.
Now, before you say, “Hey, this is no adventure game! This is a ghost-hunting simulator!” I assure you that’s only half right. It’s certainly not a typical adventure like The Lost Crown, and it isn’t filled with the kind of puzzling encountered in the Dark Fall games. Incubus is a bit light in comparison, and you find out rather quickly why none of the tenants of number 6, Dread Pit Road, ever stayed long. But eventually you’ll have to do more than simply scan for ghostly presences.
There are secrets buried within the house, and you’ll have to dig them up through some manual labor, searching for the right tools to pry open boards and planks so you can take a look inside walls, floors and hidden compartments, in turn freeing the way for the more dangerous spooks to come out and boogie. And at one point you will investigate an entirely different location for reasons best left to discover for yourself, which contains a doozy of a logic puzzle containing bells and daggers, and even different types of ghost-detecting equipment.
[Helpful hint/possible spoiler warning] One important thing to keep in mind, which I was surprised wasn’t conveyed by my O.G.P. helpers, is that the spirits won’t appear until you find those hidden secrets within a given level. While exploring you’ll encounter physical proof of the house’s previous inhabitants, like letters, photographs or notes. Sometimes you’ll get a phone call from an unknown person as well. Only then will their respective apparitions register on your ghost-hunting equipment. All these elements serve the storyline, but if you don’t seek them out first, any time spent searching for ghosts before you make a physical discovery will have been in vain, and you’ll have to explore the rooms all over again. [End hint/spoiler]
While I’d love to go on an actual ghost-hunting trip, preferably with Darkling Room’s experienced Jonathan Boakes and Matt Clark by my side, I probably never will. That’s why I love playing games like Incubus: A ghost-hunters tale. Here you can virtually investigate a haunted house for all kinds of paranormal phenomena, using all kinds of authentic gadgets and equipment. Other than the limited control scheme, I really appreciated the level of realism here, which surpasses anything the developers have released to date in that regard. Better still, in real life you wouldn’t get much further than waving an infrared camera around, while here you get to uncover hidden secrets, turning the experience into a bonafide horror tale of supernatural proportions. If, like me, you enjoy scaring yourself without actually putting yourself in any real danger, you’ll surely want to check this game out. After ten hours, I wasn’t exactly afraid to go upstairs to my own bedroom, but I did start hearing all kinds of weird sounds. Probably the neighbors…
Perhaps the next closest thing to a real-world ghost-hunting expedition, Incubus offers plenty of paranormal phenomena to keep you busy and satisfy your fears and fantasies.
- Photorealistic environments and real equipment make for better immersion
- Slowly elevating creep factor helps tell a thrilling tale
- Randomization of ghostly phenomena provides great variety for replays
- No fluid free-roaming movement
- Support team’s text comments often disappear too quickly
Johnny played his own copy of Incubus: A ghost-hunters tale on PC