previews\ Sep 14, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Preview: Huntsman: The Orphanage is one tick away from insanity

Huntsman sm

Between Outlast and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, you may be all scared out. But this fall has found room for one more fright: ShadowShifters’ first-person indie adventure Huntsman: The Orphanage.

Chances are you’ll recognize the theme: no weapons, no violence. Just your wits and a sprint button. You’re a visitor to Grimhaven Orphanage, arriving in the dark of night to investigate a myth — either the supernatural disappearance or the cruel murders of 12 orphans years ago.

I got to try out the beta, which begins feet away from a payphone's flickering light in the middle of nowhere, Illinois. It’s here that players get their first taste of how the cell phone mechanic works: It’s your portal to the other side, transmitting the visuals and audio of ghosts who seek to communicate with the stranger who’s come to investigate their deaths. They plead for your help in setting their souls free, but they caution you to beware the Huntsman.

I got a little lost in the fog, which didn’t bode well for my courage. The dim light of the phone, which your character constantly holds up with the camera on, is all that keeps the darkness at bay. Eventually, I stumbled toward a building and inched along its walls until I discovered a gated entrance, all the while hearing a ticking like a clock.

It's actually the ticking of pocket watches, the calling card of the Huntsman. Walk into the orphanage and steady your aim just so, and a still portrait will speak to you — that of an old caretaker who spent 40 years tormented by what happened here at Grimhaven. He explains what you're up against.

Huntsman - caretaker

Since this is a beta, I’m willing to forgive the bit of bugginess about the game. My character was prone to stumbling and dropping things, and it was often difficult to position myself in front of the portraits so they spoke. ShadowShifters is tweaking and updating the game continuously during the beta, but since listening to these stories is the central task, you’ll want to be patient enough to hear them. They offer clues about the special objects players must collect and rest on the headstones to give the dead peace.

Those empty graves are located in a hedge maze outside the orphanage, but it’s inaccessible for the time being. The ghosts urge me to make haste lest the Huntsman come, and by this point, I’m starting to sweat. I can hear his ticking everywhere.

The noise is enough to drive anyone mad, and the thought of constant pursuit is what will grate on your nerves. In the persistent darkness, the Huntsman is the real source of unseen fear — not the abandoned environment and not the stories that the deceased orphans tell about their terrible childhoods in Grimhaven. They’re engaging tales, but they’re too long to be scary. I stood in place for minutes while listening to their histories. There's a boy named Noah, whose sickly lungs made him too weak to fight; a girl named Molly, who suffered the taunts and torture of her peers; and Bella, who lost her homeland and her family to illness and poverty. Their most precious mementos lie in the deepest, darkest part of the orphanage, where they dare not go.

These audio diaries are well acted, but it’s difficult to find them scary when they offer a reprieve from the dreadful ticking of the Huntsman that stalks you through the halls. The animations of children that flash on your cell phone are at best cheesy jump scares.

Huntsman - 2

Thankfully, that’s not what’s going to drive the game’s horror. It’s the Huntsman that I’m worried about.

It took me a long time to figure out that the Huntsman wasn’t going to attack me in the beta, but the racing and fading sounds of his pocket watches made me feel otherwise. I can only imagine how intense that paranoia will become when he’s actually chasing me — when my soul and those of countless others depend on avoiding him.

The public beta is available now on Steam, but the real experience won’t open up until Halloween, when the game launches. Until then, the days will tick, tick, tick by.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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