Have You Played… Realms of the Haunting?


Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

Realms of the Haunting [Steam / GOG] should be better known. It’s one of my favourite horror games ever to sell about four copies and be forgotten. Hurrah for digital second chances.

It’s not really a surprise that ROTH floundered at launch. The 3D engine was Doom level tech in 1996, its name is ridiculous, the box was terrible, and if you want to pick holes in the game, it doesn’t take long. My favourite is that none of the enemies are able to walk through doors. Terrifying.

But I still love it in all its campy glory, and I love what it achieved. It starts as your stock haunted house mystery and then becomes a dimension spanning epic about the apocalypse, always going the extra mile. That house for instance. It’s huge, with maps sprawling and almost never having visible loads (they’re there, but well disguised). It’s full of character, with the ability to use the mouse pointer to examine things, and a partner during most of the game – Rebecca – who Adam can talk to for more information about all the weird stuff. (Not including why she never appears in mirrors.)

In short, it’s a game that went all out to be the best it could be, at least until the plot pretty much tacitly admits “Yeah, we’re out of money” and resorts to mazes. There’s a lot of mazes. They all suck. But looking back, it’s never those that spring to mind. It’s the letters to the villain carved with hate on his own walls, the awesome performance from David “Pickle From Knightmare” Learner as the demon Belial, with gloves of human skin and a delightfully withering turn of phrase.

All of this gives the game such a wonderful texture – a real feel of being caught up in a whole universe of magic and monsters and a thousand dark machinations. Heck, I could easily talk for a good 47 minutes on it. In fact, I have. Right here, in fact. (Also available in two halves) It’s kinda snarky, but don’t mistake that for a lack of genuine fondness. Poor Realms of the Haunting. You deserved so much better than you got, and I would totally have bought your sequel.

48 Comments

  1. Maritz says:

    Yes! This game terrified my young self when it came out. But it was great, including the FMV, although I do remember having to resort to a walkthrough to complete it.

  2. Xan says:

    While I haven’t played it, I enjoyed watching a Let’s Play of it from one of my favourite LP’ers, Kikoskia: link to youtube.com

  3. tomimt says:

    I was a bit disappointed when the game did rather quickly turn out to be just another FPS game rather than a horror game.

    • vedder says:

      This!

      I played this game in 2010 and instantly fell in love with it. The early part of the game is quite an amazing blend of FPS and horror with even some elements hinting at more of a point & click adventure feel. But the latter two quickly seem to faze out leaving the FPS part which is arguably the weakest part of the game. It did remain fun to explore the diverse environments.

      Definitely a game that deserves a cult classic status. I got thoroughly excited when I saw it mentioned in my RSS stream!

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I wouldn’t say it turns into an FPS so much as a maze game. The combat’s so laughable that the enemies can’t really do anything to you anyway once you start getting weapons that recharge. Though there’s some good bits with the FPS, like Florentine’s quarters guarded by the scissor-men. It’s smart in that it does the boo-scares until you’re bored of them, then shifts gears to react to the fact that like Adam, you’re used to it. One of the small details I like is that he starts off going “Oh shit!” to every jump-scare, but after a while starts riffing on things with Rebecca and not being impressed by people like Belial trying to spook him.

      But the mazes… gah, the mazes. The one in the graveyard always takes me the longest.

      • Rinox says:

        Adam’s quips are one of the best things about the game. Althought it would be a stretch to say that the acting is exceptional, the writers and actors did get the tone right. A sort of gallows humor of a regular guy in a situation that is making less and less sense as things go along.

        Now I think of it, I liked most characters in ROTH. Florentine’s comic book villain antics (“here…there…everywhere!”), Belial’s cool calculated cruelty, the Gnarl’s frantic insults, Aelf’s noble posture with a fatherly sense of humor towards Adam. And of course miss Trevisard’s insights and secrets.

        Another thing that no one mentioned yet were the (for the time) beautifully rendered items you could inspect in your inventory. Worked particularly well for the books, maps or letter collections you found.

        Like you Richard, ROTH has a special place in my heart. For all its flaws and the terrible puzzles at the end it really tried to be special and had a lot of (unfulfilled) ambition. I wrote the lead artist Chris Pepper a loooong time ago to thank him for his work on the game, and he was most kind in his response. I could tell he very much enjoyed working on the game. Shame they didn’t get a second attempt!

        Thanks for the article!

  4. Premium User Badge

    Arnvidr says:

    While I haven’t played it, I do own it. I believe I got it for free from GOG many years back. I have recently started a somewhat chronological playthrough of the older FPS titles in my game library, and I will soon get to it (if I can just get the free time to actually play some games).

    • Michael Anson says:

      Once you’ve gotten that out of the way, you can set a few years aside and start working through the RPG back catalog!

      • Premium User Badge

        Arnvidr says:

        Yeah, I’ve got lists for shooters, rpg, and adventure games. It’s a terrifying prospect.

  5. Telkir says:

    Huzzah! Gaming words from Cobbett, always worth a read and/or listen.

    Probably like other folk, I’d never heard of this game. Actually looks worth checking out and certainly deserving of a spot on my GOG wishlist.

    David Learner was probably scarred for life by his experience of working on Knightmare, so to see him in something like this doesn’t come as a massive surprise…

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Huzzah!

      I really like Learner in this one. The script is a bit precious, especially when Adam starts getting into all the “I seek the one who has-” type stuff too, but I love how Belial goes from smug professionalism to “Oh, I will conquer the universe, but revenge comes first.

      Bit of a shame the scene where he does that screams “We ran out of money, don’t think about what’s happening here too carefully.” I’d love to know what was planned before that very visible, painful cut. But hey.

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Once you’ve beaten Daggerfall, a few mazes ain’t no thang.

    • Rinox says:

      Amen.

      I attribute my great sense of direction in video games to endless hours of mentally navigating Daggerfall dungeons in my youth. Pretty sure I could still find the Underking without any difficulties 20 years down the line.

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    Harlander says:

    Was this one of the Gabriel Knight games?

  8. deiseach says:

    “the box was terrible”

    Was the box anything like the ad? I know you’re not meant to judge a book by its cover and all that jazz, but an ad is meant to make you go ‘hmm, intriguing, must check that out’, not ‘did someone vomit on the page?’

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The box was basically the ad – a collage of ugly images. link to mobygames.com In the US it had a cleaner logo, while in the UK it was the jagged red letters. It looked better in reality than in scans because it had shiny bits in gold that are just black in reproduction, but it was not pretty.

  9. Casimir's Blake says:

    A classic 90s first person adventure with fascinating level design and interesting puzzles. The shooting mechanic is awkward but doesn’t detract from the experience. This game is more evidence many third person games are generally overrated mainstream trash and cannot possibly provide nearly as much immersion. Dark / Demon’s Souls excepted.

    Why is no-one making interesting first person games like Realms any more? Amnesia has nothing on this. And “walking simulators”? Don’t make me laugh, there is nothing to DO in those “games”. I can count the number of first person RPGs being developed currently on ONE hand and this is a truly lamentable state of affairs.

  10. Terragot says:

    Doom – if you could talk with the monsters.

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    Risingson says:

    I loved this game oh so much. Most of it was generic 90s FPS, blocky levels, ROTT-like enemies and instant deaths from falls, but there were other really good creepy parts. I don’t think I’ll ever replay it, but it surely was one of the games I enjoyed the most in my 20s.

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      Risingson says:

      I also remember not being able to see a thing in many levels

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        There’s a few areas like that, though most in the house at least have light-switches. The only really oppressive dark maze that I can think of off-hand is the one in The Offering, which is a fricking nightmare. Others are at least lit, even if they’re awful in other ways, like the brain maze in Sheol.

  12. ansionnach says:

    Only played this a couple of weeks ago and I mostly enjoyed it. The maze with the brains is what stuck in my mind as well as the fact that the game really goes on a downward spiral towards the end. I’ve gushed about what I liked about the game a lot here recently.

    One thing, though: it does not have a Doom level of tech. It uses a proper 3d engine (albeit, with sprites for enemies).

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It’s a bit above Doom, as you’d hope for a 1996 game, but really not by very much. It uses sprites and transparency for almost all of its stuff, with only a tiny handful of simple items here and there and a lot of clever effects to simulate it having more depth and capability than it actually has. Some of them are there, like the criss-crossing of basic paths in the Tower, but the majority of the game is just cleverly designed to do a lot with little. You can occasionally catch it out when the mask slips (one of the more visible examples being the perceptible jump as you go into Adam’s father’s basement) but pretty rarely. Very well implemented.

      • ansionnach says:

        Certainly don’t think the Doom engine would manage those physics puzzles towards the end. I would have thought the engine was closer to a Daggerfall level. The combat certainly reminded me of it, but far naffer. I wonder will Normality appear as a recommendation some day? The adventuring-lite of Realms might have been more enjoyable with less enemies to shoot. Never played Normality much myself. Must get to it some day.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          The Abyssal Maze bit isn’t hugely complex – a few moving blocks of fixed height, a couple of lines of sprites, etc. The more impressive stuff is only using sprites, in particular bouncing the plasma ball off the balls. A bit like the section in Raysiel’s tower which at one point gives you glasses to see the tripwires it’s using, it’s clever, but not that technologically advanced. Though I’m convinced that section is the programmer’s testing room, dressed up and given a boss. Who then promptly drops a power-up that Adam never actually gets to use because at that point the whole game is just being stuck together with sticky-tape.

          I never liked Normality much myself. Cool tech and concepts, but found the world and characters incredibly off-putting. Glad someone other than the Tex Murphy team tried that, but it didn’t work for me that well.

          • ansionnach says:

            Well, you’ve obviously done your homework here (as opposed to my casual observations). Thanks for your thoughts on Normality. Only gave it a bash years to see if it grabbed me immediately. It’ll probably remain on the long finger until I’m really out of compelling adventures.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            I’ve played Realms many times over the years, at least up to the point where it implodes. It’s one of my favourite games for stretching its engine to bursting point, and with terrific attention to detail. I still love the room under the sarcophagus where you have the floating platform with the huge angel texture over the lava flows, and how well they did the church in St. Michaels. It does such a great job of getting you used to what it’s doing and then throwing a curveball, like having all the miserable stuff in the house and the Tower and then boom- the green and wide open spaces of Raquia. And then a maze of course, but it’s ROTH. That was pretty inevitable, I guess :-)

          • ansionnach says:

            I really hated that maze and the puzzles at the end. Thought it was supposed to be hell… but thinking about it, maybe it was!

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            It’s just the worst. Not only awful to play, but a terrible concept that makes no sense. Find sixteen brains to put into a machine? Piss off. Thankfully there’s a savegame on the web that will take you to after that bit, so I’ve only ever had to do it once. The only downside of using it is that whoever made it used up all of Florentine’s staff ammo that takes out the Dodger (the purple guy at the end of the game) in a couple of hits, so you still have to deal with him in a horrible close-quarter battle. Not super-hard, but really, really long-winded and annoying.

          • MrBehemoth says:

            If I remember correctly, the first time I played (which was the UK retail version) you couldn’t get all the brains until you’d clicked on the random hearts that could be found in the maze. Each time you clicked one, Adam would say “Descend.” And when they’d all descended, he’d get some kind of psychic link with Rebecca, and the last brain appeared in some random spot on the map.

            Every subsequent playthrough (of which there have been many, all the US retail version) that doesn’t happen. You can’t interact with the hearts and all the brains are available for the finding.

            …But the internet seems to have no knowledge of this. Can anyone confirm it?

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            I don’t remember that at all, and I originally played the UK retail copy (the, cough, Limited Edition that as far as I know is the only version they actually sold here). Seems unlikely, because Rebecca’s otherwise occupied at that point in the story, but not impossible. Though I do like to think that if they went back to do anything with the Sheol levels, it’d be burning them out of the game with a welding torch.

            (It was certainly glitchy. I remember leaving the study at one point mid-game and the game resetting to Chapter 2 – thankfully with the items to progress, as well as a few other goofs, like the way you can skip an entire chapter because they used the same statuette key for the library as the door down to the basement, or completely miss Gaul arriving at the house. My copy of the original also, for whatever reason, wouldn’t play some of the voiceovers, notably Hawk in the caverns and another bit where Adam and Rebecca just talked to themselves for a while. So I wouldn’t be surprised if someone went “No” while tidying up at least a few other bits and pieces.)

          • ansionnach says:

            Pretty much never use hints but after hours of wandering I looked up where that last brain was. Behind the bloody machine? Come on! Probably never would have looked there (and I’m sure the designers knew this).

            Never used the staff, even at the very end. My first save file after the brains is also after the mirrors, puzzles and flamethrower guy. Anyone who wants it is welcome to it. Built up quite a stockpile of other ammo seeing as I played almost the whole game with the swords.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            The staff makes that fight hilarious.

            “GRAAARGH! I AM THE ULTIMATE POWER OF ENTROPY AND-”
            (BAM!)
            “Good doggie. Sit.”

          • ansionnach says:

            Took a look at the gog version of the post-brains save file from realmsofthehaunting.com. Changing offset 12AC to 0C gives you the maximum of twelve shots in your staff. Emailed it to them in case they think it’d be useful. Since the saves are variable length the location may vary. In my saves (also gog version) it’s at offset 1314. There’s a very obvious pattern in that part of the file, with non-zero values being the amount of all sorts of things in your inventory. The value for the staff ammo lies bang in the middle of groups of three sets of zeros between these so it’s pretty easy to find by elimination. Would be easier to find it if there was some ammo left in the staff to begin with.

            After all that I should probably put in some sort of joke!

  13. MrBehemoth says:

    I love ROTH despite all it’s flaws. Shared nostalgia for this game is partly what got me a 2nd date with my wife!

    Also, here’s a thing I made a couple of years ago:
    [youtube link to youtube.com
    About sums it up, I think.

  14. kahki says:

    I played ROTH for the first time around 2010 and it’s been one of my favorite games ever since. The atmosphere is just sublime, especially in the mansion parts. The lack of any apparent loading screens really made an impression on me, exploring the world felt that much more immersive due to it. Even with the cheesiness of the acting and the horribleness of the final mazes and puzzle chambers, I just can’t help but unconditionally love the game. The ending is pretty strange to say the least though, especially considering that there was supposed to be a sequel in the works.

    It’s truly a shame there aren’t more similiar games that mix first person combat and exploration with adventure gamey bits. The original System Shock and an incredibly obscure yet brilliant game called Azrael’s Tear are the only ones that come to mind. I guess the Ultima Underworlds might count as well (if you squint a little). Other than those, I’ve got nothing. Penumbra and Amnesia are too survival horror-y, the first person Tex Murphy games don’t have any combat, Deus Ex doesn’t have enough adventure game elements etc. I’ll have to play Pathologic to see if it fits the bill, once the remake is out.

    • ansionnach says:

      Not many similar games. Haven’t played any of these much or at all but perhaps Strife, Amulets & Armour, Robinson’s Requiem, Shadowcaster, Hexx: Heresy of The Wizard, Anvil of Dawn, the Ravenlofts and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Normality uses the same engine but I don’t think there’s any combat.

    • jj2112 says:

      Did you play Clive Barker’s Undying? It’s similar, though more of a FPS.

    • kahki says:

      Thanks for all the suggestions! I actually own Anvil of Dawn and Normality, maybe I should try playing them one of these days. I’ve only played the demo of Undying, and it did seem intriguing… but I also keep hearing that it’s such a big downgrade from ROTH, which is somewhat discouraging. Strife I’ve been super interested in for ages. The others seem worth investigating about as well, but most of those old rpgs aren’t available from any legal places on the net, are they… :/

      • ansionnach says:

        I guess the more you miss a game, the more likely it is to turn up on gog at some point. It probably would not exist but for greyer predecessors, which provided links to buy games where they were available… but download links otherwise. Anyway, Amulets & Armour seems to be available for free; Robinson’s Requiem is on gog (with the sequel). Don’t think the others are available. Psygnosis published Hexx and Dracula, so Sony may be sitting on those. Shadowcaster was published by Origin, so maybe EA have that. The Ravenlofts were by SSi, so perhaps Ubisoft own those now. Dracula and the Ravenlofts may well need further authorisation from the licence holders ( Wizards of the Coast for D&D in the case of Ravenloft). Probably a bit academic since none of these games set the world alight. I’d probably just play some more Daggerfall to scratch this itch. There’s an installation package that installs it with loads of fixes and even windows shortcuts to start it in DOSBox. It’s here:
        link to wiwiki.wiwiland.net

        If you pick up any of the others form somewhere I’m more than happy to help people out with DOSBox setup should they need help getting started. Usually change the setup for most gog games as it’s rarely done to my liking.

  15. Chaz says:

    I still have the original CD’s for this as I bought it at launch. It got some quite reasonable reviews at the time, but obviously didn’t sell well.

    I quite enjoyed it up to a point and then I kept getting a reoccurring CTD when I entered a certain part of the map. A reinstall didn’t fix it and I wasn’t about to start all over again just in case it was my save that was bugged out. Ever since it has remained on my shelf for the last 20 years as part of my growing collection of unfinished games.

  16. Booker says:

    I always got shocked a little bit when enemies would just “grow” out of the floor in front of you screaming. Up until that point I knew only games that had enemies who were just there and could be seen even from afar.

  17. jj2112 says:

    Yes quite recently in fact, and I’m stuck. Don’t want to use a walkthrough.

  18. MichaelGC says:

    “Sarcophagus; cold to touch.”

  19. kahki says:

    Wow, thanks for all the helpful info! Yeah, I’ve played a bit of Daggerfall and it does feel surprisingly similar to ROTH, even if there’s not much in the way of puzzles I think. I must be one of the few who enjoy exploring the huge random mazes (when they’re not totally bugged). I’ve been waiting for the Daggerfall XL release, but since that doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon I guess I might as well get back to playing DF sans the XL engine. I also downloaded Amulets & Armor. It feels a bit clunky, but there appears to be some depth to it. Definitely going to investigate further.