Se HP Lovecraft had he known about the posthumous success of his works and the inspiration they provided to various authors spread over different fields, he would probably have been decidedly disappointed by the irony of a fate that saw him die in poverty. To these derivative works, more or less successful, he adds Westmark Manor, a small independent project by Nodbrim Interactive, strongly inspired by the productions of the king of the macabre and the oneiric. A partially successful tribute to the writer, in a dark adventure that tries to intertwine with the world of puzzle games. Through thick and thin.
Theodore Westmark is the director of the local ancient history department. A man who dedicates his life to research, with particular attention to the world of the occult. After spending several years searching for the alchemical formula that can control space and time, he finds what he craves in Vornum, an island off the coast of Norway. Returning the found material to his homeland to be able to study it more carefully, Theodore sets out to find a way to cure the horrible disease that afflicts his wife Elizabeth. Something inevitably goes wrong and their vast abode turns into a nightmare trap from which they must escape.
In short, Westmark Manor is the classic case of a haunted mansion in which our protagonist will have to try to survive by extricating himself from the horrors and the enigmas that this will appear in front of him. In fact, once inside the main door, the player finds himself with the doors closed behind him by a mechanism that requires the possession of a predetermined number of seals (decided by the level of difficulty set) and that the protagonist recovers by solving the puzzles scattered around. the House. The game mechanics are essential and rather simple: you have to explore the environment to retrieve documents and objects useful for solving the puzzles (which provide the aforementioned seals), while trying to survive the threats proposed by the building. The exploration is not a quiet walk with a few little scares scattered here and there, but it requires the player to pay special attention in the management of the character. In fact, Theodore has a mental clarity to take into account, which is influenced by more or less negative memories and images scattered around the house. This, in turn, continually tries to corrupt this clarity, with curses delivered randomly and with the most atrocious threat, represented by darkness. Unfortunately, Theodore has the worst problem one can have in such a scenario: he is afraid of the dark. Her only friend is the kerosene lantern with which to illuminate her path, assisted by matches with which to light candlesticks and create fixed lighting points in the various rooms of the mansion. In addition to a real limitation to the gameplay (in the dark, the protagonist does not see the objects to be collected), the darkness consumes the sanity bar, leading our to die of fear when this drops to zero. It is then up to the player to choose whether to resurrect it on the spot by spending an entire point of lucidity, or to load the last save. Managing these points is the core mechanics of the survival horror side of the game: In addition to direct respawn, these can be used to save progress via the lectern (a bit like Resident Evil's ink ribbons) or spent at the grotesque conduit merchant, who exchanges these points for useful items like matches, potions or bottles of kerosene. All this creates a rather interesting experience from the point of view of the atmosphere, which keeps the player constantly on the string as he moves between one puzzle and another.
Already the puzzles. Because despite the listed characteristics, Westmark Manor is undeniably, at the purest soul of its gameplay, a puzzle game. We pass from obstacles that can be easily overcome with intuition to real puzzles of difficult resolution, practically unsolvable without finding the right clues to decode, for example, some type of cipher. Overall, these are rather interesting and pleasant proposals to deal with, which provide the right bread for the teeth of fans of this type of challenge. It should also be emphasized that the scalable difficulty allows you to leave behind what seems to the player unsolvable, since on the basis of this the number of seals necessary to open the main door will be initially decided. It is agreed that the less patient can start with a lower difficulty and dabble exclusively with the easier puzzles, while they dedicate themselves to the continuation of the narrative.
However, this is not such a convenient exchange. If the gameplay is in fact rather pleasant, the narrative sector does not prove to be as convincing, finding himself limping a bit in the excessive crypticity of its phases. The short cutscenes help to create a good atmosphere, in continuity with the parts played, but the plot is generally a bit too confused, at times patchy. Although the lore of the game shows itself in a rather interesting way and with several valid ideas, the writing of the story does not fully convince, especially in the ways in which it is told. It is clear how crypticity goes well with Lovecraftian works and how one cannot expect the authorship of Ken Levine or Hideo Kojima from a work of this caliber, but something more could certainly be done.
From a technical point of view, Westmark Manor presents itself as a game of the beginning of the millennium, with all its pros (few) and its cons (many). The graphics sector is literally attributable to that of the Playstation 2 period and does not appear exactly memorable. Although it can arouse nostalgic memories in those who were already gamers at the time, presenting themselves to 2020 with such a visual impact is certainly not ideal. It is true that, assisted by the black and white mode, it helps to give the work a slightly retro flavor, but certainly the merits end here.. Especially considering that even the character's animations are far from flawless. Theodore moves as if he has put on his shirt with all the crutch and walks as if he has just sat down on something uncomfortably blunt, dangling around the mansion. Inevitably, the gameplay ends up being affected a little even if, being a purely exploratory puzzle game, these shortcomings do not excessively compromise the gaming experience. What instead represents a real attack on it are the many bugs and glitches that undermine the game, some very annoying. The camera above all presents very serious problems: using direct respawn, sometimes this inexplicably passes in first person, preventing the player from moving or worse, in other cases he even forgets to follow him with the shot, leaving Theodore running around in points not visible on the monitor. Not to mention the chests and chests containing game items, which often make keys disappear from the inventory without having returned the due to the player. These are gross errors that aggravate an overall rather approximate technical realization. To be honest it should be emphasized that this is a low-budget game, made mainly on the wings of passion for Lovecraft and the videogame medium, but forcing the player to have to reload a save due to technical gaps attributable to development, remains a hardly forgivable lack. even at these levels.
When evaluating Westmark Manor as a whole, several factors must be carefully considered. If the technical sector is not flawless and the narration leaves something to be desired, on the other hand the title of Nodbrim Interactive is presented as a pleasant puzzle game set in a survival horror all in all nice and with its merits. However, well done enigmas and a very caricatural Lovecraftian style are not enough to elevate a product undermined by too many problems related to its realization to a masterpiece. However, it should be borne in mind that in the age of the internet and digital stores, bugs are now a problem that can be solved through post-release patches and in this the study must be acknowledged, for having remained on the track: since the days following the release in fact , the software house continues to work on its creature, regularly releasing corrective patches that progressively fix many of the gaps in the game. A work that continues even after weeks, undoubtedly demonstrating the passion of the development team towards their work. In conclusion Westmark Manor remains a recommended product for players who want to approach the interesting puzzles of a title without too many pretensions, spending several hours of leisure in a structure with elements that clearly wink at speedruns (such as the procedurality of part of the objects and the game hours counter always clearly visible when the inventory is opened). Anyone who does not fall into this description or does not have the slightest fascination with Lovecraft's works can easily turn their attention elsewhere.