Dr Horror's House of Terror

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A meaty, creepy puzzlefest, January 12, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Is there a harder genre at this point to parody than Hammer horror flicks? By this point, not too many people have actually watched the movies, but we’ve all seen a million I-vant-to-suck-your-blood-bleh-bleh sendups that make it seem like the originals were just as silly. Dr Horror’s House of Terror manages the task, though, keeping the traditional comedy monster-mash angle while adding a meta twist (you’re not running around actual Transylvanian villages and Alpine laboratories, just movie sets) and playing some moments of horror just straight enough to land. To be sure, the main draw of this big puzzlefest is working through its just-hard-enough challenges, but the tone is also just-novel-enough to make the fourish hour runtime go quickly.

The other strong element here is the pacing. I find long games can often feel awkward on this score, with an intimidatingly-big environment at the beginning and a saggy late-middle as you run out of things to solve. Dr Horror does well out the gate, though, with a focused, linear opening that establishes the premise and stakes – the head of the horror-movie company moonlights as a cult leader and wants to give you a starring role in a sacrificial rite to summon their demonic patron to earth. Then the map leads you to a hub where you find five different themed soundstages where the bulk of the game plays out, but you need to solve the first one, and get a feel for how the puzzles will work, before all the doors unlock.

Indeed, the game actually winds up being a bit formulaic. To fight the cult and their demons, you need to build an army of undead, since turns out Dr Horror has been cutting costs by enslaving real-life (er) zombies, vampires, and mummies. On each soundstage, you’ll need to deal with a roving security guard (in gruesome ways that raise the question of who exactly is the monster here), then figure out how to find, summon, resurrect, or control the various flavors of monster before doing it again at the next stage over. There’s enough variety of theme – you’ve got your werewolf-stalked hamlet, your sun-blasted Egyptian ruins, your voodoo-y New Orleans – as well as puzzle style – there’s some traditional object manipulation, some messing around with NPC behavior, some light futzing with machinery – that this formula winds up being a strength, since it gives the player a framework to grab onto without making things stale. Then there’s an endgame that introduces a fun new puzzle-style that’s not too out of left field, nor too hard – often the bane of late-game mechanical twists.

Speaking of difficulty (what a segue!) I found it tuned well throughout. Most of the soundstages are self-contained, with only a few requiring bringing items over from other areas, which helps limit the possibilities, and several puzzles have alternate solutions implemented. The puzzles aren’t easy enough that I solved them immediately, but at the same time I only needed one hint (Spoiler - click to show)(I didn’t realize the animal cages were portable) which is impressive in a game as long as this. The implementation was also quite smooth, and once I had an idea it usually didn’t take any wrestling with the parser to make it happen. I did run into a couple of bugs, though – I encountered a thematically-appropriate resurrecting security guard in the sands of Egypt, and one time when I got thrown out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the crematorium wound up accompanying me to the parking lot. But some quick UNDOing was enough to set things back to right.

The writing is another strong point, with jokes that generally land (I liked the main character’s perhaps-forced naivete about where their co-stars kept disappearing to) and some real moments of gross-out horror preventing things from getting too weightlessly silly (those poor security guards!) There are some typos, though, and I did find things got a bit overly wordy in places, leaving me scrolling through more than one page of text just to see what was happening in a location. These are small niggles that hopefully can be ironed-out for a post-Comp release – given its long run-time, I’m guessing some folks won’t completely finish Dr. Horror’s House of Terror during the judging period, but this would be a perfect one to revisit once the time-pressure is off.

Highlight: There’s one puzzle that was a standout for me, a Delightful-Wallpaper-style combinatorial riff that requires you to reenact a Cajun-spiced melodrama of family secrets and voodoo curses. The writing and puzzling are both really fun, and there are enough clues to prevent things from devolving into the trial-and-error slog that often reduces the fun-factor of these kinds of puzzles.

Lowlight: When you solve that puzzle, instead of recruiting the cast of messy antebellum ghosts, you just got a crowd of zombies to swell the ranks of your undead army. Boring!

How I failed the author: I played the first half of the game while keeping my wife company during one of Henry’s late-night feedings, when I was feeling pretty loopy – things got pretty wacky in my transcript as a result.