Mystery Case Files: Escape From Ravenhearst
Year Published: 2011
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Developer: Big Fish Games

Dear readers, I am cutting right to the chase by informing you that Mystery Case Files: Escape From Ravenhearst was one of the most unpleasant and nauseating experiences in my lifelong hobby of playing video games. I have played many survival horror games and horror-themed hidden object games, but none of them evoke the sense of revulsion I felt at certain scenes in this game - just thinking about it makes me lose my appetite. Places where the game is sold online (Steam, Big Fish) typically have a content warning on the store page. I am not the only reviewer to express the sentiment, "They weren't kidding."

While all Mystery Case Files games are part of a series that has you in the role of the "Master Detective", some are more direct sequels to particular entries than others. Escape From Ravenhearst is the third in the "Ravenhearst" storyline, following Ravenhearst and Return to Ravenhearst. Those two games have received much critical praise, but players are far more divided on this outing, and there is good cause for that. If you have any interest in the Mystery Case Files series or even just the Ravenhearst games, please do *NOT* start with this entry. It could put you off from wanting to play any of the others. It could even put you off of HOG's in general.

While the game starts off typically enough, things are about to go sideways really fast.

In late 1800's England, as the "Master Detective", you arrive at the locked gates of the burned-down Ravenhearst Manor after receiving news that several residents of nearby Blackpool have gone missing. Ghosts of characters you met here in the previous games appear and warn you not to proceed. Strangely, these ghosts keep popping up and telling you to leave, and yet they also offer to assist you by pointing out necessary items you'll need to progress. Why help you continue if they don't want you to?

The way the ghosts help is by having you collect a certain number of objects around the screen that change form every few seconds. This gimmick is known as "morphing objects" in HOG vernacular, and it is one of many points of contention players have about Escape From Ravenhearst. Most HOG's that do morphing objects have them as a bonus sidequest, not as everything you're required to find. It can be annoying to stare at a screen (many of which are very dark) hoping to catch movement of something when you don't even know what items you're looking for (rather than a list, the amount you have to find is indicated by a number in the bottom corner). And I'll tell you, some of those items are so tiny that the change was too subtle to be noticed by my eyes, so I resorted to the hint button on several occasions.

Cruel puzzles like this provide no hints on how to get them started.

So, with the ghosts' reluctant help, you proceed in your investigation which is so oddly devoid of assistance that Escape From Ravenhearst barely counts as a "casual" game. It reminded me far more of Shadowgate than most typical modern HOGs, not only in the difficulty of figuring out what to do, but also in the style of the text descriptions for nearly everything in the background.

The puzzles tend to be very convoluted, and there are no instructions on how to solve any of them, leaving you completely in the dark to mess with them and wrangle out solutions. Some puzzles that have number-based answers are randomized, so the game doesn't record the clues you find for them in your journal like most HOG's do. This led to a strange situaiton for me when I got stuck on a lock puzzle because I didn't realize a bunch of lines etched into a book were actually number 1's. There is a particularly cruel dominoes puzzle that gives you no clue on how to get it started - do yourself a favor and use a walkthrough for at least part of it.

I'll admit that I found this lack of direction intriguing at the beginning of the game. Wandering around the eerie grounds of a derelict manor atop a wave-battered cliff, and the nearby cottage and lighthouse, while trying to make sense of things reminded me (again) of Shadowgate. But there's a point where the game takes a very sharp turn for the worse, so much so that it feels like you stumbled into a completely different game. Then the problems truly begin.

The imprisoned ghosts help you despite not wanting you to be here.

It starts when you end up in an underground complex built by the Ravenhearst series antagonist, Charles Dalimar, who pops up now and then to taunt you on TV screens. The four ghost women who had been helping you are now locked up in a central "hub" room here, and it's up to you them, I guess? Charles is a murderer responsible for having ended these women's lives, and as you progress through the complex, you'll learn exactly what his life was like growing up and why he turned out the way he did.

This is where you will need to leave your lunch behind and prepare your suspension of disbelief for overtime. What Charles has apparently done in the caverns below the manor is reconstruct, presumably in their entirety, his childhood house, the hospital where he was born, and an asylum where he was a patient for several years. He has populated these buildings with robotic mannequins and complex machinery that keeps it all going. One man did all of this. Right. Okay, possibly two men, as Charles has an overalls-clad son who looks way older than him and dances around the scenery like Lou Albano in the end credits sequence of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show.

Charles and his son made all of this all by themselves. Sure.

All three of these settings contain a plethora of disturbing scenery and sounds, but the hospital and the house are by far the worst offenders. The hospital has a maternity ward where pregnant mannequins (yes, you read that right) scream in pain from labor and mannequin babies (yes, you read that right, too) constantly cry from a bassonet. (One of the puzzles literally has a baby mannequin delivered down a chute with umbilical cord still attached - at this point, you'll be glad I told you to skip lunch.) All the screaming and crying forced me to turn off the ambient sound effects in the options menu. I turned them back on when I got to the house, and I really wished I hadn't.

Charles came from a severely abusive home, you see. There's a mannequin of his boy-self strapped into a machine that spanks him, and the sounds of a child being beaten and crying can be heard periodically throughout the building. I'm guessing the content warning on this game was kept vague to avoid spoilers. My reviews have no such obligations - you've been trigger warned.

They built all this, too. Yup. Uh-huh.

On the second floor of the house you will encounter what is the single most revolting element of Escape From Ravenhearst and the source of Charles's abuse: A robotic likeness of his bedridden mother that demands (amongst other things) to have its toenails clipped, its nose hairs plucked, and its pimples popped (exactly how a mannequin even has pimples, I don't care to know). Your character, inconceivably, acquieces to these requests, all the while commenting on what the robot smells like.

I don't know about you, but this is not my idea of fun. It is not my idea of playing a casual game to relax, have fun, and maybe tax my brain with a puzzle or two. It is not even my idea of good horror, in which a jump-scare can get your adrenaline going. This is just plain gross, disgusting, and downright depressing. It's no better than cleaning up my cats' hairballs. I have never before seen a game so aggressively offensive that it seems to want you to be disturbed and put off by it. And to what ends? To show why Charles became a murderer so we can feel some sympathy for him? Why? He seems like the perfect candidate for an Unreliable Narrator.

And I haven't even gotten to the worst part yet...

I'll bet this guy had more fun playing the role of Charles than anyone will have playing the game.

Entering the complex not only caused a severe tone shift, but began a series of crashes and lock-ups that made the last few sections of the game nearly unbearable to play. The first occurred when I examined one of the ghosts in the holding tanks. After that, they only happened occasionally, until I got to the asylum, and that's when the freezing and crashing began happening every time I moved between four or five screens.

By this point I was already forcing myself to progress, but with the game being almost unplayable in this state, I resorted to a walkthrough for the last few puzzles. I kid you not, the final puzzle involves entering codes into a computer based on the number of times certain characters blink their eyes. Yeah. There is no way I ever would've figured that out on my own. And how exactly does one even count the number of blinks in a looping animation??

I have no idea what's going on here.

Folks, I did not enjoy this game. It feels like a massive troll, like a punishment for playing HOG's. I've heard a Collector's Edition of this game exists. The Steam version doesn't have the bonus content, but you know what? I don't care. I wouldn't have wanted to play a bonus chapter if there was one, I was just relieved when it was over. If you're planning to play through the Mystery Case Files series, be aware that this is a huge pothole along the way. Maybe it's best if you skip it altogether, especially if you don't want to pay the outrageous $9.99 price tag for such a bug-ridden, outdated, and viscerally offensive mess.

SCORE: 0.5/5



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