The Crooked Man

The Crooked Man is a pretty amazing game with a couple issues in execution, but you can use a walkthrough to sidestep most of those.
The game opens with a gore warning, but, you know, RPGmaker game. It’s not much of a concern, though there is some creepy stuff.

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It opens well. You’ve just moved into a cheap apartment with a large crack on the wall. Weird stuff starts happening from there, as weird stuff generally does, and the barebones nature of things works well – you have a large area with very little interactivity, then you hear something and you go investigate.

The problem in the early section is things ramp up much too fast. The character concludes there’s a poltergeist, continues to stay anyway as things get worse until finally he’s terrorized into running screaming to a friend’s. Throughout all of it he doesn’t tell anyone and the most he does is ask the landlady who had the room last, giving up instantly when she doesn’t know off the top of her head, even when she offers to look it up. Instead, he decides to investigate the address the haunt gave him, where he encounters stuff that makes his stay at his room look tame.

What’s particularly odd is he’s not a blank slate protagonist. He’s got a bunch of backstory and characterization, which just makes it all the odder the game gives him every possible reason to run the other way, shows him doing exactly that, only then has him decide to try to chase down the former occupant.

There’s ultimately a point to his dogged obsession, just not one that properly explains why he’s being quite this dumb from the start, so maybe the designer was worried making his behavior seem plausible at any point would make people miss he’s acting weird. But it really would’ve been much better as something built up to – he could easily have gotten the original address while the atmosphere was still spooky with a hint of plausible deniability, or at least when the poltergeist’s obvious manifestations were short of running away screaming. And the locations he goes to have NPCs who, in fine horror NPC tradition, don’t stick close to him, which would give him a perfectly good reason to not want to leave without them…only for the manifestations to be terrifying and deadly before that point. At the conclusion of the second area, when given the chance to run for it or keep going, that’s when his choice should’ve started to raise a few dozen red flags.

The Crooked Man seems to be going for a Silent-Hill type atmosphere, but it doesn’t quite have the graphical chops to make running back and forth increasingly large, barren areas that interesting – although to its credit, it does a great job there with music and sound effects.

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The largest area, the hospital, compounds the limitations by having angled stairs that the engine can’t handle, so I couldn’t just walk up them but had to go forward, sideways, forward, sideways, forward. I ended up relying on a walkthrough for much of the game because simply rechecking everything to see what unlocked on the other side of the building each time I accomplished anything was an exercise in madness matched only by figuring out how to solve the monster attack puzzles. (And by the final area, even if I knew where the game wanted me to go I usually couldn’t remember where it was.) It also doesn’t have a map, which I think would have really, really helped matters, particularly if it also kept track of locked doors for you. Many of the doors in the areas were blocked off so that the effective area you needed to search was shrunk, but given most of the doors were identical, this still meant you had to run around trying them over and over unless you were a lot better at memorization than I was. Even just sticking a few boards on top to mark those blocked off would’ve really helped.

And the rare battle periods immediately kicked me out of the story. Every time the monster appeared, I could count on dying repeatedly, and pretty soon the only panic came if I hadn’t thought to save. Besides that, it was frustrating and tedious, something not helped at all by the fact the battles generally opened with some fancy cinematic that was awesome the first couple times but had lost any creepiness by the tenth time I had to sit through it. The only intuitive solution to any of the puzzles is to run out of the room and lock the door, so naturally that only appears as an option on the third or so monster appearance, after I’d been convinced I couldn’t do that. There’s an obligatory boss battle section against the monster at the end of each area, but the monster is just a boring monster (with terrible pathfinding ability) that happens to have loads of HP, so it’s just hit, run away, repeat until it dies, or get the timing slightly off and die yourself. I flat out cheated my way through the second fight, and not even using a semi-legit exploit like hitting it when it couldn’t hit me but opening the menu to freeze everything and taking advantage of the fact selecting an item also triggers the attack command.

The parts that do have stuff that isn’t an obvious monster were pretty good. Odd sounds, stuff changing offscreen, creepy blood, sudden cracks in a mirror… One of the more disturbing moments was when the kid I was with went into the bathroom without me and then the door mysteriously locked, trapping him in. That’s much scarier than a freaky zombie that headbutts me to death and makes me replay the fight twenty times before I get to continue the actual story.

The actual story, though, that was surprisingly well done. Unlike a lot of these games, it had a resolution that made perfect sense and even more impressively, wasn’t obvious from a mile off. The early game hints you get had me considering a lot of different things, but the ultimate answer turned out to fit even better. I also liked how the game did multiple endings – the different sections each have a possible bad end, so you don’t need to replay the entire game to see it. The second bad end was particularly impressive. The only problem I had was that the gameplay intruded into it – even getting aside how annoying the monster battles were, some of them, particularly the final battle, seemed like they were there just because games have to have fights.

Overall, I think the game could have used a touch-up (and a move away from the more straightforward game elements) but is pretty solidly plotted and has a very good atmosphere.

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