Leisure is a funny thing. To some it means sitting by a river with a graphite rod by their side, blissfully aware of all the free time they are frittering away. To others, leisure is throwing themselves off a 300ft high suspension bridge with only a length of stretchy elastic for company. Gamers kind of sit on the fence. More often than not, videogames attempt to offer us an intense visceral rush from the plush safety of our sofas. But not all games. Most recently, Nintendo's Animal Crossing splendidly highlighted the muted, but deeply-felt pleasures of a more laid-back and less forced gaming scenario. And now Gregory Horror Show has molded an adventure game around just this kind of considered, unhurried and (dare I say) more mature playing experience. It's cocoa-and-cookies gameplay, and it's absolutely scrumptious.
Based (bafflingly) on a Japanese children's cartoon, the narrative tone is exceptionally sinister. Our protagonist finds himself (or herself depending on the player's, ultimately inconsequential, preference) in a forbidding old hotel—"Gregory House"—with no apparent means of escape. Until, that is, a reassuringly benevolent visitation from Death himself (donned in a blue and yellow Swedish hat, no less) informs us of what is really going on. It seems that Gregory House is something of a popular destination for lost souls, literally. The unfortunates who make up the guest list appear to be lacking their own souls and have stolen those of another in order to compensate. Our task is to steal them back as part of a mutually beneficial pact with the Grim Reaper, on whom we are pinning our hopes for escape.
Gameplay takes place across repeating 24-hour cycles (each hour lasting roughly one real minute), and consists of learning each guest's routine, anticipating their moment of weakness and using it to intercept one of the 12 valuable souls. This might sound like an odd association, but its closest gaming relative is actually The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. Anyone who remembers navigating Clock Town will instantly feel at home with this game's basic premise of being in the right place at the right time with the right item. Gregory Horror Show even endows the player with a memo to help track the guests' activities (the equivalent of the Bomber's Notebook in Majora's Mask.) But there's more. Once a soul has been successfully taken from a guest, they'll want it back, and when an irate guest catches up with our hero/heroine, we are subjected to a Horror Show that can be seriously bad for our sanity. This is where things get complicated.
The "Mental Gauge" measures our level of sanity, and when this depletes the player is rendered insane—game over, in other words. What is really rather confusing is the sheer number of maladies that our protagonist can suffer from, the various ways in which they can affect us, and the bewildering array of remedies that offer treatment for particular symptoms. Tiredness, headaches, nervousness, melancholy, darkness and (fittingly) confusion can all be detrimental and even deadly, especially when they trigger each other off—like a headache leading to nervousness leading to confusion. As if that weren't enough to contend with, finding the right cure is often more stress than it's worth, with antidotes ranging from antacids to herbs to eye drops to juice drinks and many more besides. Just staying healthy can be a thankless task, and one has to wonder why Capcom chose to swamp the player with this seemingly unnecessary range of variables. But Gregory Horror Show is nothing if not capricious, and having played through the game twice now, I can honestly say that the daunting gameplay explanation which a title like this requires is completely at odds with one's actual experience of the game. Believe it or not, this is essentially simple, riotous fun.
Each soul-nabbing incorporates a self-contained puzzle, which are generally varied and satisfying, if somewhat fussy. Although the player is buoyed up with plenty of hints from the guests, nothing is more irksome than having solved the problem without doing specifically what the game requires for this to be recognized—such as repeating the correct actions a specific number of times. True, this is a criticism that can be levelled at any number of adventure games, but here the fruitless, circular wandering brought on by these fickle puzzles comes perilously close to demystifying the spooky aura of Gregory House. Still, success brings tolerance of any joy-killing phases, and it really is hard to stay mad at such a charming game.
Graphically, Gregory Horror Show is pretty facile, but its simplicity hides an admirably distinctive style. The block bodies and plasticine limbs of the guests are unforgettable, and character design is utterly joyous from start to finish—a big hand to Naomi Iwata please, everybody. Even the dingiest recesses of Gregory House are rendered in a bold and beautiful colour scheme that never looks out of place or oversteps into garishness. These handsome visuals are perfectly complemented by the soundtrack, which is composed with touching simplicity and care. In fact, in its own quaint little way, this is one of the most expertly produced, aesthetically focused titles of the past year.
It's also extremely atmospheric, with a warm, gentle ambience that naturally grows out of the player's actions. Sneakily peeking through keyholes; leaning around sofas; creeping behind a corridor-dweller to listen in on their thoughts—each of these moments offers its own little gaming frisson, even if they lack the sense of challenge that most games rely on for thrills. Admittedly, there's no escaping the largely prosaic nature of this "action," and it soon becomes apparent that however much wandering about the player chooses to do, progress is strictly linear, and the 12 guests must be caught in a pre-determined order. But, as the title suggests, it's a show. The gameplay is rightly second-gearing to the overall experience.
And what an experience. Gregory Horror Show feels less of a game and more like some bizarre, elaborate dream. Too few games dare to be as gloriously idiosyncratic as this anymore, and Capcom's gem shines all the brighter for it. It's as subjective as they come, but personally I adore the cartoonish façade, I relish the unusual structure, and I love the devilish ambiguity. Now where did I put that cocoa?
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation2 version of the game released in European Union territories in November 2003. This title is not yet concept approved by Sony Computer Entertainment America (03/13/2004).