It’s almost the new year, and I’m back with a new review on a new website. My sincerest thanks to anyone who followed me here during the tumblr exodus. Today, I’ll be taking about a short horror-comedy from first-time developers Rapscallion Games. The Miskatonic (VNDB|Steam) draws heavily on the works of H.P. Lovecraft to create a semi-apocalyptic future where the world is full of mystifying mutants and crazy cults. Amidst all of this chaos, an optimistic young witch named Charlotte manages to land a job as a security guard at the center of occult knowledge in America. With the help of friends like a cannibal who openly wants to eat her and a young girl with such a horrifying face that the human brain automatically replaces it with a dark void, Charlotte gradually uncovers the true goals of the Miskatonic University. While technical issues might put a damper on this one for some readers, I found that other positive qualities outweighed them and made for a fun and gruesome experience. This review will be spoiler-free.
In my opinion, the biggest strengths of The Miskatonic are its art and atmosphere. Charlotte spends a lot of her time patrolling the halls of the university seeking out any useful information, and during those segments you control her movement in point-and-click fashion, selecting the bizarre characters you pass in order to overhear snippets of their conversations. The many options and details in these parts, such as a discussion with a beautiful sea creature about the tourism industry in Innsmouth, really made me feel immersed in the world of the game. And each of the students and faculty members you can speak with has a completely unique character design, ranging from the strange but cute to the outright monstrous. Many of the main characters even have multiple poses, such as sitting on couches or hanging down from the ceiling, which make the sprites even more varied and entertaining to look at.
However, I’m not sure how much of my favourite part of The Miskatonic is really the culmination of the developers’ creative vision. When doing some research on the background of the game, I counted 79 kickstarter backers whose choice of tier allowed them to design a character who would appear in the game. While this is a common reward in video game crowdfunding campaigns, it’s usually much more limited—one campaign I supported, for instance, gave only 8 backers that opportunity. With such a large number of people contributing their own characters, I don’t know if I can really credit Rapscallion Games for the character design I liked so much. And I also can’t help but wonder whether the intriguing investigation segments were really something the developers wanted from the beginning, or whether they were simply a necessary way to deal with the influx of characters they needed to include. This isn’t a criticism of The Miskatonic itself, as whatever happened behind the scenes clearly worked out to produce an enjoyable game, but it does make me slightly unsure of whether I can expect to see more of the elements I liked here in the developers’ future projects or not.
The Miskatonic also suffers from a lot of the same kind of technical issues that I’ve seen in many other VNs by inexperienced developers. For one thing, it lacks a function for skipping dialogue you’ve already read, which is something I always find irritating. Fortunately, the game’s story is linear, so this oversight isn’t as much of a problem as it would be in a multiple route VN, but it’s still a hassle if you accidentally click on a character you’ve already talked to and need to button mash through the repeated dialogue. You’ll also have to do that button mashing with your mouse rather than anything else that tends to advance text in other VNs, such as enter (which toggles fullscreen instead) and space (which does nothing). There’s no way to adjust the speed at which the text appears on screen either. While I enjoyed the story of The Miskatonic enough to put up with this collection of minor grievances, I can see it really turning off some readers who are used to a smoother and more customizable visual novel experience.
Still, I would urge anyone who’s interested in the narrative and aesthetic of The Miskatonic to give it a try. Its main characters are just as wonderfully absurd in personality as in looks, and I had a really good time getting to know them as they went up against the forces of otherworldly gods, mystical cults, and—worst of all—academics. The story also ends with a fun sequel hook that I would love to see the developers expand on in the future—albeit hopefully with an experienced programmer on their payroll. Overall, The Miskatonic is rough around the edges, but I would still recommend it to readers who enjoy dark comedy and eldritch horrors.