While American gamers seem to have forgotten how to appreciate a good point-and-click adventure, German gamers obviously haven't. These days, the best adventure game development is done in Germany (note games like Deponia or The Book of Unwritten Tales) and the latest great point-and-click comes from German company Deck 13 Interactive. Haunted is a fantastic game that succeeds by striking a perfect Tim Burton-ish balance between creepy and amusing.
Haunted starts with a young English girl named Mary who's drawn to a dark, dreary mansion by dreams of her young sister Emily. Mary's haunted (pun intended) by guilt, believing herself responsible for Emily's untimely death. Blinded by her feelings, she falls victim to the nefarious plans of a twisted scientist called Professor Ashcroft. The professor and her schizoid assistant Ethan have made a practice of kidnapping young girls and using them for their horrid experiments. Lucky for Mary, she has a rare gift that allows her to do what previous human guinea pigs couldn't—escape. And what's Mary's gift you ask? Well, like Haley Joel Osment before he stopped being cute, she can see dead people, and it's this talent that saves her from becoming another of Professor Ashcroft's lab rats.
Mary's ability to see dead people is the core of Haunted and it's what makes the game unique. This is because Mary can't just see dead people, she can befriend them and convince them to do her bidding. She starts by attracting a stubby little pirate ghost called Oscar the Powerful (or Pitiful, depending on who you ask) who has the ability to handle things that are extremely cold, hot, sharp or electrified. As things go along, Mary acquires a veritable entourage of spirits, all with uniquely useful talents and each of these characters is playable. This could easily become overwhelming, but thanks to some very clear ability definitions and a series of on-screen character icons, swapping among them couldn't be easier.
The game's puzzles are designed with each character's special powers in mind, and they often ask you to use several of them in concert. Dialog hints in general are very good at helping you figure out what's required for puzzle-solving (the exception is one obscure language-based puzzle that makes zero sense) and it's fun to have such a range of abilities and personalities to choose from. The game's simple inventory system is exactly what it needs to be, easily accessible and navigable, and allows you to combine items by clicking them on top of one another.
While the puzzle/gameplay aspect is undoubtedly well done, the graphics and writing for me are the stars of the show. Haunted has some really great character design. Mary the heroine is admittedly a bit on the generic pretty side, but the caricaturish denizens of the spirit world are a riot. (Apparently turning into a ghost has a dramatic funhouse effect on your physical appearance.) The environments too are equally good and contain plenty of amusing details (one memorable scene features a highly-sexed rooster). Still, the best part in my opinion is the absurdly entertaining dialog. Thanks to Haunted's witty, tongue-in-cheek character exchanges, there were numerous instances in the game where I laughed out loud and felt compelled to save a screenshot.
While Haunted has a lot going for it, it does have a few areas that could use improvement. The most obvious is the inclusion of an optional mission that can't be completed until after the game is over. Completionists like me will likely drive themselves nuts trying to figure out why they can't finish this side mission during the game and will gnash their teeth when they find out (probably online) the game is designed that way. Here and there too, the game appears to have a few bugs (such as missing facial animations and odd verbal exchanges that sound poorly translated or edited). Finally, the game's bonus chapter is a narrative muddle and features an unsatisfactory ending.
Even with these problems, Haunted is a great adventure game. With clever puzzle design, inspired graphics and laugh-out-loud dialog, it's head-and-shoulders above the majority of adventure titles and is a shoe-in for any adventure fan's list of most-loved games.