The problem with reviewing a licensed game--a game based upon an existing product, be it a film, television show, comic book, or, in this case, a ride in a theme park--is that you have to pause at the beginning of the review to say whether or not this game's broken the "licensed game curse."
The Haunted Mansion has.
The game has nothing to do, as far as I can tell, with the upcoming Eddie Murphy family-friendly Disney joint, except a title and a location. It is, instead, the story of a young, unemployed man named Ezekiel "Zeke" Hathaway. We are told by an unnamed author, in narration, that Zeke was looking for work in October of 1879, and answered an ad in the paper for a caretaker of a country estate outside New Orleans. The country estate in question turns out to have no inhabitants, besides a crowd of desperate and idiosyncratic ghosts, and a mad and evil man called Atticus Thorn.
The spirit of a fortune teller named Madame Leota fills Zeke in on the rest. The newspaper ad was simply to get someone to the mansion; as she points out, they very well couldn't've placed an ad for a brave soul to come and exorcise a bunch of evil ghosts, now, could they?
Their mansion was once a place where good ghosts lived, but Thorn's black magic has turned it into a dangerous and evil place. He's set up locks to separate the rooms from one another, and has populated its halls with monsters large and small.
Zeke has inadvertently volunteered to undo the harm Thorn's caused, and to purify the mansion. Towards this end, Leota equips him with an artifact called the Beacon of Souls, a handheld lantern that can both dispel and absorb the spirits of the restless dead.
It breaks down like this: our unwilling hero Zeke enters a new room. You do something elaborate in order to reach the room's light switch, because turning on the lights will drive off lesser ghosts. With that done, you'll be able to chase the Starved Souls out of their hiding place, so you can absorb them into the Beacon of Souls with the B button.
The Starved Souls will often drop parts of Death Certificates, which in turn can be traded to the friendly ghosts who populate the mansion in return for Soul Gems. These Gems can be reinserted into the Beacon to make it more powerful.
When you've gobbled enough Souls with the Beacon, you'll be able to break the magical lock on the next door, and continue deeper into the mansion. After you reach the foyer, the game even stops being linear; while you'll always need to collect a certain number of Souls to advance, you'll find yourself with plenty of choices as to which room to enter next.
Upon re-reading it, my description does make it sound like The Haunted Mansion might be something in the vein of a boring shoot-and-loot. It's not; instead, it's a frequently frustrating, surprisingly difficult adventure title.
Each room of the mansion presents a unique and different puzzle to be solved. You can get a hint to the current room's solution from Leota, but she's not always all that helpful. The goal is always to reach the light switch, so you can grab the Starved Souls to unlock the next door, but it's almost never that simple.
For example, there're no lights in the kitchen; instead, you must use a broken oil lamp and some bottles of wine in conjunction with an angry poltergeist, so you can indirectly light the fireplace. The foyer's light switch is on the balcony, on the other end of a pair of collapsing staircases that must be somehow circumvented. Entering the game room cues a fight with an enormous spider, followed immediately by Zeke getting miniaturized and chased around the pool table by an unknown man playing nine-ball. And so it goes.
The point I'm trying to make here is that there's a lot of invention and style hiding in this game. You have to put away quite a few of your preconceptions right off the bat, as High Voltage has slapped together a game that didn't actually need the license to be worthwhile; if it had been Zeke Hathaway and the Beacon of Souls, or something, it could've easily stood on its own merits.
It's just scary enough to make older gamers jump, while the subject material is mild enough for the kids who the game is targeted at. The Haunted Mansion, in a day and age where games are discussed in terms of what other medium they allow you to "play," is like playing a particularly long and elaborate ghost story.
I do have a fairly major complaint, though, and it has to do with the combat. The mansion is literally crawling with monsters, who can drop from the ceiling or come through the walls at any time. By the time you've gotten the second Soul Gem, there are enough types of monster who can ignore the light that you aren't safe whether the lights are on or off.
The problem isn't that the monsters are too frequent. Bring them the hell on. Rather, the problem is simply this; Zeke's auto-lock and targeting systems are wholly insufficient for the task of dealing with multiple monsters, coming in on multiple attack vectors. You can easily nail a flock of ghosts coming at you if they're all sticking together, but if they fan out at all, at least two or three of them will get through, no matter how fast you knock them down. The later abilities of the Beacon of Souls, especially the grenade-launcher-esque Ultra Shot, do help with this, but since you have to charge them to use them, they're not as helpful as they're obviously meant to be.
Further, the standard beams from the Beacon of Souls aren't powerful enough to instantly drop anything in the mansion, so if a monster has drawn within a certain distance of Zeke, it is going to hit, and there's nothing you can do about it. That "certain distance" is about four scale feet or so, and there's more than one place in the game where ghosts will spawn within that distance. You'll be hip-deep in howling spectres that come literally out of nowhere, with no way to fight them back.
Even running away doesn't help, as every monster I have encountered so far is as fast, if not faster, than Zeke, and they corner better into the bargain.
When you're fighting anything other than the ubiqituous ghosts, this isn't a problem, but the ghosts are probably the second most frequently encountered monster in the game, and they get hits for free in on Zeke pretty much whenever they feel like it. When given a choice, in this game, between fighting a spider the size of a World War II biplane or a crowd of wussy little ghosts, I'll take the spider, and that just ain't right.
The result of this flaw is that it turns The Haunted Mansion into less of an action-oriented adventure title, and more of a game of resource management. The least frustrating way to play Haunted Mansion is to restart often, using your foreknowledge of the mansion's traps and encounters to carefully manage your supply of extra lives and Starved Souls.
I'm waxing neurotic about the ghost issue, which really is an unfortunate oversight, but The Haunted Mansion isn't that bad. Really. It's imaginative, it controls well, and the puzzles are solid and challenging without being repetitive. It's simply that a basic weakness in the engine makes The Haunted Mansion a far more frustrating experience than it really needs to be.