Charon, for those who might not know, comes from Greek mythology, the name of the ferryman who takes souls across the River Styx to the gates of hell. People were buried with coins on their eyes so that they would have the money to pay the ferryman for their passage. But what on earth Charon’s Staircase might be is something for you to discover while playing the latest atmospheric horror.
It’s a good tale that uses a lot of familiar tropes and gameplay techniques, but can it find its way to the top of the horror pile?
Charon’s Staircase feels like a very familiar horror story; one told via a comfortable voice-over. The whole setup is as typical as you could imagine, from dark cemeteries to large mansion houses with puzzles and secret doors for you to try and open. There is also the fan favourite abandoned medical research facility in place; a place where all manner of horrors lurk.
You play an undercover agent working for the ministry, sometime in a post-war world. Your codename is ‘Desmond’, tasked with exploring the Oak Grove estate, finding some secret documents and getting the hell out. When you get in there though you soon find that things are much more complicated than you originally thought. Ghosts haunt the building, and then there is the strange business of Project Alpha and things watching from the shadows…
I won’t spoil matters here, but the writing of the voice-over of the main protagonist is very good, like a Victorian horror novel at times, quite unsettling in between the levels. The documentation splatted around has some great insights too, letting you delve into the story and the world around the locations. However, I did find the overall premise – and the conclusion – to run a bit of a tired path, even if Charon’s Staircase had me hooked throughout. it’s just I was a tad disappointed by the end of the playthrough.
There are things you’ll want to do before starting Charon’s Staircase and you’ll certainly want to examine the brightness settings in the game. At times, especially near the start, the balance feels wrong and the game feels way too dark. In fact, heading outside means that it is almost impossible to see what to interact with. The problem is, make it brighter and the game loses some of its atmosphere. Just be aware that you’ll possibly want to work through the settings before you begin.
When you do get in, the gameplay in Charon’s Staircase is very much like a typical first-person horror exploration game. Desmond can walk, run and duck, but he hasn’t any weapons or any combat ability – all you have is his mind for the solving of puzzles. You’ll need to use that too as much of the game focuses on you going into every room and searching for keys, clues, or information about what to do next. You will have prompts on the screen that will give you an overall hint about what to do, but sometimes you can be left wandering for a while. See, it’s easy to miss things in Charon’s Staircase – much of that due to the darkness – but the interface and moving your cursor with a controller isn’t the best either.
That said, the puzzles come complete with some nice clever ideas in Charon’s Staircase. There’s one in which you’ll need to work out a safe number, discovering the answer by counting paintings, dinner settings, and looking for a clock that has stopped. But there are also a few frustrating ones; I’m looking at you, garden statue. Strangely things switch up a little bit near the end of the game and – again without spoilers – it feels quite jarring.
Visually and aside from that brightness issue, Charon’s Staircase comes with some great level designs, especially around the interiors. As usual with horror games, the documents and photographs you find dotted around the world are brilliantly designed and detailed, however, on a personal level, the actual creatures you encounter later in the game are a bit of a letdown. The soundtrack is extremely good though and it mixes the emotive elements of the storytelling with the more jump-scare horror effects it employs very well.
Charon’s Staircase can feel a bit like putting on a pair of comfy slippers, sipping some cocoa and kicking back with a good old-fashioned ghost story. But other moments frustrate, with some not-so-fun puzzles, brightness issues, and a familiar last act. The story may hook you and it’s certainly interesting to explore the world of Charon’s Staircase, but this doesn’t quite rise above the other games in this genre.
You could do worse than try and climb Charon’s Staircase though.
Charon’s Staircase is on the Xbox Store