Haunted houses are ripe settings for computer games. Within its four walls can hold countless tales of vengeful spirits and bloody murder. It's also a perfect location for some Myst style exploration and puzzling and Hue Forest Entertainment's oft-requested AMBER: Journeys Beyond from 1996 does just this.
As an employee of Bio-PSI Technologies, a high-tech paranormal investigation company, your boss has asked you to check on the somewhat wayward Dr Roxanne 'Roxy' Westbridge stationed at a remote haunted house in North Carolina. Roxy is an enthusiastic investigator with some brilliant ideas but is a little too hasty when it comes to testing the wares on herself. And it just so happens that the enthusiastically reckless Roxy has just lost contact with the rest of the company.
So, off you drive on a naturally stormy night to the house in the woods, only for a spirit to cause your car to crash into a nearby lake. Thank goodness you survived! And that you're only a short walk from your destination! You can explore the entire grounds in Myst-style snapshots if you choose but you may want to first head to the house. The emergency lights are on, coating the hallway in an eerie red glow. It's no good examining the ground floor just yet as you can barely make out anything, though I give the game props for allowing you to wander around in the dark anyway. The red light is your destination and will lead you to the mains power switch.
A number of artists lend their work to Roxy's haunted home.
Some of them are freakier than the ghostly goings-on.
The lights may be on but you've still not found Roxy. What you have discovered is a note suggesting she might be in the garage. Being a separate building, it's a short walk from the front door to get there. As you approach, you notice a padlock on the garage's side door. You'll have to find another way in. There's little light when you do finally enter but you can just about manage to see something hanging off the upper floor. Getting closer you'll realise its a limp hand dangling over the side. It's Roxy. And she appears to be unconscious. Or dead! In actuality, her spirit has been trapped in the ghost realm while testing a new prototype so it's up to you bring her back.
Barring a trio of special sections which I'll get to later, the game tends to play out in much the same way as these first few moments. Advancement is more about discovery and experimentation than puzzling. This makes the game incredibly easy if your observant enough, but it also creates a palpable atmosphere to go along with the already strong story. In fact, it reminds me of something like the modern indie classic Gone Home in both its progression and storytelling technique. It can even get quite emotional at times. If you go into the game with that as a comparison instead of Myst (as it was often compared to at the time), then I doubt you'd be disappointed. For those who want some clever logic puzzles in their adventures will have to go elsewhere.
The BAR (left) lets you listen in on ghostly 'tonal residue'
while AMBER (right) is a conduit to the spirit realm.
Then again, the Myst comparison isn't entirely inaccurate. As you gather up and calibrate equipment, you'll eventually activate AMBER (Astral Mobility By Electromagnetic Resonance), a headgear device that will send you to the spirit realm of one of the three ghosts that haunt the grounds. Set in the house during the era in which the spirit died, it's in these realms where the Myst comparisons are most obvious. Much like that games 'ages', each realm has its own aesthetic and puzzles - actual, identifiable puzzles. From the traditional sliding puzzle to the always dreaded maze, these sections feel much more 'gamey' than the hub world of the modern day home.
That's not to say there are no good puzzles to be found. In ghost Margaret's 1940s set realm, you need to travel to different rooms via radio, and it's not picking up all of the stations. There's some interesting topiary to manipulate in Brice's bright garden themed realm and you can play with wind and sailboats in little Edwin's winter realm located on an iced-over lake. These are the most involved and difficult puzzles in the game and more than make up for a few uninspired ones that accompany them.
Your handheld PeeK device deciphers audio gathered from the BAR (left),
while you can view activity recorded from cameras placed in each room (right).
You can play through these realms in any order, but before you do, you'll need to get the equipment working. There are several gadgets to collect to assist you, including the BAR (Bulbic Activity Reader) which is placed on doorknobs to discover 'tonal residue'. Whatever the BAR will pick up is transmitted to your PeeK, a mobile data receiver, as audio clips but you'll also see some occasional video evidence broadcast from some speciality CCTV cameras too. Your PeeK will let you know when an event is happening by flashing in your inventory at the bottom of the screen, and some are necessary to complete the game. These paranormal activities are the most spooky and scary in the entire game. It's as if the house knows that you're trying to disturb its undead inhabitants. As you wander around, the nicely implemented sound design of eery creeks or door slamming will make you shudder uneasily, and the occasional spirit will pop up unexpectedly in front of you. These happenings are sadly short-lived as any poltergeist activity will diminish the more you play. As a fan of ghostly tales, I would've liked a bit more.
The scares are not what AMBER: Journeys Beyond is about, though. It's the story. Throughout the game, the plot is expertly told in an interactive, diegetic way with minimal cutscenes that, given the modern indie proclivity towards it, is way ahead of its time. Each of the ghost's backstories will most certainly resonate in some way. Watching Margaret relive a tragic moment almost brought tears to my eyes, especially when you know that it doesn't end well for her. I don't want to give much away, but each of the ghost's fates are just as melancholy.
Each spirit realm is designated with a unique frame and colour
palatte though some of the more obvious puzzles are found there.
palatte though some of the more obvious puzzles are found there.
Frank and Susan Wimmer, the husband and wife team behind the game, came up with the concept in a rather bizarre way. As mentioned in the manual, it was during a stay at a notoriously haunted hotel where their minds began whirring. Staying up until 2 A.M. didn't help in finding ghosts, so they told each other their own ghost stories - that of Brice, Margaret and Edwin. It's a nice little backstory that shows the pair's obvious fascination with the paranormal.
It there's one complaint I have, it's in the game's final moments. It ends rather abruptly and the actors who were chosen (whose use are thankfully sparse) are incredibly nonchalant to the events happening around them. It's a strange blip in an otherwise consistently told narrative. It doesn't quite negate what came before it though, and I don't want to go into spoiler territory here. Just know that it's the journey, not the destination that makes this game special.
If you're into spooky adventures, AMBER: Journey's Beyond in a must play. The story is exceptional for the most part with some inventive puzzles standing strong among the brazenly overused ones. It may be short and easy, but it's one hell of a journey.
To download the game, follow the link below. This exclusive installer uses PCem running Windows '95. Press Ctrl-Alt-PgDown to toggle fullscreen. Press Ctrl-End or middle mouse button to release the mouse. Manual included. Tested on Windows 10.
IMPORTANT - Remember to shut down the emulated version of Windows before exiting PCem. This could potentially result in errors, lost saves and corrupt data. Close the program only when it is safe to do so.
File Size: 576 Mb. Install Size: 942 Mb. Need help? Consult the Collection Chamber FAQ
AMBER: Journeys Beyond is © Hue Forest Entertainment
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me