Ultra-Indie Spotlight: The Enigma of Salazar House

Welcome back all you cool cats and kittens! Lots of cool stuff brewing on the Dread X front… stuff we can’t quite talk about yet. So I’m taking some of my extra time to do a deep dive today on the first game from Puppet Combo’s new publishing label, Torture Star Video. I’m (obviously) a big fan of indie horror, so lets see how they did with their first title from creator Ignacio Maldonado, The Enigma of Salazar House!

Conceptual Meta-Wank:

As modern horror continues its course of not releasing a new Silent Hill, the indie horror market grows. Hell, indie horror IS the market. Games like Amnesia, Slender, Outlast, and Five Nights at Freddy’s dominate, with the only AAA representation being the Resident Evil franchise and the odd one-off. And there’s no denying that the profit percentages are far higher for these indie hits. Their success proves that smaller creators have a real shot at being legitimate contenders in the horror market. With micro-budget teams of 1-3 comes the natural inclination towards retro-aesthetics. It’s a trend that a hell of a lot of people are just fine with. If Mr. Mugato were here, he’d even go so far as to call retro horror “hot.” Games like Faith, Dusk, Wrath: Aeon of Ruin, and The Glass Staircase all deliver a one-two punch of nostalgia and quality gameplay. As time goes on, the race to the past continues. People are making horror with ever more primitive engines and assets. Hell, World of Horror is made with MS Paint and a single bit.

The challenge with retro games is that you can’t just copy and paste what made the old games work. People aren’t actually hungry for exact recreations. They’re hungry for the version that lives in their head along with their childhood dog, warm Christmas fires, and everything else that’s been heavily polished with shades of rose. If Alone in the Dark were to release today, the shoddy graphics would be the least of its concerns. You have to find a way to update those classic mechanics and redeliver them in a way that makes people feel it’s how they remember it. It’s a mixed bag of new mechanics and old control schemes. Modern design meshed with dated visuals. Sometimes it’s a confusing mess. Sometimes it’s so fresh and unique that it sparks a shift in the genre. It’s usually somewhere in the middle.

Non-Wanky Game Recap:

With The Enigma of Salazar House, developer Ignacio Maldonado is doing his best to revitalize/reinvent the hyper-retro point-and-click adventure genre. You play as a reporter who’s gone to investigate the mysterious death of someone or something. Or maybe it was a disappearance. Honestly, the framing device is inconsequential. You go to the spooky house for reasons. Once inside, you find that there’s no way to leave. As you explore the halls of the eponymous Salazar House, you’ll stumble upon clues as to what happened here and how you might avoid a similar fate. Meanwhile, a spectral lady with a knife is hunting you down. The plot itself is little more than a series of nails to hang story keys on, but it does flesh out nicely if you pursue some of the hidden endings.

Mechanically, The Enigma of Salazar House is incredibly simple. You can move up, down, left, or right by clicking a movement dial to the right of the screen. Each room you explore usually has one or more intractable elements. Click on those elements to… interact. Most of these are just for flavor. There are actually only a handful of items to collect. Each item has a pretty straightforward application to solve one of the game’s 5 main puzzles. I actually found myself thinking way too hard on most of the solutions. The path forward is actually pretty straight, despite the fact you’ll need to find various keys and run back and forth throughout the house to complete it. Meanwhile, you’ll also have to keep moving to avoid the knife lady. She can’t chase you into any of the locked rooms and you can hide in a closet in a pinch. There’s some more gameplay to be found in sussing out the secret endings, but I’ll let you discover that yourself.

What Works:

Fans of Panstasz’ World of Horror won’t be shocked to learn what you can do with only a single bit. And that brand of pixelated monochromatic horror is on glorious display in The Enigma of Salazar House. Most of the environmental details are pretty basic, but that just makes the terrifying monsters stand out even more. The level of detail in the ghoulish apparitions is great. What’s even better is how they are presented. I genuinely wasn’t expecting one of the more creative scares involving the “hanged man.” Mr. Maldonado proves once again that the tools at your disposal are less important than how you use them.

In a similar vein, the puzzle solutions can be pretty clever. The hanged man I talked about before had a very unique solution. The game gives you hints in the form of a book that actually changes once you complete some of the puzzles. It’s a nice attention to detail that also serves to give hints for the other endings. It’s a clever way to hide the game’s mechanics within the world and made it less of a “click everything until it works” situation. It really lets you get sucked into the ambiance.

What Doesn’t Work:

The Enigma of Salazar House has a few mechanics that aren’t properly introduced or explained. Some of the mechanics you won’t be able to learn unless you open the game’s hints, which is an actual inventory item. As someone who has been playing games forever, it doesn’t naturally occur to me to check there to learn the mechanics of a point-and-click adventure. Even when you do open the book, some mechanics are still unclear. Such is the case with the chase scenes. When the lady with the knife starts chasing you, you’re given the option to hide in a closet/trunk. You then need to peer out of the trunk to figure out where she is. Staring at her will reveal your position. But not looking at her means she gets closer? You can also close the door to the closet, but then she can hear your fear. I actually have no idea how it works. I tried like 6 times to figure it out, and just couldn’t. It’s hard to tell if what you’re doing is even working, so I eventually just hid in safe rooms until she despawned. This is just one example, but there are similar issues with the health system and item usage. You can’t actually win unless you combine two items, something the game only has you do once and never teaches you is an option.

The only other real issue is the text box. With only two lines to display text, it isn’t enough to establish the kind of world I really wanted to see. There just isn’t enough space for Mr. Maldonado to wax poetic about what’s in the room or why that particular shattered bathtub is so spooky. The game does most of its worldbuilding visually, which is fine. But like I said before, most of the clickable items are just there for ambiance. When the description doesn’t match the tone, it takes you out of the experience. There are also some translation issues, but I’m not going to hold that against the developer. He’s a single guy working on a game in his second language. It’s a feat I’ll never come close to accomplishing.

How to Fix It:

The mechanical issues can all be ironed out with some QA. It’s likely the case that Mr. Maldonado got so used to the mechanics that he didn’t realize they weren’t clear to new players. Add some feedback for the ghost sections, probably in the form of a sound that plays when you’re doing it right. The player should also be forced to open those instructions to continue with the game. There also needs to be better feedback on your current health. It’s pretty unclear just how close to dead you are, even if you know what you’re looking for.

I’d also double the size of the text box. It was too hard to read the text, and there really wasn’t enough space to let the story grow. Usually people talk about stories being underdeveloped because of poor writing, but that’s not the case there. There’s literally just not enough space to tell the story. A more difficult solution would be to have the text populate next to the cursor. This could then lead into some scares, as your eyes would be naturally fixated on the words as you read them. As it is, there’s not really anything interesting done with that bottom 1/8 of the screen to justify it being its own separate space.

Wanky Musings:

While there are some issues, The Enigma of Salazar House is a fantastic little $4 indie game. Only the pickiest of nit connoisseurs could whine that it’s a waste of money. The six endings should give you plenty to search for if you need to squeeze every last penny’s worth of runtime. As the first title from Torture Star Video, it sets the tone for what’s to come: games that are short, unique, and dripping with personality. It’s something the genre is just dying for. If The Enigma of Salazar House is setting the bar for future titles, then expect plenty of quality indie titles in the coming years. I look forward to seeing what both Mr. Maldonado and Torture Star Video have in store for us next.

If you want to pick up The Enigma of Salazar House yourself, you can find it on Itch.io here for only $4.

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