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About a year into Kinect’s life, there seem to be two main ways for development teams to approach things. The first is to take Microsoft at its word about the peripheral, delivering complex games that hinge on one-to-one motion-tracking, while quietly hoping the technology can keep up. The second – and much cannier – tactic is to pay attention to the unspoken rules: to appreciate that Kinect still struggles to work quickly and accurately, and to then carefully ensure that it never really has to.
This is the path Haunt follows, taming its design, reining in any obvious ambitions and offering a gentle family-friendly ghost tour powered by basic gesture controls. Take out the ducking and lunging, and it’s a bare-bones adventure game: the narrative threads its way past locked doors and broken machinery, while the spooky mansion you’re exploring is essentially a lavish 3D hypertext document. You may jog on the spot to inch through its rattling hallways, but Haunt is at its best when you’re using your flashlight as a mouse pointer and clicking between objects, each one requiring gentle interaction before it gives up its secrets.
It’s a design that prioritises basic reliability. Gesture recognition is loose and forgiving, and it makes no attempt to suggest Kinect’s genuinely interpreting every movement. Instead, each manoeuvre feels like the empty-handed equivalent of pushing a button – albeit a button that tends to idle a little before it triggers anything. When it comes to puzzles, this works quite well, with animations and aural cues making it fairly clear whether or not your 360 understands what you’re trying to do. In combat situations, though, the lag removes almost all of the drama, turning each ghost encounter into a graceless stumble from one input to the next. While Haunt is rarely frustrating, it’s been robbed of any kind of internal rhythm.
Luckily, NanaOn-Sha’s latest also comes with a smart script and a mischievous central performance from adventure gaming’s fairy godfather, Tim Schafer. Cast as Haunt’s spectre-in-chief, he’s a charmingly untrustworthy companion, and his steady chatter of encouragement does much to prod you through the game when the interactions have become a slog, and the miles of identical corridor start to blur together.
Schafer brings a touch of warmth to a game that’s otherwise defined by cold pragmatism – an adventure too rigorously shaped by the limitations of the device it’s built for. Haunt’s failings aren’t hard to understand, but that doesn’t make them any easier to ignore. In order to ensure Kinect’s good behaviour, it must forever keep you at arm’s length.