In the early 1990s, as CD-ROM drives started to trickle into homes with personal computers and video game consoles, the FMV genre really started to take off. The Sega CD was released in 1991 and it received quite a few FMV games over the years, including Mansion of Hidden Souls. The game would receive two follow-ups on the Saturn and together they form a series of games that I'm simply calling "The Mansion of Hidden Souls" series. Let's take a look at each entry and find out if they're still worth playing after all these years.
Mansion of Hidden Souls
The first game was released on Sega CD in 1994 under the title Mansion of Hidden Souls in North America and Yumemi Mystery Mansion in Europe. It's an FMV adventure game and features exploration-heavy gameplay that's very similar to D, which would be released a year later in 1995. Despite the somewhat horror-esque title and cover art, the game doesn't really contain any horror elements like those found in D.
As the game opens up, the first thing I noticed was the FMV frame-rate was rather choppy. I guess it's to be expected, considering how old the game is, but it was very noticeable. The video animation is simplistic, but does a good job of setting up the story. Speaking of which, the general gist is that your sister has wandered into a creepy looking mansion and there are tales of people turning into butterflies. Yep, it's weird, but get used to the butterflies as they'll be a recurring element throughout the series. On another technical note, I had some sound issues where in certain scenes the voices were really low and it was difficult to hear what they were saying.
The gameplay in Mansion of Hidden Souls is pretty straightforward. You explore the mansion by pressing the D-pad to walk on predetermined paths and examine various objects you find along the way. Although you have full control over which path you want to take, you are essentially "on rails". For example, if there's an object in the distance that you want to investigate, unless the game has a path that lets you get to it, you won't be able to investigate it. If you're not familiar with this style of adventure games, things can be a little jarring at first. But once you get used to it, there is still some fun to be had in simply exploring the paths the game provides.
As you explore the various rooms in the mansion, you'll encounter spirits / butterflies that push the story forward. The voice acting is quite bad throughout the game, but it has somewhat of a quirky B-movie feel to it. There aren't very many puzzles to solve and for the most part, you can reach the end of the game by simply moving around and exploring everything and talking to everyone. There are ways your game can end prematurely, but you can save your progress at anytime, so it's easy to keep moving forward.
On paper, this game is very difficult to recommend, even for fans of the genre. It doesn't have many puzzles to solve and features a low frame-rate and awful voice acting. That being said, I did find some enjoyment out of this one. The bizarre storyline and laid-back experience made for a decent 70 minute trip back to 1994. I knew exactly what I was getting into though, so I had tempered my expectations accordingly. If you're looking for an adventure game with brain-busting puzzles and a riveting storyline, you'll want to look elsewhere.
The Mansion of Hidden Souls
A year later, Sega released a sequel under the title The Mansion of Hidden Souls for its North American and European releases. Yep, for whatever reason, the Sega marketing department decided to use the same name from the original North American release and just put "The" at the beginning. Despite the odd naming choice, this is a completely different game and is, in fact, a direct sequel to the original game.
The first thing you'll notice with this one is that the graphics and sound are greatly improved from the first game. The frame-rate is much more palatable and the speed at which you move around makes the experience more enjoyable. Other minor improvements like auto-facing doors as you approach them helps cut down on some of the tedium as well. One odd change is that you can only save in a single location now, unlike the original where you could save anywhere.
In terms of gameplay, the sequel is virtually identical to the first game. You move around from room to room, talk to spirits (who are now displayed as goofy looking heads), and solve a few puzzles. The mansion layout is more or less the same, but the inhabitants and the room contents are different. The main gameplay change here is that when you talk to the spirits, you can respond with "Yes" or "No" when they ask you certain questions. I'm not entirely sure what the impact is, but you will definitely get different responses, so choose wisely! The voice acting during these interactions is once again very poor, but it seemed less like "B-movie cheese" and more "just really bad". There also seemed to be more voice acting here, so maybe it just wore me down over time.
I didn't think the story was as good as the original game (which was mediocre, at best), but it's ultimately a little mystery you have to solve and it was enough to keep me moving forward. I will say though, the story goes completely bonkers towards the end...
This one took me about 90 minutes to complete, so it provided a slightly longer runtime than the first game (though I had played this one many years ago, so YMMV). There are some improvements here, but also a few steps back. Once again, there isn't much challenge to be found here and you can win by simply bouncing between rooms and talking to everyone. You'll eventually stumble your way to the end. It lacks some of the charm the original game had, but balances it out with some its improvements and overall, I'd say the first two games are comparable in terms of quality.
A couple of years later in 1997, Sega released the third and final game in the series on the Saturn under the title Lunacy. Also known as Torico in Europe, Lunacy features gameplay that's very similar to the first two entries, but nearly everything has been vastly improved this time around. This is, without a doubt, the best game of the bunch and an excellent game for an old school adventure fan to check out.
Once again, the graphics and sound have been improved from the previous entry. Lunacy is absolutely loaded with FMV and requires two discs to store it all. The movement speed is still a bit slow, especially by today's standards, but feels on par with similar games of the era. I also need to give some props to the soundtrack this time around as it was varied, well-composed, and seemed to fit the atmosphere of the game perfectly.
In terms of gameplay, Lunacy still follows the blueprint laid out in previous titles in that you walk around on pre-determined paths and talk to characters to progress the story. The biggest change here is that you actually have some traditional adventure game puzzles to solve this time! You'll be collecting items and using them in a very similar manner to point-and-click adventure games. This was a welcome addition and added some needed depth while traipsing around this bizarre game world.
And not only is it a bizarre game world, it's a lot bigger than before. You're no longer in a single mansion here, but rather two distinct areas (one for each disc) with multiple paths, buildings, etc. While there's more to explore, some of the paths can be rather confusing to navigate, especially in the second half. Much like before, this can be a tedious experience, so it's not a good option if you want something fast-paced. One complaint I have about the game is that it desperately could've used an in-game map, but at least it did originally come with a physical version.
The story is much more fleshed out this time and there's a nice intro sequence that sets things up quite well. You play as Fred, a traveler who has been moving from city to city for four years trying to regain his memory. Upon arriving in Misty Town, he's promptly thrown in jail and that's where you take over. The characters you interact with are much improved from the butterflies and talking heads from the previous games. The animation is stiff, but again, taken in the context of a game from 1997, it seemed fine to me. The lip movements were hilariously out of sync with the voice acting, presumably from the transition from Japanese to English. Speaking of the voice acting, it's not very good, which is par for the course here, but is at least back in the "B-movie, kinda funny" realm.
Although I enjoyed the story overall, I suspect budgetary concerns (supposedly the English translation was cancelled at one point) and technical limitations hindered the storytelling a bit as the game doesn't quite convey its story as gracefully as I would have liked. The characters are given fairly limited screen time, so there's not much development there for many. But the game does have a terrific atmosphere and the mystery is engaging enough that it hooked me from beginning to end.
Speaking of which, Lunacy is certainly the meatiest of the three and it clocked in around 3.5 hours for me. I had tried it out many years ago, so I was at least a little familiar with the beginning, but it's still a fairly short game overall.
At this point, you're probably wondering why I bothered taking the time to (sort of) review these games. Well, I didn't go into them thinking I would. I actually didn't go in thinking I would play all three games. I randomly decided to play the original game and enjoyed it enough that I decided to play the second one (again.) At that point, I felt I had to finish this off once and for all, especially knowing Lunacy was the most well-regarded entry and one that I always meant to go back and play after trying it out years ago.
None of these games have ever been re-released so you'll need a Sega CD and Saturn to get the full experience. The first two will set you back about $30 - $40 a piece for a complete copy, which is a bit expensive for only a couple hours of gameplay each. Lunacy was clearly my favorite and apparently I'm not alone as it commands a very high price these days and can easily cost more than $300 for a complete copy. It's a nice game and definitely worth checking out, but the cost of entry is awfully steep.
In the end, I'm definitely glad I played them, but I fully understand that these are not for everyone. There is a very limited audience for these games, especially in 2021. You'll need some patience, an open mind, and a desire to travel back in time for some early CD-based adventure gaming...warts and all.