The fall of the Buxhaven family: A spoiler-free review

The fall of the Buxhaven family (FOBF) is an intriguing, well-crafted psychological horror adventure, and the latest entry in my on-going series of (pixel graphics) game reviews. I won’t be spoiling anything for you in this post, so feel free to read on; at the bottom of this post, there’s a video commentary I posted on my YouTube channel, but if you hate spoilers, make sure you play the game before you watch that. (By the way, if you want to subscribe to my YouTube channel, you can do so here.)

FOBF was made in Construct by Buxtejor—I guess that’s a nickname, but I’m not sure—and you can find it on Itch.io. You can play it in your browser, or you can download it and play it on your computer, though at the time of writing the download is only available for Windows.

Plot overview

The game’s story is fairly straightforward. James Buxhaven, a world-famous, workaholic psychiatrist lives with his wife Mary, their little daughter Sally, and a dog named Coco in a huge manor that James inherited from his grandfather. Mary hates the place, but James doesn’t seem to take notice of that, busy as he is with his patients. One night, things go horribly wrong at Buxhaven Manor: when the game starts, we don’t quite know what happened, but two police are talking about how this is the worst case they’ve seen in years—and by the way, the game’s title is quite telling.

Dude. Chill.

After the short introductory dialogue between the two police, the real game begins and the player takes control. We see James come back home after yet another long and exhausting workday. After greeting Coco and Mary, James goes to Sally’s room to kiss her goodnight, but she refuses to go to bed without her favourite toy, Mr Teddy. James goes looking for it, and that’s when he finds out he and his family are not alone in the manor…

Gameplay

The gameplay is just as simple as the story, but none of that means that the game is not engaging or engrossing. FOBF is reminiscent of point-and-click adventures in that its puzzles involve looking for objects needed to progress and finding ways to unlock doors or overcome obstacles; it has an inventory, and you can examine (some) things around you, but it is not itself point-and-click: James is controlled via customisable keyboard controls and there’s no mouse involved as far as I could tell.

Also, unlike typical point-and-click games, James can die if his heart rate gets too high—which it will whenever something too unsettling happens. Hitting 300 bpm will kill James, but resting and keeping away from scary stuff will restore it back to its baseline 60 bpm without lasting consequences. However, to add a little bit of a challenge, James’ vision blurs (an effect rendered with pixelated noise) as his heart rate climbs up, and goes back to normal as his bpm go back down.

James’ blurred vision as a result of high HR.

There aren’t an awful lot of puzzles to solve; in fact, there’s probably more wandering around the humongous manor trying to figure out what to do next. In my case, that was especially true when I went looking for Mr Teddy, because I had no idea where the place where Sally said she’d left it was (and it wasn’t at all where I was expecting it to be). However, while all the wandering around can get a little annoying, it’s a good way to explore the environment and become immersed in it; it also adds to the feeling of loneliness and dread. In fact, most locations in the house aren’t really that important to the game, and only few rooms have objects that you can collect or items that reveal details of the story.

Besides point-and-click style puzzles, there are few other instances where you need to avoid ominous presences or get rid of them. According to Buxtejor, on average FOBF takes forty minutes to play through, but since I suck it took me over two hours. You can’t save your progress manually, but the game saves automatically at certain points and it will let you know when it does. Personally, I feel that the developer could have been a little more generous with the checkpoints, in order to avoid the annoying phenomenon of walks of shame that plagued Hollow Knight.

There are really only two situations where the lack of checkpoints might force you to redo the same bits over and over (because you keep dying over and over), and you’ll hear me complain about it at length in my video commentary of FOBF, but  I think this game is well worth putting up with that. (Also, you might simply be better at it than I was.)

Graphics, music, and sound

FOBF is a pixel graphics game. Character sprites consist of maybe two dozens of large pixels and are animated with two or three frames at most, which is great. I love pixel graphic games, they lend themselves very well to the psychological horror genre, and are in general very imaginative. FOBF’s palette has something like ten colours (I’m too lazy to actually count them), and yet it manages to create a perfectly unsettling atmosphere, also thanks to the intentionally dark environment and the constant, subtle pixelated noise reminiscent of old films. The low light can get in the way (especially in certain sequences where your field of vision shrinks down to that of a late-stage glaucoma patient), but it’s adjustable, so you can make the game brighter if you want.

Finding my way around here was a a nightmare, and the worst was yet to come…

The music may not be something that will stick with you forever, but it’s very appropriate to each situation and contributes in no small part to the game’s overall feel. It doesn’t get too narrative and it blends nicely in the background, allowing you to fully focus on what’s going on, so overall I think it was well chosen. (It wasn’t composed by the game author themselves, but by Itch.io user RedAvery, and you can find it here.)

Sounds effects are what you would expect from a retro game like this one; there aren’t many of them, but again are very appropriate. They give the game’s jump scares the necessary power to fling you right off your chair.

Overall impressions

FOBF has a good story, if a little predictable. There are hints that suggest rather strongly what’s going on, so if you pay close attention, you may well solve the mystery well before you get to the moment of the revelations. To be fair, though, the game does try to throw you off on more than one occasion.

I found some of the puzzles to be especially clever, but as said there aren’t many, and maybe there could have been more. (Then again, the game is supposed to last 40 minutes.) The large size of Buxhaven Manor offered potential for a more complex story and more puzzles which I feel was untapped, but this leaves room for future episodes. (Something that Buxtejor themselves said to be a possibility.)

This one took me pen, paper, and half an hour. My girlfriend solved it in thirty seconds. Either I suck, or she’s very smart. I like to think the latter.

With the exception of two (maybe three) rather infuriating bits, I found this game thoroughly enjoyable. It’s immersive, it makes you want to keep playing, and everything adds up at the end. Frankly, if checkpoints had been used less sparingly, I don’t think I’d have any real complaint; allowing you to save at any point would be stupid, but just an extra checkpoint or two would have solved all my issues.

The game dev said FOBH was well received, and I’m not remotely surprised by that. As far as I know, this game was essentially a one-person operation that took less than a year despite the fact it was done during spare lockdown time (thanks, 2020); it’s very good in general and extremely good in the circumstances. I certainly look forward to future chapters of the Buxhaven family story, and any other game Buxtejor may make in the future. (Please just don’t take a year, I hate waiting…)

Here be spoilers

Alright, now if you haven’t played FOBF yet, I recommend you do; if you played it already, you’re all set to watch my video commentary about it here below.

The House of the Living: A spoiler-free review

Like I said in a previous post, I am very much a fan of pixel graphics games, especially if they are of the psychological horror genre. Every now and again, when I’m not overwhelmed by the too many things which this blog is named after, I like to visit Itch.io to look for indie games of this kind. If I have to be honest, I don’t often come across games I really like (on Itch.io or in general), but if you look hard enough, there are some truly rare gems just waiting to be discovered and that deserve more attention. The following is a spoiler-free review of one such gem, The House of the Living; if you’re interested, at the bottom of this post there is a spoiler-with video commentary on the same game, the latest addition to my brand-new YouTube channel

The House of the Living (HoL) is a short Bitsy game made by Fred Bednarski for the Gothic Novel Jam and the Sublime Bitsy Jam hosted on Itch.io a few years back. (Note to self: if you like a game in a game jam, it should dawn on you to check out the other entries of the jam right away, not when you’re reviewing the game years later. No, I didn’t accidentally leave this bit in—I’m intentionally publicly shaming myself. That’ll teach me to pay attention.)

Where was I? Ah, yes. Depending on your definition of game, HoL might be more of an interactive novel, like most Bitsy games. (Bitsy is a simple, web-based pixel-graphics engine that allows you to create interactive stories even if you can’t write a line of code to save your life.) Regardless, it’s a neat, creepy adventure that won’t take more than five or ten minutes of your time; like many games on Itch.io, it’s free and you can play it in your browser.

There’s nothing like a warm welcome.

Aside from my personal bias in favour of pixel graphics, I find that Bednarski made excellent use of the medium to create a truly creepy atmosphere. The manor itself is impressively well-drawn and imaginative; you could tell right away something is not right simply by looking at it, even without the ominous music (composed by the very aptly named Haunted Corpse).

The choice of the colour palette (which in Bitsy is limited to three different colours) is perfect and it definitely plays a big part in setting the general tone of the game.

Why, I have.

The dialogs, which drive the entire game, are convincing and well-written (except for a few typos), if a little cryptic; I’m not entirely sure of this, but I think there are a few covert references in the game, such as the fact that the House used to be owned by the Radcliffe family. (Nope, the reference, if it was intended, isn’t to Daniel Radcliffe, but to Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of gothic fiction.)  There are at least two endings to the game that I’m aware of, though I doubt there are more as there isn’t a whole lot you can do in the game.

Howdy! A fine day to bang your head against the wall, eh?

According to Bednarski, the game touches the themes of religion, murder, death, and suicide (cheery stuff, but given the theme of the jam…) which is definitely true, but the meaning of the game is up for debate. I gave my own interpretation in the video below; feel free to watch it and tell me all about how I got it all wrong.

In any case, if you have five minutes to spare, make yourself a hot cuppa and enjoy this bitesize horror game. You won’t be terrified, as that was obviously not the author’s intention, but I do think you will enjoy it.