A new horror adventure has arrived in Scratches, and if the goal of its independent developer Nucleosys was to give gamers a chilling, eerie experience, I am pleased to say they most certainly succeeded.
The thing that makes Scratches so fear-inducing is its subtlety. Sometimes there's nothing subtle about fear, however. Late one night I was playing Scratches in the dark, with the volume up rather high. I heard an undercurrent thump-thump beginning to grow louder in the room, and I thought to myself, "Oh my, excellent sound effect!"
Then I realized that the sound was coming from somewhere within the dark house I was all alone in, and not my computer.
I turned in my chair in time to see my roommate's cat come running at me full tilt, ears flat against his head as he skidded in from the hallway to escape the source of the thump-thump, whose volume was steadily increasing. The floor under my feet was vibrating with the force of each thump -- it was coming right for me! An adrenaline rush of fear sank like a stone in the pit of my stomach, made all the more surreal by the ambient sounds and music of Scratches, which supported the 5.1 speaker system attached to my wall. I got up and moved with increasing dread towards the open door into darkness. The sound, growing horrifyingly loud and angry, tore through the house to greet me where I stood...
Of course it turned out to be the washing machine with a terribly unbalanced load of clothes. But by that point I was completely unnerved how such a palpable fear had seamlessly moved from game to reality and back into the game world with Michael Arthate, the character you play in the hair-raising mystery of Scratches.
Scratches is a horror/mystery adventure game in which Arthate is stuck with the daunting task of writing out of the shadow of his first literary success. He has his agent purchase a Victorian home in rural England in the hopes of reinvigorating his Muse there. Shortly thereafter, he hears scratching noises from deep within the mansion, and his investigations reveal much about the previous owner and even more about secrets that were never meant to be revealed.
This game is a traditional first-person point & click adventure with fully rendered 360-degree rotation (or slide-show, if you prefer) within a game world that looks, in a gothic and foreboding way, great! The level of detail in each environment, including the mansion (most heavily), a dilapidated greenhouse, a church and a crypt, is quite impressive. Care obviously went into delivering as (sur)realistic an experience as possible graphically, and this goes a long way towards creating just the right atmosphere to elicit the heebie-jeebies.
The camera panning is delightfully smooth, and never does any of the enigmatic scenery in the game world take on a skewed or warped perspective as a result of the proprietary engine Nucleosys calls SCREAM. It really is just as if you are swiveling your head and looking directly or indirectly at the world around you. Technically the game is stable but for one minor nuisance for me, when moving the hand-cursor to the top right of the screen would sometimes result in an ever-spinning rotation.
As a result of the gothic setting and the storm brewing outside, this is a fairly dark game. I highly recommend it be played in the dark, so you don't really have to adjust gamma or brightness and contrast on your monitor. It really enhances gameplay and effectively helps you "live" the character as he moves about peering into half-lit rooms and cupboards.
The house is your primary exploration environment, and while it provides plenty to explore in its own right, I feel that the other, equally atmospheric and creepy areas of Scratches, such as the church and the crypt, could have gotten a little more attention. Your visit to the church is just a bit too brief, and a little less revelatory than it could have been (pun intended). Yet in no way did this game skimp graphically on any of the rich environs within these tomb-like structures, no matter how long or short your stay.
The game's accoutrements are pleasingly varied and laying about everywhere. The journals, letters and notes you come across play a key role in the realization of the game's plot. They are abundant, but thankfully not overdone. They fill you with an appropriate sense of foreboding, but also wonder and curiosity. At one point you pull open a drawer and come across some sketches of adult and fetal musculature and structure. Even though they're just anatomical sketches, there's something eerily unnerving about them, as though they fueled the owner's interest well beyond knowledge that the leg bone's connected to the hip bone. Creepy.
I loved being able to open nearly every door I lay my hand on without solving a puzzle to get through it. Real life isn't like that. Imagine every time you have to use the restroom, having to garner a squeegee, length of rope, and mousetrap to get the door open. Scratches acknowledges quite a few realities of movement and environment, even allowing an oft-used puzzle solution to fail as a humorous nod to adventure cliché.
I enjoy puzzles that make you think, but not puzzles for the sake of puzzles, especially those wrapped around a wafer thin plot. Fortunately, it is obvious that Nucleosys sat down and decided to create a terrifying story, and work out how the main character would react to the world around him logically. Yes, the story in Scratches is given top billing, and the puzzles -- every single one of them -- are solved through the use of inventory items and/or close observation of what is discovered in various writings, and phone conversations you will have with your agent, Jerry.
These phone conversations exist as a sort of segue or lean-to when you need help, or to advance your directive. Very informational at times, at others they are just a way for Michael to express his growing intrigue and angst about what's happening around him. The voice work is very good, though I think of the two, Jerry emotes a bit better than Michael, but I never felt the dialogue (which is intelligently written) or the delivery was flat or uninteresting.
The volume of the voices -- and this is an old nitpick of mine, so Scratches is not an exception -- isn't what it should be. Gaffers need to learn to kick up the volume of the voice tracks without being afraid to lose subtlety. I don't like straining to hear during dialogue, but of course subtitles are your friend in these cases.
I was happily engaged by the formula Scratches uses to lead you through the game, collecting real-world items and using them in real-world fashion, through which each obstacle could be overcome via troubleshooting, some guesswork, and often sudden eureka -- but again, always logically. [Edit: In my first play through, I believed the endgame puzzle was insufficiently clued, resulting in too much trial and error to get Michael through his final predicament. When I finally found what I should do, I was relieved, not elated, and a little perplexed. However, it turns out I'd missed a vital clue that could have saved me many a headache. So I have no complaints about the clues available, but be forewarned that it's possible to miss some and still proceed only partly aware of what you need to do.]
My clue difficulties aside, I loved the way this adventure stair-steps its way to that endgame. The build-up is exactly what it should be, subtle yet alarming. The endgame itself is pleasantly frightening -- Scratches aced that hands down, a certifiable adrenal dumper -- but the story itself seems unfinished to me; a little too ambiguous. There are many cinematic experiences that leave their conclusions open for interpretation, and you walk away feeling viscerally challenged. Yet there still exist questions in my mind as to what was what at the end of Scratches, and I'm not so sure my conclusions are correct. If this was the purpose of the game; perfect. If not, not so perfect, but whatever the intentions, a little story tweaking would have worked much better for me.
This game is nothing if not atmospheric, and this has a lot to do with the soundtrack created (appropriately) by Cellar of Rats. Perfectly tuned to the pace and pitch of this story, the sound effects and music will elevate, make pensive, and at times completely freak you out. It is never intrusive, overbearing, or diversionary, but achieves an excellent synergy between the mood of the game world and what's happening in it. High marks for this success; I have a feeling the group kept in close communication with the developers to work out exactly what was needed, and when -- and of course a healthy dose of pure talent to boot.
I have to admit that I was so taken by the opening cinematic and subsequent introduction to gameplay that I neglected to write down just how long it took me, from start to finish, to complete this game. Yes, a cardinal reviewer's sin, but a good indication of how intrigued I was. However, while playing, the game felt neither hurried nor protracted. It takes place over a three day period in the game world, and I would say it took me about fifteen or more hours of hardcore play over the period of a work week to conclude.
During the past several years, the adventure game community has become a sort of networking resource for those interested in developing and creating their own adventure games, and moving rapidly from amateur endeavors to commercially viable entertainment. This is exactly how the two-man team at Nucleosys came to be, and if the level of professional quality work that went into producing Scratches is any indication of what's in store for the future, adventure game fans will definitely want to keep their eye on this team. In the meantime, this debut effort should satisfy any adventure fan looking for a memorably creepy experience. Just don't play it while you're doing your laundry.
For an additional look at the enhanced Director's Cut, read on!
Scratches Director's Cut
Less than a year after the debut of Scratches, Got Game and Nucleosys teamed up once again to surprise everyone with the release of a Director's Cut edition of the game. The new version promised several key features not included in the original, including higher resolution graphics, a journal by the playable character, an alternate control scheme, and most importantly, an all-new playable chapter. As it turns out, the new release does indeed deliver on its claims of enhancing the experience, though the core game remains unchanged, and it's unlikely that the new content will be enough to warrant an additional purchase for any but the most devoted fans of the initial game.
Actually, Scratches: Director's Cut was itself updated shortly after launch, with the release of a massive downloadable patch directly from the developer's website, reportedly providing a "complete remake" of the game visually. Here again, it's true that the update does make the graphics more detailed, but not as much as might be expected from such a dramatic overhaul. The patch also offers an easier method of reaching the "alternate ending" in the Director's Cut, though the bothersome, pace-killing tasks required to reach it (and an entire playthrough in its own right) will discourage most people from bothering anyway. It's worth grabbing the patch if the download is manageable, but hardly necessary to enjoy the game without it.
In terms of the Director's Cut additions, the graphic enhancement is certainly noticeable, mainly in adding a crispness the original lacked, though the game's stylish visuals were already fairly impressive in lower resolution. I also found that the game's scene transitions and animations edged into lagging "load time" territory as a result. The journal is basically a helpful recap, reading more like a player-friendly summary of events than an insightful glimpse into Michael's mind. The control change, meanwhile, is more a tweak to the existing method than a new scheme altogether. Navigation is done exactly the same way, except that instead of moving the cursor to the screen edges to rotate the view, the cursor stays locked in the center of the screen and any mouse movement begins the rotation. This is a much slicker and more responsive method, so much so that some might want to slow the camera speed to accommodate if necessary. The original control methods remain options as well, should the new method not suit you.
By far the most significant change from the original Scratches to the Director's Cut is the addition of a new playable chapter. Not to be confused with the brief "alternate ending" cinematic mentioned above, the new section is a completely distinct gameplay scenario. It's meant to be played after completing the main game, though you can select if from the main menu any time.
Entitled "The Last Visit", the new chapter casts players in the role of Peter Banks, a reporter sent to investigate the secrets of Blackwood Manor before the imminent demolition of the house. Many years have passed since Michael's terrifying adventure, and it's quickly apparent just how much has happened since then. The mansion has now been heavily vandalized and anything of value smashed or stolen. It's quite fascinating to retrace your own steps and see the deterioration to the once eerie-but-classy Victorian home. There isn't nearly as much to interact with this time, however. Many of the original hotspots are removed (along with the items they belonged to), and entire sections are completely obstructed, limiting your exploration to the central parts of the house, making it clear that this will be a scaled-down return to the old haunts.
Not surprisingly, the gameplay is equally simplified, presenting only a couple of basic puzzles. The new puzzles are inventory-based, and there are only a handful of new objects, although I was confused at first when I began the chapter right after the main game with all of my original items (an aberration that did not occur when I later started the chapter again from the beginning). The new content really won't keep you very busy, so don't expect your last visit to Blackwood Manor to be a long one.
Of course, the gameplay is really only window dressing for the real reason for the chapter: the ending. I won't spoil anything, but suffice to say, "The Last Visit" supplies the definitive answers that the original game did not. The new answers raise new questions, but at least this time you'll end with an "Ooooohhhhh!!" or "I KNEW it!!" instead of the original "Huh??!!" That reaction comes after you retrieve your heart from wherever it's dropped to in the chilling moments preceding it, mind you. While not having the chance to build up nearly the level of tension as the full game, you will definitely be treated to one more reminder of what made Scratches so creepy in the first place.
At some point in future, when the original version of Scratches is no longer in widespread circulation (and perhaps that time has come already), I'd like to see the new chapter and other Director's Cut upgrades offered as a free download, as there does seem an element of unfairness that the earliest adopters should miss out unless they pay twice. In the meantime, whether this enhanced edition is worth picking up depends largely on whether you'll be playing again or for the first time. If you have the first version of the game and are considering the second, its appeal is somewhat limited. None of the new elements are worth the price of admission on their own, unless you're simply dying to see for yourself who or what was behind the Blackwood horrors. But if you've never played Scratches and are debating which version to get, there's no reason at all not to grab the Director's Cut. The additions aren't overwhelming, but they're a nice bonus on top of an already impressive original effort that should satisfy your itch for horror-themed adventure.
Director's Cut review addendum by Jack Allin, added May 9, 2008.
Scratches is a great adventure game that shouldn't be missed by anyone who enjoys a story well told within a scary, gothic presentation.