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.Continued on the next page...