With Halloween being a snowstorm or more than two Christmas days away, the cold weather outside is still enough to justify this trip into indie horror gaming territory with Nucleosys’ first-person adventure Scratches: Director’s Cut.
Scratches: Director’s Cut
(Argentina 2007, developer: Nucleosys (defunct), publisher: Got Game Entertainment (defunct)/Meridian 4, platform: PC)
Author Michael Arthate moves into the old Blackwood mansion, but finds more interesting stories about the past with the mysterious disappearance and murder of its former inhabitants.
Slowly tells, slowly plays
Story and character development are just as slow as the movements in the first-person perspective. Granted, there is something gratifying about the way the suspense builds up and how the old mansion the player discovers seems to become alive, but it’s sadly more often a boring ride to finally get to the good parts of the story. Like most classic horror movies of the past, predominantly the 70ies and 80ies, the emphasis is less on blood and guts but on chilling moments created by slowly uncovering secrets and mysteries. In this sense, the title succeeds to make the player curious and keep him or her interested throughout most of the playtime despite the lack of originality in the plot. Unfortunately, the main protagonist couldn’t be any less interesting or annoying with constant phone calls to his friend Jerry, often asking him about the most mundane things, like lighting candles, inquiring about the electrician, etc.. It doesn’t help that one rarely gets a glimpse into Christopher’s psyche, making identification difficult.
The overall story is a nice mix of a classic ghost story, playing with the notion IF there is actually a ghost haunting the mansion, and drama interwoven with more than a few nods to H.P. Lovecraftian lore. All these ingredients are usually handled with care, creating an involving story which is drip-fed to the player by reading newspaper articles and finding more and more clues in the house. Broken into different days serving as chapters, this works to a certain degree, as each new day brings more revelations, although this storytelling approach is definitely not for everyone, as the lack of cutscenes or discussions with other characters make it a rather lonesome affair with few setpieces or thrilling scenes.
Standard puzzle fare and imperfect but satisfying writing
Another problem the game faces is that the puzzle design doesn’t offer any innovative ideas and often comes down to pixel hunting with many instances when it’s not exactly clear what to do next. This isn’t helped by the idea that the protagonist only picks up items or interacts with certain key points in the environment when it’s necessary. Sure, this helps to evoke the feeling of realism, and most of the puzzles are actually well integrated and logical, but the whole puzzle solving experience simply slows down story progression and leads to frustrating running to and from various rooms in the house without knowing what to do next, especially since objects which can be interacted with can easily be overlooked, which isn’t made any better when there are so many drawers to open and things to look at which have no purpose.
What the writing of the dialogue scenes lack in perfection, the manuscript or diary entries the player discovers make up for in unsettling imagery. If it weren’t for these sparking the imagination, storytelling and progression in the game would suffer tremendously from tediousness and downright boredom. It’s not that few things happen during playtime, it’s just that they happen too infrequently. Only very few memorable scenes can be called genuinely jumpy scares. This might also be due to the limitations of the graphics engine and control system.
Dusty old look but scarily good sound
Even when it was released, this wasn’t a pretty game. Calling the backgrounds ugly would be a bit unfair as there is quite an attention to detail which can be found here. However, the low-res textures don’t make for a very lively scenery and the static backgrounds don’t help much either to create an immersive experience. In contrast, sound effects and piano music are sparsely but effectively used as in the best of classic horror movies like The Haunting, although the voice acting can sound rather amateurish at times.
It’s just a shame that in addition to the outdated graphics, the controls and navigation make progression even more tedious. As many doors leading to key rooms look the same and a map which can later be found but not really used to directly jump to these locations isn’t very helpful either, something which has been troubling first-person adventures since the beginning is also prevalent here: clicking one’s way from scene to scene and turning around requiring more clicks than necessary is still awkward and frustrating.
Put the DC into the OV
This being the Director’s Cut, a few words have to be said about this version as well. It supposedly has improved graphics and sound, but as I haven’t played the original, there’s not much I can say except that the low budget indie roots can still be seen and heard and the game hasn’t aged well. More interesting is the inclusion of an additional chapter titled “The Last Visit” which tells the story of a reporter who revisits the house.
In fact, this is already much more fun to play than what went before, which is mainly due to the more linear puzzle design which makes wandering through the house easier, and better writing when it comes to looking at the remains of the mansion. It’s not very long (1-2 hours), but quite effective in creating a more sinister atmosphere. Unfortunately, the graphical shortcomings of the original are present here as well, making certain scenes lose some of their weight. Especially the final cutscene is unintentionally funny because of the low budget.
Classic horror and gaming with ups and downs
Maybe it’s unfair to compare the static first-person engine to a realtime full 3D engine, but it can’t be denied that with slow movements, subpar graphics, the chilling horror isn’t as effective as it could be, seldom making the player actually terrified of his surroundings. Puzzles are also unspectacular, while traversing the mansion with its many doors can become quite a drag with poor navigation and the lack of clues.
Scratches is a slow burner which never reaches the highs of classic horror gaming outside of indie territory. The plot and character development is also often reminiscent of too many old horror movies, told in an old-fashioned, but also rather dated way. It’s not a game which turns first-person adventure critics into first-person adventure enthusiasts, either. Still, for a short trip down the H.P. Lovecraft and ghost-story-or-not road, the game is worth checking out.
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