Sunday, June 2, 2013

Scratches: Director's Cut

     Point and click adventures are often seen as a dead genre, only occasionally rising up out of its grave to serve a few retro-indie titles with crap-tons of fan service in them before disappearing again and never really truly gaining a second wind of any sort. Some would argue with this assessment, but its, unfortunately, pretty accurate. At one time, adventure games exploded and then soon after died a relatively quick death, just as soon as they truly hit their peak.
     This is fine, though. Adventure games were always meant to primarily tell an interesting story, and storytelling has never exactly made money the same way flashy graphics and cute gunplay always has. Let them keep their Halo's and Call of Duty's: I've got Scratches.
     Keep in mind: I know that their are a lot of other much better and much more important adventure games out there, but that doesn't change the fact that Scratches impressed me in a way not many other games have in a good while. It kept me in a state of constant terror, and told me a story in such a way that I was dying to get to the bottom of all the mystery. What more could you want?

     The premise is simple: a popular horror writer is looking for solitude after discovering that he's got a somewhat severe case of writer's block. His solution? He tells his agent to find him somewhere nice and creepy, preferably with a shady past, to vacation. His agent is all too eager.
      And thus, we find ourselves at the front gate of Blackwood Manor, a creepy old mansion with a very disturbing and very mysterious past. As the legend goes: the previous owner, a Mr. James Blackwood, supposedly snapped and killed his wife, before proceding to hastily bury on the grounds of Blackwood Manor somewhere. No one knows why he did it, and after he dies very suddenly of a heart attack, everyone in town assumes the mystery will forever go unsolved. Until now, of course.
     So, after his showing of extremely poor judgement with deciding to reside in the house in the first place, our hero Micheal does the natural thing to do in a clearly dangerous situation like this: do some exploring and try to get to the bottom of this 'cold case'. He starts with reading old diaries and flipping through old newspapers. By the end of our adventure, he'll by swinging across rooftops, desecrating graves, and perhaps most disturbing of all, descending the basement stairs in the hopes to find out where those mysterious scratching sounds that haunts his sleepless nights are coming from.
     Sound creepy? Well, if it doesn't, don't worry: it is. Credit goes to the sound design especially in helping to create the terrifying atmosphere. Yes, there are a lot of cheap jump scares. Yes, I know that's not truly effective horror. But in this case, I felt like the jumps helped create the uneasy feeling I had traversing the creepy hallways and deserted wooded areas that dot the mansion. I never felt like I could trust the game, and thus, every time I turned a corner, every time I entered a room, I was terrified something horrible would be waiting there for me. Needless to say, the game is very effective at scaring the pants off of you, and keeping you nice and paralyzed with fear until it finally does so with a well-timed jump scare.

     My main complaints with Scratches lie with its puzzles. Yes, the gameplay is archaic and boring, but I didn't really mind that so much. What I did mind, however, was that without a walkthrough to help me along, I literally don't think I ever would have finished the game. The puzzles themselves are silly and contrived, and their solutions are even worse. To make matters worse, navigation in certain areas can be a little frustrating, and it can be easy to miss items sometimes. There's a specific puzzle towards the end of the game that I won't spoil, but that involves you digging a hole in the ground at a specific spot in the ground, using only a photo of the area as a reference. To say that this puzzle was 'frustrating' would be a huge understatement. I wanted to launch my mouse through the screen all the way up until I randomly stumbled upon the correct solution.
     The ending isn't exactly the greatest either. Yes, it makes perfect sense, and yes, it was pretty clever, but I can't help but feel that it just too abrupt. For a game with so much build up, the initial shock and awe of the ending means that its abruptness will be especially obvious when we find ourselves, mouths agape, staring at a credits sequence. Also, the secret ending is kind of cool, but just don't expect much out of the new Director's Cut-exclusive chapter "Last Visit". It just seems to ruin some of the mystery surrounding the original ending, and it renders 'the secret ending' completely 'non-canon' and thus, more of a joke ending than anything else. Plus, besides drawing attention to few things to clear up confusion about the ending, it didn't really offer any new answers to me. It felt like a needless retread, and thus, I recommend you skip it, unless you just really just can't get enough of Blackwood Manor.
     The graphics are fine. The sound design is relatively excellent. The voice-acting is pretty good, although it has moments of sheer-awfulness too. But above all, Scratches manages to be both terrifying and strangely subtle in its brand of horror, which is something we just don't see often enough. Its a fascinating horror game with smart twists and a mysterious plot that unravels at an excellent pace. Even if it looks a little boring in the trailers and screenshots, I promise: you will be scared, and you will love every second of it.

Verdict: B-

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