Monday, 2 December 2013

Scratches - Review

Scratches is the cursed child of Nucleosys, an indie-studio that lives on through the horror-adventure found in Blackwood Mansion. As you point and click your way through the halls of this house, get ready to become acquainted with a suffocating atmosphere, tension and a collection of mysterious, unnerving African artefacts.

The game opens with a cut-scene that immediately builds mystery around the grand estate of Blackwood, an infamous location in dreary Northumberland. Credits are dotted around the screen as a selection of black and white photographs drift across. Who took these pictures? Why do they make me feel so uneasy? These are all questions that will be answered, but you’ll soon miss your blissful ignorance.

It’s moving day for the protagonist, Michael Arthate, who has decided to remove himself from any distractions so that he can finish the much-anticipated sequel to his first novel. That’s right, Michael is a writer; of horror, no less. In fact, early on in the game he says, “The books in the room were rather boring. No horror novels… unbelievable!” - I liked him already.

From the minute I parked outside the mansion, I was immersed in the narrative of the game. Scratches boasts a palpable atmosphere that you can’t help but be sucked into, and it achieves this in a number of ways. For me, the key aspects of this atmosphere were sound, detail and mystery.

Lovely area. Great schools. African Curse...

Hats off to the sound design team at Nucleosys, because every sound played a part in pulling me further into the experience. The gusts of wind outside contrasted so drastically with the beautifully sombre music inside that I always felt on edge as I searched the grounds around the house. Or, when exploring the hallway, the never-ending ticking of the clock seemed to highlight the fact that I was the only one here, and at times I felt a pang of loneliness. This is a powerful emotion, and it was amazing that Scratches managed to evoke it so strongly.

Another sound, which you’d expect, is scratching. The less I say about this the better, as I’ve already lost enough sleep, both in-game and out, to this disturbance. I’d love to blame it on Blackwood’s rat problem, but life is just never that easy.

I almost soiled myself when I saw this.

In addition to great sound, Scratches excels in the little details. Each room, drawer and chest is full of interesting things to read or admire, and each object adds to the mysterious, and personal, lives of the people who have lived in the Blackwood mansion. Instead of just being told about the protagonist and the people involved in this unwinding narrative, you are shown.

After unpacking Michael’s suitcase in his new room, I learnt about his profession, previous novel, real estate agent and assistant, and it also made me feel as if I was moving into a new house myself. If it hadn’t been for finding the journal of previous owner, James Blackwood, downstairs, detailing a rather eventful – disturbing - period of time spent in Africa, I might have been excited.

After you’ve spent your first day getting settled into the house, dealing with everyday problems like lighting, unpacking and sorting through items, the mystery really begins. As you progress, you discover that there was much more going on at Blackwood than anyone knew about. It all revolves around an ancient African tribe which Mr. Blackwood became obsessed with during a construction job abroad. 

When James returned to England, he didn’t come back alone. He brought a little souvenir back with him, and as an added bonus, a good ol’ curse, too. I won’t tell you anymore about it, as uncovering this mystery is part of the game’s charm.

What a beautiful collection of horrifying African masks.

Getting to the roots of this mystery means solving the different puzzles that you find around the manor, but this is no easy task. I often found myself wondering around the house not knowing what to do next. Even if I had a vague idea of what I needed to do, such as pushing a key out of a lock to gain access to a room, I’d have no idea what tool was required, or where to find it. This meant that sometimes my atmospheric immersion gave way to frustration, which was a real shame – did I mention how great the atmosphere is?

Scratches was at its most enjoyable when I felt like I was progressing without too much frustration or confusion, which didn’t happen often. Now and then Michael would offer a hint like, “I should probably go to bed”, which felt like a natural way of directing my actions and progressing the narrative, but these were far and few between. A ‘hint’ button would have been nice, just for those moments when I felt completely unsure of what to do next.

The living room; where you'll go to relax after a long, sleepless night.

Scratches is not perfect. Some puzzles can be extremely hard, and I know I wouldn’t have been able to finish it without the help of a walkthrough. Don’t judge me – I had a review to write. Having said that, even if a walkthrough is needed to progress, progress you should.

Senscape has created a deep, engaging mystery that is a pleasure to delve into, with atmosphere and sound design that AAA studios couldn’t match. Well, maybe they could, but they rarely do. Though scares don’t come often, as Scratches favours a slow build of tension, when they do, they’re just plain cruel.

I had only been in Blackwood Manor for three days, but by the time I packed up my belongings and ran for the hills, I had been frustrated, absorbed, lonely, terrified and also spent some time thinking about whether I ever actually wanted to live alone. If I do, I sure won’t be bringing back any souvenirs from other countries – especially, not if I have to sneak into the middle of a vicious sacrifice to acquire it. In fact, I’ll just stick to Ikea; the most dangerous thing there is the meatballs.

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Again, thank you, and welcome to Noble Gaming.

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