Imagine moving into a decrepit Victorian mansion with a tragic history. The lights don't work and there is no running water. Strange documents you find suggest something sinister may have happened, or they may simply be the ravings of a madman. You explore the house and grounds while there is still some daylight to see by, then, reluctantly you go to bed hoping that you can get the electricity fixed tomorrow. In the middle of the night you awaken out of a nightmare so vivid you'd swear it was real. And just then you hear the sound of something scratching ...
If that doesn't raise the hair on the back of your neck perhaps you should check your pulse, or go and spend another few minutes in the basement ... if you dare.
Scratches is shaping up to be the scariest game since Dark Fall and Last Half of Darkness.
You are Michael Arthate and you have bought the mansion known as Blackwood Manor on the success of your first novel, Vanishing Town (which has a more than passing resemblance to Lights Out). Your real estate friend Jerry found the house for you so that you can concentrate on your next book in quiet surroundings. The house has been unoccupied for several years but all the furniture has been left in place by the previous owners. Like the Marie Celeste it looks as though the occupants just stepped out and didn't comeback. Even the workers building the extensions simply left their tools behind and the work uncompleted. As you explore your new home you learn that it used to belong to James Blackwood who was accused of murdering his wife Catherine in the early 1960s. The mystery of what happened all those years ago threatens to distract you from your own work. It may also threaten your sanity, if not your life.
Scratches is a first person perspective game with a simple and intuitive point and click interface. Movement is from node to node and you can pan around 360 degrees and look up and down. If you prefer you can also enable slide-show mode. There are lots of items to find and use and some may be combined in your inventory. Exploration is a treat with close-ups and descriptions of interesting objects, and cupboards and drawers that open and close (when they are not locked, of course). Nucleosys have promised "challenging puzzles requiring not your reflexes but your intuition and deductive skills", and over the two days of the game so far they have delivered.
The graphics are intricately detailed and the music and sound effects help to create a suitably tense atmosphere. So tense in fact that at one point my imagination took over and I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye and jumped a mile. It turned out to be a non-interactive inanimate object but any game that can do that is definitely 'scary'. The second day dawns bringing thunder and lightning and an incessant torrential downpour that seems to make the mansion close in on you and heightens feelings of claustrophobia.
Michael is voiced by John Bell whom many will recognise from the Sherlock Holmes games and Jonathan Boakes also lends his voice to the game. Conversations (which so far have only been by telephone) and Michael's descriptions are subtitled. The text appears beneath the game screen.
Though the game is firmly in the Gothic horror camp it also has its lighter moments, especially in the references to early text adventures and even adventure game conventions.
For this preview I have played through the first two days of the game and I want to keep going. I want to open the chapel, the greenhouse and the crypt but I'd settle for opening the garage or the locked drawer in the lower hallway. I appreciate that Nucleosys have made these two days available but now I have to wait for the full game to explore some more and learn what happens next. If the rest of the game is as good as this the wait will indeed be worth it.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2005.
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