When I previewed Scratches back in November last year I said that if the full game lived up to the hands-on preview then it would surely be something to look forward to. I can now report that the full game is every bit as good as the preview suggested, and the wait has, indeed, been worthwhile.
In this first person perspective, mouse-controlled game you play as Michael Arthate, a writer of dark tales. Seeking a place of peace and solitude to finish your latest book you arrive at Blackwood Manor, an old Victorian mansion picked out for you by Jerry, your real estate agent friend. The mansion is just as the previous owners left it with beds made up, paintings on the walls and books left on tables. They might have just walked out the day before except for the obvious air of neglect that permeates the building. Once you settle in and do a little exploring you soon learn that the electricity is off and there is no water in the pipes, and the upstairs extensions are unfinished. In journals and scraps of paper you also learn about James Blackwood who owned the house in the early sixties, and slowly you start to piece together a disturbing tale that goes far beyond a simple murder.
Your investigation takes place over three days and time goes by in hourly increments but the game is not timed in the sense that you are under pressure to do things quickly. Time moves on only as a result of your actions and discoveries. Exploring the old house and its grounds is fascinating as there are lots of things to do and find. Eventually you will also be able to explore the garage, chapel, crypt and greenhouse as elements of the story unfold.
Moving around is quick and easy and I never felt disoriented. There is almost complete freedom to pan around except in the close-up screens. The interface is intuitive with a context sensitive cursor that changes to indicate the action you are able to perform. Left clicking carries out the action and a right click brings up your inventory. In the inventory is a magnifying glass that you can use to get a description of the items you are carrying.
The puzzles in Scratches are exactly the sort you would expect to find in exploring a strange, old house. Locked doors need to be unlocked, a light source is needed for dark areas, tools are required to accomplish various tasks, items may need to be combined before they are useful, etc. You won't find any out of context or abstract puzzles here. You just need to think about what you have learned, or found, and what you are trying to do. And you are helped in your investigation by some good and, at times, subtle clues. One visual clue, in particular, stood out for me as completely original and clever without being obscure. You will recognise it when you see it. There is also a familiar adventure game puzzle that Nucleosys have some fun with, at your expense. It's clear that these guys knew the sort of game that they enjoyed and had no doubts about the effect they wanted to achieve.
Journal entries, letters and photographs will help you to understand the mystery. There is a fair a bit of reading to do but it's nicely broken up so that you don't have to read volumes in one sitting. My one complaint here is that I found some of the text to be quite small and my eyesight isn't what it used to be.
The game provides good feedback in the form of descriptions of objects and responses to actions that you try to carry out. So if you can't do something — perhaps you don't have what you need, or the time isn't right — then you won't be left wondering. Strangely enough the feedback system is less obvious at times when you have done something correctly. For example, I used an item and it didn't seem to do anything so I used it again and was told that it wasn't needed. This was because it had worked the first time but the only indication of my success was that the item I used returned automatically to the inventory. Most times, though, the results of your actions are quite visible.
Michael Arthate is voiced by John Bell who has featured in other adventure games including Sherlock Holmes: The Case of the Silver Earring, and Jonathan Boakes (the developer of another very good scary game in Dark Fall) is Jerry. But, for the most part, the game is unvoiced and most of Michael's thoughts and descriptions of objects appear as text beneath the game window. I'm all in favour of text or optional subtitles but I did think Scratches might have been improved had Michael been voiced throughout.
The game has a great spooky atmosphere aided by highly detailed graphics, muted lighting and excellent music and sound effects. The intriguingly named Cellar of Rats provide the music and effects and I must say they got it right. At times you are not even aware of it, but it is there, playing with your senses as you explore. The atmosphere is oppressive and brooding, punctuated by the monotonous ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall, or by the creaking of the doors as they open. As I said in my preview, 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.
Scratches also features a couple of waking-dream moments that are very well done. They are completely interactive rather than cut scenes so that the awake and dream states are almost indistinguishable, and they are most effective in building up the tension. After my first night in that house I played the remaining days in a constant state of apprehension. Perhaps I have an overactive imagination but towards the end of the game there were some doors that I was reluctant to open. For a solitary exploration game there is an ominous feeling that you are not alone.
And of course you are not completely alone. Jerry is only a telephone call away, as is Barbara your assistant. If you want to hear another human voice over the next three days you will need to phone them. They may even be able to help you in your investigation.
Scratches is a remarkably polished first game from Nucleosys, a small development team from South America, and if this is anything to go by they have a great future. I had a lot of fun playing it. Both the story and the gameplay are substantial and the game is genuinely scary rather than gory. Proving once again that you don't need dripping blood and gore to be scary. I was going to say play it if you are not afraid of the dark but, really, it is better to be just a little afraid.
See the metzomagic.com Scratches walkthrough.
Copyright © Gordon Aplin 2006.
All rights reserved.
Windows, 800 MHz CPU (1.6 recommended), 128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended), 16 MB OpenGL-compatible video card (32 MB recommended), 24X CD-ROM drive, 500MB hard-drive free space, Sound card.