21 June 2012

Scratches: Director's Cut

Gaming Genres: Graphical Adventure
Story Genres: Horror, Mystery, Thriller
Graphical Styles: 2.5D, Realism, High Resolution
Platforms: Windows
Pricing Model: Pay $
Developer(s): Nucleosys
Publisher(s): Got Game Entertainment
Initial Release Date: March 8, 2006
Website(s): Wikipedia, Steam
Dark Legends surround the old abandoned Blackwood house, secluded far away in the northern wastelands.

For writer Michael Arthate, this cold, solitary atmosphere is fodder for his restless imagination. But Michael soon becomes distracted by the mysteries offered up, as he follows a trail exploring and delving into the secrets of the past. As he is drawn deeper into the story, his sleep is shattered by mysterious noises, and he is plagued by nightmares that cross into reality.

Whose shadows lurk in the dark corners? Is that lonely house inhabited by restless spirits of the past or something more sinister? What is that sound that chills to the very bone...scratching?

Join Michael in a suspenseful adventure, as you explore beautiful and chilling environments. Prowl dark corners and solve puzzles leading to the solution of a tale begun with obsession, and ending with madness and murder.

The director's cut includes: an alternate ending, A new chapter and mini-sequel: “The Last Visit” which sends you back to the house 10 years latter, A diary system with more clues and thoughts from the main character, and upgraded graphics and an eerier soundtrack.

Scratches is a horror title rapped up in a mystery and filled with suspense and tension. It is a point and click adventure game released in 2006 by the small Argentinian company Nucleosys. This team went on to release a director's cut of Scratches the following year. Nucleosys has since shut its doors, but one if its co-founders, Agustin Cordes, has gone on to found Senscape, which is currently working on Asylum, an adventure game with a similar style.

The director's cut, named simply Scratches: Director's Cut, is pretty much what you would expect from a director's cut. With it you get an alternative ending to the story; The original ending I believe, before they remade it to be more ambiguous. This ending no longer quite fits into the story, and is of course non-canonical, but interesting to experience nonetheless. We also get a whole new mini-sequel called "The Last Visit"; Which has you playing as a journalist who has stuck into Blackwood Manor, ten years after your fateful stay there. But, perhaps more importantly than all these little additions, are all of the improvements made to the main game. We get completely overhauled graphics, with higher supported resolutions, and improved detail and lighting; A, similarly, remastered soundtrack and sound effects; And a much improved interface. There has also been work done on the Hint System, and Michael has gotten a Journal in which he shares his innermost thoughts and which acts to remind you of objectives at times.

The 7-8 hour game takes place in Blackwood Manor, an old Victorian house, and on the surrounding grounds. Blackwood Manor is an old abandoned house with a dark and mysterious past. Originally, a pillar of the community and a prominent engineer, Mr. Blackwood, lived there with his wife and maid, and with a son on the way; But a series of horrible and unexplained events have left a dark cloud hanging over the entire region, the house abandoned, and fuelled rumours and myths of every variety. It all started with what should of been a happy occasion, the birth of their son, which quickly turned into a tragedy when they announced that he had died. Latter, Mr. Blackwood is accused of murdering his wife and burying her on the premises; The police wanted to investigate but with the help of his best friend and doctor Christopher Milton, their combined esteem, and the suicide of their only suspect, Mr. Blackwood, put the case permanently on hold. Christopher Milton then inherited the estate and moved in, but soon became a hermit and eventually disappeared entirely.

This is where you, Michael Arthate, come in. You are a horror writer looking for some inspiration to help you finish your latest book. You have acquired the house, and moved in immediately, with only a few hours for a cleaning crew to get the worst of the dirt cleaned up. The electricity and water do not even work yet, and you are all alone, with only a telephone and the post service to connect you to the outside world. In the following three days Michael explores the manor and gets more and more obsessed with the mysterious events in its past. But is he the only one here? His dreams are filled with nightmares and shattered by a mysterious scratching noise. Can you uncover what really happened here all those years ago? Is something or someone from its dark past still lurking in the house? What is causing those Scratching noises at night?

This story is beautifully told and uses the classic element of ambiguity. You are encouraged to think about what you see, hear, and read and come up with your own explanations. You need to explore and pay attention to uncover the truth; It is possible to entirely miss very important clues and sources of information while plaything through the game, so there is a big emphasis on exploration. The game's atmosphere is great for this, it inspires a sense of exploration, and I needed no more incentive than that to explore every inch of the manor. Most of the game is open and fully explorable from the very beginning, but as you progress through the game what you are doing is slowing opening up new sections and uncovering new parts of the mystery.

Scratches: Director's Cut adds to this story with "The Last Visit", a new sequel chapter that takes place ten years after you originally explored Blackwood Manor. This, approximately one hour long, mini-sequel has you play a journalist gone to the house to dig up a story and uncover the mystery before it is demolished. What he encounters is a scene of ruin, of vandalism, graffiti, and of looting. Much of the grounds and house are not even accessible. It is a short addition, with only two disappointing simple multi-step puzzles, and is overall rather disappointing in how little is revealed. You get a few explanations to previously ambiguous questions; But if anything the added precision only hurts the story, ruining the open ended interpretable aspect of it. It also does not do any better at ending the story of Scratches; Nothing is resolved, in fact it has very much a similar ending to the original story. One saving grace is that it answers the only real complaint I had with the original game; The game is now 100% narrated, and while there is far less reading in this chapter, all of it is voiced.

The world of Scratches is node based and allows your choice of slideshow or 360 degree view. In my opinion, the 360 degree view is obviously the better view and the one you should use. It works fabulously, being easy to use and a great way to show off the beautiful game. Also, you really do not have to worry about making it harder to spot items. There is no pixel hunting; All, hotspots are quite big, and useful items very easy to spot. There is one exception to this, in my opinion, but the item is so close to where it is needed that I would not expect it to cause much trouble.

The gameplay of Scratches takes second stage to the story and atmosphere. All of the puzzles are obvious extensions of the storyline and are incorporated because of the story. This makes for very logical and simple puzzles; most of which are inventory based. The game does not really even use any inventory combination puzzles, with the few times that you do combine items in the inventory being so obvious that I would not consider them puzzles. Unfortunately, the game does get off on a rather bad start where the puzzles are concerned; The very first challenge you have is trying to figure out where to put your suitcase, with absolutely no direction. It does not go on the bed, it does not go on the desk, there are no interactable areas on the ground. Eventually, I figured out where to put it, but I could not help thinking that in no sense should this puzzle exist. Another feature of the game worth mentioning is how much the inventory builds up overs time; Most items are not used more than once, but unless using an item logically destroys or leaves it then it is kept in the inventory long past its last use. On the one hand this seemed unnecessary, but on the other it did not ever cause me any problems because the puzzles are always so logical. You never have to try all your items on this one elusive challenge, if you see a problem you pretty much know what you need to solve it, and either have to look for the item or simply take it out of your inventory. Even the keys had pretty obvious doors to which they belonged, and just by looking at their icons and you could tell which door they would unlock. One thing that Scratches does well is mixing a linear storyline with non-linear gameplay. Yes, the game is linear, but at the same time you have multiple avenues to explore, almost all of the time; There is enough give that I was never stuck behind this one tiny roadblock that needed to be cleared before the story could progress.

The two features of Scratches: Director's Cut that I never really explored are the Hint System and Journal/Diary. I played with the Hint System off, but apparently, the hints are seamlessly integrated into the comments and Journal; It does not seem to be the type of Hint System that you can use for a particular puzzle that is causing you trouble, so much as just generally making the game easier while you play. The Journal, in my opinion, works mostly as an objectives list. And in this way, it is good to make the game easier to come back to after enough time has passed to forget what you were doing. The problem I have with it is that, if you want to read it on an ongoing basis, it is not made easy. I read it a few times at the very beginning of the game, but soon got wrapped up in the story and completely forgot about my Journal. The game really should inform you of added entries, and provide a quick and easy way to read these new entries when they are written. Additionally, the game often gets the timing of entries a little off; There were a few occasions where I was given a Journal entry for something that had not yet happened, or in fact never happened.

The sound of Scratches is one of its more advertised features. It has a great unique, eerie, and solemn soundtrack from Cellar of Rats, that fits into the atmosphere perfectly. It also offers a limited amount of voice; For all dialog and cutscenes, you have voice from the few characters in the game. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the game does not contain dialogue, but instead writing, and does requires loads of reading. There are numerous journals and letters spread around the house to find and read, only available as text, and object descriptions and other text narration. All of these would of benefited from voice, but worked well without it.

The visuals are just superb. They are not ultra detailed, breathtakingly beautiful, fantastically unique, or anything like that; But as part of the greater story I do not think you could ask for better. The visuals show a brooding environment, and they show it well, both indoors, where most of your time will be spent, and outdoors. It is dark, it is eerie, and, at least for specific locations, scary. You even get rather good foliage, a difficult graphical area to get correct; In-fact some of my favorite locations were outdoors. These visuals are just another aspect of the wonderful and menacing atmosphere permeating the entire game.

So lets talk about the horror aspect of Scratches. I am normally not at all a fan of horror, but in this case I made an exception and have not regretted it for a second; And therefore think there is a something here for every type of adventure or story lover. Scratches is primarily a game about suspense, atmosphere, and storing telling; You are NOT going to be jumping out of your seat because something just jumped out at you. The suspense and scare slowly builds over the course of the game, as you undercover new details and get closer to solving the mystery. In fact I was most scared after the game was over, simply from thinking about the creepy and demented story.

Scratches: Director's Cut is primarily a great story. Taken individually any of its elements are only average, mediocre, or pretty good. None of the puzzles are particularly fun, in and of themselves; If there were not visuals and a story to go along with them, they simply would not be worth doing. The visuals are nice, but without a backstory to flesh them out they would still be forgettable. And even the story, while the primary focus of the game, would not be this memorable or enjoyable if not told well; The magic comes from having all these elements compliment each other. Together these elements create a great game, with memorable locations and story, and a great atmosphere. I was riveted from the very start, ready and willing to explore every nook and corner of Blackwood Manor, read every letter and diary found within, and contemplate its story long after the credits rolled. And if you are looking for a story driven classic adventure, then there is not a single one I would recommend higher than Scratches: Director's Cut.

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Indieness: Almost Indie
Play?: Should Play

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