As a purely mystery/horror puzzle-solving game, much of Scratches’ experience is mental, rather than visual. In fact, much like Myst years before it, the entire game is controlled only by a mouse; one button to move about and interact with the environment, the other to open and close the inventory. That’s it.
Very nearly coming off as a book on tape rendered unto an interactive medium, Scratches tells the story of Michael Arthate, a horror author who’s off to spend a secluded weekend in Blackwood Manor, a Victorian estate in the English countryside which his first book’s sales enabled him to purchase. Upon arrival, he quickly discovers the old home’s dark history, and loses himself in the rush of dusting off its mysteries. At least, the in-character rush. For players, this search can prove a bit daunting at times, as the devil really is in the details of this game.
Before I whip out the red ink, I have to give the guys at Nucleosys credit. They've invoked a subtle, creeping dread from this environment, especially with the help of Cellar of Rats’ audio. Scratches’ unsettling soundtrack and nuanced use of atmospheric sound effects really bring the creaking old manor to life, and are best experienced with surround sound. The game’s narrative is genuinely gripping and suspenseful, and the citation of H.P. Lovecraft as an inspiration for its writers clearly shows through, weaving unsolved murder, ancient occultism, and questions of madness together into a uniquely insidious atmosphere.
Unfortunately, environment isn’t everything, even for adventure titles. Scratches’ simplicity proves to be both its greatest strength, allowing players to focus more upon the task at hand than upon wrestling with controls, and its greatest weakness, as any flaw in its system becomes impossible to ignore. I strongly believe that as a book or film, Scratches would shine far brighter than this. Why? Because Michael Arthate is not MacGuyver, and players are not Michael Arthate. Thus, players cannot be expected to think and problem-solve in the same way he does. Scratches, however, is the story of this man, and his thoughts are shoe-horned into players’ abilities far too often throughout the game.
The trend of impractical problem solving only gets worse as the game goes on, and there is only one solution to each puzzle, stifling players’ creativity in lieu of trial-and-error problem solving. I understand that problem solving, and the difficulty thereof, can be a subjective thing to judge, but a good deal of these “solutions” weren’t just difficult to discern. They were downright illogical, and came off as forced.
It’s also worth noting that, despite its gorgeous panels and impressive attention to detail, Scratches looks a lot older than it is. Skies and exteriors look quite dated, contrasting rather sharply with the game’s standout interiors. Players’ ears aren’t in for many treats beyond the soundtrack either, as much of the game’s voice acting is sub-par at best. Thankfully, Michael’s actor carries the role well, keeping the story afloat, and even managing to inject a bit of dry, British humor at periodic intervals.
My advice is to savor its story every step of the way, because unfortunately, after weaving such an intense tale of dread, Scratches trips at the finish line with an underwhelming conclusion, falling tragically short of its buildup. Even the addition of The Last Visit, a sort of mini-adventure epilogue included with the Director’s Cut version of the game (now available on Steam), did little to remedy this. Its painfully brief (we’re talking fifteen minutes here) narrative boils down to little more than a spelled-out recap of Scratches proper, introducing nothing new to the story and killing off a great deal of the broken story’s mystique.
Controls & Mechanics: 4
Atmosphere & Experience: 9
Entertainment Value: 6
For more reviews, articles, and videos, visit LastLevelPress.com!