Scratches is a mystery/adventure/horror game, set in England 30 years ago. Writer Michael Arthate has recently acquired Blackwood Manor -- a Victorian mansion in the English countryside -- in the hopes that its setting will provide him with the proper environment for finishing the book he is currently working on. He quickly discovers, however, that the mansion contains a terrible secret about its past -- a secret that Arthate is determined to uncover. The more he explores, the more bizarre -- and horrifying -- the situation gets. And as inclement weather and other unfortunate circumstances sequester him at Blackwood Manor, he reaches the eventual conclusion that he is not alone.
Scratches is one of those rare cases where an independently-developed game manages to get worldwide exposure. Developed by Nucleosys, an Argentinean company, it is the first commercial adventure game to come from that country. Although the game is the result of the creative inspiration of two relatively unknown Argentinean developers, one much better-known name shows up in the credits. Listed among the voice actors for Scratches is none other than Jonathan Boakes, creator of the Dark Fall games. And from my own experience, Jonathan's influence on the game shows in more than just a voice. One of the most outstanding examples -- and one which should elicit a chuckle from any Dark Fall fan -- is discovering that Michael Arthate's previous "best-seller" is a book detailing the horrific (and puzzling) history of a small seaside town in southern England -- a story which accurately and intricately summarizes the Dark Fall games!
In another striking homage to Boakes, players will encounter countless scenes and objects during their explorations that provide unusually detailed close-up views -- some of which are even animated -- but which have little or no bearing on game play, other than to advance the development of the story line -- a feature that is well-known to Dark Fall fans. Whether Boakes had a direct influence on the development of the game, or the developers simply used the Dark Fall games as their inspiration, is not clear. But the similarities are.
Scratches uses a straightforward point-and-click interface, with a cursor that alternates between a hand -- to identify possible directions of movement, or items that can be acted upon -- and a magnifying glass -- to indicate items that can be examined more closely. The interface is intuitive, and quite easy to use.
As with many "chiller" games, a lot of the immersiveness is due to the graphics -- particularly the rendering of each scene. And no game does this better than Scratches. Many of the scenes are dark, dull, almost "dusty" -- which provides an excellent representation of an old, unused house. (Thankfully, the game offers varying degrees of gamma correction for those who might have difficulty with the darkness of some scenes.) Each scene is crafted in intricate detail, and rendered with the appropriate lighting and haze to give exactly the right feeling to each setting. Whether inside the mansion, in an old chapel, a crypt, or a greenhouse -- or simply outdoors on the mansion grounds -- everything is extremely realistic. The scenes are exceptionally drawn and beautifully rendered and provide complete 360-degree panning in all locations (other than a few close-ups).
And if the graphics aren't enough to provide players with a complete immersion into the game, the soundtrack should take care of the rest. Background music by Cellar of Rats is by no means gratuitous; rather, it is always fitting to the current scene (and action) -- frequently increasing the tension and anticipation by just the music. There were times that the soundtrack alone made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
Scratches depends heavily on the interplay with the game's inventory -- i.e., finding, collecting, and using objects in their proper context. It may be discovering keys to locked doors, or finding a way to light a dark room, or using a variety of tools for various purposes. Many of the puzzles contained in Scratches are "inventory puzzles" of this type. As a result, there is a great degree of exploration required -- often in the most minute detail.
A simple right-click calls up the inventory, and inventory items can be combined with each other to create other items that may be necessary to solve some of the puzzles presented in the game. The only thing lacking was a "persistence" of holding an inventory item. (If I selected an item from inventory, the instant I tried to use it in the wrong place, it was returned to inventory; and I would have to re-open the inventory, find and select the item, then close the inventory to try and use the item again.) In one particular case, trying to use a shovel in many different locations turned out to be far more "busy" than it would have been, had the item remained in my hand rather than returning to inventory.
And not all of the puzzles are simple inventory puzzles. There are also a few (too few, perhaps) logic (or deductive) puzzles that involve a little more brain power than simply retrieving an object and using it correctly. And in some cases, dialogs that take place in the game provide clues to puzzles, or to what needs to be done next. So each aspect of the game -- exploring, reading (journals, letters, etc.), using inventory items, even listening -- all contribute to the game's progress.
Scratches takes place over a three-day period of time, and each day encompasses a variety of activities. Within any particular day and time period, the game is fairly non-linear. Exploration can (and does) continue in virtually all areas of the mansion, grounds, and even some of the out-buildings. However, not all locations are available to explore at all times during the game. Situations may arise which "direct" the player to specific locations, by limiting directions of movement. And in the sense that the game must be played out as the story line develops, there is an element of linearity introduced. This turns out, however, to be more of an enhancement to the plot development than it is a detriment to the non-linearity of game play.
One drawback to the game, for me, was that on several occasions there were unnecessary "pixel hunts" required before I could continue. In more than one case, the area where I needed to click was so incredibly small, that I had gone over it numerous times without even noting it, before I finally caught it. And in a few situations, the cursor would be the "look at" magnifying glass, even though there was an action that could take place by clicking the mouse at that point -- something for which there was no visible indication at all.
I was also slightly disappointed by the limitation of 10 save game slots. I tend to like to save my games frequently -- particularly when I know that I may wish to come back to a specific location, or especially just before trying some activity that could significantly interrupt the flow of game play. Yet I was able to work reasonably well within the given framework, and only needed to overwrite some of my earliest saves at a point much later in the game. Also, save games are not exact, in terms of the restored location. It will always be near the area where the game was saved. But if I was counting on being restored to exactly a particular spot, that did not always happen.
Despite the briefness of the game -- I was able to finish the game in roughly 12 hours -- it turned out to be more than I initially anticipated. There was an amazing amount of artwork (scenery, detail, animations, etc.) for a single-CD game, especially one that installed fully in just over 450MB. And the story continued to unfold in great detail the more I played.
The game has an ESRB rating of "T" (Teen) for blood, mild language, mild violence, and alcohol and tobacco reference. While I didn't consider that it was overly offensive, the very subject matter -- as well as some of the more grisly graphics -- certainly should be a caution to those with weaker hearts. Scratches is intended to create a mood -- one of horror, mystery, fright, even mayhem. And it does its job well.
I have to say a word about the ending cut-scene -- and it's difficult to do so without creating a spoiler. So I'll be brief, and only say that I was terribly disappointed that more wasn't explained by the ending video. I had apparently been successful at accomplishing the goal of the game; the story had developed to an almost-complete ending. But several critical questions were left either unanswered, or answered in such an indistinct way as to make them virtually unanswered. The last half hour or so of game play built to an amazing climax... and then just quit. I would have liked a more satisfying conclusion to the entire episode.
On the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Scratches. And yes, there were times when I almost jumped out of my chair, at some unexpected turn of events. If anything, it was a bit short; I found myself wishing for a bit more out of the game -- which is likely a good sign of its appeal for me. And while there were plenty of inventory puzzles, I could have done with a few more logic puzzles. I eagerly hope that we shall see more of the talents of the Nucleosys developers.
-- Frank Nicodem