Inside Pulse 12

Review: Scratches (PC)

Publisher: Got Game Entertainment
Developer: Nucleosys
Genre: Suspense Adventure
Release Date: 3/8/2006

We don’t normally review PC games here at Inside Pulse, but the times, they are a-changing. One of my goals in this new year is really respond to the fact that publishers and developers are trying to bring back two genres that once upon a time were at the forefront of gaming: Puzzles and Adventure/Point & Click games. Tom Pandich is covering the puzzle plethora for us quite nicely, so I thought I’d step up and do most of the adventure games. The fact it’s my favorite genre after 2D Shooters and 2D fighters just adds icing to the cake. Except I generally don’t like to use icing when I bake cakes.

Scratches came out a little less than a month ago, and to be honest, I hadn’t even HEARD of it until the end of March. That’s the problem with smaller publishers. It’s hard for them to get the attention their games so richly deserve. After all, how can they compete with the advertising dollars and marketing budget of games like the next Final Fantasy or anything put out by Electronic Arts? They can’t. And so a lot of great but niche games are lost in the cracks because all the reviewing sites out there are scrambling to cover the same damn games. Do we really need 50+ sites rushing to cover Grand Theft Auto: Smack My Bitch Up? We don’t. So our other goal in 2006 is to cover those smaller publishers. Companies like Dreamcatcher, SNK, Atlus, Got Game, and more. You come to us to read the most thorough and descriptive reviews on the internet already. Maybe it’s time to come because from this point on, we’re going to start covering the games put out by the Indy publishers, because god knows IGN or EGM won’t cover them without some money coming their way.

So without further adieu, let’s talk Scratches

Let’s Review

1. Story

Scratches is a terror/mystery tale in the vein of Lovecraftian works such as, “The Outsider,” “Pickman’s Model,” and “The Rats in the Wall”. There is no gore, there is no horde of monsters for you to behead or shoot up. There are no vampires or digitized boobies flopping around as your character runs. This is terror, not horror. So if you are a Resident Evil or Countdown: Vampires fan, you will wish to look elsewhere. This is a thinking man’s game. That being said, let’s discuss the plot.

The year is 1976. You play as successful author Michael Arthate. But perhaps successful is not the right word. Michael is a one-hit wonder. His first book was a smash hit with critics and readers alike. But the sophomore jinx is upon him, and he finds himself unable to finish his second book. Michael’s friend, Jerry Carter is a real estate agent and sets Michael up with a Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere. Both agree getting away from the hustle and bustle of London will help clear Michael’s head and help him to finish his new book.

Things…do not go according to plan.

It turns out that the mansion is the site of a series of ghastly occurrences in the early to mid-1960’s. The more time Michael spends in Blackwood Manor and its surrounding grounds, the more he encounters eerie phenomenon, chief of which is a strange scratching sound throughout the mansion.

What follows is a very intricate and well told story that touches on many topics: African curses, the sins of the father weighing down on the son, where the line between madness and monstrosity is drawn, and so on. The plot may feel slow moving to those not used to flexing that muscle lodged inside your cranium, but as you slowly put the pieces together, you patch together a tapestry that feels like a Victorian horror novella.

The ending, although it may be anticlimactic to some with no real violence or disturbing footage, is open to two distinct interpretations. Was the manor haunted by something all along? Something not human and birthed by evil? Or on an even more horrifying level, is the manor simply haunted by the insanity and paranoia of one man and the loathsome, utterly inhuman action he took out on his…well, that would be telling wouldn’t it? From my experience and all that occurred within the game, I prefer to think the latter. The only real monster produced by Scratches is how society once dealt with those that were unfortunate enough by accident of birth to stand out from the pack in a negative fashion in regards to their physical or mental stature.

Scratches is very much a game for the gamer who hungers for a strong classical plot and who is sick of yet another “Plucky hero with attitude saves the world from some almighty villain” type plot that has been rehashed so many times, I’m surprised there hasn’t been an uprising amongst gamers as a whole. if you’re looking for a game to make you think whilst it scares you, you can’t really go wrong with Scratches.

Story Rating: 8/10

2. Graphics

Scratches plays in a first person Panoramic view. What this means is that the game plays entirely within a 360 degree interactive environment. If you want to have Michael look up at the overcast sky, you can do so. If you want to spin him around to the point of dizziness you can. Generally, panoramic games have a strong focus on the graphical quality, and Scratches is no exception.

Scratches features amazing lush pre-rendered backgrounds. Everything from a faucet tap to miniscule cracks in a wall are detailed and at times you can imagine the game world you are playing in to be real. It is THAT vibrant.

However, there are some problems. The three times you encounter anything humanoid in the game, you’re left rather…unimpressed. Yes. That word will do nicely. The biggest flaw in the game is that compared to the texture and detail of the rest of the game, the humanoid figures are almost laughable and are quite jarring as they don’t feel like they mesh with the background and the otherwise excellent graphics.

So, for the most part Scratches is a beautiful game whose backgrounds truly do resemble a dilapidated mansion of yore. Funny how a game can be so beautiful in its showing of dirt and grime.

Graphics Rating: 8/10

3. Sound

It’s hard to describe the auditory aspects of Scratches without bringing up the phrase, “Jekyll and Hyde” in some lose adjective type manner to describe it.

The score of the game is simply amazing. The music sets the mood of the game perfectly and when one song changes into another; you know when to tense, to be alert, or just to simply have a shudder roll down your spine. One of the better soundtracks I’ve heard in a suspense or adventure game in a long time.

The down sides are the voice acting and special effects. The voice acting to put it bluntly – is terrible. The actors are wooden and even when they try to put some emotive quality into their voice, it sounds fake or even worse snarky. The actor playing Michael was damn near an automaton, Jerry sounded like he was trying not to laugh, and the retired police chief was completely phoning it in. Very disappointing, and when held in contrast to the excellent music work, it’s even more apparent where the lack of quality is here.

Same too can be said for the sound effects. Most of them are either off base or sound nothing like what they should. For a game called Scratches, you would think the scratching would sound like well…scratching! But in fact you can barely hear anything, and what is there is more akin to a cat rubbing against a chair leg. For the scenes where the namesake of the game is heard it should be quite audible and distinct. Alas, it is neither. The sound effects rarely add any real feeling to the game, and often take you out of the suspension of disbelief and more into “WTF was that crap?”

Amazing orchestrals. Horrible everything else. Pity.

Sound Rating: 5/10

4. Control and Gameplay

The controls of Scratches are like any point and click game. You use your mouse for everything, with the left click button to interact with your environment and your right button to bring up your items screen where you can mix things together or take items and then use those with your surroundings. The mouse itself also controls the panoramics of the game. Your character looks in whatever direction you move the mouse. Everything is amazingly simple and fluid and you’ll have a hang of the controls in five minutes or less.

The problem is the gameplay. This is to say, the game is amazingly buggy and stalls or outright freezes up a lot. At first I thought it was my laptop, but it had more than DOUBLE the recommend stats for playing the game. I looked online and saw everyone pretty much had the problem with the game freezing often and in key areas. I even tried it on my second computer, and the same problems kept cropping up. The greatest annoyance was where it would freeze when you tried to finish reading either of two books at the beginning of the game. You get to the last page, click the mouse and bam…frozen. the catch is you can’t advance the game without reading these books to the end. You also can’t get to the last page and back up. You have to “finish” it by clicking on the last page. I had to become very good with the quick save button, hitting it the exact second I finished the book so it would freeze after the save. When I did this the game would register I finished the book and allow me to continue with the plot.

I counted well over a dozen times where the game had to be forcibly closed by my Task Manager. It was simply aggravating. The worst was when the game froze at the end of the first of the three cut scenes that made up the ending. After it faded out I was like “Yep…froze again” and replayed the last little bit to get the epilogue and the cheesy typical 1980’s horror movie plot twist.

I’m normally not a PC gamer, and Scratches is the poster child of why I stick to consoles and handheld. Considering the requirements to run this game are so minimal, it makes the constant bugs of Scratches all the worse.

Excellent controls, but when you find yourself saying “Holy shit! It’s been an hour with no issues,” something is inherent messed up with the game.

Control and Gameplay rating: 4/10

5. Replayability

None. None at all. There would have been a slight amount if the game was stall-free. But it isn’t, and no matter how good the story is and how fantastic the game looks, nothing would compel me to sit through this experience again.

That aside, the game has only one possible solution, and replaying the game is no fun as you know all the twists and turns of the story and all the would-be scary moments of the game. There’s no alternate endings or anything to truly make you go “Wow. I need to play this again.” Even other adventure games like Myst or Still life give you excellent stories and some fun and addicting interactive puzzles. You don’t even get those in Scratches.

If the game wasn’t so buggy, I’d say this would be a game you could play every year or two and you could once against enjoy the 6 or so hours of gameplay it takes to beat the game, but you’ll know the whole story by heart once the game is done and you can just reminisce in your head instead of having to go through the horror of “Crap! When did I last quick save? WHEN DID I LAST QUICK SAVE!”

Replayability Rating: 1/10

6. Balance

As you can imagine, I’m weighing the freezing aspect of the game against this score as well.

All Adventure games are puzzle based. Some are intuitive, some are logical, while some just make you go “what the hell am I supposed to do next?” Scratches is a mix of both. Most of the puzzles are pretty straight forward. Once you solve one or receive an item, you have a pretty good idea on what to do next. However there are a few which are time consuming and are guaranteed to drive most gamers mad. Two examples include the candle search and the attempt to use the pliers in an attempt at necromantic dentistry. Both will have you going “I did what I need to!” many times over and the game will still not let you progress. You may have done what is needed, but you maybe didn’t line up the pliers in the exact very specific spot you needed to have them in for the game to register it. With the candles, it’s a matter of going through the entire house and opening EVERY drawer in it. You think I’m joking? I’m NOT. In both cases, these are not enjoyable or brain tickling puzzles that adventure games should be fraught with. These are time consuming annoyances that pad the game with wasted effort.

Thankfully those two examples are the only ones of that nature within Scratches. The rest of the game should be quite enjoyable and easy to follow if you’re an adventure game veteran. Even if you’re not, once you get used to the very slow pacing of this game compared to other genres, you’ll settle in nicely and have a mixture of puzzle solving and trial and error sessions for Michael’s three days within the mansion and its surroundings.

Aside from two puzzles that should have been fixed by editing and playtesting, Scratches is a nicely put together adventure game which will test your puzzle solving skills. Just remember to quick save every five minutes or so.

Balance Rating: 6/10

7. Originality

The story in and of itself is not wholly original. There are countless stories that Scratches reminds me of. However, the game goes out of its way to be an homage to so many different things, so this is hardly surprising. The good thing is that unlike say, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Scratches‘ homage holds true to that which inspired it. It is dark, cerebral, slow moving, and makes you think. It’s one of the best Lovecraftian games ever made in terms of holding true to how the Mythos tales were written by the various authors in that circle.

Scratches isn’t just a series of aspects from other tales blended into one. Indeed, the developers and writers of the game have given us a very rich background with an African twist, something rare and rather new in my experience. Usually these things focus on Arabia, Ancient Rome and/or Greece, or stay solely in the air of British imperialism. By focusing on African tribes and their “beliefs,” Scratches manages to be oddly familiar and yet something wholly new at the same time.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

This is a hard category to judge. Due to the fact the game froze so many times, I was pretty much playing it just to get the game over and done with. I wasn’t playing it to really lose myself in it, as I try to do with all the games I review. I couldn’t. There was always this “Save or lose everything!” thought in the back of my head. At the same time, this meant I finished the game in two sittings because I again, just wanted it over and done with. So I guess that’s a form of keeping me glued to the game, eh?

I will admit when I did my best to ignore the buggy aspects of Scratches, I enjoyed what was there. it was basically an interactive mystery. And being that I’m a big Sherlock Holmes, Consulting Detective fan, I was enjoying searching trash cans for old scraps of papers, finding hidden doorways, and reading through musty old journals to find the answer to what haunted Blackwood Manor.

The game is short, as you can beat it in under double digits of time, but it will feel VERY long. It’s a slow moving game, and the less patient amongst us will no doubt want the game to have some sort of action. Even as an adventure fan there were sometimes when I groaned regarding how far I had to walk to solve one puzzle. Michael is a very slow walker by the way. VERY SLOW.

The root of all of Scratches problem is that it contains and excellent plot and equally impressive graphics, but it lacks the hook that a lot of suspense games have. Still Life had far more interactive puzzles, including ones that tested your skill as well as your wit. Games like Darkfall give you a very old fashioned ghost story plot like this game, but Darkfall does everything better. It’s hard to get behind a game that doesn’t want you to play it, especially when even if you discount the bugs, there are much better adventure games out there.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10

9. Appeal Factor

Scratches has a very low print run, so it’s going to be hard to find in the first place, making it inaccessible to those who haven’t been informed of its existence. Factor in the fact even my fellow diehard adventure games fans (which admittedly is a very small group in North America these days) will be turned off by the stalling & freezing of the game, and you’ve cut out a huge part of the niche market who would consider picking up this game in the first place. Scratches was the first game in over a year I contemplated just not beating and writing the review based on what I had already done. That’s saying a lot considering what an uber pretentious responsibility monger I am.

I had really high hopes for this game, and I got a really good story wrapped in a multitude of layers of disappointment. I really do hope others can get past the jerky nature of the game, because the plot is very much worth experiencing.

Appeal Factor: 4/10

10. Miscellaneous

There’s no extras to the game. You get a nice 6-8 hour adventure and that’s it. When you replay the game, it will be exactly the same. Nothing new to challenge or engage you. The game is buggy and I can’t see anyone playing through it more than once. If you can rent PC games, I’d say that would be the best option for you, rather than plunking down the $19.99 MSRP of this game.

That being said, I do want to reinforce yet again the game has an amazing plot and some truly detailed graphics. This is not a truly awful game by any means. Rather it is a game that had the potential to be very good, but due to some sloppy design work and some things that I can’t believe got past playtesting, I find myself having to call the game an overall disappointment. I would love to see Nucleosys do more suspense-adventure games, as they obviously have a great bit of talent. Who knows? Maybe their second effort will get all the little things right this time.

Miscellaneous Rating: 4/10

The Scores
Story: 8
Graphics: 8
Sound: 5
Control/Gameplay: 4
Replayability: 1
Balance: 6
Originality: 5
Addictiveness: 4
Appeal Factor: 4
Miscellaneous: 4
Total Score: 49
Overall Score: 5.0

The Inside Pulse

The mess that Scratches turned out to be was saved by its graphics and gripping story. I can’t in good faith recommend the game, even though I really wanted to. There are far better spooky adventure games out there, ranging from the 7th Guest to MISSING. I strongly suggest picking up one of those instead. However, if you have patience and a computer that can somehow offset the errors in this game (or better yet Got Game releases a patch if it’s possible), you may be able to enjoy the aspect of this game that do deserve to be labeled with greatness.