There's something about a game from a dead genre that is appealing to many of us gamers. The idea that the entire adventure genre could fade away, after being successful and popular, sometimes seems preposterous. Though we may try hard to adhere to the ways of old, we often wake up from a state of denial and realize we were wrong about change (think baby-boomers and disco). Thus, we must conclude that, often, change is good. As an example of why this is so, we need look no further than Nucleosys’ adventure revival game Scratches.
Scratches is an adventure/mystery game featuring the character of renowned horror writer James T. Blackwood. Blackwood, hoping for inspiration, has recently moved into a creepy old Victorian house. The creepiness, of course, extends beyond inspiration when James starts to think he is not alone in his new home. Strange noises are heard at night. Odd clues appear in dark corners, and journal entries left by the home’s previous inhabitants prompt James to discover just what secrets were buried there.
The game begins with James pulling up to his house, and from that moment on, the pixel hunt begins. The gameplay pretty much goes as follows: go to every accessible place on the grounds, click every single thing you can find, take the items you have and try to discover their reference to some place you’ve already been. The basic concept for this is not terrible, and would have actually been quite fun if it weren’t for the seemingly unrelated triggers which would suddenly make some mundane object become interactive and useful – which made the entire game almost unbearably linear.
For example, at one point your character can attempt to open the hood of a car to look at the engine, but you’re informed that you lack the technical skill to make the attempt. Later, however, you can open that same trunk, but most players will assume that the object is non-interactive. Some clue that I was now able to do things like that would have been helpful. In another instance, your character might attempt to hit a crack in a wall with a hammer, and will be given a warning “I might hurt myself” before the action is canceled. Later, however, after two other prerequisites have been met elsewhere in the game, you’ll need to revisit that crack, but you might not realize it. A statement like “I’d better try this again later,” or something that suggests that this is a component of a mult-part puzzle would have been really helpful.
Worse, it's not the player’s ingenuity that propels the character through the game world – picking up and then using items in seemingly fitting places- rather it is the game’s internal scripts which suddenly deem it acceptable for the player to use a certain item with no logical reason, or open a container to see what’s inside. The only way to overcome this was to systematically go back through each area after any obvious puzzles were solved and working through each object in a lengthy process of elimination.
The controls were very simple. The mouse cursor would change to a hand or magnifying glass if something could be manipulated or examined in the area. The hand would change to a pointing finger if the player could move to another area in that direction. Right clicking brought up the player’s inventory.
Graphically the game was fairly basic by today’s standards. Scratches uses prefab renders with an occasional short animated sequence, much like Myst and Riven. It would have been nice to have full 3D freedom, but this was not a major concern. The textures were adequate, just enough detail to show that the house was dilapidated and unused, although many of the outdoor areas left something to be desired.
The musical score was somewhat impressive and actually was the most effective element in adding to this reviewer’s level of suspense. The sound effects were pretty casual: mostly footsteps of the main character, some mysterious noises here and there and sounds of opening drawers and doors and such, and all seemed to be taken from real life – not hard to replicate, and so appropriately used. There was some decent dialogue on the phone as well (James never actually sees another person during this game).
Back in the early 90’s, the adventure game was king on the PC. Ok, it wasn’t exactly king, but there were a lot of adventure titles. Alright let’s face it: there was pretty much Myst and a bunch of clones. While it was a nice thought that a game which had all the offerings of a mid-nineties Myst clone would be something special, it was mostly wishful thinking. Scratches’ dogmatic approach to this genre was hard to enjoy and made me glad when the end credits began rolling.
Gameplay – 3 I wanted to like this game, really, I did, but unfortunately Scratches falls short at its core. The fact that the developer made many of the puzzles so obscure and many of the clues impossible to obtain until it was deemed appropriate, made this game “hard” in a false sense. Much backtracking, brain wracking and possibly alt-tabbing (perhaps Scratches’ finest attribute, so that one may look at an online walkthrough) are required to get out of this one alive.
Graphics – 6 Most games today, even Adventure titles, are rendered in fully 3D environments, but Scratches' developers didn't seem to have gotten the memo. Scratches uses 2D, pre-rendered scenery which contains minimal, pre-determined paths, along which the player must inch along.
Sound – 7 Short of some of the long dialogue sequences, the voice acting was up to par. The music was the most effective part of this score. Sound effects, while sparse, were fitting.
Value – 4 After completing Scratches, we’d bet that most players would not want to play it again. There just would not be anything else to discover or accomplish, as the game will force players to do everything before the game can end. While the game does retail for only twenty bucks, we do wish it had a bit more replayability.
Curve – 8 Scratches was developed by a two-man team: one designer and one artist. We have to admit that’s pretty impressive. Games made by this kind of small development studio are rare nowadays, and we wish that more publishers would take a chance on this fading genre.