Picture of Blackwood ManorSpooky adventure games have been with us a long time. More recent ones have veered on the action-adventure side, where fighting off monsters is a fair part of play. So it’s a pleasure to tell you about Scratches, a game in traditional style.

Michael Arthate, up-and-coming horror writer, needs a place where he can finish his new book. His pal, Jerry the real estate agent, gets him a genuine Victorian pile, Blackwood Manor.

However, Michael won’t be spending much time on his own work. Dark events happened here in the past, and he’s determined to uncover the truth.

This journey to revelation is accomplished mainly by solving puzzles. Scratches is a true adventure game. Zombies don’t pop out of closets to be mowed down by a shotgun. It’s thinking that counts, not twitchy trigger fingers.

A lot of thinking, as the puzzles run the gamut from obvious to somewhat obscure. And while the interface is point-and-click, the brute force, “try everything on everything” method won’t get you very far.

The game view is first person, with a full 360-degree turn, plus up and down. In addition, many objects can be seen in closeups, an important feature. Clues can be anywhere, and are not always obvious.

Movement, however, is restricted to certain directions. So you can look everywhere, but you can’t walk everywhere.

Picture of African GalleryInteraction with the game is simple, and done with the cursor. A pointing finger moves you forward, a magnifying glass gives you a closeup, an open hand manipulates or picks up objects. It is vital to watch the cursor changes carefully, because there is much to examine in this game, and you don’t want to miss something important.

On the other hand, you can’t lose anything important. Inventory is bottomless, holding as much as you can pick up, and items can be used only in the proper place. If an object won’t work, it simply disappears back to the inventory. Likewise, you can’t drop anything. So there are, happily, no problems over items mislaid or used up by accident.

Conversation in Scratches is limited. Michael’s only link to the outside world is the telephone. The calls he makes are conducted automatically after choosing who to contact. There is no choice of subject most of the time.

Saving, unfortunately, is also limited. Only ten slots plus an autosave are available. These are auto-named for you, with time, day and location. For example: “Living Room, Saturday, 9 am”.

This is bad, as you can’t track progress with save names, for instance: “Living Room, have read diary”. Thus, if you restore to an earlier point, you have no way of knowing – aside fom any written notes you’ve made – what you did or didn’t do to that moment.

Blackwood Manor AtticThat can be a big problem. The game is divided into three days, and no day will end until certain actions have been completed. So restoring can lead to frustration if you forget to redo some actions, as I know all too well.
The initial game setting was quite dark on my monitor, even in daytime. I missed a lot until I finally pushed the in-game gamma setting to maximum. Even then, it was difficult to see clearly in many places.

However, that isn’t necessarily a drawback. If there is one thing Scratches has, it’s atmosphere. Blackwood Manor is a genuinely creepy place. The house was created with loving attention to detail, from the pictures on the walls to the deliberately-dark rooms to the carefully-orchestrated sound effects. There were moments when I felt nervous just opening a door or walking down a hall.

Seeing The Necronomicon on a bookshelf, and a portrait of Cthulhu on a wall, only intensified my growing feeling of unease. Indeed, the game is very Lovecraftian in some respects, especially in the use of various documents to slowly reveal the whole, horrible story of Blackwood Manor.

The game ran well on my system, except for two occasions on my first play-through, where it choked with a frozen screen. I had to use the task manager to quit. The second time through, there were no problems at all, so perhaps some transient computer glitch was responsible.

Puzzles are logically set up, although one or two may be a stretch. Light in the crypt is one that comes to mind. For the most part, though, careful thought and an eye on the inventory are usually enough to work out solutions. And I can’t stress enough that this is a game that requires patience and attention to detail. Trying to rush through will only bring frustration.

Overall, Scratches is a pretty decent production. Despite some design flaws, it is a solid adventure game and should provide a good mental workout. If the summer heat has got you down, this one should provide chills enough to cool you off.miniscorp

Technorati Tags: