Scratches is a gothic horror adventure from Nucleosys and Got Game Entertainment. In the game, you control the actions of author Michael Arthate, who has decided to retire to the country so he can finish up his second novel. However, Michael quickly discovers that Blackstone Manor, the isolated country estate that he’s selected for the job, was the site of a grisly murder. James Blackwood apparently killed his wife there several years ago, but then he himself died under mysterious circumstances, and so the police never really investigated the crime. With such evil events in its past, Blackwood Manor has remained vacant with its mysteries intact -- that is, until Michael’s arrival. That leaves it up to you to step into Michael’s shoes to put together what really happened all those years ago, and what still might be happening now.
I don’t know about anybody else, but the premise behind Scratches sounded really familiar to me. It seems like I’ve played an author (or a painter or an architect) investigating the past in a lot of games, and even Blackstone Manor seemed eerily reminiscent of other places I’ve visited, especially when I got to the grounds and found that there’s an attached greenhouse and chapel. Black Mirror Manor, from The Black Mirror, comes to mind.
However, Scratches is indeed a new game. It just owes more than a little to 2003’s Dark Fall, which it uses as sort of a template. Both games are low-budget adventures that stress mood more than puzzles, and where you’re presented with some abandoned buildings and must read the notes and diaries of the people involved in the mystery to figure out what’s going on. However, while Dark Fall definitely had ghosts, Scratches tries to keep you guessing. Does Michael hear scratches in the house, or is he just dreaming? Did James Blackstone uncover an ancient evil, or was he simply mad? These are questions that aren’t resolved until the very end of the game, although, sadly, the pieces of the puzzle never really seem to fit together very well.
What Scratches does best is create atmosphere. When you arrive at the manor, you find that the electricity isn’t working, and since you didn’t bring any sort of light source of your own, that means you must spend most of the game peering through rooms with only a little bit of light coming in from the windows, if there’s any light at all. In one cool sequence, it’s storming outside, and you can only really see the interiors of the rooms when lightning flashes. The problem with this is that while it’s creepy to explore a house in the dark, it’s also a pain, especially when a lot of the puzzles involve pixel hunting. The creepiness also takes a hit because of the ambiguity about whether there is anything supernatural involved in the story. You won’t run into any ghosts, shadows won’t appear unexpectedly, and there are very few “gotcha” moments. For the most part it’s just you and the dark and the sense of wonderment that you’re playing a character who decided to live in a long abandoned house but neglected to pack a flashlight.
The puzzles in the game also have some problems. On the good side, they’re all “real” puzzles. You won’t discover that James Blackwood was actually a kooky inventor with a penchant for puzzles, and that you need to solve a tile-sliding puzzle every time you want to go through a door. Instead, the puzzles make sense considering that you’re dealing with a vacant house. You have to oil some hinges to get some doors to work, you have to figure out how to get the water running again, and you have to search for where the maid left the key to the basement. But the puzzles are also a little hum-drum, you’re rarely given any feedback about how you’re doing in them, and, for a lot of puzzles, it’s just difficult to tell what’s going on. Sometimes that’s because of the darkness of the environment, but at other times it’s just because the graphics engine of the game isn’t all that good. For example, at one point you need to connect a battery to an engine, which should be easy. But the cables necessary for the job are all but invisible, so even if you have the right idea for the puzzle, you might think that you’re on the wrong track, which is frustrating.
And so, while Scratches has some good moments to it, it’s better as a vehicle for telling a story than as an adventure game, and so I’m only giving it a lukewarm recommendation. It’s creepy and it’s involving, but it has some annoying technical problems (the game must have locked up on me over a dozen times while I was playing it), the engine isn’t very sophisticated, and the puzzles are hit and miss. If you haven’t played Dark Fall yet, then I’d easily recommend that game instead. If you have played Dark Fall, then ask yourself how much you liked it. If you liked it a lot, then you’ll probably like Scratches as well, although it’s a lesser game.