To some extent, the average survival-horror game could be said to have two parts. One is its capacity to horrify the player; the other is the gameplay itself. Odds are good that the two aren't even tangentially related.
The good news here is that Clock Tower 3 is scary. It's very good at the first part of survival-horror.
A lot of horror games reach a certain point where the reality overpowers the psychology. Unless you've grievously mismanaged your ammunition and medical supplies, you get to a point where you become a walking arsenal. At that point, the game loses a lot of its capacity to frighten, because you've got enough firepower to sink an aircraft carrier. You're not trapped in an isolated location with a bunch of monsters anymore; now, they're trapped in that location with you.
Clock Tower 3 doesn't play by those rules. You aren't a cop, a soldier, or even a particularly tough normal person who is pretty good at not going insane. Instead, you're a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, there are no shotguns anywhere in sight, and your only weapon is a magical bottle of holy water.
You spend most of the game being chased around broken cities and haunted houses by the spirits of dead serial killers, made flesh by some bizarre conjunction of magic and time travel. They can be temporarily delayed, or even seemingly killed, but they can't be stopped. Throw them into ovens, douse them in acid, or burn them alive, and they'll just keep coming.
This is a game in which you're the heroine of an average horror movie. You're unarmed, and confronted with a series of implacable, insane opponents, with no option but to run away.
Directed by the late Kenji Fukusaku (Battle Royale), Clock Tower 3 is a vast departure from the previous two games in the series. Those were slow-paced, point-and-click adventure games, released on the PSOne by Sunsoft; they're not all that hard to find if you have a decent used-software store in your area, but they aren't worth even that much effort. They're scary enough, but they're glacially paced, somewhat boring games that are either botched PC ports, or games that aspire to be botched PC ports.
Capcom's taken over the reins for the third game in the series, and as might have been expected, Clock Tower 3 resembles a Resident Evil game. You'll hunt down keys, solve painfully easy puzzles, and avoid your enemies via a control scheme that most game reviewers have sworn a blood oath to violently complain about until the end of recorded time.
The heroine of Clock Tower 3 is Alyssa Hamilton, a fifteen-year-old student at a private boarding school. On the day before her birthday, she receives a letter from her mother, telling her that no matter what, Alyssa must not return to her family's estate. Then, she gets a phone call from her mother, which is suddenly cut off.
When Alyssa gets back to her family's mansion, it's deserted, except for an ominous old man, who makes a vague threat before disappearing. On the second floor, in a hidden alcove behind the fireplace, she finds a mysterious bottle, atop a hidden altar, dedicated to a goddess with no name. Finally, there is a room in the Hamilton estate where it is London, in 1942, and German bombs are falling.
In the middle of the Blitz, a madman with a sledgehammer is stalking the ruined streets, and he's already claimed one victim. Alyssa, who's both the pawn and wielder of forces she can't begin to understand, has to find a way to stop him.
That's the first of the six ghost stories that comprise Clock Tower 3, where Alyssa is taken to some isolated corner of the world, and put up against the shade of some bygone and distinctive serial killer. While trying desperately to evade the killers, Alyssa must lay the ghosts of their victims to rest, by re-enacting past events, or solving some riddle that has to do with their murder.
During that period, you'll be running around some dark, corpse-strewn point in time with nothing to defend yourself with but the water bottle. Splashing a ghost or killer with it will momentarily stun him, her, or it, but only for a few seconds. You can also use your environment to hide from or temporarily disable your pursuer; an appropriate object will be marked with a flashing white light. The disabling options are appropriately macabre, enabling you to throw a killer into an oven, off a cliff, or into a burning shower of sulfuric acid.
The killers aren't that bright, so if you hide in a closet or something for long enough, they'll eventually lose interest and go away. They'll always find you again eventually, though, even if that involves coming back from the dead, and they'll find you even faster if you make noise. If you accidentally kick a can, the game gives you just enough time to get a sense of dread before the killer du jour comes a 'runnin', weapon in hand.
At the end of each stage, when all the ghosts are laid to rest and all the level's tasks are taken care of, Alyssa finally gets to turn around and fight. At that time, her water bottle turns into a magical bow, and you conduct a boss battle. The fight generally comes down to getting far enough away from your enemy to hit him with a charged arrow, which will "chain" him in place. Now, you hit him with more arrows, until he either breaks free or you win. While it's not without subtlety, it's a bit simple.
Instead of a traditional "health meter," Alyssa has a panic meter. Whenever something scary happens, like a sudden ambush or an attack, the meter fills up. When it's full, Alyssa's only barely controllable, and is as likely to go running in a random direction or to sit down and shiver with fear as she is to go where you tell her to go. If Alyssa's hit while she's panicking, it's game over.
This mechanic is... well, it's totally pointless, really. It sets Alyssa up as being practically invulnerable, just so long as she isn't scared of whatever's hitting her; I'm left to conclude that if Alyssa ever took a deep breath, got herself good and angry, and went after one of the serial killers with a rolling pin, they'd be helpless. Their giant blades and heavy hammers and whatall would be useless in the face of the fury of a fifteen-year-old English schoolgirl.
It also doesn't help that Alyssa's panic meter fills up two-thirds of the way at the slightest provocation, takes forever to go back down on its own, and is otherwise reducible only by use of all-too-rare Lavender Water. Alyssa will spend most of the game, especially in later levels, constantly on the verge of total panic, and in so doing, will constantly be on the verge of death.
More importantly, Clock Tower 3, as an adventure game, could not be simpler. People make fun of the Resident Evil games, and to a lesser extent, the Silent Hill series, for essentially being key hunts in horrific environments. Clock Tower 3 is the same way, only worse; when you're not having the bejesus scared out of you by whatever freak is at hand, you'll be looking for keys and simple tools to solve even simpler puzzles. It's easy to mess up these puzzles, since you're usually running like a mad bastard away from somebody with a giant set of garden shears or something, but that doesn't make them any better. They're there to extend playtime and give you something to do besides run, and have had almost no thought put into them.
Some of the later levels aren't privy to this--I'm especially fond of the hospital stage, with its magic mirror--but early stages of Clock Tower 3 feel like busywork, albeit busywork conducted while utterly terrified.
It's a good start. I have to give it that. With some more actual gameplay to it, and more thought put into the asinine "panic meter," Clock Tower 3 would be an excellent survival-horror game. As it is right now, it's an utterly horrifying game that eventually starts to deeply irritate its player. It may be worth a rental, but it's really not a purchase.