Last Level Press

Nutshell Review: Scratches: Director’s Cut

Reviewer: Cliff Davenport

Adventure games are a dying breed these days, long gone from consoles and fading even from the PC market.  I hadn’t realized how much this trend saddens me until now, after Nucleosys’ Scratches: Director’s Cut so ably reminded me of many a fond, excitedly anxious childhood memory.  As a purely mystery/horror puzzle-solving game, much of Scratches’ experience is mental, rather than visual.  In fact, much like Myst years before it, the entire game is controlled only by a mouse; one button to move about and interact with the environment, the other to open and close the inventory.  That’s it.

Very nearly coming off as a book on tape rendered unto an interactive medium, Scratches tells the story of Michael Arthate, a burgeoning horror author who’s off to spend a secluded weekend in the Blackwood Manor, a Victorian estate in the English countryside which his first book’s sales enabled him to purchase.  Upon his first arrival, he quickly discovers the old home’s dark history, and loses himself in the rush of dusting off its mysteries.  At least, the in-character rush.  For players, this search can prove a bit daunting at times, as the devil really is in the details of this game.  

Click ALL the things!

Before I whip out the red ink, though, I have to give the guys and gals at Nucleosys credit.  They know how to invoke a subtle, creeping sort of dread from their environment, especially with the help of Cellar of Rats’ audio.  Scratches’ unsettling soundtrack and nuanced use of atmospheric sound effects really bring the creaking old manor to life, and are best experienced with surround sound.  The game’s narrative is genuinely gripping and suspenseful, successfully walking the line between gradual revelation and mounting mystery, always raising more questions than it answers.  The citation of H.P. Lovecraft as an inspiration for Scratches’ writers clearly shows through, as its narrative deftly weaves strands of unsolved murder, ancient occultism, and questions of madness together to form a uniquely insidious atmosphere from beginning to end.  

Unfortunately, environment isn’t everything when it comes to video games, even for adventure titles like this one.  Scratches’ simplicity proves in this regard to be both its greatest strength, allowing players to focus more upon the task at hand than upon wrestling with its controls, and also its greatest weakness, as any flaw in its system becomes nigh impossible to ignore.  I wholeheartedly believe that as a book or film, Scratches would shine far brighter than its current incarnation.  This belief stems from the simple fact that Michael Arthate is not MacGuyver, and players are not Michael Arthate.  Thus, players cannot be expected to think, react, and problem-solve in the same way that he does.  Scratches, however, is the story of this man, and his thoughts are shoe-horned into players’ abilities (even if they’ve already figured something out ahead of Michael) far too drastically and far too often throughout this game.  

Case in point: one of Scratches’ more contrived means of producing apprehension is the near-constant, eery dimness of its environments.  Apparently, no one thought to confirm the functionality of little things like power and water within his house before telling to Michael head out for a fear-filled weekend there.  Thus, Michael’s ability to illuminate his environment is limited to the brief use of a match-lit oil lantern.  Now, his limited supply of matches I can understand, but Michael stresses repeatedly that it’s his oil supply he must ration, despite the fact that we, as players, repeatedly observe barrels worth of petrol and automotive oil in the estate’s garage.  Those may not be be meant for ordinary use in lanterns, but when you’re desperate, oil is oil, and it’s always flammable in a pinch.  

Oil?  Where?  It must be behind all that stuff that goes in cars.

The trend of limited and impractical problem solving only seems to worsen as the game goes on, and it’s worth noting that there is only one viable solution to each puzzle, stifling players’ creativity in lieu of trial-and-error problem solving.  Occam’s Razor is gradually tossed to the wind entirely, requiring increasingly off-the-wall solutions for some late-game puzzles, which, I’ll be honest, I’d have never completed without the aid of a walkthrough.  I understand that problem solving, and the difficulty thereof, can be a subjective thing to judge, but a good deal of these “solutions” weren’t just difficult to discover.  They were downright illogical, and came off as arbitrarily forced.  

Speaking of “illogical,” someone at Nucleosys obviously had a bit of a logistical lapse when implementing Michael’s one and only lifeline throughout the game; his phone.  Not his cellphone, mind you.  His landline, electric powered, Cruella Deville-style telephone.  

If there’s no electricity in this house,


It’s also worth noting that, despite its gorgeous, 360 degree environment panels and impressive attention to detail, Scratches looks a lot older than it is.  I was actually surprised to discover that this game was released in 2006, and not ten years earlier.  Skies and exterior panels look quite dated, contrasting rather sharply with the game’s comparatively standout interiors.  Players’ ears aren’t in for many treats beyond the soundtrack either, as much of the game’s voice acting is sub-par at best, the characters of Jerry and Bailey suffering from particularly poor portrayals.  Thankfully, Michael’s actor carries the role well, keeping the story afloat, and even managing to inject a bit of dry, British humor at periodic intervals.

My advice, if you’re this far into the review, and still curious enough to give this game a try, is to savor its story every step of the way, because unfortunately, after weaving such a grippingly intense tale of murder, betrayal, and ominous dread, Scratches trips at the finish line with an underwhelming conclusion that falls tragically short of its buildup.  I’ll spare curious readers any spoilers, but suffice it to say, Scratches’ background is disappointingly wasted on its ending.  

Even the addition of The Last Visit, a sort of mini-adventure epilogue included with the Director’s Cut version of the game (now available on Steam), did little to remedy this.  Its painfully brief (we’re talking fifteen minutes here) narrative boils down to little more than a spelled-out recap of Scratches proper for the slow people, and introduces nothing new to the story short of the house’s scheduled demolition years after Michael’s infamous encounter there, and successfully manages to kill a great deal of the broken story’s remaining mystique.

Generating more dread curiosity and creeping anxiety from its players than cheap jump scares or the threat of obvious violence, Scratches: Director’s Cut brings a much deeper psychological element to the table than many titles on the market today, but its railroaded puzzle-solving and unrealized potential keep it from planting adventure games’ flag back in the ground of the modern market.  I wish I could recommend this game more highly, as I really did enjoy myself while playing it, but I recognize that a fair degree of that enjoyment stemmed from the nostalgia invoked by the game rather than the game itself.  Still, for the old guard of adventure gamers, I do recommend it, if only to savor one last hurrah before this genre’s lights go out.  

Rating: 5.8

Visuals: 4

Audio: 6

Controls & Mechanics: 4

Atmosphere & Experience: 9

Entertainment Value: 6

Extreme Home Makeover: Call of Cthulu Edition!

  Consoles: Windows PC

  Developer: Nucleosys

  Publisher: Got Game Entertainment

  Release Date (U.S.):  Mar 8, 2006

  Release Date (U.K.):  N/A

  Release Date (JP):  N/A

Final Verdict:


Last Level Press © Copyright Cliff Davenport  Est. 2013.  Links | Legal Notices

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