I just finished Days One and Two of Scratches -- a substantial portion of the game, though there’s clearly a lot left to play. Scratches is a first person, point-and-click adventure with 360 degree panning. It’s been quite awhile since I played a game with 360 degree panning, and I was glad to revisit this feature.

You assume the role of Michael Arthate, who arrives to take possession of a creepy Victorian mansion (or perhaps it’s the other way around). It’s 1980; the skies are cloudy and threatening as Michael parks his car outside the once elegant, now desolate Blackwood Estate on the outskirts of Rothbury, England. A writer whose first book has made a splash among horror fiction fans, Michael is trying to finish his second book, and hopes the Blackwood Estate will provide inspiration for a final spectacular plot twist that will shock his readers.

What Have We Here?

Upon arriving at the estate, Michael finds it hard to sit down at the typewriter to work, so he sets out to discover everything he can about his new property. There is much to see and to think about (Michael’s thoughts show up as text at the bottom of the screen, and are not voiced). Gradually he realizes that there are surprises in store for him – prior owners who died mysteriously, parts of the house that are locked or inaccessible, documents describing grotesque events, night noises with no apparent source.

The world in Scratches is a place of muted colors and misty landscapes with enough gothic elements to please the most ardent horror aficionado. Everything in this world has a weighty, sculptural, three-dimensional quality. The interior environments show the developers’ attention to historical detail. Period furniture graces the rooms. There is also an amazing collection of paintings – by the time you’ve walked through the house, you’ve seen a brief history of western art. I’m assuming the paintings are reproductions. If even a few of them are genuine, the value of the collection would be enormous. The paintings outside the master bedroom are the strangest of the lot – representations of torment, destruction and despair.

Through a Glass Darkly

There is an aura of claustrophobia in Scratches. The movement while panning sweeps you right up against the walls; the cursor feels a trifle sluggish in places. Twice the cursor took control away from me and turned me completely around when I thought I was about to go through a door – this jolted me and made me cautious whenever opening doors. If this is a glitch, it is an unintentional but effective device to scare the gamer.

So far, I have not seen a living human face. There are photographs scattered in various places, but no close-ups of faces. It’s as though the house is being stripped of all vestiges of flesh and blood humanity. Michael is cut off from the world, partly by the remoteness of the location, and partly by the dark of night, a torrential downpour, and his reluctance to admit the reasonableness of his fears.

As Michael, you do have a chance to talk to people using an old-fashioned telephone. Michael’s conversations with his real estate agent and his secretary/assistant not only relieve the loneliness, but they also advance the plot. Voice acting is very good, especially the voice of the agent, who is by turns apologetic, soothing, and cynically dismissive of Michael’s concerns.

It’s Just a Rat Problem

The sound effects and music in the game are brilliant. Other than the footfalls, which seem a bit heavy (Michael must be a large man), the ambient sounds evoke an atmosphere of anxiety and otherworldly menace. I found that all my senses were heightened, and after awhile, anything the least bit odd-sounding rasped my nerves. Sounds in certain rooms made remaining in that location almost unendurable.

So far, I have only two criticisms of the game. Gameplay in Day One is too slow-paced. And the environments have so much grey they begin to feel gloomy. (Although this somber effect is clearly what the designers hoped to achieve -- and it does add to the atmosphere of isolation and vulnerability -- I personally prefer to see a little more intense color in a game environment).

Much that is Hidden will be Revealed

The most difficult challenge for me in Scratches has been finding things. Certain hotspots are well camouflaged, and you must pay sharp attention and examine everything intimately. Puzzle solving usually involves the use of the inventory – items in inventory are easy to manipulate and combine. Until I managed to find certain items (and sometimes even after finding them) I was frequently unsure of what to do next. The game manual makes mention of Michael's journal, which I was never able to find. This journal will almost certainly give players a better sense of purpose than I experienced.

For Day Two, I turned on the Hints feature. After all, I needed to see how it worked wink . Gameplay picked up noticeably after that. I’m not sure if the Hints helped (or even if I was actually receiving Hints) but the game eased into a more lively pace with less wandering around and more to accomplish.

My adventure in Scratches ended right at the beginning of Day Three, with a sequence so unexpected I still don’t know what to make of it. The sun has risen, the rainstorm has ended, and I want to burst out of the house and tease out the secrets that lie buried, untouched, within the grounds of the old Blackwood Estate.

Want to learn more about Scratches? Read the full review by Inferno here.