Ever seen a slasher film? Ever shouted “NO! Run UP the stairs!” at the bumbling heroine? Ever wondered if you would do better in such a situation? Enter Clock Tower, possibly the first, and certainly one of the last, video games based around Jason Vorhees’ and Michael Meyers’ greatest hits. I think what’s most telling about the game is that, after playing for a bit, I wondered why no one else had thought to do this before. And if the market hadn’t fallen out for adventures, maybe someone else would have after.
Clock Tower is actually a sequel to a Japanese-only Super Famicom game. The events of this game do reference that one, so you’re coming in a little late. You control Jennifer Simpson, the 15-year-old heroine of the first game, or her new caretaker, Helen Maxwell. In the first game, a terrorized Jennifer seemingly killed the maniacal Scissorman – a relentless, immortal figure in a mask who kills people with a pair of oversized novelty shears. Now Jennifer is living in Oslo and receiving treatment and counseling from Dr. Samuel Barton. Barton seems out to make his career from analyzing Scissorman, and he might get his chance when the mysterious murderer appears in town. Is it a copycat criminal? A crazed local hiding his crimes behind the myth? Or is the real Scissorman back for his revenge?
At its core, this is a classic point-and-click adventure. You click the cursor where you want to move, and said cursor changes when you hover over objects you can interact with; standard stuff. The major addition here is use of a 3D engine. You’ll still view everything from a fixed, side-scrolling camera, but the 3D characters will move and interact in a 3D world. Think of it as peering into a diorama – everyone still moves left-to-right on the same 2D plane, just in a background and environment with some depth.
Daytime is reserved for interacting with other characters and investigating the Scissorman. You’ll follow leads, complete assigned tasks (depending on the character you’re playing) and generally develop and move the plot along. Most of this is handled through non-interactive conversations, and rooms you’re stuck in until you examine the required items. There’s not much detective work going on in these sections. There are no puzzles to solve, diaries to read, or objects to add to your inventory. You simply move from point to point through an overhead map interface, and chat up who’s there. The real action happens once the sun sets.
At night, the Scissorman cometh. These sections are straight-up slasher film scenarios, where the heroine bumps into cleverly-placed corpses of her coworkers, finds the exits are locked and the phone lines are cut, and runs right into the Scissorman at the most inopportune times. Your objective is always to escape, though you’ll have to find items and unlock doors to make this escape possible. This leaves you trapped with cranky ol’ Mr. S. and trying to avoid him as best you can.
The trick here is that you can never knock out the Scissorman for good. Some items can put him down temporarily, but the general rule is that taking him on directly is a bad idea. Instead, you’re meant to run and hide while he shambles slowly at you from down the hall, and there’s plenty of places to tuck away and hope he passes by. If you’re caught, you can mash a “panic” button to struggle and get a free escape. But if you use this more than a few times, it will stop working and you’ll get skewered. Likewise, overuse a hiding spot and Scissorman will get wise to it and find you. Luckily, death doesn’t kick you back too far.
It’s all taken right out of the slasher film playbook, and executed perfectly. Scissorman’s appearance is part random, part scripted (triggered when interacting with certain objects), and with no effective means to take him down, you need little prompting to go running for your life. You’re quickly trained to leap into the nearest hiding spot when you hear his shears coming, or be appropriately startled as all hell when he busts out of the spot where he’s been silently hiding. He also cheats mercilessly, just like Jason or Freddy. You’ll leave him in the dust on the first floor, when suddenly, somehow, he’s right there waiting for you on the third. You’ll duck into a room, hoping you’ve lost him, only to find that he’s already in the room. I can’t emphasize this enough – it works exactly like you would expect it to from watching these films. Hats off to the dev team there.
However, the story itself is much less interesting. I feel like this is entirely the fault of the translation, and the daytime investigations bear the brunt of this. Writing is simplistic and characters come off one-dimensional. The head investigator is incompetent, the reporter is a pedophile, and you’re hit in the face with how callous Dr. Barton is toward his patients. Everything that’s said makes sense, but no color or nuance was brought to the localization. This affects points that should be stronger – like the ongoing mystery of who among the group might be the Scissorman – and ultimately makes the story feel weak. I’m hoping the original Japanese writing was stronger (and two novels, a radio drama, and three games, all Japanese-only, suggests that it was).
It also brings up a different kind of localization issue – this game needs a mouse. It’s point-and-click through and through, and while you can use the controller to move the arrow, it’s even clunkier than usual. I’m assuming the PlayStation mouse was much more popular in Japan, but it never gained much traction out in the West. A PC would have been a much better fit for the game over here.
It’s also a fairly short game, with only three action “scenarios” per the two characters. The rest of the time is filled with those brutally tedious daytime dialogue scenes, but these are also where the major choices are made that define the outcome of the rest of the game. There are ten endings in all (5 per character) which offer some replay value, but the triggers to get there are obvious. Do you send an assistant to drop off a statue, or do it yourself? Do you tell the police to go to one character or the other? Strangely, the most hidden option is the one that determines which protagonist you’ll play as – talk to a character once, and you’re playing as Helen for the rest of the game. Twice, and now it’s Jennifer.
Graphically, I think the 3D-in-2D system works quite well, and is directly familiar to anyone used to old point-and-click adventures. If the genre had kept going, I could absolutely see this being the new way to make these. The only possible downside is its look may have caused people to incorrectly compare it to Resident Evil and miss that this is a different style of game. I’ve also read people lamenting the loss of hand-drawn style from the first Clock Tower on the Super Famicom, and while that makes sense, the videos I’ve seen of that game make it appear extremely slow and choppy. You don’t get graphical hitches here, and the polygon characters also allow for a greater (though still limited) range of unique animations.
Sound isn’t bad. Scissorman’s got a theme that kicks in when he starts chasing you, punctuated by the metal scraping of his shears. Other than that, your action scenarios are eerily quiet – relying on your character’s footsteps, or the sounds of whatever they interact with. There’s some additional music in the dialogue scenes, usually creepy chimes or gothic themes (appropriate to the story). There’s also voice acting, which is sparse and without much reason as to what is voiced and what isn’t. The quality of these performances is as cheap as the translation.
So that’s Clock Tower. They absolutely nailed the gameplay sections of being chased by the immortal killer and desperately trying to hide. They biffed the story – or more likely, didn’t pay for anything more than a lifeless, basic translation. It’s a shame because a slasher game really is a great idea, and the scenes here can act as a solid proof of concept. As it stands though, you might enjoy it if you can find it cheap, but you’re probably better off hoping a good indie developer takes up the slasher game genre some day.
Sets out to mimic the themes, tropes, and tension of slasher films, and those sections do it expertly. 10 endings give you a reason to go back and try out the different decision points throughout the story sections.
I could be way off base, but I feel like there’s a better plot here than the English translation provides. I also wonder how having played the first game would affect a player’s opinion. Either way, it’s an awfully short game and a cheap Western localization.
“There is a castle in England called the Barrows Castle… And the Barrows used to live there.” — Jennifer