I'm a wuss when it comes to scary games. I don't know what it is, but playing them gets me seriously spooked. It's strange, because I wasn't always this way. Watching horror flicks is just fine with me, and the creepier the better. But with games it's a different story. Something about their interactivity gives me a palpable feeling of imminent danger; a more potent sensation than any film has ever induced. Truth be told, it's a little embarrassing. Perhaps old age is setting in, or maybe the current technology makes these gruesome adventures more entrancing than we could have imagined just a few years ago. Whatever the cause, the result is that my fear tolerance before wetting myself is getting pretty low. In fact, there've been a few times when I wouldn't even play unless someone was in the room with me! (Stuffed animals don't count.) Fortunately, Capcom has crafted the perfect solution for gamers just like myself: a horror game that isn't scary!
The third release in the series (domestically) and the first with Capcom at the helm, Clock Tower 3 takes the basic formula of the 1997 sleeper hit and adds a decidedly Resident Evil flair. In a nutshell, Clock Tower 3 is a survival horror game without the survival.
The story stars underage heroine Alyssa Hamilton as she prepares to go home for her 15th birthday. Just before school is out, she receives a letter from her mother telling her to go into hiding. So, like any normal teenager, she does the complete opposite (naturally). Upon arriving at the family mansion, she finds that not only has her mother mysteriously disappeared, but she's also being relentlessly chased by a group of resurrected serial killers. From that point on, the game's plot takes players through a pleasant medley of elements found in Eternal Darkness, Silent Hill, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
While much of the structure seems directly lifted from Capcom's flagship frightener (item-based puzzles, static camera angles and map system, for example) there are a number of significant differences. Immediately noticeable, the controls in Clock Tower 3 are smooth and similar to a 3D platformer's. Instead of steering your character like a tank, Alyssa travels in the direction the analog stick is pressed, and it works very well.
The style of combat is also unique to the Clock Tower series. Alyssa doesn't actually fight off enemies; instead, she flees from threats as her primary mode of survival. For the bulk of the game, Alyssa's only defense when speed fails is a vial of holy water to stun enemies who get spritzed. Besides this refreshing blend of hydrogen, oxygen, and non-denominational spirituality, she wields a magical crossbow during boss encounters, but these moments of empowerment are few and far between. Additionally, Alyssa can use two types of environmental "hot spots" to get out of a jam: Hiding Places and Safe Points.
Hiding Places are just what the name implies. When near things like drawn curtains, cubbyholes or closets, Alyssa can duck in and take cover until danger passes. The Safe Points are single use objects that feature a more proactive twist. By using things lying around such as hot pokers, fire extinguishers or stacks of boxes, players can trigger a one-time attack meant to stall your pursuer without really doing any serious damage to them.
Clock Tower 3's pacing is quite a bit faster than others in the genre, with a lack of resource management eliminating the cautious plodding so common to the genre. Without firearms there's no need to hoard ammunition, and Alyssa's use of a "fear" system in place of the traditional lifebar means that combing hallways for herbs is irrelevant. (In essence, the player cannot be killed unless they are in a heightened state of panic.) The Resident Evil load-pause when opening doors is conspicuously absent, backtracking is at a minimum, and at no point will you ever be bogged down or lost for long. This game moves.
Choices like these spotlight how completely fossilized Capcom's cash cow is, and makes you wonder why they're so adamant about not changing (read: improving) it. The fact that the same company released Clock Tower 3 is telling, since it shows that they're obviously aware of every area where the S.T.A.R.S. saga could be improved. I can only assume that they're so afraid of tampering with the "classic" formula that they needed an all-new (all-disposable) franchise to test the waters. Clock Tower 3's alternate route around Raccoon City pays off for the most part, and the change of scenery is appreciated. But despite avoiding common pitfalls, it creates new ones all its own.
The emphasis on evasion instead of assault theoretically should have been the game's strongest asset (as it was in the first game.) However, at no point in the adventure does it seem to have been pulled off successfully. For starters, the killers appear far too often to build up real suspense. You can predict when they'll reappear almost to the minute, and they show their ugly mugs so often that there's no surprise or shock when they jump out from around a corner—it's more like annoying harassment than fright or panic.
As bad as their sense of timing is, their behavior is worse. Anyone who's ever seen a slasher flick knows that ducking into a bathroom stall while being chased is suicide—the only thing worse is running blindly into dark woods alone. In Clock Tower 3, such a maneuver is not only safe, it's foolproof. I was able to repeatedly take cover in the same areas (while in plain view of the killers!) and be utterly secure without fear of attack or discovery. Despite actually watching me hide, they still couldn't find me.
In Clock Tower on the PlayStation, you could only get your malevolent foe (misshapen dwarf Scissorman) to fall for a trick like this once (maybe twice if you were lucky) not to mention that the jig was up on the spot if he actually saw you in the process of hiding. Going back to the same hidey-hole too often meant that he'd just stick his oversized shears through your door/curtain/box and stab you dead, and sometimes a hiding place would be totally ineffective even if he didn't see you—he was a very efficient guy. The quality of being relentlessly hounded with no safe haven was a great way to keep players in fear for their virtual lives, and I'm sad to see that it's been lost in this gutless update.
In terms of the narrative, things start out heavier and more shocking than you'd expect, but again the game fails to carry through. The first half gets off to a great start as Alyssa learns the murderers' backstories and tries to put their victims' ghosts at peace. Things shift near the halfway mark, and the plot fobs off into a silly mishmash of item fetching and Alyssa's hidden past. The character design also takes a nosedive at this junction, with the stark, chilling enemies degrading into rejects from Dynasty Warriors and the Cirque du Soleil. The change from creepy to campy is so dramatic that it's almost as if there were two separate teams making the game, with neither side talking to the other during production.
That said, I must admit that I found Alyssa's status as a ghost-hunter and the mystery of her mother's disappearance interesting enough to keep me playing until the end. I definitely would have preferred the game pick the first theme and stick with it, but I can't say that I didn't care about how things resolved.
My curiosity was helped along by the cutscenes, which were of a very respectable quality. The 3D models and animation were of a higher caliber than the norm, with the first few sequences in particular being extremely graphic and gory. I was actually a bit shocked at how far they went with the content, and disappointed to see that the same level of intensity didn't continue until the end. Besides the cutscenes, the graphics during play are also quite nice. The environments are a hair on the simple side, but there's a certain cohesion to the visuals that makes each aspect look better as a whole than if you were to examine the individual parts.
While the game starts off on the right foot with a dark tale of schoolgirls, slaughter, and restless spirits, it immediately trips over the other foot with a range of directorial issues and an overall lack of focus. It sounds odd to be saying this about the third game of a series, but there's a lot of potential here for another sequel. Hopefully the fourth (if there is one) will retain the strong pacing and controls from Clock Tower 3, but also bring back the level of fear and helplessness so well established in the first game. Re-learning that forgotten lesson in particular would serve future installments well.