Genre: Horror Adventure
Games can pull you in for a number of reasons. The obvious ones involve an ongoing series and brand familiarity. Other can be promotional art and media buzz. Sometimes, it can be just as simple as a name and brief description. I can’t remember where or how exactly, but I do remember hearing about an indie horror game and aside from the title, I had no idea what it was about. That title?
Now, something you should know about me is that if you name anything something that appeals to my inner psyche, I’ll probably attempt to partake in it; cocktails, books, and obviously video games all fall under this umbrella. Speaking of Umbrella, Resident Evil is a big reason why the name Claire has cemented as a favorite of mine. I even named my second car “Claire”. It may sound oddly philosophical, but when you use a name in your title, you make a lot of mental connections for your potential audience.
For me, the combination of the title and the genre were enough to garner my attention. Looking into it, it seemed right up my alley and most likely, as with most of the games I buy on Steam, it was on sale. There was only so much to potentially lose so I took the plunge and decided to give it a whirl.
Claire is a young woman who is having a tough time. While dealing with her own nightmares and inner demons, she has been visiting her mother in the hospital for some time. While her mother has been unresponsive, the cold and sterile walls of the building and the warm coffee in the cafeteria feel like they’ve been the only things she’s had to look forward to for a while now. In one of her routine walks through the hospital’s lonesome halls, she finds the world changing around her, growing darker with a heavy dread bearing down.
Before Claire knows what is happening, she is surrounded by a familiar but foreign environment- this is the hospital but shadows are bearing down on her, changing the world around her to one that feels straight out of her own troubling dreams. As the lines between reality and the darkness blur further and further, she must survive long enough to find her mother and find a way to safety, never knowing who to trust- including her own eyes and memories.
Claire plays out in a 2D setting, bringing with it the usual control scheme for the environments. The player controls the protagonist by navigating left and right, pressing the appropriate buttons to enter doorways and to jump over obstacles and onto ledges. Claire also has the ability to sprint for a short amount of time, offering an expedient escape should she need one. Once she runs out of stamina, it takes a moment of catching her breath before she can resume running again.
The game offers two ways for Claire’s survivability to be gauged. Health indicates how physically hurt she is. By standard, this is usually chipped away at by being attacked by certain creatures roaming the landscape. Sanity is the second indicator, the damage to which is incurred by Claire witnessing disturbing images and situations or by standing near certain beings for too long. Plenty of front-end signals alert the player that they are suffering- the screen starts to become fuzzy, the player’s view limited, and a rapid heartbeat grows into an overwhelming metronome of peril. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to replenish these by finding items like coffee and hard candy or by standing near televisions playing the victorious theme of one of Claire’s childhood cartoons.
Like fellow 2D horror pioneer, Clock Tower, Claire does not rely on combat to survive her encounters with the shadows that are chasing her. There are a multitude of hiding spots for her to duck into when they are around and early on, she comes across a canine companion by the name of Anubis (‘Ani’, for short) who will give off a warning growl if something is amiss in her current room. The more physically dangerous of her pursuers will even break down doors to move from one room to another to attack her, so putting a couple of rooms worth of space between Claire and the shadows is prudent before taking a rest.
A few comforts do also make things a bit more convenient. Aside from the faithful Ani, Claire also has two forms of illumination to keep her and the player alert. By default, she has a lighter which emits a soft glow around her and makes the world navigable. She also, however, finds a flashlight that will light up the path in front of her a bit more but relies on the player exploring to find batteries to keep it powered. The player can flip between these with the push of a button to help conserve the finite resources Claire may need later on. As with many games like this, as well, there is a map to make sure you keep your bearings as best you can.
The Good, The Bad, And…
A handful of horror games approach with the concept of giving a lot of accommodations to the player and gradually taking them away- a concept that is really frightening when you think about it. Almost right from the start of her horrific journey, Claire has access to all of the comforts I stated above. Eventually, the game takes some of these elements away. It may not be for the duration of the game but their sudden lack of presence makes for a desperate scramble to try to find them again or sharpen up your attention to what’s going on around you. In these moments, Claire goes from uneasy to anxiety-riddled.
Another thing Claire feels like it does right involves pacing. The maps feels immense, but it always feels like you’re finding something new and pushing the story and side-stories along at a good clip. Given that the game overall only takes a few hours to complete, there are pieces of the story you can certainly miss if you don’t explore thoroughly. That’s kind of the new modus operandi for shorter games like this, though, and even with backtracking, it never feels like too much of a slog to achieve what you need to.
In the interest of fairness, though, there are a few minor issues. There are a few instances where the background and obstacles mesh together a bit too well, resulting in inefficient attempts at escaping enemies. There are a couple other ‘unfair’ feeling factors- one, in particular, being a room that seems to just trap you and kill Claire without a chance to escape and another being the inability to backtrack to certain areas while stuck with a number of sidequest items that may not have been utilized. They aren’t game breaking and even if someone hasn’t saved in a bit, there’s rarely too much lost.
Oh. Oh no, I’m good. Thank you.
Claire is, at the very least, above average on all of its visuals and sound. The pixel art is spot on with fantastic detail in the environments. A couple of small elements stand out as seeming a bit “off” from the rest of the game but really, the game is a dark, gritty, and often claustrophobic scene that perfectly reflects the inspirations it seems to draw from while toying with light and shadow. Of note, the adversaries Claire encounters in her plight are just on the right edge of horrifying, feeling completely out of place in design but in such a way that feels otherworldly rather than misdesigned.
Now I’ll admit that I’ve become pals with the audio designer for Hailstorm through Twitter- and honestly, he’s a cool creative guy who should be looked into- and while there are some familiar sounding notes throughout the game, the real shine of Claire is in the nuances of the sound design. The aural undertones are great, but there are so many background noises that you don’t see such depth in other indie games of the style. One in particular- which will seem arbitrary but shows how much if affected my memory of the game- involved a fire alarm going off. As Claire approaches it, the alarm gets louder. As she passes by and leaves it behind, the noise distorts and fades. To not play this game with headphones would be a disservice, honestly.
Claire is, at its heart, a love letter to a number of games in the genre while holding onto its own identity. The story may take some time to reveal its strongest beats, but the payoff in the end really drives home the idea that the more you explore, the more you’ll get out of the game’s final stretch and ending. The goal seems to have been to set up a game full of hopelessness with just enough pinpoints of hope and levity to drive you forward. Other games that have tried this usually feel exhausting; Claire manages to avoid that pitfall.
It should be worth mentioning that the game does dabble in some pretty dark themes that some folks could find uncomfortable. While it would create some spoilers to indicate what they are, it is worth mentioning that the topics are not unlike plenty of other prominent horror games but for those who are sensitive to some of those subjects, consider this your note to be on the lookout. This shouldn’t deter you, though, as the team does a great job of hitting the beats they need to without leaning on these topics for shock or preaching matters.
If you’re a fan of indie horror and can look past a couple of missteps in design, you should definitely seek this game out. It’s on a few different platforms and even when not on sale, it tends to be a steal at around $10 or so. Claire offers up a solid and unsettling experience, though, that may not be groundbreaking but is certainly a satisfying experience that should be considered by any genre fan, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the developers have in the pipeline for their next project.