Human Entertainment/Ascii Entertainment
Genre: Point-and-Click Survival Horror
In the mid-1990s, survival horror made a sizable dent in the gaming atmosphere. With the rise in 3D graphics and new engines to be utilized, there were all kinds of new ways to terrorize and frighten unwitting players. Major league players like Resident Evil and Silent Hill were digging their metaphorical trenches to dominate the scene for the foreseeable future while some other games joined them on their way into the new generation. Across all platforms, the horror genre was heading into its first palpable surge, at least in the US market.
Among the games that were released at that time, Human Entertainment decided to develop a sequel to their Giallo-inspired Clock Tower on the Super Famicom. With the game drawing relatively positive reactions, the environment seemed right to introduce the game to international audiences. Entering the horror arena, the US version of Clock Tower (dubbed appropriately as Clock Tower II in Japan) introduced a new brand of survival horror to the Sony Playstation.
For me, Clock Tower was an introduction to the genre as a whole. It opened up a whole new world of gaming for me- and clearly not just me. Spawning a number of sequels and successors, the Clock Tower series has been a silent presence in the field for years with influences still strongly affecting recent games like Remothered: Tormented Fathers and a new spiritual successor in NightCry from the original director, Hifumi Kono, in 2016. Whether it gains the recognition for it or not, Clock Tower has been imperative to the genre for over two decades now and has been a perennial favorite of my own. Given the season, it felt right to go back and give it another look in an attempt to relive some of my nostalgia and to give it a bit of analysis now that it’s been a while since my last run.
It’s been a year since the gruesome events that took place on the Barrows Estate in England claimed the lives of a number of people at the hands of the sinister figure known as Scissorman. The only known survivor of those murders- now known as the Clock Tower murders internationally- was young Jennifer Simpson, one of the many orphans that had been brought into the halls of the castle on the grounds with the false promises of a new life.
In the year since her harrowing experience, Jennifer has been adopted by Helen Maxwell, assistant to a world-renowned psychologist and specialist in fear, Samuel Barton, of Oslo, Norway. While she has been undergoing thorough psychological therapy through hypnosis to remember what exactly happened in England, she has become a hot topic and the target of many news outlets and medical professionals. Wherever she goes, the macabre story of the Scissorman seems to follow her.
One night during the height of the investigation, an incident occurs at the research building that Dr. Barton and his associates have been unraveling the Clock Tower case through, resulting in the murder of a number of employees. After a brush with who they can only assume to be Scissorman himself, Jennifer and Helen believe that he is back to exact his revenge. He supposedly died a year ago, though, so could it really be him? Could it be a copycat killer looking to finish what happened in the Barrows Castle? Jennifer and Helen will have to use everything at their disposal to survive and get rid of Scissorman- genuine or impostor- to end this nightmare and stop the murders spreading across Oslo.
Playing out in a 2D plane with 3D graphics, Clock Tower places the player in the shoes of a number of people involved in the case of Scissorman, depending on the scenario and choices made throughout the game. No matter the choices, it will always play out over three scenarios that work with the same mechanics as most point-and-click adventures. Movement consists of clicking on the left or right side of the screen to move from place to place. Doors, items, and points of interest will all result in the on-screen cursor (which can be moved with either the controller or the specially designed mouse for the system) transforming into a ring surrounding the area.
Each scenario finds the character in question searching their environment to escape and find clues about Scissorman while trying to evade him and his giant shears. Every so often, the music will kick in signaling that Scissorman is in the area which is when the character has to evade him or fend him off until he gives up his pursuit. There are two ways to do this: hide in places like closets, bathrooms, and under beds or attack him with items in their environment. Once the pursuit music kicks in, the usual areas that can be investigated are replaced with evasion areas so whatever can be interacted with is apt for the situation. Should the player find themselves in direct contact with Scissorman, they can fend him off by tapping the Square button as the arrow begins to flash red. Much like Clock Tower: The First Fear, this can be done twice before the character’s stamina is spent. Unlike The First Fear, though, there is no way to recover stamina since the scenarios are so short. If the character dies, they can reload with one level of their stamina recovered, reflected in the typically white color of the cursor being replaced by yellow (and, appropriately, red when the character can’t fight back anymore).
In between investigative scenarios, there are intermissions where pieces of the story play out across Oslo. Whether controlling Helen or Jennifer, a map is presented with points of interest that the player can send their character to interact with the people there. This gives a look at each of the characters and their outlook on the events around them and offers up some situations where the player will have to make choices on how the rest of the story might unfold. These choices are few and far between, but they are incredibly important to pay attention to if there is any desire to reach a positive ending.
The Good, The Bad, And…
The thing I absolutely love about Clock Tower is that is works as both a fantastic follow-up to The First Fear and as a whodunnit that plays off of the mythos set up by the original game. The plot takes itself seriously enough while reveling in the classic slasher trappings set up by its origins and by the horror genre in general. Throughout the story, characters that the protagonists interact with give off comments that make you tilt your head a bit and wonder if they might have some hand in what’s going on. Clock Tower serves as part horror movie and part murder-mystery and pulls it off better than plenty of modern attempts from developers.
Clock Tower also does a great job of encouraging exploration and paying attention to the conversations you’re having with the characters. Early on, for example, there is a conversation that will dictate where a particular item will be later on in the game’s events. Not only does this guide what the second scenario will consist of, but if you aren’t consistent with your answers, you’ll find your story coming to an abrupt halt as you can’t retrieve said item, therefore making it impossible to continue the investigation into Scissorman. While the writing is a little stiff and trope-heavy, the story is interesting enough and worth watching for details to keep in mind for later chapters or playthroughs.
Despite all of the love I have for this game, it can be unnecessarily obtuse for people playing it for the first time. In your first playthrough, you most likely won’t see a great ending without a guide unless you pore over each environment with a fine-toothed cursor. If you miss an item toward the beginning of the game for either protagonist, you’re out of luck so far as the best ending is concerned. Certain important items also aren’t picked up unless you check the spot they’re in two or three times. It seems logical to folks who are well-versed with these kinds of games in some respect, but it can completely ruin a playthrough to miss certain items because it seemed like everything had already been checked once.
The most obvious sign of dating on Clock Tower is how the game looks. As the first game that the company used a 3D graphical engine for, it probably looked great at the time. While the environments and cutscenes still look relatively smooth, the character models are full of clipping polygons and rough textures. If you can get past the usual issues with graphics created from that time, the surrounding imagery holds up pretty well.
Unfortunately, the game’s audio is the weakest part of the presentation. The soundtrack is distinctly “okay” with the only standout tracks being the main theme and the chilling children’s rhyme “Little John from the Castle”. The voice acting is overdramatic and strangely paced, not all that different from classics like Resident Evil from the same era. Looking at the voice cast, I’m more inclined to point toward the direction over the talent. The style cements the charm of the time, but it’s laughable to anyone who hasn’t experienced that era firsthand.
Clock Tower was my first survival horror game that I recognized as survival horror. Nostalgia has made it one of my absolute favorite games in the genre and on the Playstation in general. Objectively, though, the game holds up in all of the aspects it needs to. The mechanics are spot-on, the game is tense, and the story is well-conceived, especially considering it was a sequel for a game that never released in the US. Add in the fact that there is a total of eight possible scenarios to play through with a number of protagonists and ten endings (five for Jennifer, five for Helen) with a relatively short playtime of about two to three hours, you’ve got a game that you can get a lot of mileage out of.
If you’re craving a fun, sincere, and sometimes bloody adventure game, Clock Tower will scratch all of your itches. If you’re worried at all about playing this before The First Fear, you can set that fear aside since between the game’s recap and Jennifer’s temporary amnesia, the audience is filled in on what they need to know to bridge any gaps in the story. While finding an affordable copy of Clock Tower can be a challenge, if you’re a horror or point-and-click adventure fan of any kind, you owe it to yourself to find some way to play this entry of the Clock Tower series.