Snip. Snip. Snip. It’s a sound I’ve learned to dread. You’re moving down a dark hallway, and then suddenly, you hear it—echoing somewhere in the distance, bouncing off the walls, getting closer and closer with each second you waste. And all you can do is hide, hide and wait until the threat is gone. And even then, who’s to say you won’t be found? That’s the beauty of a video game like Human Entertainment’s classic horror gem Clock Tower. It’s a battle of cat and mouse, and no matter how skilled you may think you are, you never really feel safe.
The story tells of a young woman named Jennifer Simpson, one of two apparent survivors of a serial killer known as the Scissorman—who, in a cheap Halloween mask, stalked innocents across the Norwegian countryside with a giant pair of scissor blades. Our teenage heroine has been adopted by Helen Maxwell, assistant to renowned psychiatrist Samuel Barton, who specializes in criminal psychology. And while the doctor is just beginning to make progress unlocking Jennifer’s memories of her trauma, the murders begin again. As the bodies pile up, who will evade the returned Scissorman’s iconic (albeit silly) weapon, and who will find themselves victims of his wrath?
Now, Clock Tower’s story certainly remains a unique one, and if you’re looking for nonstop gun-slinging action, perhaps this game isn’t for you. But the slasher genre is one woefully lacking in the world of video games. As many titles as we have featuring zombies, monsters, or ghosts, there are really no noteworthy mainstream games in which you play victim to a murderous lunatic. Of course, independent titles and movie tie-in have tackled this sort of plot, and the upcoming Until Dawn by Supermassive Games looks promising. But I maintain that Clock Tower did it best.
In essence, it really is a playable giallo. For those of you unfamiliar with the Italian crime genre, giallo refers to thriller films generally involving everyday investigators pitting themselves against a relentless serial murderer. The common elements are all there (European setting, an unknown killer, a jaw dropping revelation at the end, etc.). But Clock Tower also delves into some supernatural themes involving demons, cults, and the like as it progresses.
All the same, as unique a plot as it has, it’s not necessarily entirely coherent. There are some logical gaps (everyone hops on a plane to England to visit a random castle that hasn’t been mentioned before). Moreover, the game is a sequel to a title that was not released in the United States (in Japan, Clock Tower is Clock Tower 2). And while the story does stand alone, the former game does help fill in some of the gaps. All the same, Clock Tower has the right combination of comedy and genuine terror to keep you interested. But enough about the plot. Let’s discuss gameplay.
The game has four playable protagonists: Jennifer, Helen, a reporter named Nolan, and a detective named Gotts. Your decisions determine who you will control each play-through, and in the prologue, you even get to play as Dr. Barton for a bit.
Essentially, the game is divided into separate levels, typically consisting of your character getting trapped somewhere and having to escape with Scissorman on his or her tail. And between these scenarios are investigation periods, during which you visit various locations throughout Oslo to gather information on the killer’s identity. These segments can unfortunately prove tedious thanks to long scenes of dialogue which you can’t skip. All the same, the levels themselves make it worth it.
You can’t fight Scissorman; there are no weapons. All you can do is run. Multiple hiding places wait throughout the level, and you must use them to evade your pursuer until he has given up the chase. For now.
And this what keeps Clock Tower unnerving. I remember one particular instance in which I pulled open a box in an effort to climb inside and conceal myself. And the killer was already there waiting to surprise me. The encounters are random, and you can only use each hiding place once. So you’d best figure out a way to escape before you’ve gotten through them all.
Still, as scary as the game is, it’s undeniably dated. You receive a threatening fax at one point. Furthermore, the graphics have not aged well, the voice acting is as bad as you’d expect it to be in the 1990s, and the controls are somewhat clunky. You maneuver your character using an onstage cursor controlled by the arrow pad, almost like in a PC game.
All the same, I keep revisiting Clock Tower. It has a rare magic that I haven’t encountered in any modern title. Perhaps it’s the fact that there are so many endings, depending entirely on your choices throughout the game. Perhaps it’s the fact that you never know when Scissorman will pop up. Or maybe it’s because every character that dies can be saved. (I’ve done play-throughs where I’ve saved everyone and play-throughs where I’ve saved no one).
Clock Tower’s replay value is huge, and despite some uneven difficulty and strange plot threads, the adventure is worth it. Now, bear in mind, you will get frustrated. To get the best ending, you must find a hidden, seemingly irrelevant item in the first level, hang onto it until the last level, and use it with no prompting. Things like this happen a few times (and whether your primary heroine is Jennifer or Helen depends solely on how many times you speak to a random side character in a hallway near the game’s start). So perhaps the title expects too much of its players, or maybe we’ve just been spoiled by degrading difficulty levels.
I don’t know. But I do know that Clock Tower has a unique charm. It’s a horror film made interactive. And despite its shortcomings and its age, it manages to be genuinely scary. So if you ever feel like taking a break from playing a super soldier, maybe give this title a whirl and play a regular old Average Joe.
The characters are physically weak. They vomit at the sight of blood. They flee in terror when danger nears. And maybe it’s this realism of vulnerability amid the bizarre that gives Clock Tower a flavor all its own.
Final Score: 4 out of 5