Since it launched earlier this week, Claire has been often compared to the popular indie game Lone Survivor, as well as the Silent Hill franchise, which puts it in a category of horror games that I am horrible at and therefore avoid. Despite of my dislike for similar games, the story intrigued me into carrying on and, I will admit, I even had some fun along the way.
Claire is young woman that endured a rather painful childhood that led to her being separated from her father and younger brother. She now practically lives in the hospital, where she takes care of her bedridden mother whose health declined soon after. She also suffers from frequent nightmares, which start to take over reality when one night she leaves her mother’s side to get some coffee from the cafeteria, only to find the hospital transforming before her eyes into a dark and corrupted version of itself where monsters patrol and lost souls wander. Claire’s goal is discover why her world has become so twisted and find a way to escape.
The story is told through a variety of methods, ranging from conversations with a canine companion to fully-playable flashback sequences. This is where the Silent Hill comparisons come into play, as we slowly learn more about Claire’s past, her family and her wishes, which is definitely what kept me hooked to the game. There are also many different non-player characters present and these all offer optional tasks, which usually involve finding an item they lost or having a chat with them. It was the interaction with these characters that made Claire an even more fascinating character and how many of these individuals you help also affects what ending you get out of a pool of six.
The gameplay involves a lot of exploration, as you slowly walk through the maze-like levels, looking for items and puzzles to solve. The game has a tendency to let you off-the-leash a lot and not tell you what to do until you find the end of the level, whereupon it will usually encircle the general area where you can find the key. I actually enjoyed this approach a lot, but the game becomes a bit more complicated when monsters are introduced.
Claire has two statistics that players need to keep an eye on: health and sanity. Witnessing scary scenarios, having to do something nasty, or seeing monsters reduces sanity – which makes the environment more nightmarish and will eventually affect the player’s health, too. Some monsters aren’t content with just showing themselves, though, and will actively chase you down, a problem that can be solved by putting a few doors between them and Claire, but getting hit will reduce Claire’s health, which will eventually kill her. By finding items like coffee, soda, and candy – or by taking a rest, these two factors can both be restored.
The problem is that dealing with any sort of enemy in this game is a tiring ordeal that can lead to a lot of cheap game-overs. Claire has no way to defend herself from even the most minor of threats, so your only option is to run away and hide, but despite of all the caffeine and sugar this girl has in her system, she can’t bring up the energy to run for longer than five seconds. This can make chase sequences very difficult because enemies aren’t constrained to just one area and will break down doors if you decide to leave, meaning her fatigue will usually kick in before you can find a second door to go through. Hiding spots are also an option, but rarely are these placed in locations where they can be useful.
Navigation is also problematic, because the game takes place on a 2D-plane, but the map was clearly designed with a 3D layout in mind. This means that the map always makes it look like you are walking through the middle of a room, which makes the placement of doors rather disorientating. There was also a constant issue with size, as rooms would be much larger or smaller than indicated on your map. As if planning your way wasn’t impossible enough as it is, you are also often teleported around the maze and locations where this happens aren’t marked, same goes for rooms with important items (hiding spots, puzzles, landmarks) and opening the map doesn’t even pause the game, so when enemies show up you have to run around blind.
It’s because of this that I enjoyed the game a lot more when it didn’t bother me with adversity and just allowed me to explore and puzzle at my own pace. Usually I am quite horrible at puzzles and the same applies here, but the game never demanded too much from me and, even if I couldn’t figure out what to do, I could usually just work through a process of elimination, so I never found myself being completely stuck.
The atmosphere and visuals were also quite good and I was especially fond of the many different sprites they used for Claire, which covers different stages of her life and can take on a lot of different poses. Areas, despite taking place in familiar locales like a school and hospital, were also designed nicely, but I will admit that the enemies were a bit bland. The standard one that appears pretty much everywhere looks like something a kid would draw and I would sooner describe it as a cute than frightening. The effects of the sanity meter are also minimal and the only change I noticed is the it puts a static-like filter over the game, which doesn’t really make it more scary as much as it makes everything difficult to see.
Regrettably, the game also launched with a lot of bugs and questionable design choices, but the developers have been active on the forums and are fixing them as soon as possible. This is a good sign, because a lot of the problems I just mentioned could be fixed post-launch and that gives hope for major improvement in the future. If opening the map would pause the game, that would instantly make encounters with enemies significantly less annoying; likewise, letting players make notes on the map, kind of like in Unepic, would make navigating more fun and back-tracking less of an issue. It’s a lot of small, fixable issues that make a potentially great game with an enthralling story such a bother to play.
While I can’t rate a game for future potential, I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up revisiting this game at the end of year when discussing a GOTY and best games of 2014 list.