Horror games are notorious for offering copious amounts of gore, relentless waves of zombies, and intense jump-scares, but few have managed to delve in to the human psyche and deliver a nightmarish atmosphere quite like Silent Hill.
The once glorious franchise tackled sensitive subjects like sexual frustration, uxoricide, and religion, while mastering the art of atmospheric storytelling and brilliant use of musical cues. Akira Yamaoka’s iconically dark, yet strangely beautiful composition elevated the genre to new heights, as it wormed its way in to the player’s ear while they traversed the uneasy browns and reds of the fog-ridden town of Silent Hill.
It’s been so long since a game has managed to capture the same unsettling atmosphere and cryptic nature of Konami’s horror-turned-pachinko-machine series, but Hailstorm Games’ Claire: Extended Cut is about as close as anyone’s managed to get in nearly 13 years.
The game begins with the titular Claire immersed in her favorite childhood TV show. There’s talk of friendship, happiness, and rainbows, but before long the voices in the cartoon veer away from fantasy until she realizes she’s been dreaming the entire time. This isn’t the first time it’s happened either, as Claire suffers from debilitating nightmares that have been negatively impacting her grades at school. These dreams, while utterly terrifying, take on an almost Nightmare on Elm St. quality, digging deep in to the darkest recesses of her mind and using that as ammunition to create an almost lifelike world seemingly devoid of all hope.
As Claire struggles to discern what’s real, she’s forced to confront the dark truth of the moments leading up to the start of the game. The narrative does so by tackling some pretty troubling subject matter, and while Claire’s inner-monologue can get a little verbose at times, the story told is as depressing and relatable as it is horrific. Her inability to separate these two worlds made for an intriguing story that had me hooked along for the entire duration of my nearly 6-hour playthrough.
Even in the 2D space, Claire: Extended Cut still manages to capture the unsettling atmosphere of a game like Silent Hill. The pixel art is fantastic, using a series of complex, dilapidated environments and indescribable monsters, as well as an absolute stellar use of musical composition and lighting effects, to bring Claire’s insufferable nightmares to life.
I explored an abandoned school that suffered from a tragic fire, conversing with students and faculty that didn’t quite make it out. There’s also a nightmarish version of the hospital Claire’s sick mother resides in, the remains of her childhood home, and her now run down apartment building, each offering labyrinthine corridors, cryptic butterfly collectibles, and the occasionally vague puzzle to solve.
I’ll stress again that Claire: Extended Cut contains some extremely labyrinthine environments, making it impossible to navigate without frequently checking the game’s map. However, navigating a 2D game using a top-down map was a struggle. Opening the map doesn’t seem to pause the game either, as I found myself being chased down or attacked by enemies while trying to gather my bearings, although infrequently. This also added an element of terror that I wasn’t anticipating, so it’s something I grew to appreciate as time went on.
The map is essential to getting around, adding helpful objective markers, highlighting the locations of locked doors, NPCs, and blocked paths, but it definitely wasn’t fun to use. However, I can’t think of a single way to present the map where it’d be far less confusing. No matter how frustrating it can be at times, it really is the best possible design for a 2D game with more twists and turns than a big ass bag of Twizzlers.
On the gameplay front, Claire: Extended Cut is a pure combat-free survival horror adventure. You’ll spend most of your time navigating the aforementioned corridors in search of a way to progress the story, typically by way of solving puzzles, locating keys and the likes, or fulfilling quests for NPCs.
For better or worse, the puzzles here are reminiscent of Silent Hill in terms of their overall vagueness. Unless you’re paying close attention to details in your surroundings, or stumble upon clues as a result of pure luck, prepare to be stumped more often than not. I did get a sense of satisfaction when I’d finally decipher their riddles, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself looking up the solutions online. There’s no shame in that, really.
Of course there’s also the occasional run-in with creepy monsters, but with no weapons at her disposal Claire’s only defense is running away and/or finding a safe place to hide. In addition to taking damage from monsters, you’ll have to manage Claire’s panic level, which, when high enough, can actually kill her on the hardest difficulty setting.
Being stalked by creatures or hiding from ones nearby can raise her panic levels, causing her to take additional damage. This can be remedied with certain consumables, with more interesting ones (notably the caffeine pills) restoring health at the cost of an increased state of panic. Those not wanting to experience the added stress can elect to play on an easier difficulty setting that ignores the panic system altogether.
The inventory system, while manageable, also gets in the way at times. Claire is equipped with a pretty decent amount of space to carry around restoratives, quest items, and lockpicks, but there’s no way to discard unwanted items — consumables can be used to free up space, but at one point I was walking around with 4 lockpicks, three quest items, and little room for items that restore panic or lost health.
You can’t tell what an item is until you pick it up either, so toward the tail end of my initial playthrough I found myself wasting consumables just to avoid passing up potential story items. Most of the time it was just another consumable.
The menu isn’t very responsive either, with some items taking 4 or 5 button presses to activate.
These issues probably sound far worse than they actually are, though. In the six hours it took to complete the game for the very first time, I was far more interested in piecing together Claire’s past, admiring the enchanting-yet-eldritch sound composition, and exploring the beautifully sinister environments masterfully pixellated by the folks at Hailstorm Games.
Silent Hill is my favorite horror franchise, without question. Claire: Extended Cut may come with its share of flaws, particularly in its map and inventory systems, but it successfully hearkens back to what made Konami’s first four entries so special, and does so in a way that no other horror game has managed to do before it.
Claire initially released on PC in 2014, so what exactly makes the Extended Cut on consoles the Extended Cut? I spoke with the game’s composer (David Mason) via Twitter, and he explained “Basically it’s an entire engine upgrade. So the lightning, shadows, particle effects, etc are all new. A lot of visual updates and eye candy that we originally wanted from the start but the engine wouldn’t allow it. On top of the eye candy upgrades there were various story changes. The script was changed so dialogue was reworded a bit to make more sense. There’s more “time travel” elements between Claire and little Claire. Overall the EC is just more fleshed out and expanded. Things we wanted to do before but couldn’t due to various reasons. Time, engine limitations, etc.”
So if you’ve already experienced Claire on PC, you’ve more than enough reason to revisit it on consoles.
*So where’s the final score? There isn’t one. I spent a lot of time conveying my opinion in the above text, and I hope that’s worth more to you than some arbitrary number or a sequence of shaded-in star shapes. Basically, I’m not a fan of scores so I no longer use them. Read the review and judge for yourself if the game is worth your time and money.
Full disclosure: This review was done using a PlayStation 4 copy of Claire: Extended Cut that was provided by the game’s developer, Hailstorm Games. While I’m sometimes given games to review, I pride myself on providing unbiased reviews to fellow consumers, along with constructive feedback to hard working developers and publishers. Whether or not I pay for the game is completely irrelevant.