Think of a survival horror game developed by Capcom in which you explore a mansion. Yep your mind instantly jumps to Resident Evil but Capcom have a history of developing other horror franchises. In 2001 the developer managed to get their hands on the Clock Tower series taking the gameplay in a completely different direction from what we’d seen before in the third installment of the franchise; Clock Tower 3.
In this game we really do take control of an unsuspecting character; the 14 year old girl Alyssa Hamilton. While at boarding school she receives a letter from her mother telling her that she’s in danger and should go into hiding after her 15th birthday. Of course Alyssa decides to simply ignore this advice and returns home to an empty mansion where the Dark Gentleman greets her. After receiving a scare from the man which would drive most normal people to run from the house in a panic, she instead decides to explore and subsequently discovers a note from her mother and a special bottle of holy water. From there things only become more unusual as she has to deal with time travel, supernatural powers and murderers hell bent on…well murder. The story is the main standout of this game, while it’s a little short only taking around 6-7 hours it’s still a very compelling and well-written Clock Towers plot which is sinister and interesting enough to drive you though to the end.
If you have any knowledge at all of the previous games in the series then you’ll notice a huge change to the gameplay, switching from a point-and-click adventure to a more direct approach giving you complete control over the character in a third-person fixed perspective. However it’s for the better as this is arguably the best game in the franchise. Progressing through the game means solving puzzles, unlocking new locations and taking on murderers known as subordinates. Well fleeing and hiding anyway. The stand out mechanic is that there is no health bar, instead it’s replace with a nifty panic meter. Whenever Alyssa is being chased for long periods or the subordinates jump out from startling positions her meter rises to the point in which she runs around in a panic, refusing to sit still and hide and periodically stopping to calm herself down. Take one hit in this state and it’s game over.
The games chapters are split for the most part with the first section utilising puzzle mechanics, while the second sees a more action oriented approach as boss encounters are introduced. The games main goal is to put a stop each of the murderer’s bloody rampage. Achieving this means purifying the souls of the deceased around you. Take the first killer nicknamed Sledgehammer for example. After bashing in the head of a young girl her spirit lingers around playing a piano in a concert hall and it’s down to you to find the item that can ease her pain. Scattered around the environments are lesser wandering spirits with the same predicaments that require the retrieval of sentimental items like fountain pens and engagement rings.
Going back to that holy water vial from earlier, besides breaking magical door locking seals it’s your main tool for dealing with the foes you encounter. It’s not a killing weapon though it’s just to stun them and buy you a little wiggle room in your escapes. In terms of plot this mechanic really does give you that feeling that this character is helpless against these brutes but mechanically it’s a little weak. Your usage limit is incredibly restricted and the stun time isn’t long at all so enemies can get back on your tail almost instantly. Your only choice then is to hide in one of the strategically placed hidey-holes like lockers and curtains. It’s a neat mechanic and one we’ve seen work very well in games like Outlast and Alien Isolation. What lets this games system down is the rather flaky AI as you can hide in plain sight of your pursuer and then witness their looks of befuddlement from your frankly feeble hiding place.
So far then the gameplay is really good and it does well to really ramp up the tension, but eventually we do have to deal with the psycho’s chasing us. The way boss fights play out is radically different to the rest of the game as your vial of holy water transforms into a magical bow and you are tasked with trapping them with beams of light. Just a tad mental! These sections are easily the weakest points in the game as you run around trying to put enough distance between you and the subordinate to let off a charged light arrow attack. Even when you do manage to nail them you have to hit them with at least two more attacks, placing them in a way so that the fiend is trapped between the three chains so you can use your finisher. Finally to add to the frustration you can’t aim your shots directly and have to rely on lining them up with the assailant instead. It can take time to get to grips with how these sections play out but once you’ve got enemy attack patterns worked out it’s not too bad.
The graphics are a bit of a mixed bag as cutscenes are nicely rendered out and characters are animated very fluidly, these scenes were actually one of the elements that first attracted me to playing the game. Drop down into the actual gameplay though and you’ll find Alyssa and the gang looking a bit more rigged and character models environments taking a slight hit in terms of quality. That said it’s not all that disappointing as the gritty, musty environments are still a perfect spooky tone setter. The fixed camera angles even makes for some great shots and perfect jump scares but the camera can make it rather awkward to navigate as the switches are rather sudden. For example the camera can make a quick switch from a top down perspective to an angle where you’re looking Alyssa head on meaning she’ll take a complete 180 turn. Not great when you’ve got axe swinging maniacs on your tail. This being a horror game of course I shouldn’t overlook the violence. Clock Towers 3’s many death scenes are genuinely quite brutal, nowhere near as gory as games we’ve seen in recent years but sequences in which people are severed by swinging blades or the embedding of axes in skulls are still very strong.
Clock Tower 3 even now is still a very enjoyable survival horror game. The enthralling plot is ultimately the deciding factor that will drive you through the game and having the story driving the gameplay mechanics makes for some fun and intuitive concepts. However the interesting gameplay mechanics introduced could have just done with some fine tuning, the frustrating boss scenarios in particular, to really make it stand out. For people looking to try something different this is definitely worth a look and for survival horror fans this game does just enough to warrant a place in your collection.
This Retrospective Review was originally published on the site GamersFTW which unfortunately has now been taken down.