Scarlet Hollow proves not all horror games need jump scares or hyper violent animations for them to work. Its execution in a horror visual novel works well through old-school mysteries and slow buildup in its short time.
Its chills come from an old-school suspense and discovering that not everything is as it seems when players sink further into a brief episodic tale. The first episode, free on Steam, does a great job in settling new visitors with a cast of likeable characters. They each give players opportunities to navigate the town, which later rewards curiosity with unsettling moments. These are also well-executed, enough to pull players along for more episodes in the future.
Hand-drawn by artist Abby Howard, her range of neo-gothic horror and monster making are in full force. It’s also a Kickstarter-based collaboration with indie studio Black Tabby Games and injects pure creativity for the sheer fun of it. For Scarlet Hollow, this thriller changes with characters and each panel springing to life at players with a constant motion of choices and text dialogue. If Scarlet Hollow sounds like a motion comic, that’s because it plays out like one with some welcome layers. In the likes of Telltale‘s series of point-and-click games, much of Howard’s production is idea-driven through characters. Players can quickly become comfortable under a toned colour palette, blended with a campy but noir atmosphere to ooze Stranger Things or Gravity Falls. Fans of these franchises will feel immediately welcome at the moment they wake up in a bus carrying them to Scarlet Hollow.
Of course, the game is set in the titular town of Scarlet Hollow. Players are thrown into an all-too familiar mystery story, but finds its footing by introducing some of Howard’s unique characters. Despite their shared tiredness from living in the town, I was impressed by how their quirks and identities unfolded in discussion. Instead of throwing exposition, each dialogue choice is more subjective than other past titles including Telltale Batman and Mass Effect. This gives players a satisfaction of interacting with characters the way they actually would. Stellar writing makes these characters, frozen in panels, realistic and immediately likeable from Episode 1. Going against point-and-click nature, Scarlet Hollow actually sends some chills by touching on human themes. But when Howard brings her brand of supernatural monstrosities in, players could be dropping their jaws at the sheer sight of things they’ve been investigating. This drops a huge horror ball, making Scarlet Hollow effective in executing scares. This is backed by a bone-chilling whisper of unknown entities in a dark forest or the sudden freezing of a soundtrack for the next panel.
Characters like Tabitha paint a gloomy scene while her introversion creates more questions than answers in early chats. In fact, it’s made more impressive that the game’s short first episode can pack enough mystery and payoffs before the credits roll. Howard’s experience of building the tension comes from its real-world factors, while the real scares come from adding in the supernatural when players least expect it. I was completely thrown off by the change in tones once the first episode dove into other characters. The choice of following them throws players into different rabbit holes, each given their own set of strange myths and weird characters. Stella becomes the first in a handful of main characters who can take players out on an adventure, later uncovering a sinister presence which border on the horrifying to unbelievable. Howard throws no punches during these scenes and its gory images are a taste of bigger, bitter revelations. Scarlet Hollow‘s horror relies on the player’s curiosity, which builds its payoff up as they continue.
Its denizens, though cynical and forgotten, are also carrying some secrets of their own. Its first episode takes a customizable player into the outskirts of town, where they immediately meet their first character. Without delving into spoilers, the story starts off compelling and uses death to take itself seriously right away. Your distant relative has recently passed away, but also knew your late mother who used to own a mine at Scarlet Hollow. Surprisingly, its dialogue is just as hilarious as they are dark. Players can find their first chat with a random bus rider a joy as they overshared details about their spouse and wet peanuts. This is where a wide range of choices are unpredictably reflected on by characters, who are weird enough to play along to your sarcasm or outright compose themselves.
Little interactions like these give Scarlet Hollow some incredible depth which makes them likeable. It’s worth noting that players have a right to be invested in each character, as there are romance options. But Episode 1 saves most of your tension for later and establishes your relationships one introduction at a time. In a game which is 95% dialogue, Howard and Black Tabby Games have a clear understanding of the fourth wall – enough to manipulate it for different play styles. Somehow, the world still manages to play differently despite a lack of interactive point-and-click objects, navigation or environment scanning.
In the effort to set Scarlet Hollow up for future episodes, the game does way too much to keep you alive and well with characters. It’s actually difficult to cause your own demise, even with a slew of negative dialogue choices. Some characters turn a cold shoulder, while most tolerate you as the plot thickens. By solidifying its characters in Episode 1, it’s also softer than most horror games with less consequences. Critical decisions have no time limits like Telltale, giving players more than enough time to calmly avert a situation. Its scariest moments deliver, but fall short of striking at players without a proper fail state in Episode 1. Those looking for modern hard horror would be a bit jaded, but find comfort in a slower and softer brand of spookiness from Scarlet Hollow.
Its pacing manages to cram an entire universe within a mere 30-45 minutes. If players read all of the dialogue and respond to most of its Explore options, Scarlet Hollow becomes a more satisfying experience. Each choice opens another narrative point which is remembered, while rare dialogue can lead to some pretty cool opportunities. Some of these border on finding out how a character ticks, to straight-up following them in a mystery adventure. This gives the game some incredibly big replay value, letting players experiment their decisions out of curiosity. Howard’s adorable renditions of a pug are worth returning to, though you can’t pet Gretchen yourself. But that’s just the tip of the story-branching iceberg. I’ll admit Scarlet Hollow goes backwards by not overstaying its welcome and its Netflix-episode length is way too short by episodic game standards (which can play out at two hours minimum).
The aforementioned play styles are a game-changer and Scarlet Hollow adds accountability to every question and response. Right before the game starts, players can choose two traits which grant players “skills”. Each of these open up exclusive dialogue and decisions which impact the story’s path. Those with the Street Smart trait can mix it with Mystic, giving them an ability to question sketchy individuals, pick locks and even have premonitions like Until Dawn. It’s a great addition which deepens the experience of Scarlet Hollow while modernizing the delivery of idea-driven horror games. The decisions can even be life-changing for certain characters in the most critical moments. One particular climax in Episode One has you choose the safety of a character, while some traits can even negate that hard decision. But it’s fun to replay the episode with various traits, which are enough to change the chronological set pieces.
I’m excited to see how my time at Scarlet Hollow continues in Episode 2 and beyond. The game has a knact of delivering bite-sized suspense, even if it seems like players are at a safe scene. But its seeds sewn in Episode 1 are worthy of saving a game and starting new ones with traits to see multiple stories unfold. It’s carried by characters with a dreaded charm, making decisions much harder for players later on. But with the discoveries you make early on, Scarlet Hollow sucks you into a mission to continue knowing about the terrors behind its town. Without jump scares, combat or even dying, Scarlet Hollow brings old-school discovery-based execution back to the horror table.