Ding dong, the witch is mutilated.
Kinji Fukasaku must have had it rough as a child. He made a name for himself by gleefully unleashing a torrent of death and destruction upon scores of youthful adolescents in the cult favorite Battle Royale. As director of the in-game cinemas in Clock Tower 3, he has continued his dark, macabre torture of innocents to great effect. Never before has a video game fully earned its Mature rating with such gusto. None of the maggot-ridden, zombie-infested, mutating toothy slime beasts of the Resident Evil or Silent Hill series of games can hold a shaky candle to the graphic depiction of sinister murder perpetrated by the bad guys in Capcom's Clock Tower 3.
Sweet little old ladies are liquefied in vats of acid, and other hapless citizens are chopped, sliced, diced and pureed with reckless abandon. Not even a cute 12 year-old girl is spared from being whopped on the head with a huge sledgehammer. Kind of makes you wonder just how long Fukasaku sat on the bench when they were choosing sides for dodgeball.
In this most recent installment in the Clock Tower series, you play as 14 year-old Alyssa Hamilton, a nobody in the real world but an apparent celebrity in the land of the dead, as everybody there seems to know her name and damn near wears it out. After receiving a letter from her mother warning her to stay away, Alyssa returns home to find out what the hoo-hah is about. While there she encounters a mysterious "Dark Gentleman" with a head like a canned ham and begins her joust with fear, mayhem and death.
Alyssa comes from a private boarding school; she's no alumnus of West Point. The intricacies of firearms, explosives and hand-to-hand combat were not in the curriculum. In fact, she doesn't actually have any real means of defending herself - except in Boss Battle mode, in which she will suddenly find herself equipped with a magical bow and a neverending supply of Spirit Arrows. She doesn't even have a decent melee bookbag.
Instead, she must rely on rationed Holy Water and a variety of unremarkable objects scattered throughout the environments. If your idea of a good time is some wacko tailgating your helpless butt with the intent of doing you grave physical harm, then you should enjoy this frustrating romp through murky old London, because that is basically the gist of this game.
In a departure from previous Clock Tower games (which were all point-and-click), Clock Tower 3 opts for a more Resident Evil-style control set up. Although direction is confined to the slippery analog stick, all other buttons are completely configurable. Control is simple and incorporates just a few buttons. And since you are incapable of doing anything like jumping or climbing without a prompt screen, it won't take you more than a second to get the hang of it.
Through most of the game you have a Panic Meter instead of a standard life bar, although in Boss battles your life bar will replace your Panic Meter. During regular play, the Panic Meter functions to let you know just how frightened Alyssa feels. This is key because once your Panic Meter is maxed out, Alyssa basically loses it. Her vision becomes blurred, she will run out from any place she happens to be hiding, pause at inopportune moments to quiver in terror, and will generally become quite obstinate when it comes to control - very similar to the insanity effects in the GameCube's Eternal Darkness, though not as well done. While the baddies cannot literally wound Alyssa, she will perish from fear with a single blow while she is freaking out. Managing her Panic Meter is a major factor of gameplay.
The puzzles are fairly simple. If you happen upon a locked door, the key is dependably close at hand. Even if doors are magically sealed, a little dab of Holy Water will get you on the other side (if that's where you need to be). As in Resident Evil, items will generally glow to indicate their usefulness. You can be guaranteed that you will not be up all night looking for a pair of pliers or a diagram to solve a tricky wire hook-up puzzle. A handy map helps you to navigate through detailed environments. Save rooms abound, as well as locations to refill your always-diminishing supply of Holy Water.
From time to time you will encounter a horribly murdered body with a restless spirit lurking nearby. You merely need to figure out what object they are missing and return it to them. Whatever it is, it's probably not far from the corpse and it doesn't take a genius to surmise that an 'empty ring box' will require a ring. Often a note of some kind will let you know what item goes where, anyway. Without these items the spirits remain in wickedly bad moods and can hinder your progress. In fact, you cannot finish the level as long as even one of them is missing their item. The benefit to helping them out, aside from the warm and fuzzy feeling you get from doing a good deed, is that each of them will leave something behind that you will find useful during the course of the game.
Fairly early on in each level, the crazed killer who created the corpses will pop in to introduce himself to our intrepid heroine, and then proceed to chase her relentlessly as she's busy trying to locate "sentimental items" and solve the various puzzles. Rather than being necessarily creepy, these "Subordinates" of the Dark Gentleman are more of the lunatic variety. They are always heralded by special "danger music," which is far too much of a tip off as to whether the evildoer is still prowling around looking for you or has paused for a few minutes to take a well-deserved toilet break.
Not a single bad guy is capable of blending into a crowd. They come in outlandish costumes and wield obvious and malignant weapons. The fear factor is much more reliant upon your attacker's sheer agility, speed and sometimes Matrix-like talents coupled with the limited options in your own movement palette. You are restricted to hiding in plain sight, flinging sprinklings of Holy Water, crawling through tight spaces and the old, faithful standby of simply running away. It doesn't help that most of your pursuers seem to be faster than you are.
Hiding is sometimes your best option, but forget about selecting a devious spot to hide in, as the pre-rendered backgrounds are generally not interactive and the bad guy will no doubt find you anyway. Predetermined "hiding places," though most likely out in the open, are indicated by incandescent swirls and no matter how obvious you may feel you are being, enemies will be completely mystified as to your whereabouts as long as your Panic Meter is kept in check.
Boss battles can be long exercises in tedium. You cannot move or adjust your aim while powering up your Spirit Arrows. Of course, your foes don't seem to possess this handicap. You can expect lots of running around, trying to discern a pattern, and then attacking whenever you can get a clear shot.
Though the cinematics and in-game graphics are both done well, Clock Tower 3 is ultimately one of those games whose cinemas are more interesting than the actual gameplay and from a gamer's standpoint, that's never a good thing. If I want to watch a movie, I'll watch a movie - but I came to play.
The game is short, too, making it a bit of a rough one to recommend. It is possibly a rental and definitely capable of being finished in a short weekend with plenty of time off for meals, sleeping and maybe a showing of Battle Royale.