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Review: Claire - Horror has a new queen

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Name: Claire

Price: £6.99 /  $9.99

Format:  PC (available from Steam and Desura)

PC specs used can be found in this sites FAQ section

Review: 

Ok I got a request to review this game and honestly I was more than happy to do it as Claire is a game I had seen about and while it looked nice I never really felt like trying it. The simple reason is I thought looking at the game initially it would be quite tame. After the whole thing of Beyond the Sleep turning out to have a twist like ending and not being some super horror game you could say I was gun shy. Beyond the Sleep was a game I had planned to get and after I ran into the ending (I forget how but I didn't plan it), I really didn't feel a compulsion to play the game or many other horror game. Now I had planned to look at Lone Survivor but then that's really well known. So when I suggested people take a look at Claire and one person asked me "Well why should we beyond the developer sticking up for their consumers?" I had to say to myself fair point. Hence this review.

Now I know a lot of people are going to shout from the roof "Nepotism" because of this review and let me say this. The developer standing up for their customers earned me buying the game and suggesting others look at it. It was a person asking for a review of the game that spurred me to actually do a review. Now I could have just done a quick forum review of the game and moved on. It's a testament to the game itself that I'm choosing to give it a full review here. Some of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed I announced the delay, the reason for this is I really wanted to explore the game more. 

Now I did miss a few bits, if the developer is reading this I missed the guy in the school bathroom and still can't find where he is, help please! I did however really enjoy the game and it's possible to get the best ending (Ending A) without an absolutely perfect run which is good as it's quite easy to miss things even if you were trying to comb every inch of the game like me. This is a game having reviewed (and pushed myself through) I can see myself coming back to in the future and not feeling quite as pressured in the playthrough. Claire is a game you savour not rush to the finish line on. My playthrough missing a few bits took a little over 4 hours. Now thanks to me being a save scummer and repeating some sections etc my total play time is closer to 7 hours. I'd say 4 hours for your first playthrough 5-6 if you're going for 100% first try.

So I think it's only fair I get onto talking about the game itself. Claire is an instruction manual titled "How to make a working horror game beat for beat". If Five Nights at Freddy's is the king of Jumpscare horror then I have to declare that this generations Queen of psychological horror is Claire. Everything works so well to unsettle and disturb the player. I consider myself someone that's hard to effectively scare: I've played horror games before mostly to no effect; I've walked alone through a fairly secluded area of forest in the black of night; I've stayed in essentially a small log cabin in the middle of a forest with a metal shutter for one of the windows and watched the film Dog Soldiers then walked 15 minutes in pitch black through a forest area to say hi to people on a campsite. Those things didn't scare me, Claire did. I started playing Claire in broad daylight at 3pm in the afternoon with headphones on and the game is so well made it had me almost shaking in fear. Only 1 other game has ever inspired such fear in me and it's the game Call of Cthulhu. Claire is just so well designed to inspire dead from the dark mist like shadows lapping at the edge of the screen to the enemies that let out an unsettling screeching noise to the music itself, which when used often inspires dread. The limited ball of light provided by the lighter and need to conserve the torch power helps the darkness feel ominous, all consuming and oppressing in on you from all sides. 

The Monsters themselves while they shouldn't be terrifying do manage to come off as such, not instantly repulsive but they feel horrifying on a deeper almost primeval level. When they appear suddenly all your instincts are to be afraid of them. This deep seated fear is a testament to their design with a sinewy twisted shadowy forms. Their movement is unlike anything else in the game creating a confusion of slightly blurred movement. The monster even play into the idea of the uncanny valley a bit by seeming so much like a discernible identifiable something but being just different enough and indefinable enough that  your body itself screams these things are wrong. While most of the enemies pose little threat they're so well designed they inspire fear and dread be it when your dog barks to warn you about them (and set you n edge) or when they've chased you out of a door. Even when you've left a room having been chased out you hear them banging on the door before breaking through to continue the chase, forcing you to try and lose them in the labyrinth like levels or hide if, you can find a place.

The level designs themselves are also a great demonstration of how to do horror well, not just for the theme of each level. Each level while seemingly playing on a near trope level standard horror location shows how with a few minor changes such locations can be made horrifying. It's not so much about horrifying images but changing things enough to make the players mind constantly tell them that the location isn't right be it from a quite dirty run down hospital to a near empty school or a dark foreboding apartment complex, all are familiar yet also wrong. With each level having a vague story in it's own right and talking about how this loosely connects to Claire's own life story.

I've seen plenty of people complain about the pacing and honestly I think the slower pacing and lack of constant scares helps build the tension up. While you may feel the actual scares and monsters are a distance apart the game does an expert job of keeping you on edge and unsettled.

I also need to give credit to the games art as while it is a retro art style the animations are superb. From Claire moving the torch about to the idle animations almost all the in game animations look beautifully created.

The story itself (which I won't spoil) is almost a master piece and really pulls at the heart strings in places making you feel sorry for the characters all trapped in this horrifying place. Each character seemingly having their own story and tale to tell all of it mounting up and adding to the main story and explaining the warped world of the game. These are not merely some stock characters but feel like real people with real world problems who reacted in a fairly realistic way to them. I don't want to say more lest I spoil it.

Ok so enough of me gushing about how this game is some superb horror experience as to say the game is perfect would be a lie. The game does have a number of issues which can hamper the experience or minor changes which could greatly improve it.

The controls are a big problem for a number of reasons. For whatever reason on my system the mouse seemed to suffer some degree of mouse lag and as such this is a game I can only recommend playing with a controller. The problem is the controller set up itself has a few problems and a case of multiple actions bound together. This would be fine if you could change the controls but for whatever reason on my system only the keyboard controls can be rebound and not the controller buttons. The big issue being that the accept button for menu control is the same button as interact. This wouldn't be such an issue if being in a menu paused the game but it doesn't. Multiple times I found myself accidentally coming out of hiding while trying to check my map or accidentally entering rooms while trying to look at note, maybe this could have been solved by having accept be bind able to another button (or key on the keyboard settings), or having the menu accept button being different from the enter / interact button. There does also seem to be a minor bug relating to the controller and it's interaction with the note menu, a number of times a scrolled down the notes only for the selection to refuse to return from the scroll arrow. This bug meant to read the later notes I had to enter the note menu, scroll down, close the menu and re-open it to read the later notes.

While the controls are a problem they're not the only issue I found. If you create a lot of save files the game seems far slower to actually save (though this may be due to additional progress through the game also being saved not just more save files). Worse still this problem is made worse by the lack of an easy delete save option to erase older saves if they become useless. The only way to seemingly erase the data is by finding the save files on your computer, which is quite tough to locate  (and no I tested erasing all local contents doesn't erase your game saves too).

The games map can be a problem with the map sometimes failing to register blockages, marking blockages incorrectly on the map and even in one case a door (top left on the second floor of the final level) being shown in an entirely different location to its actual position in the room. I also feel like the map needs to do a better job of indicating passages and newly opened holes in the walls as these are not only extremely easy to miss but often very frustrating to try and find leading to plenty of time wandering round getting frustrated with seemingly no direction to go. A map indication of these things (if you pass them) would greatly benefit the game. Also I'm going to suggest this and it may be unpopular but a minimap wouldn't go a miss (or at least a single static picture of the room you're in orientated as it is in game) This would cut down on confusion and constantly having to check the map to figure out which was the rooms are orientated and as such which way you need to go to progress.

The blockage to the left of the blip on the map is meant to be over the door not floating in the middle of the room. Also the room in the top left on this map doesn't line up with the the doors position in the adjacent room itself.

I feel like the hiding mechanic is under used or poorly used as while I understand the desire to make hiding places scarce they feel too spread out. While I don't want them as abundant as the final boss "fight" I think maybe a hiding space every 2-3 rooms around the starting location of enemies would be a better fit. As while running from your life that last thing you want to have to do is stop an open your map to find where you marked a hiding spot on the map.The enemy AI while mostly fine could do with a tweak or two to stop it door camping (a complaint I noted was also brought up by some of the Steam forums). Also the enemies simply appearing without warning (it only happens twice or three times all game) make any damage taken here feel cheap, one such instance being a particularly egregious example as the enemy comes out of a vent / box without warning right infont of you. These instances of door camping and enemies dropping in instantly without warning in a couple of locations simply feel cheap and the player feeling like they were somehow cheated takes away from the experience. If the enemies spawning are meant to be an attempted jumpscare then maybe them being hallucinations or  illusions would work better. To stop the door camping it might be an idea for the developer in slightly increase the distance at which enemies can break through into adjacent rooms.

Speaking of cheap stuff the forced terror sections feel often quite cheap. As your mental state drops in the game you have the screen haze up and darkness close in and your actual health drop. This would be fine if in certain sections the game didn't force your sanity to drop essentially creating areas where your health slowly eats away. I think the idea of these sections is to push the player on and give a feeling or terror and panic. The problem is they feel like a very cheap way to drain precious resources like health items. These sections could be made to work if the game gave a way to undo their impact after passing through (and make passing through a second time not induce the same terror effect) Maybe have some lights turn on or appear in the terror areas to make them safter to pass through to backtrack / explore more. Maybe a single use thing like a cuddly bear toy that vanishes when approached but restores you either to full or to a state recorded before entering the  terror section.

The final problems (and this is minor t best) would be to add better visual feedback when Annubis (Claire's pet dog) barks. In game Annubis barking is designed to alert you to the presence of enemies and put you on edge but with only an small subtle animation showing this. I feel it needs more visual feedback such as either the word bark being displayed or (and saving on any possible translation) a small sound wave like cone being shown after Annubis barks. The second one is can the torch please give consistent light levels. I understand that in real life torches get dimmer as in the game but when you're limiting the use of the torch via the battery draining it feels rather cheap that often you'll have a far worse torch beam due to being near the end of the battery. As visual feedback it's nice but in a gameplay sense it's annoying. As an alternative maybe as the battery runs out have the torch sometimes cut out for a half second before returning to when the battery is on its last 1/4.

What seems so strange is the game despite all its flaws has some very nice touches. the different lighting effects from the lighter, the torch, candles in the level and electric lighting look beautiful and unique to gaze at. The Lighter creating a warm circle of light while the Torch given a nice white light beam you can direct around and candles giving off an eerie red glow. As I previously mentioned the animations and even idle animation are quite cool and well done. Annubis while being a relatively small part of the game really is amazingly done as a horror tool as while he will sometimes bark at shadows putting you on edge only to let you down, boy do you miss him when he's not around (and I really dislike dogs normally so making me miss a virtual one is a testament to his design).

So what I'm going to do is lay out what I think is the best way to experience this game / play through it and some hints / tips.

Self impose on you the following:

  • Only use grandma's candy when you absolutely have to (such as in the terror areas)
  • Accept that your first playthrough will not be a 100% run, you playthrough, get an ending then play again to go for 100% (and a 3rd time on new game + if you want the secret S ending)
  • Understand you can't save everyone and accept that whatever choices you make stay. This is one game you really need to play essentially with your choices etc locked in and accept them.
  • Use the following puzzle hints below and gameplay hints to help you as hopefully they won't spoil too much.

So Puzzle and gameplay hints

The Hospital 

The Clock

- Set it to the same time as the others

 

The Lift

- You can close the vents. There are two in the lift one on the left one on the right.

 

Staff portraits 

- The dead hide their secrets well

 

Power puzzle

- Down is not the same as turning it off, just mess about till you get all green lights.

School puzzles and stuff

General

- The nobodies (the harmless creatures in the area) often scratch holes in the wall you can get through. This happens at specific times in the game so you're going to need to keep an eye out for them (especially as they don't get marked on the map)

 

Chess puzzle

- Read the pieces and relate the messages to the identity of  the chess pieces, So pawn, bishop, king, queen, castle and knight

 

Piano

-The biggest clue is the bear song but you can solve this one by experimenting away.

 Apartments

 

Doll house

- the clues for this one are all in the subsequent rooms, just remember to light a candle for the dead.

 

Frat guy

- He might not have cleaned everything out just of where he is, just look about the apartment.

 

Symbols on the wall

-Look up the 5 stages of loss / grief and that's your order.

 

The flesh maze

-You want to go through the flesh doors as these will lead you to where you need to go.

 

Valve puzzle 

-  33 minutes past 3 in that order

Verdict:

Claire is a game that really should be studied and examined by prospective game developers and anyone making a horror game. 

For anyone making a horror game it's a beat for beat instruction manual on how to create real horror and true dread in players from building tension to creating horror.

For anyone designing a game it shows some of the common mistakes it's easy to make and shows the importance of designing the game to be intuitive for players and to minimise the player hassle.

As a normal player the game is something well worth experiencing especially if you happen to be a horror game fan who has been let down by almost all big budget horror games recently as they tried to become action games (Alien Isolation being the exception to that rule of letdowns). Even if you've only a passing interest in horror games this is one cheaper title to look out for. Oh and while I started playing in daylight I made in my intention to wait till night and finish the game in a near pitch black room lit only by the glow from the screen and my controller. It was utterly terrifying such that I'm sure I was shaking for upwards of an hour  after finishing the game.

The story is beautifully crafted and while some games claim to be emotional this is one game that can legitimately make such a claim as it runs the gamut of emotions from: Horror to relief, Love to loneliness and despair to joy. This is a game that will make you feel sad, happy, confused and many other things. So if you wanted a game with an emotion other than despair / sadness this is a game worth playing.

 

Now the tough part. Can I recommend Claire? No, at least not at full price as it's both brilliantly made and yet so rough round the edges. As a first title by Hailstorm games I have to give them credit for making what seems like quite an ambitious title even if it is this ambition that's often it's downfall, along with a few common issues. So I'm going to do something strange now and give a list of the bare minimum changes it would need to get a recommendation.

  • re-bindable controller buttons (including using the shoulder or trigger buttons)
  • A minimap of some kind, even a static picture of the map orientated the same as the in game room being shown on screen would help.
  • Fix the enemy AI to stop door camping
  • Some kind of visual feedback when Annubis barks
  • Do something with the forced terror areas be it removing the impact to allow backtracking through them without the risk and a thing at the end to undo the damage they do to the player or mark them more clearly or even better have the terror immune items have a timer say 2 minutes not simply a single room effectiveness.
  • Sort out the save system if possible to make it easier to delete old saves

 

If you see the game on discount this is definitely worth a play especially on sale where I've seen it drop below the price of many paid for tablet games.

Trailer

                   

Score:

4 out of 6

This score is based on the game at it's standard retail price. on discount it may be more acceptable for people to overlook its flaws. The only thing holding it back from far higher scores is the need for a little more polishing to iron out problems.

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About Dwarvenhobbleone of us since 8:33 AM on 06.19.2012

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