As the weather turns colder, it feels like the perfect time to curl up with a good book under a thick blanket. Last night it felt as though I did exactly that with Black Tabby Games' first episode of Scarlet Hollow—a choice-driven horror game that has you combing a strange town for answers as mysterious and downright creepy happenings begin to unfold around you.
You're in town under sad circumstances, but your fleeting visit for a family member's funeral soon spirals into an eerie trek through the woods with a complete stranger. Most of Scarlet Hollow revolves around selecting options from a list, allowing you to explore predetermined points of interest in a room, or choose the tone for your character's dialogue with others. Mechanically, it's straightforward visual novel stuff, but the most curious rooms offer plenty of options for exploration, and you can spend a few minutes working through the list of actions before moving on.
What's most compelling about Scarlet Hollow's story so far is how often it hops between settings. The first chapter is around an hour long, and in that time you visit several mysterious scenes that could easily host something scary, but it plays with those expectations.
Arriving in a dusty old house, I was sure that I'd experience a cheesy ghost scene as the other character's back was turned, but the game offers far more than that. Black Tabby Games does a great job of taking conventional horror settings, teasing you with a potential scare, and then injecting humour in its place to give this horror story far more personality.
The text that popped up on screen when I found a sinister doll in a closet nicely captured how I was feeling about unearthing a traditionally scary household item. "Of course you're sharing a room with a creepy doll"—Black Tabby Games knows how horror fans will react to that old chestnut, and they've chosen to make everything feel more playful. The game isn't afraid to poke fun at itself, and this makes it feel more light-hearted after moments of tension. That said, when you later stumble across something that's genuinely unsettling, it lands perfectly.
Humour can take interesting twists, depending on how you choose to speak to some of the main characters, too. One of my favourite moments in Scarlet Hollow's first chapter is having the option to grab a box of Mac and Cheese box, empty it, and stuff it with a dead mouse. It's a strange choice, and it caught me off guard when I saw it, so obviously I had to pick it. After the icy reception I received from the family member I'm staying with, I think they probably deserved it. Combine unusual choices like this with the the more sarcastic and joking tone you can choose in some conversations, and you'll have a lot of fun in Scarlet Hollow.
Before hopping on a bus and learning more about your family's background, you're prompted to select two traits. These abilities offer different dialogue options, and unlock additional paths through the story. I chose Powerful Build and Keen Eye, which offered very different approaches to dialogue, in particular. Often, Powerful Build presented more outgoing options, like the willingness to explore a trail, or the choice to be more intimidating and forceful with others. Keen Eye, meanwhile, allowed my character to pick up on more subtle cues in conversations, press characters for more information, and highlight clues when examining outdoor areas.
Traits also come with side effects, like being able to munch on more snacks. Tiny details like this can lead other characters to comment on them, which makes the dialogue feel like a natural conversation. I'm interested to see how some of the other traits affect poignant events in the story, too. The Mystical trait allows your character to "see the threads of reality in a way that others cannot", so I imagine that leads your character to discuss more entertaining theories when you make a paranormal discovery in the depths of the woods. So far, the traits feel like they have a significant impact, especially when building relationships with others.
Scarlet Hollow's first episode got its hooks in me, so I'm eager to see where it'll whisk me away to next. Its self aware humour and beautiful hand-drawn artwork creates a unique atmosphere that makes its opening hour feel spooky without stifling the fun. I'm now also very invested in protecting Gretchen, a sprightly old pug whose potato-like stature is absolutely adorable.
Scarlet Hollow's first episode is free to try for yourself on Steam (opens in new tab), and you can read more about it on Kickstarter (opens in new tab), where it's already smashed its funding goal.