Claire Review: Anything but flat
The horror genre has seen a veritable resurgence lately, with dozens of large and independent studios all hoping to get a good scare out of their audience. Each works to bring a new method to the table, some improvement upon the age-old formula of a bogeyman in the closet or a petrifying little girl at the end of a dimly lit hallway. Hailstorm Games’ Claire takes the dart board approach, carefully pinning down many elements and mechanics that have worked in the past, but ultimately bringing them together so smoothly that the resulting experience is distinct among its many influences.
Titular protagonist Claire, a young girl haunted by her childhood demons and burdened with the care of her comatose mother, is abruptly torn from the silence of St. Barbara’s hospital and thrown into a modern but distinctly eldritch nightmare. Environments once pristine and sterile now exude decay and neglect. The rusted hinges of countless mildewing doors whine weakly in the darkness, mourning St. Barbara’s disrepair.
Anubis, huh? Coincidence? I think not!
Those are the good times; as Claire ventures deeper, rundown becomes overrun as the world is forced to wear an ever-thickening coat of hideously contorted flesh and viscera. To make matters worse, your only companions are a lighter (an infinite but meager source of light), the loveable hound Anubis, and a battery-hungry, mouse-controlled flashlight reminiscent of Outlast and many other titles.
This unsettling setting is conveyed in classic 2D fashion; a fore, middle and background compose the stage through which Claire reluctantly forces herself. Doors are placed within all three grounds: background and side entrances are obvious enough, and foreground assets are made visible through clever use of transparency.
Inventory is intuitive as well, letting you view the scraps of lore you find as well as consumables.
Navigation is bettered by a mini-map in the game’s corner as well as a full map, both of which draw heavily from the Silent Hill series. Points of interest—locked doors, blocked paths, save points in the form of lanterns (which could be a touch more frequent), etc.—are marked once discovered and the player can choose to place a single marker of their own as a reminder, perhaps of valuable items, or a warning of nearby enemies. Annoyingly, though, the full map suffers from a broken compass, and it can be difficult to tell where you’re headed.
Claire blends psychological and survival horror through the juxtaposition of two infallible rules: 1) you cannot fight against enemies and are instead forced to run or hide from the fiends lurching through the map, and 2) your wellbeing is based on both health and sanity, a la Eternal Darkness. Simply enough, Claire is wounded if attacked by enemies, but her “death” only threatens to send you back to your most recent lantern.
Sanity is a different beast. Spending time in dark areas without the flashlight’s aid, or being attacked by, or indeed nearby, enemies will pile on the mental pressure. As Claire’s psyche weakens—moving from calm to anxious to scared and so on—so does the environment, which will grow continually clouded by an amorphous web of black. Interestingly, the game’s highest difficulty, Nightmare, allows Claire to quite literally be scared to death, which further ratchets up the importance of sanity.
Remember, kids: Sanity is important.
Enter the survival aspect: health and sanity can both be refreshed via consumables scavenged from the hospitals wreckage, and Claire will calm down when hiding in cabinets and the like. This builds the balancing act which horror games are known for and works to keep things tense along with enemy encounters—which, largely thanks to a brilliant collection of soundtracks and effects that abruptly assail the player, are truly scary.
There’s an observable level of polish in everything Claire has to offer. Despite its small-time roots and ostensibly simplistic visuals, the world truly comes to life. A directional soundscape governs terrors and rare moments of tranquility alike, and dynamic lighting adds intrigue to otherwise well-drawn but flat walls. Side-scrolling exploration is improved by puzzles and Claire’s ability to push and jump over various obstacles. The narrative, too, largely a symbolic representation of inner struggles, includes multiple endings as well as a karmic system of sorts based on how Claire treats various “survivors” she encounters, and was clearly a labor of love from Hailstorm.
I hope you appreciate the effor it took to get this screenshot.
As both a disclaimer and warning, I should say that, sadly, my time with Claire, was cut short by a notorious and often game-ending bug involving an incorrect reset of required items, thus rendering progression impossible. A quick look at Steam’s forums shows that this is not an uncommon problem, but that is also one the developers are actively working to address. It’s certainly a glaring issue, but at worst the bug is reason to keep multiple save files. (Oops.)
On the whole, Claire is a delight, an eclectic mix of tried and true themes done up in emotive indie style. With a frankly unbelievable soundtrack, a strong sense of suspense and clear knowledge of the subtleties of horror, it’s a bite-sized terror that anyone looking for a proper scare should try.