Clock Tower: The First Fear – PlayStation
Developer: Human Entertainment, Inc.
Publisher: Human Entertainment, Inc.
Release Date (JP): July 17th, 1997
Nerd Rating: 9 out of 10
Note: As Clock Tower: The First Fear was never officially translated to English, the version referenced in this review was a burned version using the unofficial English patch.
Since it’s October, I figured that it was high time that I took a look at some of those classic “Survival Horror” franchises that everyone’s been worshiping for years. And although Clock Tower: The First Fear isn’t actually my first bout with the franchise, it’s the first Clock Tower game that is actually part of the main series. The Clock Tower series, although not completely connected, is primarily about the Clock Tower murders and villain Scissorman that appears in this and the other PlayStation game entitled Clock Tower.
As a kid I owned Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within, which is actually just a spinoff game that has nothing to do with either the murders or Scissorman. But strange American titling aside, Clock Tower: The First Fear is actually the very first game in the series, originally for the Super Nintendo, then ported to the PlayStation. It also takes the cake for being the only 2-dimensional game in the Clock Tower series, and in my opinion, the scariest.
The story of Clock Tower: The First Fear, and the Clock Tower series itself, starts with the journey of four young orphaned girls and their teacher Ms. Mary to the Barrows Mansion to meet their new adoptive father. While their teacher, Ms. Mary, goes to fetch Mr. Barrows, the girls patiently wait in the foyer. After a while the protagonist, Jennifer Simpson, offers to go see what’s holding their teacher up. However, just as Jennifer begins making her way down the first hallway, she hears the screams of her friends from the foyer. Even though Jennifer rushes back, the room is empty with no sign of what has become of everyone. It is then that Jennifer’s search begins, as well as the horrors that would occur over the span of a single night.
The player controls Jennifer, in your typical adventure-game fashion, as she explores this sprawling, haunted mansion. While Jennifer searches rooms for items and her friends, she’ll find herself being stalked by the series antagonist, Scissorman, a deformed little boy with a giant pair of sheers. The rest of the story depends upon any number of variables as well as the player’s actions.
This means that the mansion changes from playthrough to playthrough. The locations of certain rooms, as well as items, actually changes every time you create a new game. Even the location of Scissorman attacks can change depending on how long it’s been since his last encounter or if you’ve already seen one event verses the other. The deaths of some of Jennifer’s companions can even be altogether avoided or otherwise changed depending on whether the player activated certain objects or not.
This level of variation, coupled with the numerous ranked endings (although not as many as Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within), makes Clock Tower: The First Fear a highly replayable game. Even writing this review, there are some events in the game that I have actually never seen happen either because I couldn’t find my way into a certain area, or I couldn’t find a specific item.
I mistakenly came into Clock Tower: The First Fear assuming that it would be as frightening as every other blocky fifth generation game. However, The First Fear is actually a port of a fourth generation game and retains the two-dimensional graphics and sound effects from it. And let’s be honest here, this game can be absolutely terrifying. Although the game works using jump scares, it does it in a more refined way than the modern usage. Scissorman moves slowly, slowly enough that you would think that the jump scares would lose their effectiveness. However, they don’t.
I’ve come to theorize that the reason for this is a combination of the protagonist herself and how actually surprising some of the incidents can be. Jennifer Simpson is a defenseless fourteen year old girl. Although she can use the Panic button to attempt to fight off Scissorman a few times, she’s no Jill Valentine here. All Jennifer can really do is run and hide, yet sometimes hiding isn’t even effective. The first time I saw Scissorman actually attacking the bed where I thought Jennifer was securely hidden, I was actually terrified. Perhaps I’m used to enemy AI that’s dumb enough to let you hide in plain sight, but even in the hardest difficulties of some of my favorite stealth games I have never felt like there was just no escape.
The fact that it’s a two-dimensional game also adds to the terror here. In many modern survival horror games, such as The First Fear‘s sequel, Clock Tower, you can use objects in the environment, such as tables, to create distance between the protagonist and their stalker. In Clock Tower: The First Fear, it’s a straight line. If Scissorman is on your left, you have to run right and just hope that he doesn’t somehow teleport in front of you in the next room or hit a dead end.
Clock Tower: The First Fear‘s sound design is also fantastic. Although I’m usually not a stickler for soundtracks and sound effects, the tracks used during cut scenes and Scissorman chases are fantastic. While Jennifer is freely roaming the mansion, the game is quiet, the mood set by the sound of her own footsteps and doors opening and closing. There’s also a screeching sound effect that plays whenever Jennifer sees something frightening, which definitely took me by surprise the first few times.
So when I say that Clock Tower: The First Fear is a fantastic example of an early survival horror game done right, I mean it. Sadly, it never saw an official release outside of Japan, although it’s seen releases on the Wii and Wii U Virtual Console as well as PSN, so finding a copy of the game in its original language isn’t too difficult. Luckily, there are some folks out there who’ve taken the time to translate the game, and the patch for it can be found around the web. However, since there isn’t much in the way of dialog, it could be played untranslated as long as you have an idea of which items are which.
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