PC, Mac, Linux
It’s been a long eight-month wait for a new chapter of 2021’s best game, Scarlet Hollow, and I’m so delighted to report it was worth it. Episode 3 is out now, and it takes the already very creepy and superbly written story into a whole new depth of weird.
It is, of course, nightmarishly difficult to write a useful review of the third chapter of a narrative, given that to say why it’s so good is to take away from the experience of the player. But for the sake of sanity, I’m not going to avoid spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2 here. If you haven’t played Scarlet Hollow and want convincing, then go read the original spoiler-free review, and you’ll be good. The first chapter is still free. I’m going to assume some familiarity from now on, while studiously avoiding the plot after that point.
The most important thing when playing Scarlet Hollow is to not let yourself start thinking about the complexity of its creation. Honestly, I find that a struggle, having played the first two chapters through so differently, and realising just how much Episode 3 has to juggle. In one version of reality, old man Duke is dead, in another, alive. In one save I’ve got two kids still trapped in a collapsed mine, in the other, they all got out, but one girl suffered terribly. And that’s just the biggest events, alongside the many interpersonal relationships, and other choices I’ve made along the way. Plus those personality traits from the very start, different in each of my saves, that affect so much of what you see and say.
So when I bump into Duke’s adult son in the teashop, he’s on his own, asking where his dad’s body might be, leaving me with the dilemma of whether to tell him the location and thus risk his own life. Except in the other universe I’ve created, his dad’s with him, and they’re talking to me about problems with their neighbour. And if I let myself start thinking about this too much, I find I get some sort of empathy-crisis, the whole thought of constructing it all feeling too overwhelming!
Clearly all the main beats are the same – you will go to someone’s house, you will go on a ghost hunt – but it’s quite remarkable how differently these events can be experienced. Fortunately, as the plot started racing forward, I was absorbed back into it, and spent far less of my time split-headed over the alternative possibilities.
All of this means it’s a game that begs to be replayed. I yet again found it impossible to imagine how Chapter 3 might play out if I didn’t have the Talks To Animals trait, despite replaying the first two just to find out. And of course, by having picked that, I was missing out on the plot consequences of so many other approaches. But then, argh, which is my One True Experience?!
The art remains as fantastic as before, vast numbers of elaborately detailed hand-drawn scenes, this time embellished by some genuinely unsettling mixed-media shenanigans. And a shout must go out to the aural approach, with some guttural moans and wails that were quite the thing. But as ever, the writing shines above it all. There is so much going on here, so many unspoken stories, personality conflicts, kept secrets, lifelong feuds. All is held in such delicate tension, and any feels like it could break at any moment. How hard you poke at any aspect of it is up to you.
This is the third of a planned seven chapters, each portraying one day of your time in the Hollow, so we’re not even halfway yet. The fourth chapter is aiming to come out by the end of this year, so we’re also in this for the long haul. And I’m delighted about that. I’m so pleased that Scarlet Hollow has maintained every aspect that made it my favourite game last year, and can’t wait to play it through again.