Survival Horror has been making a comeback these past few years. With terrifying games like Outlast, Alien: Isolation and the unexpectedly brilliant Resident Evil 7, horror fans can rejoice once more with the largest selection of fright-inducing video games since the late nineties. However, with the increasing influx of interactive horror media, a few hugely influential franchises have unfortunately been forgotten. One of my personal favorite game series, Clock Tower, is sadly among them.
Clock Tower began as a 1995 Japan-exclusive Super Famicon cartridge, which was later ported to the PC and PlayStation. This innovative game was similar to classic point and click adventure titles, but with a horrific twist. As you progressed through the levels, collecting items and solving puzzles, you’d be chased around by a terrifying murderer wielding a giant pair of scissors (not unlike Cropsy and his garden shears from the 1981 slasher film The Burning).
With no real combat system to speak of, the player would be forced to flee from the iconic Scissorman, resulting in some of the most intense chase sequences in video game history. Naturally, the game was successful, resulting in a number of sequels, mostly for the PlayStation. The first of these sequels, also called Clock Tower, is fondly remembered as a gaming classic and considered by some to be the best game in the series, with a clever branching story and fear-inducing gameplay.
The next sequel, Clock Tower II: The Struggle Within initially seemed like more of the same, and was heavily criticized for not updating the archaic controls and interface, not to mention the disconnected plot. The game had its moments, with the same intense chases and brain-melting puzzles, but it’s still widely regarded as the worst in the series.
That brings us to what might very well be the strangest and possibly most creative game in this already peculiar franchise, 2002’s Clock Tower 3. Directed by the renowned Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, of Battle Royale fame, this game is more of an original entity that borrows and adds to the Clock Tower formula rather than a proper sequel to the previous titles.
Set in modern day London, Clock Tower 3 follows the terrifying misadventures of Alyssa Hamilton, a fourteen-year-old girl who returns home from boarding school after receiving an alarming letter from her mother. From there, the story sprouts into nearly incomprehensible madness as Alyssa gets involved with serial-killer-possessing spirits, time-travel, and piano-playing ghosts, all the while searching for her mysterious mother and grandfather.
Breaking Clock Tower tradition, the gameplay here is more reminiscent of traditional survival horror titles like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, with suspenseful fixed camera positions and 3D controls and no trace of the original point and click interface. Although the game still lacks a traditional combat system (for the most part), enemy encounters are frequent, forcing you to find unconventional hiding places.
The meat of the game consists in time-travelling to certain periods of history to solve puzzles, allowing the spirits of murder victims to head into the afterlife. As this is going on, you’ll naturally be pursued by a varied selection of possessed serial killers depending on the time and place. Unlike previous games, however, Alyssa is equipped with limited amounts of holy water to stun her enemies long enough for her to make a break for it.
These memorable (if somewhat exaggerated) antagonists are easily the best part of the game. Most of them are actually based on real life murderers, adding a supernatural twist that makes them even more menacing. The chase sequences here are honestly the best in the franchise, as the soundtrack and virtual camera placement make these scenes legitimately thrilling. This quintessential slasher movie experience of hiding in a closet or under a bed and helplessly observing as a masked maniac stalks you through the night is downright exhilarating. It’s really no surprise that so many modern games have borrowed this terrifying formula.
Clock Tower 3 is undoubtedly full of frights and clever design choices, but it’s still far from perfect. Hell, despite loving the hell out of this game, I’m not sure if I can even say that it’s “good”. I can get past the repetitive gameplay and occasional quirks, but then, there are several moments of mood-shattering absurdity that come close to breaking the game.
Once you’ve finished a level, Alyssa will be forced to confront these serial killers in one of the most bizarre examples of a boss fight in gaming history, as she undergoes a Sailor-Moon-esque transformation sequence and equips an ancient bow that fires magical arrows. These boss fights may be intense, but they’re undeniably stupid and destroy the haunting atmosphere of the rest of the game. That being said, I particularly love how the enemy health bar in these sequences is determined by their number of victims and the length of their prison sentence.
Nevertheless, when Clock Tower 3 works, it’s amazing, and many of these concepts demand revisiting in future games. When it’s not falling prey to its own ridiculousness, the game actually does a great job at emulating the thrills and atmosphere of a good slasher movie, which is why I love it so much.
Sadly, this game also marked the end of the official Clock Tower series, and survival horror as a whole eventually fell out of favor as well. There were a few spiritual sequels after this (with a new one called Remothered: Tormented Fathers still in development), namely Haunting Ground (which is amazing) and Nightcry (which isn’t), but the Clock Tower franchise is basically dead at this point. This is a damned shame as modern horror games owe so much to these games, but they still aren’t as revered as some other horror series.
Either way, despite some insane moments, Clock Tower 3 has a special place in my heart. Even if there’s never another game in the series, I’m glad that I can still pop this one into my dusty old PlayStation 2 and remind myself of a bygone era of survival horror.