Scarlet Hollow is about friendship, mystery and finding someone hanging by their intestines from a lamppost.
Admittedly, I made that last one up but that’s only to disguise the actual details of Episode 1’s gruesome death. Scarlet Hollow‘s art style is so gorgeous, so reminiscent of some wholesome webcomic or Dream Daddy-style dating game (even though the artist has created several horror comics) that it lures you into a false sense of security.
So, when it came to replaying this narrative adventure/visual novel, I felt sure that choosing a different path would result in nothing more than a stern telling-off. And I was stunned to discover that the aforementioned demise was the direct result of my own inaction. You can reasonably expect the core characters, a pleasingly well-written lot, to be safe but, even two episodes into this Early Access game, I felt very nervous about this small town’s fate.
More Stranger Things than Twin Peaks, Scarlet Hollow kicks off with you arriving at the titular town. You’re there for the funeral of your late aunt, and the weirdness kicks in almost immediately. Your aunt’s – now your cousin’s – mansion is the kind of crumbling, ancestral property you’d expect to see Vincent Prince lording over. Having to deal with cockroaches in the bathroom is a little much but Scarlet Hollow doesn’t want you to get too comfortable.
In fact, the horror kicks in fairly soon, halfway through the first of the two available episodes. I won’t spoil things but the game doesn’t ask you to pick two “traits” just for fun. This is no JRPG but the twisted genius of Scarlet Hollow is that replaying the game with different traits will, in some cases, amplify the horror. You can also choose your gender from male, female and non-binary, none of which affect the game’s romance options (which are set to solidify in later episodes).
Romance aside, friendship is a huge factor in Scarlet Hollow and the relationships between your characters feel wholly natural, at least for a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Even when the characters are dragging you along on an adventure, despite your protestations, they’re an appealing lot and the dialogue’s never stilted. Even your Fall of the House of Usher-style cousin seems like she just needs a hug.
But, despite a welcome helping of humour, Scarlet Hollow never lets you forget that trouble is brewing. Right from your first supernatural encounter in Episode 1, there’s a background gloom, even when you’re joking with your new friends. It’s not absolutely perfect; you’ll never begrudge your digital friends but, without zombies snapping at your heels á la The Walking Dead, it’s more obvious when Scarlet Hollow is pushing you into the story.
You can also finish these two short episodes in about an hour and a half but the traits and alternate dialogue choices make it worth replaying, as does the soundtrack which blends unsettling piano tracks with short bursts of John Carpenter-style synth songs. I played through it twice, just because I felt bad about being terrible to my cousin. And though you can’t jump ship from the main story, your choices do matter; the aforementioned gruesome death was something I didn’t encounter on my first playthrough.
Scarlet Hollow’s tale succeeded in reeling me in to the point where I’m internally grumbling about having to wait the end of this year or later to get another episode. Still, its creators describe it as a labour of love (which shines through in the game) so it’d be a real loss for this engrossing supernatural outing to become anything but that.