Release date: September 28, 2020 (Episode 1)
Developer: Black Tabby Games
Publisher: Black Tabby Games
Music: Brandon Boone
Platforms: PC (Windows, Mac, and Linux)
Genres: Visual novel, horror, mystery, adventure
Modes: Single player
Categories: Mysterious and Spooky, Tragic and Heavy, Dark Creatures
Content warning: “Scarlet Hollow is a horror game, and it is not intended for all audiences. Please visit our website (https://www.blacktabbygames.com/content-warnings) if you need a full list of content warnings” .
Stunning illustrations paired with superb writing make Scarlet Hollow a must-play for horror fans, comic book collectors, and just about anyone who loves a spooky, well-told story.
Scarlet Hollow is a visual novel in seven installments, three of which are playable at the time of writing (Episode 1 as of September 28th, 2020; Episode 2 as of June 11th, 2021; and Episode 3 as of March 7th, 2022), with Episode 4’s release scheduled for November 22nd, 2022. The story begins with your character making the journey to Scarlet Hollow, the home of your estranged extended family, to attend your aunt’s funeral. Your arrival coincides with several ominous events—sightings of strange creatures in the woods, a gruesome sickness plaguing the local wildlife, a bloody apparition haunting a child’s bedroom, and more—and somehow, you’ve found yourself at the center of it all. You have a week before the funeral takes place, and you’re determined to unravel the mysteries at the heart of Scarlet Hollow’s suddenly nightmarish circumstances. The judgments you make, the relationships you develop, and the way your character interacts with the world around them all have the potential to produce life-or-death consequences in this “heavily branching narrative where your decisions (actually) matter” .
The game’s commitment to making every choice count begins with trait selection—depending on which two (of seven) attributes you assign to your character, different paths and dialogue options will become available as the story progresses. For example, having a “powerful build” might allow you to bypass a physical obstacle, being “street smart” might help you discern when someone is lying to you, and possessing a “keen eye” might improve your ability to discover an important clue. Every combination has unique advantages and creates a more personalized experience for the player.
If Scarlet Hollow’s art—charming cartoon sprites on intricate, noirish backdrops—reminds you of the style in which many graphic novels are illustrated, that’s probably because Abby Howard, one-half of the game’s development team, is also an Ignatz Award-winning cartoonist who has published titles such as The Last Halloween and The Crossroads at Midnight . Her prowess is particularly evident in the “hundreds of meticulously hand-drawn and traditionally inked backgrounds”  that give Scarlet Hollow depth and breadth extending beyond what’s typical for the visual novel genre. Instead of utilizing a limited rotation of sets, most of Scarlet Hollow’s scenes take you to entirely new places that bear little visual resemblance to the ones that came before, sacrificing neither quality nor quantity in Black Tabby’s endeavor to deliver an immersive, dynamic story.
Scarlet Hollow’s writing (by both Abby Howard and Tony Howard-Arias, the other half of the Black Tabby duo) is also of an unusually high caliber—it’s succinct but vivid, successfully building a compelling, picturesque narrative without forcing the player to read through walls of text. The dialogue, too, is very skillfully done, with each interaction giving the impression of genuine conversation with a thoughtfully created character. Even if you’re someone who rarely makes time for multiple playthroughs of a single game, you might find yourself starting extra Scarlet Hollow save files just to see how the story unfolds if you cultivate different relationships or explore alternative routes.
Black Tabby Games describes Scarlet Hollow as “an excellent entry-point to horror”  due to its lack of jump scares/disturbing animation. Additionally, there’s ample comic relief to balance the more distressing moments, and rather than feeling like forced palate cleansers, the jokes and banter all fit naturally into the dialogue and narration. Seldom do games find such a successful balance between horror and humor, with each aspect complementing and never detracting from the other. There are plenty of macabre illustrations, unpleasant themes, and devastating events woven throughout the storyline, but the moments of playfulness and warmth are equally important contributors to Scarlet Hollow’s identity.
Scarlet Hollow is an utterly unique game that possesses all the ingredients necessary to be acclaimed by a diverse audience of players. With Episode 4’s release on the horizon, it’s the perfect time to pick up this strange, scary, and delightful story (if you haven’t already).
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