It was Halloween of 2020 when I first heard about a game called Scarlet Hollow.
At the time, it was still in the Kickstarter phase, but the first chapter had been released for free on Steam for everyone to play and experience which I appreciated. This way, people could decide for themselves if they wanted to back the project or not.
I made the decision to play the first chapter myself, and I was met with what was quite possibly one of the most incredible horror experiences I’ve ever had in a visual novel. I’ve even encouraged other people to play it, too.
Clearly, other people did the same as the Kickstarter was a success. The game was completely funded in one whole day and people who pledged helped to unlock a multitude of stretch goals for it.
With Scarlet Hollow currently in Early Access on Steam (as of this writing, at least), I felt as though I would be doing it a disservice if I didn’t give Scarlet Hollow the proper review I’ve been wanting to give it since I played through the first chapter.
And don’t worry. There are absolutely no spoilers here.
So strap in, all, and let’s talk about Scarlet Hollow.
What is Scarlet Hollow?
Simply, Scarlet Hollow is a horror visual novel and adventure game created by Black Tabby Games.
Imagine you’ve learned that your long-lost aunt has died and you’ve been invited to her funeral. Maybe it’s against your better judgment. Maybe it’s not. But either way, you find yourself on the bus to a dying Appalachian mining town called Scarlet Hollow for her funeral.
What awaits you there?
Will you date any of the residents?
And what’s up with those weird sounds in the woods?
Is the game accessible?
Yes! In fact, there’s an entire menu dedicated to accessibility features!
The developers want people to play it, after all, and they’ve made sure it’s possible with this menu alone.
Are you dyslexic and would it help you to read the text of the visual novel in a different font? Well, you have font options to choose from!
Do you need the text read out to you? You’ve got text-to-speech features built right in that are easily toggled on.
There are even sliders to adjust the spacing between characters and words in this menu, along with a few other features in the standard Options menu to adjust the speed of the text as it appears on your screen so it can be adjusted for your reading speed. That said, the text does typically remain on the screen until you click it to advance the storyline, but it’s still nice to know that this is a feature.
Unfortunately, though, I can’t vouch for how well or poorly these accessibility features have been implemented as they’re not features I personally need to play a game like this.
That said, it made me incredibly happy that the developers thought to include a menu like this at all. Some games overlook features like these, so the fact that these are here is pretty incredible to me.
Is there representation?
Scarlet Hollow’s got that!
Players are first met with representation the second you begin to customize your character. After naming them and deciding where they were from before coming to Scarlet Hollow, you can choose your character’s pronouns.
As you never see the player character, this doesn’t impact anything visually, but it absolutely impacts how the other characters address yours. And best of all, no one ever misgenders your character.
I will admit that as a genderqueer individual, it made my heart happy to see “they/them” as an option between “he/him” and “she/her.” At that moment, I honestly felt seen and I almost cried. I admit I don’t play a whole lot of visual novels, but I’ve only ever seen “they/them” as a pronoun option in one whole other visual novel in the past, so it made me incredibly happy.
But the representation does not stop there. Oh, no. It continues with the major NPCs and even background characters.
All the characters you meet in the course of playing the game are of varying ages, skin colors, and body types. Major NPCs seem to be no different. There are five NPCs you will eventually be able to meet and romance, all of whom are just as diverse as the background cast. One of them, whom you meet in Chapter One, is nonbinary.
From the information I’ve been able to find about this game, it doesn’t seem that any of the romance options are restricted by whatever gender you want your Player Character to be. However, romance doesn’t play a whole lot into the first chapter of the game, and as such, this isn’t something I can speak too much about at this time.
It’s still pretty impressive, though.
What’s the art like?
The art does not disappoint.
Before I played this game, I wasn’t familiar with the work of the artist, Abby Howard. When the game was still in the Kickstarter phase, the Kickstarter page provided helpful links to her comic work, so I made a point of reading her webcomic The Last Halloween before I played the game.
Now, I did this for one very important reason: visuals can make or break a game like this one. It is, after all, a visual novel, and art is a key component in something like this. The story can be great, but if what you’re looking at doesn’t match the overall tone, the experience can fall a bit flat. I had some screenshot samples, so I knew what we were going to get of the human cast was going to be good, but what about the spookier elements? I needed to know.
After reading the entirety of The Last Halloween, I determined that if the spookier elements were designed even remotely like the monsters in the webcomic, then I probably wouldn’t be disappointed.
I was right.
Some of the spookier elements are similar in feel to the familiar-to-me creatures from The Last Halloween, but it still felt like something completely new to me.
The colors were relatively muted, which adds to the overall tone in a beautiful way.
The art is clearly drawn with a lot of love, but best of all? I never once felt separated from the story itself, which is a complaint I’ve personally had with other visual novels in the past. Unlike those experiences, though, I was completely drawn into the world Scarlet Hollow presented me with.
Backgrounds move where appropriate. You can be in a car or a bus and see the background moving beyond the glass.
There was even a moment when we were finally in Scarlet Hollow and we can set foot in an overgrown garden. At the top of the game window, leafy branches wrapped around the border of the frame and blew in the virtual wind, and I felt as though I was peering into something I probably wasn’t meant to see.
At one point, my choices put my character on a path in the woods with Stella, the first person to really be friends with my character in Scarlet Hollow, and I grinned when I happened to notice her dog, Gretchen, poking into bushes nearby. Her dog’s position and actions would change as the dialogue advanced, and I realized Gretchen was just playing in the background.
These are, perhaps, little touches that might not seem important, but you’d definitely notice if they weren’t there.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but what’s the atmosphere like?
When it comes to a horror game, you have certain expectations for how the game should feel. You expect to feel unsettled or scared or even confused or concerned. And while you can get that with most traditional horror games, I still wasn’t entirely sure how this would work in a visual novel format.
The game developers nailed it.
The second the game begins, you’re on a bus being chattered at by a random passenger across the aisle from you which is honestly one of my worst nightmares.
The conversation starts off simply enough, but the dialogue turns into something so unsettling that you’re basically praying for the passenger to get off the bus and leave you alone. I was legitimately worried he’d follow me, but fortunately, he got off and so far, we have yet to see him again.
You might assume at this point that since this was only the game’s first chapter, things would be kept relatively tame from that point on.
You would absolutely be wrong.
The first chapter pulls precisely no punches and you will be unsettled almost the entire way through, whether it’s talking to your cousin or getting involved in the plot further down the line that your choices lead you to.
That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots in the first chapter as, well, there are. Meeting Stella and getting to know her over the course of this first installment is an incredibly notable highlight, but for the most part, the music, visuals, and text come together in such a way to keep you truly on edge the longer the first chapter goes on.
I promised no spoilers, but there are a couple of moments late into the first chapter where audio and visuals just come to a crescendo and legitimately terrified me. By the time my character was walking back to their cousin’s home late at night, I found myself scouring the woods on the way, praying nothing would jump out at my character to prevent them from getting to their destination.
And despite being scared and unsettled by the time the chapter wrapped up, I loved every single minute of it.
Overall, my experience with the first chapter of Scarlet Hollow was an enjoyable one. Yes, it was scary and unsettling, but it was all designed in such a way that I legitimately loved the experience.
By the time the end of the first chapter came, I wanted to know more about the town I was now in. I wanted to know more about some of the things I had seen and the people I was interacting with. To me, that’s the sign of a good game.
The game is currently available in Early Access on Steam, and you can bet I’ll be playing as new chapters are released.