Demo Review: Scarlet Hollow

It wouldn’t be October without some horror games, and Scarlet Hollow is a good choice to get the season off to the right start. Currently seeking funds through Kickstarter, Scarlet Hollow is an upcoming episodic horror visual novel with the first episode currently available for free.

The story begins with you on your way to the small town of Scarlet Hollow, located in the mountains of Appalachia, to attend the funeral of your aunt, despite your shaky relationship with the family due to your mother leaving town. Aside from these basic details, you choose your character’s name and gender, as well as two personality traits that open up new dialogue options. While my two chosen traits occasionally both showed up as options, there were several times when only one or the other appeared and allowed me to add new insight. Since Scarlet Hollow is a choice-driven visual novel, these traits should add a fair amount of variety to the final game.

There are a lot of dialogue options available, too. Some are standard choices where you pick one response in order to proceed, but others marked with the “Explore” option let you pick multiple responses before moving on. Choosing everything isn’t necessarily wise, however, since dialogue choices can block other options and influence how characters view you. Although there is no romance in episode 1, the full story will include romance options with five of the game’s characters.

The low use of color in the art surprised me at first, but it actually works in the visual visual novel’s favor to help build up its atmosphere. The hand-drawn backgrounds perfectly evoke the creepy setting, the character sprites fit naturally with the backgrounds while still being expressive, and occasional animations bring key moments to life. The soundtrack also serves to enhance the atmosphere.

Your cousin is less than pleased to see you, but once she leaves you to your own devices, you wind up in town, where you meet a girl named Stella. You soon learn that Stella runs a YouTube channel where she hunts for cryptids in the area, and soon you find yourself in the forest searching for a mysterious creature she swears is out there. Although it has a lighthearted tone at times, things quickly begin to get more unsettling. While I won’t spoil what happens out there in the forest, the events of episode 1 left me eager to see where its story goes next.

Even though it’s only a small slice of the final game, episode 1 serves to properly introduce the mechanics of Scarlet Hollow, as well as the start of its story and cast. There are a few different things at play here—your own family history and complex relationship with the town, the more supernatural elements introduced near the end of the episode, and the townspeople themselves—so it should be interesting to see how they all come together.

I’m especially interested in seeing how the trait system affects the story. As I mentioned earlier, you can pick two traits for your playthrough, out of six available choices. For the most part, these only open up new dialogue options—and you get quite a variety of options for most choices, which is always good to see in a choice-driven game—but there were a few moments when the choices came into play in other ways.

My “Keen Eye” trait, which makes the protagonist more perceptive, brought up an extra prompt in addition to the regular choices. At first this seemed like just a way to get a little extra background knowledge, but later on it happened again, with the new scene showing additional story information that made me even more intrigued by the growing mystery. Considering the effect your choices are supposed to have in the final game, this trait system has the potential to add even more variability to the story’s routes than from regular dialogue choices alone.

I finished the first episode of Scarlet Hollow intrigued by its mystery and looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.

You can download episode 1 for free from Steam or itch.io and check out the Kickstarter campaign for the full visual novel here.