Video games in the psychological horror genre genre often blend together the mundane cities and buildings of urban life with the disturbed mindscapes of the game’s protagonist, and Claire: Extended Cut fits right into that mold with its focus on Claire and the strain her life taking care of her ill mother alone has had on her.
Beginning during a hospital visit, things quickly devolve into a horrific perversion of the real world, dark creatures appearing about the building and flesh growing to cover the walls. Claire’s immediate concern is her mother in this strange twist of reality, but her own safety becomes just as important as the layout of the building begins to pull on her memories and history to explore how her life has taken its emotional toll on her. You may begin in the hospital, but Claire will find herself blinking back into moments from her past, turning into a child or teenager as she relives corrupted versions of previous visits to the hospital and other locations that colored the path her life went down. Some are oddly untouched by the dark taint while others are almost unrecognizable for how far they’ve plunged into surreal horror, but all these locations and glimpses at the past hint at the real underlying issues Claire has that were inspired not by monsters and grotesque sights, but the mundane tragedies reality throws at people unjustly. It is a shame that the horror elements of the game do not quite tie into what is unveiled about Claire and her family life. The monsters roaming the halls and aiming to hurt Claire are mostly shadowy creatures with white rings on their faces, coming in a few different forms but mostly representing a generic threat to Claire with no clear analog to something from her past. You do encounter a second enemy type that has some meaning but is much more docile and is essentially moving set decor, but even the fleshy corruptions of environments just seem to be done to add an easy layer of horror to the exploration of the past. The pixel art is fairly good at making some less unusual environments look grungy and off-kilter and there are frequent visual distortions like static to make the player uneasy and not trust all that they’re seeing, but while the gore is competently illustrated, it doesn’t quite connect with the plot as cleanly as it should. It’s more a missed opportunity than anything that hurts the experience, but elements like flipping back into your childhood self do an excellent job of tying the mental state of Claire with the gameplay and world, especially since she’s less capable as a kid and you can feel some of that vulnerability as you must find your way forward in a weaker state. Areas often contain optional observable items unimportant to the plot that Claire can look at to better flesh out her past as well, with simple observations about things like her desires or school life creating a more complete profile of who the player is following in this dark narrative.
Claire: Extended Cut is definitely angling for its story and atmosphere as its hook rather than its gameplay, but it’s got a few elements that make it still feel like a video game rather than an interactive narrative. Claire has to worry about her health as she explores, monsters able to damage her if she lingers and Claire not really having any way to strike back against them. She can, however, run right past most of them, their attacks a bit too slow to connect so long as you keep a quick pace. This leads to an odd balance where you aren’t able to deal with the threats to your health but they are hardly much to worry about either, essentially adding a layer of danger to the environment as part of narrative building rather than as a challenge for the player. There is one thing that can still hurt you regardless of your swiftness though, that being Claire’s panic levels. While her in-game sprite won’t show it, being around dangerous monsters or in areas with a lot of upsetting imagery like flesh-covered walls or a dark and dingy area will begin to make her take damage, unless you pick the Story focused difficulty where this mechanic is removed entirely. The panic does add a layer of peril to the affair though, as now just being in certain areas will lead to a gradual health drain so long as Claire is horrified by what’s around her. This tie of sanity to stamina has potential, but one thing holding it back is the game trying to hide most of its information in a pause screen so that the visuals are mostly free of clutter. To know if Claire is horrified, you quite often need to rely on opening your menu to check her panic levels, and since your health is also kept there, it can be hard to determine when you’re close to death. There are subtle visuals cues outside the menu, like the edges of the screen growing black and closing in, but there are plenty of naturally dark environments for it to blend in with that even your flashlight or lighter won’t illuminate enough to distinguish panic from set dressing. There are plenty of pick-ups along the way like food and drink that you can use to regain health or reduce Claire’s panic level, but being scared to death can sneak up on you if you don’t check your menu often. You are accompanied by a dog that will growl when you’re in a room with monsters, and since those are often the ones most likely to upset Claire, you can prepare or even just go back and rest for a bit, as sometimes the easiest way to come down from being terrified is leaving Claire somewhere safe and watching the sanity meter grow gradually calmer.
Checking menus also comes up as an issue when it comes to moving about the corrupted locations of Claire: Extended Cut. The game is presented from a side view, with Claire able to walk to the right and the left and sometimes jump if needed, but the doors she can enter can be in the background, foreground, or to her right and left. Entering a door leads to a quite often disorienting change in perspective as the game tries to keep its visual style consistent, so even if you round a corner technically, it will look like one long horizontal hallway just connected into another horizontal hallway. Popping open the map often feels important for keeping your bearings, especially when passing through foreground or background doors as their directions can become a mirror of the directions from the previous hallway. You are moving around huge environments with many turns and blocked areas during your adventure, and it can be hard to find where you need to go as you must work with the map constantly to keep your bearings. A lot of the progress is tied to just getting to the right area as well, so this only further necessitates repeated consultation of the map, and since some areas are similar in design visually, that map can even be important for distinguishing one hallway or small room from another.
Along your sometimes disorienting journey, you do come across some special activities. Claire: Extended Cut contains a few puzzles to solve, but most of them are not related to progress but instead to an optional butterfly collectible. It’s a shame too, because the game does have a few decent ones, such as the chess riddle where they need to be placed according to descriptions of concepts and roles associated with the pieces. There is a more relevant side activity that will help determine which ending you get though, and that is how you treat strange individuals you come across on your journey. Very few of them seem concerned about the weird world they’re in, instead focused on some worldly task they would like your help completing. Most of these are as simple as finding the right item for them, so it’s not too hard to divert your course to assist them, even with the odd layout issues. Claire: Extended Cut actually handles its alternate ending requirements and results very well. While the “true” ending is clearly a joke and one that you will not encounter through typical play, the two endings most likely to be experienced serve as satisfying wrap ups with different tones but manage to both fulfill their purpose of bringing the story elements together into a definitive ending with reasonable precedent found in the earlier moments of the plot. There are negative and positive outcomes based on how you behave before the ending, but most of them seem to connect to an underlying idea about the situation and form a pretty reasonable conclusion to the game.
THE VERDICT: Claire: Extended Cut is first and foremost an exploration of Claire herself, the trauma of her past manifesting in the game world with an interesting if not always relevant hellish design. Multiple endings and easy ways to influence them gives the incentive to more deeply explore the twisted locations you find yourself in, unlocking more of the narrative in the process to make the ending you do earn more meaningful. The gameplay side lets the game down a bit though, and while the low level of danger from enemies can be excused for a greater focus on atmosphere and plot, the from-the-side view isn’t completely compatible with the actual layout of locations, making it disorienting to get from place to place. Your character’s panic levels impacting health is also not implemented the best due to it being mostly hidden in a menu and is overcome too often with the dull activity of waiting in place for it to level out. Claire: Extended Cut does well when it focuses on the character-driven narrative, but its game elements have a few flaws that obstruct the player from exploring it.
And so, I give Claire: Extended Cut for the Playstation Vita…
An OKAY rating. Claire: Extended Cut constructs a successful narrative for psychological horror, but it’s covered up some by the issues in game design. It’s not terrible to push through them to continue learning about the protagonist and find out just what set her family down such a dark road, but managing your sanity and your navigation leads to a disconnect from the game world. Instead of putting the sanity meter or a mini-map on the screen, you instead must pop open a game menu over and over, which breaks immersion more than a simple meter or navigational aid on screen. Once you learn to accommodate these flaws, there is still a story worth pursuing, one that can be both influenced and interpreted while still having solid and clear conclusions.
Claire: Extended Cut is not the most effective psychological horror game due to its gameplay keeping the player away from the narrative rather than complementing it, but it can still provide a quick and interesting journey into the twisted mindscape of a young broken woman.