Scarlet Hollow is giving me everything I need right now, a crumbling Gothic mansion full of secrets, strange things hunting in the woods, an abandoned mine, and a pug called Gretchen. The visual novel is a horror treat from comic artist Abby Howard, and episode 2 was just released in June. If you have any predilection at all for scary stories you should download the first episode - which is free - today.
You play as Stella, traveling to a small Appalachian town for your estranged aunt's funeral, and staying with her daughter Tabitha who is icy to the point of hypothermia. From the very first dialogue options, there's that feeling of foreboding that comes with the absolute certainty that there's a bigger, darker picture that you just can't see yet. Locals refer to strange events, but won't share more with a stranger. Tabitha seems conflicted over your arrival, but you know little of what happened between your respective mothers that could have caused it. Oh, and a possum lives in your underwear drawer.
You drive the action through your choices and conversations, and unlike with some visual novels, they feel impactful. Partly that's because the game connects you with characters, like cryptid hunter Lucy, surly cousin Tabitha, so quickly with its great writing that it matters to you what you say to them. You can even romance one of five locals if the whole 'woods filled with sickly, tumorous animals' thing doesn't kill the mood. My choices led me to a hunt for a mysterious creature in the woods that had a tragic end - but also meant I got to hang out with a pug, every cloud and all that - lead a rescue into a mine, having a library hang out with new friends and flirting in the local diner.
One of the twists the game put on the usual visual novel mechanic was the chance to choose two traits for Stella. I went with Book Smart, because I am, and Talk to Animals, because who doesn't want that option in every single game they've ever played? These two choices unlock different options in conversations and scenarios in the game, I might be able to ask better questions about local lore because of my history of reading, or I can have a bitchy chat with Tabitha's house cat and try to learn more about the house. Other traits include Mystical and Street Smart, and I'm already curious what a second playthrough with different skills might look like.
Even if the story was being illustrated with stick figures it would be intriguing, but the art of Abby Howard makes every step of the journey into the darkness something to stop and gawk at. The hand-drawn, detailed illustrations capture everything in a sepia-toned monochrome, from wary expressions of people you meet to the cluttered halls of your aunt's strange home, to the grotesque expression of a panicked deer, its face distorted with growths. Howard is an award-winning graphic novelist whose work includes the horror comics collection The Crossroads At Midnight and the dark delight The Last Halloween, and her style and stories make the perfect partner for the visual novel style.
The story has echoes of Shirley Jackson, with the snappy dialogue of a Netflix hit, and the art style holds it all together like a beautiful spiderweb spun with digital ink. As with any good horror story, there is a sting in the tale. Scarlet Hollow's episodic nature means we might not get to the end of the story until 2023, but it's going to be one hell of a wild ride along the way.
Scarlet Hollow's first two episodes are out now on PC. You can download the first episode for free.