A survival horror inspired by manga artist Junji Ito, and made in MS Paint by a Polish dentist, is the scariest new video game this Halloween.
There are a lot of horror games due out next year and beyond and we’re glad to see it, because we love the genre, but we’ve been here before. This is not the first time multiple publishers have taken a chance on big budget horror titles and yet every time there’s been a ‘horror game renaissance’ they’ve all failed miserably in terms of sales and ensured we don’t see any more for another decade, until the cycle repeats again.
The problem is that not enough people like getting scared, over the course of a 15+ hour video game, to want to pay full price for the privilege. In cinema, the smaller audience doesn’t matter because horror films are usually very cheap to make, and thereby highly profitable, but for video games the equivalent of saving money by not having any stars or expensive sets, is to have low-tech graphics.
That’s obviously not going to happen with anything from a major publisher, and so it is left to indie games to use low-tech graphics to their advantage. You don’t get much lower tech than Microsoft Paint but if you’re a Polish dentist making a game on your own, in your spare time, your options are going to be limited. Paweł Kozmiński clearly knows how to work with what he’s got though, as World Of Horror is truly horrible in all the best ways.
If you’re not familiar with the work of Junji Ito, he’s been making horror-themed manga for decades, with World Of Horror taking particular inspiration from his most famous work, the three-volume manga Uzumaki (meaning Spiral). He was going to work on the reboot of Silent Hill with Hideo Kojima, and there are rumours the two may pair up again for a new title, but apart from a cameo in Death Stranding he’s never personally been involved in any video game. (We think, there was a Uzumaki game on the WonderSwan but we’re not sure if he had anything to do with it directly.)
If none of this means anything to you then don’t worry, because World Of Horror also leans heavily on Lovecraftian tropes, as the Old Golds wake up to terrorise a Japan costal town in the 80s. We’ll get into the storytelling in a moment but for now you’re probably staring at the screenshots and trying to work out what kind of game this even is, but that’s not an easy question to answer.
The bones of the experience are a visual novel but this is a lot more interactive than such titles usually are, with elements of a role-playing game and more modern roguelites. Essentially, it’s whatever Kozmiński wants it to be at any given moment and that alone is hugely refreshing and perfectly illustrates the freedom that indie gaming brings to developers.
There’s a number of variables involved in how a playthrough of World Of Horror unfolds, including which character you play as, their background, and which Old God has taken up residence in the town’s lighthouse. The game then picks five random mysteries, out of a total of 24, that you have to solve, although most of them have multiple different endings.
Your chosen character has role-playing stats, and there are also spells and weapons to collect along the way, but despite these familiar elements the game is very hands-off in terms of the control you have over the protagonist. Everything is controlled via menus and multiple choice selections, even as you keep a careful eye on your stamina and reason (aka sanity) levels, as well as the doom level of the town, which slowly, and sometimes not so slowly, creeps up to 100%.
There’s no action gameplay but there is turn-based combat and while there are plenty of options, in terms of the weapons and spells you use, and quite a bit of strategy involved, there’s also a significant random element determining the likelihood of your success.
This goes for everything in the game and while it’s clearly very purposeful, there’s no denying it can be frustrating when it ruins a run during the first mystery, because the doom rating goes up too much or you become encumbered by injuries or difficult-to-remove curses.
Although dispelling spirits involves what is essentially a ghostly version of Wordle, as you have to work out the exact sequence of ritual movements needed and are only told how many you got right last time (although not which ones, so it’s actually harder than Wordle).
Most of the mysteries fit a certain template, in terms of visiting an area, searching (automatically) for clues, and figuring out what items and allies you need to proceed, but others are more unpredictable, such as the one where you’re trapped in your house the entire time. You can also unlock new spells, characters, and items between runs and that combined with the pre-game setup means no mystery ever plays out exactly the same.
The graphics in World Of Horror are almost as low tech as you can get: entirely monochrome and created in Microsoft Paint, so as to be reminiscent of old 80s Mac games. Return Of The Obra Dinn had similar inspirations, although it managed to extrude them out into 3D; the only additional option in World Of Horror is adding a few extra colours and extra shading, although we feel the original black and white is the most evocative.
Visually, the game is remarkably detailed and well animated for something created in such a primitive app, and by only one person, with the sheer oddness of the graphics working in perfect synch with the tone of the game, as you never know what’s going to happen next in terms of visuals, narrative, or even gameplay.
The question of whether it’s scary or not impossible to answer definitively, for obvious reasons, but while there are only a few moments that will have you actively recoiling from the screen, there’s a pervading sense of unease and uncertainty that evokes a sense of cosmic horror that movies and games often struggle with.
Of course, the other benefit of indie gaming is that it’s considerably cheaper than AAA games, so if you’re looking at the screenshots and videos and trying to work out whether this is for your or not, just remember you’re not going to need to remortgage your house to give it a try. If you are brave enough though, you’ll find that World Of Horror is one of the most imaginative, unpredictable, and deeply unnerving games of the year.
World Of Horror PS4 review summary
In Short: A fascinatingly bizarre indie thriller that mixes multiple gameplay elements and narrative influences to create a disquieting but consistently compelling descent into cosmic horror.
Pros: The whole structure and concept is engagingly strange and unpredictable, and at times genuinely horrific. Lots of replayability and the visuals and sound design fit the game perfectly.
Cons: Although no run is ever quite the same there’s only 24 mysteries in total and some of them are quite similar to each other. A lot of randomised elements, that can seem unfair.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Ysbryd Games
Release Date: 26th October 2023
Age Rating: 16
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