There are two kinds of horror: the ones where the heroes defeat the evil and get out alive and the ones where they don't. Arguably, the most satisfying from a horror standpoint are the latter. Doesn't true terror come from a place that feels claustrophobic and narrow, a place from which you can't escape?
In World of Horror, a game developed by Polish developer Pawel "Panstasz" Kozminski and published by Ysbryd Games currently in early access, revels in creating scenarios where living at the end is close to impossible. It's heavily inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Junji Ito, among other sources like classic Japanese mythology. It wraps it all in a retro, choose-your-own-adventure-style, HyperCard-influenced package. You choose between a few characters and have to face against elder Gods and other powerful beings in several scenarios. You'll face disturbing, uncanny, sometimes gory images that'll stick around behind your eyes when you close them and battles that you can't win and will still be wondering about after you shut the game down.
The best part? No matter which story you end up in, you'll face a challenge, and you'll most likely die. No, really — that's the fun of it.
The terror is in the strategy
World of Horror is a tough roguelike. You have to use your wits, but also your strategic mind, to get through each of the scenarios and solve the mysteries before it's too late. It's similar to testing your hypothetical survivability in a horror movie. Will you be the first to die, or will you be the "Final Girl?"
Once you figure out what the game wants you to do, it tends to fall somewhere in the middle. A normal campaign (there are a few different ways to play, including a tutorial mode that gives you one scenario so you can get a feel of the game) involves your character having to solve five mysteries to stop the rise of a random cosmic Old God. As you solve the mysteries and go through different scenarios, the Eldritch terror gets stronger, putting limits on how you play. In the meantime, you have to just get through the game without dying, which will happen often. Then you restart a campaign and play through it again, albeit with small tweaks like the mysteries presented and the character you play.
A typical scenario involves you exploring a locale and running into several strange encounters. Sometimes it's more benign, like when you have to go up against a stubborn receptionist at your school to gain access to critical information. In others, it's a matter of life or death where you have to battle a creature, which, in most cases, involves running away. At the end of each mystery, you have to face a final boss. What that means depends on the story you're working through.
For example, in the first mystery, called Spine-Chilling Story of School Scissors, you have to solve the mystery of a boy's disappearance at your school, and it ends with you coming face to face with Kuchisake-onna, a.k.a. The Slit-Mouthed Woman. On the way, you have to find tools to engage in a ritual to get rid of her, but often come up against other creatures that stifle your progress. It's easy to die before even facing Kuchisake-onna since you might not find a proper weapon.
There are other elements to consider, as well. There are four categories of moves to select during combat: offensive, defensive, support, and spiritual. Besides just attacking or blocking, you can prepare your attacks, dodge, use one of your allies to distract the enemy, look for a weapon, or perform a ritual. Beyond just moves, you have a bar that you need to fill up to complete a turn. Certain actions cost a certain amount of points that fill up the bar, so you're limited each turn. This makes combat challenging as you figure out the correct sequence of events to make it out of an encounter alive. It's worth it in plenty of cases to just run away, but sometimes you have to defeat an enemy with brute force. With others, you might unlock a unique move that can change the ending you get.
This ensures that you won't skate to the end of each mystery without a scratch, but it also works to change up the gameplay. Players can try different combinations of moves or ways to interact with an encounter so that playing missions over again feels different every time. It also helps to get towards multiple endings (most of the mysteries have at least two). This obviously re-ups the replay value, but it helps push players towards experiencing a greater breadth of what World of Horror has to offer. It's a lot.
The horror at the heart of World of Horror
For some people, the works of Ito and Lovecraft aren't satisfactory because they don't create worlds that are clean, nor do they like endings that are neat. Uzumaki, which was the first Ito comic I ever read, doesn't end with the main character or the village at the story's center overcoming the curse of the spiral. It's a lesson that World of Horror puts at its core. Your character needs to work to stop the Old God from rising and bringing about the end of the world but likely won't succeed. This creates a claustrophobic environment that feels stifling and hopeless but also pushes you to try again and again.
While the creator of World of Horror isn't Japanese, the influences are apparent. Panstasz knows the proper artworks and myths to pull from, creating an amalgamation of the spookiest imagery. There's stuff in here that's reminiscent of authors like Kazuo Umezu (specifically The Drifting Classroom) and other J-Horror classics like the Ju-on (Grudge, for American audiences) franchise. There's the aforementioned Kuchisake-onna, and even Akai-Kami-Aoi-Kami, a.k.a. the Red Paper Blue Paper toilet ghost. Despite the latter being one of the more laughable ghosts in Japanese folklore by modern standards, the game still manages to make them horrifying with uncanny artwork. Despite the limited technical aspects of making a retro-styled game, the creatures are still well-detailed. Even just coming across a normal person with large, bulging eyes or slightly off-kilter teeth can be terrifying.
There are some more obvious horror attributes on display here; a couple of jumpscares pop up while unnerving 16-bit-esque music continually runs in the background. There's not a lot of subtlety in how it portrays terror. It is constant and in a myriad of horrid forms. However, at its heart, World of Horror is dedicated to a specific type and sticks with it. The stakes are high, as you have to escape. Even when you understand that it's nearly impossible to get out alive, the tension continues to rise. Even if you know you can't win, you want to keep trying.
World of Horror will hit the right boxes for a lot of people, especially J-Horror fans. The references are plentiful, but it hits all the right notes. It understands that what makes these works so impactful is the hopelessness inherent in fighting an Old God or some other cosmic horror. You can't precisely win, but you can certainly try. Because this is a game with a theoretical end, there is room for success, but that lingering feeling in the back of your mind about what going up against cosmic horror means adds to the tension you feel while playing.
Put simply, this is a game that knows what it's doing when it comes to creating the horror in the title. It has issues in other areas. Since it's in early access, you'll run into some bugs or instances where a basic feature might assist you. There are also story bits that don't exactly line up or are clearly missing. However, since the game is a work in progress, you can see where the team is working on it. For example, the first day I played, I wished there was a save feature and, lo' and behold, the next day it arrived in an update. The team working on the game, which includes people from publisher Ysbryd Games, is also being transparent about all the bugs they're working on if you just hop over to the Steam discussion board.
Despite technical issues and this feeling that I'll never be able to beat the game no matter how hard I try, I'm excited to see this game hit a full release. At the very least, players will get more mysteries to solve, more endings to find, and more scenarios to just get lost in.
World of Horror is currently available to buy on Steam and Itch.io. It's set to hit PC, PlayStation 4, and the Nintendo Switch sometime in 2020.
For horror fans
There's no escape
Do you like not being able to escape a cosmic horror? Do you like Junji Ito and imagery that haunts your nightmares? World of Horror might be worth your time.
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