I can show you the world
It’s 198X, and the once quiet seaside town of Shiokawa, Japan, has a serious fucking problem. “Am I beautiful,” a woman asks, “…aM I bEaUtIfUl?” She beams from ear to ear, revealing a grossly widened grin thanks to her crudely snipped open cheeks. Nobody is startled by this mangled visage, or that she’s still holding the sharp, bloody pair of scissors that did the job. To folks around here, this madness is an everyday occurrence. A thick, ethereal malevolence clings to the salty sea air, and no one exactly knows why. Welcome to the World Of Horror.
It’s been a hot minute since I’ve played a horror game with the level of creativity that World Of Horror has. The idea of an 80s throwback RPG, where celestial elder gods try to put a stop to a pesky teenager (you) attempting to save their beloved town, is well, a lot. Nevertheless, I was eager to dawn my detective cap, snap on some rubber gloves, and begin picking away at the innards of this sometimes messy, yet captivating game.
At the heart of every World Of Horror playthrough are the mysteries. They’re effectively questlines where the goal is to track down an eldritch baddie, throat punch it, and hopefully, save some townspeople in the process. My first spine-chilling outing required me to look for a missing friend. The only clue to their whereabouts was an old notebook, full of their rabid scribblings about being trapped at school, urging the reader to be careful of a ghostly woman with scissors. A particular ceremony outlined in the notebook was the only way to exorcise the ghost, and the supplies for it were, unfortunately, also at the school. With that in mind, I set off in search of my friend.
Mistakes were made
World Of Horror isn’t exactly what I’d call animated. Exploring is more or less just you hitting the big “investigate” button and watching a chibi version of your character bob up and down a static image before the narrator chimes in, giving a rundown of what’s up. Just like a dungeon master in D&D, and thankfully a damn good one. “A tall woman with an unsettling face and a twitching lip stops you,” the narrator claimed, “I’ll be youR new b-biology teacher… coUld you help me moOve stuff to my nEw office?” I could practically hear that quivering lip through the text. Something was off with this lady. Though, I tried to help her anyway, a big mistake. She passed me a rancid jar of formalin, making me gag. This event was a skill check, and unfortunately, I failed. My luck stat was too low to resolve this event without losing health.
The top-notch narration had the wheels of my imagination turning, further drawing me into the 1-bit art style. Again, there are no overt animations outside of a bit of background wobbling or a character’s profile sliding about, but it’s fitting. The (literal) drawn-in-Microsoft-paint graphics drive home the Junji Ito manga aesthetic for which World Of Horror is paying tribute. It’s a startlingly effective art style, despite the crude, retro nature. I recall rummaging through lockers in search of those ritual supplies, only to go wide-eyed when I opened one full of living sinew and teeth. It was if the locker was excitedly showing off its bloody, dripping, pumpkin-like innards. Horrific sights like this also lower your “reason” stat, a finite resource that you’ll need plenty of to keep your character’s sanity in check.
Later, I waded out to the centre of the school’s swimming pool to retrieve a backpack. Inside was the ritual supplies. Finally, I had them. Though that moment of relief didn’t last long. There was a slight disturbance in the pool, then suddenly, a massive, bloated husk of a former teacher broke the surface and lunged at me. It was time to put up my dukes.
Free stuff is the best stuff
Combat in World Of Horror is both exhilarating and a tad frustrating, especially on the higher difficulty levels. It’s a turn-based affair, where you fill up a white bar dubbed “combat sequence” with attacks, buffs, and healing actions before hitting the “launch sequence” button. Each action takes up a bit of the combat sequence bar, which can hold roughly three actions in total. I opened up on the teacher with a combo of kicks and a support action that looks for an improved weapon. The good news is, I found a makeshift weapon. The bad news is the bastard hit me during his turn, knocking off three stamina points. Stamina is the counterpart resource to reason, and both need to be maintained through rest and rejuvenation skills to survive. Fights are a thrilling white knuckle affair because you have to balance every combo if you want to succeed, and there’s plenty of moves to experiment with.
Unfortunately, that tension can also be quite frustrating. Initially, anyway. With so little room for error, navigating World Of Horror’s sea of awkward combat sub-menus to find the perfect combo can be a trial and error affair. There are four types of actions: offensive, defensive, support, and spiritual. Each action type has about four moves apiece, and the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining this. My initial bout with the teacher didn’t go so well, because I’d already failed a few random skill checks, depleting both my stamina and reason. So he killed me. When you die in this game, the campaign is over. Not a big deal, typically, I like hard games. However, World Of Horror doesn’t let you save mid-investigation, that’s only allowed once you’ve solved a mystery and have returned to the overworld. I have a hunch this is to prevent players from save-scumming, but it’s come at a cost. Mysteries aren’t that interesting if you need to repeat them all over again because you lost one fight.
RNGod damn it
That’s not the only instance of artificial difficulty popping up, either. Skill checks pop up all over Shiokawa, and it’s not uncommon for RNG to just completely screw you over. I get it, this is supposed to be a dangerous town full of monsters, but at least let me save more often!
Despite my frustrations with the tough fights, lack of places to save, and RNG, this is only an early access release. I’ve only been playing the game for a couple of weeks, and in that short time, a difficulty option was patched in. That slight modifier made investigations much more manageable. This game is chock full of cool campaign modifiers, even sporting a modular mode that let me mix and match what elder god was going to debuff me. With a wide breadth of customization options, I can see World Of Horror being something people are playing for years to come.
I won’t spoil the outcome of scissor woman investigation or anything in the story beyond that, but I certainly left the adventure satisfied. Sure, the game could explain its mechanical intricacies and combat systems a bit better, but this is still a work in progress. World Of Horror is overflowing with boogiemen that need a good thrashing, and I’m more than willing to keep dishing out exorcisms so that the folks of Shiokawa sleep a little easier.
[Reviewed on PC]
Kyle has been a freelance writer in the games industry since 2016, with bylines at several major outlets. You can follow his weird Twin Peaks-themed rantings on twitter @levit0.