Japanese horror has always been such a bewitching genre to experience for me. Unlike traditional western horror games, J-horror loves to incorporate suspense with an affinity for supernatural monsters, spirits and demons. This is immediately prevalent in the rather shocking opening of Yomawari when an incident befalls our cute little protagonist. Her sister tries to help her out but in a mysterious turn of events, our heroine must now venture out into the dark town inhabited with every abstract demonic-looking being unknown to man, to uncover clues leading to the whereabouts of her loved ones. With only a flashlight to rely upon, how well you run/tiptoe/elude these terrors of the night ultimately determines whether reuniting is even a remote possibility.
At its core, Yomawari is a survival horror with puzzle aspects. As a PS Vita port, the game has fairly basic controls, utilizing only a sprinting and tiptoe function, although the latter is relatively unneeded. When any spirit catches you, it is instant-death. There is no health to manage, however, there is stamina that will drain as you continue to sprint. This stamina bar has multiple phases that will affect the efficiency of sprinting, and to make matters more interesting, your heartbeat is also tied to it. The closer you are to other spirits, the faster your heart will beat leading to an increase in stamina depletion. The inverse is true for recovering stamina too. Fortunately, death is less of a punishment and more of an inconvenience, mostly because Yomawari utilizes statues placed in predetermined locations that allow players to “quicksave” and use to warp to other statues. In addition, any collectibles/key items found before death will be retained upon respawn.
Extremely immersive horror aspects, such as shadows grabbing your feet if you walk too close to certain manholes, unreliable light sources, and boss-type spirits with spine-tingling backstories (murder-suicides, child kidnappers, etc.) keep this game really compelling to progress. I am starting to develop a sense of desensitization with western scare tactics, but the methods in which this J-horror made me jump were refreshingly horrifying. Time and time again, I would continually be startled by stuff that killed me just moments before. The abrupt screams, monster animations, constant heartbeat sounds, and eerie soundtracks make it very difficult to shrug off the fear.
The insanely cute animation lends a hand in enhancing the scare-factor too because nobody wants to see an adorable little girl ravaged by these supernatural entities. It is also extremely unsettling to see gruesome and disturbing images with this art style. Not because of the horrific nature, but because it is happening in an artistic world where one would normally expect much happier or light-hearted thoughts. Other similar J-horrors, like the Danganronpa series, don’t elicit the same type of fear, and it is because of the ingrained belief that horror does not belong in cute environments. I feel that if this game was remade with realistic visuals, or even a more mature style or artwork, desensitization would kick in and nothing would feel as blasphemous.
If I had to pick one word to describe Yomawari, it would definitely be creative. The game’s astounding innovation can be seen in nearly every aspect of the game, from the hauntingly memorable story, to the unique enemy types and their behaviors. Without divulging the story, the enemies all have different attack patterns and specific methods for eluding them. Although most of the unique enemies will be presented in the form of scripted escape scenarios, a few will hide among the town’s monstrosities.
Unfortunately, even with so many clever ways to scare and kill, a couple of the forced survival sequences are maddeningly blood-boiling due to weak execution. One scenario traps you in a corridor where you have to escape a monster – pretty tame so far; however, upon reaching the exit, you must then battle the corner’s imaginary hitbox (which slows you down if you drag along a wall). Another sets you right in the middle of an infested spirit realm whose inhabitants run at the speed of light. Trial and error using the will-this-kill-me method for path selection gets really old due to sparse respawn locations. The only way to succeed in situations like this is to practice patience and manage your frustrations, begrudgingly.
Furthermore, a very misleading quicksave system cost me precious exploration and item collections at one point. What the game actually meant regarding “quicksave” was that the activated statues are respawn points (as opposed to starting back at your house). If at any time you decide to quit, all progress will be lost from the last point at which you truly saved (at the house – generally after completing the previous chapter). Be warned so that you won’t be raging like me and many of my fellows before me.
Even though Yomawari exhibits a couple disheartening moments due to poor design, it doesn’t come close to overshadowing the greatness of this J-horror. If there was a crowd-funding campaign to turn this into an animated movie, I would throw money at it in a heartbeat. The compelling narrative, vivid scripted escape sequences, and epic survival scenarios make Yomawari: Night Alone a fantastic addition to any horror or anime fan’s gaming collection.