World of Horror sends you to fight ancient gods equipped with…well frequently nothing.
Horror games are quite often ridiculed due to just how many of them aren’t scary, or simply descend into jump scare territory. Most of the time you’re running along hallways trying not to be spotted, or finding some macguffin that lets you escape. There are notable recent exceptions, such as Amnesia: The Bunker and its increasingly dangerous monster, or last year’s Madison with the constantly changing house structure. World of Horror is something different though, letting you become more unsettled as each mini tale progresses and your character becomes more and more vulnerable.
World of Horror is hard to pin down with its genre, and even harder to explain why it’s so creepy. It’s really a horror RPG roguelike, but that description doesn’t really do it justice, and it’s scary due to how you feel rather than what you see, although it certainly has its share of horrible monsters. There are a couple of ready-made short campaigns for you to learn the ropes, but the real meat of the game is in you setting up your own characters and enemy before seeing if you can survive. Confused? I was too.
Each game of World of Horror will begin with you choosing a character with a backstory, and an ancient god to face, that really just acts as a game long debuff. Your character arrives in 90s Shiokawa, Japan to investigate strange occurrences and hopefully prevent the awakening of that ancient god who will surely devour the world. To do this, you need to unlock the way to prevent this awakening by solving mysteries throughout the town. These mysteries act as mini stories, and once you’ve completed them, you can find a way to save the world.
At the beginning of each day, you head to your room to decide which lead to pursue based on the titles alone. Tales about ghosts weiding deadly scissors, or cults summoning something evil in the local caverns will all progress your investigation, regardless of whether you feel they link to that elder god. These stories will involve you visiting parts of the town, talking to locals, and frequently coming across things that simply should not exist.
Yes there are monsters, but there are also bizarre people who may or may not be evil. Some people may have been driven mad by the encroaching insanity, others may just wear human skin and be something else entirely. Regardless of the reason, you’ll normally either need to make a skill check against your character stats, or take on a combat encounter. Skill checks generate a number from one to twelve, and if your tested stat beats it you succeed and either suffer no harm or gain a new item, weapon, or experience points. Fail and you’ll suffer in some way, frequently physical or psychological damage.
As you visit locations, you’ll learn more about the current mystery you’re pursuing. Eventually you’ll come up against whatever is causing all this harm. Maybe it will be a marauding ghost, or perhaps it’s someone infecting people with a monstrous disease. Regardless, you need to deal with it. If you’ve been diligent, you may have come across a way of resolving this with skill tests and words, but often you’ll need to fight your way out, and this is probably the weakest area of World of Horror.
Combat is time based. By this I mean you can perform as many actions as you can fit into your time bar, with some taking up larger portions than others. Quick attacks can be done repeatedly, but if you want to dodge it’ll considerably eat into your other options. Deciding when you dodge, charge attacks, or just start swinging can be significant factors that decide how well you come out of the encounter, but a lot of the time just swinging for the fences is a pretty good option. Before long, combat encounters become a bit dull as they often play out in the same way unless you’re facing something significant.
Larger confrontations are more interesting, with you having options like clapping and bowing in the correct combination to banish your foe, or perhaps using an ally to distract them. I appreciated these more as they put a thrilling exclamation point on the end of each tale as you battle the odds to destroy some terrifying tentacle monster. You’re often on the back foot by this point too, as you’re stamina and reason, health and willpower if you will, have been knocked about by previous encounters and skill checks, so a victory often feels hard fought.
Interestingly, each story has multiple endings depending on how you go about things. Some choices you make will lead to you fighting very different bosses, or perhaps not even facing one at all. I liked this element, as you tend to see each investigation crop up a few times over each playthrough, as there are only so many available in the game. After a while though, you do tend to resent seeing the same ones over and over though, so hopefully there will be new stories added over time.
Once you’ve completed five stories, you can go to confront the old one who is bringing doom and madness to the town. This tends to involve a series of encounters that culminate in you simply destroying the artefact that would bring about the apocalypse. It’s a bit anticlimactic really, but I think it would have been unreasonable to expect an investigator to fight god directly. Victories, and even some defeats, unlock new features, characters, gods, and investigations for future runs, so there is some replay value here as you work your way through everything on offer.
A playthrough doesn’t have to take too long, and each individual investigation can be done in about twenty minutes, so you do drop into “just one more turn” quite quickly, and that certainly happened to me. World of Horror is quite addictive just due to how bizarre a lot of the world is. You’ll see all sorts of strange and horrific imagery of creatures from various folklores and urban myths and every time you see one creative monster or story, you’ll be keen to see another. It’s also fun/horrifying to see just how messed up your character can get. Long term injuries and mental ailments not only weaken you but also change your appearance on the status screen. Having your beaten, broken investigator just eke out a victory is hugely satisfying. Equally, the horror of seeing your near death character suddenly be confronted by an eldritch monstrosity can fill you with dread as you sense that run ending attack drawing ever nearer.
The presentation of this game is really quite something. The visuals have this old fashioned PC look, with everything being in a single colour and yet still managing to convey so much information. What’s even more remarkable is that all the artwork was created in MS Paint of all things! The creativity on display for some of the monster designs is impressive, and I dread to think how much time was spent putting all of them together. I liked the various options for the colour palette as well. Much like in The Return of the Obra Dinn, you can select the main colour or colours that will be used on the screen, giving you a number of ways to experience the game, but also a chance to find one that your eyes can handle easily. I went for the latter. I wasn’t such a fan of the interface though, with lots of symbols that weren’t always clear as to what they were for. The combat screen was particularly cluttered.
The sound design leans into this simplistic approach as well, with basic midi tracks that do a really good job of conveying the uncomfortable atmosphere and encroaching threat. It’s subtle, but it’s there and I know the experience would be weaker without it.
Aside from the eventual recycling of investigations, there is another irritation that I should bring up, and that’s the lack of save options. When playing through a run, you can only save between each investigation, meaning that once you’ve started a story, you’re locked in until the end of it, otherwise all your progress is lost. I understand why World of Horror is set up like this, wanting you to see the horror through before getting to rest, but equally it is a bit irritating in the modern era to not be able to deal with other responsibilities that crop up in reality without losing everything I’ve just done. I also wasn’t a fan of random events that crop up and just hurt my character without any way to predict or prepare for them. That just feels unfair.
With that said, I was a fan of World of Horror, and I’m keen to play through some more to unlock other endings, new characters, and ancient gods. In some ways, playing this reminds me of Elder Sign or Arkham Horror: The Card Game thanks to these small adventures that tie into your overall plan to stop a dark god. There’s plenty of content on offer off the bat, and there are a lot of references to horror stories from around the world for eagle eyed players. I’ve only spotted a few but I’m assured there are plenty there. It’s an easy recommendation for players who have had their fill of generic first-person horror games and want to try something wildly different.
World of Horror is available now on PC and is due out on Playstation and Nintendo Switch later on this year.