Poro…sis…where are you?
Oh man, Jennifer’s reviewing another Japanese Horror game? I know, it’s shocking. Feel free to hold back your thunderous excitement.
…Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Jokes aside, I’ve never quite been able to shake myself of the J-horror genre, even when I started writing about import games on a barely-updated blog around six years ago. Maybe it’s in how it’s unashamedly steeped with Japanese culture and religious traditions, standing in direct contrast to mainstream American horror’s shy avoidance of its own origins; maybe it’s the tension and atmosphere, pressing down on the player and suffocating them when done right, and eliciting more than a few giggles when done horribly; or maybe I’m just a sucker for playing as really stupid schoolgirls running around in some derelict location after hours. It’d explain my fascination with the Twilight Syndrome series, at any rate.
It doesn’t help that after my disappointment last year with Corpse Party: Blood Drive (though you can see what one of my compatriots thought of it here) I was chomping at the bit for some good J-Horror, especially in time for Halloween.
Thankfully, Nippon-Ichi Software delivered, with Yomawari: Night Alone, a hauntingly beautiful game that is just as charming as it is brutal.
…Emphasis on the brutal.
See, when you get down to it, Yomawari: Night Alone is what happens when a AAA studio gives games like The Witch’s House or Ib a much-needed modern facelift, with high-quality graphics, crisp sound, and an engine that isn’t held back by the limitations of RPG Maker. The staples of the genre (such as one-hit deaths, trial-and-error gameplay, and enemy placements that count as puzzles in their own right) are there in the design, for better and for worse. I’d almost call it a sister game to Corpse Party, but where the latter was a story-heavy experience with exploration almost serving as a means to tie the events together, Yomawari takes the opposite approach, emphasizing exploration and discovery over drawn-out stories and characters.
Specifically, your goal is to explore your entire town, searching for the whereabouts of your wayward dog and older sister. There is a story campaign, but it’s subtle enough to be open to interpretation, and mostly serves to open up the various areas, as well as give you access to the post-game content. You can dig through trash cans, rifle through peoples’ mail, and even shine your flashlight at the ground and pilfer 10 yen coins to offer to the various jizo statues around town. Streetlights will flicker, electrical objects will buzz when it you get close, and your footsteps may sound almost too loud against the deafening silence of the city streets. The town looks, sounds, and feels like a real town, and if you wrap your blanket around yourself, huddle in a dark room with the Vita’s sound cranked up, you may feel like you’re being drawn into it yourself. Without a doubt, this is a game meant to be played, rather than watched on Youtube. A Let’s play would not do Yomawari justice.
Of course, if there’s a town, there has to be someone in it. In this case, it’s the town’s spirit population. They (all beautifully designed and unique) will weave to and fro along the streets, some only glimpsed in the light from street lamps or your flashlight, and others in plain sight, ready to dive at you when you get too close. Being a little girl, you can only do so much, and you can sneak, hide, run, and throw objects at enemies to distract, escape, or harm them. If you run too much, you get tired, and around enemy spirits, you get tired far quicker than you would while in safer pastures. This should, in theory, give Yomawari a stealthy lemon twist, but the stealth mechanics don’t add up to much in practice, since you can get through most of the game just running away from everything.
Besides, dying doesn’t give you a game over; it just sends you (with all the items you’ve collected thus far) back to your current checkpoint. You even have fast travel markers to quickly get back to where you left off, so other than a few Vita-chuckingly frustrating moments late in the story, it’s almost worth it to die in order to get a particular item or to feel out a monster-puzzle that’s blocking the way. Go slow, get a feel for your surroundings, and don’t worry too much about rushing through things.
Seriously, don’t try to rush through this game. The story campaign is pretty short, and you’ll run out of plot long before you run out of collectibles, secret events, and special spirits to encounter. When I went through the main campaign, I clocked it at around 5 hours, and that was including the hour and a half I spent running around town like a chicken with my head cut off looking for a single plot-critical item that was right under my nose.
That said, just because Yomawari‘s story is short doesn’t mean it isn’t going to hurt. A lot. Be prepared to break out the tissues, especially if you’re the sensitive type. If you’re easily upset by games and you think the design makes this a good one to pick up: don’t. Don’t let those gorgeous backdrops, borderline cute monster designs, and the young protagonist fool you: this is a spooky game, but by no means a childish or campy game. This can touch on some hard topics at points, so be careful before you leap in with both feet.
It’s also a very Japanese game, with references to Japanese folklore and spirituality so specific that I’m surprised that the developers didn’t include a glossary or encyclopedia in foreign versions. This doesn’t take away from the experience, but it does add a layer of separation and the unknown that may make it more unnerving, depending on the player.
So now that I’ve rambled for around 1000 words, what do I think of it overall, as a game?
Well, Yomawari: Night Alone is one of those spooky horror games that reminded me why I love J-horror so much, even when the genre’s given me so many disappointments over the years. It has its flaws, but is an absolute must-play game, especially if you own a Vita.
Just be careful of what lurks in the dark.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: Playstation Vita (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: NIS America; Developer: Nippon Ichi Software; Players: 1; Released: October 25, 2016
Full Disclosure: This review was made possible by a copy provided by the publisher.