SENSEs: Midnight Review: Better Left Ghosted
When the wild amalgamation of cyberpunk, ghosts, and Japanese inspiration was presented to me in the form of SENSEs: Midnight, I was optimistic that many promising themes were coming together for some high-tech ghost-hunting missions in my favorite kind of locale. What I got wasn’t quite the trip to the park I was expecting. You’d think such a winning combination would effortlessly bring some new ideas to the picnic table, but instead the food’s already spoiled and there’s ants everywhere.
My Lovely Spirit Hunter, Kaho
You start off this adventure as Kaho, a young girl visiting Japan and looking for some ghostly legends in a nearby park. The story goes that if you knock on a certain door to nowhere in this park that only appears at midnight, you’ll get whisked away, never to be seen again. Just as foretold, a few steps into the park reveals that fated door, except it’s locked. After taking a moment to examine the surroundings for an escape route, it appears something has escaped and left that door wide open. Cue the running around in terror trying to sneak past ghosts and ghouls in an attempt to escape the park now that you’ve unleashed actual hell.
In an interesting twist, there’s both only one character and plenty of side characters all at once. See, Kaho’s chatting with a bunch of her friends via a group chat (it looks a bit like she’s livestreaming her adventure, but I never saw confirmation of this). I will say that most of the humor and intrigue for Kaho and her friends comes from this, as the chat seemed relatively comparable to an actual group chat between friends. That said, there were times when the chat would start going on its own, blitzing through all the dialogue in a short couple seconds and making me have to read the logs, but that’s really the only gripe I have with how this is setup. There’s also apparently someone that enters the group chat that nobody knows, but understands exactly what Kaho’s doing and tries to guide her the best they can. This ends up being a bit of a red herring, as this person never actually shows up in the game to reveal themselves.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the only thing short-lived here. The game as a whole is relatively short, and the ending is less than satisfying, ending on a somewhat cliffhanger that Kaho may be stuck in an infinite loop, trapped in the park. Whether this is setting up for a sequel or not is unknown, but what was presented here feels too brief to be worthwhile. While there was some general intrigue in the characters and overall plot, it missed out on really digging its heels into the overall urban legend. Maybe adding more story behind some of the people lost, or giving appearances by other characters beyond the group text would’ve helped me feel more involved, but as it is, it’s alarmingly close to a hollow story.
To really maximize your enjoyment, make sure to pick up the various hologram datapads for some extra lore and be sure to read your notes. If there’s one thing that I did greatly enjoy from this, it’s that they included some odds and ends in the whole urban legend thing, including some neat entries about Toire no Hanako-San and even one about Aka Manto. Little flourishes like this always make me smile thanks to the attention to detail.
Phantasm in the Park
So how does this all play out in game? Honestly, rather poorly. I’ll start this off with a warning that SENSEs: Midnight intended to fully recreate the PS1/PS2 horror titles of old with fixed camera angles and tank-controls. To the game’s credit, despite it still feeling as janky as I remember it being, it did bring me back to that era, so you know what? I’ll be giving it an absolute pass on that. It advertised harkening back to those days of old-school horror and it very much delivered. I’m even willing to praise it on the camera angles. I will say that the camera angles in this game are definitely well done, and the first time Ukiko started chasing me, it felt like all the sweet spots of horror were kicking in…until I realized I could just juke Ukiko with that sidestep. Then the action-y camera angles just started becoming a bit much. Which is a real shame, because it felt like some real thought was put into where to have the fixed camera angles. I’ll still give it an A for effort on those though, because it’s the fault of other aspects that bring down the use of the camera angles.
The gameplay here is delegated to a stealth-based puzzle solving game. Like a good amount of horror games, you have a limited inventory for keeping a hold of necessary items. While there isn’t much to pick up, with you being limited to four slots, it’s kind of a pain to manage, especially seeing that some puzzles require you to have three of those slots filled. Eventually I just started dumping everything I collected in the girls’ bathroom since it wasn’t far from the save point and I eventually got a shortcut that led pretty close to there.
Despite this, the puzzles weren’t half bad. Not too hard but also requiring just a bit of thought. Unlike a good chunk of other comparable games, there weren’t any obtuse moon logic puzzles, and most of it pieced together after a moment of thinking. For example, one part requires you to make a molotov cocktail to burn away some centipedes (because the only appropriate solution to bugs is to burn everything down). After some thought, I knew where to get a dirty rag from, found a lighter along the way, and figured there might be some alcohol in the vending machine. Took me maybe five to ten minutes to piece it all together and be on my way.
And as for the stealth, here we have a shining example of how not to do stealth. Basically, after unleashing ghosts and ghouls upon the park, you’re introduced to how to hide from the baddies. You can only hide at places where green butterflies flock to. You hop in these spots, then follow a moving bar left and right until the bar fills up. Then the creature will be prompted to leave and you can safely exit. Thing is, this doesn’t always work or is always needed. The only creature this is really needed for is Ukiko, but sometimes she doesn’t always leave, or, if she does, she leaves in the direction you need to go.
As for the other enemies, you have no reason to hide from them. Fox Fires vanish after a brief flight towards you, and the shambling zombie-like ghosts are so slow and inaccurate that you’d actually have to try to get ambushed by them. Even Ukiko is easily juked by just side-stepping her lunge. If for whatever reason you get nabbed by one of the enemies, it consumes a Magatama you have in your inventory. If you have none, it’s game over, and instead of restoring you to your most recent save, it boots you to the main menu. Would it have really been that hard to just load you up to your most recent autosave? All in all, the stealth here is no real threat at all. Hell, I even managed to find Ukiko getting stuck on a wall, rendering her completely harmless! I would’ve been perfectly fine with them getting rid of the stealth mechanics in general or at least making it to where Ukiko was a bit more threatening.
Also, there’s a camera system added in here, where you can take pictures of certain things, but I honestly forgot it was even there with how useless it was. Even when I did try to use it for its intended purpose, the use was moot as the pictures were horribly lit with this hard-to-parse bloom lighting. It never really served any purpose and either could’ve been cut entirely, or become more integral to puzzle-solving, or even using the flash to stun enemies (assuming that the enemies were actually a threat to begin with).
The Specter We Saw That Day
Now onto the art and graphics, which is also a bit of a mixed bag. I will honestly say that the color scheme here is peculiar. Everything seems to have this greenish tint, which, while a bit iconic, did start hurting my eyes trying to discern details. The graphics weren’t bad by any means, but I feel a little more fidelity wouldn’t have hurt. It’s passable for early PS3-era graphics. While the generic ghoul enemies don’t do much, I do rather like Ukiko’s extended, rib-lined neck that adds a level of grotesque uniqueness that I could get behind. If only she was just a bit more threatening. Besides that, I do quite like the cyberpunk aesthetic added in, creating some brightly glowing sections in the park that added a little pop.
Speaking of pop, I will say that I really like Kaho’s overall design as far as her outfit. It nails the halfway point between cyberpunk and cybergoth, a mixture of purple and black with some neon along the sides. But, and this is a big but, I cannot get over how stiff her model looks. Even when trying to mimic facial expressions for taking a selfie, it looked more like she just accidentally crapped herself. The forced nature of the expressions, stiffness of her overall movements, and unnatural quality of her “measurements” made Kaho look more like a Barbie doll someone attached some strings to. It’s really unfortunate it winds up that way, because when she’s not moving, she actually looks really well designed. There’s two extra costumes you can get for her as well, which both also look great, but still don’t help with that unfortunate stiffness.
Moving on to music, there’s…really nothing to hear here. The opening and ending songs are somewhat catchy for J-pop but that’s really all that’s there. There isn’t much in the way of SFX, nor are there any voice acting lines beyond some gasps and breathing. I suppose this isn’t bad, in and of itself. You want it quiet for a horror game, but when the “horror” consists of some bad stealth mechanics, it wound up making things feel a bit more empty.
Not Much Of A Ghost Behind This Game
At the end of my hauntingly simple mission, I really wanted to walk out liking SENSEs: Midnight more than I did. There’s a great aesthetic, cool ideas, and some real potential with the fixed camera angles, but it’s all buried by bad stealth mechanics, a puddle-deep story, and horror disarming bugs and hiccups. Still, for its price point, consider giving it a whirl, at the very least to give some money to the developers because they seem like they really wanted to make something great here. I do hope to see a much more refined sequel in the future.
Final Verdict 2.5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Eastasiasoft Limited; Developer: SUZAKU Games; Number of players: 1; Released: July 22nd, 2022; MSRP: $11.99
Full disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of SENSEs: Midnight.