Review: White Day: A Labyrinth Named School

This week (after an unfortunate delay), I got some alone time with White Day: A Labyrinth Named School. I’m a big fan of the horror genre, so it surprised me to learn that this cult classic from South Korean developer Sonnori had eluded me for so long despite being resurrected several times since its original release on PC in 2001.

It first returned as White Day Mobile in 2009, where it was reduced to 2D stills. A true remake would appear in 2015, also for mobile platforms, known internationally as The School: White Day. This year, it comes home to PC and to Playstation 4 with an old title and new polish, where I get my hands on it for the first time.

White Day 101

Namesake of the holiday on which men return gifts presented to them on Valentine’s Day, White Day takes place on March 13th, 2001. After his crush leaves her diary behind at Yeondu High School, recent transfer student Hee-Min Lee sneaks into the building late that night to leave it in her locker along with a box of candy. Unfortunately for the love-struck young man, however, he’s not the only student to have stolen in before the doors locked behind them, and the ghost stories traded by the school’s occult club are more than fiction.

At first impression White Day seems more like an adventure game or an escape game than survival horror with its point-and-click mechanics and first-person point of view, and make no mistake: thorough exploration, item collection, puzzle solving, and critical thinking will all be required to make it through the night. However, it soon becomes clear that this is a survival horror game indeed, and it takes that label literally.

The clock is ticking, and resources are limited. Against incensed janitors and a cornucopia of vengeful spirits hellbent on his destruction, our silent protagonist has absolutely no means of defense but his ability to cover his tracks, hide, hope, and — if all else fails — flee.

Honors Program

Easier classes assign less content; many ghosts (and their backstories) are only available on higher difficulties, which means that if you want to see it all, you’ll need to get smart. As with most learning, repetition is key. The game may be short (7~12 hours for the first exploration), but it encourages multiple playthroughs by keeping tallies on the main menu—ghosts you’ve encountered, stories you’ve uncovered, and endings you’ve witnessed.

Much of the time sunk into the first playthrough will be spent on finding documents and solving puzzles (often a matter of interpreting said documents and finding relevant items). Replays will be significantly quicker, but don’t get your hopes up for skipping sections by utilizing known passcodes—they’re randomized.

The ending of a given run is determined by a series of A-or-B decisions in cut-scenes, culminating in the protagonist focusing on one of three female students (whether it be his crush or not). The tally menu challenges you to clear all 10 endings (9 + Death) on all 5 difficulties—dozens of revolutions for a completionist. (This can likely be mitigated to a degree with strategic saving.)

Survival

White Day boasts quite the roster of vengeful spirits to avoid, but the true threats are the janitors (…!?) who are deadly serious about the night watch. Escaping their attention—and especially their pursuit—requires trial and error.

Janitors have three behaviors: patrol, search, and pursuit. Finding anything amiss—a light on, a door open, footsteps, movement—sends the janitor sprinting to the location in search mode. One must move carefully and cover their tracks to avoid detection, as pursuit and punishment are swift and severe. On most difficulties it’s game over in a swing or two of his trusty bat. Shaking him requires breaking line-of-sight and slipping away unnoticed, which is easier said than done.

You’re also going to need to micromanage. Saves are consumable (reminiscent of the famed ink ribbon of Resident Evil), and health restoration items are limited (with some wiggle room by way of story checkpoints and vending machine currency).

I spent my first few hours with White Day (before these lessons had taken root) stymied, often just putting down the controller and accepting my fate when discovered. And yet it did ignite that spark—that itch to study and utterly vanquish the foe before me at its highest difficulties (…later).

To be clear, the game isn’t very demanding on easy, but with so many of the ghosts haunting only the higher difficulties, it isn’t very fulfilling, either. There’s no way around it: you’ll need to get good or go home. It’s not the hardest class in the catalog, but you can flunk out of an attempt.

Horror

“Scary” is an ambiguous promise; surprise, suspense, and panic are discrete forms of fear. “Scary” can and so often does slip through the cracks of a poorly curated collection of distress, but White Day strikes an commendable balance out of the gate. As you might expect from a two-year-old mobile app, visuals are dated, but the frame-rate is smooth and facial expressions and body language exhibit a certain…spirit…that helped me close the immersion gap. Hyper-realistic? Not so much. Genuinely unsettling? Yes. (Sometimes very yes.)

What’s it like trying to wield the aforementioned point-and-click reticle while panicking? You know that movie trope where the killer is closing in and someone needs to fumble with a set of keys…? At least you’ll have more opportunities to practice than they did.

As the school becomes familiar and the janitor predictable, tension dies hard and fast—too soon to prevent tedium from rushing into the vacuum if your first playthrough is on a low difficulty setting (which may be recommended if you’re struggling to get a grasp on the basics). However, because content is locked behind difficulty, fresh jump-scares and the panic of unfamiliar assailants has the potential to endure until you’ve finished the ghost log. (Probably not through dozens of playthroughs, though.)

Music accompanies the introduction and ending scenes, but is absent throughout, ceding the sound stage to vexing ambiance. Rain falls, glass rattles, wood creaks—phantom knocks may reverberate off of passed windows and shutters. Discerning the innocuous hauntings from the perilous takes time.

Extra Credit

White Day 2017 also features a significant addition over previous incarnations: a second protagonist hidden behind a particular set of requirements. Fulfilling these prerequisites will transfer the narrative into the hands of Ji-Min Yoo, who has her own perspective on the story, feelings towards So-Young Han (the protagonist’s crush), and her own endings (2 of the aforementioned 10). Even for veterans of this title, there’s more than polish and nostalgia to look forward to.

I did run into a few glitches along the way—visual in nature—but nothing that hindered me mechanically. Patches and communication from Sonnori and PQube have been frequent, promising fixes and tweaks until it fully meets expectations.

Verdict

White Day is literally and figuratively the old school. While it is authentically frightening and invites exhaustive exploration, its limited resources and pass/fail mechanics may drive away players dependent on the modern-day luxuries of auto-regenerating health, file-save freedom, and nigh-infinite second chances. For first-timers, a single playthrough is unlikely to be fulfilling, and whether one feels compelled to become a completionist will vary. It’s not a game for everyone. As a remake of a cult classic with a reputation to maintain and loyal fans to come through for, the new White Day is a sound investment. Those enrolling blind may end up taking the withdrawal.


~ Final Score: 7/10 ~


Review copy provided by PQube. Screenshots taken by reviewer.