Review: World of Horror
World of Horror is something I honestly had thought was already out. I have a number of friends really into horror, and I heard nothing but good things about it back when it first entered Early Access. Surely this was an already finished game, I thought.
Apparently despite how good it already was, there were still more the team wanted to add. Now, I had a chance to sit down with the finished product and see if it was really worth all the hype.
World of Horror left Early Access on October 19, 2023, releasing on PC via Steam, Switch, and PS4. It was developed by panstasz and published by Ysbryd Games. The PC version was played for this review.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Set in 1980s Japan in the portside town of Shiokawa, strange events have begun to occur. Even as the world marches into a new age of technology, the old gods stir. Robed figures walk the streets, strange creatures have been sighted, and people are going missing. As one of the few who truly believe that something is going on, it’s up to you to muster what you can of your dwindling sanity and solve these mysteries once and for all.
That’s how things start, and from here things get a little bit convoluted. World of Horror aims to take a roguelike approach to narrative gameplay. Each run you have 4-5 mysteries that must be solved to gain access to the final confrontation, and each mystery is its own self-contained story (except in some rare circumstances where events in one can influence another, but it’s far from the norm.)
The mysteries draw heavily from elements of Japanese horror, both in general themes of atmospheric dread and body horror as well as in direct references. Some are from myths like Aka Manto or the Kuchisake-onna, while others draw from various Japanese horror films, and the works of Junji Ito in particular are a clear inspiration.
H.P. Lovecraft is also a clear influence, with cultists worshiping great old ones at the root of most of what’s going on. A lot of what you’ll encounter will be otherworldly things we weren’t meant to know, and the largest danger perhaps isn’t getting ripped apart by some horrible monster, but starting to see beyond the veil and going mad from the revelation.
Despite each run picking a random handful of mysteries, and the disparate references it’s pulling from, great care was taken to make them all fit together in a believable way. Each individual mystery still has the same root cause of what’s going on, so it’s not like things are wholly unrelated. The mesh of old and new is explained as the new changes in the world both awakening ancient things that have been asleep as well as introducing new man-made horrors to our world.
The end result is a video game take on a horror anthology with a finale for some closure. I’m honestly impressed with how well they managed to pull this off. Though, I’m not without some criticisms. There are a few events I feel should have more of an effect on other stories (or at least a check so they don’t happen if certain mysteries are in the lineup) and the finale story is certainly the weakest part of the whole deal, making it a bit unfortunate that it’s the only story you’ll see every time. Still, those issues do little to detract from the whole experience.
The Fear of the Unknown
When you get right down to it, World of Horror is a tense roguelike-ish RPG with an emphasis on resource scarcity. Each adventure you’ll be given a random assortment of mysteries, and to solve them you’ll need to explore certain areas to advance the plot to its conclusion. As you explore you’ll run into random events which may test your stats, and some events may have options that require certain perks (including character-specific perks) or certain items. Other times you’ll run into a fight which uses a surprisingly in-depth turn-based system. Also, depending on the mystery, you may be able to explore unrelated areas or visit various stores and services for vital supplies.
The catch, however, is that most events have a cost of some kind. In addition to your basic stats which usually get tested, you have three really important ones: stamina (health), reason (sanity), and doom. If you run out of stamina or reason, or if doom hits 100%, the game is over. Most events will reduce at least one of these, and restoring them usually involves spending one of the others, typically doom to represent the cultists continuing unopposed while you’re taking a nap. When you do find a positive event, it will require succeeding at a skill check or having a particular perk. Still, if you play smart, keep an eye on what you can most afford to lose, and play your cards right, you will succeed. For a given definition of success.
Each mystery has multiple endings. Some have as little as two, but most I saw were three or four. Which ending you’ll get depends on what choices you make over the course of your investigation. Ending A, which is usually the best ending for each mystery, is pretty straightforward: do any sidequests the mystery may have given you, make sure any instructions you are given are followed correctly, and make use of any information you’re given. After that there is, of course, an ending for not doing everything right, and from there things can get a bit more random. Dying in a particular way, running away when the option is presented, or even taking special options that may require making sure you have particular items from different mysteries entirely are all things that may be required for an ending.
Finding all the endings you can is, to me at least, more rewarding than simply clearing a run on its own. It really helps to keep things fresh when given a repeat mystery you’ve done on an earlier run. Which, admittedly, is something the game needs. The random nature of the mysteries does mean you can’t anticipate what you’re going to get, but it also means having the occasional run where all the mysteries are ones I’ve done enough times that I’m not even paying attention to the text anymore as I speed through.
Lastly, I’m not normally the biggest fan of roguelikes, but it really helps here. One of the greatest things that takes the tension out of a horror game is knowing what will come next, and having a safe option you can retreat to. Even after many runs, and playing the same mystery multiple times, the closest I can get is knowing what a given location is likely to test, knowing which options in events are just a bad idea, all things that make things safer, but nothing that truly makes me safe.
An Absolute Creep Show
It says something that at the start of the game you’re given two graphical options: 1 or 2 bit. Not even 8. This is going further back than most other nostalgic throwbacks, emulating the pre-console PC games of the early 80s. Even the UI elements are going full in, with tabs to switch between on the sidebar and everything contained within big square panels. Also, despite the limitations of what they’re going for, there is a TON of detail packed into the scenes and monsters.
The music is also stellar. Equally low-fi, it leans into the horror, full of low foreboding hums while you’re investigating areas and shifting into energetic remixes during combat. Yet despite the restrictions they’re working with both in terms of fidelity and in all of them carrying an unsettling vibe, all the tracks manage to remain distinct and lend a separate flavor to each type of investigation. The sound effects also manage to be punchy and visceral while feeling true to their inspiration. Just an absolutely phenomenal job all around.
A Well-Polished Relic
Everything comes together so perfectly here. The time period allows them to use the unsettling nature of the low-fi aesthetic while also having this emerging age of technology for more modern horror. The harsh and random gameplay keeps the player from ever truly feeling safe, matching how tense the experience is to how tense it is narratively. The combination of eastern and western influences combines into something that feels truly unique despite the number of references.
In short, fans of atmospheric horror owe it to themselves to pick this up. This is absolutely one of the best horror games I’ve played, and while there are a few little issues here and there, this isn’t even the end of development. There’s a more tailored scenario gameplay mode already on the horizon for a later update, and I expect things will only go up from there.
Review code provided by Ysbryd games for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Ysbryd games.