World of Horror is one of those games that makes me wish I’d been there—“there” being the specific intersection of time and space that inspired World of Horror. Modeled after the ‘90s era of Japanese PC gaming, it’s a game that, like many of its peers in the genre, taps into our instinctive fear of the archaic and forbidden by evoking the fashions of a period long gone. The result is a blend of styles that melds the visual horror of ‘80s manga artist Junji Ito to the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, with compelling results.
The game is set in 1980s Shiokawa, Japan, where the convergence of recent paranormal events and modern technology triggers the awakening of a dark pantheon of Eldritch gods. As a resident in the town, the player sets out to investigate a handful of local mysteries, looking into peculiar tales and disturbances that seem to be strangely interconnected. If they can survive the results of all five cases, they receive the keys to a nearby tower, where a final ritual awaits.
World of Horror is best described as a paranormal investigation game, with five available mysteries to be explored by the player during each individual playthrough. Evidence for each case is collected by searching a series of locations for clues, with a string of unique paranormal events guided by an RPG-like assortment of stats affecting the result of each story panel. As the characters look into disturbing local events, their health and sanity are threatened by unsettling encounters with citizens and the various ghosts, monsters and mutilated creatures that now haunt the town. Successful battles, stat checks and multiple-choice responses earn the player points, and upon leveling up, they can choose Traits, opening up new options and possible outcomes.
The player is also given a limited inventory for items and spells, which may or may not help them depending on the panels they are given. Weapons, trinkets (which provide passive bonuses) and other useful objects can be found, but not with any consistency. This, combined with the random assortment of cases assigned at the beginning of each playthrough, makes the trajectory of each case hard to predict. Combat encounters can be played out through its retro point-based attack system, or simply fled, while two key metrics, Stamina and Reason, reflect the player’s health. The former reflects their physical damage while the latter is dictated by their mental state, and both can be lost in a conflict or used to cast certain spells. Different status effects, inflicted by everything from nicotine withdrawal to blood loss and infected wounds, additionally complicate the player’s progress. And with each panel, the passage of time is marked by a rising DOOM percentage level, a countdown clock to the Old God’s return. Every step of the investigation must be leveraged carefully to survive all five cases and keep armageddon at bay.
After so many months in demo, it’s marvelous to see what World of Horror has become. The game’s visual style and themes of occult horror are exceptional. Despite their two-color palette, the single panel illustrations embody a lot of texture, using the contrast to deliver some interesting details. Whether depicting a hazy pyramid on the desert sand in an alternate dimension, a decaying Eldritch abomination, or a school of baby eels bursting from an infected eye, the art is vivid and repulsive.
The writing is also refreshing, in that it feels sincere. While many works of horror fall back on a lot of tried and true techniques and come off feeling manufactured, World of Horror seems to bear an honest infatuation with its material. Each vignette, in its premise and execution, has the beats of a classic horror story but bears a streak of masochism that suggests the designer is out to scare themselves as much as their audience. The illustrations and events slip between squeamish violence and bizarre sacrilegious imagery with impressive ease.
The only flaw in the game’s use of an old format is that its conventions are not familiar enough to play the game smoothly. There are certain nuances to the HUD that aren’t consistent across all mysteries, which leads to confusion with regards to how to proceed. And with several player characters and Old Gods (which individually affect certain aspects of gameplay), not to mention hundreds of different potential encounters, the ingrained repetition is tiresome. Each playthrough lasts anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, and even if you “win,” there are still many things left to uncover. Certain new options or endings are only facilitated with a lucky item found or stolen at just the right time, so there’s also a light bit of strategy in the order in which the mysteries are investigated, in that some may have a vital object needed in another case. But figuring out those secrets and subtleties is going to take a massive crowdsourced effort from players of World of Horror. While the promise of a greater story tying the game together is intriguing, it’s unfathomable that one person could unlock it all themselves.
One thing that also plagues the game is the uncertainty of intent. Issues like misspellings, poor combat balance, unclear HUD elements, panels and encounters that don’t match the scenario they spawn in: all could be a matter of polish and playtesting. Or it could be that these elements are being used to add flavor by mimicking the challenges of a certain era of gaming. Hopefully, this period of user feedback as the game’s Early Access launches will help bring some clarification.
Over the course of World of Horror’s development, its demos have highlighted different aspects of the game. As a result, I was left with the sense that it didn’t really know what it wanted to be. But with this Early Access build, World of Horror clarifies its format and reinforces its identity. While there are loose ends to tie up in this playtesting phase of its development, what the game already showcases has endless potential, and the upcoming alternative play modes (hinted at in unfinished portions of the menu) are promising. In that sense, in both its present and future, World of Horror brings a universe of possibilities.
World of Horror enters Steam Early Access on Feb. 20, 2020.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.