Being as much of an insufferable, online-but-ultimately-in-quite-a-basic-way person as I am, I'm a Junji Ito girlie. The horror manga artist has an immediately recognisable style that intersects detailed, line heavy art with strange and upsetting concepts, and some of his short stories have acquired a sort of semi-memetic status ("This is my hole! It was made for me!"). If you're at all familiar with Junji Ito's work you will look at unforgiving almost-text-adventure World Of Horror and go "Huh, that's inspired by Junji Ito."
This isn't just because it looks like his work but rendered in MSPaint, or because it contains, just, direct references to it, but because of the whole vibe. You encounter face-sloughing-off kinds of monsters and vengeful spirits inspired by Japanese folkloric yokai, but also weirdo janitors doing stuff like turning the swim team into mermaids in a kind of pervier version of Tusk. At the same time, there's a streak of the Lovecraftian in play to keep it nice and legally distinct, as each self-contained run at the titular world is an attempt to save your town from destruction at the hands of an Old God (they earn the leaden thud of the capital letters). You will fail a lot. But isn't failure part of the fun!? Imagine that enthusiastic question as a big spoonful of marmite popped into your mouth.
Part of the nettle sting of failure is lessened by the dock leaf of short loops. Each run might take an hour, hour and a half, depending on how things shake out. Every attempt at world saving requires you, a nameless young person, to investigate five mysteries plaguing the town, to earn keys for the lighthouse door. Climb through all the floors on the lighthouse, interrupt the summoning ritual, and Robert is very much your father's brother. As indicated, it can be hard. You can die at any point if your Stamina runs out, resulting in failure. You could lose your Reason from all the horrible stuff you encounter, resulting in failure. The ominous DOOM meter at the top of the screen shows how long you have before the Old God is summoned, and increases with most actions. It can reach 100% before you enter the lighthouse, resulting in... success! Haha, just kidding.
But if you adopt a sort of Soulsian mindset, failure is what allows you to learn. World Of Horror has a surprising number of variables and a deliberately inscrutable interface that requires a lot of peering at small icons (which will not, I imagine, be tremendously accessible if you have any problems with your vision). Each time you start a new run you'll get five cases pulled from a pool, which all have multiple endings. You might have a different Old God to contend with, which will apply different effects on the town as time goes on, like making the water supply grim so you can't have a relaxing bath between cases (which is quite important). You also have more normal stats, apart from Reason and Stamina, that govern your success against different actions - things like Strength, Knowledge, Dexterity for dodging and Luck for, well, Luck.
You have an inventory of a very few items, can accrue stat-affecting injuries of both natural and supernatural kind - blood loss; literally not having a face - and items that do various things, like a ring that increases your Dexterity, but caps your maximum Stamina, which is your health. You'll probably spend your first attempt learning the basics without too much experimentation, but it's worth burning at least one go to poke things with a little cackle to find out how they wobble. An investigation will send you to specific locations, but you could instead go to the hospital and discover you can cure wounds. You could go to the shop and buy salt to use against a ghost, or stock up on spells in the library. If you go to the schoolyard you can recruit friends to help you.
Stacked on top of that is the towering monument of your own poor decisions. In one game I encountered the aforementioned mermaid obsessive early on, and, not having my wits about me, found him in a weakened state without a good weapon. Rather than fight him I saw that I had a story-specific option in combat to knock over a lamp and set myself on fire. This resulted in an entire section of the school closing down, meaning I couldn't visit the yard for help. There are a quite a few things like this, and cases can technically resolve with you, e.g., having left the group of Blair Witch-esque lost teens trapped in the forest. Still get your key, though.
It sounds overwhelming but within the clear objectve of 'solve five cases and save the world' it's actually incredibly freeing. Each new start is like another step in opening an elegant puzzle box, and the objective becomes not saving the world in an individual run, but finding everything you can in World Of Horror itself.
It's a tense, complex and utterly absorbing dance, and one where you're constantly pushing your luck. Because, sure, it would be really useful to visit the hospital and get that bite looked at, but it'll cost you 2% Doom. You could use a spell to reduce the Doom by 3%, but it'll drop your Stamina by 2 points, and that's already capped by 10% because of your curse. And unlike in some games, where replaying is a case of gradually slurping up your string of spaghetti until the meal is over, the more you replay World Of Horror the more you want to keep sicking the spaghetti back up to examine how the flavour has changed. Your increasing mental encyclopedia of the game allows you to adapt specific strategies. You want to get rid of that curse? Well, this run you've drawn a case where you already know you find a stuffed toy that'll lift curses.
It's a shame that the combat doesn't stay as engaging. Every time you investigate a location you'll trigger a random event, which might be 'there's something weird in the swimming pool', with an option to look or back away that will test one of your stats, or might be 'you just found some corpses, congratulations!' and just give you a negative effect anyway. These are spooky and fun, except when it's a random enemy e.g. a schoolgirl with a weirdly wide smile. Their inclusion works to increase threat, and to add steps to that dance, but the combat itself is repetitive. It's a turn-based process, where each turn you queue up actions that take up space on a time bar - for example, the 'prepare an attack' guarantees a hit but means you can only do one attack in the turn, as does a dodge. Once your bar is full you hit execute, absorb the enemy round, and go again. You end up doing the same few combinations quite a lot - if not running away to avoid the encounter entirely.
There are magical or defensive options for actions as well: you can find a makeshift weapon if you're unarmed but it takes a whole turn; you can attempt a ritual with a series of bows and claps that you divine by trial and error; there's a once-a-game struggle if you're really low on Stamina or Reason. But ultimately, and even if you have some interesting spells or items in your arsenal, it doesn't feel like you can approach combat encounters with the same level of complexity or interest as the rest of World Of Horror.
Even so, this is a remarkable horror game with many lovely, nasty facets to discover. From the tense music, the deployment of rare sound effects and animations, and the sparse but effective writing in combination with the clarity of the art, World Of Horror is doing some fabulous things. It's game that is absolutely being what it wants to be. And because of that, some of you are going to hate it.
This review was based on a review copy provided by the publisher Ysbryd Games. Aditional writing was done by Cassandra Khaw, who has written for RPS in the past.