Come, take a flick through World of Horror’s rolodex of nightmares; see faces flayed by vengeful wives, wild-eyed teachers with rictus grins, soul-bartering telemarketers, trypophobia-inducing latticework rendered across human skin, and other lurid things.
It is 198X and the world is on the cusp of a technological revolution (and Eldritch annihilation, but we’ll get to that), caught between the superstitions of the old world and the suspicions of the new; a place where diabolical rituals are still performed by the light of the moon, while Bulletin Board Systems send murderous dial-up messages from beyond the veil. It’s also a world immediately indebted, both visually and tonally, to manga horror master Junji Ito, whose stories of everyday mundanity succumbing to the grotesque here shape countless original horrors drawing upon influences as wide as Lovecraft, Japanese folklore, urban legends, and creepy pasta. Yet for all its reverential pilfering, World of Horror – which technically falls under the banner of rogue-like RPG, even if its text-heavy, point-and-click design feels like something else entirely – still manages to conjure a wonderfully idiosyncratic mood of its own.
A lot of that is down to its grungy, lo-fi presentation, of course, with World of Horror’s retro aesthetic evoking the feeling of a cursed computer game running on an ancient desktop machine spat up from the very depths of hell; it’s minimalism and maximalism slammed together in uneasy ways, a jostling interface paired with sparsely evocative text married to an engulfing chiptune drone underscoring a stark 1-bit art style that’s all the more sinister in the horrifying details its two-tone colour palette can’t quite adequately convey. It’s utterly cohesive in its unsettling chaos and entirely appropriate to the game’s inherently fragmentary form.
Structurally, you see, World of Horror foregoes tight narrative cohesion in favour of a looser story framework summoning forth a ceaseless parade of randomised, wildly imaginative grotesqueries like an ever-churning fever dream. Yes, it’s an RPG of sorts, and a rogue-lite one at that, but more than anything – once you strip away its lo-fi flourishes and flapping folds of skin – it’s a spritely little story engine shaped from countless roiling parts that swell and subside to form an endlessly shifting tale of cosmic peril.
Something is very, very wrong in the seaside town of Shiokawa; the Old Gods are stirring – although precisely which one you’ll be dealing with depends on your choice at the start of this surprisingly modular game – and inexplicable, horrifying incidents are on the rise as the boundaries of reality falter. Impossibly long limbs are seen slithering through the air ducts of a local apartment building; a documentary crew vanishes in a nearby forest; a ramen shop appears to hold an unnatural grip on its patrons’ appetites; a strange new fertiliser births seeping fungal horror, and on it goes. Inevitably, it’s up to you – donning your investigatory hat as one several distinctive characters available at the start of a playthrough – to successfully survive and solve five such mysteries, gain access to the town’s lighthouse (apparently the nexus for all this cosmic mayhem), and halt the apocalypse without succumbing to death or the ever-ticking clock of doom.
It’s a battle against cosmic forces that – thematically, structurally, and mechanically – reminds me an awful lot of Fantasy Flight’s Arkham series of board games, particularly in the randomised, deck-like systems driving its story generation. At its simplest, World of Horror is a game about moving around a board, albeit one here massively deemphasised in terms of actual presentation, and resolving the randomised events – micro-scenarios ranging from turn-based combat encounters to multiple-choice vignettes – spat out at each step, grasping for whatever strategic advantage you can find to counter the increasingly malevolent odds. Your chosen character has, for instance, a unique array of gently malleable stats and a slowly expanding inventory of items that may or may not increase your chances of success as events unfold, and it’s further possible to slightly tip the cosmic balance by making use of location-specific amenities, although The Old Gods are cruel and dawdling is rarely wise. There are further complications, from character-specific quirks (play as the chain-smoking delinquent and your ability to perform becomes increasingly erratic if you don’t sate their nicotine craving, for instance) to world-altering effects, but the fundamental rhythm of play remains.
To give these various moving parts a sense of form, all this unfolds within the fixed narrative framework of an individual mystery, five of which – randomly drawn from a larger pool of around 20 possibilities each play-through – must be successfully investigated to complete each approximately hour-long run. It’s a structure that has obvious limitations, given that each mystery follows the same basic story beats, relayed through the same economically deployed flavour text, no matter how many times you play them. But it’s one developer Paweł Koźmiński seems keenly aware of, and the inevitability of over-familiarity through repetition is somewhat offset through hidden story branches, esoteric secrets, and alternative endings, an attempt at structural variety between mysteries – some might tilt more toward a specific style of play, while others shift the action to a unique map, whisking you to a secluded village on the night of a terrible festival, or a dilapidated mansion as a dangerous funeral rite unfolds – and, of course, there’s the inherent randomisation of World of Horror’s story generation.
Events really are the bloody, mangled heart of World of Horror, serving up a procession of ceaselessly inventive terrors that keep things unpredictable even as its overarching mysteries lose their lustre through repeated play. These briskly interactive vignettes are deliciously varied things, spitting out single-screen, location-appropriate tales of schoolgirls with writhing balls of leeches where their faces should be, fleshy marionettes, unspeakable sights glimpsed in darkened mirrors, haunted music recitals, cursed grimoires, even a few seemingly innocuous events in subway stations, elevators, and computer rooms. Sometimes you’ll need to make a choice to resolve an event – do you pick up the phone or let it ring?, enter the portal or question your sanity? – other times their resolution may be determined by skill checks on your current stat levels, and occasionally you’ll be rewarded with something to ever-so-slightly tip the odds in your favour; a reduction on the doom clock, more XP, a stat boost, a potentially useful item, even a permanent new character perk.
And then, of course, you’ll sometimes need to fight; turn-based combat in World of Horror is conceptually robust, giving you a heap of options – offensive moves, defensive moves, supporting moves, plus more unusual actions like hunting for a makeshift weapon or lining up specific hand gestures to perform a ritual on the fly – then allowing you to do as much as you want each turn, providing the combined value of each move doesn’t exceed your combat bar. It’s a pleasingly flexible system with the potential for some satisfyingly elaborate combos, working in tandem with varied enemy design that’ll occasionally require you to switch up your strategies to most effectively target their weaknesses; it’s just unfortunate that the cosmic forces you’ll be up against are as dim as a bucket, rarely responding to your actions with anything more than another massive whack – meaning a lot of World of Horror’s more exotic combat options quickly get overlooked as you spam the same combos in a race to hit as fast and hard as possible, lest your Stamina or Reason reach zero and trigger a game over.
The truth is, much of World of Horror feels as fleet, flimsy, and forgettable away from the moment as its combat; a whirlwind of transitory images, flavour text often so slight as to be virtually subliminal, and narrative decisions demanding only perfunctory thought (for all its moving parts, this certainly isn’t a game of vast strategic depth) all furiously whipped into a wickedly stylish collage of doom. It’s an experience as ephemeral as its horrors, but what horrors they are, what wonderfully insidious creeping dread, what deliciously malevolent surprises – and round again we go to that richly feverish mood. In the moment, engulfed within its weird, idiosyncratic embrace, there’s nothing quite like World of Horror, and I think this is why I keep finding myself drawn back, even as its memory immediately melts away like a nightmare in the darkest depths of night the second I shut it down.
And if it ensnares you, there’s an absolute treasure trove of stuff to return to, with its impressively modular design and robust modding support meaning there’s already a wealth of community created events, characters, mysteries, and more to keep things fresh. So World of Horror; you’ll die, you’ll win, you’ll forget, you’ll return, because an end here is just the beginning of a horrible new nightmare – and sleep is as inevitable as our own cosmic doom.
A copy of World of Horror was independently sourced for review by Eurogamer.