Modern throwbacks, or games that deftly evoke the visuals of pixel-built masterpieces from the 1980s and 1990s, are definitely something we can appreciate. Retro-themed platformers, retro-themed role-playing games, retro-themed spaceship shooters, retro-themed dungeon crawls, retro-themed Link’s Awakening homages with mice brandishing flails, and so forth are all available.
What about an adventure game in the vein of Junji Ito, HP Lovecraft, and a myriad of other horror classics, but with a purposefully rudimentary black-and-white aesthetic? That is a little more difficult to locate.
The monochromatic color scheme and jagged pixel edges of World of Horror catch the eye and are reminiscent of Japanese and Macintosh video games from the 1980s, when developers could only utilize technology that seldom went above two bits to achieve their most complex visual goals. Even the other colors in the game are sparse, subdued, and equally effective in depicting a region of Japan that has drawn every conceivable kind of Fortean oddity and old, unfathomable evil.
A few chosen young heroes in the wildly unhappy village of Shiokawa find themselves entangled in personal, accidental, and cosmic secrets. Videotapes that are missing could include footage of a demonic summoning. The school could be terrorized by a specter with scissors. At a relative’s funeral, the least unusual thing that could happen is a missing corpse. Not to mention the odd lunatics, zombies, specters, and bulbous, fanged freaks that could appear out of nowhere and attack you.
Junji Ito is a persistent source of clear debt for World of Horror. The game, even when it doesn’t explicitly allude to Gyo, Uzumaki, Hellstar Remina, and his other works, revels in a world that is slowly devolving into catastrophe while regular people can only psychologically unravel and perspire. And World of Horror has minimal competition from true Junji Ito games (such as the Uzumaki WonderSwan series), which are still somewhat obscure.
Awash in Lovecraft allusions, too, with images of squamous non-Euclidean horrors beyond human comprehension and slowly waking elder gods (without Lovecraft’s underlying racist paranoia, of course). With all of this, World of Horror has some fun. It’s crucial to keep an eye on the news to find out if the water supply, phone lines, or overall sanity have been compromised by ancient rumbling horrors when your town is slowly being consumed by hellspawn.
The cases in World of Horror are played out using adventure game controls, where you select places and side activities from menus and decide which risks to foolishly take on. The role-playing aspect is constantly present, as combat are accompanied by a growing set of options and roguelike text narration. You can get away early on with the tried, true, and monotonous approach of tracking down a good baseball bat and using it to whine at the ghouls, psychopaths, and nether-beasts that haunt you, but over time you’ll learn how to make allies, cast charms, and otherwise prepare yourself for both physical and mental threats.
It’s also critical to increase your levels and keep an eye on your numbers in this kind of story. Two of the most crucial ones are “Stamina” and “Reason,” the latter of which is very flimsy; also, the game’s many encounters weaken your resolve or introduce unpleasant small status effects. A spider bite will develop and fester into an open wound rather than the usual crippling RPG poisoning, and an abrupt realization will make you slightly more mad.
World of Horror expertly gives a lot of room for speculation. Random encounters with monsters and side-plots occur, and even the main story branches are ambiguous about the outcomes of your choices. The game does a great job of letting you punish your character and sate your curiosity at the same time. You’re going to touch the rune-covered stalagmite that just sprang up through the forest floor even though you know it’s not a smart idea.
The finest retro-styled games don’t need you to be particularly nostalgic to enjoy them, and World of Horror doesn’t rely too much on your nostalgia for classic adventure games. It’s skilled at transporting even the most inexperienced player to that isolated, late-night computer room downstairs, where they are gingerly clicking through a perilous adventure game without directions, box art, or any other clues as to what’s coming next. Every conceivable horror from that evening is present in World of Horror.
Its true strength is in its ability to arouse fascination even in the face of gloom and sorrow. Each scene is accompanied by eerie, low-key music, while the deceptively straightforward visuals conceal a wealth of information. The game makes players more observant by reducing its images, which forces the eye to look at everything a bit closer than it might in a full-color game. And that adds to the disconcerting quality of the surprises. Even using a controller rather of a mouse enhances the experience because slower cursor movement gives your decisions more weight and excitement.
Writing with economy, World of Horror avoids anything that could slow down the gory mystery-solving process, including character development. Beyond your ability to empathize with them, there’s not much about the cast that makes them likeable, and they all only have a few special interactions with friends, acquaintances, or menacingly unpunished enemies. However, it’s simple to feel sorry for them when they see figures in darkness observing their flat or when they see gods with tentacles tearing apart the sky. When the players return home for a hot bath or get a rescued dog as a sidekick, it leaves the minor wins satisfying—that is, providing the town’s aquifer hasn’t been poisoned by Cthulhuloid offspring.
Some people could be let down by World of Horror’s briefness. A lot goes on beneath the surface of the few hours that make up the main game. There are numerous, rarely expected endings for each chapter, along with a large cast of other playable characters, chance encounters, and other goodies. Just as horror stories are best read in one sitting, the strict save mechanism encourages you to go through every chapter in one session, akin to a dungeon hack.
At moments, World of Horror seems too like an homage, tying together a plethora of scenes and narrative turns that are recognizable to fans of the genre. Still, everything meshes so flawlessly that the game transcends beyond a parody. It’s darkly funny, rewardingly odd, doggedly scary, and capable of frightening you long after the system has been switched off—it’s everything it aspires to be. That’s because, deep down, somewhere in a musty, dismal hallway, there’s still a piece of you that blinks in the shadows.