In March of 2020, I attended PAX East in Boston. Somewhere between the enormous walk-in Animal Crossing village and the life-sized motorcycle from Final Fantasy VII Remake, Ysbryd Games had a demo station up for World of Horror, an early-access title by solo developer panstasz. After the show, I was telling everyone who would listen about how excited I was for this creepy black-and-white roguelike. One week later, reality shifted as the world went into lockdown in an attempt to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic.
I don’t usually play games while they’re in early access, but World of Horror – currently in version 0.9.84 – certainly feels complete. It’s an absolute must-play for fans of Japanese horror, particularly the works of manga artist Junji Ito. While no final release date has been set, there’s plenty of reason to give the current build a try.
In each playthrough of World of Horror, the player investigates several paranormal mysteries taking place in the seaside town of Shiokawa, Japan. The mysteries, each one a self-contained storyline, are randomized so you never know which ones you’ll have to solve. Regardless of which stories you’re assigned, they’re all part of a greater crisis; an Old God is awakening in Shiokawa and will doom the world if it isn’t stopped.
Each mystery plays a little differently than the others, giving each run plenty of variety. At its core, World of Horror is about investigating locations to gain clues and advance the story before facing a supernatural terror. There are also plenty of side locations to visit – stores to buy equipment, hospitals to fix yourself up, a library to seek arcane knowledge – but every detour wastes precious time and fills the town’s Doom meter. If it reaches 100%, the Old God awakens and all hope is lost.
Each playable character brings a unique stat line, potential perks, and starting bonus; Haru, a getaway driver for the yakuza, is a powerful fighter and can eventually bully shopkeepers into giving him a discount, while haunted teen Kirie can easily decipher eldritch writings and starts with a random spell. The early-access version has a large number of empty character slots, hinting that the game’s roster will grow well past the five currently-playable investigators.
Every time the player investigates a location, a random event will occur weighted based on the current circumstances. This usually involves a choice for the player, a skill check, a combat encounter, or some combination of the three. Combat is dangerous, as enemies deal consistent damage each turn. Conversely, your character can take multiple actions but none of them are guaranteed to work.
More impactful actions take up more space on the player’s action gauge, requiring careful planning on each turn. Of course, you could also try to run away – given how scary most of the game’s enemies are, it’s a reasonable choice. However, fleeing causes the Doom meter to tick ever higher, forcing players to face their fears if they are going to prevent the coming apocalypse.
The player character has two health tracks; Stamina represents their physical well-being while Reason represents their mental fortitude and grip on reality. Both are easy to lose and tough to regain. They can easily be drained by random events and one bad combat is all it takes to send your character over the edge.
Between mysteries, you can take a bath to get a minor increase to each, and during an investigation, you can rest to heal up at the cost of increasing the town’s Doom. While each investigator starts out with a decent reserve of both Stamina and Reason it won’t be long before you have to make some hard decisions over which to sacrifice.
Graphics & Sound
World of Horror is designed to look and feel like a classic adventure game from the days of MS-DOS. Its pixelated, monochromatic art style captures the aesthetic perfectly while still managing to present Shiokawa’s nightmares in gruesome detail. The options menu offers an impressive variety of color palettes if you want to change things up from the standard black-and-white, and the 2-bit graphics option adds depth and a further splash of color.
The game’s haunting soundtrack would be right at home alongside the creepiest NES chiptunes. While it’s not technically a match for the game’s graphical presentation, it’s definitely the right choice since the old PCs evoked by World of Horror wouldn’t have been capable of the audio complexity it offers. The result is an 8-bit score that draws the everpresent, lurking terror straight to the surface.
The modular nature of World of Horror allows for dozens of little stories to be told within the game’s larger mysteries. It’s especially chilling when events line up in ways that feel connected to the main plot. For example, in a recent playthrough of mine, the athletic Aiko was working with her gutsy friend Kana to investigate the strange habits of their creepy neighbor. During this storyline, a random event occurred where a man started pounding and yelling at Aiko’s door. Was the neighbor on to us? I had Aiko stay quiet and still, eventually getting the intruder to give up and leave, but a few encounters later he came back, kicking in the apartment door with a clown mask and a baseball bat. This wasn’t the creepy neighbor – it was a completely unrelated enemy who had been stalking Aiko.
Along with spine-tingling synchronicities like that, global events make the state of Shiokawa degrade with each mystery solved, presenting new challenges. A rush of panic-buying might drive item prices up, or the disappearance of a shopkeeper could cause stores to close altogether. Police might close roads, restricting access to certain investigation sites. These can lead to unexpected and subtle challenges – if your smoker character needs a steady supply of cigarettes to keep himself together, what do you do if they’re no longer available?
The best part of World of Horror’s storytelling is that everything is connected. Mysteries beget mysteries, encouraging the player to try storylines in a specific order to unlock more content. In the tutorial mystery, the player finds a locker that requires a Tiny Key to open. The Tiny Key is found at the end of an entirely different mystery, so the locker can only be opened if both mysteries are available in the same run and are done in the right order. In another instance, the player has the opportunity to swipe some VHS tapes that might have evidence on them. They aren’t playable in their current condition and need to be repaired. So far I haven’t figured out how this is done but I’m positively desperate to know what’s on those tapes.
Every event, character, monster, and mystery in World of Horror is seeded as if from a deck of cards. This means that more content can be easily added, either directly from the developer through updates or from the community at large through mods. In fact, the game’s December 2021 update introduced modding features and custom mysteries, signaling that modding and user-made content will be a major part of the game.
World of Horror is one of the most exciting indie titles I’ve seen in years. If the early-access version is this good, I can’t wait to see the finished product. It’s clear that panstasz has put their heart and soul into the game and has created something truly special. The addition of mod tools offers a tantalizing future full of custom mysteries. I can see World of Horror being the kind of game that players will come back to again and again for years to come.