My flashlight casts a trembling light on the dark, dingy school bathroom. My head throbs from concussion, my face stitched up and heavily bandaged. I wonder if anything will be left of my hometown when the riots and thunderstorms give way to tomorrow’s sunrise. The Old Gods are stirring, and the secret to stopping them might just lie in confronting the horror lurking three stalls down.
This is just one of several scenarios players will be invited to explore when World of Horror enters early access on Steam tomorrow. The monochrome adventure game has been highly anticipated since it first made the scene in 2016, and several years and demos later, it’s finally available to the public in full.
World of Horror is a pastiche of horror influences. It most notably combines the uncaring universe of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos with the macabre style of Japanese manga artist Junji Ito, but fans of all things spooky will be able to pick out several other allusions. One scenario, for instance, has the player traipse through the woods in search of a missing film crew à la The Blair Witch Project. Another is all about finding the culprit behind a series of scissor-based murders, echoing the premise of Clock Tower. There’s even a cute Shiba Inu that runs the main item shop, like something out of a humorous Silent Hill ending.
The first time you open World of Horror, you will be lost. It’s like looking into the cosmic maw of Azathoth and refusing to blink. But this is by design. In paying homage to the classic game designs on old-school platforms like the PC-98, World of Horror throws a lot of information at you at once. Its graphics are simple—when everything is designed in MS Paint, you can’t get too crazy—and numbers litter the screen, which itself is divided into a handful of separate windows. While this can be alleviated a bit by bumping up the colours and choosing between a variety of different palettes, it’s mostly something players will just need to get used to.
The central narrative of World of Horror is vague. Rumours of robed figures, disgusting creatures, and Old Gods reawakening drive the player to research strange occurrences around town. Each playthrough is made up of an overarching disaster caused by some eldritch abomination and five random mysteries that must be solved before entering the foreboding lighthouse that acts as the game’s main goal. In this way, World of Horror functions as a sort of pseudo-roguelike, presenting the player with a totally new experience every time they set foot in the seaside village.
This spontaneity is only further ratcheted up by the myriad random encounters that can occur at every step of the investigation. During one attempt, I died after just 10 minutes to a man whose face glitched out like a broken computer monitor. In another, I had been playing for over an hour when my character finally succumbed to their mounting madness in an alien world. I’ve yet to unlock the padlocks that keep me out of the lighthouse.
Don’t get me wrong—World of Horror is difficult. Enemies hit hard and healing items are hard to come by. But many of my failures can be attributed to the amount of choices overwhelming me into tunnel-vision. Depending on the scenario, your character will be dropped into the middle of town with only a vague idea of where to head next. No matter your destination, the entire region is open, from the apartment building where the player character rests between outings to the shrine on the outskirts of town. At first, it seems like heading directly to the objective is the way to go, but after a few playthroughs, the importance of exploration becomes obvious. Walking into the next encounter equipped with a steak knife and backed up by the local tough from the docks does wonders for your survival.
Combat is similarly bloated. Although there’s a limit to the number of moves you can perform on every turn, the pool from which the player chooses is massive. Do you want to attack? OK, with your fist or with your weapon? Light or heavy? Want to ready your attack beforehand to improve its accuracy? Or wind up a little bit to make it hurt more? How about searching for a new weapon? Dodging? Blocking? Praying to regain some health? Oh man, we haven’t even gotten to the spells yet! And feel free to bow and clap randomly in search of the secret combination that does something cool. I’ve only scratched the strategic surface during my time with World of Horror, but just like my approach to the overworld, I’ve found myself sticking to simplified tactics rather than diving into the complexities due to the paralyzing number of choices the game presents.
World of Horror is at its best when it drops the player into a more finite space, like a high school after dark or a mansion hosting a wake. It’s in these scenarios, where you’re not allowed to leave the immediate area until the mission is completed, that the game truly feels like an adventure. Instead of jumping from objective to objective in the overworld for the next piece of storyline, you’ll be searching for the necessary components to conduct a spirit-banishing ceremony or observing memorial rituals on a strict schedule within just a few rooms. This helps the missions differentiate themselves and become less of a monotonous slog, and I hope the developers add more of these experiences to World of Horror in future updates.
What truly makes World of Horror special are the little things. Watching the world deteriorate with every successful investigation is chilling. Every new scene is breathtaking. The monsters are simultaneously grotesque and beautiful. And not to spoil anything, but leave the game minimized for a few minutes just to see what happens when you come back. The moment-to-moment gameplay makes such an impression that I can’t help capturing a screenshot (or two) with every step I take. The sheer breadth of the work that must have gone into crafting these environments and the creatures that inhabit them gives me second-hand anxiety. But it more than paid off; World of Horror is like no other experience in video games, even with a little extra fat. It’s both familiar and fresh, a remixed nostalgia that gave me exactly what I wanted in a package I never knew was possible.
Oh, and, as for my encounter in the bathroom? I won’t tell you exactly what I found or what happened there, but after returning to my apartment to wash off the grime with a quick soak, I was more than ready for my next adventure. The Old Gods aren’t going to put themselves back to sleep.