I’m not so sure about horror games, anymore. Back in my younger days, I was easily frightened by the Resident Evil series. Heck, I remember dealing with frequent nightmares after the release of the Gamecube remake of the original game in the series. These days, however, I’m too confident in my capabilities in video games and too analytical of gameplay mechanics to the point where the seams show and I can predict how things are going to work. I’m not trying to brag, I’m nothing special, but I’ve at least learned that I’m capable of comfortably reaching the end of modern single-player games, and that’s enough to undermine the horror. With that kind of security, horror games have lost their edge for me
I still play them, though. Alien Isolation was probably the most stressful and frightening game I’ve played in years, and I attribute that largely to its hard to predict AI. Even for games that don’t chill my bones, they usually have some sort of message beneath the slippery gore that make them worthwhile experiences. That brings us to Yomawari: Night Alone. Originally released on the Playstation Vita, it gained enough of a following that it made its way to PC, PS4, and now, the Switch.
AFRAID OF THE DARK
Yomawari starts off by having you kill your dog. Not directly, of course, but through the course of the tutorial, it makes you responsible, you monster. You play as an unnamed little schoolgirl who, after losing her dog, then has her sister go missing. You’re tasked with setting out into the night to find both your lost pet and your sister
That’s all the instruction you get from the beginning, leaving you to explore the town for clues as to where they may be. However, there’s more than just darkness out in the streets of the suburbs, so you’ll have to avoid various monsters in your quest to reunite with your sister.
Do you remember what it was like to be afraid of the dark? Your eyes make shapes of the shadows, to the point where you’d be almost certain that a dark presence lurks under the bed, or that a veiled figure loomed over you. The monster designs remind me of that; weird, twisted monstrosities that don’t make much sense, individually. Most of them only show up when your flashlight is cast over them, causing most of them to only be glanced in the darkness.
The artstyle is easily Yomawari’s best feature. Characters are rendered in adorable chibi proportions, which provides a nice juxtaposition against the creeping horror and isolating darkness of the outside world. There is some legitimately disturbing imagery, that I found absolutely chilling. I wish it was sometimes a little bit more subtle about it, but it never misses the mark so hard that it becomes cheesy.
POOLS OF LIGHT
The game is broken into chapters, with each having you explore a different segment of the town. There are hints, both subtle and overt, that point you where you need to go each time, and the actual landmarks are pasted all over your map from the start, with you being left to only fill in the roads and pathways.
This allows the game to provide some variety in gameplay. At one point you’ll be exploring the school grounds, and the next you’re in a bug infested mall. Yomawari never derails itself too much, but it does mix things up enough to keep things fresh until the end.
Along the way, there’s various collectibles you can pick up, that provide both flavour text and a secondary goal, if you’re the type who likes to go for 100% completion. The flavour text is often appropriately creepy, talking about the town’s various legends and the horrors that others have faced. They’re usually short, cryptic, and sometimes useless, but it can be fun to gather it all.
KEEP THE LIGHTS ON
There’s no combat in Yomawari, so it’s almost entirely an avoidance game, and this is actually the critical area that the game trips over itself. The only tools you have for avoiding spirits are your two legs, your flashlight, and various hiding spaces which I found borderline useless outside some rare circumstances. This isn’t too troubling, it works, and once you get used to the movement patterns of the various spirits, they’re more of a nuisance than a threat.
The issues start piling up whenever the game descends into basic puzzle solving. Usually this simply involves figuring out how to get by some specific spirit, and this, unfortunately, means dying a lot.
There isn’t much punishment for death; you’re sent back to the last quicksave point and that’s about it. This becomes the most obvious during these puzzles where you die repeatedly trying to figure out what the game wants you to do. The spirits are at their scariest when you can’t see them very well, but when you’re getting an eyeful every thirty seconds, they lose their impact. And once you get used to the fact that dying doesn’t carry any repercussion, the whole game feels less threatening.
Not to mention that the puzzles just aren’t very good. The most creative they get is when you have to fool a spirit, and that, once again, means dying a bunch. The spirits can be hard to predict, and this means that, even when you think you’re doing everything right, you could end up dying because you misjudged timing or the hit detection just slightly. There were a few moments where I became deeply annoyed, and even one where I had to put the controller down and walk away. That’s not a response that’s exclusive to Yomawari, but it’s never good when it crops up.
THE SHADOWS ARE ANGRY
The thing is, while I think I appreciate Yomawari as a complete package, I don’t think I actually enjoyed playing it. In terms of atmosphere, sound design, and aesthetic, it’s a real treat, but the gameplay? Eeeenh. Even if I was frightened of Yomawari’s monster, I’m pretty sure that would dissipate every time I got stuck on one of its puzzles. The gameplay itself could have used some more rigidity and more polish.
While Yomawari has an interesting and creepy story to carry it along, I found it more sad than scary. When it comes down to it, it’s more of a coming-of-age story than one of adversity. The little girl you play as has to come to terms with loss and responsibility, and the horrors she faces seem more like a reflection of those fears and anxieties we all have during the years that we first feel the weight of the reality pressing down on us. Having to shoulder your problems and head out into the darkness is scary for us all.
This game was reviewed on a Nintendo Switch using a physical cartridge copy of the first two games. It was paid for by the author.