Several years ago, I played a little PSP horror game called Corpse Party. It had its problems like any other game, but my biggest takeaway from it was a big deal. I realized it was possible for a game to have simple, rudimentary visuals and still find ways to scare you. So when World of Horror came to the Siliconera “office,” you bet I jumped on it. Developed by panstasz and published by Ysbryd Games, World of Horror combines the small town body horror of living legend Junji Ito with the existential fear of H.P. Lovecraft.
With light JRPG and punishing roguelike mechanics informing the play and 1-bit visuals reminiscent of old Macintosh computers delivering it, World of Horror is familiar, yet unconventional at the same time. Also, by taking the best of both its inspirations and filling in the blanks with personal flavor, panstasz gracefully avoids the historical ugliness associated with Lovecraft’s works.
This isn’t really meant to be a takedown of Lovecraft’s racism; that’s well-documented enough and it not being a factor in modern Lovecraftian media isn’t remarkable. But what’s fascinating about World of Horror is how it uses its two obvious points of homage to compliment each other. Here’s the setup: you’re a detective, investigating a collection of macabre mysteries haunting a small Japanese town. As this is happening, the elder gods of Eldritch infamy are waking up, and everyone is just like, “Damn. This sucks, probably.” As the gods’ power grows and the shadows of madness take over, all you can do is work to finish what you started and see what happens.
Each mystery finds a way to combine the two styles in fascinating ways. For example, one of the earlier, simpler mysteries involves a school haunted by a scissor-wielding ghoul. It’s a classic Japanese ghost story, but World of Horror’s roguelike event seeds ensure you’ll run into things like zombie school children, faculty members possessed by god knows what, and phenomenon affecting yourself such as an unrelenting sensation that something is moving around under your skin. And try not to go outside if you can avoid it, because chances are you’ll look up and trade glances with the giant, tentacled eyeball in the sky.
Good luck actually solving the full suite of mysteries all in one run, of course. Happy endings aren’t exactly how these kinds of stories end, and World of Horror spares no quarter when it comes to the toll supernatural encounters could take on the mind. If you aren’t being stabbed or beaten to death by the corrupted denizens of the town, you’re seeing things humans were never meant to know and losing all sense of reason. That’s just as lethal, or it may as well be. Luckily World of Horror keeps track of everything you run into, so even when your run ends short, you’re making “progress.”
A lot of this playtest is coming off as vague, because that’s the nature of an experience like World of Horror. It’s just as much a vibe as it is an interactive experience. The grainy, manga-like imagery, early 90s computer music, and the innate dread of clicking on something knowing you’re at the mercy of unknown forces all washes over you and helps tune you out of reality. That’s how, despite how crude it is by contemporary standards, World of Horror is able to bypass the “retro” or “indie game” vibe and earn its horror badge with great affect.
World of Horror is currently available on Steam (Early Access) and Xbox Game Pass for PC (Beta).