Maybe the monsters will be the death of me this time, assuming the unnatural holes that have recently opened up on my face don’t finish me off first. Maybe neither of them will, because the ancient abomination inching ever closer towards what’s left of reality will snap my mind in two long before it comes to that.
Need to know
What is it? A combination of retro adventuring, digital tabletop game, and terrible nightmares
Release date: October 19, 2023
Expect to pay: £16.75 / $19.99
Publisher: Ysbryd Games, PLAYISM
Reviewed on: Intel i9-13900HX, GeForce RTX 4080 (laptop), 16GB RAM
Steam Deck: Verified
Maybe—just maybe—I’ll push through, save the world, and most people will never realise anything strange was happening at all. Maybe.
It’s this uncertainty that makes World of Horror, a game best described as a head-on collision between Junji Ito’s imaginative cosmic horror and HP Lovecraft’s tentacle-strewn Cthulhu mythos, so compelling. I can never be quite sure of how the story’s going to end: each mystery can play out in multiple ways, based on a combination of my own actions in the moment as well as whether I dare to fulfil a risky additional objective, which might help the town but put me in harm’s way in the process.
This bit of agency in an adventure game is exciting, but also makes World of Horror scarier. I can’t just click through creepy pictures until I get to the end (or die): I have to actually read the burnt notes I find for clues, listen to gossip and actually remember what was said, and then—if I’ve got the awareness and equipment to do so—perhaps use this information to push a mystery towards a better conclusion. One of my “favourite” climaxes sees my poor character piercing someone’s eye with a needle in a desperate attempt to save them from an even more gruesome fate, and I’m the one who has to mouse their eyeball and manually click the needle in myself, with my own hand.
In the heat of the moment I’m right there, and I hesitate just a little before I remind myself that this is the least bad thing that could happen to them. As unpredictable as the game may be, I’m always right at the blackened heart of this supernatural storm. I’m always the one thing that makes a real difference.
For all the gore, ghouls, and randomised micro-scenarios that may help or hinder my progress, there’s a rigid structure to World of Horror that keeps this eldritch uncertainty from descending into a disjointed monster mash. I know I always have to solve five mysteries, each with their own specific goals, unique encounters, and endings. I know I then have to use the keys earned from completing these mysteries to unlock the lighthouse door and hopefully save the universe as we know it. Whatever happens—and the game is not shy about getting downright weird—there’s always some sliver of hope, something concrete to aim for. If I can just hang on a little longer I know I can make it through, or at the very least lose my sanity in a productive way.
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All of this impending doom is conveyed using the sort of graphics usually found on dusty 5-inch floppy discs, a world made of heavily dithered monochrome pixel art. As simplistic as that may sound, nothing could suit the game better. Every scene is detailed enough to make me wish I couldn’t see the hungry eyes staring out from the twisted remains of someone’s face, while still leaving enough of a void-like nothing in there to encourage my already nightmare-inclined imagination to eagerly fill in the gaps. I may not always know what the hell it is I’m looking at, but I know in my bones it’s something truly awful.
World of Horror’s story follows a similar minimalist style, creating an unsettling feeling of being lost or hunted, than it is to follow a typical flowing narrative. This lack of consistency is actually a strength: it makes it easier for me to weave the deliberately fractured scraps into a sort of improvised dreamlike whole. Going from opening my bills to finding a bloodsoaked box to encountering a man prepared to trade my memories for cold hard cash may not make much sense, but it does make me feel like I’m in danger, like reality’s on the verge of collapse, and nowhere is safe.
When the shadows do inevitably come for me, World of Horror’s achievement system manages to make death still feel like some sort of win. Whether I banish the ancient horrors or not, performing certain actions as I play—helping someone out, poking something I perhaps shouldn’t, even dying in a specific way—can unlock new spells, costumes, items, and more. There’s always some sort of reward waiting just around the corner, even when a run ends early because I’ve succumbed to madness on another plane of existence. No matter what I do the game just keeps getting more varied, more interesting. I’m never put in a position where a mystery I’ve played through before comes up and the only difference is I pick Option B instead of Option A.
There are plenty of ways to make each run feel as fresh as a newborn shoggoth, with different ancient gods to fight against, mysteries to solve, characters to play as, and customisable background stories to go with them. I can even tweak the overall difficulty at the start of each run. It’s a practical, patience-saving alternative to the usual roguelike setup of either repetitively grinding until I’m strong enough to succeed no matter what, or blindly throwing myself into a run and simply praying I’ll be lucky this time around.
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I only rarely stumbled into moments that felt poorly designed rather than cosmically cursed. World of Horror is many things, but a carefully balanced game is not one of them. I find spells generally fail to justify the drain on my Reason required to cast them, and properly dealing with ghosts in battle using a series of claps and bows just isn’t worth the hassle. But in a roguelite that lasts perhaps half an hour on a successful run, these issues don’t have a snowball in hell’s chance of sticking around long enough to cause a real problem, and there are more than enough alternative ways to cause damage or recover from it anyway. If anything, repeat plays only make it clear that the game is more unbalanced in my favour than the grisly trappings would initially have me believe.
Even with those snags, World of Horror is a superb horror adventure that does a fantastic job of making every dark curse feel like another claw tightening around my character’s doomed throat, and every hard-won boon frighteningly temporary. A full run might not last long on its own, but it’s a very easy game to play all night long—sleeping isn’t recommended after you’ve caught the Old Ones attention, anyway.
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