It’s no secret that I am an absolute sucker for moody horror games. Games that give the player an indescribable feeling of dread through their graphics, sound, and gameplay are my absolute jam, and I am constantly on the lookout for new titles that really get under your skin. Usually, these titles have fairly simple gameplay, although the best ones go a bit more in depth. Sometimes though, a game’s mood and atmosphere is enough to let me overlook serious design problems. This leads me to the Yomawari series and the complex relationship I have with the duology of games. Let’s go through each one and take a look at how their design can often clash with their mood.
Yomawari: Night Alone
The first game in the series establishes the unique aesthetic that carries over to its sequel. The human characters are designed using a Chibi art style, small bodies and adorably large heads. The unnamed protagonist is a little girl who has an interest in her town’s history and a strong bond with her sister. This cuteness is undermined in the first scene when she’s walking her dog, and said dog is promptly run down by a truck. The scene is delivered with no dramatic music and only ambient noises, which gives the scene a stark, harrowing feeling of realism despite its unrealistic art style.
Shortly after, the protagonist’s sister goes missing, and it becomes clear the town’s spirits are responsible. Each chapter is a sort of side story about a ghost or deity within the town, with the overarching goal of finding the protagonist’s sister looming over your head. For instance, right around the middle of the game, you explore a rice field that leads to a set of cliffs, and the entire time you’re dogged by a classic Japanese ghost archetype (a woman with long dark hair in front of her face). You come to find notes and clues about her, and come to learn her story with very little explicit text. It culminates in a final show down atop the cliff.
In case it isn’t clear, the game leans heavily into Japanese folk lore and classic ghost stories. Sure, the above mentioned ghost is a cliché of J horror at this point, but the way the game is presented gives it a freaky, disturbing edge. The cute art style makes the scary parts that much more effective in a way that feels cohesive rather than at odds with itself. The subtle sound design makes her shrieks stand out in a way that other horror games fail to achieve. The presentation is minimal, but it does so much with what it throws at the player. There’s a very fine line between understated and underdeveloped, but these games fall on the right side of that line.
The presentation and story combine to make this feel like a game where you are truly viewing things through the eyes of a child. I remember being a kid and feeling like a whole bunch of stuff is beyond your control, and that you were merely a small part of the world around you. Yomawari perfectly captures that feeling. The first scene in the game, where the protagonist’s dog is run over, is dripping with both shock and sadness, and it’s made worse when the protagonist can’t decide right away what to do. Evocative is the right word, I think. The world, though small, is densely packed with secrets and side stories, and the minimalist presentation helps put you in the shoes of the scared but determined little girl you play as. She is exploring this harsh, unforgiving, spirit filled world, but is driven by her love for her sister despite the scary things she sees.
I love it. I simply adore the atmosphere of this game and was totally hooked from the get-go. The story, though cryptic, is filled with memorable moments, although we are about to see that some parts of the game are memorable for all the wrong reasons. The game is played from an isometric, top down perspective, and each chapter gives you a very small amount of guidance of where to go. You are free to explore the town at your leisure, although at different points the game will block you off from certain areas. It’s a smart way to guide the player without ever telling them where to go, and the design is such that you rarely ever get stuck with no idea of how to progress.
Another way the game will communicate the right path to the player is with its spirits. The streets of the unnamed town are just crawling with other worldly beings, all of which, it should be said, are gorgeously and disturbingly designed. The strong design helps you know exactly how they behave at a glance too, as each one follows a different pattern. You can hide from spirits using things like signs and bushes, and your heart rate speeds up the closer you are to an enemy. If any ghost touches you at all, it’s a game over and you’re sent back to the last checkpoint (which take the form of Jizo statues).
While you’re wandering the streets, death isn’t too bad, as there are plenty of Jizo statues around, and more than enough coins for the player to use to save at them. The problems start cropping up in the predetermined chase sequences during the main story chapters. See, you can spring around for a pretty decent amount of time as long as you’re not in range of a spirit. For some unknowable reason, the closer you are to one, the faster your stamina drains. It can disappear in a matter of seconds if a spirit is right on top of you. Like I said, while you’re on the streets it’s not too bad, but the game places you in numerous situations where you are forced to run from a monster of some kind.
A section near the end of the game stands out as being particularly aggravating. You’re in a factory trying to dodge a disturbing and well-designed monster, and this thing pops up at predetermined points as you try to find a way out. You must outrun it and hide in order for it to go away. There’s one spot in particular where you must run around the corner of a building as it bares down on you while you frantically try to find a hiding spot. I got stuck on this section for longer than I cared to admit. The thing spawns right next to you, so your stamina drains in the blink of an eye, and the somewhat cumbersome controls makes turning the corner (if you make it that far) tricky. And for as gorgeous as the game is, hiding spots tend to blend into the environment, making them difficult to see if you’re far away (there will be an icon over the protagonist’s head that appears when you draw close to an item you can interact with). Couple that with the hulking monster that does not relent, and your fast draining stamina, and you have a gameplay section that takes far too long to get through, and becomes frustrating more than anything.
There are numerous sequences like this throughout the first title, and they are almost never fun. They come across as a way to add challenge to a game that mostly feels like a walking simulator, but being sent back to the last checkpoint to slowly walk back to the trigger area for a chase only to brush up against the monster because your stamina drained so fast is not enjoyable in the least. It’s a small handful of issues that add up to screen breaking frustration.
It’s a testament to the effort that went into the game’s aesthetic that I would still recommend this first title. From a pure gameplay perspective, the insta-death chase scenes and boss encounters quickly become tedious and almost completely unenjoyable. But the atmosphere the game conjures is like no other game series I’ve played. It’s makes a strong case that, sometimes, a game doesn’t necessarily have to be well designed in order to be a good experience. If enough effort is put into the mood and aesthetic, the glaring flaws can be overlooked.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows
The sequel retains the same mixture of cute chibi art work with horrifying and unique monsters, as well as a similar melancholy atmosphere. This time around, the game centers on two lifelong friends Haru and Yui. They’re both in grade school, but have been attached at the hip since either of them could remember. One night, during fireworks in their home town, the two come to terms with the fact that Haru is moving out of town before the new school year starts. It’s a moving, bittersweet scene, especially after the two of them declare that they will always be best friends. Shortly after, Yui goes missing, and like in the first game, Haru sets off with Yui’s dog Chaco (one of gaming’s absolute best boys) and explores the dark side of her hometown to try and rescue her friend.
In many ways, Midnight Shadows is what every sequel should strive to be, which is to say that it refines many of the problems of the first game. While the narrative in Night Alone was solid and memorable, the bond between the protagonist and her sister didn’t feel as strong as the friendship between Yui and Haru in Midnight Shadows. The opening scene, using the same beautiful, understated style established in the first game, goes a long way towards establishing their bond. It makes you recall your own friendships you had when you were younger, and you are able to project those feelings onto the duo, raising the stakes as Haru desperately searches for Yui.
Also similar to the first game, several of the chapters are self-contained stories about the dark side of Haru’s hometown. At one point you explore a mansion that is itself alive. At another point you explore an abandoned train in the middle of the woods haunted by a terrifying woman in a black dress. And as always, the atmosphere is simply incredible, with graphical tricks playing at the edge of your vision really selling the sense of place for this haunted, troubled town. It isn’t until the game’s latter half that you start to learn more about Yui and Haru, and there are some revelations that almost had me choked up. The story is overall stronger, mixing horror with real, genuine emotion in a supremely affecting and powerful way.
The thing is that, rather than refining the first game’s mechanics, this sequel instead opts to simply throw less out-and-out chase sequences at the player. Mercifully, the game gives you a bit more stamina this time around, although it still runs out faster the closer you are to a monster. And even though there are less chase sequences, the ones that are here still frustrate. There are also numerous confrontations with different spirits, including one that is a mass of fingers and a giant eyeball that wields a giant pair of scissors. These play out almost like puzzles, and although they are never too tough to figure out, the fact that you still die in one hit and must restart from the last checkpoint still gets old after a while.
It’s such an odd feeling to say this, but one has to wonder how a Yomawari game with no chase sequences would do. As mentioned above, they largely feel like the developers shoving some form of challenge into a game that is mostly exploration driven, and they just aren’t very fun. Some of the boss encounters are decent, with one against the aforementioned haunted house standing out as a highlight, but the sense of threat quickly dissipates since death mostly means you are sent back to the last checkpoint, which can be annoyingly far away from where you died.
Both games are at their best while you’re exploring the town for clues, dodging ghosts and soaking up the strong atmosphere. Smartly, both games have a post-game where you are given free reigns to explore each game world in search of extra items and pieces of back story. There are plenty of secrets to uncover after the credits roll, which help give the games longevity beyond their fairly short stories. And this second game in particular has some cool call backs to the first that I won’t spoil, implying that there are more haunted towns out there to be explored.
This is a game series that I want to love. And even though I would recommend both of them, I can’t say that I love them, simply because the developer’s attempts at challenging the player end in frustration more than anything else. But their atmospheres are so strong, so incredibly well done that I would still say that these are must play titles for fans of horror gaming. They’re both a testament to the idea that sometimes, a game is bankable on everything else besides its actual gameplay. It’s an odd thing to say, but it’s true. And despite the frustration both games cause, I would like to see a third installment in this unique, beautiful series. I just hope said third installment will be able to find a way to challenge the player without making them pull their hair out.
The Yomawari games are available on Playstation Vita, Playstation 4, Steam, and Nintendo Switch.