World of Horror review

World of Horror is an unsettling but interesting myriad of genres, twisting together Lovecraftian themes with a Junji Ito inspired art style, and packaged together as a 1-bit text-based cosmic horror RPG rogue-like. And what a blessed mishmash – everything has been intricately created in MS Paint with a chiptune soundtrack. Ahh the olden days.

Elder Gods are awakening, summoned by a cult in a small Japanese town, and their arrival is imminent. There is nothing to do but chase enigmatic clues and face the reign of apocalyptic mind-melting terror and survive. By choosing between different characters, each with their own stats and traits, you’ll solve mysteries and gather information to reach the lighthouse and stave off the end of the world.

Each new “run” is a randomised selection of 5 mysteries, each with multiple endings to be concluded. The randomised element doesn’t just include the cases, but the interactions within the gameplay itself. You will investigate both relevant and potentially irrelevant locations for information, ritualistic tools, and clues, but you may have to investigate them multiple times before you find what you seek. But it also brings risks. Seemingly safe areas such as schools and hospitals are potentially perilous, with all kinds of oddities and horrors lurking to decrease your Reason (sanity) as your actions draw in the heralded Doom.

As each concludes, the Elder God curses the town further, spreading further paranoias and making things more difficult.

On one such run, I played as a cool cigarette smoking Yakuza dude who picked up a mutation where his skin was covered in tiny holes only he could see, impacting his mental state. The Elder God cursed the townspeople to be more wary of one another, causing the shopkeepers to increase prices. This impacted my ability to buy smokes for him because I didn’t have enough money, causing him to go into nicotine withdrawal and impacting his stats further.

Encounters with almost everything are detrimental in some way. Letters are delivered, and if you choose to open them, you’ll likely have to pay bills and lose funds, but ignoring them induces anxiety. Every choice you make comes back to haunt you, but in some rare instances helps. I think this is a good spin on things, though. It really emphasises how dangerous and chaotic the world has become. In one encounter, for example, I ran into a woman who was “sacrificing herself” and attempted to talk her down but failed due to my low charisma. As a different character, I stumbled across her again and succeeded in talking her out of it. She gave me a ritual dagger which I used in later cases in fights against ghosts which can’t be damaged with physical weapons. If I had attempted the cases in a different order, I probably wouldn’t have survived the run.

Indeed, my first win wasn’t until I was already two and a half hours acquainted and four runs deep into World of Horror. By this time, I had begun to understand how to best try to manage my stamina and reason, overexerting both will lead to game over from deathly exhaustion or being committed to an insane asylum. There are small ways to replenish both, but the best ways come with the largest risks. You can cast spells or use cursed items, but often at the cost of another precious resource or increasing the rate the encroaching Doom approaches.

Additionally, there is no need to fight every monster you come across (unless for example, an Elder God has cursed the town disabling the ability to escape from conflicts), enabling you to balance the risks. Argh but everything is a risk! Even if you can escape from fights, you sacrifice the experience you’d have learned and level up slower – delaying your ability to pick potentially potent perks and give yourself stat bonuses.

Combat is relatively simple on the surface, selecting time-based actions within your turn to fill up the meter. Actions have different time costs, so you must plan them carefully for the best results. There are a lot of actions to choose from, but since there is no time limit within battles, you can take your time to create a plan of action. Some of them are contextual; if you have an ally with you, they can be ordered to attack or distract. If you know the proper ritual, you could try to pray the ghosts away.

Random events are blissfully awful and creepy in some way, but you find yourself looking forward to each new one. The art and descriptive yet concise storytelling is incredibly engaging, and the multiple endings leave a lot of room for replaying again and again just to fill out your monster bestiary and make more items and allies available in later tries.

I lost one run with a guy who had 5 spells, all of which I couldn’t justify their cost to use as they would have tipped me beyond insanity. That sounds annoying, but you must laugh at the idea of a young guy running around a cursed town throwing broken bottles at ghosts as his only means of attack. On the flip side of things, I lost several allies trying to survive a run, including three students and a dog – but don’t call the RSPCA or police on me yet, they died heroically trying to distract my modem from killing me as I poked it with a branch. There are clearly correct ways to do things, but success is largely dependent on your stats and the choices you’ve made previously, but there’s definitely humour to be found in your demise under the skin of it.

With difficulty options and challenges, there are plenty more nightmares to be discovered. The challenges introduce run misbalancing caveats to overcome, some of which are savage. One that I tried cursed all my human allies to die immediately, despite having a perk that increased my reason stat+2 at the end of a case if I had two allies. My human ally instantly tripped and broke their neck before we’d taken a single step! Another forces you to play as the weakest character with the added bonus of a horrifying facial distortion, preventing you from being able to run from all combat encounters because you’re so bloody hideous you shouldn’t possibly be allowed to live. Ooof.

Even though World of Horror is tough, it feels realistic in the sense of how I would expect myself or other people to behave during such an event. I sometimes died just from going insane battling monsters, and at times I ran around “investigating” but not really having any idea what I was doing and stumbling across the answers.

This is the only complaint I have about the game. The screen can be so busy with different pieces of information, or indeed the art is so attention-grabbing, you often miss other things. It’s almost like trying to navigate a game within a nightmarish dream. While the game does try to mitigate this with colour palettes it doesn’t change the fact that there is a lot to take in. I’d like to say that mindful exploration and reading the texts carefully certainly help, but sometimes I felt like I just stumbled across an ending to a case after following the location marker and investigating there a few times.

In this regard, I feel like the learning curve is quite moderate. While it didn’t take more than a couple of hours to win my first run, it certainly took longer to learn to navigate a roguelike as a text based adventure. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing as most fans of either roguelikes or text based adventures expect to be in for the long haul. They are a time commitment to consume and excel in, but this blend of genres emphasises that commitment with quite a few menus and pieces of information to take in all at once. Maybe that’s just my ADHD struggling.

Altogether, World of Horror is tantalisingly creepy, and weirdly disturbing without being gory. I find myself thinking about days later. The concept is great, the art is awesome, and the chiptune soundtrack is a perfect fit with the 1-bit graphics. It’s difficult in a punishing way, but the almost bite-sized case sizes and multiple endings provide a lot of intrigue and a satisfying game loop so that “just one more go” is never far from your broken mind.

panstasz’s World of Horror launches 19th Oct on all formats. Published by Ysbryd Games.