Game: Yomawari: Midnight Shadows
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Publisher: NIS America
Reviewed on: PS4 (Review code provided)
Nippon Ichi Software is back with a new terrifying addition to their Yomawari series titled Midnight Shadows, a Japanese survival horror video game. This dramatic tale takes you in the footsteps of two lost elementary school girls, Yui and Haru, as you traverse your hometown to find one another. But it’s not as cute as it first appears; something evil is lurking in the dark, they’re out to get you and there’s yokai closing in on every side. Fighting for your life inside these killer, thriller nights, are you up to the challenge to find each other in the darkness? Even I was unprepared for what I was about to experience…!
Whilst Yomawari: Midnight Shadows is a sequel to its predecessor Night Alone, the story that is about to unfold is an entirely separate entity, meaning that no previous experience is required in order to get the most from this game. In fact, if like myself you have no prior knowledge then this will only make the following hours all the more harrowing for you! To put my personal opinion out here and to help set the tone, I don’t feel the PEGI 12 age rating is appropriate to the graphic scenes depicted within; at the very least I would suggest 15 onwards to avoid any nightmares. Heck, even at 28 I didn’t really want to face this alone in the dark and was repeatedly told off for my constant shrieking…
Set in a seemingly quaint Japanese town, summer vacation is coming to an end and two young girls, Yui and Haru visit the mountaintop to watch the evening fireworks together. Sounds nice right? During the display, Haru explains that this is the last time they will be able to watch the fireworks together as she will soon be leaving town. As sadness sets in, night envelops the town in darkness. As the girls journey home, something lunges at them from the shadows to attack and the two girls find themselves lost and separated in the dark. Alone and afraid, the girls must brace themselves for the terrors of the night and face the darkness to reunite and make their way home.
Bizarrely, the game opens up with a specific set of instructions: turn off all the lights and focus your attention solely on the screen, even going so far as asking you to promise. I had intentionally not looked into this game at all in order to heighten my experience, and placing my judgements on the cover art and cute chibi character styles I thought to myself, this can’t be that scary… Well, I was about to eat my words. I proceeded to turn off all the lights, close all the blinds and turned up the volume before placing myself in front of the TV with my eyes and mind focused. As the dark screen lingered I had a sense that something was about to happen, you know, like when you are asked to watch one of these seemingly innocent videos but then after a while something scary jumps out at the screen. Well, that didn’t happen. I was left slightly disappointed by this and thus began the story. Boy oh boy was I wrong, I wasn’t disappointed for long… After a brief opening explaining the mechanics, I was totally unprepared for what was about to happen! What greeted me next was one of the grimmest and morbid scenes I have ever witnessed and left me agape in shock for a good 10 minutes trying to comprehend the horror that had just unfolded. It’s an experience that has shook me and will stick with me for a long time.
Japanese horrors are the only ones that seem to invoke the most emotions from me. Whilst western horrors mostly involve gruesome looking characters and scary moments, most often I find them lacking in leaving an impression. Nippon Ichi Software, however, have exceeded my expectations and have mastered the perfect horror by invoking our most innate fears. One way they have achieved this is by creating the perfect ambience. There is no musical score here, only the calls of the night that make hairs stand on end and hearts pulsate. As you explore the town you can hear the rustling of the trees, the leaves and crunchy gravel underfoot, the cicadas song and the electrical hums of street lamps and vending machines. As you explore an abandoned mansion, floorboards creak, doors slam and windows rattle. All of these are familiar frights from our childhoods, and whilst you may think you have grown out of them, it’s amazing how the darkness pulls you back. Under the cover of night, the yokai come out with wails of suffering voiced in Japanese such as Yonkai Baba or Teke Teke that particularly creeped me out. As these various yokai inch ever closer to you as you wander the town, your heart will pulsate through the speakers, increasing in rhythm as they get closer whilst the screen throbs. In turn, my own heartbeat would begin to go crazy and it was soon hard to distinguish if it was more mine or the games.
When it comes to visuals, they have also done an exceptional job in heightening our experience. The game itself has a beautiful painted art style with kawaii chibi illustrations, using parallax scrolling at certain scenes to create gorgeous depth and add great immersion to the game. I will admit, I especially squealed when a spider complete with webbing popped out in the foreground hindering my visibility! The quality is a little pixelated, especially when zoomed in once undercover but overall this added to the charm. Frame rate was often solid, only dipping on the odd occasion but this was hardly noticeable and did not interrupt gameplay. It really is a beautiful game, especially with the rare burnt, blood like sky.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows owes its big horror success to how well the team have implemented the evocation of our innate fears, especially if the opening instructions are up-kept by the player. The ambience, coupled with the impairment of our visual senses in the dark has a huge impact on our human psyche. Despite our evolution from our ancestors, we still rely on our visuals to protect us. Black represents darkness, but it is not the darkness itself we fear, rather it is what the darkness conceals that may bring us harm. The gameplay utilises all of this to create a terrifying experience, despite the somewhat simplistic mechanics. Throughout the game, you will change perspectives between Yui and Haru, though most of the story unfolds through Haru’s eyes, with Yui’s scenes connecting the development between chapters. The goal is to find Yui, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, Haru takes it upon herself to explore the town at night. Seriously, this little girl has GUTS! She is so unbelievably courageous; despite being scared and alone her desire to find her friend urges her on. The game plays upon our perceptions of night, and even though you should know your own town well, under the cover of darkness everything is different. You may walk the same path every day, but at night it always seems unfamiliar and scary.
As little girls, there is no combat to be found and demons cannot be fought. Armed with only a flashlight, you must explore the streets alone. The map starts off more or less empty, completing over time in childish scribbles as you traverse your hometown. It’s actually rather detailed sketching for a young girl, with landmarks and areas of interest marked down. Loneliness is instilled with every step you take as you travel alone and what’s worse is that you are far from alone, as a plethora of yokai and mononoke roam the streets. Each one has unique characteristics steeped in Japanese lore and will require different tactics to evade. As you explore with your flashlight you will come across a glimmer on the ground representing an item that can be picked up. These are split into collectables, key items and usable items, some with a limit on how many you can carry at a time. As you cannot fight the yokai you will have to find other ways around them, and some will block your path forcing you to find an alternative route or signalling an area which can’t be reached until a later point. Items such as rocks or paper planes can be used to distract the yokai, whilst some will force you to run for your life. As you run, a stamina bar represents the duration you can last before exhaustion slows you down, so it’s best to pace yourself where you can. If running isn’t an option, nearby bushes or police signs are good places to hide until the yokai retreats, but these moments are tense as your heart goes crazy. Sneaking or turning off your flashlight is also an option and can help in avoiding detection.
Other useful items you can collect are coins which can be used to save your game at nearby telephones or as offerings at Jizo statues. Though you might expect these coins to be rare, they are actually in plentiful supply which might make things a little too easy. These points are always good to check, as being captured by a yokai will result in instant death and will take you back to your last save point. Luckily any items you collect will still remain with you, which whilst easy does save all the hard work you just put in. The Jizo statues are also useful to use as teleportation to various sections of the map. Making your way through these streets fills you with anxiety, and as the fear sets in it can be hard to push forward, yet I found the story so compelling that I could not avert my eyes and I had to push on. I have to find Yui and I must see where this story will end, I constantly told myself. I perished many a time, but I could not stop pushing forward on these puzzling streets; with trial and error I would persevere to the end! Charms were particularly handy for facing certain situations, granting abilities such as running for longer which was perhaps the most useful.
This game has certainly put me through my paces. I have lost count of the number of times I have shrieked as a yokai jumps out from nowhere, or the screen is enveloped in complete darkness. I have been a nervous wreck, especially after being chased by Mr. Kotowari with his relentless effort to cut me. The story has gripped my heart, and yes, I have cried. By the time I had completed the game I had suffered through 10 hours of horror, filled with despair yet great appreciation for such a heart-wrenching experience. Now I just need to play through the post-game to go back and find all the collectables and read further into the dark mysteries that haunt this town…
A tale of harrowing terror and enduring friendship! Despite inflicting such horrors upon me, this tale is one filled with not only despair but inspiration. Haru has been so inspiring; if she can push on through all of what she’s been through then surely I can face my fears too! This game will give you all the feels: fear, sorrow, anger and frustration, but overall I was left with a deep admiration over the bonds these girls share and the lengths they were willing to go through for each other. This game is a testament to how easily we can be gripped by our innate emotions, yet no matter what happens we can somehow find the strength to go on. I can’t wait to see where Nippon Ichi Software will take us next!