Mycorrhiza Review: Horror Manga-Inspired Unpleasantness (In a Good Way)

World of Horror excited me because, underneath its 80s computer aesthetic, it was the first game, for me at least, that really felt like an adaptation of Horror Manga, albeit an unofficial one. The works of folks such as Junji Ito and (to a lesser, but no less worthy extent), Masaaki Nakayama are fast becoming the kind of cultural touchstone for fucked up horror that the likes of Lovecraft have been. Only, in the case of Ito, less problematic and even more into cats. So when Mycorrhiza by FulminisIctus showed up with its Horror Manga visuals looking all creepy and that, I was quite keen to dive into it. Sight unseen, I braved this game in the hope of a delightfully dreadful treat. Was I left satisfied? Well, that’s where the rest of the review comes in…

Mycorrhiza is normally the term for the symbiotic relationship between plant and fungi, which was another exciting aspect for me because ever since I read Harry Adam Knight’s novel The Fungus about 27 years ago (yes I’m old), I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between fungus and other beings and how that works as a horror mechanism. The game Mycorrhiza, which is a visual novel, certainly has an element of that, but in typical Horror Manga fashion, it’s not quite as simple as all that.

Scott awakens in a rain-soaked alleyway, with no recollection of how he ended up there. He stumbles upon a brightly lit home and decides it’s the place to go for answers. When nobody responds to the doorbell (an ominous gong sounds instead of the usual ding-dong or buzz), he finds a way inside and is compelled to sleep, and crashes into slumber in a stranger’s bed. As he dreams, a storybook hurtles through the darkness, offering glimpses of unpleasant things, and setting up the game’s title screen; three doors and a discordant piano track.

There are three doors in Mycorrhiza. Each offers up its own deranged tale. The protagonist of this tale just wants answers and to get home, and this is what stands in their way. The question is not one of ‘do I go through with this?’ but ‘which circle of hell do I start with?’ and that is a tantalizing peek into what comes next.

This self-proclaimed ‘love letter’ to Horror Manga isn’t selling itself short in that department. Mycorrhiza bleeds the ink of that genre from the start. The sense of unsettling dread that escalates into aghast horror at what is being seen is a key component of Horror Manga, and it’s very much present here as well. Scenes are presented in a monochrome fashion befitting the penwork greats of the genre used to heighten their increasingly bizarre works. The soundtrack is especially effective. Off-key piano and synth offer up a mournful, dreamy atmosphere, and the sound effects peppered into the story really add to the audiovisual picture that forms in your head.

In the first story, ‘Pets,’ Scott awakens in the stranger’s bed, seemingly from a nightmare. He leaves the house and emerges into the daylight of an unknown rural village. Bewildered and finding the locals unhelpful, panic sets in, but soon he stumbles, quite literally, into a young woman called May, who offers him her phone to call someone. Of course, Scott can’t get through to anyone, and so the questions keep stacking up.

There’s a hostility in the air, and Scott, without a clue where he is, and with no means to find a way out, goes in search of something to eat. From there, things get disturbingly weird. The stories about missing pets that Scott overhears will turn out to be the catalyst for this tale’s unimaginable happenings.

It soon becomes apparent Scott can meet many nasty fates along the way, and in the first choice of this episode, the wrong decision leads to a rather grisly fate. The alternative path wasn’t exactly frolicking in the fields with bunnies either though, which makes sense. As Scott descends into a waking nightmare, the dread ratchets up and the strangeness becomes more alarming without going for the cheap shots.

As the story comes to its chilling conclusion, it becomes a little clearer how these stories will connect regardless of what order you pick them.

The second tale is ‘A Guide to Funny Faces, and Scott again wakes up in that bed, but upon leaving the building, he finds not a desolated village, but an intimidatingly large town. Familiar faces crop up, and the story has its own unique oddness, but the key, tantalizing connection is there, and it keeps you on the hook. Of the three tales, it’s the most deliciously absurd, but no less effective for it. It’s very much the chapter that connects the game’s name to the subject matter best.

The third story is ‘Trapped’ and it opens in much the same way the first and second stories do, but when Scott leaves the bedroom, he finds a long hallway instead of the rest of the small home he’d previously inhabited. In fact, it’s soon clear he’s definitely not in Kansas anymore. Perhaps more disturbingly for Scott, this new locale once again has some familiar faces that only serve to deepen the core mystery of Mycorrhiza.

Without spoiling too much, I really appreciated what Mycorrhiza did with its story. It has a human side that truly makes the nastier, freakier stuff work even better. The way each individual tale essentially rejigs the basic plot points into new forms is a thematic trend that feels comforting despite the otherwise unsettling nature of the game’s story. The writing doesn’t get too flowery to make a point of its stranger side, in fact, its almost bullet point style taps at you in a deliberately unpleasant rhythm.

The choices in these stories are quite limited, but they score big for impact. No decision feels like an afterthought, and there’s a range of emotional responses and cursed encounters to be discovered via your actions in these moments.

As horror visual novels go, Mycorrhiza does a fantastic job of selling its unsettling terror. It’s not going quite as hard, visually speaking, on recreating Horror Manga, as I expected (some backgrounds are of a more realistic style), but it absolutely gets the vibe right. The result is a trio of stories that don’t feel that out of place with the ones they are so blatantly homaging.
Mycorrhiza is out August 12 on itch.io