World of Horror Review – At the Manga of Madness
Picture this. I’ve just brought a can of soda from my local store (which is run by a Shiba Inu, by the way), after escaping a band of masked cultists. Then a sweaty salesman with pupil-less eyes approaches me and forces me to sell a jar of my own blood. Still, I get three monies for it, so I guess it’s not all bad. But after all that I could really do with a hot bath – helps keep the ol’ insanity at bay, y’know? Problem is, as soon as I get to my apartment block hallway, I’m confronted by a ghoulish neighbour with twisted limbs who’s trying to rip my face off. Bloody hell, man; I was only trying to check my mailbox! And to top it all off, if I don’t figure out what’s going on in this nuthouse of a town soon, the whole world’s gonna end in an orgy of blood, nightmares and eldritch horrors. Yeesh, what a day!
The above is about as near as I can approximate in narrative form what it’s like trying to play World of Horror. Developed by solo developer Paweł ‘Panstasz’ Koźmiński, this 1-bit horror RPG has now finally been given a full release, after originally hitting Early Access back in 2020. Set in the secluded Japanese village of Shiokawa, you play as one of several investigators returning to the doomed town to stop the summoning of a Lovecraftian deity. To do so, you’ll have to get to the bottom of five randomised mysteries before the Old God breaks free… assuming death or madness doesn’t take you first.
The game’s horror visuals are probably its strongest selling point. Entirely drawn in MS Paint, World of Horror is full of all manner of bizarre and disturbing sights, and a large part of the fun comes from seeing what mind-curdling monstrosity you’re going to confront next. Having said that, the game riffs so heavily on the works of Junji Ito that calling it merely ‘inspired by’ the famed manga horror artist would be disingenuous. There’s a legitimate debate to be had here over the point at which a homage to something just becomes outright plagiarism, and I’d be hard pressed to honestly say that World of Horror doesn’t fall into the latter category with its aesthetics. Still, it’s abundantly clear that the developer intended the whole game as something of a love letter to Ito and H. P. Lovecraft, so who am I to dunk all over his passions?
Mechanically, World of Horror is fundamentally a game about managing stats, acquiring resources and taking calculated risks. If you’re a fan of the Arkham Horror card game, this is the sort of numbers-driven, probability-based experience that’s going to be right up your alley. Personally, I’m not, so I can see how the game might scare away players the first time they clap eyes on it – and not in a good way, either. I shan’t lie: my initial impression of World of Horror wasn’t great. As I booted up the game I was confronted by a mess of monochromatic menus, screens and stats, none of which I understood. Even the developer himself seemed aware of just how intimidating the thing looks to newcomers, given the pop-up message that shortly came up with words to that effect. Still, I took the game’s advice and gingerly chose the short tutorial. While I was still a bit shaky on the game’s systems at the end of it, I got enough of a grasp on things to be able to go into the game proper.
Press past that initial confusion, and it transpires that game’s learning curve isn’t actually all that steep. That is, it isn’t steep in terms of just learning the mechanics. Mastering them is a different matter entirely. World of Horror is one of those titles where survival is far from guaranteed, and even on easy difficulty (the ‘Skeptic’ character build) you shouldn’t be too surprised if your efforts end in failure. The main things to keep an eye on are your Stamina and Reason numbers, located in the bottom right-hand screen. These are your health and sanity points; if either of these reach zero, it’s curtains for you. The other big thing to watch is the Doom meter at the top of the screen, which represents how close the Old God is to breaking through to reality. A lot of things can increase this, and, again, if it reaches 100%, it’s goodbye world.
The other major gameplay element to wrap your head around is the game’s turn-based combat, which requires you to stack up a list of actions – dodge, kick, attack with weapon, brace, et cetera – each round. Each action has a cost in the form of time points. Generally, I found that the best tactic was to drop some cash on a decent weapon early on like a crowbar or steak knife, then spend each round dodging, prepping for an attack (which guarantees the next hit), and making heavy or light swings depending on how many time points I had left. There may be other playstyles, but that one worked for me most of the time.
While we’re talking tips, one last thing that initially threw me was that each mystery’s plot and the game’s encounters aren’t really all that linked, besides loosely taking place in the same locale. For example, one case initially had me trying to locate a PC in a couple of the game’s areas – the school, downtown, and my own apartment. Every time I undertook an investigation action in each place – that is, engaged in a random encounter – that mystery’s plot would progress a little more. A short bit of text would tell me I’d stumbled into a friend with a PC, for example, then that I’d collected it from her place, then that I’d lugged it all the way back to mine. But each encounter that I used to do all this didn’t really have any bearing on events; I might run into a random monster, get a spot of good fortune, or have something creepy occur that would negatively affect my stats. Only when the mystery was nearing its end would plot and encounters become linked, usually in the form of requiring me to explore a location with specific events, and/ or face off against the mystery’s boss. Once I clocked what was going on, things became a lot more understandable.
Performance-wise, bugginess was a dominant theme in Dread XP’s original Early Access review of World of Horror. Fortunately, I’m glad to say that this situation has improved drastically. The main problem I found was a screen misalignment in fullscreen mode, which meant that I couldn’t use the option to have the viewport appear as though I was playing the game on a chunky old 80’s/ early 90’s computer at night. This was a bit of a shame, as I wonder whether I missed any fourth-wall breaking horror moments by not having this option turned on. In-game, however, things were virtually bug-free, although I did once get a game over because of a full Doom meter when I swear it was only at 40%. On the other hand, that may have been because I’d failed to notice some hidden mechanic or other.
This leads me on to one of only two real gripes I have with the game. While World of Horror certainly has a lot of depth (seriously; the number of encounters, items, mysteries, case endings, characters and Old Gods there are is just mind-boggling), I’m not exactly convinced that it’s particularly finely balanced. Spellcasting is a generally a pain, and not worth the cost in Reason. The game’s also fond of hitting you with cheap shots. You’re feeling weak and could use a bath to restore Stamina, reads one encounter. Cold water is recommended. Do you run hot or cold water? Oh, you chose cold. Turns out this was something that required a skill check; you failed it and now you’ve got a chill: -2 Stamina.
This kind of thing isn’t as big an issue as it may seem. The game has an almost roguelike nature, and a full playthrough generally only lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours tops. It’s designed to be played again and again, in short bursts, and even in a run that ends in failure you’ll likely have discovered or unlocked something new. This does lead to my second criticism, though, which is that the game isn’t scary, at least for me. Like, at all. The game is too fast paced to have any sort of buildup, and the horror comes at you so thick and fast that there’s no chance of creating tension. But this is only a criticism depending on what you go in expecting. Because while World of Horror has story elements, it’s a game driven by its mechanics, not its narrative. If you accept this, you can kind of just accept everything that’s coming at you as some sort of fractured, dreamlike descent into cosmic madness.
World of Horror may not be for everyone, and that’s fine. The indie sphere is a place where games like this can flourish by appealing to a dedicated few instead of trying to go for the broadest market. To some people, World of Horror’s deliberately oldschool presentation, capricious difficulty and bizarre brand of nonlinear horror may be an instant turnoff. To others, it may be a match made in whatever crawling dimensions pass for their heaven. As for me, I can’t say: right now I’ve got to find a scalpel to take some eels out of my eyes. Cthulhu fhtagn!