After years in development, World of Horror finally rears its twisted head. Solo-dev panstasz has successfully crafted an experience that cuts down to the bone with its haunting visuals and challenging gameplay. That said, even its very specific demographic–cosmic horror fans who want to struggle–may find themselves clashing with the game itself. World of Horror is still very much in early access, with bugs, crashes, typos, and some slight jankiness in gameplay. However, beneath the rough exterior lies a macabre skeleton that serves as the groundwork for something truly memorable.
The Enigma of Shiokawa
Cosmic horror as a subset of horror fiction preys upon fears of our insignificance in the grand scheme of the universe. Fear of eldritch beings from beyond the stars who see us as nothing more than fodder, fuel for the inevitability of the encroaching doom that they bring. They come not with fanfare, no; they slink into our world unseen, corrupting anything unlucky enough to cross their paths. Their forms exist well beyond the realm of understanding, impossible shapes and sizes that dwarf what our minds can grasp. Yet there are some who embrace that madness, broken minds calling for the end of the world at the hands of their elder gods.
It’s against this backdrop that World of Horror takes place. Set within the remote coastal Japanese city of Shiokawa, World of Horror mixes the strange and macabre works of Junji Itou with the otherworldly sensibilities of H.P. Lovecraft. Strange signs have appeared across town, from the shipyards to the high school to the woods on the outskirts of the city.
Your role is that of an investigator piecing these clues together in the hopes of solving the mystery of the world’s impending demise before it’s too late. Are you Kirie, a transfer student haunted by ghosts? Perhaps you’re Kouji, a tireless photographer seeking the truth. Whoever you might be, you are one mortal against legions of creatures beyond your understanding; what can you do?
Developer panstasz brings these terrors to life in a striking 1-bit aesthetic that captures so much detail, yet still leaves plenty to the imagination. Blood-streaked scenes of gore and carnage paint the screen in muted tones of teal, brown, and dirty grey. Jagged lines tear through the scene like teeth cutting through flesh while the droning chirps and beeps of the soundtrack hum with a static intensity.
You do more than play World of Horror: you inhabit it.
In the Method of Madness
World of Horror is, first and foremost, a roguelike. The core design philosophy of randomization and replayability permeates every aspect of the game’s design, from narrative to mechanics. This works rather well provided you’re willing to suspend a good amount of disbelief.
The layout of a typical run is simple: pick a character, an evil god, and a random assortment of five mysteries. Should you solve all five mysteries, you can make your way to the top of The Lighthouse to confront your evil god and banish them from the mortal plane.
Your core five stats (Strength, Dexterity, Perception, Knowledge, and Charisma) dictate how well you perform on skill checks, i.e. in-universe events determined by digital dice rolls. As a roguelike and a horror game, World of Horror sets up failure not only as an option, but an expectation. It punishes players in such a way that feeds into this notion of waging a hopeless war against cosmic monstrosities, while still giving them enough successes to keep them coming back for more.
For such a text-heavy game, World of Horror’s disjointed roguelike narrative results in a somewhat unfocused storyline. Instead, it treats the writing as a series of unsettling landmarks that you piece together in your mind. Though you investigate specific mysteries around town, they present themselves in a sort of emergent storytelling where the player experiences and creates their own unique journey.
Fighting Back the Apocalypse
World of Horror’s challenge comes from careful management of resource economy. There’s a flexible system that allows you to adjust your build on the fly with a variety of weapons, accessories, and items provided you’re willing to exchange health, sanity, money, or even another person’s life. Everything in World of Horror is out to kill you, not least of which are the creeping eldritch abominations lurking in the shadows.
Combat is a good deal of fun and follows a fairly standard turn-based menu system. Encounters begin with the player turn where you choose from four different categories of actions (Offensive, Defensive, Support, and Ritual). Each action has an associated time value that fills up an action bar, meaning you must carefully choose the route you want to commit to. Blindly spamming attack buttons will only get you killed.
Magic does exist in the form of Spells and Rituals, but they’re a bit more obtuse to figure out. They require a deeper level of knowledge of the game as a whole; it’s easy for them to backfire on you otherwise. Spells are single-use and require fairly significant costs to pull off (namely your health and/or sanity), while Rituals require you to know and/or guess a specific series of inputs in order to successfully pull them off and see any tangible benefits.
As a result, it’s almost always far more reliable to build a character around physical strength when starting out. Nothing beats back the demons harder than a baseball bat.
Journeying Through a World of Horror
Exploration, like combat, takes place in a series of menus. Most mysteries take place within Shiokawa, which has a number of different landmarks to explore. Each of these can be investigated and will trigger the randomized events that make up a large chunk of the game’s progression.
To clarify, mysteries are only such in name. You don’t do a whole lot of proper investigation since you’re told where to go to progress. Sometimes the win condition and required locations change based on decisions you make or skill checks you fail. Exploration both advances the main storyline and gives opportunities to trigger randomized events, purchase supplies, or investigate sidequests.
Other mysteries may take you outside of town for a specific investigation (e.g. an ominous forest village or your deceased “uncle’s” mansion). In these scenarios your exploration is comparatively limited, but progression still takes the same form of clicking buttons to explore and trigger random events. Oftentimes these specific mysteries offer unique rewards that can’t be obtained anywhere else, so it’s good to be aware of what options you have available at any given moment (a fact that becomes more apparent with repeated playthroughs).
Because mysteries can have several endings, World of Horror invites and encourages replayability. Each run has a chance to unlock new items, gods, characters, and even game modes. Longevity of gameplay is certainly expected of rougelikes, but World of Horror executes it in such an engaging way.
Because of the borderline brutal base difficulty, the first few hours can feel like you’re blindly groping in the dark. However, each successive run teaches you a little bit more about this twisted world. Each death, each repeated encounter, each mystery you return to is all in service of strengthening your resolve to fight back the encroaching chaos.
The Terror Has Just Begun
To be clear, World of Horror does not lack for faults. A fair amount of the writing is rather clunky and could do with a second (and third) proofread. At the time of reviewing, several bugs and crashes were still present in the game, which led to me losing my progress on more than one occasion.
Yet, while a good deal more polish is still needed, the underlying framework is solid. It’s a title that will undoubtedly benefit from its time in early access, leading to a final product that will cement its place in horror history.
Ultimately, World of Horror relies on a quantity over cohesion approach. If you buy into that premise and accept the piecemeal narrative, it’s unlike anything you’ve played before. It’s moody, it’s challenging, and it’s downright horrific. For horror fans and challenge-seekers alike, World of Horror offers an experience that will stick with you long after you’ve closed your cases shut.