It’s the 1980s, and I’m in the small Japanese town of Shiokawa. I’m armed only with an unlit cigarette, a broken bottle, and a doll woven of flesh and viscera. On my latest run in World of Horror, these items are my only defence against a murderous ghoul, rotting skin sloughing off its face. My hits don’t seem to make contact. As my reason and stamina drops ever lower, I begin performing a series of randomised, desperate bows and claps, hoping to luck into the exact combo required to banish whatever incorporeal horror has materialised away from this plane. Failure to do so quickly results in death and a restart of the entire playthrough.
World of Horror is a cosmic horror RPG heavily inspired by retro titles, with roguelike elements, turn based combat, and event cards that invite new horrific circumstances and eldritch powers into each playthrough. The title is described as a “1 bit love letter to Junji Ito and H.P. Lovecraft,” and it certainly delivers on this. If the body horror, swirling art style that leans into Ito’s ink pieces, or gaping maws or grinning antagonists isn’t enough to convince you of that, perhaps the references to Uzumaki through facets like the mysterious lighthouse (amongst other little references and nods) will.
The quick play and customised playthroughs of World of Horror each have a different Old God looming over you, with their imminent descent upon your town measured through an ever-growing doom percentage. Which can take roughly 1-2 hours to complete depending on how quickly you succumb to your foes or manage to solve the self-contained mysteries cropping up in your town.
In one playthrough, every time I rested at home and took a much-needed bath to regain stats, the Doom metre went up – in another I simply had to look around a corner to condemn the town to further chaos and misery. Reaching 100% on the doom gauge spells game over, while certain items may bring the percentage down, making for a delicate balance between quickly solving mysteries and ensuring the town doesn’t plunge into an eldritch apocalypse.
The RPG elements of World of Horror lean heavily towards classic text-based adventures with the added element of stunning (and at some points overwhelming) visuals, and the game is all the better for it. Levelling up introduces new perks which may assist in investigating mysteries, combat, or even offer new choices as you explore a deeply cursed world filled with things that lurk around each corner, and stat boosts that empower you to overcome stronger and more cunning enemies. Random encounters as you creep through abandoned schools, dilapidated mansions, and even your own home offer a sense of surprise, with invisible dice rolls determining your success or failure – no choice is the ‘right’ one, although some are possibly slightly more likely to result in a grisly demise.
The combat of World of Horror is equally well done, once you’ve got a handle on how it all works. A ‘time’ bar, for which each action takes up a varying amount of, creates a sense of urgency. How can you guarantee a hit on the glued corpse while also avoiding taking a hit yourself? How do you find a weapon when you also need to regain reason or risk game over? It’s a system with a large amount of options, which can be overwhelming and unforgiving at times, but adds to the sense of hopelessness and the overall feeling that despite diving headfirst into these mysteries, you yourself are scrabbling to do what you can against powers so great, so infinite, you cannot even fathom them, let alone defeat them with ease.
Perhaps its the droning chiptune soundtrack, or maybe it’s the faithfully created 1-bit depictions of honestly horrific situations (done in MS Paint, no less), or maybe it’s the highly customisable colour palate which varies from a basic black and white, to a washed out yellow, to an ominous blood red. Whatever it is, World of Horror delivers on a retro jaunt into a form of horror that feels both nostalgic, but not so familiar that it doesn’t have your heart racing, even if only a little.
I found myself both a little scared, exhilarated, but also equal parts frustrated delving into World of Horror initially. As a dyed-in-the-wool RPG fan, the repeated playthroughs resulting in frequent deaths in all sorts of horrific manners did grow frustrating initially as I got the hang of the gameplay loop and just how to handle combat. While there are tutorials and pop-ups to guide players new to the game, which itself has been in early access since 2020 (before finally receiving a full release this October), there could perhaps be ever so slightly more hand holding in the introductory mystery, if only to hook less focused or dedicated players in beyond their first few failures.
There is also the issue of the slightly clunky nature of the controls, which involve navigating the screen and various menus via a mouse (although there is a setting to speed up this process) – which could be attributed to playing on Nintendo Switch and may not cause issues for PC players.
While the game delivers on the horror elements it sets out to, there’s a sense that perhaps a little more could have been done to increase suspense and tension, like any good retro horror. Text-based descriptions of each scenario are in-depth and helpful, but often spoil the very abomination about to grace your screen, diluting the reaction. The doom metre below 50% doesn’t have much of an impact on the slowly unravelling town. But despite these little drawbacks and pulled curtains on otherwise well-placed terrifying moments, World of Horror is at its core, a scary game – although, it’s likely to be subjective, depending on your own personal tolerance for the macabre, the paranormal, and the grotesque.
Once you get the hang of World of Horror, though, it’s certainly a sight to behold. It provides horror rendered in 1-bit like I’ve never seen before, exploring the limits of human consciousness and corporeality in all sorts of grotesque circumstances. Smiles morph into wide, lupine grins. Bloated figures shamble towards you in an empty school gym. A little girl curled up in the womb of your bedroom walls calls to you to join her in a beautiful, sprawling eternity.
Anything is possible at any given moment in World of Horror, adding to the sense of fear (and maybe wonder) each playthrough brings with its multiple branching endings, various perks as you level, and unique mysteries each steeped in visceral horror and dread. I’ll be returning to this game and thinking about it for some time to come – and likely dreaming of twisted figures beseeching me to succumb to the call of the Old Gods for even longer after that.
Review conducted on a Nintendo Switch with a pre-release code provided by the publisher.
Lead Image Credit: panstasz