Over-analyzing games and favorite mediums can be a real killjoy at times. A critical eye can make problems more glaring which lessens the impact of a body of work. But when masters of their craft know how to elicit specific emotions, all that is rendered moot. This is often the case with Yomawari. Damn you, game.
What is it about rational thought that escapes me when it comes to horror games? Recently released on the PSVita and Windows, Yomawari: Night Alone sends a lot of my thought processes crashing through a window and straight out beyond the horizon. I’ve “Noped” and been awash with fear more times than I can count while playing this puzzle, horror title.
My initial reaction is always to run when confronted by the unexplained in the game’s evil spirit infused Japanese town. Unfortunately (and deviously clever), Yomawari pushes the limits of how much running you can actually do in the body of an adorable chibi child. Stamina expends quickly, particularly around danger, and she’s weighed down by a severe lack of quickness.
As a child armed with a flashlight, pebbles, coins and errant pieces of food to feed animals; Yomawari’s protagonist’s three lines of defense amount to a sorry excuse for running, hiding, and solving problems.
The last one is left to the player, and in my less than capable hands—where a terrified mind replaces a calm, analytical one—Yomawari’s young girl has seen countless deaths at the behest of the supernatural. Eventually, these deaths have allowed me to see patterns. Repetitive failures and restarts will do that in a game that does little to change its AI spirits’ movements. Yet, there are times where panic sets in and in the absence of quick reflexes, mistakes happen. Frequently.
In a particularly downtrodden path near hazardous cliffs lit by flickering, dated lamps; a vengeful spirit of a murdered woman stalked my character. I struggled to get out of this continuous death cycle during the trek to discovering her splattered corpse. I could see her one or two attacks coming ahead of execution but my mind forced me to run when I should have steadied my resolve to time my actions for ensured survival.
I’ve had many of these reactionary ticks during my exploration of Yomawari’s creepy town, as it experiences the richness of multiple hauntings which occur from dusk onward until morning. Each chapter brings a new stage of darkness over the course of one long night, with the little girl searching for her dog, Poro, and her older sister.
Shadows of barely recognizable people, or misshapen forms imitating the living roam the streets. They’re hidden in the darkness—brought into visibility by those hateful, dim street lamps or their presence known by way of the girl’s beating heart. Her awareness is marked by rapid thumps as otherworldly guests draw ever closer. Even if her flashlight doesn’t bring them into her view, her senses do and it’s freaky. Houses remain still without showing signs of life. Gates to up-kept establishments such as the town’s school are locked tight in what feels like the longest night. Natural sounds of silence, crickets and the girl’s footsteps are interrupted by weird buzzing and unique identifiers of the ghastly visitors.
The town’s probably a normal, quintessential one during the day but it’s far from picturesque during the night. Dingy in parts and overflowing with ghouls, messages are found on bulletin boards or scraps of paper about rumoured deaths of the towns’ citizens. It becomes clearer that there’s nothing good about the town at all, and it probably stinks of all manners of depression under a sunny facade.
Giant spirits of grotesque koi swim the perimeter of the school’s pool. Vicious dog spirits attack from the hedges. Haunted school bags attach themselves to the girl. Of course, those are the things that would trigger me to sprint when they’re nothing but jump scares, with no killing presence behind them. They’re unlike the true creeps floating around in the dark but who wants little red backpacks following them around, anyway?
There are other vile creatures hanging around in various forms. Some I don’t even recognize until I pay close enough attention, and then I regret it. Yomawari forces you to look at them to figure out how to deal with them for certain puzzles. Other times, they’re just there to send shivers or disgust to your being.
I’m unconvinced morning in this game will just send all the spirits away. It’s too ripe with malevolence to be protected by sunlight but that’s part of the fear—under the cover of darkness, that’s when spirits may be more inclined to come out to play. Darkness and being alone messes with the mind, and makes a person more susceptible to give into the irrational.
Being the fool that I am—half wanting to flirt with the feeling of being scared—I play Yomawari when I’m alone in an empty house, in the middle of the night. My safety nets are all too far away for me to feel comforted. The living are asleep in their own houses.
Just like the girl in Yomawari, I know morning is simply too far into the future to bring solace. And so I force myself to play to at least bring peace to her story, even when it’s wrecking my own peaceful night. I could spend those moments playing something different. Something more attuned to my regular consumption—light, airy and absolutely not scary. But I don’t. I apparently love torturing myself sometimes.
Yomawari isn’t always genuinely scary. Between steeling my nerves to tell myself it’s just a game, and learning patterns of AI behaviour after the initial shocks of in-game death and surprises, there are other things that make the game a little comical too.
I’m fully aware many of the stories or specific set up scenes are meant to provoke fear. Much of what Yomawari does is traditional in its scares. The crying baby in the distance, for instance, was made laughable upon discovering a zombified, giant baby head wafting around in one of the houses, peeking through the windows. I couldn’t not laugh at that.
And even with this knowledge that the game is wholesaling the traditional frightening stories, it somehow still manages to get under my skin. Some of it is frustration at not being able to figure out how to not die. Some of it is the genuine first pang of anxiety. I’m in part impressed by its clever moments such as reading a plea for help in a letter, with its words of “help me” frantically populating the screen in a wonderful use of modern technology. At other times, I find myself very bored by its rote use of horror elements.
I think, however, if there’s one thing that can be said of Yomawari is that it has the best beginning of any game I’ve ever experienced. The tutorial is not just a learning tool but it’s used to set the story in motion, while setting the tone for the rest of the game. It’s unexpectedly jarring. A video doesn’t do it justice but it caught me by surprise for being so disgustingly wicked.
As of now, I’m torn. I resolved one part of the mystery of Yomawari. It’s after midnight in the game which many consider a trying time of night as designated by pop culture. In actuality, 3:33 a.m. has always been my personal witching hour. There was a time in life when my eyes would flutter open for unexplained reasons right when the clock hit those particular numbers. It happened for months, and I found out later this happened to my brother as well.
My little girl and I are approaching that time of night in the game’s world. We’re tasked with exploring the downtown area. I got her killed alarmingly fast when I ventured out there a couple of nights ago.
I know things in the game will get much worse before solving its main objective. Even though we’re past the graveyard and the woods, and we’re headed to more industrialized areas of Yomawari’s town. Game law dictates the increased difficulties are yet to come. Morning light does not feel within reach and the dead of the night is almost upon her. I’m, on the other hand, always thinking about 3:33 a.m.
One final question remains.
Despite my knowledge that it’s just a game specifically designed to scare, and I can get through it with patience after some uneasiness: Do I finish Yomawari: Night Alone? Or do I let my girl’s safety and my sanity rest easy in her brightly lit and colorful room, just past midnight? Do I be content to have one issue resolved, while abandoning a sister out there—alone amongst the resting living but keeping the company of evil—in the dark?
As of now, and as ridiculous as it is, unwarranted fear has already given me the answer.
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