Review: Yomawari: Night Alone
Review copy provided by publisher
Cuteness and horror go together like chocolate and orange; not everyone is going to appreciate the combination, but those that do find it delicious. I’m not talking about an adorable doll coming to life and murdering people, I’m talking about adorable characters struggling against adorable antagonists. Cuteness doesn’t take me out of the moment, instead I find it enhances that key element of horror where you are faced with something familiar or comforting that has been corrupted in some way. Yomawari: Night Alone does just that, taking charming doodles and drawings and teaching you to fear and distrust them. It might also teach you to hate them, but with enough patience you’ll find a fine tale of terror here.
Your button-eyed, bobble-headed protagonist is out walking her dog one night in a place she very obviously should not be. A sharp, tragic shock follows that leaves the little lass all alone in the night, searching for her missing family. Her search takes her all across her darkened neighborhood and the surrounding rice fields, forests, factories, and other haunted places. She’s not really alone though, because on this particular night there are more spirits out than munchkins on Halloween. And these are out for blood, not candy.
The game plays out over seven chapters, each one starting from the relative safety of the little girl’s home. She’ll decide a goal for herself, usually following a lead into a specific part of her town, and then you’re left to guide her. The map is quite open, moreso as you get into later chapters, so there’s plenty of exploring to do if you’re up for finding weird monsters and collectibles. In addition to the dozens of items you can find, there are certain spirits you can only encounter in specific places or under special conditions, as well as ones just hanging around to creep you out.
This gets at what’s so special about Yomawari, and why its atmosphere is so effective. The open map allows you to go wherever you feel like and see what you want to see, and early on it’s going to be confusing and terrifying. The narrow, twisting streets of rural Japan can hide all sorts of secrets, with mysterious shrines and suspiciously vacant lots right in the middle of neighborhoods. When you find a new place or encounter a new spirit, you’re not going to know how safe you are or what you might uncover if you delve deeper. Hostile spirits are often obvious but others might simply stand around, staring at nothing, or vanish without a trace. They’re as mercurial and unpredictable as you might imagine ghosts would be, at least until you learn their habits.
The game mechanics support this feeling of unease, but can also turn it into one of frustration. When you get near a spirit you’ll hear your heartbeat, rising in intensity as you draw closer. You have a generous sprint meter for scooting around town but it drains faster the closer you are to monsters, making escape a difficult proposition if you get too close. You can also hide in bushes and behind signs, obscuring your vision and leaving you to judge when it’s safe by how hard your heart is beating. And then you have usable items like rocks and salt which can distract or slow enemies to help you slip away.
All of this is great, but it’s not applied in a very well thought-out manner. Most of your usable items are hard to use effectively and some are only effective on one or two enemies. Some enemies can be evaded or juked easily while others will pursue you relentlessly. And sometimes the rules themselves break down, with no heartbeat for spirits that charge out of nowhere, or pounding heartbeats for ones that are completely benign (as far as I know). These outliers produce memorable moments of terror or dread, but can frustrate when they lead to death. If something catches you, you die and head back to the last shrine you stopped at or checkpoint in story-heavy areas. One-hit kills are always a recipe for aggravation, and a few of the “boss” spirits can be extremely hard to avoid until you get totally familiar with their encounters after a dozen deaths or so.
There were a few spirits, the Grudge girl (of course there’s a Grudge girl) and the factory thing in particular, that made me consider giving up on the game. But these moments of frustration are surrounded by creepy hikes through the Japanese countryside, skirting past drowned spirits and human-faced dogs to find cryptic notes scribbled in crayon. The bizarre, otherworldly appeal of Silent Hill and Siren is here in small places, obscured by the soft shapes of your doll-like protagonist and the sketchbook weirdness of the spirits after her. It’s hard to tell if you’re wandering a haunted town or haunted by your own demons, and that uncertainty is what draws a lot of people to Japanese horror in the first place.
I was honestly surprised at how often Yomawari could startle me, with spirits bursting out of alleyways and narrow escapes being far too narrow for comfort. But I was also surprised at how often it could frustrate me, when I had to repeat those escapes a dozen times or retrace steps over and over. You have to approach it with the right mindset, one ready to learn the quirks of quirky horrors and comb the streets for lost shoes and dolls. With a warm and inviting art style and delightfully sharp sound design, it’s a great package to spend hours wandering around in. Yomawari features some quality weird horror from Japan in a dark, colorful world to explore, and that’s plenty to keep me poking around.