Review: Yomawari: Midnight Shadows
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Following up a game like Yomawari: Night Alone is an interesting proposition. As a dark window into a moonlit realm of quintessentially Japanese horror, it succeeded with both foreboding atmosphere and intense moments of panic. Those came at a price, however, as the confusion and surprise often led to aimless wandering and frustrating deaths. Midnight Shadows seeks to provide a more even-handed balance between these elements and succeeds admirably, trading the worst of those moments for a more consistent experience. And just in case you end up missing the super weird bits too much, they also made the game twice as big, too.
Precious little best friends Yui and Haru were enjoying a night of fireworks in the evening skies over their sleepy mountainside town. On the way home, however, they become separated and run afoul of some things that no mortals should ever have to face. Yui seemingly vanishes, prompting her pal to spend night after night searching the streets, woods, and abandoned places for her. But those unspeakable creatures will be out in force, gangly arms ready to end Haru’s adventure in a cold, fatal embrace. If she can weather the supernatural storm, she might even learn something about her town she would have surely preferred to leave hidden.
Midnight Shadows follows the format of Night Alone for the most part, but bears a few very important differences. Every night, before striking out to locate Yui, you actually play as Yui in whatever terrible place she’s found herself in. Because of something in the opening that I won’t spoil (it’s one hell of a shock, and it’s not the dog this time), there’s no expectation of safety in these sequences and it makes them surprisingly harrowing. You’re basically dropped into a close encounter with a murderous haunting with no context and no chance of escape, and it’s a fantastic way to start each chapter of the game. This gives way to some more story-driven sequences later on that do a lot to flesh out the story in pretty horrific ways as well.
Once you’re back in Haru’s shoes, it’s time to find your friend. Armed with the foreknowledge of Yui’s travails you can sometimes make educated guesses on where she might be found on your adorable crayon map, but it’s not a big deal because this game is wa-a-a-ay better about indicating where you need to be heading. Despite being a much bigger game than Night Alone, the map in Midnight Shadows is more intelligently designed to keep you heading in the right direction and not waste time circling poorly-placed walls and bridges. There’s plenty of exploring to do, of course, but you should always have a clear idea of what to do next, something I couldn’t say about the original game.
There will be things in your way, of course, and they’re just as creepy and creative as you could want. The Yomawari games dig deep from the rich mines of Japanese folklore, providing colorful twists on traditional yokai and classic creatures like drowned dead and shadow people. Overall it’s a more varied cast than the first game had, perhaps a little lighter on the strange, non-threatening creatures but vastly improved in other ways. There were a few ghosts in the first game that were borderline infuriating to deal with, but all of the ones here are better designed to prevent the frustrations of unexpected or unavoidable deaths. You’re still going to have a few of those moments, especially when the game does callbacks to the first, though obviously it won’t be as grating this time around.
I keep touching on the scope of the game, and that’s definitely one of its strongest aspects and a mark of a great sequel. Night Alone had a nice, big map to run around in that also had sequestered areas for each of the specific night events to unfold. Midnight Shadows, in contrast, has two nice big maps to explore and then mostly keeps the nightly events to interior areas off the map. This means you’ll be exploring abandoned mansions, old libraries, and other ominous places at great and terrifying length. You’ll also have some new options for interacting with these places, including the ability to lift and carry large objects like crates and boards to solve environmental puzzles. This isn’t used a ton but when it is, it’s often to great effect like when you find a crying stone to carry around.
As before, it’s the mystery and dread that make Yomawari so compelling, as found in its events, creatures, and collectibles. While the main plot has plenty of creepy ghosts and surprises in store, there are all kinds of one-off events and items to discover if you feel up for a little late-night exploring. Your collectibles list is vast, containing everything from pine cones to bloody letters, as well as clues to encountering particularly elusive ghosts. And sometimes it’ll just happen, like when I hid in a bush at the end of a country road and a strange, small voice started talking to me out of nowhere. There are reasons to seek these oddities out too, as you can now equip certain charms that let you carry more utility items or enjoy other passive effects.
Midnight Shadows is both a joy and a relief to play, because it seemed to take all the right lessons from the first game. As much as I liked Night Alone, there were parts that had me scratching my head and seething at bosses. This one has been smooth sailing, without losing much of the horror found in those moments of consternation. The improvements to the design and pacing are paired with dramatic expansions of scope that don’t water the game down in the slightest, and even more creative monsters to face off against. It’s positively criminal this game has been as overlooked as it has, because anyone who appreciates the unique blending of Japanese style and horror will find a long and engrossing road to walk through the dark places of myth.