We don't want to hear any discourse, we just wanna talk about anime and anime-like TV.
Disappointment is one of the worst feelings you can associate something with. When things don’t turn out the way they should, everything tastes sour, and you’ll be lucky if that taste doesn’t linger indefinitely. Going into a game like Yomawari: Night Alone, in this most hallowed of horror times, I was more than a bit nervous it would leave me with that bitter feeling. After all, I’ve been burned before: just last year I was excited for another indie horror title that seemed right up my alley and, well, let’s just say that it’s in everyone’s best interests that Frictional Studios and I never meet again.
Despite my defensively detached mindset, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of excitement at the mere sight of Yomawari. The artstyle was immediately reminiscent of Yume Nikki, a game forever close to my heart, but with a cuter and more stylized theme. Reading the sales pitch about a little girl’s romp through terrors of the night, it sounded like the type of horror I find easiest to resonate with: one which cultivates an atmosphere of discomfort, without flaunting it. So, diving in despite my skepticism, I was at least a little bit hopeful for what could await.
After a tonally rough start, you’re put in the shoes of the nameless main character, a very young Japanese girl. She’s had a rough day, and after her older sister is accidentally sent on a wild goose (or in this case, dog) chase and doesn’t come back, she sets off into what promises to be an equally rough night in search of her. The core conceit alone had me endeared- most horror games end up focusing on the pursuit of loved ones or tragedy, but romantic interest always seems to be the easy grab. Much rarer are other familial relationships; one of my all time favorite games, Silent Hill 3, features the under-explored relationship between an adoptive father and his daughter, so already Yomawari had tipped the scales in its favor, at least in my eyes.
So you head out into the streets with nothing but the ambient glow and hum of streetlights to guide your way. You’re given a crude map with labels over blank spots to indicate the vague direction of various landmarks, which really helped cement the idea of playing as a small kid. After all, a kid would remember that the school’s somewhere near the rice fields, but they definitely wouldn’t remember all the roads and buildings in-between. After a short scene, you’re simultaneously introduced to a flashlight that lets you see all the nasty things that pop up to go bump in the night, as well as your best defense: hiding away in bushes and pretending they’re not there. As with the map, the fact that hiding is your main defense to scare off that which would scare you feels thematically supportive, leaving me once again, impressed.
The next few sequences only added to this sentiment, with the story taking on a format almost analogous to Yokai Watch. You’ll run into eerie spirits like a man-faced dog, or a woman with bursting hair spiky as a sea urchin, and while they’re scary at first, you’ll discover ways to circumvent them, and, ultimately, help ease their weary existence so they can pass on. All this felt cute, and while there were moments of frustration, as near-everything in the game ends your life in a single touch, it never got to the point where I wanted to stop playing. Most of this was due in part to the incredibly generous checkpointing system where, much like with typewriters in Resident Evil, you expend a resource to save at various shrines across the world. However, Yomawari lets you both fast travel between discovered shrines and retain all progress of your last life, meaning that any items you collect or progress you make on your attempt aren’t lost. Both features allow you to skip situations like unnecessary retreading through scary streets you’ve already seen more than once, or picking up that key for the fifteenth time because you just keep getting caught by that ghost at that last possible moment. With all of these design choices I felt quite the opposite of disappointed; I was pleasantly surprised! Everything felt so cleverly designed and thought out, even if it was simple. It was interesting and spooky. It’s hard to ask for me to ask for much more than that.
Now, I wish I could’ve left it at that. I wish that I could’ve told you about how our protagonist helped an initially frightening ghost cat next, or how they had a meeting with a spirit at the playground. Unfortunately, Yomawari had other ideas. This change felt bitter, like acid reflux slowly burning up my throat, and it’s been a long time since a game managed to lose so much, so fast.
As you start chapter 5, you’re greeted with the, at this point, common opening of a mysterious creature darting away from the street near your house, leading you in the direction of your next objective. At first, everything seems the same. You head downtown, making your way around the corner and into the inner part of the blocked-off markets. After a short cutscene, everything around you turns red, and you’re seemingly dropped into a parallel world with a massive centipede monster curled around the buildings. The initial spectacle is enthralling. Seeing a new mechanic introduced this far in had me heaping more praise onto the game, thankful that it was still trying to intrigue and win me over. As I turned the next corner with my dazzled disposition, the massive centipede head slammed into me and I was sent back to the beginning of the sequence.
On the surface, that was neither especially new or frustrating. There had been unavoidable deaths before, but I would just start at wherever my last shrine was, and usually, whatever had done the deed had moved on or changed locations to surprise me anew later on. Expecting the same I took another turn, choosing a different route, only to meet the same grisly fate as before. Confused, I tried every path until I seemed to have found the path that would get me out alive. I felt that the game was, at least, still mixing things up, even if not so cleverly as before. Figuring that once I knew where to go I could retrace my steps nonplussed, I guessed at the next step, only to be sent back to the beginning. As I rationalized to myself that I was at least figuring the route out and would finish in no time, I walked down the path I had assumed correct, only to have that centipede rear its ugly head again.
You see, chapter 5 doesn’t have any pattern to it. In actuality, you merely have to walk down hallways and hope to not be arbitrarily murdered by the centipede. There is neither rhyme nor reason to a death in this section; there is no secret trigger, no path to avoid, only blind luck. Now, before I sound dismissive, there are times where this form of horror can work. Some games build systems around a semi-random threat and the expectation that the player can and will adjust habits accordingly. Yomawari is no such game. Up to this point, Yomawari had shown itself a smartly designed, methodical game, with an unsettling atmosphere and a small handful of mechanics to deal with the problems that face you. For the remaining half of the game these trappings were by and large abandoned, in favor of a tedious trial and error system. The horror was no longer about the monsters awaiting you, but about how many times you would have to die and reset before encountering them.
From this impasse onwards, no longer will you respawn upon death at a shrine. In fact, you won’t even be able to get access to shrine fast travel; you’re stuck where you are until you figure out whatever the hell needs to be done. This is where the little tears in the seams of Yomawari really start to shred apart and become noticeable. After the first ten deaths I thought it was strange the checkpoint system was no longer in place, something that at this point especially, had served as a great mechanic to avoid the more frustrating trappings of most horror games. By the twentieth death I was thinking how that even if I managed to somehow, by chance, avoid the centipedes attack, the fact that everything did kill you in one hit made the lack of checkpoints extremely frustrating. From the fortieth death on, I tried to think of some big mistake I may have made. I looked through all of my items, each branded with an ambiguous description and a now glaringly confusing uselessness.
Previous enemies could be distracted with pebbles, or avoided by doing something like turning off my flashlight, but even when I could manage to clumsily press the buttons used to do something like that, it usually wasn’t fast enough to even see if it caused a reaction. After multiple “did I or didn’t I?” moments of trying to use the items, I realized how much I had been overlooking how poorly Yomawari controls. Firstly, you’re stuck on an axis, kind of like older RPGs, where you can only move left, right, up, and down, but every adversary you face against can move however and wherever they want. Secondly, you have a sort of stamina system, and running away is a necessary mechanic to survive. Your stamina bar will shrink randomly though, usually in times where you need it the most, meaning that these perfect moments of dodging things like the centipede monster rely completely on perfect button-press timing. Both of these elements end up making what should be a scary climax, full of “run to your last breath” chase scenes, into an exhausting and tedious endeavor.
That’s sort of just how the second half of Yomawari feels: exhausting. After passing through that rough patch with the centipede, I was hoping for a more concentrated set of chapters, similar to the first few. Unfortunately, every qualm, every issue I had with chapter 5’s design remains the focus of each following sequence. Shrines are now useless, and in the incredibly common situation of your death, you’ll end up respawning at randomly dictated checkpoints, which are annoyingly few and far between. After looking up and translating a Japanese walkthrough of the game to confirm I hadn’t missed some sort of hidden game mechanic, I was forced again to trial and error my way through long walks of enemies only to get sent back, over, and over, and over again.
After pushing myself through dozens of deaths to finish the story, I reached an ending that should’ve been touching and eerie. Instead, watching those credits go by, full of cute crayon art of all I had encountered through the night, I was honestly depressed. There was a game I liked somewhere in Yomawari. There were themes, gameplay ideas, and an unsettling atmosphere that had all combined to keep me hooked from the get-go. Unfortunately, in the end it abandons what made it great in favor of a different, hollow, and ultimately weaker experience.