The sequel to last year’s cult horror hit returns, with a game whose cute visuals hide a game filled with unexpected scares.
We were so disappointed by The Evil Within 2 that we predicted it would be the death knell of survival horror in mainstream games. As much as we love the genre we still fear that’s true, and that horror games will now only be made by smaller, independent developers. Disgaea creators Nippon Ichi Software are a bigger deal than your average bedroom-programming indie studio, but it’s still clear that this game has been made on a very small budget.
But that’s perfectly fine. Most good horror is made on a shoestring and that’s usually greatly to its benefit, as it encourages experimentation and forces creators to think beyond the norm. And this sequel to last year’s Yomawari: Night Alone is certainly anything but normal, and much scarier than it looks.
Midnight Shadows set-up isn’t very different from the original game, and involves two young Japanese girls getting lost on the way home from a fireworks festival in the mountains. As a result, they become separated in a peculiar town that looks completely different at night compared to during the day. And also happens to be filled with horrible monsters…
Before any of that happens though the game makes you, the player, promise never to look away from the screen. No matter how much later events may make you want to. As before, the game is stepped in Japanese mythology, which is fascinating in one way but terrifying in another because if there’s one thing that video games have taught us it’s that Japan leads the world in bizarre and horrifying supernatural creatures.
Although you do get to control both girls during the course of the game, most of the time you’re playing as Haru – who repeatedly sets out to try and find her friend Yui. Because they’re just ordinary girls you can’t fight your way out of trouble, and instead have no option but to run away and hide.
Even that’s not as easy as it sounds though, as you have a stamina meter that will quickly deplete if you don’t find a hiding spot quickly. As soon as a spirit gets close Haru’s heartbeat will start to sound louder and louder, and sitting hiding, waiting for it to pass, is a wonderfully nerve-wracking experience as each beat hammers home what terrible danger you’re in.
But not all the spirits are aggressive and some act merely as obstacles to be circumvented. All of them not only have different motivations and abilities, but detailed backstories that you can piece together almost like a Souls game. In some cases you have to solve a little physical puzzle to get past them, like building a ramp, and other times it’s a case of working out how they can be distracted.
The graphics may look too cute to be scary but the game’s weird atmosphere is extremely unsettling. There’s almost no soundtrack, just the beating of Haru’s heart, the ordinary background sounds of the town, and… the horrible noises of the spirits. It’s never clear exactly how unpleasant the game’s going to be, and when the jump scares and plot twists are suddenly unleashed they always come as a shock.
Not knowing what may happen next, or how far the game is willing to go in what it depicts, is vital for a successful survival horror and that’s something that Midnight Shadows definitely nails. The fear of what might be is always much more frightening than anything that actually does happen, and Nippon Ichi clearly realise that – creating a level of tension that rivals any more elaborate game.
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Midnight Shadows is around twice the length of its predecessor, at a good six or seven hours, but it hasn’t solved the main problem of the original, in that too much of your progress can rely on trial and error. The game never makes it clear that some spirits are just too strong for you to handle at the moment, and are meant for later, which can lead to a lot of wasted time and effort.
The only other problem is that the game’s a little too easy this time, with a save system that tries to mirror the early Resident Evils but makes the equivalent of ink ribbons too easy to find. Beyond that though Midnight Shadows is a classic example of less being more when it comes to horror; at first you might scoff at the game’s ability to scare you, but by the end you’ll be wishing it wasn’t quite as good at it.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows
In Short: An even better game than the original, whose innocuous visuals hide a tense and unpredictable survival horror of surprising potency.
Pros: Highly atmospheric and unsettling from the first moment, with expert use of sound and an impressive understanding of how to build and maintain tension. Wonderfully bizarre monsters.
Cons: Still too much trial and error, with too many dead ends. Flawed save system unwisely reduces the risk of exploration.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), PC, and PS Vita
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Nippon Ichi Software
Release Date: 27th October 2017
Age Rating: 16