Scary merry New Year to all fellow gamers! Scary mostly because I lack all sense of sensible timing and decided to kick off 2018 with a release that would have felt more at home during Halloween. Then again, those who are not into horror have nothing to fear; Yomawari: Midnight Shadows draws much less from cheap jump scares as it does from gloomy melancholy and Japan’s exceptionally bountiful spirit mythology. The game revolves around childhood friends Haru and Yui, who enjoy a cheery late-summer fireworks show before heading back home through a dark and foreboding forest. Sadly, malicious spirits soon appear to separate the girls from each other. What’s worse, such apparitions even patrol the streets and alleyways of their suddenly desolated home town. Both girls wish nothing more than to be reunited, so they have no recourse but to brave the night and head out to the streets in search of one another while desperately trying to figure out what has happened.
Since it’s not very realistic to expect elementary school kids to have a fighting chance against forces of darkness, Yomawari is all about survival horror. Some spirits can be vanquished, halted, or at least made visible with the beam of a flashlight, and it might even be possible to harm some by pelting them with rocks. Still, hands down the best way to survive is to run away as fast as a rapidly depleting stamina meter allows. Billboards, discarded cardboard boxes, and bushes act as good impromptu hiding places when something wicked just won’t give up a chase. Ten yen coins picked up from here and there, on the other hand, are just perfect for activating Jizo statues that serve both as save points and handy warp portals to the various parts of the girls’ little home town (and eventually even the neighboring town).
Alternating regularly between Haru and Yui, the really quite loose and vague story has very little else going for it. Coupled with moments of aimless wandering around in free roam style, the adventure leads the girls’ to haunted mansions, sewers, derelict train yards, and many other spooky places that aren’t ever pleasant to explore in nighttime. Every now and then they come across slightly bigger menaces, although these confrontations, too, are mostly about madly scampering away from lethal attacks.
The biggest issue about Yomawari is that it seems to love folklore more than it does storytelling. Haru, Yui, and their eventual fates are merely grace notes to a huge bunch of imaginative spirits. Sadly, learning the nature and how to either avoid or banish each of them is – at least from a western perspective – a matter of trial and error leading to dozens and dozens of deaths on the way. Not that game over itself would be much of a threat. Death simply means returning to the last activated save point, even with all collected items still in tow. The biggest hurdles in making progress are the excessive cheapness of some spirits and the sheer boredom of having to trek back to the point of last demise. Having only a couple of seconds to react to many threats, or even dying without knowing what just happened are fairly frequent occurrences. Both Haru and Yui are annoyingly slow when walking and not much faster when sprinting, especially as panic depletes their otherwise ample stamina meter within seconds. All of this contributes to the game being more about sheer frustration than actual suspense or fear.
The production values aren’t much better. The isometric chibi graphics can be beautiful and detailed at times but the sounds are overly sparse. There’s no spoken dialogue or even music (apart from the ending credits), so the roughly seven-hour-long journey is only about footsteps, heart bumps, chirping cicadas, and various moans and growls of nearby spirits. Even with a comprehensive guide, it takes almost as much time to locate everything the two towns have to offer, as they both feature plenty of small, inconsequential junk serving no other purpose than to be collected. At least it’s nice to be able to still grab everything during the post game but a chore is still a chore.
Sure, Yomawari can be amusingly weird in that unique, deeply Japanese way, and its rich assortment of spirits is at least moderately enchanting. As it stands, however, it’s mostly just a mundane slaughterhouse of cute chibi characters, which isn’t really that entertaining, especially as so many others have already done something similar in the past. Still, it’s at least an initial benchmark for 2018, so thanks, I guess, and with that I’m off to find the next contestant!