Yomawari: Night Alone!
I love October. The changing of the seasons always gives me a tinge of serenity. But it’s not just the arrival of fall that makes October great, but also the fact that I love the atmosphere of Halloween time. For my blog each year, I like to take the month of October to play and write about a few horror games I’ve been meaning to get around to. This year has been kind of rough, and I haven’t had a lot of time to write here, but I’d like to get that back on track, and I’m also hoping these Halloween posts can kick off a reasonable amount of regularity again. First up this year is Yomawari: Night Alone, a Vita game I’ve wanted to try out for a while now.
Late at night a young girl, who I believe is only ever called “little sister”, is walking her dog when she becomes separated from her animal companion. Upon returning home, her big sister questions the girl about the dog’s whereabouts, but little sister is unable to tell her the truth. Not understanding what has happened, big sister leaves the house to find the missing pet. As time passes and she doesn’t return, little sister becomes worried and sets out into the dark, empty night to try to find out what happened to her. (Where the parents are in all of this is never explained.) Venturing out into the sleeping town, she finds it has become infested with dangerous ghosts and begins a long journey to rescue her sister.
Yomawari is played from an top-down isometric perspective as the little sister explores her haunted town. Wandering the town are various ghost enemies that attack if they sense the presence of the player. The girl is armed only with a flashlight and small pebbles. The flashlight is used to illuminate the roaming enemies, while the rocks can sometimes be used to distract them. The player is given no means of attack, which means that if a ghost gives chase, little sister has to either run away and lose them or find a nearby hiding spot, which are things like large bushes and street signs. The enemies won’t attack if little sister is hidden in one of these spots, so if the player can reach one, it then just becomes a matter of waiting for the enemy to leave before proceeding.
Behavior patterns among the basic enemies are fairly varied. For example, one enemy type is sensitive to sound, while another type stands perfectly still and will only attack if little sister crosses their line of vision. Aesthetically, the different ghost types aren’t particularly horrific in appearance. While they’re not at all gory or grotesque, I did find a few of them to be oddly unsettling. In addition to these smaller enemies, each chapter of the game tends to feature a more elaborate monster as its focus. I guess you could consider these the bosses of the game. The encounters with these boss ghosts tend to be a little bit more complex than just running and hiding, and require better reflexes and sometimes puzzle-solving.
What really creates tension in the game is the fact that most of the basic enemies are invisible unless the flashlight illuminates them, which results in an atmosphere of suspicion and unease in the player’s surroundings. If an enemy is nearby, however, you can hear little sister’s heart beat increase, which is the telltale sign that the player needs to be careful. Furthermore, the flashlight will only shine directly in front of the player, which means that when a ghost is pursuing little sister, there’s a greater sense of suspense, since the player can’t tell exactly where the enemy is behind them. Unfortunately, horror games always tend to walk a fine line between tension and frustration, and at times the invisible enemies can result in a lot of irritation. This is compounded by the fact that the game operates on a one-hit game-over principle, so if a ghost touches little sister, the player is immediately sent back to the last checkpoint.
The one-hit deaths in the game are by far my greatest complaint. It can be really frustrating to randomly die to an unseen enemy when you’re busy trying to figure out a puzzle or find an important item that you just can’t seem to locate. In addition, little sister’s movement is quite slow (even when running) and a bit stiff, which sometimes made evading even the enemies that I was fully aware of a clumsy experience. Particularly late in the game, there are several enemies that require a high degree of agile movement to avoid, and the game became rather tedious at points. Getting past those sections felt more like luck to me than skill.
On the positive side, I found the story to possess rather interesting themes, and little sister definitely has a surprising character arc that I didn’t quite expect. Little sister is scared by the supernatural dangers she faces, but her resolve to save her sister keeps her steadfast in the face of her fear. The entire story is approached with a level of innocence that I found unusual for a horror game, probably because most horror games feature adult protagonists.
Yomawari is one of those games that I kind of wish I liked more than I actually do. That’s because it’s both tonally and mechanically trying to do something different as a horror game, and I always appreciate when games set out to try to be something original. I found little sister’s quest to be really endearing. Unfortunately, particularly in the second half of the game, it can become rather tedious for the reasons I’ve described above. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad game, but I don’t feel like I can give it my highest recommendation either. But it is certainly good enough that I’m looking forward the to upcoming sequel, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows. I will definitely check it out if they can clean up some of the frustrations I had with this first iteration.