Like stumbling upon a haunted floppy disk next to the old Mac computer gathering dust in your parent’s attic, World of Horror is constantly surprising, genuinely unsettling, and truly unlike anything you’ve played.
Delightfully eerie 1-bit visuals
A memorable chiptune soundtrack
Core mechanics are frequently subverted to keep you on your toes
Alternate endings add little to each scenario
Differences between playable characters are mostly trivial
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Platform reviewed: PC
Available on: PS5, PS4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac
Release date: October 19, 2023
How can a game set in a fictional Japanese town circa 1984 speak so eloquently of our current predicament? How does an anthology of loosely connected mini-scenarios about evil cults, deranged killers, and malevolent deities capture so vividly that distinctly 21st-century mix of alienation and ceaseless anxiety? World of Horror from Panstasz, feels so relevant, perhaps, because all of its core elements - not just the narrative finery but the mechanical scaffolding underneath, too - work in tandem to evoke the trademark mood of our post-Covid existence: anticipating yet another catastrophe lurking somewhere within tomorrow's headlines.
Working mostly on his own for the past six years, Polish dentist Pawel Kozminski has crafted a singular hybrid as bizarre and fascinating as the misshapen abominations that populate it. World of Horror is an endlessly replayable roguelike adventure that borrows its character progression from RPGs, its branching paths from Choose Your Own Adventure books, and the occasional bout of pixel-hunting from hidden-object games. In other words, it plays like an experimental Fighting Fantasy campaign, one where you’ll fight a man with an itch so bad he’s scratched his face off instead of an orc with a big axe, one where the rules change on a whim, and with little warning.
Over the span of a relatively short playthrough (roughly an hour - if you manage to survive this long, that is), you’re tasked with solving a series of paranormal mysteries in order to finally gain access to the lighthouse overlooking the seaside town of Shiokawa where evil energies have converged. If you can find the keys and climb to the top of the cursed structure before the Doom meter - indicating the impending arrival of an elder god - reaches 100% and the community lives to see another dawn. There are 24 different scenarios, each with multiple endings, though a typical run sees you embroiled in no more than four or five.
For each of these investigations you’ll head to different districts in search of clues; tackle random encounters that require either combat or a successful attribute check to resolve favorably; and choose whether to risk pursuing optional quests that may provide you with vital information for the final showdown with the villain du jour. Recruiting allies, purchasing equipment, and learning spells help even out the odds (at the expense of valuable resources), all assist you in what little time remains until the darkness engulfs your hometown.
A fairly static premise, on paper, but World of Horror is significantly animated by two essential qualities. First, and most immediately apparent, is the striking presentation. Inspired by the art of manga legend Junji Ito, Kozminski’s menagerie of nightmares consists of masterfully drawn manifestations of our contemporary anxieties and fears. Consider, for example, what the ghastly roommate you discover curled foetus-like inside a ceiling cavity above your bed says about urban solitude, or what the 'lumpy' police officer whose face is a featureless bulb of pulsating flesh about eroding trust in state authority. The fact that these images were designed in MS Paint, Microsoft’s ancient graphics editor that first saw release in the mid-80s - roughly the era when the game is set, adds another layer to their uncanny aura. The effect further enhanced by the mesmerizing austerity of a 1-bit palette.
Being transported (often unwittingly) into one of World of Horror's extradimensional locations injects an extra-strong dose of weirdness in an already strange game. Their icy wastelands and boundless deserts hiding both grave dangers and great rewards.
Second, and most ingenious, is World of Horror’s eagerness to infect its investigation mechanics with your protagonist’s state of disorientation, constantly subverting, rejigging, and otherwise obfuscating its basic systems. The standard nine-district exploration grid is abandoned completely during the Far-Out Fable of a Fear Festival scenario after you become helplessly lost in a forest taken over by cultists; Perilous Parable of the Peculiar Painting features an escort mission in which you rescue an artist’s assistant from a gruesome fate; and Vicious Verses of a Violent Vigil requires careful timekeeping to perform the various stages of a ritual at the behest of your dead uncle. Elsewhere, your standard array of Choose Your Own Adventure-style choices (“Search the Statue” or “Break the Statue”?) gives way to moments of jarringly hands-on mechanics, most memorably when you need to guide a needle in to a friend’s eye to save them from the parasites breeding within entirely with your mouse.
Peer closely, beyond the surface narrative choices provided with each random event or encounter, and you realize the game is littered with tiny pockets of opacity. There are hidden interactions amidst its gorgeously cluttered interface as well as secret connections between tantalising dead-ends in one scenario and items stumbled upon in another. How do you open the sigil-marked locker in the Spine Chilling Story of School Scissors? How do you persuade the classmate exiled to the roof of the high school to share her secrets? Through trial and error, copious note-taking, and repeat playthroughs you may be able to glean some answers - after more than 30 hours with the game, I’m still overwhelmed with questions. In short, World of Horror brilliantly channels the confusion and uncertainty of a hapless teenager faced with unfathomable entities of limitless power.
As does their sense of isolation and mistrust of this hostile world, even if it’s the one that they’re trying to save. Most of the mysteries you’re tasked with solving originate in places that are uncomfortably familiar, involving people that you already know: a relative’s house in the country, a psychopath stalking the school’s corridors, the crowds gathering outside your favorite ramen shop. World of Horror’s paranoia has you besieged in every single one of your sanctuaries including the ultimate one - your own home - in one of its more unusual cases, the Silent Hill 4-inspired Restless Rumors of a Residential Recluse. “If nothing else, you’re at least safer in here” reads a line from that scenario. And it’s probably true for a moment or two until a stranger with a hideously grinning mask starts banging at your door trying to get in.
It’s that suffocating loneliness and profound, muted sadness encapsulated in the blank faces of your expendable companions (nothing like Persona’s complex interrelationships here) that lingers in the mind after you’ve turned off World of Horror. And it’s what makes reaching the lantern at the top of the lighthouse to lift the veil of darkness from your hometown such a rewarding denouement, a genuine sigh of relief. For a few moments at least, until the button reading 'New Game' beckons and evil stirs once again.
Like the classic Mac adventures it alludes to, World of Horror can be played exclusively by mouse. A standard controller option is also available for the PC, though I never managed to get it working on Steam. There are numerous 1- and 2-bit palettes to choose from as well as an option to scale the size of the main window. The game is playable in seven languages including French, German, and Japanese.
How we reviewed World of Horror
I engaged intermittently with World of Horror during its Early Access, completing several playthroughs at various stages of its three-year development cycle. I played approximately 12 hours of the final version, making sure to check out the new characters and scenarios. Most of that time was spent with the standard campaign but I also devoted a couple of hours to the brutal Endless mode. I played both on my more powerful desktop PC and an older laptop. The game worked smoothly on both but, the latter experience, tucked in bed with the lights off, gave rise to some very interesting nightmares.