Yomawari: Midnight Shadows (PlayStation 4 Review)
Japan is pretty well known for its psychologically disturbing horror, and this applies to videogames too. Yomawari: Midnight Shadow is another Japanese horror that doesn’t really often rely on jump scares. Players are asked to concentrate on the screen, never looking away. It demands attention in order to work, but does it actually find a way to bring on nightmares?
The premise is simple: two young girls named Yui and Haru get lost in the woods after watching a fireworks festival together, only to get separated and chased by spirits. Players swap between each character as they try to find one another in their home town at night. There’s not a lot of dialogue, and each scene is typically interspersed between reasonably long chunks of gameplay. Midnight Shadow relies on the vulnerability of its dual protagonists. Young children in distress is always rather uncomfortable, and their ability to defend themselves is lacking.
Players may encounter a rather diverse and creative cast of spirits, each with their own solution and pattern. The most effective often come in a rather surprisingly mundane form. One of the earliest designs include a child-like spirit that freezes with torchlight, but pursues when the protagonist is facing away. Another is simply a ghost playing with a ball in the street—their unpredictable movement becoming difficult to manage. Taking advantage of the rather muted ambience in Midnight Shadows to instil a foreboding sense of dread, each spirit also has their own distinct sounds that warns the player as they approach. This also includes either of the protagonist’s heartbeats as well. Not only does this play on the player’s anxieties, but it also mitigates the unfair risk that comes with the spirits’ invisibility when outside the security of the protagonist’s torchlight.
Torches aren’t the only useful tool that the girls can use to help their survival. Bushes and police signposts are great hiding spots from the roaming spirits, though they provide much less security. Players lose almost all visibility when hidden, relying instead on an imprecise visual indicator. The unknown can be considered among the most terrifying things, and players may sometimes be expected to hide from an oncoming spirit without a clear indication of what it actually is.
Despite Midnight Shadows being somewhat gruesome at times, there’s an innocence that permeates it. Hiding in bushes and behind lamp posts, deriving comfort in light from a torch, the simplicity of the premise, and the sometimes abstract amalgamation of childhood anxieties all contribute to the sense of vulnerability. It preys on our childhood sensibilities where anything can be terrifying. Windows may reflect what isn’t there. Arms cast in shadow may reach out from manholes, though unable to inflict harm. Relatable, simple fears are scattered amongst the grotesque monsters.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows isn’t afraid of becoming grotesque. Something this reviewer often finds lacking in horror games is a sense of stake, but Yui and Haru’s search for each other has it. Being caught by a spirit doesn’t drain the protagonist’s health or make the screen flash red. No. Yui and Haru may be children, but they’re not safe from the gruesome and dark world presented here. Failure greets players with a pretty nasty game over screen, accompanied by some disturbing sound effects.
There’s clearly a lot of attention to the atmosphere in Midnight Shadow, though not all of it is to the benefit of the experience. Players won’t be able to save the game unless they both find a shrine and have a coin. It’s a redundant cost, with coins lying around in excess. Dying will reset the protagonist to their last save point while retaining the progress made. This may contribute to the stake, but no real progress is lost. The only cost is the player’s time, having to navigate the small town once more. Repeat runs feel safe. We know the route, and we know the obstacles. Even the puzzles are reset.
Unfortunately, the horror elements can sometimes fall flat. Growing familiarity with the spirits—as well as the comfort in knowing that there are mechanics intended to provide the player with enough safety for the game to be completely fair—can result in the title becoming a little predictable. A moment of calmness in the player’s state of mind is all that it may take to break the illusion of danger. Of risk. Without that, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows quickly becomes an endearing and dark adventure game.
Ultimately, Midnight Shadows is capable of conveying dread and tension, but this requires the player to engage it as intended and explained in the opening user agreement. Don’t look way and play it in the dark. This is a fairly tight, atmospheric title that fans of horror will likely enjoy.