Spirit Hunter: NG

Spirit Hunter: NG is a 2018 visual horror novel about the urban legends that come out after dark in a sleepy Tokyo suburb. You play as Akira Kijima, a 17-year-old delinquent whose young cousin has been captured by a spirit named Kakuya. Kakuya challenges Akira to a game, promising that she will return his cousin if he manages to confront a series of monsters local to the neighborhood of Kissouji.

The overarching story of Kakuya’s game is somewhat silly, as are the protagonist and supporting characters. The stars of the game are the urban legends that form the core of each of the seven chapters. As far as I can tell, these urban legends are all original, and it’s a lot of fun to slowly gather the details of the stories. The monster artwork is very creative and very gruesome, while the scenes depicting the monsters’ victims are horrible, explicit, and intense. There are no jump scares, but I was genuinely shocked by some of the deaths.

The gameplay is simple. You investigate your environment by shining your flashlight on objects embedded in the background artwork, and you collect various odds and ends that you use to solve simple puzzles. You’ll occasionally find yourself in life-or-death encounters with monsters who want to kill you, as well as overzealous police who will end your adventure early by arresting you. During these encounters, you’re presented with a timed series of dialog choices, and you’ll receive an instant “game over” if you select incorrectly.

Unfortunately, you can only save at certain points, meaning that you may have to replay an entire extended encounter sequence if you mess up. It’s possible to speed through previously read text, but I became so frustrated by an early-game confrontation that I started using a walkthrough to help make the gameplay a bit smoother. Although most of the puzzles and dialog choices are self-explanatory, others can feel entirely random. Still, if you don’t mind consulting a walkthrough before you play through the monster encounter sequences, the story flows smoothly, and the exploration elements are enjoyable and fairly intuitive.  

NG has “good,” “bad,” and “normal” endings based on whether you treat the monsters with violence or compassion. Other than that, there don’t seem to be any branching paths, and your choices don’t have anything more than minor cosmetic effects on the story. You can raise the level of affection that the named NPCs feel toward you, but this doesn’t seem to affect anything other than a few throwaway lines of dialog.

The game also includes a few sidequests that involve solving simple riddles to find D-Cards, trading cards that contain information on bonus urban legends with marginal connections to the main plot. These sidequests give the player an opportunity to explore the environment with a greater attention to detail, and the cards showcase some of the most interesting writing in the game. None of this card collecting is mandatory, but it’s nice to have an excuse to walk around the Tokyo suburbs late at night when all the sources of light are artificial and vaguely eerie by default. The atmospheric sound design is excellent as well, and it’s a pleasure to listen to your character’s footsteps echoing on concrete against a backdrop of city traffic, buzzing streetlights, and convenience store chimes.

If you use a walkthrough to progress smoothly through the confrontations with monsters, NG takes about fifteen hours to complete, and it’s easy to get sucked into the story. All of the urban legends are fascinating, and the game has a fairly progressive worldview on corporate violence, corrupt law enforcement, and the ways in which wealth and power facilitate the “othering” of people who are different. NG isn’t misogynistic or gross about its female characters, and there’s no sexual violence or lolicon.

All but one of the urban legend monsters are female, and NG is a treasure trove of themes and imagery to anyone interested in the intersections between gender and horror. The mystery at the core of the overarching story is tied both to real Shintō traditions and to real urban legends about (hopefully fictional) Shintō traditions, so there are a few extra layers of the narrative that players familiar with Japanese religion and folklore will be able to appreciate and enjoy.  

I definitely wouldn’t recommend NG to anyone who can’t handle graphic R-rated horror, but it’s visually striking and thematically satisfying. I respect and admire the game’s creepy demonic women, and I gradually came to sympathize with a few of the monstrous male characters as well. NG is so rich in narrative detail that it would be a fun game to write an in-depth academic research paper about… and who knows, I might even write this paper myself!

World End Syndrome

World End Syndrome is a visual novel about a small seaside town with dark secrets. It’s structured like a dating sim, and you have to romance each of the five datable characters if you want to unlock the “true ending” that answers all the questions about the overarching mystery. Thankfully, the dating sim elements are relatively undemanding. There aren’t a lot of dialog options, and the gameplay mainly involves choosing which location to visit on each day during the month of August.

I know this will be a deal-breaker for some people, so I should say at the beginning that there’s some mandatory incest in this game. But it’s sort of okay because of plot reasons? As far as dating sim incest goes, the relationships in World End Syndrome didn’t particularly creep me out. It’s honestly not that big of a deal, especially not in a game that would be PG-rated were it not for the occasional murder, but your mileage may vary.

As the nameless protagonist, you move to the small seaside town of Mihate to live with your cousin following the death of your sister in a car accident. You and your cousin are in the same class in high school, and your homeroom teacher is a folklore scholar who just published a bestselling YA romance novel. The novel is called World End Syndrome, and it’s based on the Mihate legend of the Yomibito, a dead person who returns to life but doesn’t know they’re dead.

There are strong “Bruce Willis at the end of Sixth Sense” vibes surrounding the protagonist at the beginning, but he turns out to be very much alive – at least until he gets murdered at the end of the prologue. This is the game’s official “worst ending,” and you have to start over from the beginning and make a different choice at a crucial point to progress. In order to avoid being murdered, you have to form an emotional bond one of the girls in your class. Successfully doing so for the first time leads you to an ending that, while satisfying in and of itself, does nothing to explain what the deal is with Mihate and its spooky legends.

It would be tedious to explain the details, but World End Syndrome has an interesting system of unlocking various scenes and dialog choices based on the number of previously completed interactions. Your cumulative progress carries over between saves, even when you’re hopping from one save file to another on the same romance route. What this means is that each playthrough is going to be different, even during repeated scenes. Your first full playthrough will tell a fairly straightforward story about a high school romance that’s sweet despite having hints of darkness, but on subsequent playthroughs you’ll begin to realize that there’s something very weird going on in Mihate. World End Syndrome isn’t really a horror game, as it’s not gruesome and doesn’t go out of its way to be upsetting, but it turns out to be an intriguing supernatural mystery.

The character art of the girls is very cute, the character art of the boys is very over-the-top silly, and the environmental art is absolutely gorgeous. Although there’s nothing special about the writing on a line-by-line basis, the translation is solid and pleasant to read.

What helps World End Syndrome stand out is the voice acting and sound design. I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what makes the audio elements of the game so appealing, save to say that the quality of the recording is excellent. There’s a lovely in-game radio broadcast that allowed me to finally understand the appeal of ASMR, and I think the sound quality is something you can appreciate even without knowledge of Japanese. The game gives you a lot of control over the sound channels, and you can turn down or even mute the voice acting if you prefer.

I was on the fence about World End Syndrome, as I was dubious about a game that wants you to play the same story six or seven times, but I’m glad I gave it a chance. If you’re only interested in one playthrough, that’s perfectly fine. It takes about ten to twelve hours to get from the beginning to the first character-specific “good ending,” which is a respectable length for a visual novel. Even if you don’t have the patience to solve the mysteries of Mihate, it’s a lot of fun to explore the town, attend club activities, and go on dates while there are dead people (and possibly a cult) wandering around and killing people in the background.

Half Past Fate

Half Part Fate is a visual romance novel by an American developer that follows three couples on their journey to their first date. There’s a long list of possible achievements to unlock, but the story itself is entirely linear. Although the characters are adults, the tone is 100% PG, and everything is very sweet and wholesome.

The game is divided into twelve chapters, each of which takes about ten to fifteen minutes to complete depending on how quickly you read and how much you want to explore. You play each chapter as one of the romantic leads in a top-down environment, each of which functions as a small and self-contained stage reminiscent of the “town” sections of a 16-bit JRPG. Your job is to walk around and talk to people, and the gameplay elements are limited: Person A will give you Object B, but only if you trade it for Object C that you get from Person D. There are (mercifully) no puzzles or reflex-based minigames, making Half Past Fate a chill and relaxing experience.

The environments are a lot of fun. The game is set in a romanticized hybrid of Los Angeles and Austin, and there is no crime, poverty, or infrastructural decay. Everything is clean and neat and aesthetically pleasing, and no one is rude or creepy. You can therefore walk around urban environments like coffee shops, public parks, outdoor shopping arcades, and waterfront bars without worrying that someone is going to report you to the police for striking up conversations with strangers. Half Past Fate reminds me a lot of Earthbound in that it offers the player an opportunity to stroll around a contemporary city and read quirky flavor text while catching small glimpses of people’s lives.

The three love stories are just as cute and charming as the pixel art. One couple has been friends since college but never found the right time to confess their feelings, and now they find themselves realizing how much they mean to each other as their artistic careers have started to take off. One couple meets randomly at a tea-themed street fair and has a lovely afternoon together, but then the boy loses the girl’s phone number and has to track her down. The third couple is entangled in a high-stakes game of money and power and deception, and it admittedly takes a willing suspension of disbelief to fit them into the same world as the other characters, but I still liked their story a lot.

The three main couples are straight, but they’re surrounded by representatives of a rainbow of genders and sexualities. Many of the queer side characters are involved in romantic dramas that you can piece together if you take your time exploring, and queerness is so open and omnipresent that the straightness of the main characters doesn’t feel forced.

In addition, the diversity of the cast is taken entirely for granted, which I appreciate. The racial and ethnic identities of the characters are specific and affect more than their family names and physical appearance, but they’re never the sum total of any character’s personality or backstory. Speaking personally, it’s rare to see multiethnic friend groups represented in popular media in a way that doesn’t involve tokenism, but the characters’ networks of relationships felt very real and natural to me.

I picked up Half Past Fate on Nintendo’s online storefront, and I enjoyed playing it as a handheld portable game on the Switch Lite. I’m not sure if the full $10 list price will be worth the three hours of gameplay for everyone, but it definitely was for me (especially considering that paperback novels cost almost $20 these days). Although I would have preferred a bit more bite and tension in the storytelling, the art and graphics are wonderful, and I’m a big fan of this retro JRPG style of structuring a visual novel. I’ve already downloaded the second game in the series, Half Past Fate: Romantic Distancing, and I’m looking forward to sitting down with it the next time I want to spend a relaxing afternoon in a softer and brighter version of reality.

Mad Father

Mad Father is a retro survival horror game about a cute girl named Aya who lives in an isolated mansion with her father. As you might be able to guess from the title, her dad is not 100% sane.

The game was originally designed with RPG Maker and released on Steam in 2012, but it’s been remastered for Nintendo Switch with updated graphics and sound design, as well as a few postgame bonus segments. It takes about three hours to play, and I felt that it was a good value when I bought it on sale on Nintendo’s digital storefront for $5. The horror is ghoulishly cheesy, and the jump scares are a lot of fun.

The opening of the game is nonlinear, as Aya has the run of the entire aboveground portion of the mansion. It’s somewhat difficult to understand what to do at first, and I admit that I had to consult a walkthrough to figure out how to get started. Once you gain access to the family’s sprawling underground murder dungeon, however, the path forward becomes easier to discern. Also, once you figure out how the environmental puzzles are supposed to work, they become much more entertaining.

As you grow accustomed to Mad Father during the first hour of playing, the jump scares become less effective, and the game compensates by leaning hard into camp. I don’t mean to suggest that anime can’t be scary, but Mad Father’s combination of over-the-top character portraits and cute pixel art amps up the carnivalesque elements of the story. By the time the dad starts chasing you with a chainsaw, my main reaction to the various horrors on display was delighted amusement.

There is one genuinely creepy moment toward the beginning of the game involving the father’s (nonsexual) reaction to the distress of a naked preteen girl, and it’s creepy because the game knows this reaction is upsetting but still treats it as perfectly natural. The killer dolls and unquiet ghosts haunting the tunnels of the murder dungeon aren’t actually all that scary, but the “kind” behavior of the father during the sepia-tinted nostalgia flashbacks is super disturbing. Mad Father is officially rated Teen, but it’s definitely not for kids (or adults sensitive to depictions of child abuse).

The basement of this family’s house is truly epic, by the way. The other day I was reading that a lot of families who live in McMansions don’t actually have any furniture in most of the rooms, and that makes sense to me. If you’re not imprisoning people to use as subjects for occult medical experiments, then what are you supposed to do with all that space, exactly? If nothing else, I suppose Aya’s dad is to be commended for his commitment to his interior decorating theme. It’s a shame that this theme is “horrible grotesque murder,” but if he’s paying the property tax on all those rooms then he might as well put them to good use.

Anodyne

After starting and abandoning Anodyne a few times on various platforms, I downloaded it onto my Nintendo Switch. Being able to play this retro-styled adventure game on a handheld console turned out to be just what I needed in order to appreciate the experience, and I got completely sucked into its world. Because of its horror elements, I’m not sure Anodyne is for everyone, but I had a great time working my way through the game while eagerly anticipating what sort of strange and grotesque imagery I would encounter next.

The game has Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire style Game Boy Advance era graphics. The pixel art is by turns allusive and unique, and it’s occasionally genuinely gorgeous or horrifying.

The screen-by-screen dungeon and overworld layouts remind me a lot of the two Legend of Zelda Oracle games, and the gameplay is like what those games could have been if they had focused on their core strengths instead of distracting the player with extraneous marginalia. If you’re willing to explore a bit, you can learn to jump fairly in the game, and it’s a neat ability to incorporate into the Zelda-style gameplay.

Anodyne also gives off strong Yume Nikki vibes. You start off on a fairly generic quest, but it quickly becomes clear that you’re exploring a manifestation of the subconscious mind of the protagonist, who is not doing okay. There are clear references to addition, depression, and suicidal ideation, and each of the dungeons is themed after a specific fear. The first dungeon is about the fear of not being able to see, the second dungeon is about the fear of being born from the bloody entrails of your mother’s body, the third dungeon is about the fear of being generic and unnecessary, and so on.

Anodyne also reminds me of the original The Legend of Zelda in that there’s zero guidance – the game has no interest in telling you where to go or what to do. This is why I abandoned it the first few times I tried to play it, as I arrived at its open field area and became overwhelmed. Once I decided to stick with it and finally figured out the small environmental clues meant to lead the player forward, it was a lot of fun to be able to go anywhere and do anything while unearthing a few secrets along the way.

Anodyne’s structure is balanced between the overworld areas and the dungeons, and each of the dungeons is a perfect puzzle box. Despite the gameplay mechanics being deliberately limited and basic, some of the puzzles are very clever. The controls are a little loose, but it’s not really a combat-heavy game. There’s no real penalty for dying, and I died a good three dozen times out of sheer laziness but didn’t feel frustrated even once.

It took me about six hours to finish Anodyne, and I enjoyed every minute. It seems there’s a lot of postgame content that involves revisiting various locations, talking to important characters again, and using a new ability to access a bonus dungeon. This game is subtly but undeniably disturbing, and I’m looking forward to seeing just how weird it can get after the first “quest” has been completed. Or maybe the player-character finally works through his trauma and gets better? That would be good too. I guess.

To summarize: Anodyne is a 16-bit nightmare adventure for a mature audience, sort of like a re-imagining of Majora’s Mask in which characters are allowed to say fuck. Putting the edginess aside, it’s super fun to play, and the dungeons are ghoulishly creative.

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion

Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a 16-bit Zelda-style adventure game with cute graphics and meme-heavy writing that takes about two and a half hours to play from start to finish with 100% completion.

Along with a bright and colorful overworld, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion features three formal inside dungeons and two less formal outside dungeons, as well as the usual variety of “go fetch me this thing” sidequests. The game is meant to be accessible to a diversity of players but still presents a range of entertaining challenges. The gameplay isn’t engineered for precision mechanics, which makes the boss fights somewhat more difficult than they perhaps need to be, but you can turn on “god mode” at any time from the menu. Around the middle of the game, Turnip Boy discovers a device that generates portals, and this tool enables are some fun puzzles involving getting bombs and blocks to where they need to be on the map in order to move forward.

Your main goal, as Turnip Boy, is to destroy every single piece of horrible paper you get your (non-existent) hands on. Tax documents? Rip them up. Leases? Rip them up. Receipts? Rip them up. A love letter that the girl you like wants you to deliver to someone who isn’t you, even though she knows you like her? Rip it up right in front of her face. Someone’s uwu anime drawing? Rip that mess up.

It’s very cathartic.

The exploration and puzzles are fun, but what I really enjoyed about Turnip Boy is the dialog, as well as the way your adorable yet feral protagonist’s silence is used for comedic effect. This game uses one of my favorite Earthbound-inspired tropes ever, which is to populate dungeons with people who talk to you, making them feel like towns that happen to be temporarily overrun with monsters. There are also diaries and other documents (that you can rip up!) scattered about in the dungeons that provide lowkey Fallout-style worldbuilding.

So I suppose you could say that Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is a comedy story game that’s set up as a 16-bit Zelda adventure quest. Thankfully, the 16-bit graphics and Zelda-style gameplay elements work really well. The music is super-catchy too.

Is Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion worth $15? To me, it definitely was. A team of fifteen people developed this game, and I’m happy to give each of them a dollar. If you’re in the “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding” camp, Turnip Boy Commits Tax Evasion is the game for you, especially if you’re in the mood to take an afternoon off and enjoy yourself by exploring a colorful fantasy garden while gleefully smashing capitalism.