Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights is a fantasy-themed 2D adventure-platformer with moderate elements of horror and a moderately high level of difficulty. Unlike many modern Metroidvania games, there is nothing retro about the graphics. The backgrounds are gorgeous works of HD digital art filled with stunning details, and the characters and enemies are all beautifully animated. Both the combat and exploration are a lot of fun, and it’s a joy to move through this ruined world.

You play as a young unnamed priestess (referred to by the user interface as Lily) who wakes in the catacombs beneath a cathedral filled with monsters. You’re greeted by an adult knight (initially called “the Umbral Knight” but later revealed to be named Ferin) who accompanies Lily outside, where the landscape is dark and dripping with the water of a poisonous rain. Everything touched by the rain becomes “blighted,” or monstrous and undead. Lily has the ability to purify monsters by removing the blight from their bodies, thereby allowing them to die. Although the game has no quest-givers to explain what’s going on, it’s easy enough to make the assumption that Lily’s job is to find the source of the blight and purify it.   

Lily is a small child who is physically fragile, and she cannot defend herself on her own. Your attacks are therefore performed by the Umbral Knight, who is gradually joined by other spirits. The Umbral Knight performs a basic sword attack, but Lily meets spirits who can perform heavy attacks, ranged attacks, area-of-effect attacks, and so on. You can equip two sets of three spirits at a time and map them onto whatever buttons you wish in order to create different combos and skill sets appropriate to different bosses and exploration challenges. This is much less complicated that it sounds, and the Umbral Knight is strong and versatile enough to carry you through the game.

You can upgrade these spirits using different types of limited resources that you find through exploration. Aside from Lily, everyone in the world of the game is either dead or undead, and there is no “economy” to speak of – only the relics and resources that Lily can scavenge from corpses. Spirits are acquired by defeating boss monsters, many of which are optional and must also be found by exploration. I really love this system of fighting a powered-up version of a regular monster in order to acquire its abilities, especially since the player should already be familiar with these abilities from having faced a number of such creatures in combat.

The optional minibosses are tricky but fun, but the mandatory zone bosses are legitimately challenging. This challenge is mitigated by the game’s leveling system, in which defeating enemies gives Lily experience points that allow her to gain levels. Health and attack upgrades must be acquired elsewhere, but each new level grants Lily ever-so-slightly better defense and a tiny boost to the power of the Umbral Knight. There is always a save point right before a zone boss fight, as well as an enemy-dense screen on the other side of the save point that provides a good opportunity to level up if needed. The only real way to defeat these bosses is to learn their attack patterns while optimizing your own set of attacks, but the zone leading to each boss does a good job of teaching you the skills you need to survive.

You can also find various relics in the world that grant enhanced abilities, such as giving you more healing charges, increasing the amount healed with each charge, increasing your defense, strengthening certain types of attacks, and so on. In addition, you’ll find items that allow you to equip more relics, as well as items that permanently increase your health bar. Some of these items are hidden behind illusory walls, but these “secrets” are never unmarked, and the game teaches you how to read the environment fairly early on. If you pay attention and don’t mind an occasional bit of backtracking – which you’ll need to do anyway to find a path forward through the interconnected zones – you should be able to strengthen Lily just enough to keep going without having to grind for levels.

Ender Lilies is clearly inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. It’s not easy, but I would say it’s more “challenging” than “punishing.” The combat is a lot of fun, but the true emphasis is on exploration and paying close attention to the environment. Each screen of the game has its own unique design and artwork, meaning that you’ll be inspired to explore just to see what’s around the next corner. In addition, each relic and spirit and upgrade material you find is valuable, as is every zone boss spirit, all of which grant you an additional exploration ability. I found the gameplay loop of Ender Lilies to be extremely satisfying.

Given that everyone in the world of the game is dead, careful exploration also allows you to find bits and pieces of the story in the form of Fallout-style journals and missives that have been left lying around. Like the gameplay, the story is inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, and the overarching plot is similar – a morally ambiguous king has made a difficult choice involving arcane forces that were poorly understood by hubristic scientist-wizards. Ender Lilies adds a few interesting twists to this formula, especially towards the end, and the abject tragedy of what happened in this kingdom feels earned, narratively speaking.

What I love about the story is that every textual object you find has a distinct narrative voice. It goes without saying that the presentation of information is not linear, and it’s always a fun surprise to find something written by a blighted monster you encountered much earlier in the game. Some of these characters are much more important than others, but the gradual accumulation of their stories leads the player to the dawning realization that, despite the horror of the situation, the kingdom was filled with flawed but deeply human people who were doing the best they could.

It’s easy to dismiss Ender Lilies as “2D anime Dark Souls for casuals” at a glance, but I ended up being genuinely moved by the story and characters. The horror themes are expressed with creativity and style, and Ender Lilies is nothing if not atmospheric. In terms of gameplay, I think Ender Lilies may be a perfect Metroidvania, and the game features various ease-of-life concessions that help make it more accessible without diminishing the thrill or challenge of the gameplay.

And finally, I appreciate how the spirits Lily has purified hang out with you at save points. There’s nothing I love more than the image of a cute girl sitting amongst weathered ruins surrounded by grotesque monsters as rain falls in the background. That’s the good stuff right there.  

Infernax

Infernax is an 8-bit 2D Metroidvania style game with platforming elements and dark themes that feed into a morality system. The retro graphics, music, and gameplay remind me of Shovel Knight, save that Infernax is the opposite of Shovel Knight‘s brand of quirky and wholesome family fun. Infernax boasts buckets of blood and plenty of creatively disturbing imagery, but the uniquely upsetting aspect of this game is its sidequests, which force the player to make distinctly unpleasant choices.

You play as Alcedor, a duke who served as a knight in the Holy War and returns to his homeland only to find it overrun with the undead. Your job is to infiltrate the five demon strongholds and thereby break the magical seal on your own castle, which is occupied by the big boss demon. You navigate the 2D overworld with the various skills that you acquire in the five 2D dungeons, and along the way you accumulate experience points and money that you can use to upgrade your abilities and equipment.

Infernax bills itself as having a “tough-as-nails” level of difficulty. I found that it isn’t actually that hard until the final two levels, in which the platforming is a bit too precision-oriented for the game mechanics. If you prefer, you can get around this difficulty by using Game Genie style cheat codes (these ones right here) on a menu that’s available at every save point. Using this system to allow yourself infinite lives and access a double-jump ability can really help you out toward the end of the game, where failure at the platforming segments is unduly punished.

I think it’s important to be realistic and accurate about the difficulty level of a game like this, as not everyone is looking for a super hyper mega challenge. Maybe some people just want to stroll around a horror-themed digital theme park while fighting skeletons and zombies, and that’s cool. Infernax lets you turn the cheat codes on and off at any point you like and doesn’t penalize you for using them, and it offers a decent but not impossible challenge to anyone who wants to play the game straight.

The parts where you might need to use a walkthrough are when Infernax asks you to make a binary choice. This choice is usually between showing mercy to monsters or outright killing them. The key to these choices is presented to the player at the very beginning of the game, when you’re asked to make a decision regarding whether to spare someone who has been possessed by a demon. If you’re a decent person and choose to spare him, he kills several people and forces you to kill him anyway.

In order to get the “ultimate good” ending, the player has to continue to choose to kill monsters. This isn’t always easy. Later in the game, for example, a town under siege has trapped another possessed person in a cage. The townspeople claim that the possessed man has killed people, and that he needs to be put to death. Succumbing to the will of an angry mob with torches in order to enact violence on a seemingly defenseless person in a small cage isn’t great. If you let him go, however, he kills everyone. Should you allow the townspeople to set the possessed man on fire, it takes a long time for him to burn, and he screams and thrashes in pain the entire time.

This violence is somewhat mitigated by the 8-bit pixel graphics, which add a layer of campiness to the grimdark world. What Infernax celebrates isn’t just the visuals and gameplay of 8-bit games, but also their unironic and unapologetic violence. Infernax leans into this goriness by having its overworld enemies constantly attack and kill soldiers right in front of you. You can save some of these people, but most become zombie food. Sometimes you’re forced to kill other humans, which can be bloody business as well. If you like, you can aim for the “ultimate evil” ending and kill other humans by choice. This makes the game more difficult in terms of gameplay but also more interesting from a narrative perspective.

Infernax delights in violence for the sake of violence. It’s not actually that deep, but it’s quite fun. Even as they’ve created a dungeon whose theme is literally “piles of dead babies,” the developers are sensitive to the needs of a diversity of players and allow you to customize the level of difficulty to suit your preferences. In addition, there are multiple guides online that will help you unlock all the various silly bonuses the game has to offer, which include letting you run around with a machine gun and giving you free rein to zip through the overworld on a motorcycle.

If you’re bad at games like I am, Infernax might take about ten to fifteen hours to finish without cheat codes. If you’re good at games – or if you use cheat codes – it can be finished in under five hours, which makes the prospect of exploring multiple morality paths more intriguing. Overall, I spent about twenty hours in ultraviolent medieval zombie demon hell, and I regret nothing.

Blasphemous

Blasphemous is an ultraviolent 2D Metroidvania with gorgeous 16-bit pixel art and limited but fluid animation. It describes itself as “fast-paced and punishing,” but it’s not really either of those things. The game’s focus is more on strategic combat than on platforming or quick reflexes, and your character moves at a fairly sedate speed. To me at least, the pace feels perfect, both from moment to moment and from one area of the map to the next. In terms of “punishing,” this is how I’d rate Blasphemous on a scale of “this game wants you to feel pain”:

6 – Guacamelee
7 – Blasphemous
8 – Shovel Knight
9 – Hollow Knight
10 – Rain World

In other words, Blasphemous is moderately punishing, but probably not at a level where you’ll give up at the beginning or rage quit in the middle. Granted, Blasphemous makes no attempt to be accessible, and it’s much easier if you use a walkthrough to access the health upgrades in the early part of the game, which are hidden so well (behind unmarked walls, under floors that only break if you jump on a specific spot from a great height, and so on) that you’d never find them unless you already knew where they were. Thankfully, once you get about two hours into the game, you start to understand how it works and don’t really need a walkthrough unless you’re a completionist.

Blasphemous has everything that I love about the Metroidvania genre, and it was worth my time just for the gameplay. The combat is engaging, the area-specific challenges are interesting, and the way in which the areas all eventually connect to each other is on par with Hollow Knight in terms of clever map design. If you enjoy indulging in a bit of exploration and backtracking, it will take about twenty hours to finish Blasphemous with near-perfect completion.

What really got me into Blasphemous is its atmosphere. Everything is compared to Dark Souls these days, but Blasphemous really is Dark Souls in 2D. The level of violence is incredible, and the game gets creative with its brutality. The architecture is similarly brutal and creative. Each area has its own unique character, and the background graphics are beyond fantastic. As for the story, it’s essentially this: You were dead, but now you’re undead for reasons that are unclear; and something bad happened to the world, but we’re not going to tell you what that was. Each collectible item has its own lore, all of which is disturbing.

I never felt as though Blasphemous is just trying to be awful for the sake of shock value, though. As you might guess from the title, it’s based on Spanish Catholicism, and it takes the themes and imagery of Catholicism to their logical extreme. If you’ve ever made a joke about how Catholicism is all about the fetishization of punishment and the worship of death, this game takes that joke seriously. At the same time, it’s so sincere and culturally specific that it never feels disrespectful. I was actually so impressed and curious about the lore and imagery that I looked up a few of the real-world cultural references online, and now I have a greater appreciation for Catholicism. No joke!

( I should say that this game probably isn’t for genuinely religious people, though. It is very literally blasphemous. It also contains all sorts of casual graphic and textual references to real-world torture and hate crimes committed by the church, which perhaps some people might not want to see. Honestly I can’t believe I played this game on a Nintendo console, what a time we live in. )

My favorite part of Blasphemous is its OST, which suits the tone and atmosphere of the game perfectly. About a third of the tracks suffer from dramatic moody bitch disorder, and I can’t remember where they play in the actual game, but most of the OST is mellow acoustic Spanish guitar. Que las Campanas me Doblen is a good representative track, and I really like Y Yo Fuego Te Daré, which manages to be both chill and epic at the same time. A track called Arpegios en Ocre plays in an area called “The Desecrated Cistern,” and it really makes you feel as though you’re exploring a cavernous underground space with a vaulted ceiling. I think the OST holds up well on its own as lo-fi Flamenco beats to chill to, but it’s also a gorgeous backdrop to the game and its ruined world.

A Time for Giving

A Time for Giving by CobGoblin
https://cobgoblin.itch.io/a-time-for-giving

A Time for Giving is a free Game Boy “dark cottagecore” horror game about being a human sacrifice. It takes five to ten minutes to play, and it’s divided into three main areas: your protagonist’s cozy family cabin, an isolated village preparing for its winter festival, and the haunted snow-covered woods. The overworld graphics remind me of the cute rounded style of A Link to the Past, and the character artwork that appears during the dialog screens is delightfully eerie and upsetting. The dialog is well-written and communicates the themes of the game without pulling any punches.

A Time for Giving was created for a winter solstice-themed game jam, and the creator apologizes that there’s no sound because they ran out of time. I’m of the opinion that the lack of music is actually quite lovely, as it creates an environment reminiscent of a silent forest blanketed by snow so heavy that it muffles all sound.

A Time for Giving is very short and very simple, but the writing and visual style are exactly what I want from a handmade Game Boy game. It’s also a perfect combination of nostalgia and “what the fuck did I just play,” which is a major component of what makes these games so fun.

I played A Time for Giving a few times and made varying choices in an attempt to get a different ending, but alas. I wonder if there’s a way for this poor kid to make it out of the forest…?

Waking Nightmare

Waking Nightmare by Polyducks
https://polyducks.itch.io/waking-nightmare

Waking Nightmare is a free homebrew Game Boy horror game in which you navigate a short and simple maze. Every dead end presents you with a nightmare scenario and the notification that you’ve woken up, thus restarting the maze. The game moves very quickly, and each dead end is creative and worth the trouble of discovering. The game also marks every dead end that you’ve already seen twice in order to minimize frustration.

When you make it through the maze, you’re presented with a series of dialog choices that determine one of three endings. The maze layout doesn’t change, so it’s easy to finish the game and see all three endings in about fifteen minutes. The maze screens look like something a kid would build on a graphing calculator, and the gritty lo-fi pixel art is great, especially for the three closing screens. Apparently this is all text art, or “textmode” art, which the creator explains on their website (here). This website is just as interesting as the game itself, and I recommend checking it out if you’re interested in internet art history.

I was never a big fan of first-person maze games, but I’m glad I gave Waking Nightmare a chance. It’s visually distinctive, it makes excellent use of its medium, and the music will definitely get stuck in your head.

Opossum Country

Opossum Country by Ben Jelter
https://benjelter.itch.io/opossum-country

Opossum Country is a free ten-minute lo-fi horror game about a rural pizza delivery driver who finds himself stranded in an isolated trailer park where something isn’t quite right. If you’re worried that the game is poking fun at the sort of low-income and mentally unbalanced of people who might live in a trailer park, there’s definitely an element of that, but the story goes in a direction that I wasn’t expecting. In the end, the moral of Opossum Country is that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about a community you don’t understand. I mean, if the game can be said to have a moral. Which it arguably doesn’t. Regardless, the ending is fantastic.

Ben Jelter also made another free ten-minute Game Boy game called The Last Employee, which definitely has a moral: fuck capitalism. This being the case, I’m guessing that Opossum Country was created from a place of deep sympathy for people on the margins of society. This narrative viewpoint is refreshing in its unapologetic portrayal of difference, but Jelter’s sympathy for these characters doesn’t stop the game from being creepy as fuck. The overworld pixel graphics are creative and unsettling, as are the more detailed character portraits.

Opossum Country was made with a program called GB Studio. Not only is it free, but there are also a ton of pay-what-you-want graphics asset packs floating around Itchio, as well as collections of free-to-use chiptunes music that’s compatible with the Game Boy engine. I also found a few pixel art resources for Clip Studio Paint in the form of brushes, templates, and filters. I’m not sure that “just anyone” can make a game as unique and interesting as Opossum Country, but it’s nice to know that there’s nothing stopping you from trying.

A Dark Winter Wander

A Dark Winter Wander by Red Skald
https://redskald.itch.io/a-dark-winter-wander

A Dark Winter Wander is a free horror-themed narrative adventure game created with GB Studio, a game creator that replicates the look and feel of retro handheld games. The game’s story is about a girl chasing her sister through a (mostly linear) maze of underground tunnels filled with monsters. Although it’s deliberately unclear what’s going on, I think the protagonist’s sister might have an eating disorder, while she herself is depressed. This isn’t important to the gameplay, but those elements are there from the beginning of the game if you’re sensitive and need to watch out for them.

In any case, you see your sister run off into the woods and decide to go after her. While chasing her, you fall into a hole filled with monsters. You talk to the monsters instead of fighting them, and the game is entirely driven by exploration and dialog. This invites a comparison to Undertale, but all of the monsters in A Dark Winter Wander absolutely wish you harm. The creature designs are great, and the lo-fi sound and graphics contribute to the unsettling atmosphere.

If you don’t follow your sister into the woods, you can actually finish the game in about ten minutes and watch a depressing indie game ending. I did this inadvertently, and it was a downer. I then reset the game, did what it wanted me to do, and played for about an hour. Exploring the monster tunnels is a lot of fun, and you can easily spend more than an hour poking around if you’re interested in seeing everything this game has to offer. The creator has offered free downloads, and I’d recommend downloading a Game Boy emulator so that you can play the game offline and create save states.

The unskippable cut scenes at the beginning of the game feel unnecessarily long, and the writing is a bit clunky at times. I also find the lack of specificity regarding what’s going on with the narrator’s family frustrating. You probably already know if a text-heavy Game Boy horror game that’s a metaphor for depression is for you, so I won’t try to sell it. Still, A Dark Winter Wander is one of the most interesting and engaging GB Studio projects that I’ve found on Itchio, and it’s inspired me to check out more work in this weird little subgenre.

Cross the Moon

Cross the Moon is a visual horror novel about a near-future dystopia in which a fraction of the moon has shattered, an event concomitant to the appearance of vampires. No one knows why people suddenly began displaying symptoms of vampirism, but those affected have become a disadvantaged underclass of society.

The game’s story follows two mixed-race vampire siblings and a Japanese detective through the streets of L’Amour, a French city that hosts the headquarters of a corporation called bloodFLOW, a leading producer of artificial blood and scientific research relating to vampires. Although Cross the Moon begins as a murder mystery, it gradually expands into the territory of cosmic horror.  

The beginning is standard vampire fare. The player is introduced to a high school student named Lux who is hanging out at a bar and fishing for someone who will consent to share their blood. Lux is essentially a good kid and thinks this is a bad idea, but he’s acting on behalf of his crush Apollon, who seems to be in thrall to his girlfriend, a manic pixie femme fatale named Corentine. Unfortunately for the trio, the man they seduce is found dead the next morning, and Apollon is charged with murder. In an attempt to clear his friend’s name, Lux ends up becoming involved with the vampire underworld, where he learns that Corentine is not an ordinary high school student – nor is Apollon.

This YA narrative is complicated by the interwoven story of Lux’s adult sister Aurore, who has managed to land an interview for a prestigious job at bloodFLOW. Her intake interview is weird, the job she’s asked to do is bizarre, and her coworkers are more than a little strange. She isn’t a big fan of the company itself, which she knows is exploiting the vampire population. Still, Aurore has grown up watching her working-class parents struggle, and she’s willing to do whatever it takes to give herself and her family a better life. Unfortunately, this leads her to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding corporate secrets that turn out to be far beyond anything she imagined.

Meanwhile, Yoko has just transferred into L’Amour’s police force as part of an exchange program meant to facilitate cross-cultural communication regarding vampire-related policies and best practices. Due to the timing of her arrival, she’s immediately dropped into the investigation of the gruesome murder supposedly committed by Apollon. She strongly suspects Apollon is innocent, which convinces her to dig deeper into why a random teenage boy is being framed. This in turn leads her to the main mystery of Cross the Moon – what’s going on with bloodFLOW? What does the company have hidden under its corporate offices, and why does Yoko feel so compelled to pry into its secrets?

Cross the Moon is more of a graphic novel than a game. The only interactive element is the option to save your progress, and the story is completely linear. Although Cross the Moon is formatted as a visual novel, with long horizontal text boxes overlaid onto the bottom of a single full-screen image, it’s not a “game” in any meaningful sense. There are no branching paths, and there’s only one ending. There’s no animation or voice acting, and the character art assets are fairly limited. Cross the Moon is also quite long, promising at least seven or eight hours of reading.

The story starts off slow. I’m afraid this may put off many players used to flashy video game opening sequences, but it’s a pitch-perfect opening to a horror novel. This is how almost every Stephen King novel works, after all – the world needs to be built before it’s destroyed, and the reader needs to learn to care about the characters before they start to find themselves in serious trouble. Through the mundane details of the everyday lives of the characters, the player gradually builds an understanding of how the society of L’Amour operates, which makes the final horrific reveals all the more dramatic.

The author is sensitive to inequalities concerning race, class, and gender, but it’s worth mentioning that the game’s take on vampirism is its own thing and not analogous to any real-world identity. The minority status of vampires is informed by real-world politics, but Cross the Moon takes the concept in a creative and unexpected direction. I have to admit that I’m not a particular fan of vampires, but I found myself growing progressively more curious about how vampirism operates in the world of the game, as well as how it originated.

(By the way, if you’ve been reading between the lines of this review and have come to the conclusion that the ethically dubious corporation created vampires, that’s not what’s happening. This story has layers of progressively deepening strangeness, and it absolutely doesn’t go where you expect it to.)

The worldbuilding of Cross the Moon is enhanced by its visual style. The soft grayscale character art pops against the super-saturated backgrounds, which are composed of photographs overlaid with high-contrast color filters. I know this sounds like Baby’s First Photoshop, but it’s remarkably well done and extremely stylish. As I mentioned earlier, the character art assets are limited, so the player is occasionally asked to suspend disbelief while, for example, a character lies in a hospital bed in a full suit. For the most part, the graphics contribute a great deal of atmosphere to the story, as does the ambient music. The game contains some uncomfortably gory and deliciously creepy moments, and there’s a jump scare toward the end that really got me.

If reading a lengthy mature-audience horror story in the form of a visual novel sounds like a chore, then Cross the Moon probably isn’t for you. Speaking personally, I always find myself getting annoyed by extraneous gameplay elements in visual novels, so what Cross the Moon is doing is perfect for me. I read it on my Nintendo Switch between sessions with more action-oriented games, and I very much enjoyed myself. I’m intrigued by the potential of this hybrid medium of storytelling, and I’d love to see more “visual novels” that are in fact genuine novels intended for adult readers.

Reminiscence in the Night

Reminiscence in the Night is a short point-and-click story game that takes place in the two-room apartment of someone with serious depression. It has multiple endings, and it takes about half an hour to play.

At the beginning of the game, your character wakes up in their apartment with no memories, and they can’t (or won’t) go outside. Their only clues to their identity are their mother, who calls on the phone, and their childhood friend Sofia, whom they can video chat with on their computer. Unfortunately, their mother is suffering from a memory disorder, and things are a bit awkward with Sofia.

The controls are simple and easy, but there isn’t much to interact with. The endings aren’t broadcast, and the dialog choices seem arbitrary. Unless you use a walkthrough, you’re probably not getting out of the apartment.

The game’s soft pastel graphics are cute, but its themes are very dark, and there are mild elements of horror. It’s difficult to understand exactly what happens if you get the bad ending, but either a ghost that lives in your mirror attacks and destroys you, or the ghost is metaphorical and you commit suicide.

The good endings are a bit more interesting, but you can only unlock them through an exact series of specific choices. If you happen to choose the “wrong” response to Sofia during your first conversation – which is, again, not broadcast at all – you’re almost certainly going to get the bad ending.

I’m not sure how well this arbitrariness works as a narrative device; but, if you’re willing to accept Reminiscence in the Night as a horror game with a dark ending, it’s an entertaining way to spend half an hour. It’s going for $3 on the Nintendo Switch store, and I’d say it’s worth it.

I’m intrigued by Team SolEtude, the studio that developed Reminiscence in the Night. They’ve got about half a dozen free games up on Itchio, and I’m definitely interested in playing more of their work.

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!