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.