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.  

League of Enthusiastic Losers

League of Enthusiastic Losers is a chill and beautiful visual novel set in Moscow in the 1990s. You play as Vitya, a handyman, who is often accompanied by his friend and roommate Volodya, a copywriter who’s working on a novel. It’s not clear whether the two men are in a romantic relationship; but regardless, they’re close friends who love and support one another. Unfortunately, while all of their friends from high school are off being successful and moving up in the world during the boom economy, the two of them can barely pay rent.

As the player, your task is to follow Vitya and Volodya as they try to figure out how to pay their landlord a portion of the rent they owe. Both men are extremely sweet and gentle, and they keep getting sidetracked as they do things like adopting a stray dog and helping their landlord’s son fix his toy airplane. Their grand plan is to dig up a “buried treasure” in the local public park that ends up consisting of several small tokens of Soviet life. Thankfully there are no antagonists in this game, and everything turns out okay. The men’s landlord is just as much of a sweetheart as they are, and their friends are happy to help support them.

The player can control Vitya and Volodya’s movement through linear 2D spaces, make a few dialog choices, and enjoy a few simple flash games like “glue the wings on the toy airplane” and “use the metal detector in the park.” There’s no stress and no point of failure, just two soft but handsome men and their adorable dog navigating a beautiful city depicted in a colorful painterly art style.

There are two things I love about the character Volodya in particular. First, he walks with a pronounced limp. It’s never explained, and no one ever comments on it, but people slow down their own pace when they walk with him. I don’t think Volodya has a “disability,” necessarily, but the game does a good job of depicting that sort of human difference.

Second, everyone around Volodya understands and accepts the fact that it takes time to write a novel, and that it probably won’t be picked up by a publisher right away. In fact, the first press he submits the manuscript to rejects it. When I compare this to the writer plot in the game Coffee Talk, in which Freya takes five days to write a novel that’s immediately accepted by a publisher with no agent necessary, I appreciate this game’s honesty about the fact that no one is immaculately conceived as a literary genius.

Everything about League of Enthusiastic Losers is honest, and the honest truth about life is that sometimes everything really is going to be okay. More than anything, League of Enthusiastic Losers is a game about being in your late twenties and gradually finding your place in the world. None of the characters is “good” or “bad,” but all of them are human, and it’s a joy to follow them through their everyday lives.

League of Enthusiastic Losers takes about half an hour to play, and you can pet the dog anytime you want.

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight is a 2D fantasy Metroidvania with adorable 16-bit pixel graphics and an emphasis on cute magical girls. It has an Easy Mode that’s genuinely chill, and it took me about seven hours to get 100% completion. Momodora features a lot of nods to the Dark Souls games in general and Bloodborne in particular, but I think a more accurate comparison (at least on Easy Mode) is the mellow Nintendo DS adventure-platformer Super Princess Peach.

I came to Momodora not knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s absolutely delightful. The game is relatively simple, but that’s okay, because it’s very good at what it does.

You play as Kaho, a cute girl wearing a white mage hood over a black miniskirt dress and thigh-high stockings. I get the feeling that her theme is supposed to be “sexy Shintō shrine maiden,” and she uses a giant red maple leaf as a sword. She also has a bow with unlimited arrows whose attack can be charged, an adorable dodge roll, and the ability to double-jump right out of the box. Her animations are lovely, and she’s a lot of fun.

Kaho is a silent protagonist, but what you pick up from other characters is that she’s come from abroad to talk to the Queen of Karst about a curse that has spread from the castle city into her small village. You begin the game on the border of a beautiful and vibrant 16-bit pixel forest before entering Karst, which is what the gothic Victorian city of Yharnam (from Bloodborne) would look like if it were rendered in Chrono Trigger style graphics. Whatever curse is threatening Kaho’s village has subsumed Karst in full force, and Kaho has to fight all manner of cute imps, cute witches, cute sorceresses, and cute devils, all of whom have colorful and interesting anime designs.  

Before you can go into Karst Castle proper, you need to find four seals that unlock its gate. This quest sends you into a maze of interconnected areas that include a flooded graveyard, an overgrown garden, a giant crematorium, and the rafters of a ruined cathedral. All of these areas are beautifully rendered and a joy to explore, and along the way Kaho meets a handful of cute NPCs and picks up a limited arsenal of items whose flavor text provides a hint of worldbuilding in classic Dark Souls fashion. Kaho gains a few more abilities – one in particular is a true blessing and a miracle on this earth, but I won’t spoil it – but Momodora sticks to its core gameplay and never gets too complicated.

In addition, you can find and collect 17 health upgrades, as well as 20 silver bugs to trade to a garden rabbit for prizes. About half of these collectables require minor exploration and backtracking, and the other half are hidden in ridiculous ways that I don’t think most players would be able to find without a walkthrough. Thankfully, if you’re playing on Easy Mode, it’s totally fine not to worry about the collectables you don’t find naturally.

You also pick up currency from defeated enemies that you can use to buy relics (which are essentially magic spells) from various merchants, but none of these items are necessary. Since Kaho doesn’t otherwise gain levels or become more powerful, I can imagine that some of the boss fights might be challenging and require a bit of an extra advantage, but this isn’t an issue in Easy Mode, in which Kaho begins the game with two powerful relics that will carry the player through the entire game.

In conclusion, Momodora is a chill and beautiful Metroidvania style action-exploration game that’s like Bloodborne for people who want to enjoy the gothic story and atmosphere without having to spend dozens of hours slamming their head against a wall to git gud. Also, since almost every character and enemy is a super cute magical girl or sexy adult witch-demon, I guess you could say that Momodora is like Bloodborne for lesbians.

I mean, Bloodborne itself is very much “Bloodborne for lesbians,” but you get what I’m saying.

The Cruel King and the Great Hero

The Cruel King and the Great Hero was developed and published by Nippon Ichi Software, and it’s the spiritual successor to the studio’s 2018 title The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince. Just as The Liar Princess is a simplistic puzzle-platformer set apart by its distinctive manga art style, The Cruel King is a JRPG that’s so traditional it would probably be considered retro were it not so visually gorgeous and beautifully animated.  

When I say that The Cruel King is “traditional,” what I mean is that there are a lot of random encounters. The battles are turn-based and controlled solely through text menus. There’s a bit of strategy involved, but not much. Your character walks slowly, and there’s a not-insignificant amount of backtracking. If you suspect that you’ll find this frustrating, then The Cruel King probably isn’t for you.

If you’re looking for a more relaxed gameplay experience, however, The Cruel King is a delightful way to spend about 20 to 25 hours. Personally speaking, it took a few play sessions for me to readjust my expectations of how quickly the battles should progress, but I became hooked on the gameplay once I got used to the pace.

You play as Yuu, a young human girl who has been adopted by The Cruel Dragon King as his daughter. Every night before bed, the Dragon King tells the girl about her “real” father, a great hero who defeated an evil demon king. The girl wants to become a hero like her father, so the Dragon King decides to make her dream come true by coming up with little quests for her to undertake. These quests are in service to the various monsters who live in the Dragon King’s territory, and the girl becomes involved in a series of adorable sidequests.

Most of these sidequests are optional. Because the game isn’t difficult, the sidequest rewards aren’t strictly necessary. Rather, the real reward is the friendship you find along the way. In less cliché terms, the reward for playing the game is being able to experience more of the game.

The environment is not quite 2D and not quite isometric, and it reminds me a lot of the style of the Paper Mario games. There are no puzzles and no platforming, but your character gradually gains abilities that allow her to bypass environmental obstacles and thereby gain access to more of the map. Like most of the sidequests, exploration isn’t strictly necessary. Still, if you want to poke around a bit, the map screen is annotated in a way that’s easy to understand and keep track of, and there will never be any need to consult an online walkthrough. The player has access to a quest log that visually signposts the objectives for each quest, and you can instantly return to the central village hub whenever you wish.

Your adventuring party only has two characters at a time, Yuu and another character specific to each chapter of the game. This can occasionally cause difficulties when a group of enemies is designed to take advantage of an earlier companion’s special abilities, but most players will never experience anything beyond mild inconvenience. Your characters’ skill points are limited but naturally renew after each turn of battle, and it’s fun to play around with different skills and strategies without having to worry about conserving resources.  

The chill and low-stress gameplay allows the player to appreciate the most notable feature of The Cruel King, which is its gorgeous artwork. Playing the game feels like walking through the pages of a storybook, albeit one that’s beautifully animated. All of the characters and environments are hand-drawn, and each screen is filled with unique details. The illustrated bestiary that you can gradually complete as you find and defeat enemies is a treasure.

I’ve gotten used to ambient background noise in contemporary video games, so it was a treat to realize that each area of The Cruel King has its own theme music. I thought this music was nothing special at first, but over time I found that I enjoyed the fantasy flavor it adds to each section of the game. None of the character lines are voiced, but the actress who narrates the storybook-style cutscenes in Japanese gives a lovely performance (although you can silence her voice and fast-forward through these scenes if you like).

The translation is of uneven quality, but this didn’t bother me. Most of the dialog is cute and quirky but still feels natural, and many of the characters have distinctive ways of speaking that are fun without being annoying. The translation for the third-person narrative cutscenes tends to be a bit shaky, both in terms of style and grammar. I don’t think the errors were intentional (especially since the original Japanese text is relatively polished), but I still appreciate them, as the amateurish writing style made the storybook sections feel more intimate. It reminded me of Super Nintendo JRPGs, whose imperfect translations were a significant part of their charm.

Without spoiling anything, I think it’s fair to say that The Liar Princess and the Blind Prince was a horror game that got especially dark toward the end. The Cruel King and the Great Hero doesn’t have any nasty tricks up its sleeves, but the story ends up being much more interesting and nuanced than you might expect. If nothing else, you get to be friends with all sorts of monsters, and who doesn’t want a kind and supportive Dragon King for a dad?

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.

Sumire

Sumire is a short nonviolent story game in which you play as the eponymous Sumire, a young girl who lives in a small town in rural Japan. Sumire’s grandmother recently died, and her father has left home. To make matters worse, Sumire’s childhood friend has progressed from ignoring her to outright bullying her. One morning, a magical talking flower (who is not evil, thank goodness) shows up at Sumire’s house and tells her that he has the power to help her experience one perfect day, at the end of which she might be able to see her grandmother again.

Sumire makes a checklist of what would constitute “a perfect day” and then sets out with her flower companion to achieve all of her goals, which include making peace with her former friend and confessing her feelings to a boy she likes. Along the way, you’re free to explore Sumire’s hometown, which is divided into about half a dozen small and manageable sections. The flower’s magic allows Sumire to speak with animals, plants, and a few inanimate objects, and each section of the town is filled with interesting characters and conversations.

At several points in the story, your character is asked to make a binary choice. One of these choices is always “be a decent human being,” while the other is “I wonder if this game has a genocide route.” Reviews of this game tend to make this seem far more complicated than it actually is, like…

Reviews: The game asks you to make difficult choices.

The game: A cute baby frog asks you to carry him to the river, which requires no effort on your part. Do you happily agree, or do you tell him that he’s disgusting and that you wouldn’t touch him even if he paid you? If you agree, you get a tangible reward and some extra dialog; and if you don’t, he doesn’t talk to you again.

Reviews: The game forces you to think about the consequences of your actions.

The game: Are you friendly to the slightly nerdy kid who’s friends with the boy you like, or do you tell him that he’s a fat fuck who deserves to be bullied? If you’re friendly, this unlocks a fun but entirely optional minigame; and if you’re not, he doesn’t talk to you again.

To me, it was always crystal clear what choices Sumire should make in order to achieve her goals, which are written in the form of a checklist on a piece of paper that you can access from the menu screen. For example, one of your goals is basically “tell Mom I love her.” So, when you trigger a scene in which you have an option to tell your mom you love her… You should probably do that!

The joy of this game is being able to roleplay what it feels like to be friendly and kind and have your kindness acknowledged and rewarded. There are no trick questions, and there are no decisions that don’t turn out the way you expect. For example, if you tell your mother that you love her, she doesn’t respond by accusing you of being emotionally manipulative for demanding attention when she clearly wants to be alone; this just isn’t that sort of game.

When I say “that sort of game,” I’m specifically thinking of Spiritfarer, which is written about adults for an intended audience of other adults. Spiritfarer is about as wholesome as a game can be, but it acknowledges that not everyone is going respond to kindness with gratitude. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure that Sumire is intended for a younger audience, or at least an older audience that wants to feel nostalgia for a childhood that isn’t complicated by a more mature understanding of human behavior.

That being said, I’m curious about what would happen if you were to consistently choose the antisocial dialog options. Does the game get dark and creepy? Because that would be interesting. I couldn’t find anything about this online, so perhaps it might be worth experimenting with in the future.

Aside from the (probably?) limited satisfaction of trying out different dialog choices, I’m not sure if Sumire has any replay value in the traditional sense, as you can experience everything the game has to offer during a single two-hour playthrough. Regardless, the world of the game is so beautiful and charming that I’m already looking forward to returning to it in the future. Sumire is the video game equivalent of comfort food, and it’s perfect for a rainy afternoon when you need some flowers and sunshine in your life.

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.

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!

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.