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.

Root Letter

Root Letter is a mystery-themed visual novel that should take most people about six or seven hours to play. I’ve read a number of positive reviews of the game, so I went ahead and downloaded a copy onto my Nintendo Switch when it went on sale at the end of the year.

You play as Takayuki, a thirty-something white collar worker who’s left his job at a design firm and has a bit of free time before he’s scheduled to start a new job. When he goes home to visit his parents, he finds a set of letters from Aya Fumino, his pen pal from his senior year of high school. He’d exchanged nine letters with her, but he discovers a tenth at the bottom of the stack that he doesn’t remember reading. In this letter, Aya tells Takayuki that she can no longer continue their correspondence. She apologizes, saying that she has killed someone.

Takayuki decides to try to find her in Matsue, a city on the Sea of Japan about halfway between Osaka and Hiroshima. When he arrives at the address on the letters, however, he finds an empty lot. A passing neighbor tells him that the house burned down fifteen years ago, so he checks the records at the city library. He learns that, while a girl named Aya Fumino used to live in that house, she died twenty-five years ago, long before she could have written to him.

Why did the house burn down? Who was pretending to be Aya Fumino? And who did she kill?

With a week of free time and an intriguing mystery on his hands, Takayuki sets about tracking down the seven friends his pen pal mentioned in her letters. None of them want to talk to him, however, and everyone claims not to know anyone named Aya Fumino, even when presented with her photo. Your goal, as Takayuki, is to find and interrogate these seven adults in an attempt to figure out who “Aya Fumino” was and what happened during her senior year of high school.

There are five possible endings to Root Letter, but its gameplay is almost completely linear. You use a drop-down menu to move between various locations in Matsue as you follow various hints and clues, and the “Think” command on your menu will (almost) always tell you where the game wants you to go next. The interrogation scenes feature a few Ace Attorney style elements that involve presenting the right piece of evidence at the right moment, but this is also extremely linear. There’s no reward for exploration or creativity; but, thankfully, there’s no punishment for failure. Root Letter is much more of an interactive novel than a game, and it’s not interested in derailing your progress through the story.

The ending you see is determined by your choice of how Takayuki responded to the letter from Aya Fumino that’s presented at the beginning of each of the game’s chapters. You’re given two sets of choices per letter, and your options tend to fall into discrete categories at don’t make much sense unless you already know which ending you’re trying to unlock. Like the shitty casual gamer I am, I chose a “normal” (to me) range of mixed responses and got the worst ending, in which the whole mess about Aya Fumino was a government conspiracy to cover up an alien invasion.

My advice would be to avoid my rookie mistake by consulting a guide to the endings before you begin. Don’t worry about spoiling yourself, because Root Letter’s story is so convoluted that none of the endings will make sense if you haven’t played the game.

It’s my understanding that the “default” ending, meaning the ending you’ll see if you always choose the first response option, is a bittersweet story about missed connections, growing up, and letting the past go as you move on with your life. Another ending, the “Cursed Letter” ending, is about the power of teenage imagination to create both urban legends and personal identity; while another, the “Princess of Himegamori Forest” ending, is a horror-themed exploration of local Shintō folklore.

One of the main benefits of playing the Last Answer edition of the game (as opposed to the original 2016 release) is that it contains an optional “drama mode.” The drama version of the game uses photos of real actors and locations; and, based on what I’ve seen, the photography is quite polished and surprisingly faithful. Having played the game through once with anime illustrations, I’m looking forward to playing it again in drama mode at some point in the future.

While Root Letter pushes the player forward with the strong forward momentum of its mystery story, it also invites you to take time to appreciate the sights of Matsue. As Takayuki, you’ll get to stay at a traditional hot springs inn, stroll through the forested grounds of Matsushiro Castle, visit art museums, and eat at trendy cafés. Root Letter leans especially hard into its celebration of the local cuisine, and I’m excited about the prospect of being able to enjoy photographic depictions of Matsue’s food culture.

Unfortunately, some elements of the game haven’t aged well, probably because they were never attractive to begin with. To give an example, one character admits to a violent attempted rape, and the other characters just sort of shake their heads and move on. If this assault only comes up briefly and is never mentioned again, why include it in the story at all? Likewise, “Aya Fumino’s” fake suicide is teased fairly early in the game but isn’t given any dramatic weight. Rather, it’s played purely for shock value, with the implicit understanding that this sort of thing is just what moody high school girls do.

Some of the most uncomfortable parts of the game involve a character nicknamed “Fatty.” This character’s entire arc is about how he’s overweight, and about how overweight people are weak and gross and unlovable. In order to psychologically break this character during his investigation, Takayuki taunts him with chocolate-covered potato chips, which he can’t resist because, at the deepest core of his being, he is and will always be a big fat fatty. The whole thing is super gross, especially in combination with the casual gay panic thrown into this chapter. I feel that this is one of the many instances in which a more judicious localization could have made some slight changes, not to erase this type of bigotry and meanness, but to mitigate it somewhat.

The player’s enjoyment of Root Letter is largely based on its story, so it’s a shame that the translation is so lackluster. It’s perfectly serviceable, and it’s far from unreadable, but it has numerous quality control issues that would be tedious to list. My main complaint is that the translation received very little localization, which is frustrating in terms of both story and gameplay.

Regarding gameplay, the lack of a localization has rendered it somewhat difficult to talk to or interrogate people, as there are numerous instances in which none of the dialog choices make the slightest bit of sense. The game isn’t that complicated, so you can brute-force your way through the poorly translated bits by trial and error, but it goes without saying that you shouldn’t have to.

It’s tricky to discuss the situations in which localization would have been preferable to a direct translation without resorting to an infodump, but I can give one example that’s fairly self-explanatory. One of the friends Aya Fumino mentions in her letters is nicknamed “Bitch.” In Japanese, the loanword bicchi doesn’t necessarily mean “mean girl,” as it does in English. Rather, it’s the 2015 version of gyaru or kogal, and it refers to a teenage girl who dyes her hair and uses tanning lotion and dresses in trendy clothes and pays a lot of attention to the entertainment industry. The English equivalent of this term changes from decade to decade; but, given that Takayuki probably went to high school around 1998-2001 or thereabouts, “valley girl” or “Barbie girl” might work. The character nicknamed “Bitch” is actually quite friendly, so listening to the other characters talk about how much they used to admire their friend “Bitch” is bizarre.

Root Letter has some definite rough patches, but I want to emphasize that I enjoyed this game. I spent a week playing it, reading for about an hour every day, and I had a lot of fun with its ridiculous characters, charmingly convoluted plot, and unapologetic embrace of virtual tourism. I’m happy that I finally got a chance to play Root Letter, but I’m also happy that I was able to get the game on sale, because I’m not sure it’s worth more than $20.