World of Horror — Ancient Interface, Timeless Horror

I love and dread being scared, in almost equal measure. The thrill of the unknown, the slow build of tension, the sudden release, it’s unnervingly fun for me, and that enjoyment has spilled into some of my game library. World of Horror (developer panstasz’s debut game) plays unlike any horror game I’ve experienced before, and I mean that with great praise. In fact, it plays unlike most games I’ve ever played before. Through all of these pieces that set it apart, it shines like a beautiful star in the sky of games, a beacon for a hungry, wandering old god and a curious gamer alike.

Captured in-game.

At its core, World of Horror is an RPG (or Roguelike, depending on your definition of the genre) where players control one of several teenagers/young adults in Shiokawa, Japan, during pre-cellular 1984. The Old Gods (but one in particular, for each run) are coming, and it’s up to you to thwart them by investigating and resolving various mysteries and horrors across the city. Using an older RPG-style interface of investigation and combat, players will try to save the only world they know, and hopefully live to the end of their journey.

Captured in-game.

World of Horror wastes no time introducing you to its odd, but meticulously organized, interface. The entire game is displayed on a 1980s-era computer, the computer set up in a dark room, a single window framing a dark town outside. The entirety of World of Horror is played on a two-color computer screen, your own mouse cursor morphing into something more era-appropriate as you click through menus and submenus on your various adventures. There is no game-based skill of timing or coordination, only menus, dialogue, and descriptions to click through, all backdropped by MS Paint-created, 2-bit illustrations. For an unfamiliar player, the interface and its loads of options (between travel, exploration, and combat routes) can be daunting. But World of Horror, despite being a dense and heavy game (mechanically and thematically), takes its time gently bringing players into the fold, making sure they have a grasp on things as it loosens its leash around players. You’ll be fighting off abominable horrors and eyeball worms in no time!

Captured in-game.

I was initially nervous about the difficulty when I started off; this just had an air of “tough game.” But World of Horror is about repeat, multiple, and varied playthroughs, and it widens its net appropriately with its difficulty. While not required, it recommends players start with a Tutorial level, “Spine-Chilling Story of School Scissors” (and, yes, the alliteration is a recurring thing. Strap in, English majors). It’s a simpler mystery that exposes players to the bare mechanics of the game and gives them a taste of what lies in wait for them. True to form, this tutorial can still mess players up. This is World of Horror, after all. If players fail or lose, they’ll find themselves cut to ribbons by the end of it! But it’s all a learning process that builds on and reinforces what players have tried. Even after that, and a simpler version of the full game’s capacity (“Extracurricular Activities”) streamlines some of the more random elements to provide a consistent starting point: players always start with the same character and (if applicable) background on a low difficulty.

Captured in-game.

This isn’t even touching on the difficulty modes (presently up to five). The slider ranges from 0 (for those more interested in the writing, the art, and the thematic horror than they are the gameplay), up to 4, the ultimate mechanical challenge for those seeking horror in gameplay and narrative. I tend towards the middle-to-lower end of the spectrum, but still find plenty of challenge and enjoyment to be had. The difficulty helps to accommodate the different gamers that may attempt to route the Old Gods, Rest assured, though, lower difficulty neither censors nor visually neuters any of the horrors that players will encounter.

Captured in-game.

World of Horror stands on its own in my eyes, even against AAA juggernauts, with its art style. It can be played in 1-bit or 2-bit mode, generally limiting the colors available to only a few (again, in line with the interface). This doesn’t limit the experience, by any means. The monsters, the situations, the body and eldritch horrors are all conveyed sharply and horrifyingly with this art style. That so much can be conveyed and done with so few colors is a thing of beauty and mastery. Any amount of World of Horror, be it situation or enemy, simply wouldn’t work in a high-resolution game. Horror, in my eye, is at its best when it forces its audience, be they readers, viewers, or players, to fill in the gaps with our own experiences, fears, and perspectives. It makes the horror ours. The 1- & 2-bit art style still shows us what to be afraid of, make no mistake. But what it does with that art is give us a mostly static blueprint to start seeing elsewhere in our lives, in the shadows, in the corner of our eye, more than a 3D-rendered model might be able to. We fill in the blanks, and World of Horror transcend past the game as such.

Captured in-game.

A quick aside: one cannot touch on the art style without giving proper credence to the game’s main inspiration, Junji Ito. Ito’s twisted mastery of body horror is on full display in the different enemies and situations that players encounter, and are what have made my skin crawl and my spine jolt in both dread and horror throughout my play. The pantheon of old gods is a dreadful, ominous presence, drawing from both Ito’s creations and otherwise, but (if you’re lucky) they only roll up when players lose. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know who Junji Ito was, or much about his style, before playing, but am glad to have looked into it since.

Captured in-game.

The music and sound design, composed by Sebastian Zybowski and Joseph Bailey, is perfection, despite its chiptune soundtrack being more primitive than what most players in 2021 are used to. It is sharp, jarring, unsettling, and thematic. Each mystery has its own overarching soundtrack that fits the tone and mood of it perfectly. The soundscape crashes, slices, and slashes with its limited tools, but manages to terrify as much as any scare in other games might. Conversely, World of Horror knows when to dial back and let players stew in the ambient silence. It plays into active terror and ongoing dread beautifully. For better or worse, I’m glad I haven’t played this with headphones…yet.

Captured in-game.

World of Horror’s story is all stitched together by its writing, courtesy of writers Cassandra Khaw (Sunless Skies, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine) and G.W. Musko. Undulating between short, punchy, and panicked moments to longer, dreadful set pieces, Khaw’s words both compliment and are complimented by the art and soundscape throughout these many mysteries.

Captured in-game.

All of these things make World of Horror fun, if not moderately terrifying, to play, but a successful run from beginning to end doesn’t take long; less than an hour is what I usually clock at (higher difficulties may yield longer playtimes, though). So, why return? In a word, multiplicity. There are multiple difficulty levels for all range of players to challenge themselves with. There are multiple mysteries to solve, and multiple endings to each case. There are multiple Old Gods that can influence the world, and multiple player characters that struggle against them. There are multiple in-game achievements that yield new (and multiple) items for future runs. Of what I have available now (six characters, four Old Gods, and ten mysteries), there are over two-hundred unique story beginnings to be told, and this doesn’t even count the of randomized encounters (both combat and narrative) and stirrings of the Old Gods peppered in. World of Horror is a game of multiplicity, compressed into a hyper-distilled, 1-bit, ever-changing compendium of horror.

Captured in-game.

The last thing that stands out to me is that World of Horror excels no matter how one plays it. When I started, I lapped in every word of prose, let the unsettling chiptune soundtrack drag me in, and found myself lost in the Ito-esque monstrosities I encountered. I let it all wash over me and immerse me in the world. Now, as I’ve grown familiar with the story beats (even as new ones cross my path), I’ve built up habits and burn through certain phases and stages, whether to advance the game elsewhere or as a personal challenge. I look forward to a time when I’ll ramp up the difficulty and play the game as mechanical challenge. In what I know of World of Horror, and no matter how I play it, it excels. It can be just as much a slow-burn of building dread as much as it can be a mechanically grueling gauntlet. As with so much else within, it just depends on the individual player that approaches it.

Seen here: a successful run, despite dying in just over six minutes. Captured in-game.

I love horror games. I love the stories that they tell. More than anything, I genuinely love when horror games make themselves accessible to a wider swathe of players. There may not be a “Safe Mode” in World of Horror, but it is a game designed for a wide variety of people for a wide variety of reasons, and it sacrifices none of the other aspects that make it great along the way. This is a game that deserves to be played by as many people as possible. So go on. Download it. Play it. Try the demo if you’re not sure. I promise, it’s not a cult. But if it was, you could do worse. Good luck. Stay sane.

Captured in-game.

At the time of playing, World of Horror was still in Early Access, version 0.9.17.