I absolutely love atmospheric horror, but I have a hard time dealing with horror games or films that rely on frequent jump scares and nightmare inducing imagery. For me, the sweet spot of horror lies somewhere between silence and scare. A good horror game can throw sudden audio queues or surprising imagery at you, but it needs to be earned, and should punctuate the experience, not define it. The ideal horror game, for me, will leave your heart rate high and your sense of ease low, long after the credits roll, and all without using a single sudden banshee screech.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows is my ideal horror game.
Midnight Shadows is the second Yomawari game, but the narrative is completely unrelated to the first. Much of the framework is the same, though. Yui and Haru are best friends watching a fireworks show at night, but when Yui goes missing on their walk back home, Haru has to explore the town to find her. Unfortunately for Haru, this small town is not inhabited by family or neighbours at night, but by a bevy of twisted, disturbing spirits looking to devour Haru at every turn.
I was so happy to see Midnight Shadows would be arriving on PS4, because the experience feels so much richer and more immersive on the big screen compared to the Vita. The Yomawari games use a cutesy, chibi art style to render the characters, but everything surrounding them has a deep, haunting beauty to it that instantly tells you this world is anything but cute. Environments and buildings are rendered in dark, rich colors, shadows and darkness paint every corner of the screen, and there will be blood.
You’ll explore these unnerving environs in a top-down adventure game style, aiming to track down items and solve puzzles in order to progress the story and locate your best friend. Along the way, you’ll encounter a huge variety of ghostly entities out to end your life, from giant whale heads to creepy children and more. Each entity has a disturbing, twisted design, but rendered in the small, bite-sized art style of Yomawari, they’re rarely things that will keep you from sleeping at night.
They’re more fascinating through hindsight than they are nightmare inducing, especially due to how each type of enemy has a different gameplay mechanic tied to it. Some need to have a light flashed on them to escape their clutches, while others are inescapable and simply slow your walk speed, and others still involve plenty of running and hiding to escape their gaze.
These tense encounters, and every other moment in the game, are amplified by the fantastic sound design of the game. There is next to no music in this video game, so as you wander the empty, eerie town, only the ambient sounds of nature and ominous unidentifiable howls and skitters will grace your eardrums. There’s something so disturbing about a stylized, hand-drawn game using very realistic and natural sounds in it, from the pitter-patter of feet to the howls of monsters or the jangling of coins, it all serves to amplify the sense of dread and unease you feel when playing.
Some moments of the game can feel cheap or obtuse, either in its puzzles or enemy encounters, and it takes a few deaths to figure out some areas of the game, but the save system alleviates some of the frustration. By offering a coin to a Jizo Shrine, you can save your game, and upon death be transported back to your last shrine, as well as use them for fast travel. The shrines were an interesting mechanic, but not having the ability to simply save your progress and stop playing whenever you wanted felt a little inconvenient to me at times.
Midnight Shadows is a short game. It’s long enough to take up an afternoon or two, but not so short that you’ll feel like something was missing. The only thing that is missing from this game is happiness. Within the first few minutes, Midnight Shadows punches you in the gut and sets you up for a somber journey. Each chapter of the game includes a brief scene where you play as Yui to show where she is during Haru’s search. With each scene, though, the circumstances of the narrative become more and more grim, and the chances for a happy ending slowly slip away.
The first game left you on a bit of a sweet note, rewarding your journey after all the despair you went through. Midnight Shadows doesn’t reward you for your suffering so much as it acknowledges it. This is a sad, dark game, with only the faintest bittersweet taste at the end. I felt like my journey meant something and I achieved a goal at the end of the first game, but Midnight Shadows leaves me with no sense of achievement, only sadness.
It’s been hard to find horror games that scratch my itch to be disturbed without catching me with cheap scares or leaving me with weeks of nightmares. I long for tense, atmospheric experiences that get me shivering and shaken and Yomawari: Midnight Shadows shook me to my core. It’s a masterful horror game that tops anything else on the Vita, and rivals many other things on the PS4 as it blends detailed sound-design with rich art and a somber narrative to craft a breath-taking horror experience. Some puzzle segments can be obtuse, and the ending lacks the same sense of accomplishment of the first game, but despite all that, Yomawari continues to perfectly define horror.