The Midnight Sanctuary is an occult horror visual novel revolving around the (after)life of a group of Christians living in rural Japan. Theirs is a tale of ancient persecution, but where most visual novels wrap their stories around puzzles, peril and branching narratives, The Midnight Sanctuary sticks rigidly to the story of its sheltered community. It certainly feels a little odd because of this.
Before moving any further into what The Midnight Sanctuary is, it’d be worth giving everyone a little historical context, because Christian villages in Japan — a country that is mostly Shinto and Buddhist — are a rarity. The reason for this is that Japanese Christians were heavily persecuted throughout the 17thCentury, as the Tokugawas did not take kindly to people who were more loyal to Christ than the shogunate — partly because rulers don’t like those who don’t listen, and partly because the rulers feared Christianity’s links to Spanish colonialism. This isn’t a particularly well-known period of history here in the UK, but the Martyrs of Japan are certainly worth looking into if it piques your curiosity.
It’s this history of persecution that The Midnight Sanctuary bases its story on. A group of Christians, fearing execution for their faith, hid themselves away in the countryside and a little village called Daiusu, effectively cutt themselves off from the outside world. Moving forward to the almost present – think steam trains rather than shinkansen – the village, and its faith have both evolved in a rather peculiar way.
You view the world through the eyes of a guide to the village. Silent but ever vigilant, you exist purely as a lens through which to view the events of the story. The true protagonist is Hamomoru Tachibana, a pastor from the Tohoku region of Japan who has been invited to Daiusu to study the village and its bizarre traditions. As The Midnight Sanctuary begins, you discover that Jyuan Daiusu, son of the village chief, has asked for Tachibana’s help modernising Daiusu and bringing in tourism to help the village thrive and grow. After arriving, Tachibana suggests writing a tour guide and begins interviewing the residents about their food, history, culture and customs. hat with the village historically hiding from persecution, there sadly aren’t any paper records for Tachibana to work from.
After about 10 minutes of this exposition, your one and only ‘game’ mechanic reveals itself. All that The Midnight Sanctuary asks of you is that you choose the order in which you would like to visit the village’s various sights. It makes no difference whether you visit the graveyard before the well or the cathedral, but going to one area and learning something new will unlock another scene in the village. Each scene is a brief clip of about 20 seconds to a couple of minutes, filling you in on what is happening in a certain part of the village or offering a little insight into just how far Daiusu has drifted from Christianity.
This is literally the only input you get in The Midnight Sanctuary, with the exception of pressing a button to advance to the next line of dialogue. Thankfully the dialogue is one of The Midnight Sanctuary’s strongest features, so long as you can handle it being entirely in Japanese with English subtitles. The delivery is typical of what you’d expect from anime-style games — it’s well delivered and if you speak Japanese, the nuance in the dialects and delivery is pretty nice. Unfortunately, the translation is a little bit weird in places. There are certain words that come up a few times, like arigatai – in this context it’s a form of thanks and praise – being translated in multiple ways, including someone shouting “joyful!” at someone they think is a reincarnation of their saint.
This is where things get interesting — Daiusu has been cut off for so long that the villagers’ view of Christianity is completely warped. With a reverence for honoured guests and a whole host of the living dead acting completely normally, things in the village aren’t quite what they first seem. Unfortunately, this is about halfway into a five-hour story, meaning that the first two hours are more of a curious button-mash of waiting for things to get good.
And things certainly do get good. The cast of characters is fairly small, but the story isn’t overly predictable. If you keep an eye out for clues and foreshadowing, and if you speak Japanese and can pick up on the nuance of what is being said, it is slightly easier to guess what’s about to happen, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Once things got underway, the story does get a lot more compelling.
All that’s left to discuss is the look and sound of The Midnight Sanctuary. The sounds are, unfortunately, not great. Other than traditional Japanese folk-style music playing, the only notable music is the occasional ‘boss fight’ music that comes up during a confrontation. Because the pacing is so off, and the only input you have is choosing a location, there’s no tension. The music tries to tackle this, but sadly it falls a little flat.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the art style. A cursory glance at the trailer will show you everything you need to know about the art direction here. The parallax effect you get throughout The Midnight Sanctuary is going to be a love/hate thing and if the trailer makes your eyes hurt, you will find this unplayable. If not, it offers a little quirky charm.
The Midnight Sanctuary is certainly not what I expected. I will always applaud any game – or graphic novel – which teaches the audience something new. Educating the player about the history of Japanese Christianity, even if just in passing, is commendable. However, as an experience, The Midnight Sanctuary is a little too slow and disjointed to be truly gripping.
Version Tested: PS4 – also available for PC and Nintendo Switch