Oh bloody hellfire, an inconsistency in our coverage of Nippon Ichi's horror games. Because Gaming Hell is cheap and nasty, done as shoestring a budget as possible, we got the Steam version on sale. Hence, all of our screenshots are via the Steam interface's screenshot function in Fullscreen mode, which automatically corrected their size to 1280 x 720, which seems about right for a game originally released on the Vita. From what we can see, though, the games are basically identical, as there's no touch-screen gubbins in the Vita version. So, you know, it's fine. Anyway, we've shrunk the pictures, click to embigulate them.
Also, in case you somehow skipped our warning...
POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD. AND SORTA-SCARY-BUT-NOT-FULL-FAT-SPOOPY SCREENSHOTS TOO.
YOU WERE WARNED, PUNKS.
Another Nippon Ichi horror game? Clearly didn't learn anything from htoL#NiQ, eh?
Ah, well, see, I kinda wish that game hadn't put me off!
Originally teased with a creepy live-action video, and released in Japan in 2015, Yomawari: Night Alone (just Yomawari in Japan, which is what we'll be using because it requires less typing) was absolutely on my radar. Then, well, it fell off it. No particular reason, really- it just passed us by. Luckily, a localisation was announced and I was absolutely going to get on that... Until NIS Europe decided the best and only way to sell the game's physical Vita version was as a double pack with The Firefly Diary. No, really. Oh my God, no! Don't do that to me, please! Anything but that! So, to my eternal shame, I slept on it. I instead imported A Rose in the Twilight, which was OK but I was never able to get around to analysing it properly for whatever reason (it being a bit more text-heavy that The Firefly Diary didn't help). So, Yomawari fell by the wayside for me, until its Steam release was on sale, and we definitely regret sleeping on it the first time around, because it certainly made an impression! Not the kind of PS Vita-shaped impression in my wall that The Firefly Diary was threatening to do, no, a good one!
The second of Nippon Ichi's Vita-released mini-horror games, Yomawari was directed by Yu Mizokami. In an interview with DualShockers, she explained that the idea for the game came from the Nippon Ichi offices being in the middle of nowhere, and the drive home starting to scare her, and so she wanted to convey that kind of fear in a game. In the starring role is an unnamed elementary-school girl (who, for clarity purposes, we'll be referring to as Ribbon-chan)and during an evening walk with her dog, Poro, things go very, very wrong. Returning home without the dog, her older sister goes out looking for him, and after Ribbon-chan sees her briefly in the park, she doesn't come back either. This quiet town, somewhere in the middle of the Japanese countryside, is now host to innumerable spirits and spectres at night, with ill-intent towards the living. Ribbon-chan must take her sister's flashlight, find her and Poro, and hopefully survive the night.
Rather than a side-scrolling affair like the other Nippon Ichi horror games, Yomawari takes a top-down isometric perspective as you explore the haunted town. While it's split into distinct Chapters, it's not so much divided into levels as with The Firefly Diary, as instead you have a rather large town map that slowly opens up over the course of the game, generally devoting each Chapter to a specific section. You're free to explore as you wish, but for the most parts places you're not meant to go to yet are blocked off either by locked doors or lethal spirits, so early on especially you'll be corralled into the right direction. For most of the game, it sticks to exploring a section of the map, solving puzzles and avoiding spirits, then going back to Ribbon-chan's home to start the next Chapter (after she's filled her diary, which nudges you in the right direction) but there's a few concessions to make things a little easier- you can pay a coin to Jizo statues to make a checkpoint (later Chapters also have their own fairly-regular checkpoints) and warp to other statues you've found, things that can be exmained or hidden inside (more on that later) are indicated by a ! when they're in light, your map is automatically filled in as you explore, and you can return to your house to save at any point, except during Chapter 6. The one downside is that there's no way to save and quit while you're out in the field, although I imagine this was due to its origins on the Vita, where you could just lock the system at any time. The save system does take a little getting used to, but luckily each Chapter is relatively self-contained and short, something that's an important part of its appeal.
The core mechanic of the game, though, is the flashlight and its relationship with the spirits. With a few exceptions such as the gigantic hairy smiling abominations you couldn't miss on a dark street, the harmful spirits you'll be dodging can't be seen unless you shine your flashlight on them. Sometimes you'll get help from street lights, but otherwise you're on your own, and this isn't a twinstick shooter- you can only move the flashlight 45 degrees to the left and right ahead of you. As such, your other warning system is your heartbeat, which works like Silent Hill's broken radio- you'll start to hear it when a spirit is nearby, and it'll beat faster and louder as you get closer. These two systems combine to make the game an incredibly tense experience, as when your heartbeat goes off you'll frantically start looking around with the light, either to find a bush or sign to hide behind (while hiding, enemies appear as clouds you can see) or hoping to catch where they are while your heartbeat gets louder and more intense! It's a restrictive system, yes, but it works amazingly well with what little it has, and while there's a few other things you can do, like throw pebbles to distract spirits or salt to slow them down, for the most part Ribbon-chan is alone and can only evade the night terrors. It's one-touch kills here, so be careful. The criticism to be made here is that, perhaps to artificially raise the tension, your run meter is shortened dramatically the closer you are to spirits. For the most part, this isn't a problem, as spirits will often stop just before they reach you to cue up an attack, letting you escape, but it is an annoyance with the bigger monsters as you really could do with a bit more running time to deal with them.
As for how each Chapter plays out, it's a very strong example of doing a lot with a little. The flashlight mechanics get played around with a lot to great effect, such as having creatures that only move when the flashlight is not aimed at them, forcing you to play Grandmother's Footsteps with them, or others that awaken when light is shone on them, forcing you to use matches to lure them away from you. For being a game with so few actions available to the player, it does a great job of providing as much variety as possible, and while the puzzles are fairly easy to figure out when they're not spelled out to you, mostly of the 'find item, use it' variety (the most you'll be taxed is probably Chapter 5's dual-world puzzle, although it happens in one of my favourite areas of the game), those core flashlight mechanics just nail what the game's going for so effectively I didn't find myself minding that too much. Perhaps the one gripe here is that sometimes, Ribbon-chan's diary entries are a little vague in where to go next, although usually in those cases you'll find some kind of clue just waiting outside the house. A little more direction would've been appreciated, but it's not a huge problem.
Where the game absolutely shines, much like The Firefly Diary, is its presentation and atmosphere, but I'd argue it's even more successful in that regard. While the two human characters have a distinct, chubby style to them, the shades and spirits go in all sorts of horrifying directions all their own, and I think that disconnect between the living and the dead is what makes the spirits so effective at unnerving you- some of them look at least vaguely human, like the hanging and floating corpses, but they're very clearly not of the world of the living, and don't belong anywhere near you. The sound design also really brings this home, with some scary and unsettling noises kicking in when they're nearby, just getting louder and more invasive the closer you are. Even when spirits aren't about, there's details like buzzing street lights, the hum of vending machines, and different footstep noises for just about every kind of surface. Combined with the flashlight mechanics, this adds up to making Yomawari a tense, scary game, one of the scariest I've played in some time. Finally, the story itself is pretty downbeat and effective for what it is and how little text is in the game- at its core, it's about a young child dealing with the idea of mortality, presented strongly from a child's perspective, something hammered home by the crayon-drawn map, her diary narration and the descriptions for the optional collectible items. You don't need them, but you'll stumble upon these trinkets by chance and the descriptions are fittingly child-like, and once you beat the game you can go back and look for the ones you missed... Even if a few of them are a bit morbid (you took a skull home, Ribbon-chan? For real?).
The main negative against the game is that there are a few parts that lean a little too hard on jumpscares and, strangely, cat-like reflexes. Specifically, there are a few 'runner' spirits that sometimes come up on your heartbeat meter (such as the dog in Chapter 3) and, infuriatingly, sometimes don't (a runner spirit from Chapter 2 onwards, and lightning-fast crawler spirits that show up mostly in the downtown area, especially Chapter 5. They do have cues in the form of rapidly-loudening music, and while they always appear from behind, they can always be seen without light, but they just appear that little bit too fast to make it easy to respond to them on the first time. 'Boss' monsters in the later Chapters can also be a problem, specifically the ones that can charge at you, but only in straight lines- the boss of the factory can be fooled although it will take a few tries, but the big hands of the last area have a tendency to get stuck on walls, making it much, much harder to get past them. That last one was especially disheartening as it's literally the last stretch of the game, and while there's a checkpoint just before it, it can be completely demoralising. With that very important caveat in mind, I felt that Yomawari never reached the levels of frustration that The Firefly Diary did. In that, almost everything was completely out of your control, with the game expecting you to do things the controls were simply not up to the task for. Yomawari, at least, gives far more control to the player, avoiding that pitfall, and whereas I trudged through The Firefly Diary (twice! Twice!) begrudgingly, I genuinely wanted to finish this one, in spite of its little slip-ups.
I think the final point to address about the game is something that other games could really learn from- it's short, and that's absolutely a plus point. Yomawari does not feel, at any point, like it's dragging itself out for longer than necessary, and the story does what it needs to do across the course of about 4 hours. You're free to explore the town at your leisure once you're done to find the missing collectible items if you so wish, and there's a few small extras to be seen and found that way, but otherwise it's a short, self-contained story that does its job and then ends. I definitely prefer a brisk game like this to something that overstays its welcome (for words on this subject that are more eloqent than mine, Gaming.moe has an excellent read on it here) and by keeping it short and to the point, the game's made a much stronger, more positive impression than had it stretched things out and kept going after it should've ended. What I'm saying is, don't let that put you off!
So, as perhaps you can tell, I was a little smitten with this one. It's scary, it's tense, it has amazing art and sound direction, and it manages to strike a pretty strong balance between ensuring your character feels as helpless as possible, while also (mostly, I stress, mostly) staying fair and ensuring you have the necessary toolkit to survive the night. I really went into this with low expectations just because of how badly The Firefly Diary went, but this exceeded those expectations spectacularly. As I said, there are issues, and I would definitely keep the caveats I've mentioned in this review in mind, but otherwise, this really impressed me! All that and, well, it managed to capture that magic of wandering around in the dark as a child, imagining what horrors lurk beyond the scope of your flashlight, but, in the game at least, they are there. There really are monsters in your town. Don't have nightmares, Ribbon-chan!
For being a torch-lit horror-show, Yomawari: Night Alone is awarded...
In a sentence, Yomawari: Night Alone is...
Not without its flaws, but a bright spark in the pitch of night.
If you get the Steam version, be sure to grab the digital art book too, but don't read it until you're done!
... Oh man, I guess we'll have to get on with articles on A Rose in the Twilight and Yomawari: Midnight Shadows soon, right?
Promises, like pie-crusts, are made to be broken, but hey, we'll try~