8-bit graphics are now near-ubiquitous in indie games. What was once a novelty has become cliché. 1-bit graphics, on the other hand, are still largely unexplored territory – and the recent release of Return of the Obra Dinn has demonstrated that it’s an aesthetic with tremendous potential.
World of Horror seeks to evoke the stark terror one feels when reading Japanese horror comics, specifically the works of Junji Ito. While not exactly a household name in the west, Ito has been tremendously influential in his homeland.
Some of his most memorable manga stories were recently adapted into an anime series, Junji Ito Collection. Ito has even created promo art for Pokémon. It may seem incongruous that the creator of some of the scariest comics ever made would collaborate with a wholesome children’s brand, but nevertheless, it happened:
Not Playing With a Full Deck
World of Horror is the creation of one man: Polish indie developer Paweł ‘panstasz” Koźmiński. The project was initially conceived as a home-made card game, but Paweł soon saw the potential for a video game version. A ‘Name your own price’ release on itch.io followed, and before long Paweł secured a publishing deal with Ysbryd Games, the niche publisher that gave the world VA11 Hall-A.
The result is a multi-layered tribute to 1980’s ephemera. The black-and-white graphics evoke the look of the earliest Apple Macintosh home computers. The RPG choices and combat systems are more than a little reminiscent of old-school game books like Fighting Fantasy and Choose Your Own Adventure. Japan in the 1980s was experiencing an economic bubble; it was a time of great optimism and potential. It was also the era that gave us OAVs – video nasties like Wicked City and Angel Cop.
The setting for World of Horror is a picturesque seaside town beset by mysterious disappearances, assorted supernatural monstrosities, and the Old Gods – entities of unfathomable size and power that are on the cusp of ripping reality asunder and ending all life, gruesomely.
The PAX demo we played showcased just one of the short stories to be contained in the finished product: “Spine Chilling Story of School Scissors.” A tall lady with sharp scissors and a ghoulish grin has been hassling the local high school, and as transfer student Kirie Saito it is your mission to perform a mystic ritual that will banish her back to the hell dimension from whence she came.
The Mouth of Madness
Clicking on the ‘Explore School’ button will see you run through a semi-randomised succession of spooky encounters, including fights with a girl in a demon mask and a bloated, reanimated teacher’s corpse. Combat is turn-based, and in your limited time allotment you can stack a handful of attacks and support actions to be performed in sequence: light attack, heavy attack, dodge, brace for impact, etc.
When you finally get the chalk and candles for the ritual, a horrid face will appear at the classroom window, and a message will spur you to action. “The sound of scissors is getting louder. You must hurry!”
The scissor lady is revealed to be a freakish apparition with three faces on their side, stacked vertically, with one long bloody grin stretching between the three of them. She glitches rapidly, as though she’s not properly synched with our reality. Then comes the boss battle; in our time with the demo we reached two of the possible endings.
Ending B is triggered if you lose the fight; the demoness hisses “Am I beautiful?” before dispatching you. Ending A isn’t much better. The boss disintegrates, leaving only her weapon behind. Young Kirie becomes transfixed by the scissors, and the adventure ends on a dark note:
“Very slowly, you pick up the scissors
and your mouth widens in a smile…”
World of Horror is utterly saturated in Japanese cultural references, both overt and subtle. The title sequence shows our young heroes drifting in a Toyota AE86, as popularised in the shonen manga Initial D. Stray into a high school lavatory and you might run into a diabolical girl spectre, clearly a reference to the urban legend of Hanako the Toilet Ghost.
As for customisation, you’re not stuck with the default 1-bit black-and-white colour palette. You can also choose luxurious 2-bit four-colour graphics, and there’s a wealth of garish colour schemes to choose from, mimicking the wide variety of low-tech phosphor screens available in the 80s. Many of these modes are positively hideous, like black-and-hot-pink, a high-res colour scheme for CGA PCs that, thankfully, few programs ever used.
The Smell of Fear
It’s early days yet, but it’s clear that this game is a work of bold artistic vision. It goes beyond novelty – World of Horror is unforgettable. The sinister looping chip-tune score burns its way into your brain. The monochrome graphics have a similar effect to black-and-white photography, making everything seem starker and more glamorous, but also more murky and obscure.
You have some freedom of action, but few clues to inform your choices. Worse, you get the dreadful impression that your choices don’t really matter, that your world is doomed no matter what. Like a character in a horror film, you feel like you are at the mercy of events entirely out of your control…
World of Horror is due to release in 2019 on PC, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch.