Just looking at Yomawari: Night Alone, a survival horror game available on Steam and PlayStation Vita, it’s hard to imagine how it could be scary. It stars a cute little girl with a big red bow in her hair, and it features a charming 2D art style that gives it the feel of a pleasant modern-day anime. But once you start playing — preferably with the lights off and headphones on — it becomes immediately clear. For such a cute, simple game, Yomawari is incredibly frightening.
The game starts with a young girl taking her dog out for a walk at night. Very quickly the two become separated — the scene is shocking, especially given how early it happens — and the girl heads home, where her big sister agrees to go look for the dog. But she doesn’t return. Alone in the dark, the girl decides to find her sister and dog by venturing out into the streets late at night. But when she leaves her house, she realizes that the world outside has changed; the streets and buildings are the same, but they’re imbued with a sense of menace. There are monsters lurking out there.
You’re completely helpless
One of the most remarkable things about Yomawari is how simple the game really is. For the most part, you’re completely helpless. The little girl can run, hide, and tiptoe to stay quiet, but that’s about it. You’ll find items strewn about — rocks, plastic shovels, scraps of paper — but they’re mostly to help solve puzzles or find new items. They aren’t weapons to fight against the monsters you’ll encounter. When you see something big and scary, you get away as fast as you can.
The game does a lot of smart things to make these encounters as terrifying as possible. For one, the monster designs are fantastic. They range from tall, wispy black ghosts that look ripped out of Spirited Away, to invisible spirits that leave a trail of bloody footprints when they chase you. At one point I climbed up a set of stairs, only to find a swarm of giant eyeballs descend on me. There are plenty of other creepy moments as well. A bouncing ball in a deserted playground, or a huge spurt of blood erupting from a sewer grate.
The most important aspect of the game, though, is its sound. Yomawari has a very sparse soundtrack. You rarely hear music at all; instead, the streets are largely quiet save for the chirping of crickets and the hideous whispers of the undead. When a monster is nearby, you’ll hear a loud thumping of the little girl’s heart pounding in your ears. It serves as a sort of radar system; when you’re hiding in a bush, you wait for the heartbeat to die down before you can leave.
The most important aspect of the game is its sound
Yomawari’s save system also adds to the tension. Instead of being able to save whenever you want, you’ll need to collect coins and use them to save at shrines scattered throughout the neighborhood. It’s reminiscent of the ink ribbons from Resident Evil, and makes an already tense game even more stressful.
It’s also a game that tells you very little. Outside of a brief tutorial, you’re largely left on your own to figure out where to go and what to do. For the most part, this works well; it really makes you feel like a kid lost and alone in a place that’s both strange and familiar. As you find new places, the map — which is rendered with a charming hand drawn art style — expands, as if you’re uncovering the world around you.
But this can also make Yomawari a frustrating experience. I often found myself lost, which wouldn’t be so bad if death didn’t come so frequently. Make one wrong turn and you can find yourself killed with no chance of running away. With the game’s restrictive save system, this means you’ll likely find yourself losing progress regularly.
Even with its quick deaths, though, Yomawari is a remarkable game that does a lot with a little. It’s small, simple, and quiet — yet one of the scariest games I’ve played in years.
Yomawari: Night Alone is available now on Steam and PS Vita.