World of Horror | A Junji Ito Fan's Nightmarish Paradise
World of Horror is a game that expertly blends together the gruesome black and white art style of Junji Ito, the macabre realms of H.P. Lovecraft, and classic Japanese horror. Right from the opening of the game, I felt like I was playing a twisted combination of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki and an H.P. Lovecraft tale like The Shadow Over Innsmouth.
On that last one, I’ll be honest in saying that I automatically associate anything that uses “eldritch” and “Old Gods” with H.P. Lovecraft. It just happens. The end result of this amalgamation of dark influences is a game that plays upon your curiosity, drawing you deeper and deeper into the maelstrom with its bizarre encounters and striking visual style.
The game is made all the more impressive when you learn that it was largely created by one person – a Polish indie developer by the name of panstasz. Furthermore, all of the visuals in World of Horror were created by panstasz in MS Paint. Yes, you read that correctly, MS Paint.
As for the writing, panstasz collaborated with horror author and Ubisoft Montreal scriptwriter Cassandra Khaw. The contribution from Khaw is noteworthy given her vast experience not only in fictional horror and game scriptwriting, but also in commentary on websites like Ars Technica dissecting the works of other noteworthy horror authors like Joe Hill.
The mysteries featured in World of Horror first draw from established lore, then twist them into gruesome adventures. You, the player, must navigate the bizarre surprises around every corner in Shiokawa, Japan as best as you can. Even when you think you’re prepared for what’s to come in World of Horror, you’re never really prepared. Take, for example, the first mystery which features a creepy woman holding a pair of sharp scissors.
The entity in this particular mystery seems to be based on the Japanese urban legend of kuchisake-onna, otherwise known as the slit-mouthed woman. The gist is that kuchisake-onna will ask you if you think she’s pretty. If you answer “no” she kills you and if you answer “yes” she takes off her mask revealing a mouth that’s been cut corner to corner.
She’ll ask you again if you think she’s beautiful. If you answer “no” she kills you, and if you answer “yes” she cuts your mouth from corner to corner to resemble her own. There’s no winning when it comes to kuchisake-onna, and the same can be said for the woman with sharp scissors in World of Horror.
I died after my first encounter because I missed the baseball bat tucked away in the school lockers. Oops!
At least you’re able to quickly jump back in and try again. While the first mystery is somewhat guided in nature, the game’s other mysteries have a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” vibe to them. You’re given more locations to explore, more random encounters, and way more enemies to try and kick to death. Well, unless they kill you first in which case you’ll have to start all over again.
World of Horror has a distinct roguelite feel to it where you die a lot as you master the mechanics of the game. Similar to point-and-click games of the 80s like Deja Vu, you aren’t given much in the way of a tutorial outside of a basic one at the beginning of the game. This will help get you going, but it won’t exactly help you once you’re in the thick of it.
Despite being somewhat complicated, the process of learning how everything works in World of Horror is quite addicting. You want to try new things each run, you want to explore new places, and you want to make different choices based on past experiences. Inching a little bit farther each time provides a nice feeling of satisfaction, even amid the frustrations of death.
Beyond the fun intricacies of the core gameplay, the horror elements are where the game really shines. I mean, it’s right there in the name – World of Horror. As mentioned above, there are a ton of callbacks to Junji Ito in this including an actual reference to the man himself as seen in the image below. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing when I came across that because it was just too perfect.
Additionally, you have a Lovecraftian theme to the writing from locales like the lighthouse to many of indescribable creatures you encounter. Rounding everything out, there are references to scary bits of Japanese folklore like kuchisake-onna that fit perfectly with the setting of Shiokawa, Japan.
You won’t find a lot of jump scares in World of Horror in the traditional sense. Instead, the horror is atmospheric, situational, and conceptual. It’s very much akin to how Junji Ito’s art worms its way inside your head.
Take his story, The Enigma of Amigara Fault. The premise is a little silly in that people are being drawn into human-shaped holes they feel were made for them.
As the story progresses, your discomfort grows. Seeing the character's dream of a man being twisted and trapped inside his own personal hellhole is disturbing enough, but the very last panel is where Ito drives everything home. It’s an image that defies all logic and reason. One that you set aside in the shadowy corners of your mind to ruminate over late at night.
World of Horror executes this style remarkably well with its glitching creatures and mind-bending exploration. It’s not just their ability to kill you, it’s their sheer presence and existence that terrifies you.
© Junji Ito
Another thing about World of Horror that’s worthy of praise is its retro soundtrack that transitions between dozens of different musical tracks all within the first 20 minutes of the game. You’re presented with songs that change as you explore different areas, adding character to the featureless school halls and hospital corridors.
In those instances, it’s less about the visuals and more about the feeling and tone of the music. The flat backgrounds to these locations and theme-setting music help make the highly detailed monsters more effective.
All in all, World of Horror is a love letter to weird, oddball horror that isn’t celebrated nearly enough in today’s modern world. We often go for what’s quick, easy, and relatively understandable. Jump scares, loud noises, and monsters that can be outsmarted or defeated with enough research or via exorcism.
The alternative horror brought forth by Junji Ito and panstasz in World of Horror is subtle... sinister. You can vanquish the demons in World of Horror with a few swift kicks, but you can’t extricate them from your mind. Once you see them, you’ll continue seeing them late at night as you lie in bed.
You'll worry that if you close your eyes, you’ll see one of those things standing at the edge of your bed once you open your eyes again. It’s a feeling that makes your skin crawl, and for this reason and all the reasons outlined above, I can’t help but praise World of Horror as one of the best indie horror games ever made. It's just that good.
It also goes to show that if you have a vision, it doesn’t matter how you execute it. A game with images made in MS Paint is just as terrifying, if not more so, than some of the high budget horror films coming out nowadays.