You never quite feel comfortable playing World of Horror. That's not just due to the creepy, Junji Ito-inspired atmosphere and haunting chiptunes. It is difficult and delightfully, even frustratingly, inscrutable at times. Its determination to not hand the player anything makes for a compelling horror-roguelike that plays unlike any other roguelike I've played before.
World of Horror is a horror adventure game made by one developer, Paweł Koźmiński (a.k.a. Panstasz). Taking heavy inspiration from the work of legendary horror manga artist Junji Ito, World of Horror is a game within a game—upon booting it up, you're greeted with an old DOS-style computer, the interface through which you play the game.
World of Horror is also a roguelike, where you can either pick and choose or randomize your runs. The overarching plot of each "run" of World of Horror is that your town has been overtaken by an unseeable, but tangible malevolence. An old god is descending, and your best bet to stop it and save everyone is to solve various mysteries around town. Five cases mark your progress, with only brief moments of respite in-between.
It has a tinge of found-game appeal, bolstered by the art style. The 1-bit (or 2-bit, optionally) Macintosh style is both unnerving and gorgeous, and perfectly fits the mood. When every dot and contrast has that level of hand-crafted, MS Paint-produced intent in place, it creates a greater sense of unease when dots are not in place, glitching, or moving in unnerving ways.
It's only in small breaks between cases that you can do things like save and quit, change outfits, or any other sort of leisurely activity. Otherwise, every moment of World of Horror is spent managing a wealth of meters and numbers, trying to keep anything from going critically wrong. Stamina and Reason are the most obvious meters to keep up, representing your physical and mental health. If either hits zero, your run ends. "Doom" is the ambiguous third death; various actions—from running away in combat to just taking a moment to collect your breath—can increase your Doom, and if it reaches 100%, the old god awakens and ends everything.
While each of the five cases are their own randomized, standalone stories, the meters carry across through each story. Each solved case also increases the old god's presence, instituting a new obstacle like the roads closing, shops closing, or not being able to recuperate Stamina and Reason in the shower between mysteries.
I quickly realized that managing how much I was willing to risk was important, which leads to some uncomfortable decisions. Correctly solving a case might lead to a difficult boss encounter, or demand a sacrifice I'm not willing to make. In more than one case, I took the easy way out, discovering as little as possible in order to avoid a difficult boss encounter or keep my meters high.
Combat plays out like a sequencer, with you loading up a meter using the various tiles and options available to your character of choice. While each excels in various disciplines, some better at magic and others more agile or stronger, you will always have to fight something at one point or another. It's at this point that the tools you've accrued, whether spells, followers, or just a gun, come in handy. Some of the larger, more intimidating monsters of World of Horror can tear you down in a few turns, while running away carries a Doom penalty.
Even when you're ducking a duel with a waking nightmare, the mysteries of World of Horror are engrossing and rewarding. Each one feels intentionally crafted, and the highlights are those that take you away from the town and into a separate, bespoke area to explore. It's clear why, on the starting screen, Panstasz offers up a single mystery—a chilling tale of scissors and a school—as a fast way to get acquainted with the World of Horror. It teaches you a lot about the general rhythm; how random encounters, events, and combat works.
Every story has multiple endings too. The branching paths are not always clear, however, and point to one of World of Horror's most polarizing aspects. It is delightfully, painfully inscrutable at times. While you can learn the most essential basics, the game's tutorials don't go too far out of their way to teach you deeper intricacies of the system. That's for you, the player, to discover. Is there a benefit to sacrificing a follower? Should you keep a tool handy, over a weapon? Everything is waiting to be uncovered.
In one moment, during an especially tough and climactic boss fight for a mystery about mermaids, I realized there was a mysterious prompt I hadn't seen before on my combat menu: to open a nearby manhole. As I frantically loaded up the prompt and played out the turn, over and over, it created an incredible image. My character, now four cases in and their odds of survival slipping away, is fumbling to pry open a manhole without a crowbar as a menacing monster towers over him.
I had no idea what opening the manhole would do, just that it might bring an end to this horrific encounter. Blow after blow, my Stamina was plummeting toward fatal levels, and in a moment of desperation, I noticed a second prompt: burn it all down.
I struck a lamp and set the school ablaze. It wasn't neat, it wasn't perfect, but I survived. That is, until my game immediately crashed. World of Horror is still early access, and in my handful of hours playing it, I've experienced a couple of run-annihilating crashes. That still didn't take away from the stress I felt at the moment, though it did make me need to step away for a bit.
I've yet to see how this all ends, and what an encounter with an old god actually looks like, but I'm looking forward to it. Despite the repetition of cases over time, there is enough to learn and pick apart to keep the randomly generated stories mostly fresh. There are also markers for permanent progression, earned through completing various challenges or events, that add new boons to the pool.
It's not the most lighthearted or easygoing roguelike I've ever played, and while the jump scares are (mostly) non-existent, it has definitely creeped me out. In spite of the technical errors, I've been enjoying World of Horror and its dense, systems-riddled mysteries. More than anything, it is punishing and not handing me any wins. I will see an end to the World of Horror eventually, but I will have to do it on sheer grit and determination. Besting an old god isn't an easy task, after all.