Ju-On: The Grudge Review
Posted by Sean Aaron
Time to break out those rubber underpants!
The Ju-On series of films are a true horror landmark. Released at a time when most horror films have just become an endless series of remakes or are more depictions of torture than "scary movies," they refreshingly provide genuine frights with terrifying tales of vengeful spirits haunting the sites of their bodily demise. In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the original direct-to-video release, AQ Interactive has created a game for the Wii based upon the series. In Europe and North America it's titled Ju-On: The Grudge -- named for the 3rd film; first with a theatrical release -- and subtitled as being a "fear simulator" or "haunted house simulator," respectively.
You'll get a taste of what to expect before you even launch the game as the Wii Disc Channel features sound effects and imagery that will be familiar to anyone who's seen the films. After some video footage of what looks like excerpts from one of the films you're prompted to start and create a new profile. Rather than enter your name you're asked for your gender and astrological sign (presumably in Japan you would be asked for your blood type) and then you can proceed through the first "episode" which tracks the ordeal of a young woman and her family when confronted with the Ju-On curse.
For those who haven't seen any of the films the concept of Ju-On is that a powerful curse is created around a place where someone has been horribly murdered. Those who venture into the place can spread the curse elsewhere -- assuming they survive encounters with the vengeful spirits residing there and escape! The films are modern horror classics and genuinely frightening without being gory. The atmosphere and spirits are truly the stuff of nightmares and if you found the films scary then this game will definitely put the fear into you!
The episodes are presented in linear fashion with the completion of each episode unlocking the next. Each one plays out like a room escape adventure game. The player takes the role of a person trapped in a cursed warehouse, hospital, flat, etc. and must find their way out whilst avoiding the clutches of scary ghosts and their own real-life heart failure. The only object at your disposal is an electric torch/flashlight with a rapidly dwindling battery. You can find others scattered about, but this requires exploring your creepy surroundings and facing your fears whilst trying to puzzle out where to go. There are clues as to what's required and veteran adventure game players shouldn't have too much trouble, but the main obstacle is the frights.
If you're the kind of person who watched the Ju-On films from between your fingers (note that is not a confession -- well, okay, maybe for some parts) you're going to have a tough time of it as there are always figures running about or popping up in a window or banging on a door. Actual ghost encounters are pretty rare: mostly you'll have creepy black hair spreading from under a doorway or light fixtures suddenly crashing to the floor to contend with, which only makes running into the ghosts face-to-face that much more terrifying. It really is like having your Wii turn into a haunted house and unlike "survival horror" games like Dead Space: Extraction or Resident Evil 4 you have no guns to shore up your courage, only the anticipation of the next ghostly encounter. Ghost encounters play out like quicktime events, but unlike most remote-styled QTEs you're only required to move the remote in one or two directions so you won't get frustrated by motion detection issues. When you're madly trying to escape the clutches of a ghost, madly waving around your remote seems completely natural -- the developers cannot be faulted for "unnecessary waggle" here!
As effective at dishing out the scares as the game is, it's not without it's problems. There are scripted sequences that happen in the course of each episode, but instead of using the standard game convention of letterboxing the screen to indicate this, your only clue (outside of not being able to control anything) is that the battery indicators disappear from the screen. The controls are also a bit strange: you use the pointer to change your viewpoint, press to move forward, down on the to reverse and is used for contextual interaction. Whilst this layout works well enough a nunchuk-enabled alternative would have been nice -- or at least the ability to remap the controls.
The pointer control is quite sluggish and could have used some configuration options as well. It's pretty clear that this is intentional so as to ensure players don't miss ghostly figures running past when panning their torchlight around and it certainly increases the tension in moving around a corner, but a "whip-pan" ability would have been nice and possibly being able to run! The visuals aren't too bad, but they're not exactly great -- though this doesn't impact the ability to frighten since the ghosts are well-rendered. The audio has a good amount of punch with startling door rattlings, footsteps and subtle (and not-so-subtle) musical cues maintaining tension and enhancing frights.
The game isn't as scary to watch as to play which likely has something to do with having to make the decisions yourself. But others in the room don't have to remain bystanders as a person with a second remote can start Panic Mode with a button press to add a bit of spice during quiet moments in the game and ensure the person actively playing doesn't get bored. Panic Mode would probably have been even better if you could have up to three other people potentially triggering it or a way of handing off play between multiple participants, though passing remotes around will do in a pinch.
After you complete an episode you get rated on your performance via evaluation of your "Fear Metre" reading at the end, comprised of a "Scare Level" and "Sissy Level." It's not clear how these are determined, but it seems to be a combination of how quickly you complete an episode and how much you jump in the course of it -- a pretty creative use of motion detection, we think! If you're not too demoralised by being told you need to "grow a pair" then you can progress to the next episode. If you run out of batteries or fail to react properly in a ghost encounter it's game over for you -- there's no checkpoints so you'll have to go through it all again, but given each episode only takes about 20-30min. to get through it's not that big a deal.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of the game is it's length. There are only four episodes to go through initially with each one taking around 20-30min. There's some replay value in the form of items to find by trying drawers or surviving ghost encounters (if you get them all you unlock the fifth and final episode), but given the ghost encounters are always the same, replay value is limited. Otherwise it will probably sit on the shelf waiting for your next Halloween party, where it's sure to be a big hit.
Ju-On: The Grudge is an interesting spin on the horror genre with a focus on scaring players. If you're not the type to get drawn into ghost stories then you probably won't get much out of this title, but if you enjoy a good scare then you'll have some fun with this. It's a shame it's so brief (about the length of an actual horror film) so we cannot recommend paying full price, but if you can get it for a budget price it'll make for some frightening fun at your next party.