Horror of the simplest form is often the scariest. The danger that lurks unseen. The shifting darkness that stirs only in the corner of the eye. A distant scream or a whisper that’s impossibly close. It’s this ideal that’s helped games of a terrifying persuasion extend their roots among the small budgets and remits of the indie scene (or those looking to adopt an indie mindset) to increasingly powerful effect.
Much like Layers of Fear: Legacy, Perception and Detention before it, Yomawari: The Long Night Collection benefits from the limited scale of its design. The cutesy look of its young heroines are momentarily disarming, and the simplicity of its isometric perspective even has an almost Yo-kai Watch quality about it. But these two games - Yomawari: Night Alone and its sequel, Yomawari: Midnight Shadows - are the furthest thing from family-friendly fodder you could possibly get. Here be monsters of a very different nature.
Night Alone is the first to make its intentions clear. A young girl walks through a park, orange and brown in the clutches of the autumn. Her dog, Poro, trots beside her on a red lead. As the two leave to return home, something flits across the path behind them. It’s here you’re introduced to some simple controls - the left analog stick moves you, while holding ‘L’ will make you move softly, and at a sprint by holding ‘R’.
On the road outside, you’re told you can pick up and interact with objects when a question mark appears above the girl’s head. You see a blue pebble, and when prompted, you throw the tiny rock into the road. Poro follows and is suddenly hit by a truck, with only a grisly streak of blood and gore left in his wake. As the little girl walks home, the red lead trailing behind her, you’re left in no doubt this is about as far from Yo-Kai Watch as it’s possible to be.
From then on, both Night Alone and Midnight Shadows follow much of the same formula as they plunge you into a nightmarish world of familiar Japanese urban sprawls and brooding forests, only with monsters of various kinds lurking around every corner. You can’t fight the creatures you encounter - most of which are based, like most horror games from the East, on the rich tapestry of Japanese folklore - so instead you’ll need to use the environment to hide from them.
With almost no soundtrack to speak of in either game, you’ll have to rely on the gradual rise and fall of your own virtual heartbeat as your means of divining any approaching dangers. When the stamina bar at the bottom of the screen pulses red and your heartbeat quickens, it means you’ll need to quickly conceal yourself. It soon becomes apparent in both Night Alone and Midnight Shadows that not all of these nightmarish beings are necessarily a threat, but a set of wild things wandering in the dark. It’s here this Yomawari duo are at their most powerful and engaging, with the occasional jump scare keeping you on your toes as you try and find your dog/sister/friend.
Night Alone is quite short at around three hours or so long, while Midnight Shadows clocks in at about twice that. Unfortunately, that extended length for the sequel shines a revealing light on some of the key issues at the heart of Yomawari’s limited gameplay loop. While some enemies can be bypassed, outrun or distracted, too many are aggressive enough to pose a considerable danger - which usually means a one-hit death and a respawn back at a previous checkpoint. This results in a painful reliance on trial and error that continues for the majority of both games.
Yes, that sense of building dread is always there thanks to that minimalist approach to sound design and the darkened nature of each street, but after a couple of hours of dying endlessly until you’ve determined the best route/solution, you start to feel far more frustrated than fearful. When coupled with a difficulty curve that’s abnormally steep, even for a horror game, and you’ll find greater worth in a cast-iron resolve than a resistance to jump scares and lurking monster encounters. Still, despite these flaws, the sense of perpetual tension both games maintain throughout makes them worth a try for ardent lovers of all things unsettling.
Both Night Alone and Midnight Shadows offer a survival horror experience built more on the management of building dread and approaching threats, although both do occasionally indulge in cheap (yet effective) jump scares and uses of gore. However, for all its potency, Yomawari: The Long Night Collection’s design too often boils down to a repetitive cycle of evasion and exploration, and with a difficulty that’s too high for a game built on obtuse layouts and one-shot kills, it can quickly become an exercise in both fear and frustration.