Review – Yomawari Night Alone

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Fear. Negative feeling, and yet people seem to desire it. Nippon Ichi Software is fully aware of that the public is eager for dark and sick universes. So after The Firefly Diary, the dark side of the Japanese developer is at work again to provide us more anguish on Sony’s handheld.

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You won’t have to wait to enter the dark atmosphere of Yomawari Night Alone : the violent tutorial will chill you in less than a second. The little girl you play as loses her dog, and then her older sister, and decides to go look for them in the middle of the night.

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At first look, the town in Yomawari Night Alone is like every Japanese town at night, except that this one is full of yôkai, not nice, those ones… Unlike Level-5’s friendly creatures, a single contact with those yôkai and the little girl will drop dead in a sea of blood. Horrific and frightening, the 40 or so different monsters seen throughout the game strike you with fear by their eerie behavior. Some will take you by surprise, making you jump of fear. Some are slower and easy to spot, but the little girl cannot sprint for a long time. She’s quickly tired, especially if she’s frightened : her heartbeats accelerate as yôkai get closer, driving the player to panic. Bushes will be useful in such cases, as the girl can hide into them like Solid Snake would enter his famous box. A lot of chases are a close call, you can see death coming near and you inevitably wince when losing.

While most yôkai are lethal, some aren’t dangerous. You’ll meet pacific creatures, but their behavior being as weird as the other, you can’t know for sure. So those ones, although harmless, do take part in the anguishing atmosphere built by Nippon Ichi Software. But it remains that the little girl will still be caught or slaughtered in some horrible way countless times. A totally dark world inherited from The Firefly Diary and that will be re-used in Rose and the Old Castle of Twilight.

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As you can have guessed, atmosphere is everything in Yomawari Night Alone. Everything happens in pitch black, with only a torch to guide you and reveal the invisible specters. Music is very scarce and features oppressing, cold themes, but Nippon Ichi Software will favor one particular track : silence. Like a normal Japanese midsummer’s night, you walk with only the sound of crickets. That is how the developer intends to reach its objective : to remind you your childhood’s fears. Indeed, like the real fear of dark, the lack of music sharpen the ear and makes the atmosphere more tense.

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To that, Yomawari Night Alone adds a number of graphical and sound elements to stress you even more, like a phone ringing from nowhere or eerie writings. Fear is also provoked by unexpected events happening here and there, generally during boss “fights”. I won’t describe those here of course but… don’t answer the phone. Reaching its full potential in the fear of the unknown, Yomawari Night Alone must be played at night, with headphones, lights off and curtain closed.

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Very unlike its tendency to horror, the general design is a bit child-like. The characters seem to be taken from a picture book and the town looks like to have been drawn by a primary schooler. And in the Japanese version, all text is written in hiragana : there’s not a single kanji, as if they were written by a child who doesn’t master ideograms. You could believe that the developer intends to soften the game with a kawaii touch, but it’s actually wrong. The opposition between styles reinforces the hatred against the yôkai, the stress of defeat and the satisfaction when you clear the game. Yomawari Night Alone surely wouldn’t have been the same if the main character were a 100kg-weightlifter! Despite its simple isometric 3D (for which it sometimes ends up in the indies columns of Japanese magazines), Yomawari Night Alone communicates pure and strong feelings with just a few short cut-scenes in the whole adventure. Nippon Ichi Software plays with your feelings and your nerves until the last minute of the game in an impressive way for such a modest title.

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That might come as a surprise, but Yomawari Night Alone is an open world. Of course, not a realistic one like Watchdogs, but on principle, the player is free to wander within the town from the start. Hints are scarce and you do have to explore every corner to find key items or open the way to remote areas. The map is drawn as you progress, the there’s a lot of (high-risk) exploring to comprehend the urban geography. This lack of dirigisme makes it really hardcore and will please fans of older adventure games.

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Fortunately, you’ll be able to save in front of Buddhist statues here and there, which are also used to fast travel to the various parts of the town. Be careful though, each save cost 10 yens so they are potentially limited! The game also stimulates thinking, for there are puzzles in some chapters, and lots of observing to escape the various fiends. Survival requires to analyze the behavior of each yôkai and use the torch or other objects in an original way. You might be annoyed by the somewhat irritating gameplay, symptom of an old-fashioned die and retry, but it’s a lot more enjoyable than The Firefly Diary in its time. Its only real drawback is its length, 10 to 15 hours if you explore slowly.

More frightening than 15 Resident Evil movies in a row, Yomawari Night Alone marks the return of Nippon Ichi Software on an original and artistic line. Short but intense, this survival-horror like no other manages to afraid and delight, all this with convincing freedom of gameplay.

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