It's a horror unlike any I've seen in a game before. A giant clump of unkempt hair the size of a house, skittering around on spindly crab-like legs, with two wildly twitching eyes and a chattering mouth atop its hulking mass. Its form is bizarre, almost to the point of absurdity - but when it lurches towards you from a dark corner of the screen, I guarantee that all you'll want to do is run in the other direction. Such a nightmarish creature is one of many in Yomawari: Night Alone, an open-world horror adventure rich in imaginative monster designs. Don't worry, though: they're not all as disturbing as the aforementioned abomination. Some are even kind of cute, if you ignore the fact that they're trying to eat you.
This isometric, PS Vita / PC frightfest casts you as a young girl, no older than 10 or 11, who wanders around town after sundown in search of her older sister and 'lost' dog (which may or may not have experienced something horrible in the first minute of the game). And though the streets of this Japanese suburb seem abandoned, you'll quickly find that your neighborhood is crawling with hostile spirits who are more than happy to devour a lonesome little girl. As with classic Silent Hill, there's not much in the way of guidance or fixed level design - you simply pick a direction and timidly go, hoping to find clues or progress-enabling items instead of hungry ghosts. But unlike most survival horror, the terror of the situation is tempered somewhat by the adorable chibi art style, which gives Yomawari a feeling of a top-down RPG set in the grid-like streets of a quaint, realistic Japanese town - one that could really do with more street lights.
The unsettling intersection of cute and creepy is exactly what director Yu Mizokami is going for. Her previous work with Nippon Ichi Software includes art and level design for the esoterically named htoL#NiQ: The Firefly Diary, as well as character sprites and portraits for Disgaea 5. Mizokami admits to being something of a scaredy cat, and the idea for Yomawari came to her during late-night trips back home after working overtime in the remote NIS offices, when the darkness and isolation would play tricks on her eyes and nerves. That sensation of fearing the dark inspired Mizokami to develop the concept of Yomawari for NIS' 'Office Indies' program, which encourages employees to formulate and pitch unique game concepts - the same process that made The Firefly Diary a reality. The Japanese release of Yomawari garnered plenty of praise and a fan following, and now NIS is bringing it to the West in time for Halloween (while throwing a bone to all the Vita lovers still keeping the faith).
Exploration and trepidation are what make Yomawari tick: you're constantly in search of new pathways and areas, all while keeping a lookout for a wide variety of monsters. Many of their designs are based on the yokai of Japanese folklore, like the far-creepier cousins of the Yokai Watch cast, and they're all excellent. Some are plain and simple, like an animate, shadowy lamp making an unpleasant face, but I've spotted such oddities as huge floating cat heads, human anatomy models come to life, and giant eyeballs that suddenly open up into gnashing teeth.
Identifying which supernatural fiend you're up against is key to survival, and you'll need to remember how to properly avoid each one, be it tiptoeing past with the L trigger, turning off the shine of your flashlight, or distracting them with the sound of a tossed pebble. If you forget which method to use or get caught off guard, you have no way to fight back - your only options are to run with the R trigger (which hastily depletes your limited stamina bar) or hide behind a nearby object and pray that your pursuers eventually lose interest.
Admittedly, it'll take some trial-and-error to figure out how to elude certain spectres, and missteps can often result in a cut to a black, blood-splattered screen and a quick restart. You have infinite lives, but Yomawari's checkpoint system isn't exactly charitable: to quick save, you need to give a coin as an offering to one of the Jizo statues littered around town, and you'll find coins in limited supply. I actually found myself endeared to this system rather than frustrated by it, and the pacing reminded me of the self-appointed safe spots of Ori and the Blind Forest. Instead of abusing checkpoints to 'brute force' your way through an obstacle, never taking the time to learn the proper method of survival, you're forced to treat your life as precious, carefully assessing the path you want to take and the monsters that stand in your way. And the more precious your virtual life feels, the scarier it is when a lumbering ghoul threatens to end it.
Like all good horror games, Yomawari excels at building up an atmosphere of suspense, where you're both curious and afraid of what you might find next. Crucially, there's no music to cling on to in times of duress - you'll only hear the taps of your little feet, your pounding in-game heartbeat as enemies draw near, and the growls and moaning of whatever lurks in the distance. Beyond the adorably freaky monster designs, there are also some great moments of unnerving strangeness: I once stumbled onto a street that simply had a gaping human mouth in the middle of the asphalt, and didn't summon the courage to go anywhere near it. It has me incredibly curious (and a little afraid) to find out what others horrors await. You'll get the chance to be creeped out by Yomawari: Night Alone when it's released for Vita and Steam on October 25th later this year.