Yui has gone missing and the spirits are restless. An unnamed town in Japan has been transformed by nightfall into a haunted playground and Haru’s concern for her lost friend has left her no choice but to go out searching. Haru and Yui had been watching the fireworks from atop a hill outside town, but the shadowy wooded trail home got weirder and creepier as they walked until eventually they get split up. Haru has no idea her friend was taken by a spirit, but she does know she wants Yui back so sets out to find her. The town at night is nothing like the safe place the two played together in during the day, and the ghosts and haunts walking its streets are as dangerous as they are creepy. Bad as that is, though, there’s a far worse secret the player knows that Haru doesn’t overshadowing the horrors walking the abandoned nighttime streets.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows is the sequel to last year’s excellent Yomawari: Night Alone. While the first game was a bit janky on PC, and had its share of quirks like a quick-save system that didn’t actually save, low resolution art not designed for a PC screen, and artificial difficulty spikes, the sequel sands away all the rough edges and leaves an open-world adventure that’s equal parts cute, scary, and sad. The bulk of the game is spent exploring the town while the story jumps between Yui and Haru as they try to reunite, and both of them are in danger from the spirits haunting the dark nooks and crannies. These aren’t standard ghosts, spectral human figures going “WooOOOooo…”, but rather weirdness and oddities influenced by Japanese mythology, folk tales, and urban legends. Whether it’s an umbrella with legs that only starts being a threat when the flashlight shines on it, the sudden scream of a woman right before her body falls out of the apartment building to twitch and spasm on the pavement below, or even a multi-eyed black swirly boss that would feel right at home in a Junji Ito nightmare, Yomawari‘s horrors are deeply bizarre.
They also require individual strategies to get around, and this is where the girls’ adventure frequently ends in a bloody screen-fade. The white twitchy ghosts follow you around, while the cyclops-dog patrols a set route and will bark menacingly if it sees you but only go for the kill if you get too close. The giant whale-heads with weirdly human teeth just sit there blocking the road, no threat at all unless you run into them, while the purple-faced orbs don’t actually kill you but rather slow you to a crawl by attaching themselves to your head for a short period. The shadow-children with red mittens walk after you unless you stun them with the beam of the flashlight, the knife-wielding masked creeper is easily distracted by throwing a rock, and burning tires zipping down the road too fast to dodge are telegraphed by the scorch-marks on the pavement. There’s a huge variety of spirits chasing after the girls, and it’s frequently tricky to handle multiple types of threats at once, but there’s nothing they can’t handle with a bit of careful maneuvering.
While there are a few items to help deal with the spirits, the bulk of time it’s best to run away or hide. The girls don’t get proton packs and won’t be busting any of the town’s ghosts, and the best they can hope for is escape. While the standard walk speed is generally decent enough, running is better except for the stamina meter that shrinks even more quickly when they’re scared. If nothing’s around you can run for a good period of time without needing a rest, but when a ghost is on your tail, or a house suddenly has a giant face peering out from its windows, the stamina meter lasts for a couple of seconds at best. For some spirits that’s good enough, and a little feathering of the run button is all you need to escape, but others will kill you dead within a few seconds of being activated.
Death in Yomawari is more of an inconvenience than an end, which is good because it will happen a lot. The town has a network of Jizo statues, little shrines the girls can drop a coin in for a save and even use for quick-travel. Dying means reverting to the last Jizo shrine, and it’s usually a short walk back to the point of death to try again. Additionally, all progress is kept, so if you picked up a few rocks or found some collectibles they’re still in inventory. It makes for a good balance of difficulty and forgiveness, and also helps with experimenting. It’s much easier to throw a few lives at getting a collectible if you know the trip back to try again is a short one.
While the main story is a serious one, Haru still has time to track down all the weird collectible junk a kid could possibly want to hoard. Items are indicated by a glint on the ground, revealed by the flashlight and an icon over the girls’ heads. Basic tools like rocks to distract spirits and coins to buy a save are everywhere, while paper airplanes (also distracts spirits but with better range than a rock) are more rare, but there’s a huge collection of unique items to find as well. Some of it is junk used to decorate Haru’s room, while others act as a talisman to effect item usage or running ability. There are even a number of single-use items that open up secret areas, and while the reward may be another piece of junk for the room it’s almost impossible to resist the call of figuring out how to earn it.
While the core gameplay of Yomowari is solid enough, the most memorable part of Midnight Shadows is the same as that of Night Alone, and that’s the story. One of the problems a good amount of horror has is going so over the top that it becomes a grotesque roller coaster, little more than a sadistic thrill ride. While Yomowari has its big moments and set-pieces, the core of the game is of two friends trying to find each other while slowly realizing this may not work out. The reasons why venture into spoiler territory, even if the spoiler is from five minutes into the game, but the core quest is on a very human, relatable level. Haru and Yui are best friends, Haru’s family is moving out of town, this was their last summer together, but now their time is cut even shorter by a haunted night getting progressively worse. Yui’s dog Chaco is doing his best to get the friends back together, guiding Haru along the way, but there’s only so much a small dog and a determined pair of young girls can do. Some actions can’t be undone, and while the girls won’t stop trying the player has a piece of information they’re missing that casts the events in a completely different light. The scares are layered on top of sadness, giving them a weight that a ghost jumping out and yelling “Boo!” wouldn’t have.
Yomawari: Midnight Shadows is wonderful, strange, scary, sad, creepy, startling and cute in equal measure. It deftly juggles a large number of emotions from one moment to the next, and if the story progress is frequently interrupted by exploring the town or getting killed while figuring out the next challenge, it never takes too long to get to the next part to be a serious interruption. If you played Night Alone you can jump right in with no learning curve, but if you missed the first one there’s only a small connecting point between the two games that’s more for fun than any level of necessary continuity. One of the things that took me by surprise with Night Alone is how the game stayed with me after it was done, getting better in memory than it actually was to play thanks to a story that made the rough parts worth fighting through. Yomawari: Midnight Shadows clears those issues away and looks good doing it, effortlessly turning a quirky one-off into one of the best new horror series in a long time.