This last couple of years a trend of horror videogames designed upon the RPG Maker engine has emerged, notably among japanese gamers, most likely due to the success of Team GrisGris "Corpse Party" series, whose first apperance was on 1996, but only gained recognition upon reaching the PSP on 2008.
Swaying away from the conventions of mainstream games, this platform has given these designers the opportunity to experiment with the genre, adding their own twists and quirks to this (formerly) decaying genre.
Lack of combat, an emphasis on exploration, surreal themes, cryptic puzzles and many sudden deaths are staples of this take on the genre, as is the use of an overhead perspective, female main characters and multiple endings, along with subtle changes on second playtroughs.
Here are some of the flagship entries in this niche, and hopefully some of you, dear readers, may be convinced to give them a try. Believe me, it will be worth it!
Mad Father After the passing of her mother due to illness, Aya Drevis has spent her life happily playing with her dolls behind the walls of the family manor, under the care of her loving father (a rural doctor) and his assistant, a young woman with beautiful green eyes. That is, until she wakes up to a chilling scream on a dreary night...
Relying on classical horror tropes, like evil spirits, the undead, a terrifyng mansion, dark basements and secret tunnels, this game is a good starting point into this genre. The ambience is akin to the Clock Tower series, up to the defenseless protagonist whose only means of survival consist on running, hiding and careful use of the enviroment.
The puzzles are based more on the correct selection of items, and thinking outside the box in how to apply them on some cases. Health is restored after leaving a screen, though some hazards will result in an instant death.
There is a lot of portrait and CG work, which makes it pop up among other games made on the same engine, and the sprites are well detailed for both characters and the enviroment, while the music consists mostly of soothing piano tunes.
Vision is mostly limited to Aya's lantern radiance, adding to the eerieness and sense of danger of the areas, with some jump scares dotted around, and good use of footsteps and other sounds, like creaking of floorboards and rattling of furniture to darken the mood.
The game is quite lenghty, clocking around two hours and a half, not counting deaths, with good variety of situations and puzzles, though it is possible to miss an item and have to backtrack a little, specially in the beginning of the game.
There are three different endings, each one worth seeing and with proper art done that doesn't appear on the others, along with a hidden extra cutscene that can be unlocked by collecting 21 gems hidden in the scenery or obtained via side tasks.
The true end is rather shocking and puts a character on a totally different light, making a second playtrough worth it in order to pick up on subtle foreshadowing, and to read some extra notes that explain some of it that only appear on a replay.
The game can be downloaded here: http://www.vgperson.com/games/madfather.htm
The Witch's House While traveling to visit her friend in the woods, thirteen years old Viola finds herself trapped by a wall of thorned roses, with no other shelter nearby than an old, eerie house... said to belong to a witch.
This one has little dialog, and a higher emphasis on unexpected deaths than the others, however most of them are creative, and the jump scares work very well. A little more controller dexterity is needed tough, as some chase scenes require good reflexes. While there are some usual enemies, cursed items and the enviroment coming to life are the main foes in the witches lair.
The puzzles are straightforward, with the exception of one involving numbers at the very end of the game, though no one requires backtracking, and the solutions aren't as arcane as those of other entries (specially Misao).
The tileset work is good and varied, while the music does it work. There is little use of full screen CG's, but some effects like fog and darkness are well implemented, causing
at times a little slowdown due to the engine, though nothing unplayable.
A playtrough should take around an hour and a half, counting deaths, luckily there are a lot of save points so it never feels like you lost a lot of progress.
The ending twist is memorable and frankly a little sad, though much of it isn't explained until a second run, where the files on the library change a little, and extra information can be gotten via a no-save run, which is easy since you'll know how to avoid all hazards.
The game can be downloaded here: http://www.vgperson.com/games/witchhouse.htm
Misao It has been three months since the dissapearance of Misao, a student from the local highschool, and rumours begin to spread among her classmates. After a night of restless sleep, one of them -Aki- awakens to Misao's voice in the distance...
The closest one to Corpse Party in both in setting and gameplay, this game (from the team behind Mad Father) has a more open ended structure than others, centering about the exploration of Aki's high school after it is transported to an alternate and deadly plane of existence.
However, access to some areas is gated behind puzzles and hazards, requiring a lot of backtracking between locations and fiddling with items in search of reactions. To reduce frustation, a fast travel option is adquired shortly, and a quick save option is a button press away. Due to the amount of sudden unavoidable deaths, it will soon become second nature to save before inspecting the most harmless of objects, or talking to other characters.
The game has a B-movie feel to it though, with some of these demises seen from a mile away, and other even worth of a chuckle due to their silliness. That said, the game deals with a serious and very real issue at the end, which turns the mood entirely upside down and even manages to make some relevant social commentary.
The spritework is functional at best, though each character has it's own set of portraits and there are some well done CG's appearing from time to time. While the tileset is frankly standard, there are nice ambience touches in the form of background events or noises. Character design takes more than a cue from Revelations: Persona, though.
The game is quite short, taking no more than an hour for a full run (unless the player finds himself stunted on a puzzle), and it's two endings are dependant of a single endgame decision. Getting the Good End allows the selection of a "Truth" epilogue on the main menu, which sheds some more information on the motives of some of the characters and their fates. There is also an unlockable second playable character for the main story, which maintains the overall plot but changes some dialogue and reactions.
All been said, despite it's low points, a walkthrough is worth the time, and it can be downloaded from here: http://www.vgperson.com/games/misao.htm
Yume Nikki It's been a long time since Madotsuki's last interaction with society. Refusing to leave her room, she spends most of her time sleeping, drifting away in strange worlds where anything is possible...
The weirdest of the bunch, it's unique approach to the genre -some say the creation of an entirely new one- has spawned large ammounts of fan art, discussions, theories, and even fan games mimicking it's characteristics.
The game is entirely exploration based, with no puzzles to solve or storyline to follow outside of the goal of collecting all "effects", items that grant Madotsuki with abilities ot merely visual changes.
There exist twelve different worlds to navigate, consisting of vast expanses of terrain where it's easy to get lost, populated with interesting, strange, disturbing and just plain weird images, creatures and imaginery. Some of them can be interacted with, but there are no real hazards or enemies to keep an eye for.
Yume Nikki is entirely hit or miss: some will love it's eerie ambience and "feeling" of navigating other person's dreams, while most will be turned off by it's lack of interactive opportunities and defined goals, as much of the fun consists of discussing theories and interpreting the visuals with other persons.
The sprite work, in parallel to the game, is bizarre and weird, ranging from the carefully drawn to doodles and scrabbles. The music is mostly drones that end up nauseating, and do a great job on setting a mood of discomfort and awareness, akin to the feeling of not having completely woken up from a dream.
Very different from the rest of the entries on this list, yet playing by the same rules, those curious enough may apply here: http://yumenikki.wikia.com/wiki/Yume_Nikki
Ib One rainy day, elementary school student Ib is taken by her parents to a gallery currently showing an exposition on cult artist Guertena, producer of bizarre and eerie works, which seem to have a life of their own...
The best one, saved for last. Focusing on surreal imaginery rather than blood and gore, Ib provides an absorbing tale that, trough subtle notes and exploiting the paranoia of the player, manages to crawl under the skin long after gameplay is done.
Though the game has got a hit point system in the form of the dwindling petals of a rose, it is mostly used as a means to deter the brute-force solving of puzzles, as chances to recover are plentiful and monsters are easy to evade.
However, the various works of art that dot the gallery manage to be disturbing on their own, maintaining the player on their edge even on perfectly safe situations, and there is also some fourth wall breaking at unexpected times. Enemies range from living manequinns to cursed dolls and haunted paintings.
Sadly, the sprite work is the weakest point of this entry, looking somewhere between eight and sixteen bit, and the tileset can seem rather bland in comparison to other works.
On the audio side, while the action goes on in total silence for the most time, the real world gallery theme is nice, and lower floors also have catchy drones that accentuate the creepiness of the ambience.
The plot is deeper than the other games on this list, and has sparked discussion about the meaning of certain scenes and specific dialog. It is also rather lenghty, as even though a playtrough takes around an hour, there are six different endings that are affected via multiple variables, making a guide needed for the rarest of them.
With a surprising amount of changing events due to choices, at least one replay is suggested in order to see how different things unfold depending on particular events, with one route giving the ability to control an unexpected character for a short time.
The game can be downloaded here: http://www.vgperson.com/games/ib.htm
Well, that's all for now, thanks for reading, and remember: for best results, use a good pair of headphones, move to a dark room and wait for night to come...
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