World of Horror developed "low and slow" heads to 1.0 release - PAX West 2023 hands-on/interview
At PAX West 2023, the Video Games Are Good team spent some time with the critically acclaimed and highly anticipated World of Horror, the Junji Ito- and Lovecraft-inspired horror roguelike RPG that's headed to a 1.0 release on October 19. After reacquainting ourselves with the demo, we had the privilege of chatting with publisher Ysbryd Games' Production Lead, Robert Cocks.
There are some games that feel like legends in the indie space — games that keep popping back into your circle and finding a foothold amidst the constantly shifting indie landscape. And the latest feature in our PAX West series is one of my favorite examples of staying power: World of Horror.
Having first landed in 2017, World of Horror has persisted with its 1-bit art style (legitimately done in MS Paint), modular randomized RPG gameplay, and ability to scare gamers despite all these technical features that others may consider to be limitations.
We wanted to learn more about what it means for this game to finally hit 1.0, so we spent some time with the demo to reacquaint ourselves with developer panstasz's brand of horror.
Hands-on impressions with World of Horror
Genre: Horror, roguelike, RPG
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Switch
Before I could even get settled into the game's tutorial scenario, which centers around a group of schoolchildren trying to perform a ritual to summon the "Scissor Lady," I got hooked just picking a color palette to play the game in. World of Horror is a 1-bit horror game, meaning all of its pixel art is made up of just two colors. To allow for some amount of customization in the game's aesthetic, The game allows you to choose between 1-bit or 2-bit art, and then from there, randomize the color palette for your playthrough. With such a pared-back look, it's shocking how effective a simple change in the color palette can be, like the tone-setting blood-red palette I eventually landed on for my playthrough.
I was introduced pretty quickly to World of Horror's turn-based RPG action. Most of the action in this horror game is menu-based, and while that may not inspire much by way of scares, I promise you World of Horror will get under your skin. As you pick and choose between parts of the location to investigate, gather up tools and weapons, avoid dangerous events, and otherwise prepare your characters for the frights that await you, World of Horror needles into your psyche.
Every part of the game is randomized when you play: where the key items are hidden, your character's full sheet of stats (which tabletop RPG fans will enjoy), and the events you encounter. Each scenario has a particular set of tools that get tossed into the toolbox and jumbled up every time you go in. My demo run had me wandering through a school to gather candles for a ritual, and the randomization left me without a single weapon to equip the hero with. Enduring an event that gave our hero a "bleeding" effect set me back even further.
The unsettling Junji Ito-inspired body horror visuals and the jarring, sudden appearance of offputting creatures within mundane everyday settings, are enough to get your skin crawling. As we learned at PAX West through our conversation with Ysbryd, one of the greatest pieces of the puzzle is the chilling soundtrack from Qwesta. Without giving away too much, it effectively controls the pacing and intensifies the creepy-crawly vibes.
One of my favorite parts of my World of Horror demo session was getting reacquainted with its unique time-based combat system. Each turn, you have a specific time allowance with which you can prepare and execute your moves; each move costs a certain amount of time to queue up. Queue up a set of moves, offensive or defensive, and execute. Beyond your normal expected attacks, you can do things like search for improvised weapons and prepare for even stronger moves down the line.
It's a deceptively simple system that's actually remarkably versatile. It adapts well to the diverse range of "mysteries" present in the full game.
My demo... didn't end the way I wanted. Alas, the Scissor Lady killed me right as I was about to land the final blow. But it left me feeling energized to hop in and play the full release to get my revenge.
After I placed the scissors down and left the haunted halls of the school, we had the opportunity to meet with Ysbryd's Production Lead, Robert Cocks, to find out about the game's analog origins, the power of music in horror, and how the team feels with the game's 1.0 release just around the bend.
Ysbryd Production Lead Robert Cocks discusses the key to World of Horror's potent scares and the long road to 1.0
VGG: To start, congratulations! World of Horror is finally heading to full 1.0 release and it's been a long time coming. What does it mean to the team and everyone involved to finally hit this milestone?
Rob Cocks: I know for Paweł, the developer, it's been a long road for him. The game actually started as an idea for a card game, because he didn't know how to make games. I mean, he's a dentist. So he decided, "I'm not quite getting the flexibility and the interactability between systems that I want [with the card game]." He taught himself to use GameMaker and the rest is history.
It's been a long, hard road, where he's picked up a really huge, very passionate group of people who have been following the progress of the game online over the years — who have all been very patient, but also very creative and helpful.
For Paweł, reaching this milestone is definitely a labor of love.
For us at Ysbryd Games, we have always taken a low-and-slow approach with our games. We've been quite happy for him to take the time to get it right, and it's just been a lot of fun to finalize all the physical releases that are coming out and all the promotional activities that we're doing around the launch.
The hard work is very much not over; there is nothing passive about publishing a game. It's a lot of hard work right to the end. But it's very motivating and gratifying to come to a show like this at PAX and see everyone playing it either for the first time or after all these years.
VGG: What can people expect to see as some of the biggest new changes and additions made for World of Horror's 1.0 release?
Cocks: There will be several new mysteries, a few new playable characters, which we think the players are going to love. There are new color palettes to change up the feel of the game, new items, new spells, and new events. Basically, more of the good stuff that the players like.
A lot of quality-of-life improvements, things are being rebalanced, and new things are being added mechanically. The 1.0 release will also have localization into French, German, simplified and traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. We will be sporting all those languages from October 19th on.
VGG: You mentioned the community at the beginning, these really creative and passionate folks who've followed the game. So I want to talk about mods. People have come up with some that seamlessly fit into World of Horror. How does the team feel about the modding community around this game, and is there anything coming with 1.0 that's opening the doors even further for them? Or have those doors already been opened?
Cocks: The doors are pretty much open, they're saloon doors at this point. They've been open and free and accessible for quite some time. The World of Horror Discord has a very active channel for the modding community there. And there are a lot of people who are actively open to sharing knowledge about how they put it all together.
The game itself supports mods by having the mod folder integrated into the main menu of the game. You don't have to go tinkering around in a .txt file or in Windows Explorer or something. It's all just integrated. Modding is and will continue to be supported in that way.
VGG: One glance at this game makes it clear that World of Horror scares a little differently than a lot of horror games do. Can you talk to us about the ways that World of Horror delivers its scares and how its purposeful design decisions affect its ability to unnerve players?
Cocks: World of Horror's style of horror is a kind of gradually ramping up sense of unease — watching the normal expectations of the world around you being gradually peeled away, little by little.
It's initially drip-fed to the player, primarily by the soundtrack. We have this wonderful, deeply creepy soundtrack by a very talented game composer called Qwesta. And he's done a fantastic job of creating tracks that can oscillate between very atmospheric and eerie all the way to really pulse-quickening and very unsettling for the player. What the game does with that is it will take those tracks and will pretty much remix them on the fly as the player is playing.
You'll find that if you are about to encounter an enemy and get into a fight, you'll often have a black screen with some kind of ominous message. You'll notice that one of the corpses from one of the tables is missing. And then, at that moment, the soundtrack will slow to this pulsing, synth-driven, almost heart-pounding effect. And then it'll speed back up again as you get into the combat. And it creates this amazing rollercoaster for the player.
The events especially are one of the ways that the player is drip-fed that tension, because, like I said, a lot of these events are just a way for the game to F with the player. And a lot of it is not necessarily fair or sensical — but, well, that's horror, baby.
VGG: Genuinely, even just your description of some of these events, it's kind of chilling and puts you on edge. It's something I've always appreciated about this game. Another thing I think that goes underrated here, that I really do love in games, are the ways they break routines and expectations. For example, we just went through the tutorial Scissor Lady mystery. In it, you keep going back to this classroom and you get used to entering back into that space... but then there's that last time where suddenly the Scissor Lady comes up to the door and shocks you. And you're like, "wait, whoa, this was my space, this was my safe zone."
Cocks: There are a couple of what you would call jump scares in the game, but they're used very sparingly. What you're describing in the school scissors mystery, you could almost argue that the player is kind of asking for it by attempting to recreate the ritual to summon the scissors woman.
There are more than a few dramatic reveals of each mystery's big, scary thing, but it's often delivered in a way that complements the story in some way.
VGG: Like you said about the soundtrack... it always put me on edge. Even though I've played it before, and I get how the flow of combat works and everything, there were a few times when I was setting up my turn, thinking about what I was going to do, and then suddenly there's this rising, quickening tone. It gives me the feeling that I had to do something in that moment or else she was going to attack, you know? It keeps you on edge. It keeps pushing.
Cocks: Yeah, it's turn-based. You could go out for dinner and just leave the controller there. Just turn your TV off and go on vacation for a couple of weeks.
VGG: But she'll still be there. It's just fascinating the way the soundtrack layers in those scares.
Cocks: It makes you feel like, "I've got to choose these actions and launch the sequence right now. Otherwise, she's gonna reach out the screen and get me."
VGG: It all works in concert really nicely.
Got an appetite for dread? A fever for frights? If you want to experience an intense and lingering fear that the 1-bit monsters waiting on the other side of the screen may just reach out and grab you, you don't have to wait long. World of Horror is available in Early Access today, priced at $19.99, and is en route to its full release on October 19.