Indie roguelike World of Horror screenshot of a giant head rising from a deep hole

Heavily inspired by the works of Junji Ito and H. P. Lovecraft, World of Horror is an extremely stylish, 1-bit tribute to cosmic horror as a whole. All of that is fairly obvious from even a single screenshot, but what isn't so easily apparent is that World of Horror is also a surprisingly compelling roguelike that will have you face an endless array difficult choices as you attempt to single-handedly avert the end of the universe as we know it.

So if you're curious about what exactly makes the gameplay tick, as well as how the horror aspects tie into everything, allow me to share with you my thoughts after repeatedly getting bludgeoned, devoured or simply going insane over the course of the past week.

Video version of this review (~14 minutes)

Premise and mysteries

Each run through World of Horror will have you attempt to resolve five mysteries, or rather five bite-sized horror stories, followed by a climactic climb up a lighthouse in order to (hopefully) stop an elder god from smashing its way into our world and snuffing it out. These five mysteries are randomized and can be tackled in any order, which is something that matters a fair bit, both in terms of strategy and in terms of the items/effects that carry over from one to the other. For example, if you burn down the school building as a part of one mystery, that's going to result in a pretty big surprise waiting for you once you decide to finally banish the scissor woman apparition haunting the place.

As for their quality, I'm of two minds about the mysteries. On one hand they are incredibly well drawn and present a nice variety of macabre scenarios, all of which are entirely unique. You can find yourself investigating a disgusting and disgustingly addictive ramen restaurant, facing off against a cult that's attempting to summon their dark deity by sacrificing villagers, or even just trying to banish a demon that has come to haunt the school toilets, because of course it is!

World of Horror indie roguelike screenshot of a demon haunting the toilet stall

I'd be angry as well if I was stuck in the toilets for all eternity

On the other hand, while all of these are fun ideas to explore, World of Horror sadly doesn't manage to do them justice outside of the visuals and atmosphere. This is partly because the gameplay is often unrelated to the mystery at hand since World of Horror is a roguelike and thus mostly randomized, and partly because each mystery is incredibly short so there just isn't enough time to build things up. As such, many mysteries just kind of flew past me without making much of an impact, even though I was actively trying to get into them as a fan of both Lovecraft and Junji Ito.

It's a real shame since what little dialogue and descriptions we get to see are almost all universally creepy and unsettling. Even the most basic mysteries that revolve around regular human beings made me feel like there's some unknowable threat lurking right around the corner, just waiting for me to drop my guard. There's a real sense of dread and desperation permeating World of Horror's universe, covering everything in a thick layer of gloomy depression. So as much as I like World of Horror's roguelike gameplay, I can't help but wonder about what we could've gotten if this was a more straightforward adventure/investigation game that had the time to properly explore each of its mysteries and monsters.

World of Horror indie roguelike screenshot of a leech monster in the hospital

I'd love to find out more about these kinds of monsters.

Visuals and atmosphere

I've mentioned this a few times by now, and you've likely realized it just from the screenshots above, but I really can't emphasize enough just how much heavy lifting the visuals do for World of Horror and its atmosphere. The 1-bit (or in my case 2-bit) style fits perfectly with the whole cosmic horror vibe. The uneven lines, the graininess, the sharp contrast between light and dark areas, the slightly 'off' appearance of many characters - all of this combines to create a beautifully ugly world, for the lack of better words.

Yet despite how eerie it can often look, the retro, monochrome style is also remarkably charming. I can only imagine that each scene has taken a tremendous amount of effort to create because everything, even the most insignificant of UI elements, feature a lot of tiny little details that add a huge amount of personality. So even though World of Horror would've worked just fine with any other art style, the 1-bit look truly elevates the whole experience and feels like the perfect fit for an 'end of the world' scenario.

World of Horror indie roguelike screenshot of the doomed town

Just another day in paradise

That said, despite the visuals and the highly foreboding atmosphere, World of Horror isn't actually all that scary. There's a couple of creepy mysteries for sure, and more than one enemy that is just downright unsettling to even look at, but at its core World of Horror is a roguelike, and with that comes the greatest enemy of all horror - familiarity. Once you've seen a monster or a mystery a few dozen times, it no longer holds any sway over you. It stops being an eldritch abomination from the darkest corners of the universe, and instead turns into Terry the troublesome tapir that's best dealt with two solid smacks to the snoot.

However, just because it isn't scary doesn't mean that venturing through World of Horror is a bland and uninteresting experience. On the contrary, it's probably a bit too intense as you're constantly having to deal with endless problems that can (and will) completely cripple your character, thus forcing you to enact increasingly desperate measures to keep yourself from slipping away. This then only makes the problems worse, and so they cycle goes until you either fall apart or rise triumphant. And you know what? I absolutely love that!

If you could save the world after a leisurely stroll through the park, it would not only undermine the overarching threat of the old gods, but it would also be a profoundly unsatisfying experience. But if you stumble to the top of that lighthouse battered and bruised, riddled with curses and life-threatening medical issues, and you still end up succeeding despite the game throwing everything it could at you - that feels AMAZING! And World of Horror truly gets that, so even on the easier difficulty settings it's not only possible to fail, but expected!

As a consequence of this, you might just find that your own moral guidelines are quite... flexible. Sooner or later you're going to get squeezed from all sides and you'll be forced to decide: are you going to risk the fate of the entire world, or are you going to do what it takes to succeed? After all, do a couple of lives really matter in the grand scheme of things, especially when we're talking about the end of the universe as we all know it? I certainly hope not, because I threw a whole lot of people to the wolves to buy myself precious minutes!

World of Horror screenshot of the Dream Devourer Terry

Terry's a cute lil' tapir, right? I'm not the only one that thinks this?

Investigations and combat

When it comes to the actual moment-to-moment gameplay, World of Horror is fairly passive though still rather satisfying. The investigation side of things is pretty much just clicking a button, maybe making a decision, and then leaning back to seeing what happens. Things do get a little bit more complicated once you add all of the various shops and side-attractions into the mix, but it never gets more elaborate than pressing a button and making a dice roll to see if you pass the skill check. Now you'd think a system like this would get very boring, very quickly, but the simplicity only serves to further highlight your strategy and decision-making, though more on that in a second.

As for the combat, that system is slightly more complex. Stats and dice-rolls are still king, but this time around you're able to choose from a variety of different options that all use up a certain amount of time units. Your goal is to fill out a 'sequence' bar with as many attacks and defensive abilities as your time units will allow, and then simply pray your character gets through this mess with all of their limbs intact! If things aren't looking good you also have the option to run, though as you might imagine, letting a horrific monster rampage throughout the city is a surefire way to push the whole 'end of the world' thing just a bit closer.

World of Horror screenshot of the burnt version of the scissor woman boss

I'm sure it'll be fine!

Unfortunately, while I do enjoy the combat system and the inherently massive risk that comes with every fight, this is easily the most frustrating part of World of Horror to learn purely because of the UI. Despite there being plenty of space to fit all of the icons and abilities, World of Horror chooses to instead cram everything into a tiny box with four sub-menus filled with even tinier, nondescript icons.

For goodness sake, the attack menu can have three different dagger icons and three different shouting men, all of which mean different things yet look remarkably similar at a glance. It also doesn't help that abilities you often want to use together, such as dodging/blocking and attacking, are in two separate sub-menus seemingly just to annoy you.

The worst problem, however, is when new abilities get temporarily added for story reasons because not only do you not get notified of this, they can also be hidden in the sub-menus! While you do eventually get used to this madness, or at least memorize which events give you new abilities, the over-reliance on tiny icons and sub-menus is an unfortunate blemish on World of Horror's otherwise functionally simplistic design.

World of Horror screenshot of UI problems in combat

If you're lucky, you can even get four tiny dagger icons to accompany you!

Difficulty level

To bring things back around, while the gameplay is simple, the complexity comes from the myriad of decisions you can make that can (and will) have far-reaching consequences. Nothing comes cheap in World of Horror. Even the simple act of entering a shop furthers the doomsday clock. Similarly, you only get a tiny amount of free healing throughout your entire run, so managing your resources and items is a constant struggle. This means that every decision you make, even the extremely simple ones, do actually matter. They might not all change the course of your run immediately, but do enough good or bad things in a row and you'll definitely notice their impact.

The most exciting part is when you get messed up badly, whether by taking a big risk and failing or purely due to randomness, as you're then forced to do insane things in order to survive. For example, let's say you picked up a bloated piece of monster flesh during your first mystery. Well, you're currently on the brink of death and that thing does give a lot of Stamina so... I guess you're eating that? Oh look, it turns out the space pork was actually cursed and you now have an eternal hunger that can only be sated with human flesh, but still, you are alive and ready to keep going! And that's a fairly minor thing that can happen to you!

As a consequence of this, I found myself weirdly invested in every single one of my characters. All of them suffered horribly throughout their journey, and many of them didn't make it, so whenever one stumbled to the top of the lighthouse and averted the catastrophe, it always felt like a real triumph. So even though I don't think World of Horror is going to be one of those roguelikes I play for hundreds of hours, I think I'm definitely going to keep playing it for a little while longer as I'd love to unlock all of the hidden characters to see what kind of nonsense they'd all get up to!

World of Horror winning a game with the riot girl character

Closing thoughts

World of Horror is not going to appeal to everyone. With a high difficulty curve, relatively simplistic gameplay mechanics and a somewhat obtuse UI, it's very easy to find yourself losing run after run without really understating what you could've done better.

However, if you're willing to overcome the initial challenge and learn how it all works, there is a lot to enjoy about World of Horror. The presentation is simply incredible, the atmosphere is tense all the way through, and the punishing difficulty makes it so every single victory, no matter how painfully earned, feels truly satisfying. So if nothing I've said throughout this review has scared you, definitely considering giving World of Horror a try - it's a lot of fun, in it's own twisted way.

[Note]: I've also taken the opportunity to create a brief beginner's guide covering some of the most important concepts and tricks to help you get started. So if you'd like your time with World of Horror to be as nice and pleasant as an end of the world scenario can be, I'd welcome you to give it a look.