Review: Ju-on: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator (Nintendo Wii)

Ju-on: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator
Genre: Survival Horror
Developer: feelplus
Publisher: XSEED
Release Date: 10/13/09

It has to be hard, as an American publisher, to determine which Japanese games are worth localizing and which games are going to merit weird stares and open laughter. Obviously, something with lots of explosions and death and whatnot would seem like a safe bet, but when you get into weird games like Oneechanbara: Bikini Zombie Slayers, Dead or Alive Xtreme 2, Katamari Damacy and the hundreds of train simulators that come out in the country on a yearly basis, it’s hard to know what will sell and what won’t. Some games are so well designed that they attract fans because they’re awesome to play, or are so absurd that they draw interest based solely on the fact that they’re bizarre. On the other hand, for every Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney there’s a Jake Hunter. For every Devil May Cry there’s a God Hand. For every Trauma Center there’s a Lifesigns: Surgical Unit. You get the point. The fact of the matter is that some games are simply impenetrable to an American audience. We cannot, for the life of us, understand WHY something designed THIS WAY would be something the average person would want to play, let along LIKE. Ju-on: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator (henceforth referred to as Ju-on) is pretty much one of those sorts of experiences. It’s obvious what the INTENTION was, but the game so impenetrably foreign as to be unpalatable, and this is coming from a guy who proudly informs people that he owns Chulip.

Ju-on tells the stories of four people across five chapters who, for reasons unspecified, run afoul of Kayako and Toshio, the “creepy long-haired woman” and “creepy kid who makes cat noises” respectively, and are thus being stalked through whatever location they find themselves in. The stories are generally quite bare-bones; you’re given a very basic introduction to what’s going on and why, and then the game lets you take over, giving you little additional narrative from that point forward. The tales told through the five chapters of the game essentially take the same path: you are thrust into whatever dark locale the story takes place in, and you’ll wander around until you die, either because of some type of failure on your end or out of plot necessity. I’d love to say at this point that there’s more to the plot than the above description, but no, you literally are given about a minute of basic exposition before you’re sent off to wander around in the dark until you die. In fairness, a good suspenseful film or story doesn’t need a lot of dialogue and exposition to really sell the experience, but Ju-on essentially expects the suspense and scares to do virtually all of the heavy lifting. As a result, there’s not really much of a plot to care about. It’s more, “Here’s your setup, here’s your reason to do this. Now have fun” than anything else, and honestly, it’s functional, but not very interesting.

Ju-on is an okay looking game, and the various environments look spooky and threatening, as one would expect. Most of the game is viewed through the dim light of your somewhat ineffective flashlight, casting the environment in a spooky shadow as you cast the dim light over the area, and for the most part, the visual effects associated with this look nice. Kayako and Toshiro also are well rendered and look as freaky as you’d expect and. For the most part, they are pretty horrific looking all in all, and since they’re your primary antagonists, this is a good thing. However, most of the rest of the game is pretty mediocre at best. Texture maps alternate between being acceptable and low resolution, the environments are repetitive and unexciting half of the time, Kayako’s hair often looks cheesy when it’s attacking you on its own, and your flashlight only illuminates about four feet in front of you, so it’s basically the worst flashlight in the world. I mean, I don’t expect the protagonists to hade an LED flashlight that can light up clouds like I do, but it’s kind of annoying that everyone here bought their flashlights from the same terrible dollar store. Oh, and the dog in the first chapter looks like something from the Playstation era, for the record. Aurally, however, the game is mostly pretty solid. The music fades in and out as needed, and is mostly quite dramatic and spooky, thus making it about the only thing that gets the horror theme across in the game. There’s no real voice acting to speak of, but Kayako and Toshiro make their expected creepy death rattle and cat noises, respectively, and they sound as you’d expect them to. The game also showcases some cute audio tricks, like making Kayako’s death rattle come from the Wiimote when she calls you, which is a trick we’ve seen before, but an effective one nevertheless. The remainder of the sound effects are atmospheric and fit the tone of the game well, and work as well as one would expect.

On the plus side, Ju-on is quite easy to play. You control your character entirely with the Wiimote, which you brandish like the flashlight your avatar in the game holds out before them at all times. You move the Wiimote around to look around, and the flashlight beam points where you do, allowing you to turn your field of vision and also point at things in the environment to look at them. Items you can interact with, either by using or acquiring them, are activated by a simple press of the A button, and the B button allows you to walk around in the direction you’re facing. At the bottom of the screen you’ll see an indicator of your battery life, which indicates how much time you have left to complete the area, as when you run out of battery life, it’s game over. You can extend your time, more or less, by finding more batteries in the location, allowing you more time to complete the required goals before the end of the level. You’ll also find various other items, some of which are key items that unlock new locations to visit in the stage, while others are collection items that serve no purpose at the moment but are worth collecting regardless. Occasionally, during your journey, you’ll encounter Kayako and Toshiro, and during these points one or the both of these wonderfully wrathful beings will attempt to cut your adventure short. At these points, you’ll be expected to dodge their attempts by way of playing an Active Time Event where you swing the Wiimote in a specific direction or directions to avoid their attacks. The controls and mechanics change not even a small bit throughout the course of the game, and the controls are simple enough to learn in minutes and functional enough to carry you through the experience. It also bears noting that not a lot of games have done things in the way Ju-on does, partially because of the interesting layout and control design, and for that, it deserves a fair bit of praise for not being like every other game in the genre.

The game is broken up into five chapters, the first four of which are accessed by completing the ones prior to them, while the fifth is accessed by collecting the hidden items strewn through the first four locales, hence the observation that you’ll want to find them made earlier. You’ll tour through an abandoned factory, a deserted hospital, a decimated apartment complex and other dilapidated areas as you navigate your characters through their stories, and each has plenty of locations to explore while looking for both story specific items and hidden files and such. The missions can be completed in about fifteen to thirty minutes with skillful navigation, meaning you can blow through the five chapters in about two to three hours, assuming you can find all of the hidden items as you progress. Going back to find these items if you miss them the first time so as to unlock the final mission can provide some replay value if you want to see the last episode, and you can replay any mission you’ve unlocked at any point if you want to show off specific missions to friends or enjoy certain episodes. There’s also a Courage Test mode, which allows a second player to use a Wiimote to generate scares at the press of a button, including dripping blood on the screen, having Kayako descend upon you, filling the screen with bugs, and other things to freak you out as you play, which can be entertaining if you scare easy.

That, however, is the biggest issue with Ju-on: it simply isn’t scary. Now, this sort of thing isn’t a problem for a game like Resident Evil 5 or Dead Rising, where the “horror” of the game revolves around the setting, not the actual scariness of the product. Ju-on, however, isn’t an action game with a horror theme, it a horror game exclusively, and is reliant on its ability to scare to be enjoyable, which is a problem because it never manages to do that. The entire game amounts to either scripted events or random scares, but neither works in the way intended. The scripted events are easy to see coming since the flashlight battery display disappears from the screen and the player loses control of the game, making them obvious and not at all surprising, in addition to being not particularly interesting or fright-provoking. The random scares, on the other hand, are the typical “something falls/breaks/jumps out/makes a noise” that one expects from the genre, but they’re pretty much either not interesting or blatantly obvious, and after the first episode you’ve seen everything the game is going to throw you, so subsequent stages are significantly less scary as you progress. It doesn’t help that the appearances of Kayako and Toshiro are entirely scripted, meaning that after you’ve seen them once you know where you’re going to see them again, pretty much without fail. In something like Clock Tower, Scissorman would appear at various intervals, but his appearance wasn’t exclusively scripted, which made the game more terrifying because you never really knew when he’d be showing up. In Ju-on, on the other hand, you’ll only ever see Kayako at certain points in the chapter, and she doesn’t give much of a chase, so if you escape her by whatever Active Time Event the game throws at you, you don’t need to worry about escaping any further, as you won’t be seeing her again until the next scripted cutscene.

The game is also rather frustrating, which both further hampers the scariness and is itself contributed to by the lack of random scares in the missions. See, the whole game is incredibly linear, but it attempts to obfuscate that by making you hunt around for your next objective or item, much like many typical adventure games. This would be fine if the stages all gave you a rough idea of what you were supposed to be doing, but in many stages you won’t have any idea of what you’re supposed to do to progress the plot next, so until you find the specific location or the specific hidden item you need to progress, you’ll end up frustrated as you wander around looking for it until your batteries run out. Combine this with the linear level designs and the fixed-location scares and you’ll end up having to go through a stage four or five times to see it through, which pretty much ruins the scariness of the stages outright. Factor this in with the incredibly slow walking speed of all of your protagonists that makes every stage feel like it’s crawling by, as well as the repetitive fetch quests that make you spend five minutes walking somewhere just to walk the same five minute path back to where you started, and any scares the game might have are lost in the annoyance of the mechanics and the generally dull experience.

There are hordes of other minor annoyances that also serve to make the game further unpalatable on top of the above. The Courage Test multiplayer game is meant to be extra-scary by allowing the second player to push a button when they wish to make something horrible pop up on-screen, but all of the effects the second player can unleash on you simply serve to obfuscate the viewing area, making them less scary and more annoying. Several of the hidden items you need to unlock the final stage are timing-dependant, meaning that you can’t find them until after you complete a specific part of the game, which means you’ll have to play the same stage several times over or consult an online guide to find them all. The reward for finding all of the hidden items, also, is that you unlock the fifth stage in the game, which is fine if you somehow like playing through the game, but if you’re only marginally interested in the experience, the idea of going back and hunting for hidden items is unlikely to make you jump for joy. Having to play through the hospital stage six times to find everything, for example, just to unlock a twenty minute stage is, frankly, annoying, and this could have been handled a lot better than it was. Also, despite the fact that there is a two-player mode to the game (such as it is) and the need to find hidden items in four stages to unlock the fifth stage, there’s really no reason at all to come back to the game once you’ve completed it. Nothing ever changes, the game isn’t especially frightening or interesting, and the whole experience is slow and boring, making playing it AGAIN more of a masochistic behavior than anything else.

All told, Ju-on: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator isn’t BAD so much as it is poorly executed, and one can see how it might have been an interesting game if not for the various problems that simply make it impenetrable at best and unenjoyable at worst. The visuals are acceptable, if not great, and the aural presentation is generally quite good all around. The game is simple enough, mechanically, that anyone can play it, and the concept is interesting and different enough that you can walk into it and play it without feeling like you’ve seen the game a hundred times before under different names. On the other hand, the game is small and rather linear, and does absolutely nothing to make the experience worth coming back to after you’ve seen it once. Further, the game isn’t scary in the least, is often frustrating and annoying in its design, is generally boring in its execution, and frankly, doesn’t make a compelling argument to play it once, let alone more than that. Even the most hardcore horror game fan or obscure Japanese game fan won’t find much to love about Ju-on, and even the wimpiest person you know is unlikely to be scared by anything the game does, making it hard to recommend to anyone at any price.

The Scores:
Story: BAD
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: BAD
Balance: BAD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: DREADFUL
Appeal: DREADFUL
Miscellaneous: WORTHLESS
FINAL SCORE: PRETTY POOR GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Speaking as someone who loves weird, wonky Japanese games, from Monster Hunter to Oneechanbara, from King’s Field to Chulip and beyond, Ju-on: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator is simply a boring, often unenjoyable experience that makes no truly convincing arguments in its favor and will be utterly impenetrable except to a small handful of gamers. The visuals are okay enough, the audio is generally very solid, and the controls are easy enough to figure out within minutes. Further, the game does offer some mild innovation with its design, enough that most players will probably not have seen something that does quite what this game does before. However, the story is bland and meager, the game is incredibly linear and shallow, and the experience is simply not scary in the least. On top of that, the gameplay alternates between being boring and frustrating, the multiplayer is practically worthless, and you can go through the game in a matter of three hours or less if you’re a skillful searcher. Ju-on: The Grudge: Haunted House Simulator is basically not a game anyone needs to play any more than once and none but the most dedicated of horror or weird Japanese game fans will find any value to this that would make it worth owning.

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