Yuoni review: Land of the setting sun

by Lars
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Yuoni is a narrative-heavy horror game set in 90’s Japan, snatching players away to a world bathed in the glow of a permanently setting sun. If you’ve ever wanted to live through one of those absolutely horrifying Japanese urban legends, Yuoni wants to give you that chance.

The premise is great, as are the visuals – Yuoni‘s world is basically stained in tones of deep red and amber, with graphics that occupy an unsettling middle ground between generations. Grade-schooler Ai is dragged into a world between life and death, pursued by shadowy entities with dark intentions. To survive, she has to run, hide and play their deadly game. Done right, this could be a really unsettling slice of horror.

The experience we get is kind of muddled. Yuoni spends a considerable amount of time winding up a narrative before introducing any gameplay, and as all of that exposition is done through static text screens, it feels flat by the time you get there. There’s a bit of an explanation as to who you are and why everything is so spooky, and the game will regularly check back in with Ai and her friends through the text-based narrative – but it just feels disconnected.

I think it’s a pretty sincere attempt to make Yuoni more than just another Steam indie horror game. Sincere, but a bit ineffective – like reading a novel on a nature walk, you’re not really paying full attention to either thing. You’d lose absolutely nothing by ejecting the story component entirely, and just presenting the game as is. Yuoni might actually benefit from having the characterisation cut out – Ai is ten years old, and has no defense against the shadow people chasing her, but besides that there’s literally no reason for us to be playing a specific character in this game.

It really just overdresses what could be quite a simple, engaging horror title by itself. The more layers Yuoni pulls around itself, the further it gets away from its potential. It’s not just a deadly game of hide and seek, you’re also an anxious ten year old who’s finally made some friends – ooh, but those friends are kind of jerks with their own agendas (stupid scheming ten-year-olds) – and the ghost that’s chasing you has a tragic backstory that’s explained in the opening moments of the game.

If there was ever an opportunity for what I call “backseat storytelling” – where the narrative just kind of backs off and lets you develop your own interpretations – Yuoni had it, and missed it by quite a wide margin. I love what they’ve tried to do – I love the environments this all takes place in, I love the ambition they’ve displayed in creating a narrative around their concept, but it just drags the good things about Yuoni down.

Yuoni shadow people

But none of that really matters – what counts the most is whether or not Yuoni is scary or not. Hiding from the shadow people is simply done – they can’t see you, so they’ll respond to sound, and you can hold your breath to sneak by them at a terrifyingly short distance. If they spot you, you’ll have to hide until they give up the chase. This is the kind of mechanic that needs to work perfectly to be satisfying, and at this moment in time, it doesn’t.

At times it seemed like it didn’t matter how fast or quietly I was moving – the shadow people would chase me regardless. Running and hiding is really your only possible means of defense, so when that just doesn’t work as intended, it just feels cheap. The shadow people flicker in and out of existence – at one point I’m pretty sure I saw one that was just a flat .png file – and are often accompanied by haunting childish laughter. It’s textbook horror in a sense, but can be quite effective combined with Yuoni‘s otherwordly atmosphere.

Yuoni overall thoughts

Yuoni is a good idea executed amateurishly. It’s buggy, uneven, and will struggle to muster a sense of tension for experienced horror fans. The story is dense and ineffective, gameplay is at times clumsy and sluggish, and I can’t recommend this to anybody besides hardcore sunset enthusiasts.

For every beautifully spooky moment Yuoni creates, it has ten more awkward, dull ones. I’d wait and see what Tricore Inc. have learned from developing this – their next game could be awesome.

We reviewed Yuoni on PS5. It’s now available on Steam and PS4/5. Check out more of our game reviews here.

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