Visual novels are a fairly new concept to western audiences. The games generally work as a choose your own adventure story, with long passages of text and the occasional choice to steer the tale in a new direction. While the genre has been a core part of the Japanese gaming market since the early 1980s, official English translations of said titles were near unheard of, while being far too expensive to translate for a niche audience. Thanks to the interconnected nature of the modern internet, niche audiences are now large enough to be profitable, so more and more visual novels are getting an English release alongside their Japanese counterparts. World End Syndrome is the latest title from Toy Box Inc, a developer with a strong background in visual novels, but is best known for producing the quirky horror title Deadly Premonition. Embracing a love of Japanese folklore, World End Syndrome weaves mystery and romance together in the satisfying tale of a summer spent investigating a mysterious town.
Mihate Town is a strange place. The protagonist can sense a foreboding atmosphere from the moment he steps off the train. The streets are lined with pinwheels to ward off the Yomibito, dead spirits that arise once every one hundred years to cause misfortune and death to the living. As luck would have it, the game is set exactly one hundred years since the last Yomibito was spotted. A transfer student to the local school, the protagonist makes friends and absorbs himself into the rhythm of daily life, dismissing the superstitious claims. Still, something feels just slightly off. Legend says the Yomibito will attack at the end of the summer, and only a month of the season is left. With little time remaining before summer ends, the protagonist must both find love and unravel the mystery of Mihate Town before all is lost.
With such an intensely spooky setting, one may be surprised to find that World End Syndrome is primarily a romance story, with the mystery playing second-fiddle to the narrative’s primary concern: getting a girlfriend. The game features a lengthy prologue, with the protagonist settling in and getting to know the various love interests. Once the prologue is completed, a map of the town opens up, and the player can choose where to go each day.
Mihate town is full of interesting locales, with streets, beaches, and forbidden forests to explore. The goal is to find the current love interest, and to aid her in some way at the place the player visits, much like a romantically-themed Carmen Sandiego. The characters all have their own schedules, and will be at different places depending on the day and time. The locations of characters will often be hinted at through dialogue, but sometimes the player will have to make an educated guess to find a specific person. As the protagonist runs in to his friends, he builds up an aura meter, which makes finding specific characters much easier, indicated on the map with a glowing marker. This meter persists through playthroughs, and by the time the fifth and final girl is romanced, the player should have no problem tracking down who they are looking for.
During a playthrough, the player will occasionally be given options on what to do: who to talk to in the group, where to go to look for a missing cat, whether or not to go for a late-night stroll. Choices are infrequent but important; choosing incorrectly can lead to a bad ending, and sometimes players may find difficulty deciding which option is correct. For example, in one girl’s route, a vital choice is whether to retrieve a lost wallet today or tomorrow. The game is thankfully liberal with its save slots, so making a separate save after each decision is wise. While minimal choices are standard for the visual novel genre, a few more could have made the game more dynamic. Some events that occur automatically would have been better as a choice due to questionable content; the protagonist occasionally engages in creepy behaviour, like taking pictures of a girl while sleeping despite her specifically saying she was not comfortable with her photo being taken.
The five girls the player can romance in World End Syndrome initially come across as stereotypes. Saya is a haughty rich girl looking down on the common people, Maimi is bossy and obsessed with sport, Hanako is a poorly-disguised idol trying to live a normal student life, Yukino is a cheerful journalist investigating the strange town, and Miu is cold and mysterious. As the protagonist gets to know them better, however, each girl gains depth and is more complex than she initially appears. The characters are well-written with distinctive voices, and they behave in a way that is consistent with their character. Unlike most visual novel games, the protagonist is not a blank slate. He moves to Mihate Town to get away from a mysterious distressing past, starting out the game very depressed. Like the girls, the protagonist changes and develops as he becomes better friends with his schoolmates. With such excellent character development during the different paths, the fact that Kensuke, the only other male in the friendship group, does not get a route of his own is disappointing. While all the other characters evolve as the player gets to know them, Kensuke remains the same throughout the entire story, a hyperactive horny teenager with the depth of a puddle.
In a visual novel, the artwork is often very minimal, static character portraits over a simple background, with the occasional change in pose. While World End Syndrome is presented in this basic style, the backgrounds are exquisitely detailed with little animations bringing them to life. The character models are well-drawn, too, with typical manga outlines and soft watercolour tones giving them a unique look. The obligatory fan-service portraits are generally tasteful, even if for story reasons the girls finding an excuse to swim in front of the protagonist is silly. The Japanese voiceovers do a good job of conveying their characters, and the host of the titular World End Syndrome radio show has a particularly calming and breathy voice, perfect for the otherworldly subject matter of the show.
World End Syndrome is fairly lengthy game, with a five hour prologue, another five hours for the first ending, then another two to three– hours for each further ending along with a short epilogue tying up the loose ends. While such a long prologue is understandable to establish the many characters and gain a sense of everyday life, the story is such a slow-burn it may put off some players. The setting of Mihate Town is also under utilised; the Yomibito legend is arguably more interesting than the everyday lives of the teenagers, but the mystery is only really addressed near the end of the game.
At the end of the day, World End Syndrome is aimed squarely at the niche of romance visual novel fans. The game is very well-written and well-executed, but it is unlikely to bring in new fans to the genre.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.