Some games have a reputation too lofty for their own good, and I’m not sure how Tsugunohi found its way to being one of the most terrifying Japanese horror “games” of “all-time,” but here we are with its Steam release, bringing together the previous chapters plus a couple of new ones. There are already free demos; in fact, these games were widely playable via other avenues for quite some time. This Steam release is more about the convenience of having it on the platform, and it’s relatively inexpensive.
Tsugunohi is a meme, not a video game, and it has the appeal of an urban myth akin to the creepypasta haunted video game. There’s plenty of reaction videos out there; most of them get a lot of views, and perhaps most find the idea behind the experience and the community of react videos to be interesting rather than the game itself. But then that’s all there is to it; it’s a meme to share around, mostly among gamers still in school. If you’re a grown-ass adult making a big deal of it, that’s when the cringe sets in.
And yet, I bought into the hype before getting into this review, and it’s pretty embarrassing thinking what I built up in my head versus what I experienced. I’m not a fan of cheap jump scares; they’re irritating, and playing one of the chapters for the very first time certainly does the trick, where the gradual anticipation and tension builds up to a well-timed scare. The problem is, though, Tsugunohi is a one-trick scare pony because once you play a chapter, the novelty wears off. The other chapters more or less follow the same structure and build-up, so you’ll know what’s coming; it’s a bit like that one steamroller scene from Austin Powers.
All of the chapters are self-contained, and you can play them in any order you like, although some of them are loosely related, not that it matters anyway. There’s no real storyline, as most of the chapters deliver urban ghost stories. Perhaps these tales are more effective in their original native Japanese context, but here they’re a bit vague.
In terms of actual gameplay input, players hold on the left key to get the story protagonist to walk (one of them is a cat, by the way) and pressing another button to move the text along. Occasionally some chapters have a bit more interactive sections to click on, but they all play the same way, as the character goes from day to day to move the story along.
The basic jump-scare formula is the same in each chapter, where a range of sound effects, clever image planting, and sudden image changes are all used frequently to build anticipation until the eventual loud and dramatic jump scare. This big scare is usually in the form of a sudden change in image accompanied by a loud sound effect, a bit like those annoying viral YouTube videos from the early 2000s. And that’s ultimately what Tsugunohi is: an early 2000s internet urban legend.
When you’ve played one chapter, you’ll know exactly what to expect from all the others, and so boredom sets in. Each chapter lasts ten minutes, some longer and some shorter, with some even allowing you to save progress, but once you’ve figured out the basic pattern, they all feel pretty drawn out, and even the intended sound effects fail to phase you.
The visual presentation makes use of cutout images and surprises you with the occasional scary graphic. The sound design is pretty cool to give credit where it’s due, with the various atmospheric sounds and occasional creepy music coming together effectively. This is definitely one to experience with headphones on if you want to get the most out of your pre-planned scare.
Still, there’s really nothing to Tsugunohi. Sure, it’s an interesting artefact of Japanese internet culture, and if you’re a fan of that sort of thing, then it might be worth sharing with your friends for a few scares and laughs. But beyond this, there is really no point to package and sell this as a Steam release. What makes things just a little worse is that you can’t exit the title select menu when you want to play a different game. Instead, you have to close the same and re-launch it.
Tsugunohi is not one of the most terrifying Japanese horror games of all time as it claims to be, not even remotely close. I’m certain the honor is just as made up as the urban legends. The basic jump-scare structure is identical across the nine chapters, so once you’ve tried one you’ve basically seen it all. There’s no real meaning or substance here, and real horror is when the anticipatory fear transforms into sheer boredom.
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