Pocket-sized panics

The WonderSwan exclusive “Novel Theatre” game Terrors 2 offers users three unrelated but hopefully spooky stories to choose from once the standard-issue creepy laughter’s died down on the title screen, with a shorter fourth, final, and equally disconnected tale unlocked after you’ve cleared them (and made sure you’ve saved too). This bonus piece isn’t a reward for the skilled – there’s no need to reach the best ending, or even a good ending, in any scenario to unlock it – and it’s not much of a surprise either seeing as it’s mentioned several times in the manual, which instantly raises questions of just what they were hoping to achieve by locking this “X Night” away and then making sure everyone who bought the game knew it had been locked away and required no real effort to see anyway. This same story select screen also displays a tantalising “WonderGate” option: For those who may not have heard of the peripheral it was a pleasantly curvaceous blob of plastic that sat on the right hand side of the portable and allowed users to connect their mobile phone to their WonderSwan and then use the former’s internet connection to download new data or add extra features to a game, much like Nintendo’s Mobile System GB (which launched the year after Bandai’s accessory). Here the WonderGate is optionally used in the second scenario, “Black Shadow”, changing the time of day during which certain events occur. It’s a neat idea but a simple one, nothing more than a non-compulsory “day” (defined as any time between 6am and 6pm) replacing the default “night”. The game is at least upfront and honest about this in the manual to the point of choosing to illustrate the “difference” between the two with a pair of screenshots showing nothing more than a small change in the text, but as with the unlockable scenario you wonder what they hoped to achieve here beyond making WonderGate users feel like their expensive accessory hadn’t been a complete waste of money.

As you may have guessed from the screenshots here Terrors 2 is played with the WonderSwan held vertically in an attempt to play to its host system’s strengths in the same way Sigma Harmonics, Hotel Dusk, Last Window, and many other text-heavy games do to such great effect on Nintendo’s DS. In this case the handheld’s single screen reserves the upper third for a photographic image (in almost, but not quite, a 16:9 ratio) while the rest is used for text. As with everything else I’ve mentioned so far this is another decent enough, albeit slightly unfocused, idea. The deliberately front-loaded full colour photos soon give way to the monochrome replacements that make up the bulk of the storytelling imagery, many of them so heavily dithered its genuinely hard to make out what’s going on. It’s easy to see how this happened – there’s only so much space on the slender little cart to go around and with each scenario being completely unique there are no handy stock images of a particular place or terrifying ghost to reuse with wild abandon – but understanding why Terrors 2 looks the way it does sadly doesn’t mean what’s here works. The pictures used lack definition, far too often displaying a chaotically dithered blue/orange/grey noise. It’s just the inevitable result of a bad idea; using landscape images on a portrait WonderSwan screen on leaves artists just 144×88 worth of pixels to display the dark and dimly lit scenes the genre requires – scenes that would have struggled to look sharp on home hardware available at the time. Exacerbating this is the frequent absence of artistry in the photographs themselves, robbing players of a sense of danger, isolation, or having to survive in a world where everything’s slightly out of touch with reality. A woman dies. You’re shown an image of her lying down on her back with her eyes shut. She has her eyes shut because she’s dead and that’s what dead people do. In another scene a man dies. He is photographed straight on and upright, like a boring family portrait with an added dribbling of ick. It’s frustrating to see a horror game squander what should be key moments in this manner, consistently detracting from the OK-ish writing rather than enhancing it.

Terrors 2’s structure generally follows the usual genre expectations, offering players branching routes based on two or three options given at set points in each story. It does however try to mix things up with some (rarely seen) timed choices and the Terror Point system: certain decisions or lines of dialogue within them will trigger a red wibbly line effect – that’s your visual sign that not only has something officially scary just been mentioned but also that you’ve gained a Terror Point. These points accumulate over the course of your story and at times may determine the outcome of a particular plot branch in a roughly (roughly) similar way to Genso Suikogaiden‘s Luck Point system. There are up to nine different endings per story, some good, some bad, one best. To prevent you seeing them all as quickly and artificially as possible or cautiously “reading ahead” and then reverting to a pre-decision save in the way I definitely never did when playing Choose Your Own Adventure books with my fingers tactically stuck in important pages, it’s possible to save whenever you like if you need to take a break but you can’t create a fixed save point for you to fall back on if things go pear shaped – and that means you have to live with your choices, which is the one horror game detail Terrors 2 gets absolutely right. Sadly on subsequent replays there’s no indication of which choices you picked last time and you can’t smoothly sail past previously encountered events to get straight to the fresh content either, even though these are both pretty basic adventure game features.

 

This might be a good time to point to the WonderSwan itself as the source of the game’s woes, to view Terrors 2 as an ambitious project released on a format unable to live up to the team’s lofty goals. Unfortunately the WonderSwan’s own (monochrome) port of Clock Tower, the GBA excellence that is Play Novel: Silent Hill, and the Super Famicom’s Kamaitachi no Yoru all prove cart space, resolution, the physical size of the screen itself, and raw processing power don’t have to hold a text-laden horror game back – the awkward truth is Terrors 2 just isn’t that good. I came to the end of the first story not only not feeling scared, but still waiting to get to the part where it even tried to scare me. The tone seemed to struggle to find its stride across all four scenarios, never quite sure if it wanted to build tension through the dark machinations of the supernatural or the terror of a more mundane guy-with-a-sharp-object variety, if those mysterious lights in the dark were really mysterious lights or just someone with a torch (again). I imagine the idea was to create an environment where players would never know who or what to be afraid of, but in reality it muddies the waters and creates unsatisfying tales that never really commit to one thing or the other.

In spite of my complaints there’s no one singular issue you can isolate as being game-ruiningly bad, it’s more that Terrors 2’s collection of ideas never reaches a point where it crosses the line into being actually good. Do you want to read scary stories on your WonderSwan? Then this is, at least on a technical level, scary stories for you to read on your WonderSwan.

[Ko-fi supporters read this last week! Want to join them and get all the good stuff early? Head this way!]

 

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