The small town stories I’ve experienced in games tend to revolve around finding the seedy underbelly. Beneath the charming, folksy exterior lies sin and vice. Visual novel World End Syndrome takes a different route, instead focusing on how the people in our lives may be facing challenges we cannot even imagine.
An unnamed high school student transfers to Mihate High, seeking to get away from a bleak past. Despite being solemn and showcasing zero charm, he somehow falls in with a group of young women (and a token annoying creep of a male buddy) through various circumstances. Afterwards, it’s up to you whether you want to try to cozy up with the local rich girl, the secret idol, or your distant cousin (UH?).
Oh yeah, and the town is haunted by a murderous spirit. The Yomibito are undead that look exactly like regular people, except they’re kinda bloodthirsty. And they come back every hundred years. I’m sure you can guess when the last time they showed up.
You may be forgiven if you forget about the whole undead thing as you work to meet folks throughout World End Syndrome. To increase your relationships with them, you’ll have to spend your time with them, rather than just make the correct dialogue choices when asked questions. Each day lets you spend your time wherever you like in Mihate Town during morning, afternoon, and night, and if you spend more time with someone, you’ll grow closer as you loan them a friendly ear and help them with their troubles.
Mihate Town gives you an array of places to go, so finding the people you want to hang with isn’t always easy. You can choose from multiple places during each time period, with a variety of classmates and characters to find in all parts of the town. You’ll likely meet a confusing array of folks on your first run at the plot.
You’ll also take in some striking places as well. Mihate Town is a living look at small town Japan, creating a place that feels comfortable and real. Its artists make careful use of slight movements to breathe life into each scene, making each location a treat. It’s all incredibly soothing to take in. The characters look excellent as well, again using small details to make them feel wonderfully real.
When you want to focus, World End Syndrome has you covered. The gameuses an interesting save system where it remembers every event you take part in (save for major plot-changing ones), allowing you to reload a save if you didn’t meet someone you wanted to in the place you visited. So, you can reload saves as much as you like until you figure out where the person you want to see is hanging out.
If that sounds like a lot of annoying saves and reloading, it actually helps on future attempts at getting close to someone new. Each time you find someone in World End Syndrome, an indicator will appear on that location for that day/time on each playthrough. As you learn the story and see it from various angles, the game will retain your knowledge and make taking specific routes easier in the future. It’s an extremely welcome system for those who want the game’s full story.
You’ll want this full story for a variety of reasons, too. The game’s datable cast start off appearing stereotypical, but will steadily unveil hidden sides to the player as they spend time together. People who treat you poorly are cast in a different light as you see how their family history, personal lives, and hidden challenges have shaped them into who they are. The game excels at giving each character a reason to act as they do, showcasing some wonderful character development in the process.
This feeling of getting to know these characters comes with a lovely message as well. As you discover why some of these characters are mean or standoffish, you start to understand them. You begin to forgive. The powerful cast serves as a reminder that others are often suffering in silence, and that you don’t know what someone is going through. Its message of giving people the benefit of the doubt, and that sometimes those cruel to you need your kindness the most, was quite touching.
As you go through these five stories, you also bring together a truly twisted mystery with a complex, satisfying end. I thought I had guessed it a few times, but the Yomibito presence comes together in a spectacular way in the game’s final act, creating one of the most satisfying stories I’d read in ages. It was well worth working through the game’s entire narrative to reach its conclusion.
Not that World End Syndrome’s story isn’t without its flaws. Your male partner never shows any depth to his creepiness and unwanted come-ons, yet he is treated as a harmless goofball and entertainment, when his behavior should have him rightfully shunned. Likewise, the main character’s own behavior can be a bit creepy and almost stalker-like, yet is rewarded with more attention and attraction in places. The latter happens less frequently, but is still stomach-churning when you see it being rewarded.
You might also feel some discomfort from dating fifteen year olds depending on your own age. Ignoring that fact for the fiction is difficult at 37, but what’s even harder to ignore is the attraction to family members. Your tolerance for these things will definitely affect how much you enjoy World End Syndrome.
World End Syndrome offers a gripping mystery about undead and lost folklores, yet also a touching story about the hidden trials of those who suffer in silence. It has great mechanics that flesh out a story that takes place over an entire town, makes it easy for players to work through multiple runs to unveil its secrets, and is filled with characters that make you want to know them better. Despite some uncomfortable moments, it’s a story well-worth taking the time for.