Monday, October 15, 2012

Onryo Ghosts go Gaming in Wii's Ju-On: The Grudge Haunted House Simulator



The series of Ju-on films that were started by Takashi Shimizu have grown into quite a franchise during the last few years. What began as two stories within a Japanese television anthology movie titled Gakko no kaidan G led to the production of two direct-to-video titles and five theatrical releases during the following decade: two theatrical movies in Japan, and a remake with two sequels in the U.S. In 2009, a two-part film was released, Ju-on: White Ghost/Black Ghost, to celebrate the series' 10th anniversary. With so many films under its belt, a tie-in video game is inevitable. That tie-in is Ju-on: The Grudge Haunted House Simulator, which was released for the Nintendo Wii back in 2009.

As a Wii title, the Ju-on game is three things, in this order of priority: an experience first, a story second, and a game third. In my review, I will examine each of these elements and why this particular combination results in a game that, in spite of its ambitions, will only be of long-term interest to die-hard Ju-on fans. Read on ...

The Ju-on: The Grudge Haunted House Simulator game is divided into four levels: a run-down factory, an abandoned hospital, a derelict apartment complex, and a closed office building. Each level has the player assuming the point of view of a different character--Erika, Miki, Ken and Hiro, in that order--and each of them will encounter the Ju-on franchise's most notorious ghosts, the croaking Kayako Saeki and her pale, mewing son Toshio. A fifth level becomes available after players collect pieces of artifacts that are hidden in each level, artifacts that Ju-on franchise fans will recognize immediately after they are assembled.


In terms of appearance and atmosphere, Ju-on is very similar to Calling in that players experience the game through the characters' eyes from a first-person perspective and use the Wiimote to wield a flashlight, direct where the character is supposed to look, and to defend against attacking ghosts. However, in keeping with its "Haunted House Simulator" design, the players have less control than in Calling because Ju-on does not utilize the nunchuk controller; thus, players must also use the Wiimote to determine their characters' direction of movement. Furthermore, the game does what it can to maximize the tension in each level by not allowing the characters to run--each character moves in the same, slow pace--and limiting the battery life of the flashlight, which requires the player to find as many batteries as possible in order to finish each level. If the player runs out of batteries before finishing a level, the character dies and the level remains incomplete.

I personally think that using a video game with motion controls and immersive, three-dimensional graphics to serve as a haunted house simulator is a brilliant concept. I would love to see a game that could simulate the environments that are often used for Halloween attractions (haunted mansions, haunted farms, haunted graveyards, and so on) for the purpose of scaring gamers. From that perspective, using the premise, locations and characters from the Ju-on franchise as the basis of a haunted house simulator is largely effective--at least at first (more about that later). Each level is well designed and shrouded in darkness, and it strategically places ambient noises in such a way that you'll feel like things are happening just out of your range of sight. Overall, the game does enough jolting and bizarre things in each of the levels that you'll get the shivers and jump from time to time when you initially play through them.


I've played plenty of movie tie-in video games over the years and the way I see it, a tie-in game is a success if it can recreate the entertainment experience in video game form that the original movie provided. On the basis of that standard, the Ju-on game provides experiences that fans of the Ju-on movies will enjoy. This is particularly true in the fifth and final level, where the game delivers an ending that isn’t entirely surprising but will chill you to the bone nevertheless. Yet scaring gamers alone isn't enough to convince people to buy a gaming console title, so Ju-on also provides a story and requires tasks to be completed on each level to keep the player engaged. It is in these areas where the game’s quality begins to unravel.

Like the Ju-on movies, the Ju-on game plays in an episodic fashion that doesn't tie things together until the very end. The main mysteries in the game are how Erika, Miki, Ken and Hiro are connected to each other and why Kayako and Toshi are stalking them. The game drops hints as it progresses as to whom the characters are as a group, but the answer to the second mystery is only revealed after players unlock and play the fifth and final level. Without giving too much away, the reason why Kayako and Toshi torment these characters isn't very complicated, although this lack of complexity allows the game to fit (albeit loosely) within the movie series' continuity. In a sense, playing the Ju-on game is like watching a Ju-on movie with each of the dialog scenes left on the cutting room floor.


Of course, to get the game's full story, you have to complete the game by doing game-like things in each level, such as collecting special items, finding keys to open the right doors, and collecting enough batteries to keep your flashlight lit. The keys and batteries are usually easy to find because they shine in the darkness, but the items are very small and blend into their surroundings so much that they're easy to overlook. If you don't find all of the items after finishing a level, you have to play through that level again in its entirety to find the item because there are no save options within the levels. For this reason, you can wind up playing the same level many times over, which makes the game much more frustrating than frightening.

Further complicating the item collection task is that in the hospital level, you have to trigger specific events in order to reveal all of the items you must collect and open a door that must be opened. Even with a walkthrough guide that told me the locations of each item, I had to play through the hospital level multiple times anyway; either I couldn't get the events to trigger that reveal the items, or I could get the item events to trigger but the door event wouldn't trigger at all, leaving me stuck until my flashlight batteries lost their charge and the level ended without completion. A game this simple in concept and design shouldn't have such egregious glitches. It's like going on an amusement park's haunted house ride that's plagued by technical difficulties.


The game also features a two-player option, where one player plays through a level and the other player can trigger random scares. While this extra feature does add some extra unpredictability to the game, it does not interfere with the levels’ designs. No matter what the second player does, the cut scenes will play at their designated times (for the most part) and first player can still killed if he/she does not fight off the ghosts in time or runs out of batteries.

I can’t dismiss Ju-on: The Grudge Haunted House Simulator completely because it does have some worthwhile features, yet I can’t believe that this game would of lasting value to anyone who isn’t a fan of the Ju-on movies. If you’re still curious about the game but don’t want to buy it, I would recommend renting it and downloading the complete save file from the wiisave.com site so you can access all five levels without having to collect the artifacts.





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