Almost-new game alert! Shi In

This really is a pretty new Vita game (released only a few weeks ago – something of a record for me) so I’ll do my best to avoid discussing the plot and revealing other spoiler-like content – however – I’m not exactly a fan of filling a blog post with a whole heap o’ nothing either so there will be talk and screenshots of things not shown in the playable demo in the text below. The general rule of thumb is: If you think anything here’s a spoiler, hoo-boy, you should see what I left out!

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I find horror adventure games to be a bit hit-or-miss: Silent Hill somehow did it very well on a format that’s really not best suited to that sort of thing, whereas Corpse Party: Book of Shadows felt like a huge and criminally un-scary waste of time. It all comes down to capturing the impossible - making people believe they’re in real danger in a genre where progression hinges on checking furniture for items and carefully reading bottle labels, but somehow Shi In is one of those few that manages to pull it off.

And it does this even though it’s one of those dreaded adventure games where you can make a wrong decision and die, or not have the right item at a key moment and watch your partner die, or have the right item but the wrong partner and die… you get the picture. Yet I was as surprised as anyone to find out that I didn’t mind these setbacks – the sort that usually leave me swearing and angrily reaching for the nearest FAQ – as thanks to a selection of incredibly helpful design choices I had to admit that these failures were entirely my own fault.

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Let’s start with the most direct helping hand the game gives out: A robust checkpoint system that upon death always gives you the opportunity to restart from the last safe event trigger, restart a turn-based puzzle-battle from the beginning (if you died facing the chapter’s boss), or reload any previous save. This creates a nice balance between the genuine fear of failure while avoiding a lot of the annoyance of having to repeat things you’ve already seen and done – especially important when you consider even the most shocking reveal loses a lot of its impact the second time around. While I remember it’s important to point out that all deaths can be avoided by either choosing the correct response to a ghost’s questions/accusations, using the right item at the right moment, or having a particular character accompany you (partners can be changed any time in a chapter just by heading back to the ‘hub’ mansion) – there are no situations where investigating an object or area will instantly kill you, so you never feel that the game is trying to trip you up simply for the sake of it.

Getting back on track…

The next example of excellent game design is shown in one of the most boring places: the item menu. Each chapter is considered a self contained experience as far as gameplay’s concerned and as such your inventory is cleared out each time even if the story takes you somewhere you’ve been before – this alone saves a lot of headaches as you’re never left wondering if you should have scoured a previous (and now inaccessible) location more thoroughly for some vital doodad or staring at a long list of trinkets and scraps of paper that are no longer relevant to your survival. But it’s the little things too – there are no ‘red herrings’ to lead you astray, useful descriptions are shown in full without having to click through to another menu or examine the item in question, and the game’s even gracious enough to flat-out tell you how it will be used (ex: ‘Poured’ ‘Thrown’ ‘Cuts’), neatly sidestepping all those irritating frog-in-mouth scenarios.

The final thing to mention here is a journal-like recap feature, told in first person by your character, of all the significant events in the chapter so far. New pages are unlocked as you progress and they have a nice balance between summarised facts, personal feelings, and hunches; gently prodding players in the right direction without breaking through that fourth wall and giving everyone all the information they need to solve the mystery for themselves even when dealing with a subject as difficult to grasp as appeasing the spirits of the dead before they turn you into a beehive-hosting corpse.

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But even a well made horror-adventure’s no good if it can’t deliver any meaningful scares, and I’m happy to report that Shi In not only manages to maintain the initial spookiness of its opening dilapidated school (which feels like something of a cliché until… well, you’ll see) but continues to twist it’s fear-knife literally up to the final moments of the very end of the game. I was incredibly impressed by Shi In’s atmosphere, even as someone who’s become an overly-critical tough cookie as far as horror games are concerned after spending far too much time breaking REmake down into itty-bitty pieces. Both body horror and outright gore are present and supremely icky but always used with intelligence and restraint – less is definitely more and the game is a master at playing cat-and-mouse with the player’s emotions, always waiting for exactly the right moment to unveil some terrifying imagery that really underlines both the player’s personal need to rid the lead character of the deadly curse placed upon them as well as intimating that perhaps these vengeful spirits might have something to feel legitimately wronged about – the only thing more frightening than a murderous ghost is a murderous ghost with a point, after all (see also: Project Zero 2).

But a grisly climax can’t hit its mark without a good build-up to pave the way, and Shi In would be nothing more than a collection of gruesome postcards broken up by lite adventuring if it wasn’t also committed to keeping the tension sky-high with a selection of semi-random tricks to keep players on their toes while puzzling their way through the story. These scares range from the instant heart-trying-to-burst-through-your-chest frights of surgical sawing noises in the dark of a long-abandoned operating theatre and crying ghostly children that vanish as quickly as they appear in your torchlight to more subtle long-term tricks: The sound of ropes creaking, forever out of sight in the deep dark woods, in a known suicide spot is my personal ‘favourite’, but you can’t beat long strands of black hair impossibly growing out of cracks in concrete walls for general ‘eww’-ness.

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I’ve deliberately avoided talking about the plot because it’s too good and too important to the game’s success to spoil this close to the release date, but I can at least tell you that it keeps a good pace with each chapter possessing its own self-contained arc and secondary characters while still teasing hints towards a bigger truth that had me literally gasping throughout the epilogue of the final chapter (hey – it’s a good twist!). Shi In’s not an especially long game – it took me about ten hours or so to see the ending – but there’s a lot of freedom and alternative decisions to make that would make a secondary playthrough more than worthwhile, and even if that’s not your sort of thing (I’m often loathe to play games through once I’ve reached the end too) I do feel that a few evening’s worth of ‘I MUST KNOW WHAT HAPPENS’, Vita clutched tightly in my horror-loving mitts, was a fair exchange for ¥4320 of PSN credit. The game excels as a mystery-thriller adventure too: Paranormal horror games tend to make the mistake of being weird for weird’s sake, but here the player is an active participant in the story, logically peeling back layers of intrigue until the awful truth is finally revealed. If you like what you see and are able to play it in Japanese please do so, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the game. If not please find a likely publisher to email-campaign into submission – this game is fantastic and deserves to be played by as many people as possible.