Misao: Definitive Edition Review
Publisher: AGM Playism
Last year, I reviewed Mad Father, a small Japanese horror title that, despite some more frustrating moments, featured a compelling storyline with a surprising amount of detail, interlaced with imagery, scenes, and setpieces that really showed an understanding of the horror genre, and as such serves as one of the only horror games that I actually enjoy. Misao is another title by the same studio, set in the same universe, positioned as a sequel, and originally released before Mad Father, only to be reworked and remastered via a new Definitive Edition, released after Mad Father’s initial release.
With the background taken care of, Misao is centered around a typical Japanese high school wherein a young girl by the name of, what else, Misao, has been missing for three months. Following an equally typical seeming day, several students find themselves (and the school) transported into an alternate demonic realm wherein they are tormented by a mix of monsters and the spirit of Misao, who is seeking vengeance against those who wronged her, and the one responsible for her death. The player takes the role of Aki or Akito, who is basically the only decent person in this entire school, and takes it upon themselves to calm the vengeful spirit of a girl they always thought positively of, and begins going on an adventure game styled search throughout the high school, exploring and unlocking various paths within it.
It is a predictable summary for a horror fueled adventure game, yet the more I think back on Misao, the more I question that description. Now, the actual content of Misao does fixate on the more morose, with characters being brutally murdered, there being many instances of spooky or unsettling imagery, and a plethora of jump scares. Yet the fundamental story that surrounds this is surprisingly straightforward, with things being explained very early by a recurring character from Mad Father, who effectively gives the protagonist a very clear mission, and one that can be confronted without much concern.
Unlike Mad Father, there are really no enemies to contend with in Misao, with the otherworldly aberration being relegated to glorified death traps. Vividly creative death traps that can truly be startling, shocking, or surprising, yet come off more as humorous gags than examples of horror, with the act of discovering, collecting, and seeing all of these deaths being a highlight of the game for me. However, they do greatly diffuse the tension, as not only is the player able to mash the quicksave button before doing anything as simple as walk through a room because they might walk past a killer telephone, but the game keeps track of which deaths the player has seen, and even rewards them if they find 40 out of 42 of the deaths.
Stepping back a bit, the story of Misao really is as simple as my brief description makes it out to be, with not many points of interest along the way. With the only point of interest for me throughout the story pertaining to some of its darker themes, namely bullying and rape, or the loose ties the story itself has to Mad Father. Furthermore, despite the developers attempting to make this title a more character driven one, it does not play out very well.
While I did enjoy the protagonist, and how their personality can teeter between a genuinely good hearted samaritan and a delightfully malicious miscreant for humorous effect, I cannot say much of anything positive about the rest of the cast. They are a cast of two dimensional characters with questionable morals who are only given scraps of personality throughout the main story and the accompanying epilogue. With even Misao’s killer coming off as overly simplistic in their construction, and the recurring characters from Mad Father not being afforded enough detail to make their appearances feel significant. The epilogue chapter is supposed to help flesh out the characterization of the cast more, and while it does help, the bulk of the cast still feel insignificant.
Moving onto the gameplay, Misao is an overhead adventure game that consists of travelling from the various ends of the school, stumbling into small puzzles, key items, and a lot of deaths. The exploration is not particularly nuanced, the setting feels constantly familiar, and the various puzzles introduced throughout the game teeter between rather straightforward and easy, or being slightly cryptic, and requiring a fair amount of memorization or trial and error to figure out what needs to be done next. I could have genuinely seen myself wandering around for quite a while if I had not kept a guide by my side as I played, though I really cannot confidently hold that against a game such as this, given the norms perpetuated within its specific genre.
As far as I can tell, one of the more notable changes between this version of Misao and the original version comes in the form of its sprite art, which is littered with a number of small details from the environment to the intricate death animations that make the game look good for what it is. Even it is slightly held back by the tileset feeling nature of its environment, the fact that its engine does not come with several selectable window sizes (though it can be manually changed), and how the overall art direction on display here is… odd.
You have these colorful looking anime characters drawn in an anime fashion with sprites that honestly look just adorable when viewed on their own, inserted into a darker and more dreary environment. I can only assume that the contrast was intended to increase the amount of dissonance and horror within the game, but the effect is lost thanks to the constant over-the-top deaths that make it difficult to take the game wholly seriously, and the overly loud pitter patter of the protagonist’s footsteps that drowns out the musical backdrop.
Despite likely having far greater aspirations at one point, Misao is a very typical small Japanese horror game, that is held back by its underdeveloped characters, simplistic storyline, brief length of just over two hours, and lack of intimate understanding of what makes a good horror title compelling prevent it from reaching, well, any heights. Coming to this game after Mad Father represents a dramatic decrease in quality, and for was much as I tried to enjoy Misao, I ultimately found it to be a thoroughly average, if not forgettable, experience.