If you could resurrect a dead loved one by killing someone else, would you?
That's the moral predicament at the heart of Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo, a new horror visual novel from Square Enix. Though lacking in buzz, this provocative new title is the biggest surprise of 2023 so far.
Paranormasight is brilliant and subversive, toying with expectations and tropes across genres. The final product is entrancing — and it doesn’t loosen its death grip until the very last second.
The Longest Night
Paranormasight takes place in 1980s Honjo, a real location formerly part of Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. The small city remains a hotbed for supernatural urban legends thanks to “The Seven Mysteries of Honjo,” which detail gruesome events that took place during the Edo period. These ghost stories are inspired by the real-life “Seven Wonders of Honjo,” which even serve as a tourist attraction in Sumida ward. The mysteries, and the history behind them, play a central role in the overall narrative.
In the opening moments, a strange old man name called “The Storyteller” poses that agonizing question about resurrection. He greets you as a viewer ready to experience the wild and weird story of Honjo, inserting you into the experience through a color TV which he calls a “wondrous” device.
The Storyteller remains a vital part of the experience, but the story soon shifts to the perspective of a young man named Shogo Okiie, a typical office worker who’s been looped into a paranormal investigation his crush, a girl named Yoko.
But after a “Curse Stone'' chooses Okiie as its bearer, he’s commanded to kill in order to activate the Rite of Resurrection. Three other protagonists get woven into Okiie’s story across the events of one day, uncovering the shocking truth about the city’s curses while delving into their unique motivations and plot threads.
There’s the housewife Harue haunted by the kidnapping and murder of her son years ago, a grizzled detective named Tetsuo investigating the odd events in Honjo, and a young schoolgirl named Yakko determined to uncover the truth of her friend’s recent suicide.
If you’ve played any kind of visual novel, Paranormasight will feel familiar, with its emphasis on text and story. But along the way, you can interact and examine environments and objects while choosing a number of dialogue options.
The game plays out through a Story Chart, where you pick different “scenes” for each of the protagonists. The three stories start out distinct but eventually weave together in unpredictable ways. The entire experience is essentially one giant puzzle box, where you need to link together details and choices from the three different story routes in order to keep the narrative moving forward.
Admittedly, Paranormasight is an extremely hard game to talk about outside of these basic details, because so much of the game heavily relies on the player experience. The interactive visual novel requires you to make choices and set up certain events in order to solve its narrative puzzles.
For example, you might get stuck in one plot thread until you uncover a vital character or piece of information in another, which then allows you to share that information with the character in the first route. So you have to rely on a certain degree of synergy.
Typically, you’ll come through the “Files” and “Persons of Interest” entries that you can access at any time; Paranormasight often hides vital clues in both. What’s so fascinating about the whole experience is how well the smallest of details is obscured within the evidence, which makes solving these puzzles feel like real detective work.
A seemingly innocuous piece of dialogue or visual detail is often the clue you need, and finally putting the pieces together is an “Aha!” moment that feels just as satisfying as picking the right piece of evidence in a Phoenix Wright game. I won’t speak too much about how Paranormasight subverts its gameplay, but it will ask you to think so far outside the box that it may hurt your brain a bit.
Tremendous writing helps all these smart gameplay elements stand out. Paranormasight nimbly balances moving the narrative forward and giving characters time to breathe. The characters are well-drawn, complex people thanks to involved backstories and snippets of personal drama. The narrative is packed to the brim with red herrings, misdirects, and weighty narrative themes.
Paranormasight has much to say about grief, depression, and loss. Its unflinching examination of murder and violence somehow manages to strike a hopeful tone. It all winds up feeling more exploratory than exploitative, and that’s a big part of its brilliance.
Paranormasight’s setting and world-building are just as good as its writing. The hand-drawn backgrounds of Honjo make for a gorgeous backdrop. There’s so much real-life history and culture packed into the game, both through the main story and optional Files you can read, that the faintest hint of realism only enhances the dramatic tension.
Paranormasight is further elevated by its striking visual presentation. Character designs by Gen Kobayashi of The World Ends With You gives Paranormasight a bold visual flair. A film-grain reminiscent of early color TVs gives the entire experience an eerie aesthetic. Kobayashi isn’t afraid to make characters appear “ugly” with exaggerated facial expressions and movements, and the choice enhances the chilling atmosphere.
Every element of Paranormasight — even the eclectic retro jazz music — feels tightly tuned to contribute in some meaningful way. I genuinely lost count of the times the game blew me away with some wild twist or smart piece of gameplay design.
I have some minor quibbles with slow pacing in the middle and a couple of obtuse puzzle solutions. Still, Paranormasight is the kind of surprise that only comes around once in a blue moon. If the concept sounds even vaguely interesting, I’d recommend going in completely blind, as the way Paranormasight leverages your expectations as a storytelling and gameplay mechanic needs to be experienced first-hand.
I genuinely hope the game gets the attention it deserves, but it feels like one of those titles perfectly poised to be on cult-classic lists in a few years’ time.
Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo releases on March 9 for Nintendo Switch, PC, iOS, and Android. Inverse reviewed the Nintendo Switch version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.