Mamono Hunter Yōko: Dai 7 no Keishō
One of the most pleasant surprises one has playing video games is encountering a game that's unaware of its own potential. It’s a rare find, but all the more gratifying for it. The game’s ignorance regarding what makes it so fascinating lends the experience an air of humility that lets its achievements stand on their own. That’s certainly what makes Mamono Hunter Yohko: Dai 7 no Keish? such a compelling game. A Valis-esque action game from obscure developer Klon, it’s clear the developer envisioned this as a tie-in to the 90s anime. Yet neither the source material nor the supposed action explain Mamono Hunter Yohko’s appeal. What makes the game work its capacity for cruelty: the many elegant ways it imparts a foreboding sense of dread through play.
This puts Mamono Hunter Yohko in an ambiguous relationship with the action genre. While it uses the kinds of structures that avid players would be familiar with (reflex-based gameplay and increasingly challenging scenarios), the game abandons the pursuit of power that characterizes similar games. If anything, their only purpose is to undermine it. Yohko’s clumsy swordsmanship, for example, stifles any feeling of accomplishment one might get from fending off the various monsters that populate the levels. And the levels themselves are barely more forgiving. Few of the branches and ledges can support Yohko's frame, and the serpentine paths often force you to retread the same ground to advance through the stage. Even if they don't outright deny any feeling of accomplishment, the levels still expend a lot of energy delaying it.
So all things considered, fear and uncertainty come to dominate the game. Playing Mamono Hunter Yohko feels like navigating an alien world that’s hostile to your every move. Some of its best moments play off this. Watching Yohko sink underwater or take a leap of faith into the unknown feel like a betrayal on the game’s part, like it’s ripped away what little safety you have with no guarantee that it will ever return it to you. However, it’s much better when the game lets that anxiety stew and fester, since it shows just how little the game cares about you. In showing just how little it cares about you, the game makes your vulnerability all that more painful to bear.
You've fought tooth and nail to survive every challenge the game has thrown at you. You’re beaten and battered. By the time you reach the end of the level, both your dwindling health bar and the clock above it signal just how little time you have left in this world. After all this, how does the game conclude your arduous journey? With the kind of clock tower bells one would hear at a funeral. Mamono Hunter Yohko’s message is clear: failure is inevitable and you are completely on your own. Not even the game’s ending (or rather, its lack of one) provides the sort of clean resolution that would make the game a little bit more bearable.
In fact, judging by the lack of ways to make Yohko more powerful (or even to effectively exercise what little power she has), it’s clear how interested the game is in vulnerability as an aesthetic. The shield demonstrates this well enough. While its defensive capabilities shouldn’t be neglected (its ability to protect Yohko from projectiles makes her hell that much more bearable), it’s the shield’s offensive qualities that make it so compelling. For one thing, it encourages indirect methods of attack where contemporary games encourage something more immediate and satisfying.
But looking at it a little more closely, we see the shield carrying the same betrayal that defines the levels. By presenting it as a ranged attack, the game effectively forces you into an ambivalent relationship with it. Your most effective form of offense only works by making you completely vulnerable to enemy attack, thus defeating its entire purpose. And because it’s your primary way of interacting with the world, playing Mamono Hunter Yohko becomes that much more unsettling. True, the shield returns to her a second or two later, and skilled players could theoretically use it to navigate this world with ease. But everyone else must make due with this imperfect reality. Their experiences will still be marked with a sinister dread.
Of course, none of this means the game is absolutely flawless. It takes a little bit to find its footing, with the first boss amounting to a flat, uninteresting climax. And the occasional guide arrow undercuts the designers’ intentions. Still, Mamono Hunter Yohko accomplishes something that few other games do. It explores a less straightforward horror; the pervasive kind that isn’t immediately apparent, but settles into every one of the game’s orifices. While it’s still possible to look at the game as a more straightforward action experience (and it would still hold up when examined like that), neglecting the eerie dimension would leave it an incomplete experience. Accidental that dimension may be, it's the most prominent feature in the game.