A well-written story is timeless. In RPGs, we’re typically weighing writing and characters to some degree against presentation and gameplay, but in adventure titles, the story is almost everything. In Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo, we’re essentially playing an occult-themed visual novel set in 1980s Tokyo, Japan. Meandering across different character perspectives, sleuthing a whodunnit, and a bit of time manipulation are integral in the weaving of this tale and its gameplay.
Immediately, we meet The Storyteller standing next to an old-fashioned tube TV. We introduce ourselves to him, and he engages us in a tale of ghosts, murder, and mystery. The actual story begins with Shogo Okiie, a young man beginning a humble career at a local, successful soap factory. He’s standing in a city park at night with a recent friend he’s made, Yoko Fukunaga. The two discuss ghosts, belief in the occult, and trying to spot some specters under the moonlit night. As the conversation drags on, Yoko points at Shogo in horror. Nothing’s behind him, but this is just the start of a long night as Shogo and others begin collecting souls to enact the Rite of Resurrection.
Without going into full detail, the Rite of Resurrection is an old spell that onmyoji—Japanese spellcasting mystics—from centuries ago casted to bring someone back to life. To do so requires a human sacrifice. Perhaps several human sacrifices. During the night, Shogo and others have each been granted a relic representing one of the Seven Mysteries of Honjo, an assortment of urban legends detailing gruesome and tragic deaths that had taken place in Honjo, now Sumida City, within Tokyo. With these relics, the curse bearers can kill someone who meets a condition unique to each relic and steal their souls to begin the Rite of Resurrection.
I could go on and on talking about this because I absolutely love the premise and how the story unfolds. Players eventually gain the ability to retry and move to different time points using a simple chart with thumbnails suggesting what is to take place in each chapter. In addition, players can bounce between different characters, with three others taking center stage eventually: Tsutsumi, a veteran investigator; Harue, a mourning mother who lost her son one year prior; and Yakko, a high school girl who recently lost a dear friend to suicide.
Each character boasts a unique voice, strong convictions, and a complicated past and future. Several other characters of varying importance engage with our core cast and also carry distinct personalities. In fact, I’d say that one of Paranormasight’s strongest features is the dialogue and characters, only potentially second to the premise.
Paranormasight has a lot going on, which isn’t likely to overwhelm the players aside from the wealth of Japanese names thrown around; those unfamiliar with Japanese and people’s names may get a bit lost, but if you’ve played enough Japanese visual novels, it should be fine. In actuality, with as much as the game has going on, that’s exactly why it’s hard to stop playing. Aside from its strong cast, the fact that a handful of people in Sumida City are curse bearers with unique properties makes each character interaction tense as our protagonists try to figure out on the fly who they can trust—or who they can safely kill.
Notice that I’m emphasizing the protagonists are trying to figure this out; players do little in the way of decision-making. The vast majority of the time, players are along for the ride. “Choices” exist, but they never spider out into distinct outcomes, and when they do, it’s usually a small bad ending involving a character’s death. In truth, dialogue options devolve into clicking all the prompts until the checkmarks appear on each choice and the plot moves forward. Some puzzling is required as the player has to figure out where to go next, but that rarely impedes progress and is typically obvious. When one protagonist’s story hits a wall, basically waiting for other protagonists to catch up, the game informs the player in no uncertain terms that maybe it’s time to explore another character for a bit.
Essentially, if you’re looking for player agency, this isn’t the game for you, but I’d suggest that you keep an open mind because Paranormasight’s writing is just that good—until the last 20% or so. I fell in love with this cast of characters, enjoyed witnessing the mystery unraveling, and enthusiastically read every bit of history and flavor text surrounding Sumida City and its past as Honjo. Some folks may be misled into thinking this is straight horror, as much of the advertising material shows creepy ghosts and dark colors, but I want to emphasize that the game is not filled with jump scares and terror-fueled tension. Don’t get me wrong; a few sections are genuinely creepy and offputting, but that isn’t the driving force here. Paranormasight is definitively a mystery title that uses the occult for flavor.
This will eventually become apparent as players run into colorful characters and upbeat music that aren’t typical of a horror video game. The presentation here is well-timed and used appropriately to avoid taking one out of the game. For example, when two vulnerable characters have meandered into a dangerous, dark place, the music—or lack thereof—is incredibly unsettling and sets the atmosphere. No goofy jokes or antics take place. On the other hand, when two detectives are palling around, perhaps trying to breathe some levity into an otherwise tense situation, the writing and expressions on the characters’ faces add depth, avoiding a singularly spooky mood. Players might walk alongside a private investigator whose flamboyant clothing and melancholic acoustic music create a detective noir feel—again, appropriate for what’s going on in the moment and who the characters in that instance are.
I frequently criticize games for the inability to choose and stick with an identity, but that’s usually because it’s rarely executed correctly. Comedy, in my horror game? Please, stick to your lane. The truth here, though, is that Paranormasight seamlessly weaves in and out of lanes with such ease and grace that I can enjoy a lighthearted conversation one second and feel the muscles in my chest tense as I change characters the next moment. This is not just because of skillful writing but how good the game looks and sounds.
Set in the 1980s featuring a tube TV right out of the gate, Paranormasight has that blurry CRT TV effect that so many games try to force into retro-themed titles, but, again, it works here because of how skillfully the writers engage players in the setting. The washed-out colors and blurry quality not only fit the time, but the eerie ghost theme. Why shouldn’t everything look just a little indistinct? Also, that acoustic guitar music I referenced earlier? Some of the best video game music I’ve experienced to date. A simple melody with little instrumentation, but, wow, what a somber mood. I fell in love with a character in part because of the theme music. What a way to convey who they are without a single word written. Other tracks similarly convey mood and personality in a way that suits the era while complementing the atmosphere of the game in that moment, whether it’s two gumshoes chasing a lead or two high school girls exploring a place they shouldn’t.
Not everything’s sunshine and rainbows, though—and that’s not just because the game’s mostly set at night. At times, I found some of the storytelling bordering on shock value with its gruesome details and depictions, but then I remembered that crimes like those described here actually take place in our real world; one only needs to watch a single serial killer documentary to know that. If you’ve a stomach for it, the game doesn’t excessively describe horrific murders, but be prepared.
One grievance I have with the game is the last quarter or so. The game was hitting its climax and some of the worst characters were starting to be revealed and confronted, but the delivery didn’t hit me right. In a word, I felt deflated. A mysterious henchman for a power-hungry executive, a serial killer released back into society, and an abandoned home finally have their literal or figurative doors broken down, but what’s exposed feels more like an “Oh,” rather than a “Whaaaaa–!” This isn’t to say that every mystery game needs a mind-blowing reveal, but the story felt like it just lost steam and was trying to wrap things up.
Paranormasight: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo is that kind of magical realism that makes me feel like something like this could actually happen and maybe ghosts, sorcery, and mediums exist. At its core, it’s a story about urban legends that are not only true, but begin to have a material impact on real people’s lives. While not the most sterling example of a visual novel murder mystery, Paranormasight is well worth anyone’s time, especially those with a fascination for the occult.