"This videogame includes shocking contents. This game is not recommended for audiences with claustrophobia, fear of the dark or heart problems. Please call out to one of our staff should you feel sick at any point" This was the dire warning given to attendees queuing up to catch a glimpse of Sega's latest PS3-exclusive Asian "sound novel" horror title. Colour us worryingly interested.
But what's it called? Imabikisou? What does that mean? No-one could tell us with any certainty. To a certain extent, part of the fun of the Tokyo Games Show is the voyage of discovery that comes from not knowing what the hell some of these games actually are. Bereft of English titles, and with no-one on hand to offer anything but the most broken of explanations, you're left to make literal notes to try and put the pieces back together. Such is the case for this dark and utterly sinister looking horror title that's occupying one quarter of Sega's stand, and due for release on the PS3 on October 25th by Chunsoft. That soon? That's what it says. Is is coming to Europe? "Unlikely". Oh well. That won't stop us starting the campaign right here.
Establishing its exact English title for Imabikisou certainly provided a challenge all of its own. A friendly Sega rep provided us a literal translation of the four Kanji symbols from top to bottom as "Hate, Fire, Happened, In The Plant".Whether he's correct or not, we've only got his word on it so far, while a Google translation of its official page on Sega's Japanese website refers to it as "Firedrafting". Whatever. Fire's the common link, so we'll go with the latter version until someone can come up with something better.
Whatever Imabikisou will end up being called (if it ever comes out overseas), Sega Japan obviously thinks it's big news, and rightly so, being one of only four games given its own portion on the mammoth TGS stand. From what we've seen of it, what initially comes across as some sort of survival horror game is evidently something else completely. A 'sounds novel', as we said, which is a-popular sub-genre pre-dating survival horror. First seen on the SNES back in 1992 as 'Otogirisou', and then followed by the Kamaitachi no Yoru trilogy and Machi, Imakibisou is billed by Sega as "the most terrifying horror ever in the history of videogames." Some claim, but one that might actually hold some water.
Sat down inside a mini auditorium in the pitch darkness, the disturbing Imabikisou trailer kicks off with a series of thoroughly unnerving sights and sounds: the panicked, desperate sobbing of a woman, with a bloody tear streaming out of her left eye, her lips daubed with black lipstick. A second later, the room is alive with red flashing lights and the sound of an insistent fire alarm. Stranger still, the screen flashes up a still photograph of three giggling black children in yellow baseball caps, holding up their hands to the cameraman to show off their black painted fingernails. Accompanied by the sound of their mirth, it's enough to make you shift uneasily in your seat.
With a monumental surround sound system providing a chillingly immersive audio backdrop, the next thing we hear is the rumble of thunder, a knock on the door, the rattle of a door handle being tried repeatedly. The flash of lightning, the smash of glass, accompanied by manic, terrified screams...of who? We couldn't tell. The audio was beyond madness, like the sound of your worst nightmares made real. Someone creeping in the dark on creaking floorboards. A phone ringing...maniacal cackling laughter. Buzzing, knackered fluorescent strip lighting viewed from below, a desperate hand reaching out of the inky gloom. A man, lying in bed (being watched?) tormented by bad dreams. A close-up of a bloodshot eye...closer still, the skin as black as coal, but damp with the sweat of fear. What the hell is this? Chunsoft presents... the first (and only) piece of English text. Charcoal sketches of a....woman? A car in flames drives off the side of a road through a crash barrier down the side of a hill, a sinister village in view.
Is she weird, is she white?
And then it all ends rather abruptly. We're herded off into little darkened booths off the side of the auditorium, and afforded the chance to 'play' this game for a few minutes. What transpires is we're given the choice to play what appears to be mini scenarios in the game - either A, B or C. What then follows is a series of text descriptions, all in Kanji, of what we can only speculate. Some of the same images we've just seen appear, along with the same type of rather manic sounds to accompany them. More text. More multiple choice options. Is this just an introduction to a more mainstream game or is this an interactive novel, like an advanced version of 'choose your own adventure' with real-life photo-realism layered on top, and heart-stopping audio. Whatever it is, it's nothing like anything you've ever seen.
The official press release (mercifully in Engrish) sheds a bit more light on Imabiksou, detailing that the game goes "back to the original concept of Otogirisou" and has "elements of Japanese horror like The Ring and Grudge". Apparently we can expect a "voice effect system" which synchronises live voices with the "realistic and vivid texts, stimulating the player from both senses of vision and sound" . The press release adds: "This innovative effect [is] brought to life by the refined skills of Chunsoft [and] will allow players to taste fear like he's never experienced before. The player will feel the character breathing as if he's actually right there with you, and sense that chill of the scene with the greatest terror ever." OoooOOOooh.
Further investigation on Chunsoft's own website reveals that each line of text are "converted to voices" hence the 'sound novel' nature of the game. The translation says "you call the background", whatever that means, "It is new, it acquires!" says the jolly Japlish translation. Elsewhere we managed to glean that the 'Imabikisou' of the game's title actually refers to a flower, which, we reckon, has become the ingredient for the drug of choice among local students.
The official website lists these (bloody) students here. All aged about 20, we've established that the main protagonist is a man called Maki trying to prevent the (drug related) death of his girfriend Rapid Manami. The game also features Masato Watanabe, while we should also watch out for "occult maniac" Nakamori Ken, the "leader of everyone" Izumi Asuka, and his "sweetheart" Kazuko Matsushita. We can expect multiple scenarios and multiple endings, as was the case with previous sound novels. You choose your path through the storyline to figure out all possible endings and permutations along the way, with hidden scenarios also featured.
Ok, so this feature doesn't actually offer much in the way of concrete answers as to the gameplay, or even what a 'sound novel' actually is, but maybe one of our learned Japanese readers can fill us in on that. In some small sense, we're just sharing the bewildered - but excited - sense of confusion of coming across something so utterly at odds with all the dayglo pink neon and happy animé on show elsewhere. Whether Sega has any plans to translate Chunsoft's Imabikisou for the West remains to be seen, but it's certainly a world away from what Sega's normally associated with, and for that reason alone it's something worth paying attention to. More news on Imabikisou when we get it, as they say. Who's 'they'? Me.
For the time being, check out the official video and screenshots and see if you can watch it without being just a little bit scared.