Everyone’s got a grudge

Not far into Ju-On, your cell phone starts ringing. Without a word, you pull it out, look at the distorted picture on the screen and answer the call.

Not far into Ju-On, your cell phone starts ringing. Without a word, you pull it out, look at the distorted picture on the screen and answer the call.

“Click-click-click-click-click-click-click-click-click,” the voice on the other end says
To anyone mildly familiar with The Grudge series of films, the sound is instantly recognizable—it’s the long-haired dead girl who likes to crawl on the ground or ceiling like a broken-backed insect, terrorizing her next victims with her guttural clicking before they die.

But why is she utilizing a phone instead of just skittering at you from around the next corner? It’s going to happen sooner or later.

A translation of her call might be a colloquial greeting, letting you, the victim, know that she’s lurking nearby. Or it might just be something along the lines of, “I’m going to fucking kill you!”

Either way, the result will be the same: you’re dead. The suspense would be more of a draw if your fate weren’t already a foregone conclusion. Instead, Ju-On makes you survive a particular harrowing series of events, or as is often the case, feint-scare tactics, before meeting your untimely (and inevitable) fate.

If this were a traditional horror game, it might make for an interesting take on the genre, but Ju-On just barely qualifies as a game. In its defense, the words “haunted house simulator” are emblazoned in plain view on the game’s box. This may confuse people.

Don’t be confused, though. Think about the experience of going through a haunted house—add a flashlight and you’re basically there. Which more or less makes Ju-On something of a casual horror title.

And casual means casual with a capital C. The gameplay consists of little more than exploring moody, stereotypical survival-horror environments (abandoned hospitals, derelict apartment buildings and the like) with a flashlight, aimed with the Wiimote, looking for keys to progress or batteries to keep your light functional.

While exploring, items get knocked off shelves, phones and doorbells ring and you see and hear things that aren’t there. The series’ trademark ghosts, dead girl and the boy who makes cat noises also terrorize you throughout the game, leading to a lot of gesture-based evasive maneuvering with the Wiimote.

The point of the title is less about playing a game and more about the experience of frightening you. The game thrives on pop-out scares, augmented by a somewhat foreboding atmosphere.

Given Ju-On‘s reliance on scripted events, any unsettling feelings you may get will probably only be on the first play through, but the game does an adequate job of maintaining a Silent Hill or Fatal Frame aesthetic and feel, and Takashi Shimizu (the director of the original Japanese films) helped oversee the project, which is a nice touch.

But simply escaping the four short scenarios Ju-On throws at you (five, if you count the fifth unlockable level) might not be enough, given its rigid mechanics. Your flashlight is constantly draining power, and if you don’t find replacement batteries, you’re left with an uncomfortable death in the dark, essentially making each level timed.

I understand this is to heighten the tension of getting through each episode, but having the option to inch your way through a creepy level might’ve made things even scarier. The constant drive to find new batteries almost gives Ju-On a predictable feel, so you can expect a progression of scares and ghost encounters at a fairly regular clip.

It wouldn’t have killed the development team to allow you to run, at least for short periods of time. Plodding through large, dark areas usually takes forever. God forbid you run out of batteries, as there are no checkpoints per level.

Finally, given Shimizu’s involvement, couldn’t they have done more with Ju-On than simply create a series of encounters with cat boy, dead girl and dead girl’s inky, symbiotic hair?

Not that Ju-On‘s unorthodox approach is surprising, knowing the kind of weird games that come out of Japan. But honestly, Nintendo approved this for a North American release and passed on Fatal Frame IV? What gives?
It’s not that Ju-On is bad, per se. As a haunted house simulator, it does a decent job of unsettling you, despite its foibles, although with a bit more creative freedom and open-ended design, it could’ve been something really unique.

For fans of the films or survival horror, Ju-On might be a rental at best. But at least it’ll probably make for a good $30 party trick with some 30-something casual Wii owners throwing Halloween bashes.