I liked SAW: The Video Game. I’m sure there are some quotes floating around the internet where I made fun of the developers when it was first announced, but it wasn’t bad, and I happily accepted that I was wrong. The developers managed to pull in the aspects that made the films frightening, all while being surprisingly unique. Because of that, I kept myself ready to, again, be wrong with Ju-on: The Grudge, a game created by a company that cursed the world with Vampire Rain. If a game based on people being tortured managed to be entertaining, surely a survival horror title set in a series of creepy locations could, too, manage to be engaging, right?
No, not engaging, that’s not what I would call this. After turning down the lights, locking the doors, and blaring the sound, I can honestly say that engaging isn’t a word I would use in the same breath as Ju-On. In fact, I’m feeling uncomfortable about using them in the same sentence.
Before we go too far into it, let’s go through what Ju-On: The Grudge was trying to be. Marketed as a "haunted house simulator," it isn't a traditional game by any means. It isn’t trying to be, and that’s not a knock on the quality. Trying to break from the mold is fine, and, if nothing else, admirable. The story follows the Yamada family after Erika Yamada is exposed to a curse, showing how each member deals with his own little slice of horror. Each has his own section modeled after a different stereotypical location from horror films. The curse in Ju-On can’t be punched in the face or shot with a gun, there’s only temporary escape, and that’s what the video game tries to recreate.
Japanese developer feelplus isn’t aiming Ju-On at the average gamer looking for the average game; it’s supposed to, more than anything else, be a horror story. Its goal is to scare people, to have them jump in their seat and drop their controller. To attain this goal, they’ve done everything possible to create a moody atmosphere, easily relatable to a haunted house. It controls almost like an interactive on-rails shooter with occasional quick-time events. To move, you need to point the controller at the screen and hold down the B button. It’s as clumsy as any game’s controls ever have been, and completely unintuitive. Beyond this, it’s possible to spin 180° by shaking the remote, and holding down on the D-pad will move backwards. There’s no support for the nunchuck, so it’s the only control style available for some reason. It’s a perplexingly poor control map, with some of the most awkward design choices I’ve seen in any game since Escape From Bus Island mapped “jump forward and to the right” to shaking the remote.
This wouldn't be as much of a problem if not for the excruciatingly slow pace of the “simulation.” Actually, the word "slow" doesn't do the speed in The Grudge justice. It's like trudging through waist-deep sludge (which, coincidentally, is a good way to describe the experience of playing the game). The controls have obviously been done in an attempt to raise tension, some that, if done right, would have more than justified the pace.
Let's be fair, it says “haunted house simulator” right on the box. It's not trying to be BioShock, and there are no attempts at innovating in terms of gameplay. That’s not what it’s advertised as, and it would be unfair to expect it. It's much more realistic to judge the game on those merits. I'm not going to lie - I'm scared by games easily. I jumped every few feet in Dead Space, was constantly scared in Doom 3, and watched half of Resident Evil through cowering fingers. I enjoyed them nonetheless, and respect a game that manages to have me feeling an emotion, even if that emotion is fear.
Despite doing its best to be scary, The Grudge might be one of the least frightening games ever made. The gameplay focuses on trying to escape the different situations, which involves finding objects hidden in dark rooms. The reason that games like Dead Space managed to be frightening was because the developer understood timing. It’s not scary to have every door burst open, or every hallway end with a scream.
In Ju-On: The Grudge, they completely miss that point, and take every chance they have to make the gamer scream. This means nearly every doorway has a creepy, shirtless boy standing behind it, waiting to meow before running away. In trying as hard as it does, it fails completely, and is as embarrassingly bad of a horror experience as it is a video game. In the case that the player is actually attacked, the way to ward off the attacker is to shake the remote in the direction shown on screen. That’s it. If it isn’t done in time, the entire level starts over. This single fact represents the scariest thing in The Grudge.
It has literally nothing going for it. A second player can grab another controller and press a button to attempt to help the game by timing his own frights, but the lack of atmosphere makes sure that even a human watching for the perfect moment cannot be successful. Even if the two-player options were more interesting than a quick flash of an enemy or bugs crawling on the screen, these moments feel incredibly forced.
Ju-On: The Grudge is the kind of game that should only be purchased as punishment – a modern day equivalent of putting coal in a child's stocking for Christmas. It makes the SAW game look like Grand Theft Auto IV. Hell, it makes Vampire Rain look like Grand Theft Auto IV. Every attempted scare is cheap, every gameplay element is broken, and there’s not a single redeeming moment in all of Ju-On: The Grudge. I can’t say it enough times: don’t buy the game, don’t rent the game, and don’t say the game’s name in the mirror three times, because it might jump out and force you to play it.