It’s been a whole year since I recommended a handful of creepy horror visual novels to celebrate Halloween with, and with the 31st fast approaching, I’m back again to recommend a few delightful hidden gems worth playing this Sunday as we say goodbye to October.
It’s easy to sum up Cooking Companions as Doki Doki Literature Club meets the Evil Dead, but that would be doing the game a disservice in truly highlighting what makes this new release such a great title to play for Halloween. The DDLC connection will quickly become apparent: the game initially appears to be a cute and harmless experience with talking vegetables and a fun group dynamic. There are debates over who has the worst puns, and jokes that relate to the group’s situation enduring a food shortage.
And that’s the main push for its narrative – Cooking Companions asks the player character to prepare each daily meal as the group of five find themselves stuck in a cabin. Their food supply is worsening and there is no possibility of foraging for more whilst the area is pretty much flooded by out of control, torrential weather.
And it will take more than one playthrough to fully grasp the gravity of the situation despite how bad it already sounds, with further exploration providing hints to your own past, suggestions as to the intentions of those around you, and the truth behind those sometimes helpful, mostly troublesome talking Chompettes.
Nothing quite like cooking, murder and ghosts all being mixed together, right? While its humour does well to ease up the ongoing tension as paranoia sets in the group, the situation ultimately disturbs the player character’s psyche after a certain amount of time. Its themes, characters, sprite work, sound design and atmospheric music make Cooking Companions a delightfully disturbing visual novel, aided by a few gameplay mechanics of exploration, point-and-click and some good old jumpscares to truly deliver plenty of spine-chilling moments.
Truly the best thing about this is its psychological horror aspect, delivered through a story that somehow manages to become darker with each playthrough. So get your knives at the ready (it’s for your own protection) and cook up a storm in Cooking Companions, available now on Steam ready for your Halloween reading time.
Who is Mike
Who is Mike is a free-to-play title delivered to us by FERVENT (who we will see again on this list!). We find ourselves as the titular Mike, or at least we think so. Having just picked himself up from the floor, he is faced with a man who is the mirror image of himself, with the exact same voice, memories and personality. To make matters worse, your girlfriend is about to set foot into your (or his) house. With too many questions and too little time to sort through your thoughts, what could possibly be the best outcome of this unnatural situation?
As a mystery/thriller, the game is extremely suspenseful, requiring careful thinking of what decisions will most likely lead to the truth – but even then, the twists in each ‘what if?’ ending make them all worth exploring.
These disturbing moments are made further dramatic thanks to its highly effective and atmospheric music, with the game never faltering in its lingering sense of dread and foreboding between each line and scene. Alongside this is a very small cast of realistic characters, equipped with solid dialogue that jumps from sympathetic and comedic to bittersweet and haunting as the three characters attempt to weed out the imposter.
It can be challenging to figure out the correct choices to obtain all nine available endings, but exploring the game fully is well worth your time — if only to see how dark and twisted the basic premise can become in all the possible conclusions. As another impressive work of psychological horror, the player is never sure of who is to be trusted, and it can very well make them question their own reality and sense of self upon reflection.
Asobi is the shortest game recommended here, clocking in at barely half an hour of playtime to experience the few options it contains. But for what it offers, and as a free game, Asobi’s polished production, realistic dialogue and emotional themes make the title a must-play for any horror fan. Brought to us by the very talented studio of Team SolEtude, they mostly focus on creating games centred around the theme of isolation, and nowhere is this more hauntingly depicted than in Asobi.
Its clever sound design, Satoshi Kon inspiration, and overwhelmingly blue aesthetic — one which appears both melancholic yet soothing to the player — are just a few reasons to give the game a shot. But if you like to read things in more detail, Asobi manages to get much deeper than one would expect.
The set-up couldn’t be any more basic, with players taking the role of a taxi driver just picking up their latest customer. Within the space of only twenty or so minutes, our assumptions of what the game is trying to tell us and how we judge the young woman could not be any less accurate.
Asobi initially starts out as creepy and unsettling, causing us to question who we really are as the driver — but the dialogue and viewpoint switches, allowing us to see glimpses of the girl’s backstory and come to an unreal level of understanding her. The game goes deep into the psychology of the young woman, how she grew up, what successes and failures she has experienced in her life to shape her into what we see her as today, and what her hopes and dreams were — and how or why they have changed as she looks on to the future.
It becomes a hauntingly accurate depiction of what life and humanity really is, with ugly truths laid bare with no sugarcoating on any of it. It’s not pretty, but at the same time, its presentation and delicate handling of the subject matter is strangely beautiful. It is no surprise, then, that the level of personal depth the title manages to explore in such a short amount of time makes for one of the most poignant and reflective experiences within the indie visual novel sphere.
You can experience it first hand for yourself on itch.io for free, and enjoy this uncompromising story this Halloween.
The theme of underwater terrors is one that feels relatively underexplored within the medium — and it’s one of my greatest fears. The mere acknowledgement of just how little we currently understand about what lurks beneath our sea level is creepy enough, but making it into a psychological, body horror experience on top of all that? Choosing to explore this one may have been my biggest mistake yet. But we have to face our fears sooner than later, right?
fishy manages to explore relatable themes and particular horror subgenres while presenting a coming of age story. Our cast of characters are all children attending an aquarium to celebrate a friend’s birthday, but our main character could not be any less thrilled in the chosen location. After all, she is not a fan of anything to do with sea life. The ultimate result of her experience here is a positive outcome compared to the majority of the other games we’ve explored today, but the journey to it could not be any more relatable.
Other than briefly presenting body horror and exploring aspects of psychological horror, the game’s biggest strength is its portrayal of anxiety. It features a story that captures our childhood fears of not fitting in and being unable to find our place within the world; our main character worries about being alone in a setting she is scared of while contemplating how her friends feel about her. And on top of all that, her unwillingness to accept herself further plays on her psyche. It adds as another punch to the gut in making the player distressed and connected to its themes and messages.
It is quite simply brilliantly written, with a well thought out concept and satisfying character-driven progression — I only wish it was much longer. But with an inclusive and diverse cast of characters, a positive ending that reaffirms our own concerns, and the fact it is both touching and heartfelt in its messages, fishy proves to be a whale of a time. (See me in my office later – Ed.)
FERVENT returns, with an oldie, but a goldie. For anyone unfamiliar with Cupid, it is considered something of a juggernaut within the indie visual novel sphere. The title released in 2015 and found acclaim upon release as one of the very best indie visual novels ever made. Cupid is a poetic and dramatic depiction of 18th century France, with players taking the role of Mother to Rosa, a young girl who is guided by her through every choice and action of her life.
The first piece of evidence of why Cupid stands out from within the medium is how the player is brought into the story – by a third party. We watch the tragic and dramatic events play out in the game as a result of the words we choose towards the real main character, Rosa — and she can be negatively impacted by the more deeply upsetting and emotional choices. And then we have the narrative, which delves into the very lowest crevices of how dark and twisted a romance story can get. For anyone sensitive to violent and disturbing material, familiarising yourself with exactly what goes on in this one is a must.
However, the sheer depth of what Cupid manages to explore when it comes to matters of love and its many forms — and how it can affect individuals both positively and negatively — is haunting to say the least. The complexity and maturity of its themes are especially powerful and highly emotional, particularly when combined with characters who are anything but one-note. And the main characters’ development encapsulates just how fleshed-out and “humanly” flawed they are.
For what it’s worth, it is tricky to enunciate just how perfect Cupid is without analysing it with spoilers, so just take my word for it. Cupid is a timeless classic as one of the greatest indie visual novels ever, even in 2021 — and is one to recognise and celebrate not just in October as a splendid game to play for Halloween, but all year round. It is simply an unforgettable experience, and if there was just one game I had to push on you the most here, it is, without a doubt, Cupid.
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