SENSEs Midnight is a PS2 horror homage that’s authentic to a fault

Indie Horror banner

It brings me no sense of pleasure to do this, but I’m going to have to lay in to SENSEs Midnight quite a bit, because it comes so frustratingly close to achieving what it sets out to do and then falls repeatedly flat on its face. It’s so close to being a fantastic modernisation of the PS2’s distinct style of survival horror game — but its obsessive focus on the “PS2” bit and not the “modernisation” angle is ultimately to its detriment.

To understand what the problems are with this game, let’s take each element in turn, because there are good things and bad things to say about most aspects of it.

SENSEs Midnight

Let’s begin with the story. There’s a strong opening, with protagonist Kaho entering an abandoned park in search of a ghostly legend about the “Midnight Door”. This is, as the name suggests, a door that, if you open it at midnight, bad things happen. In the opening moments of the game, you stumble across lots of bits of lore that provide a bit of background on the Midnight Door, the legend behind it and why — spoilers, I guess — bad things do indeed happen when you open it at midnight.

SENSEs Midnight’s plot is primarily delivered through a virtual LINE-style chat between Kaho and her friends, who are elsewhere. This is a pleasingly modern means of handling dialogue between people who are distant from one another — and moreover, the way that the game uses the chat to deliver the interface dialogue when interacting with objects is an elegant means of sidestepping the usual “characters talking to themselves” trope found in many adventure games.

Trouble is, all of SENSEs Midnight’s plot happens in about the first five minutes, then the remainder of the game is spent solving its core puzzles, without any real sense of resolution to the things that you discover.

SENSEs Midnight

There’s no attempt to put restless spirits at ease, there’s no further exploration of the antagonist — and if you were expecting some cyberpunk elements in here you’re going to be sadly disappointed; they’re limited to Kaho having some glowy bits on her outfit, holding a supposed cellphone that looks more like the motion tracker from Alien than the boring black slabs we’ll inevitably still be wielding by 2085, and a neon cityscape beyond the walls of the park in which the entire game takes place.

The ending is rubbish, too, being not only atrociously animated, but fundamentally unsatisfying — the game then has the gall to demand that you play it through again in its New Game+ mode in order to supposedly uncover the rest of the plot, though given that so much of the game is pretty much identical in New Game+ mode, there’s little incentive to do so.

This is a real shame, because the fundamental concept — bunch of kids investigate supposedly hokey old legend, discover it’s real — is sound. SENSEs Midnight’s lore initially appears to make excellent use of Japanese mythology about youkai and various types of restless spirit — but it just doesn’t go far enough with any of it. It sets things up beautifully, and then does nothing with any of it. Extremely frustrating.

SENSEs Midnight

Equally frustrating is the gameplay. What we have here in 2022 is a survival horror game that resolutely refuses to implement “3D” analogue controls in favour of forcing tank controls on the player. While there’s an argument to be made that this adds to the sense of “retro authenticity”, it is a bad argument; the first Project Zero/Fatal Frame, which came out on PS2 in 2001 — and which this game is obviously trying to pay homage to — featured analogue controls as well as tank controls, so there’s really no excuse for them not being present here.

Probably the most annoying part of SENSEs Midnight is its “combat”, or lack thereof. There are four types of enemy in the game, one of which can be completely eliminated as a concern if you pay attention to the dialogue and make sure you put an item back where you found it when you’re done with it. This is, admittedly, a nice touch, but it doesn’t make up for the atrocious other enemies.

The main ghost in the game is this scraggly looking thing that is obviously supposed to be terrifying, but which just sort of pathetically floats along behind you, swiping ineffectually at you. Unfortunately, it’s a one-hit kill situation, where every time it swipes close enough to Kaho you get an unskippable cutscene of her being murdered by it. Thankfully, you can at least pop open the menu and reload a save while this is happening.

SENSEs Midnight

Oh yeah, on that note, the original intention for the game was clearly to have a single save point in the middle of the park — and indeed that save point is still there — but you can actually save anywhere, so long as you’re not being actively pursued by an enemy. The game doesn’t tell you this, mind, so until you discover this for yourself (or knew it beforehand) you can easily lose a significant amount of progress by accidentally stumbling into a one-hit death. All I can say is thank God they didn’t stick with the single save point approach.

Elsewhere, there are transparent green zombie ghost things and glowing hitodama that deal damage to Kaho if they hit her; she can take three hits before expiring, and her health gradually regenerates if she doesn’t get hit for a little while. Trouble is, the very first hit from one of these enemies causes her to start limping along at a glacially slow speed, making it extremely difficult to put distance between you and the enemies, often putting you into an endless cycle of getting nearly far enough ahead to regenerate your health and start running, then immediately getting hit again.

All of the enemies can be temporarily dealt with by hiding in spots around the map designated by glowing butterflies; here, you have to play a silly minigame that supposedly represents Kaho holding her breath, but it’s so easy that there’s absolutely no tension in the situation whatsoever.

SENSEs Midnight

This is a core problem with SENSEs Midnight as a horror game: it’s not scary. The enemies are annoying, not terrifying. While playing the game, I was more likely to frustratedly yell “fuck off” at an enemy than feel any sense of fear at their presence. There’s a sequence where you run down a corridor with ghostly grabby hands reaching out of the walls — but as soon as you realise that none of them actually do anything to you, it becomes irrelevant as a “scary scene”. And once you figure out the game’s primary antagonist can be avoided simply by running in zig-zags, she loses what little of her threatening nature she had.

The game could really do with some means of fighting back against the ghosts. It looks like it might be going that way with the introduction of Kaho’s camera right at the beginning, but it turns out this is used for nothing more than taking in-game photos of things that you think might be clues, and for locating 22 hidden ghosts around the park if you feel like it. Yes, that’s right; despite SENSEs Midnight looking very much like a Project Zero homage, the camera plays next to no role in actually solving the game as a whole, and most certainly can’t be used to defeat ghosts, temporarily or otherwise.

Combine this with the fact that the game unfolds on quite a small, open map and that Kaho has an inventory that holds just four items, you can see how things might get frustratingly dull after a while. There’s a lot of running back and forth across the map, and only one easily missed shortcut from one side to the other. Kaho runs incredibly slowly, too — even when being threatened — so after a while just getting around in order to achieve your next goal becomes a chore, particularly if you realise you’ve left one important item right at the other end of the map.

SENSEs Midnight

The fact the game unfolds in a seamless open environment would, in theory, be worthy of praise — but it also fundamentally misunderstands one of the reasons that classic survival horror was split into discrete rooms. Sure, there was an element of it being for technical reasons — unfolding a room at a time means less stuff loaded into memory at once — but from a structural perspective, these games being split into separate rooms made it much more straightforward for different puzzles to feel self-contained, and for the player to always have a decent idea where they should be going.

In SENSEs Midnight, there are at least two sequences where you may well find yourself stumbling around with no idea what to do, because the solution is to run off the paths you’ve been following for the rest of the game or run out of shot of the fixed camera angle. In the latter case, at least, you can discern where you need to go from the two printed maps on signs in the park — did I mention there’s no interactive map? — but in the former case, you’ll likely discover it by chance.

To the game’s credit, there are a few good puzzles. Two, to be exact; one which involves water pressure valves and the legend of Aka Manto, and another which involves rewiring a security device. The way these are implemented is solid and works well; elsewhere, though, the puzzles are primarily of the “find a number written down somewhere and put it in a combination lock” nature.

SENSEs Midnight

Ooh, the more I think about SENSEs Midnight, the more it frustrates me. Why did they clearly put so much time and effort into Kaho’s character model (including some of the best, most subtle boob jiggle you’ll ever see) and then completely fail to give her any sort of facial expression other than “bored stoicism”, even when caught in a terrifying situation? Why doesn’t the plot go anywhere? Why is the ending so rubbish? Why on Earth would I play this through a second time when the first time was filled with so many frustrating aspects?

SENSEs Midnight annoys me because it’s so frustratingly close to successfully giving PS2-era horror games the “modern retro” treatment. It looks good, it sounds good, it has a solid narrative setup — but the combination of its steadfast refusal to modernise aspects such as its control and inventory systems just leaves it feeling like a clunky mess. The disappointingly unthreatening enemies, almost complete lack of genuinely scary tension and the way the plot fizzles out after such a strong opening leaves it feeling like a real missed opportunity to do something great — but it does make me feel like developer Suzaku could achieve something wonderful if they tried again.

So perhaps skip this one if you’re looking for a satisfying survival horror experience — but keep an eye on Suzaku, because there’s definite potential here. It’s just not realised in SENSEs Midnight.

SENSEs Midnight is available now for PC via Steam. Thanks to eastasiasoft for the review code.

Join The Discussion

Rice Digital Discord
Rice Digital Twitter
Rice Digital Facebook

Or write us a letter for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page by clicking here!

Disclosure: Some links in this article may be affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on them. This is at no additional cost to you and helps support Rice Digital!

Pete Davison
Spread the love!

Related post

This will close in 0 seconds