The concept behind Ju-On: The Grudge is quite innovative. It’s something of a survival-horror game, but it takes place from the first-person perspective and there are no weapons; it bills itself as a “haunted house simulator.” Armed with only a flashlight, you explore various spooky locales loosely based on settings from the hit Japanese movie Ju-On: The Grudge (remade as simply The Grudge in English). It’s a brilliant idea that, so far as we know, hasn’t been tried before, and in many ways it works well. Unfortunately, the game has more fundamental flaws than it should, and thus is works better as an inspiration to other developers than a worthwhile endeavor in its own right.
On the bright side, this game does create a genuinely spooky vibe, at least when it’s played in the dark. While the graphics are only about average for the Wii, and the game steals a lot of the Resident Evil aesthetic (dark, dank indoor settings, items that sparkle so you notice them), a lot of attention was paid to what really counts: the timing, sound, and lighting. The noises and music make you tense at just the right moments. As you poke around in the dark, swinging your Wii-mote like a flashlight, you have no idea when you’ll catch a glimpse of a wandering ghost, nearly be hit with a falling piece of ceiling, or even be accosted by the cursed woman herself, Kayako Saeki. Saeki’s trademark long, gross hair also pops up from time to time.
This really should get old quickly, and the sight of Saeki moving her head in awkward ways is probably overused, but each scene is so well crafted that it doesn’t. The imagery is haunting and disturbing without being overly gory; the game earns its M rating, but not by a large margin. Given the huge risks the developers took (after all, this is some combination of survival horror, first-person action, and rail shooter, minus the weapons), it’s amazing it works so well.
Don’t shut off your computer and run to the nearest game retailer, however. Most of this game’s flaws are apparent in the first few minutes of play, and they never stop dragging the experience down. One is that, like the old Resident Evil games with their “tank controls,” this game pulls off many of its scares by making it difficult for you to handle your character. For example, you walk very, very slowly. This is frustrating when you’re racing the clock (when your flashlight’s battery runs out, you’re dead), and it would feel less fake if it were connected to some sort of “fear” gauge that increased as you battled demons (think the sanity meter in Eternal Darkness).
The control woes don’t end there. Perhaps to make the game playable without a Nunchuk, walking was mapped to the B button, which feels very awkward. Turning is a chore as well; it happens the same way it does in Metroid Prime 3 or The Conduit (by moving your pointer toward the side of the screen), but it hasn’t been calibrated as carefully here. Also, because there’s no Nunchuk support, there’s no strafing, making corners far more awkward than they need to be. Backward walking is mapped to down on the D-pad, and you can do a Resident Evil style 180-degree turn by flicking the Wii-mote quickly.
When scary things happen, the game takes control of your character, essentially putting you on rails for brief periods. This is handled well enough that it never feels cheap or frustrating, but regardless, the overall trend in horror games has been to afford the player greater control. Also, since you have no weapons, the only way you can escape ghosts who grab hold of you is to complete quick-time events. This usually involves waggling your Wii-mote in various directions, but can also entail keeping your pointer aimed at a circle on the screen that moves and gets progressively smaller.
This brings us to another problem, The Grudge’s one-hit-kill formula. The quick-time events are not particularly hard, save for a few cheap ones that appear later in the game, and there’s little else that will challenge you too much, but there’s nothing more irritating than being caught off-guard by a quick-time event (or having the controller not respond to your inputs) and then having to start a whole episode all over again. Also, while the game gives you plenty of extra batteries for your flashlight along the way, it’s occasionally hard to tell what to do next, and wasting time can result in a do-over. The scares are never as good the second time, so this is a bit of a drag.
We have a few smaller complaints as well. There’s “multiplayer,” but all the second player can do is press buttons, which causes scary things to happen onscreen. Lame. Replaying the game isn’t very enjoyable, given the pointlessness of re-living scares, but you have to go back through the four episodes to find the items that unlock the game’s final portion. In one of the more obnoxious video game moves in recent memory, there’s nothing in the game itself that tells you this final portion even exists, and we could find no indication of which episodes we needed to re-explore. At the end of each level, the game grades your willingness to confront its various scares, but it’s not clear what good a high score does for you.
It’s not hard to imagine how another developer could steal what worked from this game and create something truly worth playing. Faster walking would help quite a bit, as would a Metroid Prime style movement scheme. The puzzles could stand to be a bit more stimulating (they’re usually in the Resident Evil tradition of “find item, place item in slot of some type, watch as something changes that allows you to progress”). Most important, the quick-time events could be replaced with a greater emphasis on outsmarting the ghosts in various ways.
In short, Ju-On: The Grudge is a great idea marred by middling execution. Purchasers can expect some great scares, but the actual gameplay feels clunky and unnatural, and there isn’t much play time to be had here. At $30, this is not a worthy buy.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.9 Graphics
They’re about average for the Wii, with some good shadow work. 1.9 Control
Turning is a chore, walking forward happens too slowly, and there’s no Nunchuk support. 4.8 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The noises make you tense at all the right moments. 2.1
This game is short (it takes just a few hours) and has very little replay value.
2.7 Overall Rating – Average
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.