Originally released in 2011 as a freeware title, Misao was considered a cult classic, whose popularity rose over the years once popular Youtube let’s-players began to use it as a topic. While constantly updated, it’s most “complete” form was unveiled in the middle of 2013. That is until October of 2017, when Misao: Definitive Edition became available to purchase on Steam. I have no prior experience to the Misao franchise, so this is my first look into the grave tale of Misao and her otherworldly shenanigans. While I went in blind, I probably should have expected the amount of gruesome bloodshed that awaited me.
Misao: Definitive Edition is available for purchase via Steam for your regional pricing.
It’s somewhat difficult to generalize the story of Misao without giving away the more intriguing details that would inevitably spoil the game. Its premise is one that is fairly typical of the horror genre: a high school girl named Misao is bullied consistently by her peers, and no one seems courageous enough to stand up for her. She goes missing for three months before the main character—canonically referred to as Aki, but the player has a choice of naming them—suddenly hears her voice calling to them. Disturbed, but not horrified, the lead carries on with their day. It isn’t until the middle of the school day, when all those connected to Misao in some way are gathered in one room, that the skies outside turn pitch black, and tremors erupt and destroy the infrastructure of the school building. When all of them come to, they’ve arrived in an uncanny representation of their normal life—only with evil spirits hiding behind every corner.
Seeing as the structure of Misao: Definitive Edition is narrative-based, a lot of the focus accounts for the story of the game and how efficiently it wraps the player within its universe. Very dialogue-heavy and atmospherically aware, what the game sets out to do is yank the player’s expectations with nearly every room unexplored. Little details here and there, though not entirely fresh in its originality, make its exposition feel easy to follow and digest, even if the player is a little on-edge. Core criticisms of its story fall in line with the quantity of the game’s content, as characters don’t really have much to say outside of the main directive. Misao is a pleasant, one-time experience, only repeated when the memory of the progression begins to falter. A straightforward progression, with every scene encased in its strict code, feels a tad too one-note to be enjoyed to an extent outside of fabulous niche.
On further note, the characters of Misao and their dialogue throughout only serve as minimally immersive throughout the experience. Intrigued as I was throughout the game, I couldn’t find myself particularly liking any character, though I couldn’t find myself hating anyone, either. They serve their point, lamenting the horrors they committed (or didn’t) to a poor girl who couldn’t do anything to fight back. Their importance to the plot manifests with the cruel capacity of their undoing. As a small aside, one lovely detail to this game is how much it doesn’t show, leaving the gory details to the mind of the observer. A plentiful collection of death traps (more on those later) give a chilly reception to every corner of a room, putting the player in an uncomfortable state of hesitation. Of the characters present, my personal favorite comes in the form of an odd girl canonically referred to as “Library.” Not in the sense that she’s really important to anything, but that her cheery pessimism is a bright spot in a darkly dull palette of characters.
Part puzzle, part exploration, part visual novel; Misao’s surface gameplay is very reminiscent of Pokémon or Final Fantasy games of the past. Important button inputs are limited to movement, interacting with the environment, or sifting through one’s inventory. Short on complexity, yet simplistically valuable. It gave me a nostalgic feeling of the games of old, where the controller in one’s hand only had two buttons and a d-pad. Not to say this is either good or bad, I enjoyed its more straightforward, K.I.S.S. style of gameplay, and thought it better for a game of this type. Admittedly, it takes a while to get used to knowing what every button does, though that shouldn’t hamper one’s experience (no curveballs, either). Framerate is consistent and its button inputs are 100% responsive, such simple things are always so wholly appreciated in video games.
Seeing “Part puzzle” should set the table for what will come next: puzzles. One of the major draws of speaking to Library is that she gives you subtle hints as to how to progress through the game. I talked to her a lot. Hindsight is 20/20, though I can’t help but feel this game is a little too discreet with its sub-objectives, causing a lot of aimless wandering and not knowing what to do. There was even one instance where, desperate to find undiscovered territory, I ran around the building countless times without knowing where to go, only to click everywhere and run into whatever wall at all possible. I eventually found out that some walls, with little indication that they are anything but walls, are actually pathways to various corridors. This school should be funded for signs.
Aside from a few head-scratchers (as in “How would anyone think to do this?”), the puzzles within Misao are fairly intuitive and elating to figure out. Part of my enjoyment of the game was involved with discovering the mystery of Misao’s struggle, with the other part being the puzzle-solving. Most things don’t go beyond picking out an item from the ‘Key Items’ inventory and using them within a certain spot, though it is the simplistic measure that makes this compact game enjoyable. Another aspect of said compactness is the amount of death. Death traps are scattered all across the map, and one wrong turn could lead one’s head flying off, or body cut in half, or minced up and cooked into hamburger. Campy fun, with the game urging the player to collect them as a sort of badge of honor. Most are fairly unnerving, while a few are outright ridiculous, most are sure to get a giggle out of players, and teach them to be careful walking into every room.
Graphics & Audio
In all sincerity, Misao looks like a handheld game from the mid-2000’s. Personally, I feel it has a similar aesthetic to the Mega Man Battle Network series of games, except the pixelated models of the characters are more akin to games of a prior generation. As someone who finds pixel-graphics to be very easy on the eyes, I had no issue with this style of representation, though others could require more for their horror experience, as the death traps aren’t as horrifying when done to pixels. As noted before, framerate is consistently solid, so the running pixels and animated cutscenes are well-established, if not a little rigid. Characters are easily distinguishable and, aside from some very vague entrances to hallways, the environment to play around with makes itself easily known—whether by scripted events or odd discrepancies. It’s not easy to have a bust chasing you be scary.
Audio performance isn’t as strong, though I’ve never been a huge fan of cheesy, free effects. Not all sound-bits used were from free sources, though a lot of the sounds (especially death sounds) sounded far too B-rate for me to take all that seriously. Comment as I would about the soundtrack of the game, a lot of it has already been forgotten, as much of it was minimally used and provided as a boost to tone, which worked well enough. I like the theme to the main menu, if that’s worth anything. Otherwise, there’s not much more to comment on.