Misao – Definitive Edition review

Misao – Definitive Edition
Misao – Definitive Edition
The Good:
  • Daring story that centers on the cruelty of bullying
  • Both the beginning and ending are emotionally powerful
  • Numerous player death scenes are pretty entertaining
The Bad:
  • Focuses on death scenes to the detriment of an otherwise intriguing storyline
  • Puzzles are hampered by lack of guidance and less-than-useful hint system
  • One music track is used often enough to be annoying
Our Verdict:

Misao’s potential for an engrossing, topical storyline is unfortunately shoved aside in favor of aimless exploration, but with the right expectations and a budget price, horror fans might find it worth a look.

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Misao – Definitive Edition is the commercial remake of a free 2014 horror-adventure game from Japanese developer Sen (also known as Miscreant’s Room), adding “improved graphics, improved puzzles” and “extra event scenes.” Though the obstacles are not too difficult, the lack of guidance and a clever but not-so-helpful hint system make for the wrong kind of challenge at times. And while the plot, centered around the missing eponymous student, features a daring emphasis on the effects of bullying and cruelty, the decision to inflict a series of gruesome deaths on players weakens the story’s potential, which is only partially redeemed by a strong finish. 

Players take on the role of a high school student three months after the disappearance of Misao, a quiet, lonely girl who was often brutally picked on by her peers. Since that time, strange occurrences have been reported throughout the school, leading to the moniker “Misao’s Curse” being used to describe the origin of these events. As the game begins, you are awoken one morning to the sound of the missing girl’s pleading voice. Believing it to be just a dream, you get ready for another day at school. During lunch break, however, while you and the other students are discussing pressing matters of the day (like who has a crush on who), the sky dims, an earthquake rattles the school, and again Misao entreats you: “HELP…FIND ME…” Then, with momentary pitch darkness and a bloodcurdling scream, your classmates disappear.

A brief search leads you into the now-crumbling halls of the school, where you encounter an apparition of none other than Misao herself, who pushes you off your feet and into a hole in the floor. You come to in a small room, where you are greeted by Onigawara, a red-eyed, pointy-eared character you have never met who introduces himself as the student council president. He informs you that the curse is real, and that the school has been “sucked into another world.” In order to lift the curse and rescue your friends, you will need to save Misao’s troubled soul while avoiding the evil spirits that threaten to kill everyone in the school.

As an aside, the protagonist’s name is chosen at the beginning of the game. Additionally, players choose the gender of their character. According to the developer, this doesn’t affect the plot very much, aside from swapping the player character model, pronouns where appropriate and the nature of a few scenes, presumably those regarding the relationship between the protagonist and Misao.

Exploration plays a central part in Misao, but almost everything you can do has an element of mortal risk. Taking an example from an early part of the game, inspecting a vase of roses in the principle’s office comes with a choice of how you want to interact with it. One choice informs you that you need another item to perform the action, while the other choice leads to your death.

You will almost certainly die A LOT in Misao, and in a staggering variety of ways. Some death scenes are comical, like when a haunted book wants you to read it so badly that it presses itself against your face, smothering you to death. Others are startling, such as when you look at a bloody wall and your head is twisted off by a floating monster. A few deaths even appear to be inspired by real-world urban legends popular in Japan, such as the tale of Hanako-san, a little girl who haunts school bathrooms and can be summoned by a specific sequence of actions. In fact, the game encourages you to find as many deaths as you possibly can, to the point that a bulletin board in one of the rooms keeps track of which of the 40-plus deaths you have unlocked.

This macabre aspect was pretty funny to me, as it was likely meant to be, but I would have appreciated it better if the story and pacing didn’t seem to take such a distant backseat to it. Given how rock-solid the opening is, it was surprising to me how quickly the game loses its cinematic momentum after those tantalizing few minutes setting up the premise. That’s not to say the game doesn’t have scares. It does. Monsters attack you, characters die while you are trying to save them, and there is no shortage of disturbing moments – some mildly, and others more so – but the setup teases a strong story that quickly gets shoved aside and only shows up sporadically until the end of the game, by which time it’s all over.

One note: the gory and frightening imagery encountered throughout, including hanging bodies, large amounts of blood, decapitations, and other such scenes, would be enough to warrant a caution despite the retro RPG-style presentation that minimizes the realism. But it should also be said that those who are sensitive to depictions of bullying, sexual violence, and other forms of physical and psychological cruelty should think carefully about whether to play Misao. It’s not graphic in its depiction of sexual content, but even the implied incidents were enough to make me squirm with discomfort. Much of this takes place near the end of the game, so it’s thankfully brief, but it does deserve a mention as this is definitely a game for mature audiences only.

A few times over the course of the game you will encounter an item, location, or character that triggers a vision-like sequence that provides more context for the source of Misao’s anger toward her classmates, but these don’t happen as often as they really should to keep things interesting. And it’s a shame because the story Misao weaves is quite topical and unsettling. Ultimately, this tale is one of vicious bullying and betrayal that, by the end, manages to pull itself together in a way that both makes sense and is emotionally engaging. It’s not enough to entirely make up for leaving players largely to their own devices during the middle act, but it is redemptive in the sense that I didn’t feel that my time was wasted, just directed inefficiently.

There are two endings to Misao – Definitive Edition: one good, one bad, which are determined by a single choice made near the end. However, there is very little indication as to which of these choices will give you which ending, even taking into account what you have learned over the course of the game that could help you make that decision. As a result, the moment feels cheapened in a sense, and doubly so if, like me, you make the “wrong” decision and see the “bad” ending first, as both reveal the same significant plot point that, once you know it’s coming in the other ending, feels less significant the second time around. At least, assuming you’ve got a save near the end of the game, it is easy enough to replay from that point and see the other outcome.

Once you have unlocked the “good” ending, you gain access to “Truth,” essentially an interactive epilogue, which reveals what happened after the events in the main storyline and elaborates on the backstories of a few of the characters, though it focuses on one pivotal character’s background in particular. This part of the game is fairly short, but being almost all story allows it to deliver the kind of experience I expected from the game proper.

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