Marketed not as a game, but a “Haunted House Simulator”, Ju-On is an incredibly minimal experience – with no puzzles or combat, gameplay has been streamlined almost to the point of non-existence, with players waving a flashlight to light the way as they plod to the nearest sparkling item pick-up to grab a key, then heading to the nearest locked door to progress to find the next locked door/key, encountering jump scares and the occasional QTE event along the way. Items come in three varieties (nothing lemon-flavoured, sadly): a key, batteries, or bonus items that, when you’ve found the entire collection, unlock an extra playable episode. This sparse variety of items mean there’s no inventory – spare batteries are automatically added to the on-screen torch “life” indicator, which steadily drains towards a ‘Game Over’ with time, while a key icon displays in the top left of the screen when you’ve found it.
Unfortunately this minimalist approach extents to all facets of the game; each episode follows a different member of the Yamada family, evidently afflicted with the spiritual “grudge” curse covered in the Ju-On films, but plot and character are noticeably cast aside, with a tiny snippet of info at the beginning of each episode to indicate the current character’s name, profession and current location constituting the plot in its entirety. With no personality or character, it’s impossible to empathise with or care about these people, and without anything resembling a plot, there’s nothing to become invested or involved in. Not only that, but the concept of logic on display is something akin to a drunken homeless man trying to convince you that the planet is made of Lego, constructed by a wedge of cheese with hands; often you’ll try to pass through a door only to be hurled back by a huge shrieking ghost, signifying that, hey, maybe you’re not supposed to venture inside. To emphasise this warning, the game occasionally takes over, and during a quick first person cinematic, your character turns to run in the other direction. Only that’s the only door you could possibly go through to advance the game, and after the cheap scare you can wander in, rendering the whole scripted ‘turn around and dash away’ sequence entirely pointless. It’s less frightening, more baffling really.
The excessive streamlining problem extends to the controls, too – someone forgot to inform the developers of Ju-On that ‘less buttons’ doesn’t always mean ‘simpler controls’. The game uses only the Wii remote – you wave the remote towards the edges of the screen to turn the camera in that direction, and pull the B trigger to walk forward. It’s an awkward and unwieldy system that’s made infinitely worse by the sheer mind-numbing slowness of the character’s pace – decades of your life will seemingly ebb away with each excruciatingly slow step, and when asked to climb numerous flights of stairs, when coupled with the unresponsive flashlight movement, the plodding speed is almost enough to make you ditch the game entirely. A slow pace in a horror game isn’t necessarily an awful thing by definition, and as Fatal Frame 2 shows, can often add a great deal of tension, but Ju-On’s turtle crawl feels excessively and frustratingly slow, and considering the game’s already short lifespan, it seems like the glaring omission of a ‘Jog’ button was simply to pad out the play time. The unresponsive remote detection is upgraded from ‘annoying’ to ‘infuriating’ when QTE ghost chases arise and the game simply refuses to detect that you’ve waved the remote in the right direction, subjecting you to a ‘Game Over’ screen. And without a checkpoint system, you’re stuck trundling through the entire episode again from the beginning.
With the plot jettisoned and gameplay pared down to nothing, it’s no wonder that the game’s length is so short. Each episode lasts around 20 minutes, with the whole game done-and-dusted in less than 2 hours. What’s more frustrating is that to unlock the last episode, you’re asked to pick up snippets of hidden paper to re-assemble a drawing, or diary page. Which in and of itself wouldn’t be a bad idea – games do that all the time with hidden packages and such. But Ju-On hides these items in such needlessly and insanely obtuse locations (with zero clues in-game to aid you) that it’s maddening; to collect one, you’re expected to know to open a mail slot not once, but twice, and only after a scripted scare has happened elsewhere. If this were simply to unlock an extra costume or a Hello Kitty pink replacement flashlight or something, it’d be less of an issue, but when it’s to gain access to 1/5th of an already incredibly short game, it borders on insulting.
Strangely, there’s a multiplayer option that in concept is half of a good idea – a second player can press buttons and trigger visual scares while the first player plays through the levels. In a more worthwhile game, and with better integration, it’d be a cool little gimmick to sneakily spook someone when they’re already tense and not expecting a scare. But with Ju-On, the annoyingly excessive jump scares are so tepid to begin with, that subjecting a friend to more of them might earn you a punch to the face rather than inspiring frightful giggles, and instead of simply allowing these Player 2 scares at any point during the normal game, Player 1 must go out of their way to select the multiplayer “Courage Test” option from the menu, thus leaving them entirely expecting friendly interference.
The mid-level PS2 graphics and overused sound samples (the ‘You just picked up a battery!’ music snippet grates away at the subconscious after the 4th time in five minutes) are the very least of Ju-On’s problems; though it has a nice idea or two at its core and there’s an occasionally effective scare to be found, it’s a painfully, perhaps mercifully short game haunted (no pun intended) by some wretched controls and a frustratingly and unnecessarily slow pace, resulting in a massively flawed game that struggles to justify even a budget price tag. Players easily susceptible to jump scares, or those already suffering from post-traumatic stress might find more mileage in Ju-On’s cheap shock tactics, but anyone else would be better off leaving it on the shelf and walking right past.
Ju-On: The Grudge is available to buy now for Nintendo Wii.