A few years ago, when I fancied myself becoming "The Thinking Man's Horror Game YouTuber," I assembled a list of the most interesting and experimental horror games to play and dissect. As I researched, the original White Day: A Labyrinth Named School from 2001 appeared on many top 10 lists and discussion forums. Sadly, my idea to be a non-screaming Let's Player never took off, so I never got around to playing it. However, I jumped at the chance to play this recently released remake, and even despite some design hiccups, I'm really quite glad I did.
White Day: A Labyrinth Named School puts the player in control of Hee-Min Lee, a transfer student arriving at a new high school. Hee-Min has a crush on popular girl So-Young Han and decides to take part in the Korean tradition known as "White Day," a sort of Valentine's Day equivalent where young men leave gifts in the locker of the girls they like. Hee-Min sneaks into the school late at night to deposit his candies but discovers that the school is full of restless ghosts, psychopathic janitors, and other female students with unclear motives.
The gameplay is more or less a mashup of that found in other survival horror games. The first person hide-and-seek mechanics are directly out of the modern horror genre, similar to the Amnesia series, Outlast, and SOMA. Navigating the school is methodical and directed, but still open for exploration, similar to Resident Evil or Silent Hill. It also borrows some puzzle design elements by using the world-building both as a plot development tool and a way to construct the logic for solving riddles. Corpse Party also gets a major nod in the storytelling mechanics, which emphasize affinity values via conversations with the other characters in the school to determine the ending.
In practice, White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is pretty fun to play. Each of the game's four buildings has unique features to vary the ways you get around. The first area is pretty straightforward: two floors with stairways on either side to close the circuit. However, the second building is more vertical with four floors and only one stairway. This makes evading the janitor more tricky. If he's occupying one of the dead-end hallways on a certain floor, you can either choose to sneak behind his patrol to open a new room or try a different floor completely. The developers really make the janitor a threat by constantly spawning him in close quarters with you, so it forces patience out of the player.
On one hand, that's pretty brilliant. It teaches you to play better and to relax. On the other hand, it doesn't really offer many tools for surviving once the janitor spots you. Even though he walks with a limp, he somehow always manages to stay right behind you. Your best bet is to somehow reach a bathroom, instantly shut the door behind you, and fumble your way into a stall to hide. This is easier said than done since the hitboxes for opening and closing doors are small and finicky. You can supposedly hide behind desks, but I got stuck trying to walk behind them more often than not. When it's a matter of milliseconds between life and death, that's just not a safe bet.
This gets at a phenomenon that plagues almost all survival horror games. When you die repeatedly, it reduces the overall scare value. The fear in horror games comes from the danger of dying, not the dying itself. It's a necessary evil to have death as a fail state, but when it becomes an expected, common part of the experience, it loses its frightful luster. There are three tiers of trophies just for dying a lot in White Day: A Labyrinth Named School, which is rather excessive. What's unfortunate is that much of the game's content, including an entirely new sequel story, only unlocks on Hard difficulty or above, so you have to not only contend with tricky puzzles but also one or two-hit kills.
Towards the end of the game, it eases up on death while maintaining the difficulty through a series of ghostly mini bosses. This is the high point of the entire experience, both in terms of terror and mechanics. The absolute height of the heart-pumping fear this game can produce is having to use dowsing rods to walk over a filthy swimming pool inhabited by a ghost who can randomly jump up to try and drown you. You have to move fast along invisible walkways to avoid getting grabbed--but even if you do, it isn't instant death.
Even if White Day: A Labyrinth Named School isn't the scream-fest I was expecting, the storytelling really hits the mark. The cutscenes play out like a slightly less surreal Silent Hill 2, with oblivious characters prattling on about their friends and teachers until the reality sets in and they break down completely. At times during the dialogue, the game presents options on how to respond that dynamically influence the scene and modify affinity values for the main characters. Will you be standoffish and refuse to help anyone else? Or will you take every opportunity to curry favor with Sung-A because she's Best Girl? Whatever you pick sets the trajectory to achieve one of the game's 35 endings (only two of which I have unlocked so far after about 10 hours of gameplay).
Visually, White Day: A Labyrinth Named School may not be the most stunning experience in the world, but it has a consistent art style and plenty of eerie lighting effects. Rest assured, there is no lack of cute Korean girls or long-haired, bloody ghosts. Only Hee-Min's model stands out as kind of doofy and soulless. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, composed mostly of haunting cacophonic melodies played on traditional instruments. I found the English dubbing to be serviceable, if perhaps a bit overdramatic. Sung-A's simultaneously flirty and sinister line readings once again stole the show. The incidental sound design (e.g., keys jingling, whistle-blowing, phones ringing, etc.) felt a little unbalanced in the mix and a bit more grating to listen to.
If you're looking for a niche horror experience with fantastic world-building and clever boss puzzles, I highly recommend White Day: A Labyrinth Named School. Some of its design choices feel outdated and some technical hiccups hold the gameplay back, but it nevertheless feels like a gripping, cohesive game. Though the style is built on the backs of other successful horror series, White Day manages to carve out its own identity, and if you decide to pick it up, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the content it delivers.
If you can get past some minor control issues, White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is a unique horror experience with great level design, a gripping story, and more ghosts than you can shake a purification stick at.
- Dynamic Cutscenes
- Excellent Boss Puzzles
- LOTS of Content
- Frequency of Death Lessens Impact
- Eponymous Labyrinth Not Even In First Playthrough