There are dozens, possibly even hundreds, of games out there which boil down to being scary versions of other games, but Pokemon Nightmare: Invasion is a bit different. For a start, this isn’t a reimagining of an existing game, but rather an entirely original origin story where the largely black and white aesthetic recalls old horror and noir movies almost as much as it does the old Game Boy games. The other important factor here is that this is a full-fledged game. While the vast majority of these types of horror games rarely consist of little more than a few minutes of walking around and a few cheap jumpscares (ex: nearly anything based on the Sonic.exe creepypasta), this is a roughly four hour experience filled with combat, exploration, boss fights, puzzles, and a surprisingly engaging plot.
The scope of this game is a bit larger than the other games I’ve chosen for Haunted House Week, but it is still very much about a specific place – Azure City. The protagonist, Jack, is an investigator sent to Azure City to investigate the disturbing disappearance of its residents and it is within this city’s confines where the entire game takes place. Though you never get to meet most of the residents of Azure City, there is a large amount of care put into humanizing them. The use of journals and notes to fill in backstory is a common enough mechanic in games, but here such environmental objects are found exclusively in places where they make sense, such as a note from a friend being on a table or a private journal being in a bedroom. As these journals provide just as much insight into the concerns of the writers themselves as they do into the mystery surrounded Azure City, it becomes possible to determine who lived in each building and their relationships with the other residents. There is plenty of environmental storytelling to go around, such as Jack remarking on exactly which types of books are found in each bookcase and bloodstains or the lack thereof hinting at the fate of various residents, and players will need to hunt down every clue they can to fully understand both the current events and what happened in the past. Pokemon Nightmare: Invasion also allows for some unusually open exploration; there are a few roadblocks along the way and the main objective is generally clear, but large chunks of Azure City are entirely optional.
The aesthetics are also handled well as the ordinarily black and white screen becomes subtly tinted at certain points and occasional splashes of color really stand out, such as when bloodstains are present. Sound direction is also excellent with radios you can turn on to play some of the standard, upbeat songs from the franchise to contrast with the surroundings and eerie or severely distorted music plays during combat and other encounters. Speaking of combat, it isn’t awful, but it’s definitely the one notable weakness to this game. On the one hand, the fact that this is a sort of origin story for the Pokemon themselves means that Jack spends the majority of the game personally fending off these creatures with an actual gun and I like how enemy sprites are changed to become visibly injured when they get low on health rather than resorting to using health bars or no indication at all. On the other hand, it is pretty clear that this game’s action-oriented combat system is limited by the RPG Maker 2000 engine, which wasn’t designed with such systems in mind, and most fights devolve into awkwardly tricking enemies into running into furniture or other barriers while you safely shoot and strafe around from the other side. Thankfully, combat is fairly quick and doesn’t occur often enough to bog down the rest of the experience. I was completely caught off guard by how invested I ended up becoming in this game’s plot and characters; both the mystery and horror elements here are top-notch and the execution is all-around excellent.