I must admit that I've never played the original, but by most accounts, White Day was way ahead of its time when it first came out in 2001. It pushed boundaries with its eerie atmosphere and a helpless protagonist who couldn’t fight back against the game’s threats. It was never officially released in English, but that didn't stop it from picking up a global cult following.
By contrast, the PS4 remake feels like a throwback to the horror games of days long gone. In a time when so many survival horror titles are just action games with occult and body horror dressing, White Day: A Labyrinth Named School brings back the tension and stress that made the genre so terrifying.
The game takes place in Yeondu High School, one night before the Valentine’s-esque White Day celebration. After finding his crush’s diary forgotten on a park bench, Hee-min Lee decides to sneak into school after dark to return it, along with a special White Day gift. Once inside, he finds himself trapped, at the mercy of a pair of possessed, violent janitors and a medley of ghosts that haunt the school.
The setting is the first part of what makes White Day so creepy. As is common in Asian horror, it takes the familiar and mundane and flips it on its head: a school is a place of relative safety, comfort, and perhaps boredom, but all the markers of the everyday are now sources of potential terror. Every classroom, every office, and every locker could be home to one of Yeondu’s many threats. What should be safe becomes the opposite.
The school also allows for some interesting level design, precisely in how mundane it all is. Yeondu, like most Asian high schools, is a multi-level, multi-building facility made up primarily of long corridors adjoined by classrooms. With a few exceptions, like the gym and the staff room, the map is repetitive to the point of being disorienting. In most games that would be a criticism, but in a game like this it just adds to that surreal blend of bizarre and hyper-normal, and makes it easy to get lost as you run and hide from the creeping janitors.
The other major source of terror comes from something that goes as far back as Resident Evil (maybe even further), but has fallen out of favour in recent years: resource scarcity, for everything from health items to checkpoints. Modern game design often puts user experience (UX) and quality of life at the forefront, and that’s mostly for the best, but stripping these away can invoke a powerful emotional response.
Case in point: in White Day, you can only save at notice boards found around the school, and only with a single-use Felt-Tip Pen. These are relatively rare (depending on difficulty setting), so every time you find a notice board there’s a toss-up: save now and risk not being able to save later, where it might be more necessary, or hold onto your pen and risk losing a big chunk of progress. It’s frustrating, it’s stressful, but that’s the point – stress and frustration all help build the tension that the game’s horror capitalises on.
This works particularly well on PS4, because the console’s suspend function means that a restrictive save system like this never gets too inconvenient. Tension is all well and good, but that sort of old-school design quickly moves away from meaningful to annoying when you just need to turn the game off and go to sleep. White Day on PS4 has the best of both worlds: you can suspend the game and put the console in sleep mode when you need to, but save scarcity means there’s the constant threat of a game over costing you progress. It’s a good balance.
All this builds up to an eerie atmosphere that’s almost unmatched. Creeping around the school, trying to avoid the janitors, and reading about Yeondu’s dark history in notes scattered about the place, all to a decidedly haunting soundtrack and broken regularly by odd noises – it all adds up to create an ever-present sense of dread. With that, you’re perfectly primed for the jump scares that accompany most ghost encounters, and even seeing the janitor’s flashlight in the distance can be cause for a fright. At its best, White Day is terrifying.
That said, I did find that the impact of the horror dulled quite quickly. At first, just taking a few steps to enter the next room had me whimpering (much to the humour of my wife), but after a few skirmishes with the janitors or frights from a sudden ghostly appearance, that feeling started to wane. Part of this is no doubt due to dated graphics – the remake was originally made for mobile devices a few years ago, and that shows. Reading about the ghosts in the notes you find is terrifying – nothing is as scary as your own imagination – but when I actually saw them, they struck me as more comical than frightful, and not by intention.
Once that horror falls away, you’re left with a competent adventure game, with lots of item-based puzzles to solve. There’s nothing wrong with that, but White Day’s best asset is the horror of its early hours, so it’s a shame that it couldn’t keep that up for longer. Playing on higher difficulties helps, because items are rarer and scares are more frequent, but even then, the whole setup is subject to diminishing returns.
The story also left much to be desired. The best games in the genre use their horror to explore some terrifying aspect of the world or the human condition, in turn making the game more terrifying as you grapple with your own revelations alongside the game’s threats. White Day has the set up for that, drawing on Eastern philosophy, feng shui, and the Korean War, but it fails to do anything of note with those ideas. It ends up being a fairly typical haunted house story, which is a shame when the premise sets it up for so much more.
White Day: A Labyrinth Named School is still a game I’d strongly encourage for anyone who enjoys a good survival horror game, and misses the days when horror was about disempowering players and using that to inspire terror. It’s still one of the scariest games on PS4. I just wish it had been able to fully capitalise on its setup – the way I’m told the original game did – to deliver a truly terrifying game from start to finish.
Matt received a digital copy of White Day: A Labyrinth Named School from PQube for review.