Pros: Lets you experience J-horror from the inside.
Cons: Meandering pace.
Sure, little girls seem cute and perky when they’re alive, but just let one die and she becomes a vessel of vicious, unrelenting fury that drags the innocent and guilty alike into an unimaginable nightmare. At least that seems to be the case in Japan, where the angry, stringy-haired ghost girl is a staple of horror movies. Creepy dead girls have also shown up in a few video games, but none have so closely hewn to “J-horror” tropes as the survival horror game The Calling.
The Premise: High Tech Ghosts, Low-Tech Thrills
Calling begins in a chat room that is rumored to allow communication with the dead. The game follows the fortunes of several people who visited the chat room only to pass out and awake in places – a hospital, a school – deserted except for a handful of angry ghosts, who seem themselves to have come into these worlds through the chat room.
The ghosts of my childhood had to make due with rattling chains and creaking doors, but Calling’s spirit world is somehow built on technology, entered through the Internet and traversed via cell phone. The cell phone, in fact, is a central component of the game; calling a phone number transports you to that phone, mysterious photographic clues are often texted to you (the game never explains who sends them) and the phone can be used to record mysterious sounds that play back as significant conversations.
While the ghost’s tools are high tech, the scares are decidedly old fashioned, involving ghosts jumping in front of you, sudden shadows rushing by and creepy voices coming from the Wii remote’s speaker, which doubles as your phone. This is cheesy yet often effective, and while the game never reaches the level of spooky intensity of a good horror movie, it does have the cheap thrills of a low budget scare-fest.
Gameplay: Fight Ghosts, Find Flashlights
When ghosts attack, you repel them by shaking your remote before you die of fright (a meter tells you how scared you are). You can also presumably “dodge” ghosts by hitting the “A” button at just the right time, but I could never manage this, in spite of finding tips online.
Winning a ghost battle involves escape, survival for a set period of time or, in the game’s worst moment, dialing a phone number really, really quickly while being attacked (this is the first time I’ve ever played a game that required me to commit a phone number to memory).
These frenzied moments are a small part of a game that is mainly devoted to exploration and puzzle solving.
Exploration is fairly enjoyable. Controls are straightforward: the nunchuk is used for movement and the Wii remote controls your point of view and your flashlight beam. The Z button is held for running or double clicked for a 180 degree turn. Sometimes when I tried to run I accidentally spun around, but since this has the perhaps unintended effect of creating a mild fright, I didn’t mind too much.
The game is quietly spooky as you idly play instruments in a high school's dimly lit music room or trail a ghostly soldier through a misty forest, but less enthralling when you repeatedly retrace your steps, especially on one of the game’s way too plentiful flashlight hunts, or open one empty cabinet after another.
Puzzles are generally quite easy, and are more a matter of finding a particular object or memo than of figuring anything out. The player is only occasionally asked to use a little brainpower.
The Unusual: A Game That Contains It's Own Sequel
One odd thing about Calling is that it is designed to be played through twice. When you reach the game’s rather abrupt end, you are informed you have unlocked a hidden chapter. This turns out to be a whole slew of new chapters in which you play as Makoto Shirae, a character Rin meets who is the only one who has any idea what is going on. The game is designed so you play the new chapters in between replaying the original chapters, but if you’re like me you will choose to skip the chapters you’ve already played, which offer little in the way of replay value (I’ve heard you cannot skip chapters in the original Japanese version, which would be infuriating).
The idea of letting you play as Makoto is a good one: it’s nice to learn how he knows what he knows, and to see how his actions dovetail with Rin’s and ultimately change the game’s ending. Unfortunately, in terms of gameplay, Calling pretty much runs out of steam with these new chapters, and I became so impatient with yet more searching for flashlights in places I’d already explored thoroughly the first time that at times I used a walkthrough just to bypass all the wandering and searching.
Conclusion: An Enjoyable Horror Movie Brought to ... Death?
While stringy-haired ghost girls using technology for haunting purposes are a dime a dozen in Asian countries, Calling makes more sense than a lot of similar games and movies, telling a fairly convincing back-story that explains how a cute and perky little girl can become an angry and unreasoning ghost with a chat room obsession. Its slow pace and somewhat anemic gameplay keep Calling from being a great game, but it is still an enjoyable little horror title that offers an experience closer to living a Japanese horror movie than any other game I have played. While you could simply travel to Japan, where it seems it is almost impossible to avoid attacks by little ghost girls, for the rest of the world that experience is most easily found on the Wii.