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Monday, April 22, 2024

This $2 Japanese horror game about a haunted convenience store really got under my skin

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The Convenience Store is a low-key horror game about a girl working the late shift at a store in a small Japanese town. Most indie horror games are set in creaky old houses, dingy hospitals, and other similarly overused locations. But this one takes place in a brightly lit store, which immediately grabbed my attention. You spend much of the game just working: serving customers, restocking shelves, taking out the trash, and accepting deliveries. It’s slow and repetitive, perfectly capturing the tedium of a retail gig.

If that sounds boring, it is. You stand behind the counter watching a customer slowly wander the aisles, picking up instant noodles and potato chips, then serve them when they’re done. But what this does is make the moments where scary shit starts happening more effective. It’s a game with long, drawn out stretches of nothing, then short, sharp blasts of understated horror. You’ll wonder why the automatic doors keep opening and shutting when no one’s there. Then you’ll look at them through a fuzzy CCTV feed and…

It’s clear this is a low budget game, but the lo-fi nature of the visuals adds to its eerie, unsettling ambience. The combination of simple 3D models, photo-based textures, and grimy VHS distortion is an effective one, with echoes of the original Silent Hill and the Siren series. Artistically it’s nowhere near the quality of those games, but the vibe is there, and sometimes that’s enough. The audio design is great too, particularly the way it uses the shrill beeps of the door sensors to gnaw away at your nerves. Is that a customer or… something else.

I’m honestly surprised by how scary The Convenience Store is. I’ve played a lot of indie horror games, and very few actually freak me out. There are a few scares in here that are such J-horror cliches that I didn’t so much as flinch. But other, more subtle moments really got under my skin. Chilla’s Art, two Japanese brothers who developed this and a library of other horror games, have a real knack for knowing when to hold back and build anticipation before dropping a scare. And the fact everything is happening in a big, bright room lit by headache-inducing fluorescent lights is extra impressive.

There are two endings, the second of which I found the most impactful. The first one finishes the story off with an overlong scroll of text, and just kinda fizzles out. But the game is only around an hour long, so seeing both of them isn’t too much of a chore. Or you could just watch it on YouTube if you’re lazy. You can buy The Convenience Store now on Steam, and it’s currently 20% off in the summer sale, making an already ridiculously cheap game even cheaper. If you’re into horror games, it’s absolutely worth the spare change.

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