Withering Rooms Review

An Enjoyable Nightmare

Feeling unnerved or scared is always an intriguing aspect to implement in video games, and through imagery and eerie sound design it’s possible to fit horror into almost any gameplay genre.  This is true of Moonless Formless’ Withering Rooms, where everything keeps the player on edge as they traverse the 2.5D roguelite metroidvania.  This sense of anxiety is present throughout the twist and turns of the story, but some aspects of the gameplay occasionally pulls players out from feeling fully immersed.

Nightingale Williams wakes up in a strange bed.  This is a situation that players will see often as Nightingale is in a dream world that loops back to the start of the same night after each death.  Nightingale is trapped in this dream by Robert Blackett, Mostyn House Insane Asylum’s newest keeper, who experiments on the residents of this world indefinitely.  Nightingale is sent by her family to this Victorian-era mansion that houses troubled girls to be cured of imagined maladies, and which contains an ancient idol that takes a snapshot of a person in the real world and brings them into the dream world.  Most can leave this dream world at any time, but Robert Blackett has corrupted the idol’s original indifference into a warped nightmare world filled with the insane and undead.  Nightingale is driven to stay sane but otherwise is just swept up in a journey of increasingly deranged and oddball characters as the secrets of Mostyn House and the idol become more layered and intricate.

Peaking through doors to see enemy positions is pretty helpful to sneaking around.

Nightingale’s journey dives into the supernatural manifestations of those driven insane and, for all intents and purposes, murdered individuals that have had the misfortune of being swept into the idol’s dream world.  These poor individuals are killed time and again in the dream world causing their inability to reconnect with their real bodies so they are in a perpetual comatose state.  The tortures Robert Blackett and the other insane individuals of the dream come up with mean there’s little humanity left in Withering Rooms.  Coming across grotesque enemies — like a decaying horse, legless corpses, mutated nurses, or deranged spell-slinging witches — paints a vivid and disturbing picture of how a typical inhabitant ends up in the Mostyn House.  There’s little possibility for happy endings for most of these poor souls, but some scars can still be healed by Nightingale’s journey, making for a frantic flickering hope among the disturbing scenes.

Nightingale first awakes with the martial prowess of typical fifteen-year-old girl.  Outclassed in strength and skill by even the slowest of zombies, this means strategy is needed to survive.  Resources are also scarce, so the easiest way to survive is to hide from the shuffling corpses and collect as much as possible.  Major progression is marked by the passing of chapters, with four chapters in total, each with mini quests that build organically to moments with major consequences for the dream world.

There’s a decent amount of semi-randomized loot to be found everywhere.  Even after the mansion shifts following each death, the basic layout stays the same.  Important rooms will always be connected to the same hallways, while drawers and treasure chests are strewn everywhere and available to plunder for crafting materials, gold, and equipment.  While there are plenty of chests to loot, they each contain only a small amount of crafting material for any of the numerous spells and jars that can be made, making every stop a needed one.  Enemies are also held to this same basic layout, which helps keep things fresh yet familiar since room placement is shuffled around.

Equipment changes how Nightingale looks, so no worries, there isn’t a pumpkin debuff.

Shopkeepers can have basic supplies and some rare equipment to purchase, but most of Nightingale’s arsenal will come from crafting spell scrolls or jars.  Every run in Withering Rooms sees Nightingale find a basic melee weapon for defence, but without spells and jars she won’t last very long.  Spell scrolls are handy, providing effects from unleashing strong attacks or buffing Nightingale’s resistance to attacks, to summoning ghostly suits of armour that protect her, while jars can be used to heal or attack enemies.  Every zombie can be injured with physical attacks, though later on ghostly enemies appear that can only be defeated by taking their photograph.

Progression is made a bit simpler through the use of remembered items.  The amount of remembered items is dependent on how many rituals are encountered and completed at shrines in various rooms across the mansion and its grounds.  Keeping important healing items, strong weapons, and other rarer crafting pieces helps immensely.  Unlocked shrines, defeated bosses, outfits, headgear, and keys will always stay with Nightingale and aren’t needed to take up a remembered item slot, making only general exploration a real challenge.  Further upgrades in the form of coin purses allow players to retain currency, which makes it easier to fill in the gaps between remembered items.

Nightingale has not only a health bar to contend with but also a curse meter.  As this meter builds, Mostyn House takes on a more grindhouse feel complete with hanging corpses and bloodstained gurneys shifting into view to replace the drawers and couches that were in the original dilapidated mansion.  Being cursed isn’t all bad though as caches of unremembered resources from prior failed runs appear as blood-soaked bags where a dresser used to be.  Some curse is also needed to enter mirrors and reach Nowhere.  Nowhere is the one truly safe zone with only shopkeepers inhabiting it, and Nowhere mirrors can be used to teleport from one end of the mansion to another in one quick screen transition.  A full curse meter causes curse rot, and in a game with bleeding and poison that can sap life already, curse rot is a true killer.  Warding candles are the only consistent resource to heal curse rot and unless Nightingale is in a safe room the enemy will still apply more curse than can be healed.  This leads to running away a lot to cure curse rot, hoping that Nightingale survives the jog.

The warding candle doing its job as the dream world turned more nightmarish.

Withering Rooms has a quick menu for swapping between equipment that players can customize to their liking.  Accessing these menus pauses the game but no items are instantly used; Nightingale has a small animation associated with everything she does, so running or dodging to get a few free seconds to heal is still important to staying alive.  On standard difficulty, simply melee attacking an enemy will usually result in Nightingale losing the fight due to the high health and strength totals of every enemy.  Hit boxes are pretty wide, so dodging and blocking takes a lot of time to get used to; shields have durability and can break pretty easily also.  This leads to a strategic form of cat and mouse that if successful feels rewarding.  However, in Mostyn House the undead often win on standard difficulty and since collecting resources is a necessity in each run, it just makes progress feel frustratingly difficult.

Fighting isn’t the only option as there are plenty of ways for Nightingale to hide from enemies or run around them as well.  Stealth feels like a stopgap and is usually used to sneak past enemies to grab a few treasures that will hopefully make surviving the enemy plausible.  Most undead don’t follow too far, but outside of Nowhere there isn’t a truly safe room if Nightingale is too loud, or the enemy too perceptive.  Boss rooms are more forgiving as players can light a candle allowing them to restart at that fight with all their current equipment until either the player gives up or wins.

The overpowered nature of enemies in Withering Rooms makes the swap to Narrative mode more enticing.  This shift makes things way too simple though as every enemy is downed in only three or four hits and Nightingale turns into a supernatural juggernaut able to take many regular hits before feeling any real danger, except from curse, bleeding, and poison damage left unchecked.  That there’s no equal playing ground can make it difficult to stay immersed.  Swapping between the two just resets the mansion layout so it’s possible for players to progress as far as they can on standard, then swap to narrative to collect resources or defeat a pesky enemy if they choose.

Who doesn’t love merry-go-rounds?

Withering Rooms leans heavily into psychologically visceral imagery.  The monster designs pop, each showcasing a different way that the dream world has corrupted a person.  Many areas of the mansion have similar backgrounds due to the architecture of Victorian-era mansions, but as the story progresses new locales become showcased to vary these somewhat.  There’s always a stylistic flair that represents the world well.  The same applies for the musical accompaniment, but here it can act as a detriment.  Normal horror tones shift through dreary and sombre music making things suitably creepy and unnerving.  There’s ear grating discordant piano notes, oddly expressed crackles, and squeaky hinged chair wheel sounds that fit the atmosphere but get on the nerves a bit.  It can also keep players on high alert as these cursed tracks blend in with background noise, making it seem like an enemy that isn’t there is stalking them.

Withering Rooms tells an unhinged story of various descents into insanity.  Nightingale Williams is an interesting focal point for these crazed inhabitants that all dwell inside an ancient idol’s dream world.  This great hook is partnered with a robust roguelite inventory to make things a harrowing survival with every step.  Mostyn House is not for the faint of heart, those braving the corridors of this nightmare will find a fun yet disturbing time, just be prepared to swap between difficulties in some situations.


Disclosure: This review is based on a free copy of the game provided by the publisher.

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'Good' -- 3.5/5
20-40 HOURS

The ambiance is always great psychological horror

Story is quite thoughtful

Quite forgiving when tackling bosses

Reaching boss rooms can either be too easy or too difficult depending on difficulty

Music is well meaning but can sometimes be too distracting


Ryan Costa

Friendly neighbourhood reviewer that thinks every RPG should be discussed, because one never knows where a hidden gem can appear.

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