Friday, 8 November 2019

Maggot Baits Review (Japanese Visual Novel)

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Maggot Baits is something of a Holy Grail of dark eroge, highly anticipated guro fans within the Western VN community and often hyped as possibly the greatest achievement of the company that produced it, Clock Up. As one the most gruesome VNs ever produced, and quite likely the most brutal one ever brought to the West, it contains dozens upon dozens of violent sex scenes, all accompanied by intricate CGs, with small variations in them so numerable that they sum to nearly 2500 unique illustrations. All of that placed in a highly-unique, modern-fantasy setting populated by amazingly-crafted characters and tackling interesting philosophical and religious topics. While it’s pretty much the furthest possible thing from what I usually write about on this blog, few games intrigued me as much as this one, particularly after my inconsistent, but extremely interesting experience with Clock Up’s another famous title, euphoria. Everything I’ve heard about Maggot Baits suggested that it was both more extreme and overall better than studio’s other bestseller, and after reading it to completion, I felt the need to share my thoughts about it in detail. Both because it’s a pretty fascinating case of strengths and pitfalls of this breed of eroge, and to warn those interested in it as a piece of storytelling – while in many ways an incredible achievement, this game is extremely hard to recommend for a “normie” reader such as myself. Why is that exactly?
                Before I go into story details, it’s most important to deal with Maggot Baits’ greatest issue – its structure and general storytelling formula. This game is, at its core, a guro nukige and it’s incredibly dedicated to this template. It throws h-scenes at you at very consistent intervals, disregarding whatever might be going on in the story and sacrificing any sense of pacing or tension so it can constantly offer a new piece of violent hentai. Quite often, the scenes are not important for, or even directly connected to what’s happening in the plot, pretty much pausing the whole narrative to insert a new piece of fanservice. In this, it goes even further than euphoria, which did a much better job intertwining its scenes with the story and had a bit more restraint in the most dramatic and meaningful parts of the plot. Maggot Baits even goes to the length of adding a major side-branch in the first chapter of the story, which is nothing but 3-4 hours of futanari porn leading to a bad ending. All of it narratively empty and pretty much derailing your experience if you expect any kind of interesting reveals or a meaningful conclusion within it. I still don’t understand why it was a part of the main story, and especially inserted so early in the game, before you build any connection to the characters involved or can understand the full implications of what is happening in those scenes. 
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Maggot Baits’ possibly greatest strength lays in its characters – both “heroes” and “villains” have complex motivations and their actions, as cruel as they might be, are hardly ever plain good or evil
 
There’s also one more crucial issue that should be made clear for anyone approaching this game simply looking for a dark, gore-filled story. The fetish-serving character of Maggot Baits means it’s full of a very specific brand of gore – sexualized violence on female characters. The near-immortality of the witches is a useful gimmick allowing the game's creators to push the abuse to its logical boundaries without killing off characters every time (although even this goes with a caveat that rape is way more prevalent in the h-scenes than actual bloody torture). While there’s a bit of general blood and guts, and a bit of chuunige-style fighting, most of it is conveyed in the form of text rather than shown in CGs. The massive focus on porn also means the actual story content is smaller and less developed than both the length of the game (20+ hours) and the incredible amount of visual assets would suggest. I’ve spent hours simply skipping through h-scenes that didn’t seem to have any plot relevance and quickly scanning through those that I felt could offer some bits of worthwhile information or character development, trying to get to the next story bit. While in euphoria one could argue there was some kind of balance between the story and hentai, here all the efforts were ultimately aimed at serving the guro porn, with the narrative being the icing on top of it and never really prioritized. And that’s to the point where even some guro fans might find the experience a bit overindulgent and tedious – there’s only that much stimuli you can take in before going numb.
                At the same time, it’s absolutely impossible to argue with the game’s production quality. The writing is excellent, including the greatest h-scene text I’ve seen to date. While the visuals left me mostly indifferent after a short while, despite their truly extreme and detailed nature, the gruesome, vivid descriptions accompanying them did a good job at keeping me uneasy. In many ways it surpassed writing of euphoria, really focusing on the psychological dynamic of the torture scenes rather than just absurd lines spewed by the heroines (those are still present, but I’m not sure that part of h-scene dialogue can be done in a way that doesn’t feel absurd to me). All of it is accompanied by extremely unsettling and suggestive voice acting and sounds, both done in a way that is probably hard to find anywhere outside of Clock Up games. Music is properly gritty and dynamic, underlining the brutal and hopeless atmosphere of the whole experience.
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While the game’s writing is, for the most part, stellar, even if it can’t escape some awkward exposition and over-the-top edginess
 
But, I haven’t even started on what this game is exactly about? Maybe I’m subconsciously avoiding this part, as it’s both not easy to explain and hard to talk about without spoilers. The general outline features Tsunuga Shougo, a former policeman, on an extremely-bloody path of revenge against powers controlling Kantou’s Pandemonium – a lawless city carved out of modern Japan, infested by powerful, supernatural beings known as Disaster’s Witches. Those apparently immortal women, unbeatable through conventional means, are what transformed the Pandemonium into an exterritorial den of vice and murder, populated by the worst scum this world knows – their origins and purpose, however, are a complete mystery to both the outside world and the witches themselves. During the game’s plot Tsunuga’s self-destructive quest, aided by a few of the witches and most closely connected to the one known as Carol, will (accidentally) uncover the meaning behind the existence of Pandemonium and all the insane happenings within it. And all of this happens with the brutal "witch hunts", capturing the seemingly-invincible women and thoroughly testing the limits of their immortal bodies, happening in the background.
                The setup, despite relying on some tired eroge tropes (primarily “the magic of semen”, which serves as one of the main sources of power for the witches), is pretty awesome and the primary characters in the story are even better. There’s little place for black and white morality in Maggot Baits’ world, with even the protagonist and the three “good” witches allied with him committing various atrocities. At the same time, outside of random, sadistic henchmen and thugs, there’s also no evil for the sake of evil. Shimon, the main antagonist of the story, is a prime example of this, having his hands in some incredibly despicable acts, but doing all of them as part of his work towards a very surprising and arguably noble goal. Even the other memorable villain, the brutal witch Sandy, proves to be much more than just a sadist murdering people and hunting her own kind for sports, despite the first impression she gives. As the story progresses, few things in Pandemonium stay as they first appeared to be and I found most of the twists and reveals the game offered quite fantastic.
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The love story component of the game is both well done and in line with the dark, tragic nature of its setting, despite a few questionable narrative choices
 
There’s also the romantic subplot between Shougo and Carol, the thing which earned the game its “pure love story” categorisation. This develops between two playthroughs: after you finish the game for the first time and reach the first proper ending (at this point there’s just one choice in the whole game, leading to the aforementioned futanari side-arc), you get a few extra choices unlocked, making it possible to steer Shougo in a slightly different direction. This allows for the troubled romantic subplot to blossom and the game to reach its true ending – not necessarily “better” than the first one when it goes to its overall tone, but more fulfilling from the viewpoint of the protagonist. There’s actually a very interesting dynamic between the two endings, as the first one introduces some extremely intriguing religious and philosophical themes, like various understandings and meanings of love, and concludes the story with a utopia being born out of the hell of Kantou’s Pandemonium. For me, it was absolutely the most engrossing and thought-provoking moment in the game – to the point that the true ending, even though it iterated on the first one's ideas and featured a few interesting twists of its own, felt kind of bland in comparison.
                And all of this would be truly great, if not cut into tiny pieces by the relentless stream of h-content. The game bends itself at every turn to squeeze additional fanservice and outdo itself in its extreme nature. Sometimes it’s truly unique and disturbing, sometimes plain laughable (my personal favourite being the pig sex scene from the aforementioned futanari arc). Most importantly, though, it’s simply not worth going through for anyone reading VNs for the story and not being specifically interested in guro porn. I don’t regret reading Maggot Baits, as I was simply too curious to not check it out, but it’s quite likely the last game of this type and the last Clock Up title I’ll ever read. And ultimately, I can only suggest avoiding those to the vast majority of VN readers – while euphoria had its share of problems, it compensated for it with the excellent climate and by expertly integrating much of its h-content with the flow and leading themes of its story. This game, on the other hand, is just a dark nukige – a damn good one, but truly worthwhile only for the very specific subset of readers for whom guro is a reward in itself, and the story is just a fun bonus. If that’s you, you can grab this game without a second thought. If not… There are infinitely better ways to spend 45 dollars and 20+ hours of your time.
 
Final Rating: 3/5
 
Pros:
+ Awesome quality of the visuals
+ Tons of CGs
+ Excellent characters
+ Great Soundtrack
+ Serious approach to its main themes

Cons:
- No consideration for pacing
- …like, none at all
- A lot of h-scenes feel forced and repetitive


VNDB page
Buy Maggot Baits on MagngaGamer Store

Friday, 25 October 2019

Our Lovely Escape Review (English Original Visual Novel)

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Few EVN studios leave me with such mixed feelings as Reine Works – a small team creating otome and yuri VNs at an impressive pace since 2017, known for titles such as Blossoms Bloom Brightest and Reflections ~Dreams and Reality~. While I enjoy the ideas behind much of their work and there’s usually a visible improvement in quality with each new release, the storytelling in their games always proved lacking, leaving me either bored or weirded out in the end. Still, I was invested enough to still support their increasingly ambitious and interesting-looking projects, including minor Kickstarter pledges. This is how I ended up playing Our Lovely Escape – a small VN with choosable protagonist gender and three female romance interests, which appeared on Steam in late September 2019, after many long delays. Marketed in a way that suggested a dark twist to every heroine arc, hidden under a façade of a cute, New Game!-like story about an all-female game studio, it seemed to mix many elements I personally enjoy. What I got, however, is quite likely the worst Raine Work’s game to date and will stay in my mind as one of the most upsetting VNs I’ve read to date.
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This passionate scene coming just a few minutes after Alexis’ drunken barfing session is a pretty solid representation of Our Lovely Escape’s romance

Atypically, I’ll start with Our Lovely Escape’s sex scenes – the main ones show up pretty early in the game, at the beginning of every route. They are also all happening in fairly uncomfortable circumstances: with both the protagonist and the heroine being heavily drunk after a party celebrating studio’s latest release, with very little build-up or romantic tension in the story leading up to it. In most scenarios, there will also be a second h-scene further down the line, usually even shorter and more generic than the first one. As it is often my impression with this kind of games, playing as a woman makes the creepy feel of the initial hookup a bit more bearable – otherwise the power balance, and even the protagonist’s status as an only guy in the studio make much of the prelude to heroine arcs pretty uncomfortable. Even in the yuri variants, however, I’m not sure the sex scenes serve any purpose at all – I’m not a huge fan of hentai, but I can’t remember the last time erotic content in a visual novel left me this indifferent, probably because I simply felt nothing for the characters involved at the point it happened. If you want to buy this game primarily as an eroge, it’s definitely not worth it.
                So, is the story any better? Well, not really. Because there’s barely any story to speak of. The game starts in a rather unassuming fashion, immediately introducing the protagonist – a new employee in a small gaming company making otome VNs – and his three female co-workers. The New Game! influences can be seen not only in the general setup, but even character designs: a shy and secretive Mayu closely resembles Hifumi and strict, professional Lissa gives a similar vibe to Rin. The undisciplined, childish Alexis is a bit of an exception, mostly because the New Game! girls were all meant to be likeable, with mostly positive traits outside of some minor quirks. The main problem with Our Lovely Escape’s cast is that while all of them hold really disturbing secrets, the first impressions they give are also pretty awful. I lost most interest in each of them even before their routes really started, finding their behaviour and the office drama they get into quite obnoxious. The game tries to be something of a bait-and-switch, but really underdelivers on the “bait” part – there’s no reason for the reader to care about any of the characters or get emotionally invested before things go awry, especially with how short and generic the common route is (less than an hour, with the whole game being at around 5 hours of content).
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At first, the New Game! parallels are pretty uncanny…

After that, it only gets worse. Psychological horror works best when it introduces some relatable elements or interesting motivations for the characters. Even completely outlandish and brutal VNs such as euphoria can be compelling by creating interesting conflicts, like the dark urges of the protagonist he desperately tries to suppress. Here, the main character is a blank slate, without any interesting traits and a backstory that is only briefly touched upon (mostly consisting of being a childhood friend of Lissa, who watched over him/her for many years before they moved away from each other). The heroines are straight-up psychos, and are so in an obnoxious/edgy fashion that does not leave space for any real character developments of interesting twists. This also spoils the few “good” endings the game offers: knowing the context behind the heroine’s actions and attitudes makes the romantic moments equally or even more riveting than the macabre ones.
                At the same time, Our Lovely Escape also never really commits to its darker side, with the bloody moments never shown in CGs and no truly extreme content. The most disturbing scenes are definitely within Alexis’ route, which is also the only one with no good ending (just neutral and horrible ones), but even those do not introduce any ideas beyond the heroine being a homicidal maniac acting out with little to no provocation. It would be way more interesting if the protagonist was really at fault in some of these situations or proved unstable themselves, but it was really all about inconsistent, not very believable outbursts from the girls. The “plot twists” the game offered left me feeling upset, but for all the wrong reasons – similarly to Carpe Diem: Reboot, by the end I simply hated the story and everyone in it, rather than being unsettled in a meaningful way and feeling for the characters. This actually sets Our Lovely Escape as one of the least enjoyable VNs I’ve ever read story-wise. The minor issues, like some of the blind choices that require pure trial-and-error approach from you to reach your preferred routes and endings pale in comparison to the core issues with the game’s writing.
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…but they’re very quickly replaced with empty edginess.

Contrasting with the deeply-underwhelming story, the game’s production values are really solid, even if the efforts of the team not always felt well-directed. In this, I’m referring mostly to Live-2D scenes, which show up in somewhat-random moments in both the common route and heroine routes, with relatively little impact. At the same time things like the h-scenes, which could really use some variety or extra visual flair, are very static. Otherwise, I don’t really have any complaints about the art: both visual design and quality of all the assets are really nice and consistent. The soundtrack was a little bit more of a mixed bag – while I didn’t dislike any of the tracks, some of the more dynamic ones, for example accompanying the previously-mentioned office drama, proved seriously distracting. I really prefer my VN music staying safely in the background, unless it’s really great and kicking in during crucial moments of the story. Here is managed to disrupt my reading experience on quite a few occasions.
                As you can imagine at this point, I can’t with a clear conscience recommend playing Our Lovely Escape – and this is a shame, because it was both a game I was seriously anticipating and one that had the potential to be really enjoyable. Psychological horror, even in its more trashy variants, is a fun genre and this VN only needed a little bit of depth and feeling of tension/entrapment to work. Hopefully, Reine Works can take some lessons from its failures and make sure their next move outside of the otome comfort zone is more successful. For readers… I can only suggest skipping out on this one – it’s not even interesting enough in its failures to be really worth experiencing. Truly a shame...

Final Rating: 2/5

Pros:
+ Decent-quality art

Cons:
- Unlikeable heroines
- Rushed story
- Works neither as romance nor as a horror
- Distracting music


VNDB Page
Buy Our Lovely Escape on Steam or Itch.io

Friday, 18 October 2019

Blog Update + My Visual Novel Fan Translation University Project

Hello there, all you good people still following my content-starved blog! There will be no regular review post this week (I’ll be catching up next week with one about Reine Work’s Our Lovely Escape, and hopefully a week after that with one of the long-overdue games sent to me for review), but I’ve wanted to take this opportunity to share the reasons behind the recent slowdown on the site and talk a bit my plans for the future. A warning: this will contain a lot of personal musings that most of you are probably not very interested in. However, I kind of need this opportunity to vent and reset. I’ll add a tl;dr version at the end of this post.
             Outside of my, not-extremely-successful attempt to jumpstart a new wave of activity on Fuwanovel, there have been a few other things happening behind the scenes. The major one was my academic project on visual novel fan translations, which led me to submitting a paper for an international fan studies conference in Cracow. Preparing the speech in English (this was the first time I wasn’t speaking in Polish on such an event), running a survey with people involved in fan translation projects… It all took a lot out of me and gave me little time and energy to actually enjoy VNs as such. It also coincided with a minor health issue, which despite its non-threatening nature made it impossible for me to sit straight for nearly two weeks – a truly infuriating thing when you should be working on your computer and are basically running out of time. This was probably a major factor which destroyed my motivation for working on the project, which in turn made it be the most painful and depressing one to date. I, however, still made my short presentation in the presence of prof. Matt Hills, one of the most influential researchers in my obscure field of study, and learned quite a lot from other speakers. Here’s some photographic proof, courtesy of my girlfriend who once more agreed to help me inflate my ego by documenting my speech. 😉
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As you can see, I was asking the Heavens to help me and my listeners to get through those 20+ minutes of my horrible English accent. Not sure to what degree my prayers were heard, but at least there were no fatalities. Oh, and in the lower-left corner, it’s Matt Hills. That was both awesome and terrifying.
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And here’s a rare moment where my conference ID wasn’t hanging backwards! You can see the fear in my eyes – one would think after nearly 10 similar presentations I’d be a little bit calmer, but it’s apparently in my nature to stress out over everything.
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And here’s me taking one of two questions that were still possible to ask after I’ve used all the discussion time for my way-too-long PowerPoint slideshow. And yup, I will insert Flowers whenever that's even remotely appropriate. Suou x Rikka forever. You can't stop me!
             While, in general, my project was fruitful and I’m satisfied with my performance, I also ended up so physically and emotionally drained that I’ve ditched the other two days of the conference, just enjoying my time in Cracow. Even after coming back, I had a day of what could be described as a full-on breakdown before I kind of got my shit together. All this, of course, has some very real consequences for the blog: for quite a while, I didn’t have the time and energy to really read VNs. And, obviously, without any new material to cover, I didn’t write anything either. It’s the first time since establishing the Blogger site that I have no “emergency” posts to use or quick ideas to supplement more involved write-ups with, even despite switching to the biweekly schedule. And honestly, I don’t expect to write much in-advance anymore. The “one post every two weeks” frequency is here to stay and I’m going to be flexible about it, switching content and dates when necessary.
             The other thing is that I still want to make the blog a little bit more of my personal space. I’ve kept up the regular stream of content both to become a better writer and to prove a few things to myself. I think I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved, and while I’m definitely not discarding the general profile of the blog and the responsibilities I’ve taken upon myself (like covering the games sent to me), I’m going to have fun with it too. Write silly stuff connected to the weeb culture and my peculiar experience with it. I’ve already hinted at this at the beginning of the summer, but I’m even more determined to make it happen now. No hobby I’ve picked up over the years was this intellectually stimulating and satisfying as this one and I want to do all I can to keep it this way – I can't let things go too stale. 
             And while I’m doing all this weird stuff and overthinking things, I hope you guys will stay and still read my crappy writing. Exploring the creativity and passion of EVN devs is not something I’ll ever get tired of, and I hope we can enjoy their stuff together for years to come. Thank you all for following my work, and until next week!
tl;dr I’ve been to a fan studies conference which, together with minor health issues, ate a month and a half of my life. I’ll get back to “serious” posting next week, returning to the bi-weekly schedule. I might sneak in some weird posts about Japanese popculture between “proper” EVN ones. EVNs are love, EVNs are life (still). See you next week for actual content!

Friday, 4 October 2019

I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator Review (Free Visual Novel)

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As it’s probably very clear by this point, I like visual novels. Like, a lot. I also happen to like KFC, which definitely places in my top 3 of fast food chains available here in Poland, occasionally coming very close to claiming that number 1 spot. The only thing stopping me from enjoying its antibiotic-filled, industrial chicken goodness every other day is the lack of convenient locales (in stark contrast to McDonald’s, as the closest one is in a very cosy corner just 10-minutes’ walk away from my place, just beckoning me to claim those coupons for cheap coffee). Thus, there should be nothing preventing me from enjoying a parody/advertisement VN aimed at stroking that unsatisfied urge for greasy, over-salted chicken treats. I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator, released on Steam two weeks ago and developed by a niche studio under the name Psyop, had the potential to not only be a whacky marketing tool for KFC, but also a fun joke VN – with the backing of a giant corporation and a team of not-completely-clueless people working on it, it could've easily exceeded everyone’s expectations. However, it really, really didn’t…
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Whatever you might think about this game, it’s hard to argue with the extreme, masculine charm of its iteration of Colonel Sanders. Quite a… FILF? No… DILF? Ugh, nevermind…
 
I Love You, Colonel Sanders! was created with a very clear agenda in mind – it’s a device to promote KFC’s new mac and cheese dish and, more broadly, make you think about its blood-vessel-clogging menu for much of your reading experience. In this regard, it seems to be extremely successful on both macro and micro scale. It was the talk of the day on social media and even gaming sites for quite a while, achieving that for what was probably a tiny fraction of the cost of a traditional marketing campaign. It also really made me want to go to KFC, although that feeling was deeply bitter-sweet (bitter-salty?), as nearly none of the menu items featured in the game are a thing in the Eastern-European shithole I live in. We actually have some crappy “California” seasonal menu with pineapple in everything – a major turnoff, if you ask me. But, if I actually was in US, I’d be rising my cholesterol levels with that disgustingly-fatty pasta dish until I got sick of it – thus, I think the advert part works well enough.
                When it goes to the visual novel itself, it’s exactly the wacky collection of memes, caricatural characters and paper-thin plot you would expect it to be. Some say it’s just another pseudo-parody VN making fun of anime tropes, but those are really less prevalent than pure randomness. Also, all those absurd "gags" probably sounded way more fun in the script than they actually are after being brought to life. You start as a genderless student enrolled in a crash-course cooking academy, having to navigate your way through a number of “funny” choices in order to achieve two goals: show your fellow student, Colonel Sanders, that you’re a person worth his affection, and a chef good enough to become his business partner (both parts are connected to different choices and getting the cooking part right is actually a bit tricky). In all of it, there's a pretty clear message about simple cooking being supreme over snobbish culinary experiments, and Colonel Sander’s chicken dishes being exquisite, so I guess it conveys something akin to KFC’s driving philosophy. The ending you get mostly depends on whether you follow these "ideals" in your choices. There’s also a tiny bit of charisma to Sanders himself and the protagonist’s best friend, Miriam, and a few jokes connected to those two were actually amusing. The whole rest of the cast and the “main plot” itself are garbage.
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The exaggerated, wacky characters and abundance of memes would not be a major issue if they were employed in witty, genuinely funny ways – they are not…
 
There are also other elements in I Love You, Colonel Sanders! that you would expect from this kind of meme game, like random game-overs (you can thankfully go back to the choice just by clicking “try again”) and over-the-top music. The latter might actually be the worst part of the whole experience – it gravitates between utterly generic and seriously obnoxious, with the loud cacophony that kicks in during all more intense moments (like the cook-off sections) being simply unbearable. Interestingly enough, the game also isn’t a dating sim by any definition – while you have to deal with a few timed choices (pretty annoying and unintuitive when it goes to which answers are the correct ones), there are no gameplay mechanics to speak of. From the technical viewpoint, it’s extremely limited even for a visual novel, with no manual save (this is thankfully not so problematic with just how short it is), no backlog and dreadfully bare-bones options menu – basically just sound sliders and two pre-set graphical levels. This probably stems from the fact that it wasn’t made in a dedicated visual novel engine (I assume it was done in Unity), but it’s still an embarrassment for a semi-experienced studio to ignore quality-of-life features to this degree. Options like textbox opacity (hope you like white text on white background), text speed or skip-read options are in every modern VN for a reason, and I find ignoring them unacceptable even in a game this short.
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…I mean, your teacher is a talking Corgi! Sitting on a pedestal! That’s funny, right? Right???
 
If I can find something good about this VN, it would probably be visuals – most character designs are fun and assets are all-around solid. The variety of expressions on sprites is very satisfactory, and there are even some surprising traces of actual effort, like the alternative clothing made pretty much exclusively for the short ending sequence of the game. The opening animation could be described as pretty awesome and I’d be genuinely impressed if the VN itself was this vibrant. The fact it isn’t, and how messy its script is, makes me think that the production was rushed, without much time for devs to get really creative – which is a shame, but on the other hand, it's hard to argue with the memetic spread of this game and the generally-positive response it got. People were definitely amused by it, and that’s what the whole project was about. We can complain about how uninspired it is or how it lacks substance (unless you count chicken grease, there's a lot of that), but that doesn’t change the fact it was effective.
                And, as the last issue, there’s the immortal question of “what does it mean for VNs”? Unlike with the cases of DDLC or Devgru-p’s Hitler waifu game, I Love You, Colonel Sanders! enforces the image of visual novels as those whacky, shallow anime games not only through its outer appearance, but all of its content. It also, as mentioned before, mixes up what a dating sim and visual novel are, playing into popular assumptions. I’ll still ask all those crying about the damage to VNs image to calm down – I assure you, 99% of those that discount VNs as just waifu games for weebs wouldn’t be interested in them anyway. And, in the long run, the formula being used in all kinds of ways might be better than it being dead beyond our hermetic niche. I just hope that the next game of this kind will be just slightly more competent, showing at least a bit of the technical functionality and storytelling potential of modern VNs. It only takes a bit more effort to achieve that.

Final Score: 2/5

Pros:
+ Works as an advertisement
+ Good visuals
 
Cons:
- Mediocre humour
- Story? What Story?
- Music that will make your ears bleed
- Embarrassing lack of quality-of-life features 


VNDB Page
Play I Love You, Colonel Sanders! for free on Steam

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Obscure Visual Novels: Hierofania, Hierofania 2 & Rhyme or Reason by Ludeshka (Short Reviews)

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In my never-ending journey through the world of EVNs, I often happen to stray away from the more mainstream titles or things explicitly sent to me for review, and into the world of extremely niche games published by countless small-time developers, either for one of the many VN-related game jams or for no reason in particular. While most of them end up being unremarkable, many others turn out to be diamonds in the rough, showing really promising elements and fresh ideas, but being brought down somewhat by their small budgets and lack of polish. Rarely, I find really excellent and memorable titles, that are able to overcome their limitations through thanks to their author’s creativity and storytelling prowess – and while they are definitely worth writing about, they’re usually also small enough that they don’t fit into most of the formats I’ve used so far. For this reason, this new series will be dedicated to such games: mostly unknown, short EVNs that I’d love to see receiving more attention. And my first picks are three excellent, freeware games by the secretive developer working under the name Ludeshka: Hierofania, Hierofania 2 and Rhyme or Reason.
            Probably the most unique aspect of Ludeshka’s games is her art, which feels heavily inspired by expressionism. Rough, often slightly deformed shapes and exaggerated or unnatural colours seem to match the emotional aura of the characters and the climate of the scenes she portrays, rather than present them in a realistic manner. Often her illustrations are not something you would call pretty in the conventional sense, but their striking features give her VNs a lot of personality (particularly when combined with the grim storylines of her “flagship” titles, Hierofania 1 and 2) and it’s hard to ignore their artistic merit. The distinct artstyle is closely matched by the surprising and interestingly-structured plotlines – those, however, will be best to deal with one by one. So, please join me in this short overview of Ludeshka’s work, as I explain why it offers a lot more than you might expect at first glance.

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Hierofania is the tale of Crocket, possibly the last trainee in the dying order of Knights of Utrecht. Ten years after their god stopped manifesting and the magic powers he blessed his disciples with disappeared, only a handful of Knights remained, still clinging to their ancient creed. When a mysterious stranger, chased by the clerics of another deity for the crime he claims he didn’t commit, appears at one of Knight’s remaining strongholds and asks for help, Crocket is sent on a mission to prove his innocence – one from which few expect her to came back alive.
            I won’t hide that I find the setup and climate of Hierofania absolutely fascinating: the game is short, with around 3 hours of content, but manages to establish a cohesive setting that brilliantly subverts some common fantasy tropes. Be it Crocket, a naïve disciple of a dead religion who still believes that her faith will one day be rewarded with a miracle. Be it her captain, who gouged his own eyes in a gruesome ritual, one that was once a source of great power granted by his deity, but now simply made him a cripple. Or be it the stranger, who obviously holds some dark secrets, but the severity of which is hard to imagine before they’re revealed by himself in the bad endings… It’s hard to find a major set piece in this story that doesn’t feel captivating and the striking visual design only makes everything more intriguing. The short plot didn't make it possible to explore this world to the fullest, but the whole experience still feels extremely fresh – and that’s something you rarely get reading your 200th+ EVN.
            If I was to complain about something in Hierofania, it’d probably be the choices – they’re quite often cryptic or feature options very similar to each other, so you can’t really predict their consequences and usually have to unlock alternative endings through pure trial-and-error. This is something of a recurring theme in all of Ludeshka’s games and negatively impacted my experience with them, as I simply dislike this kind of confusing story structure. Still, it was a relatively minor issue in all these cases, and in the first Hierofania and Rhyme or Reason, the choices at least weren’t numerous enough for them to become frustrating mazes. So, I still highly suggest giving Hierofania a chance – with all its limitations, it’s an utterly unique story that will inevitably leave you with a strong impression.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

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Herofania 2 might seem like a repeat of certain themes from the first game, starting with a death of a goddess and despair of people deprived of her blessings, but ultimately tells a very different story, only loosely connected to the one from its prequel. It also offers a lot more significant branching, more visual assets (including simple animations) and a better sense of player’s control over what happens in it. It follows the story of Caramela, a young queen of a small fishermen kingdom of Currents. After her lands and her own family were ravaged by a mysterious plague a decade earlier, she ended up receiving the crown while unprepared for ruling and became dependent on her regent Senteltje, a man with a dark reputation and a history of conflict with the deceased queen. With the Kingdom devoid of its patron deity, the Sea Goddess also killed by the mysterious disease and a war raging between its neighbours, Caramela will be forced to finally choose a path for herself and her country.
            The game is an overall improvement over the first Hierofania, both in its production quality and its storytelling, but above all, maintains all positive qualities of its prequel. The characters are immediately memorable and interesting, the story is engrossing and develops in directions that are never banal or easy to predict. Caramela herself is a much more complex character than Crocket, quickly growing beyond the first impression of a spoiled and disinterest noble, content to let others take the burden of ruling. While how much agency she’ll ultimately have is heavily dependent on player’s choices, there’s a surprising variety in how her story can be resolved, without any obvious “good” or “bad” outcomes – in politics things are rarely black and white, and even conclusions such as Caramela forever staying Senteltje’s puppet is not necessarily bad for her or for Currents. One of the more decisively-positive endings can be considered the canon one, as it rewards you with a short epilogue connecting the story directly with the events of the first game, but this feels more like just an excuse to tease the overarching plot, which was meant to be resolved in the third entry in the series. Ultimately, Hierofania 2 is a story that stands very well on its own and lets you take away from it whatever you wish – and this makes it that much more worth reading.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

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Rhyme or Reason, released by Ludeshka between Hierofania 1 and 2, was an attempt at creating a more traditional romance VN and diversify from the fantasy drama driving the author’s main project. It’s a short game, with around 2 hours of content, following the story of Rhyme – a protagonist whose face and gender are never shown, but who still manages to show a set of interesting characteristics. They’re an aspiring singer and songwriter, passionate about their work, but also too demotivated by their tedious life and self-doubt to really chase their dreams. What has a chance of changing this sorry state of affairs is an invitation from protagonist’s close online friend, Karen, to stay for a week at her house, in a scenic small city by the ocean. After getting there they immediately meet Nancy, a somewhat-overwhelming aspiring singer, who’s in the middle of a desperate search for a guitarist for her band – the previous one disappeared, just before a major gig. Depending on the way you navigate this situation, it can lead you to 6 different endings, including two romantic conclusions featuring one male and one female character.
            Rhyme or Reason’s story shares some of the positive qualities of Hierofania, despite its vastly different tone: it tells you a lot about the characters through meaningful bits of information, rather than lengthy backstories and keeps you engaged with interesting story developments and fun dialogue. Thanks to all this, it manages to tell a rather satisfying and complete story in a very short time. Admittedly, the unusual artstyle does not work as well with this kind of mundane themes as it does with fantasy, but still feels properly expressive and makes the characters look unique. Overall, the game is not as engrossing as Hierofania and feels a little bit rushed, with maybe a few too many questions left unanswered and the endings very much open-ended. Still, it’s a fun short story that I don’t regret spending my time with and if you like simple romance VNs, I recommend checking it out.
 
Final Rating: Recommended

 
Sadly, Ludeshka's VN development endeavours slowed down significantly after the release of Hierofania 2 and it's going to be a while before we see another game from her (and especially before Hierofania 3 comes out, as it was explicitly put on hiatus). While there's still hope for the Hierofania trilogy to be concluded one day, all the games I've tackled in this post are self-contained and satisfying stories, worth checking out even if the “true” conclusion to some of the subplots would never arrive. They’re also completely free, which in my book is always a major positive. So, if what I wrote about these VNs piqued your interest even a little bit, be sure to give them a chance – you won’t be disappointed.
 
Also, as the last note, at some point mobile versions of both Hierofania games were available on Google Play, published by Visual Wordplay. However, just like many ports by that company, they seemed to suffer from serious technical issues. If you want to play Ludeshka’s games, I suggest downloading them for PC from her Itch.io page.