Friday, 10 August 2018

Plk_Lesiak’s Shovelware Adventures: Yume Creations

Welcome to another episode of Shovelware Adventures! This time, we'll take a break from our favourite, the Sakura series, to take a look at a much more obscure corner of the OELVN scene. The venture into commercial visual novel development by the German fan translator working under the label Yume Creations effected in some of the strangest VNs available on Steam and beyond. Combining competent art and interesting ideas with trashy ecchi, pieces of absolutely disastrous, bizarre writing and straight up failures in the English language, these projects are all experiences that will defy your expectations – just not necessarily in the ways their authors would want them to.
 

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A nukige without sex scenes, this little VN offers a rather charming heroine, who sadly gets involved in a totally nonsensical plot and various sexual scenarios that are never shown to the player. In the game’s story, our shut-in protagonist is forced to go out on a rare quest to buy groceries and on his way back home is nearly crashed to death by a (nude) girl falling from the sky. What follows, is a series of rather amusing interactions between the main character and the mysterious woman that invaded his life, which sadly can lead only to some literally incomprehensible and abrupt bad endings, or to a single positive one. The latter, admittedly, somewhat won me over by the virtue of being heartwarming, but was also based on some highly-questionable logic, making in turn everything that happened earlier rather hard to understand.
            The bad endings, which make little sense even after discovering the mystery central to the story and the true conclusion of the plot, along with the sexual tension constantly present in the game, building up towards non-existent hentai scenes, most likely suggest some heavily problematic development process. Because of all this, the final product is rather hard to recommend, even though I seriously enjoyed certain elements of it and ideas the author tried to implement – it is, indeed, a particularly unfortunate hunk of rabbit poo, not really offensive in any way, but hardly worth your attention.
 
Final rating: Rabbit Poo
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Featuring, among many other things, gross overuse of Japanese honorifics so beloved by the Western readers and some utterly confusing grammatical errors, Yume Creations’ second title definitely tried to improve on the already established formula, but sadly didn’t succeed. This casual story of a family trip to an exotic island, which evolves into a rather lighthearted supernatural drama later on, probably does a better job than Aozora Meikyuu when it goes following a coherent plot and including some wholesome erotic material (husband and wife sex scenes that are nice to look at, but pretty horrendous when it goes to actual writing). It is, however, still way too lacking in polish and competent storytelling to really become a compelling experience. Also, it even manages to be seriously overpriced for the 2+ hours of content it offers. The pinked-haired wife character, just like the Aozora Meikyuu’s heroine, might be the main redeeming quality here, but that will make the whole VN worthwhile only for the most dedicated waifu hunters. All others should feel justified to skip on this one or grab it only with some kind of deep discount.
 
Final rating: Rabbit Poo
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Have you ever dreamed about getting really intimate with your favourite gaming console, or the PC you’ve worked on for years and shared so many special moments with? If yes, Games&Girls have all your gross, objectophile fantasies covered, with a plot involving a shut-in protagonist, who spends his all money on a limited-edition PS4, only for the overpriced piece of hardware transform into a sexy woman overnight. What comes next is the tale of living with a battery-charged, sentient sex-doll that puts most Sakura games to shame when it goes to trashiness and dry writing. Chapter 2 of this episodic release adds a Nintendo DS to the mix – one that our hero buys fill the void left by his previous system not being able to run games anymore, and which, very predictably, turns into a loli (and a particularly obnoxious one at that).
            The anguish of the protagonist, being forced to sexually satisfy his now-living electronic devices instead of playing games on them is only comparable to the pain of reading the cringe-worthy dialogue and edgy internal monologues of the lead character. Avoid at all cost.
 
Final rating: Smelly Poo 
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Yume Creations is one of those fringe emanations of the VN market that are not only limited the EVN scene – it’s enough to look at the horror known as Creature Romances, brought lately to the West by Sekai Project, too see that disturbingly bad visual novels can be made anywhere and some indie companies will produce such small nightmares no matter what. When it goes to YC themselves, there seem to be more VNs coming from them, including an incest-themed one with a younger sister as the main heroine. This will, most likely, not end well…

PS This time too, my special thanks go to Bosskwar, who made this series possible (or at least much more enjoyable to make) through his let's play videos. 

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

AIRIS Review (free otome visual novel)



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This review was originally published on Fuwanovel Forums on February 9th 2018. Since then, Ebullience Games has disbanded and all their games, including AIRIS, were removed from Steam and other sites that hosted them.

Although a significant portion of VNs produced in the West is published for free on platforms such as Steam or Itch.io, most of them are very short and simple projects, often made by starting-out developers or as quickly put-together entries for contents such as Yuri Game Jam. Still, from time to time, it’s possible to find a VNs on a completely different scale also available as free-to-play releases – AIRIS, created by Ebullience Games for NaNoRenO OELVN event and published on April 2017, is definitely among the most expansive games of this kind, with proper route structure and impressive story variation, that will require you many hours to fully experience.
            While at first glance this otome might look like a generic fantasy romance, it offers a few fairly unique ideas (which I will not spoil in the review) – and those go far beyond its loudly advertised inclusivity, expressed through various LGBT+ themes. While not straying far from the typical formula of the genre, AIRIS indeed offers both a fully-fledged yuri romance route and another one focused on a non-binary character. More importantly though, it takes the somewhat overused trope of MMORPG and gives it an amusing spin – one which created some really interesting storytelling opportunities, even if their execution often left something to be desired.
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The diversity of the cast and possible romance options is definitely one of the game’s selling points – thankfully, all of the characters are solid and there’s no obvious agenda present in the storytelling (no, the bear is not romanceable)
 
AIRIS starts like a run-of-the-mill fantasy VN, focused on Aliya, a female swordsman and adventurer, and a few of her companions. Quickly though, the very literal use of RPG tropes and language, along with various game-like events within the story suggests an underlying mystery behind this at first generic-looking setting. This intrigue, which proves a bit more complex and unorthodox than you might expect at the beginning, is the game’s biggest strength – it leads into many interesting moments of drama, heavy moral dilemmas and affects some of the romance scenarios in a very unusual way, especially in Everea’s route.
            To fully understand the story, it’s pretty much necessary to play through all three main character routes, each one providing a very distinct perspective on the main mystery and uncovering motivations of the people involved. Every path is connected to an unavoidable romance arc, but with the impressive variety of endings, it can lead both to fulfilling epilogue and to tragedy (or even to a straight-up cataclysm for the world where the action takes place). It also doesn’t follow a simple good/neutral/bad ending structure, with most of the available conclusions being bitter-sweet or morally ambivalent in one way or another. Many of them are rather surprising, but stay true to the overall mood and message of the story, showing that there might be no clear “good” option when caught between powers beyond one’s control.
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The game's protagonist, Aliya, is definitely one of the highlights of AIRIS – while stubborn and impulsive, she’s definitely a proactive, strong female lead with a lot of character
 
While the main ideas behind the story and the overall characteristics of the main cast are well-thought out and enjoyable, the game’s background of being a NaNoRenO entry, developed within one month as the rules of the contest demanded, weights on it quite heavily – the scale of the project was clearly not appropriate for such time schedule and this visibly affected the quality of the writing. One thing that you quickly notice after launching the game is awkward wording, often poorly fitting the presented situations and characters. Seeing mercenaries in a medieval fantasy world talking repeatedly about “consuming too much alcohol” is at least enough to make you roll your eyes, if not completely take you out of the experience. The overused RPG talk, even if partially justified by certain plot points, also comes out as unnatural and confusing.
            Also, while the game is already fairly long (6-7 hours for a single playthrough, more than 20 hours of content in total) and occasionally struggles with pacing issues, some interesting ideas put in there stayed visibly underdeveloped. The prime example is Lyall, the non-binary romance option, whose identity is never really explored in the story, affecting mostly their visual design and pronouns used to address them. As much as one could argue that naturalizing their presence was author’s intention, it mostly feels like a missed opportunity or a hollow “diversity checklist” gesture. The short development time and the overly-complicated script seems to also affect how romance is present in the story – in Lyall’s and Everea’s routes it shows up fairly late and without proper build-up, making it look like if developers were struggling to fit it properly into the narrative.
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Introducing a non-binary character by itself looks like an interesting idea, however, Lyall’s identity is not explored in the game in any meaningful ways
 
The aspect that suffered the most from limited time and resources developers had available was definitely the AIRIS’ visual design. While character sprites are fairly aesthetic and complemented by good-quality backgrounds, their expressions and variety leave a bit to be desired. CGs on the other hand, very few (9 in the whole game) and of mediocre quality, are seriously underwhelming and take a bit of impact from crucial romance-related scenes, for which they’re mostly used. While music is rather pleasant and fits the climate of the game, in general, production qualities feel inadequate for a VN of this size.
          Still, for the most part, AIRIS is an enjoyable experience and, as a free game, something definitely worth trying out. With all it’s failures it also shows a lot of creativity and talent within its development team and makes me pretty enthusiastic about their first commercial project, The Masquerade Killer.  While I’m not sure if I can recommend playing through all of it, if you really enjoy otome games or if you take a guide and play only through the routes you find most interesting, you should have a very good time with this freebie – and a taste of what’s probably coming to us with Ebullience's new projects, this time in much more polished, well-balanced form.

Final verdict: 3/5

Pros:
+ Three highly distinct story routes
+ Interesting use of the main premise and creative endings
+ Pleasant-looking sprites and backgrounds
 
Cons:
- Few, mediocre quality CGs
- Poor sprite variation and scripting
- Occasionally sloppy writing
- Pacing issues on some routes


VNDB page

Friday, 3 August 2018

Sunrider Academy Review (dating sim)


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The Sunrider series is one of the most successful OELVN franchises – one which not only spawned two highly-appreciated VN/strategy game hybrid titles, but even made a rare attempt at expanding to the Japanese market (at least successful enough that the games’ developer, Love in Space, apparently works on making their upcoming title, JP-idol themed Shining Song Starnova, into another export product, with Japanese voice acting and other elements rarely seen in western-produced VNs). Both the freeware Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius and it’s commercial sequel, Liberation Day, got much recognition for their space-opera storytelling, solid game mechanics and good production values.
            One thing the mainline Sunrider games definitely lacked, however, was satisfying romance – while the cast followed typical harem tropes, with male protagonist and vast, female-only crew more or less visibly in love with him, the character development for most of the girls was extremely basic and, at least in the first game, player was left with no ability to pursue any of them. To remedy this sorry state of affairs, Sunrider Academy was created – an alternative universe dating sim spin-off, placing the protagonist and the main four heroines of Mask of Arcadius in a typical high-school setting (although without abandoning the sci-fi elements or the Sunrider universe itself). So does this game, published by Sekai Project on April 2015, really remedy mainline Sunrider games’ omissions?
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The slightly smaller cast serves the game well, as every character can receive more meaningful screen-time and development
 
The alternate storyline follows our usual protagonist, Kayto Shields, as a second-year high school student in the prestigious Sunrider Academy. Many elements of the setting match the already established lore – Kayto's close relationship with his younger sister Maray, his role as student council vice-president and the presence of Ava as both his childhood friend the overly strict council president are all known from the flashbacks in Mark of Arcadius. The game, however, places three more Sunrider heroines, Asaga, Chigara and Sola, as fellow students within the Academy, while other characters from the main games, like Admiral Gray or Veniczar Fontana, make cameos in setting-appropriate roles. While you could expect some of these appearances to be just excuses to reuse visual assets (that is admittedly done a lot with sprites and backgrounds), it's not really the case – Fontana for example only shows up in two unique CGs and many other references to mainline Sunrider games are fairly clever and elaborate, definitely not done in a lazy way you could expect from this kind of spin-off.
            The plot itself involves Kayto being ordered by Ava to act as a manager for the three "trouble” student clubs (swimming, science and kendo), each led by one of the heroines. During the school year, his tasks are to save the clubs from being closed, lead them into progressively harder competitions while keeping up with his own studies and (hopefully) finding a girlfriend. All this is achieved through pretty involved and extensive resource management gameplay. Apart from managing three club's morale, readiness and member count, you have to work on your personal stats, earn money and fight for the affection of the girls through events and random encounters (during which you choose from a list of topics, that might or might not be appreciated by the heroine). From the technical standpoint, the game is definitely a dating sim before anything else, as the dialogue choices are pretty much just an extra factor influencing the affection meters, while everything else is determined by the stats and the schedule you set up for yourself every day.
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Fanservice and h-content are important parts of the game, but never overwhelm the actual story Winged Cloud-style
 
The heroine routes take some of the defining themes of the girls’ original stories (like time travel for Sola or forced marriage for Asaga) and give them a spin that makes them compatible with the new setting. After the introductory common route, that makes you familiar with both the characters and the game mechanics, you can choose to enter the romance arc with any girl with whom you have high enough affection level (the arcs are, of course, mutually exclusive). All stories are similarly enjoyable, doing a decent job when it goes to character development and making the heroines likeable – Academy is, admittedly, much better in this department than the main Sunrider games. The arcs themselves are however not without some heavy flaws when it goes to writing and pacing – the drama, especially in Chigara’s and Asaga’s route, feel forced and the resolutions to it rather anticlimactic. Dialogues also suffer a bit from Love in Space’s persistent mannerisms, which not always fit the characters and situations involved (including the ever-present “Mou...” and “Fufufufu”, which I have yet to find in similar quantities in any other VNs).
            Obviously, the stories themselves are not meant to be taken too seriously, as much of them is more or less excuses for h-scenes and fanservice. This does not go into the over-the-top territories some ecchi VNs take it to (like for example Sakura games with boobs and panty shots attacking you at every corner), but every route offers three lengthy hentai scenes and some additional “sexy” moments. As I’m not a fan of h-content in general, I’m not a good person to judge the quality of it here, but I was generally positively surprised with how the scenes were done – they were mostly very vanilla and nicely drawn. Story-wise, some of them definitely came out of nowhere and not necessarily fit the characters, but not to the point of completely taking me out of the story. What I also didn't really expect, the sex scenes definitely worked the best in Asaga’s route, as they simply went completely in-line with her characterization and were also a pretty important part of the narrative.
            One thing that proved to be definitely a negative surprise was the relative lack of interesting events and meaningful interactions with heroines other than your current love interest after the common route (which goes on for the first 1/3 of the playthrough) – even the achievements such as winning the galactic-wide competitions with your clubs or acing the final exams don’t reward you with proper celebratory dialogue, making the effort put into the gameplay mechanics quite hollow. This, along with the lack of variety when it goes to endings, definitely reduces the replay value of the game – after one or two playthroughs there’s literally nothing new to uncover apart from the strictly route-specific content, which isn’t expansive enough to nullify the boredom of replaying, for the most part, the same linear story.
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Dating-sim mechanics are extensive and fairly fun during the first approach, but become unbearable with repeated playthroughs
 
While the game offers around 12-15 hours of story content between all routes, most of your time with it will be spent on resource management, choosing your activities at 6 different points of every day over the pretty overwhelming, 450 days-long school year of Cera. The gameplay elements, while rather well-balanced and initially as addictive as in other well-crafted dating sims, are sadly unskippable and become a real chore after the first playthrough. This is connected to both how time-consuming they are and how the game’s goals are set up – as you can’t fail in any aspect of the "simulation" without receiving an instant game-over, there’s really not much space for different goals or unique play styles apart from some very arbitrary/pointless Steam achievements. Even though there is a “waifu mode” difficulty, which renders most stats irrelevant and makes the game pretty much impossible to lose, it still leaves you with hours of mindless clicking, maybe even more frustrating than it would normally be, considering its utter pointlessness. This led me, after the first playthrough, to giving up on the game itself and looking up let’s plays of the other three routes on YouTube – and it was, sadly, a much better experience than trying to replay the whole thing even from the end of the common route. 
            The game’s visuals are kept exactly the same level as in the rest of the Sunrider series – with average artstyle and level of details, but the very consistent quality that makes the end effect reasonably appealing. The CGs (not very numerous, when we consider the overall size of the game), backgrounds and UI are just as solid as the character designs and sprites already know from Mark of Arcadius, while they also never go above the expectations. Music consists of typical dating sim background tunes, with enough variety to signify shifts in the climate within the story and not drive you insane with repetitiveness, but once again keeping it at a perfectly average and generic level. 
            In the end, is Sunrider Academy worth playing? For fans of the series, it should be an enjoyable experience, especially on the first playthrough – if does a decent effort at remedying the lack of romance that plagued the Sunrider at least until the Liberation Day’s [RE]turn DLC. Beyond that, it’s still a fairly fun and well put-together dating sim that might be enjoyable on its own and can be found on Steam nearly for free, with frequent -80%, -90% sales. Beyond finishing it once, however, there’s just not enough depth in its gameplay mechanics or variety within the story content to make it interesting – if you really want to explore all the routes, or you’re not interested in the resource management mechanics in the first place, watching a let’s play, at least after experiencing the game for yourself once, might actually be the better option.
 
Final Score: 2,5/5

Pros:
+ Decently enjoyable heroines
+ Well-done references to main Sunrider games
+ Well-balanced gameplay mechanics
+ Good-quality h-content
 
Cons:
- Unskippable busywork makes replaying the game a chore
- Poor story/gameplay ratio beyond the common route
- Inconsistent quality of the writing


VNDB page
Buy Sunrider Academy on Steam

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Moe! Ninja Girls Review (predatory mobile visual novel)


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This review was originally posted on Fuvanowel Forums on January 12th 2018.

Note: While I didn't plan on tackling Japanese-produced OELVNs on this blog, this title is a perfect representation of mobile game market's business practices implemented in a VN and for this reason was worth a closer look. More than by itself, it's interesting as a negative example of scammy policies that aren't in any way endemic to JP developers and are sadly used by many different companies with various backgrounds.

I don’t think many people have any doubts about how horrible the mobile game market is nowadays, both when it goes to quality and dominating business models. Generic, borderline plagiaristic games, ridden with pay-to-win mechanics and exploitative microtransaction systems are a sad standard in most genres popular on smartphones and tablets, swarming the AppStore and Google Play in a way that makes it nearly impossible to find actual quality products just by browsing these storefronts.
            Considering the absurdly-high revenue that many mobile games bring their developers, often through relatively small investments, it shouldn’t be surprising that the plague of exploitative business models dominating the Android and iOS market would find its way into the world of visual novels. Still, how can you make an ultimately single-player, story-driven formula “pay-to-win”? Moe! Ninja Girls, a mobile OELVN produced for the western markets by a Japanese company NTT Solmare inc. shows that it’s absolutely possible to turn a text adventure with anime drawings into one of the most predatory, scammy games available on mobile.
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Want to read 1/3 of a story season in one evening? No problem, that will be just 30$ worth of “story tickets”!
 
So, how can you extort money from players with something as simple as a visual novel? The most obvious answer, if we can learn anything from other mobile releases, is by locking content behind long waiting times, skippable only by paying real-world money. This is Moe! Ninja Girls’ primary tactic – the game provides you with a free “story ticket” every 4 hours (up to 5 stored at once, so you can’t just wait for them to accumulate for more than a day), every one of them letting you access one, usually very short, part of a story chapter. Every season of the story (game have 10 so far and developers are regularly releasing new ones) is composed of 11 chapter, each divided into 7-10 parts. As you can easily calculate, reading through a full season of the game without paying, considering you’ll be as efficient as possible with using free tickets, takes around 18 days, for maybe 2-3 hours of actual content. Daily login and event rewards might make the whole process slightly faster, but if you wanted to keep reading the story at any reasonable pace, you would have to invest literally hundreds of dollars into this game. 
            This is, however, only the beginning – after all, a patient person could potentially suffer through all this waiting without paying any money. With those particularly resilient individuals in mind, additional mechanics were implemented. The first of those is an extremely simplistic and fully pay-to-win “ninja battle” combat system, completely dependent on passive stats, provided you by ninja gear – obviously, better variants of which are available pretty much exclusively for RL money. If you would like to skip this tacked-on, pointless feature, sad day for you – it provides you with two kinds of in-game currency necessary to progress the story. Of course, those occasional checkpoints can be bypassed. Can you guess how? With real life money. The situation is similar when it goes to in-game events, that can provide you with powerful rewards if you climb high enough in the ranking. However, points in them are mostly dependent on fights and story progression, so as the game gives you the story and combat tokens at a fixed rate, the only way to beat the competition is, once more, by investing real life money.
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Some of the art in the game in the game is admittedly quite pretty, even if generic in style. Visuals and (mild) fanservice are definitely the main selling points here
 
Is there any aspect of VN that wasn’t monetized here yet? Oh yes, romance! In every season, you have two possible love interests – every choice in the game will give you affection points with one of them, often in cryptic, hard-to-predict ways. If you reach high enough affection with one of the girls, you can unlock a special season-epilogue chapter connected to her. Don’t worry though, if you messed up with your choices, you can always boost you affection meter with real money! How sweet of the dev team to give us that option. I should also mention higher-quality CGs, that can be unlocked by buying premium gear. To be honest, the diligence of the developers in making every possible element of their game into a money-making scheme is absolutely stunning.
            But, is there actually any content hidden beneath this scam? To some extent, yes. While the plot is a pretty standard high-school comedy with a ninja theme on top of it, it has its amusing moments and rare pieces of good writing. The protagonist, definitely inspired to some extent by Yuuji from the Grisaia series, also produces some interesting scenarios and funny interactions with his quasi-harem. Mostly though, the game just relies on flashy visuals (with generic, but well-executed style) and significant amounts of all-ages fanservice to keep the reader entertained. It’s not horrible, but just as shallow and bland as you would expect.
            This game might seem a boring topic to write about, as soon as you get through the initial shock of its unrelenting greed and trashiness. However, there’s another, probably even more disturbing part of this story – Solmare produced close to 50 (!!!) otome romance VNs, most of the time using the exact same business model. You can find all of them on the Google Play, along with dozens of similarly exploitative, shitty titles by other companies. It’s a part of a plague that we should expose and criticise at every opportunity – while it might now go away anytime soon, I would at least like to see that the scumbag policies of mobile game companies don’t go overlooked and unchallenged. The only proper conclusion I can give is to avoid this game at all costs and whenever possible, warn others against touching it and all other shameless scams disguised as VNs, that swarm the mobile storefronts.

Final Score: 1,5/5

Pros:
+ Decent art
+ Story has its funny/amusing moments
 
Cons:
- Horrible, exploitative business model
- Nonsense plot full of tropes and clichés
- Stock characters without any real depth
- Pointless, pay-to-win “ninja battle” minigame


VNDB page 
Please, don’t ever download Moe! Ninja Girls on Google Play

Friday, 27 July 2018

Plk_Lesiak’s Shovelware Adventures: Yuri Sakura Games, part 2

Hello again and welcome to the second part of our journey through the world of Winged Cloud's yuri shovelware!
 
The release of the Legends of Talia’s was undoubtfully a small disaster for Winged Cloud, not only failing to kickstart the new non-ecchi franchise, but also being quite harshly rejected by WC’s already-existing fanbase. It didn’t, however, end the yurige streak which made the straight Sakura porn, once definitely the dominating format, surprisingly rare in last year and a half (and the het games that actually did show up in that time were all very much underwhelming, even by the series’ standards). Still, whether this “Golden Age of Yuri” translated into us customers receiving anything of quality is, as always when we’re talking about Winged Cloud, a bit more complicated issue. So, what exactly the latest yuri Sakura games have to offer, apart from an unreasonable amount of boob-centric CGs?
 

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A Sakura game about making a Sakura game, Gamer is one of the first examples of Winged Cloud trying to include what would normally be the basic component of any ecchi VN: actual comedy and humour. This development undoubtedly connected to the hiring of a new writer, Waffle, who replaced the veteran Liberty, whose track record was progressively getting more and more awful. In the case of Gamer, the satire is mostly directed towards WC's own products, resulting in some highly-amusing and accurate episodes of self-ridicule. Although it might be slightly hermetic to an outside reader, with a lot of references to other Sakura titles, it’s probably the first instalment in the whole franchise that on occasions was genuinely funny to me – and still remembering the jokes and references in Sakura Spirit, dryer than the Karakum Desert, this was a very welcome change.
            The plot of the game, if you can call it that, seems more like a semi-random set of interactions written to fit previously-drawn character sprites and CGs, but also features a fairly amusing cast of female characters (the protagonist, Nekohime, is probably my third most favourite Sakura lead after Dungeon’s Yomi and Fantasy’s Raelin) all of which receive traces of actual development and, when it goes to heroines, can be seen as serviceable romance options. Inma’s character designs, while rather absurd, are also among the best ones she’s ever made for Winged Cloud – those buying Sakura titles solely for the CG’s (as much as I’m puzzled by that practice) will definitely have something to look at here. While this might not be, objectively speaking, one of the best WC titles ever, it was one of the most enjoyable ones for me and I can recommend playing it as strongly as it is ever possible with a Sakura game (that is, just watch Bosskwar’s playthrough of it, it will be a lot of fun).
 
Final rating: Golden Poo! 
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Winged Cloud’s 2018 Valentine’s Day surprise is, putting all the possible Gabriel Dropout inspirations aside, a relatively competent VN, once more utilizing the arcane art of comedy to make the Sakura formula slightly less stale and generic this time mostly in the form of some over-the-top CGs and character interactions, that, especially in the opening segments, give the whole game some actual personality. Cupid also stands out by, very surprisingly, throwing the fanservice and hentai scenes at you in a way that is both logical and fits the story, and it's probably the only time I’ve seen this particular feature in the whole series.
            The actual plot and characters, however, are more on the bland side of the spectrum, mostly due to lack of any interesting development – especially Mitsuki, the waitress that out protagonist teases constantly in the café she frequently visits, starts as a pretty amusing, snarky heroine, but quickly turns into an over-the-top deredere, whose only clear quality is her obsessive love for our female lead. The endings also are among the more anti-climactic and dumb ones I’ve seen lately, making the whole VN rather hard to recommend. I have to admit though that the CG presented above and the scene associated are among the funniest things I’ve seen in WC’s games thanks to it and a few other highly-amusing moments I don't actually regret reading through the whole thing.
 
Final rating: Rabbit Poo 
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Sakura Sadist is another gloriously contradictory example of Winged Cloud’s simultaneous progress and regress when it goes to quality – an initially nicely written and fairly funny VN that pretty much completely falls apart later into the story and is incapable to capitalize on its best assets. The game, following a female pervert protagonist, starts quite amusingly, with our lead constantly teasing and bickering with her childhood friend, Mari, who serves both as a straight man throughout the story and as one of two love interests (the second one being a certain beautiful, dignified star of the school, who we can instantly identify as the titular [closeted] sadist). The actually competent dialogue and nice chemistry between the main girls made me at first quite optimistic about the game and the possible direction it might go to.
            Sadly, if you thought that anything interesting would be done with the BDSM theme or there would be any kind of twist to the story that you couldn't easily predict after first 15 minutes, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Not only the main premise is realized through a few episodes of pet-play and the second heroine trying to control the protagonist in vaguely BDSM-esque fashion, but it can also be… Skipped completely, by choosing not to be a total creep and in that way reaching Mari’s route, with its 10 minutes of dialogue and 20 minute-long hentai scene (at least I have to admit it might be the most extensive porn segment in all of Sakura games, whatever that’s worth to you). The already short game, ending an hour early in one of its main conclusions is not a thing I see every day, but also not something I ever want to see – just like I don’t want to ever see more of Sakura Sadist.
 
Final score: Rabbit Poo 
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So, as we've reached the most recent instalment in the whole Sakura franchise, what the future might hold for these trashiest among trashy Western yurige? I would expect them to keep coming out, more or less, till the end of times – while not all Winged Cloud fans are happy about the switch to mostly f/f smut, the company’s dedication to the theme shows that it’s a viable niche and sells at least well enough to justify constantly spewing new iterations of the formula. I’m also pretty sure that Winged Cloud isn’t going anywhere, considering it’s stable Patreon support that at least partially compensate for possibly dropping Steam sale (obviously, with the effective death of SteamSpy it’s very hard to say what the numbers look like for their latest titles). I’m very sure that before I’m done covering the whole already-available roster of Sakura games, they’ll be new ones coming to keep the Shovelware Adventures alive. 
SUCH JOY! SUCH HAPPINESS! :nico: 

PS Once more, my special thanks go to Bosskwar, who made this series possible (or at least much more enjoyable to make) through his let's play videos.