Friday, 7 December 2018

Yuri Game Jam 2018 Visual Novels, Part 2

Welcome to the second part of my Yuri Game Jam 2018 summary! Just like the last week's article (if you haven't read part 1, check it out now!), this post will offer you a short overview of visual novels that entered the event this year, this time with the focus being solely on fully-released titles. While in the previous post there were very few surprises (with mostly the two titles I actually expected to deliver, Starship XO and Valentine Disaster, standing out from the crowd), this time there were a few unexpected latecomers to the event and games that genuinely surpassed my expectations – Scrambled: Syd City being probably the most notable one, and quite possibly the best VN in YGJ this year. It will also make a small trip outside of the VN sphere, but what that is exactly about, you'll see at the end of the article... Enjoy!


a1BDkj.jpg
This story about two colonies of humanized ants, and two simple workers that brought those together despite the distrust and differences between them, is one of the most charming and compelling stories in this year’s YGJ. Thanks to its relatively longer script (it takes around 2 hours to fully read through), A Game About Ants managed to not only convey an amusing “love beyond prejudice” main plot, but also set it in a pretty elaborate "political" context of a clash between the aforementioned nests (heavily inspired by actual species of ants, with their specific appearances, habits and social hierarchies). The end result is a really intriguing and visually pleasant experience, also featuring probably the most sensual scene of antennae “kiss” you’ll ever see in a visual novel... And, quite likely, anywhere else. Do you really want to miss out on that?
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended
 
53zKlz.png
Team ANPIM, veterans of YGJ, managed to deliver one of the more traditional love stories in this year’s event – a kinetic novel about a high school girl who finds herself in borderline life-threatening trouble and is saved by an unassuming kouhai from her school, only to fall in love with her despite their different backgrounds and personalities. It’s a simple, slightly cheesy piece of yuri romance (around 2 hours long, with only a handful of CGs and photographic backgrounds), but drawn and written well enough to give all the cute and fuzzy feelings you’d hope to get from this kind of game. The lead couple is simply adorable and the conclusion was good enough to nearly get a few tears out of me, and while I’m a sucker for this kind of fluff, I believe it’s as good of a recommendation as I could ever offer – give it a try!
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended
 
VxWxmT.png
Magic Mirror Hall is another tiny, but beautifully stylized and interesting VN, telling the story of Alex, a (non-binary) magic shop owner who ends up at the center of their dear friend’s relationship problem – one that manifests itself through supernatural events (or two be specific, dangerous and uncontrollable outbursts of wild magic), but is rooted in the lack of communication and understanding between the girls. Depending on the protagonist’s choices and advice they give, they might help resolve the issue, or risk it turning into a genuine tragedy – and for Alex personally, who's struggling to keep their business afloat and find meaning in the job they inherited from their grandmother, there might something more at stake than someone else's happiness.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended
 
MVRA4M.png
Another Yuri Game Jam VN that feels much more like a teaser or an exercise in using game creation software than a standalone title of any sort, Like Sisters provides an interesting setup (a young writer coming to the US to visit an old friend of hers after hearing that she struggles with depression) and a promising pair of lead characters, and… Does literally nothing with them. While this could have been a start of a fun story and the writing is arguably quite decent, the 15-minute experience is just as empty as its CG gallery – but I’d definitely not mind seeing a “proper” release from this author in the future. 
 
Final Rating: Not recommended
 
Xt4IEg.png
Team Rumblebee, responsible for stylistically-unique and enjoyable YGJ VN Loan Wolf, this time decided to give its own spin to the theme of superheroes. Just like their first game, it features a struggling protagonist (C-List superhero with invisibility powers, who chose an unfortunate nickname “Scrambled”) and two romanceable heroines (an ex-hero turned small-time villain, and a veteran hero on a path of revenge against the former). Unusual character designs, solid writing and high attention to detail (with fun gimmicks heavily-stylized nametags for all the “super” personas), all make for a very satisfying experience. Also having probably most content from all this year’s entries (2-3 hours of reading), Scrambled could be easily justified as a commercial product, and as a free game, it's pretty much a must-read for anyone who enjoys yuri and EVNs with actual personality, that don’t just stop at blindly replicating Japanese aesthetic and storytelling tropes.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Honourable Mentions
While VNs were the main focus of my coverage, it wouldn’t feel right to ignore a few of the titles in a different category, similarly focused on telling interesting stories and created by experienced authors, who should be familiar to many EVN fans out there. Because of this, I've decided to give the spotlight to a pair of RPG Maker games that weren't tagged as visual novels, but should still be interesting to anyone interested in yuri VNs, or quality GxG content in general.
 
AQdwEP.png
Dreaming Treat by NomnomNami is the fifth in her series of RPG-maker games about a lonely wolf, trying to find a place for herself in a world that holds little more than contempt for her kind. It once more does a very good job of combining the themes of discrimination and love beyond prejudice with Nami’s lovely artstyle and writing, making for a satisfying experience (and evolving into what is probably the only truly heart-warming polyamorous story I’ve seen to date). Also, don’t get fooled by the JRPG formula – this game is focused purely on storytelling, with map movement and interactions serving no other purpose than presenting the plot and immersing you in its world. And the kind of story it offers is something most VN fans should find enjoyable.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended
 
x3CsfV.png
Npckc is an author known for creating small, rather cute games in VN and RPG-maker formats, that tackle minority issues in relatable, subtle ways. Lilac, while very similar to those earlier project, might actually be the weakest of them all, simply missing on opportunities to tell a slightly deeper story – the premise, with a girl that literally lost her colour and is turning everything she touches grey is excellent and her first confrontation with a witch, who makes a surprise visit to her house and ends her isolation is very promising. After this, however, not very much happens and while the resolution is not completely unsatisfying, it never tells us anything about the source of the protagonist’s depression or the future that might await her. While I always liked the minimalistic style of npckc’s stories, here there’s simply too little of everything and while the experience of playing lilac & her light is still a relatively positive one, it’s nowhere near as memorable as some of this author's earlier work. For the more dedicated YGJ fans.
 
Final Rating: Recommended


And this concludes my YGJ coverage for this year! To be honest, at the beginning this edition of the Jam looked pretty bleak when it goes to VNs – most of the really interesting entries arrived late, often literally making major updates or delivering the full version of the game past deadline. The end effect, however, was a highly amusing set of free games, including some really memorable titles, that didn't stand out negatively when compared to previous iterations of the Jam. While it might be a while before we see again something as brilliant as The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns or Once on a Windswept Night taking part in the event, some of the games on this list came pretty close – and from my perspective, that's already pretty damn awesome.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Wolf Tails Review (Western Visual Novel)

maxresdefault.jpg
This review was originally published on Fuwanovel Forums on May 11th 2018.

Visual novels with the possibility to choose the protagonist’s gender are fairly rare, and genre's focus on storytelling and romance makes such a gimmick especially hard to pull off properly. Creating games like Loren: The Amazon Princess, with an option to choose between two full-fledged leads, one male and one female, each with their own personality and a set of romance options, takes a lot of work and only fits certain kinds of stories. On the other hand, VNs in which gender choice only changes minor details in the dialogue and the overall storyline struggle to make the narrative convincing – especially in the female version, which more often than not comes as an afterthought, created by slightly modifying the default, male scenario.
            Razzart Visual, the author behind highly-regarded yuri VNs Love Ribbon and Starlight Vega, is also the person responsible for two much less critically-acclaimed ecchi games, both of which featured female love interests and the ability to choose protagonist’s gender, making them in a way both classical romance VNs and yuriges. On May 4th 2018, Razzart's third game in this formula, Wolf Tails, was released on Steam, featuring romance scenario with a rarely-seen kemonomimi variant, that is wolfgirls, and a new artstyle. How does it compare to Razz’s previous projects and does it succeed in working both as a traditional eroge, and as a yuri game?
wt_by_szafalesiaka-dcazg5z.jpg
The gender-specific cut-ins and dialogue fragments are actually well done, although it’s still easy to notice which variant of the story was the original one
 
The aforementioned, earlier ecchi titles by Razz, Catch Canvas and Happy Camper, did a fairly atypical thing, adding the possibility to play as a female to a very standard, Wing Cloud-esque structure of (mostly) male-oriented ecchi VN. As a fan of yuri, I rather enjoyed that option in Catch Canvas, as not only was it fairly well implemented (with references to the protagonist being a woman in places where you would logically expect them) but also slightly changed the tone of what was originally a pretty trashy fanservice VN – some interactions, which would be clearly sexual and borderline-creepy with a male lead, became a bit more ambigous when the protafonist was a womanHappy Campers, however, failed to deliver even to that extent – while the option to play as a female was theoretically there, its effect on the story was pretty much non-existent. What’s even worse, some scenes and situations were obviously written with a male MC in mind, shattering the already paper-thin yurige fantasy.
            Thankfully, Wolf Tails not only didn't repeat Happy Campers' mistakes, but also went a few steps further than both of those earlier projects when implementing the gender choice feature – apart from the gender-specific dialogue lines and some elaboration on f/f romance, it adds CGs in which the protagonist is partially visible. It’s still hard to consider it a fully-fledged yuri – the fact of the male protagonist being the default option and the other one added by modifying it afterwards is pretty visible and the game sometimes struggles to implement the female version in a logical manner. Playing as a woman is, however, a fully viable way of experiencing the story, especially if you consistently choose the same gender between playthroughs and are not aware of the workarounds that made the yuri version possible.
screenshot0058.png
The romance and slice-of-life moments of the game are solid, but also generic to the point they wouldn’t be out of place in a Sakura game
 
Wolf Tails is also more of an actual romance story than Catch Canvas or Happy Campers. The moment a near-frozen-to-death wolfgirl appear in your remote mountain cabin, disturbing your consciously-chosen solitude, the game starts developing a fairly serious and touching, romantic storyline. Even though it’s very short, taking up to 5 hours to 100% and not more than 2,5 hour for a single playthrough, it doesn't feel incomplete or particularly rushed. The heroines – the kind, well-mannered Mirari and fierce, classic tsundere Fuyu – could probably receive a bit more development, but the writing manages to make them appealing enough, and their backstories and endings (the branching is minor enough that it’s hard to really talk about separate “routes”) have quite a lot of emotional impact.
            The downside of the short storyline is that because of how relatively shallow and simple it has to be, beyond the interesting visual designs and the brief feeling of novelty from the unusual heroines, it comes out as very generic (with the corny concluding moments only strengthening that effect). My experiences with Razz’s previous work probably made this problem even deeper – knowing well both the kind of scenarios she creates and the style of Zetsubou, the writer she consistently works with, I knew very well what to expect, all the way to the wording and scenarios in the erotic scenes. For most readers, it shouldn’t be a huge problem though, as the game more or less delivers on its main promises – being a cute, fun romance story with a decent portion of “sexy” elements (including the fully-fledged 18+ CGs unlockable through a free patch – although the "all-ages" version is spicy in its own right and uses only minor, visual censorship, not cutting out any of the story content).
screenshot0053.png
Although for the first time under the Razzart label the art was not drawn by Razz herself, the visual quality of the game is as solid as ever
 
What definitely helps the sexiness and cuteness in becoming potential selling points of the game is the fairly unique and gorgeous art by Naso4. Being a bit of an opposite of Razz’s style, with its sharp outlines and slightly extravagant designs, it was something that took me a few moments to get used to, but the actual quality of sprites of CGs was impossible to dispute. As in all of Razz’s games, the rest of production qualities were also high, with some very nice-looking, climatic backgrounds and an aesthetically-pleasing, functional UI. My personal plight of not noticing the music in most OELVNs, however, wasn’t broken here and, as usual, I will interpret it as the soundtrack being serviceable enough to neither stand out nor get in the way of experiencing the story.
            So, in the end, is Wolf Tails worth your time? In my opinion, it’s definitely a well-made, enjoyable little romance VN and I absolutely don’t regret my time with it. If you’re into love stories and/or are looking for slightly different visual style and different themes than in most romance OELVNs, it should definitely deliver. With how short it is, however, it might be debatable if it will be worth the full asking price of 10$ to every reader – if you’re not sure whether you’ll truly enjoy it, wait for it to go on sale. That way you really shouldn’t regret giving it a chance.
 
Final score: 3/5
 
Pros:
+ High-quality art
+ Not overbearing fanservice and erotic scenes
 
Cons:
- Very short
- Cliched story


VNDB page
Buy Wolf Tails on Steam or Itch.io

Friday, 30 November 2018

Yuri Game Jam 2018 Visual Novels, Part 1

Yuri Game Jam, having few limitations on what can enter the event outside of including some form of yuri or LGBT themes, was always a good arena for various devs to show off demos or prototypes and gain visibility or feedback for their projects. At the same time, it consistently attracted many complete projects, often surprisingly solid when it goes to their quality and the amount of content they offered. This year this was no different, with over 20 full games entering the event, including 11 original VNs, ranging from extremely short and basic, to a few-hours-long and artistically impressive ones. In the last month, after the end-of-October YGJ deadline has been reached, I was going through all these titles and today I'm offering you a full overview of what a VN fan might find in this year's event's roster. Or, well, at least the first half of it...
          In my coverage, I will, for the most part, ignore all the in-development titles – the production cycles of indie games are always a bit unpredictable and I’m highly distrustful whether some of the demos we can find in YGJ will turn into actual, finished products in foreseeable future. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the fully-released visual novels in the event and providing a short overview of each of them, along with a simple rating on a scale of “not recommended/recommended/highly recommended”. I will also, obviously, skip on the games from other genres that took part in the Jam (although if you value story-driven yurige, I encourage you to still give them a chance). So, I hope you’ll join me on the journey through this interesting collection of queer, freeware VNs and uncover all the surprises this year’s edition of YGJ holds for us. As always, all the games mentioned below are completely free to play, so if you click the Itch.io links in their titles, you can try them out right away with no charge. Let's get to it!



IbVa0a.jpg
We’ll start things off with what could be described as another quintessential YGJ VN – a piece of cute, visually pleasant and utterly heartwarming GxG romance with some minor, cool spins to it. In this case, the story of tomboyish Selene trying to bake a perfect Valentines Day's gift for her girlfriend after they had a falling out, is spiced up by brief point-and-click gameplay elements, requiring you to buy and select the right ingredients for the dessert of your choosing. If you follow the subtle clues the game provide you with along the way, you can easily find the best combination or home-made delicacies and bought presents to quickly salvage the threatened holiday. But if you mess up, there will be consequences… A very brief (up to an hour for 100% completion), but fun and lovely-looking experience.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 
2s8owr.png
Probably the most substantial piece of fanfiction in visual novel form that I’ve seen to date, Symmetra’s Qualifying Matches is essentially a giant festival of gay shipping in the Overwatch universe (both involving the titular protagonist and lots of other pairings), but not one without some peculiar charm. Its artstyle will definitely not be to everyone’s liking, but grew on me during the experience (it's crude, but goes quite well together with the absurd story), to the point where I was even able to look past the persistent visual glitches and certain less-fortunate illustrations.
          Outside of the visual side of things, the game includes pretty elaborate references to Overwatch's story and offers some seriously amusing interpretations of the game's characters. As any other fanfiction, it doesn’t work well without decent knowledge of the source material on the side of the reader, so unless you want to do some major research just to follow what’s going on and fully understand the humour, I can only recommend it to actual Overwatch fans with a decent grasp of that game’s mechanics and its extensive, but scattered lore.
 
Final Rating: Recommended

 
gqaDm.png
NewWestGames’ entry into this year’s YGJ is definitely rough around the edges, but offers surprisingly satisfying characters and story, at least as much as it is possible within its brief reading time. It follows a team of misfits, dropped by their commander into a barely-running, decommissioned starship and having to survive on the frontlines of a galactic war with little more than their ingenuity and teamwork. It includes a variety of queer themes and talks about them and the discrimination characters have suffered from in a pretty believable way, why also offering a relatively fun main storyline and well-stylized artwork. The very fast pacing and short script do not leave that much place for depth, but what is there is simply fun to read through – and for the low price of nothing, there’s simply no reason to not give it a chance if you’re not completely averse to its subject matter.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 
5wvHvG.png
As mentioned before, events such as YGJ are open to all kinds of games, including even the most basic, low-effort ones, put together with a bunch of free assets and a bit of original text and programming. Little Green Girls takes this approach pretty much to the point of pure trolling, with its super-cliched, short story, one stock character sprite (with some MS Paint-level modifications) and, for the most part, complete lack of sound. It can be a bit funny with how brazen and self-aware it is, but it’s still not something I would ever recommend reading – even considering how hard to find a decent fix of human x alien yuri romance, this one is simply not worth it.
 
Final Rating: Not Recommended (although I regret nothing!)

 
wZfL+V.png
This remake of the first, freeware VN by MikomiKisomi (now working under the label of Mikomi Games and an author of some relatively interesting and stylistically distinct otome and yuri titles) is a great improvement over the previous version when it goes to visuals, but does not fix the core issues it suffered from. Based on a very promising concept of magical necklaces connecting people through space and time, Crossed Paths has all the building blocks necessary to create a satisfying story, but never manages to pace its plot properly and ends it in an incredibly abrupt and anticlimactic manner. While it’s not a terrible read while it lasts, in the end, it’s simply too basic, too unfocused and too lacking in any kind of impact to be worth recommending – you’ll probably have much more fun by checking out any of Mikomi’s other projects instead.
 
Final Rating: Not Recommended

 
ZXcX7q.png
Inspired by Ancient Greek mythology and appropriately stylized, Naxos is more of a short choose-your-own-adventure book than a traditional visual novel, but still offers a visually-pleasing user interface and a compelling premise – a bond forming between an noblewoman, dumped on a deserted island in unclear circumstances and hopelessly waiting for rescue, and a female minotaur, who turns out to be much more than a violent monster everyone expects her to be. While the story is tiny and rather open-ended, not revealing much on what kind of future awaits the main characters, it's fairly unique, climatic and written well enough to be definitely worth checking out.
 
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 
oIpt3Y.png
I usually have reservation towards visual novels made in unity, as if they follow the traditional format, they usually make for inferior experience in comparison to those created with dedicated VN engines – they not only rarely work as smoothly as games made in Ren’Py, but also lack various quality-of-life features, such as skip-read function or easy access to the backlog. It can be worth it, though, if the developers deviate from the traditional VN format and use Unity’s flexibility to offer an alternative take on the genre. In The Cards might put some people off with its visual quirks (VR-like environment, literal cardboard cut-out character models) and cryptic dialogue, but is also a very interesting experience which, successfully or not, tries to tackle some universal topics and tell a subtle, mostly implicit love story which most yuri fans should find satisfying.
 
Final Rating: Recommended

 
Honourable Mention: Mystics of Sapphia – Prelude
mUMURV.png
The sole exception to my "no-demos" policy is a prologue chapter for a simple-looking, but highly promising yuri VN which has been successfully kickstarted a few weeks ago. Mystics of Sapphia follows the story of a Princess in a fantasy world, who is assassinated, along with the rest of the royal family, and because of a magic necklace trades bodies with her personal maid moments before dying. Haunted by guilt for taking her closest friend's life and struggling to survive in her new role as a lowly servant, she still does not give up on the idea of solving the mystery behind the assassinations and during that quest, meets three powerful women who become game's heroines. While the campaign leaves a lot about the final product's length and content a bit vague, this is one of those projects that are definitely worth keeping an eye on as a yuri fan. And if the developer's promises can be trusted, should be getting our way in just a few months.
 


And this concludes the first part of my overview! From the VNs presented so far, Valentine Disaster and Starship XO are probably the ones that I would recommend trying out the most. While lacking polish, like it is often the case with these Game Jam entries, they are really fun and interesting little experiences, perfect to full up a slow evening with. Also, I hope you've enjoyed reading this and if you did, be sure to check out the second part of my YGJ 2018 coverage, coming up next Friday!

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Ruler by Default Review (Western Visual Novel)


cropped-all_wlogo.jpg 
This review was originally posted on Fuwanovel Forums on May 25th 2018

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free review copy of this game by the developer. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.

OELVN scene is, for many years now, heavily reliant on crowdfunding, with many small and high-profile projects made possible through Kickstarter and, more and more often, regular contributions of fans on Patreon. While these methods of financing VN development created opportunities that wouldn’t be available to the developers in the past and brought us many memorable titles, they go with their share if risk and problems – weak safeguards guaranteeing the final product delivering on its promises or even being completed at all, being the most crucial one. Crowdfunded projects disappointing their audience, getting stuck in development hell or simply never coming to fruition are at least just as much a reality as they are in the “normal” game development scene. However, in these cases, the consequences are falling mostly on the average backer, who took the double role of the consumer and the investor, hoping for nothing more than a compelling piece of entertainment in return.
           For this reasons, I very much enjoy seeing crowdfunded projects overcoming extreme difficulties and delivering even when everyone pretty much forgot about them or stopped hoping for a positive resolution. Lately, we’ve seen the release and warm reception of AIdol a game that spent more than half a decade in development, went through both a failed Kickstarter campaign and changes in staff, eventually being claimed by Ebi-Hime, originally only the writer for the project, and released under her name. Today, I’ll look at another long-forgotten project, Pistachi Studio’s Ruler by Default, successfully crowdfunded in 2014 and released on Steam on May 4th this year, exactly 3 years after the initial goal.
fpridY3.jpg
The game’s long development left many problems behind – the reworked visuals however made a significant, positive difference from what was presented in the early builds
 
Ruler by Default’s plot is quite a typical (comedy) isekaian average guy, programmer fresh out of college, is suddenly sucked into a fantasy world and recognized as a new (evil?) Overlord. The title, once held by a God-appointed ruler of the entire realm, lost most of its significance after the disappearance of the previous Overlord and his kingdom was reduced to a tiny domain of a castle and its immediate surroundings, guarded by a handful of still-loyal servants. Having at least a full year till another portal to our world can be opened, our protagonist has to accommodate to his new role and decide whether it will be just a temporary settlement, until he can return home, or something more permanent.
           The initial projects of the game, as presented in the Kickstarter campaign and Steam Greenlight page, showed it as a dating sim with stat management and some elements of political simulation. The final version, however, turned out to be pretty much a pure visual novel, with only choosable conversations and dialogue choices influencing the plot and the “ruling” part of the game basically out of the picture. For the first 30 weeks of your stay in the new world, you’re able to interact with one of the 6 heroines each week (5 of them romanceable, the sixth one having a supporting role and most likely getting a full route later as a DLC), using an overworld menu. If you finish all the events connected to one of the girls, you’re immediately locked into her route and the game continues as a normal, mostly linear VN. The project's past design is mostly visible through some of the still present flavour text, such as stat checks and stat bonuses from certain events that no longer mean anything and will most likely be removed with patches.
ss_72622eb1e7be6d4117635b4a134ebbc2a27f5
The heroines are definitely the game’s strongest asset – they’re all interesting, well fleshed-out characters, even if the actual routes vary in quality
 
Whatever Ruler by Default might have lost during its long and complicated development, it very much makes up for with personality and a great female cast. The first characters you meet, immortal elf-like sorceresses Mori and June are not only quirky and intriguing, but also show some of the game’s biggest strengths – good visual design and well-drawn, expressive sprites. All other heroines are similarly distinct and for a game that takes around 10 hours to complete, surprisingly well fleshed-out, with their own secrets and interesting backstories. All the routes also contain a nice mixture of comedy and drama, being lighthearted much of the time, but also producing seriously touching and dark moments – Mori’s route being probably the best one in this respect, completely changing your view of the character and delivering some compelling romance. Other story arcs are not always this consistent and enjoyable when it goes to writing, but also none of them feels underdeveloped or not worth reading.
           The protagonist, on the other hand, is much more generic, without any clear characteristics beyond being a nice guy (and, at least in one route, he acts consistently stupid and naive, enough to be rather off-putting). Also, unlike the heroines, it’s debatable whether he shows much growth during the story – this might be one more casualty of the missing dating sim (and political sim) mechanics, as in the narrative he often seems like just as much of a dork in the ending sequences as he was in the opening ones and there’s little you can do to lead him in a different direction without receiving a bad ending. This also makes the whole “evil overlord” theme very thin and mostly a comedic factor and personally, while I definitely didn’t expect this to be another Venus Blood, the lack of legitimate “darker” paths was a bit disappointing.
ss_e38c8d4754a359556cc0e6e97ee8656f06e9c
The removal of the dating sim mechanics didn’t hurt the romance, but definitely affected the political parts of the narrative, barely visible in some routes
 
Just like the character sprites I was writing about earlier, other visual assets are very solid, not being very high on detail, but well-stylized an appealing to look at. The overall artstyle isn’t far detached from usual anime drawings, but also have enough personality to be memorable. The pleasant music enhances that effect, giving the game a surprisingly strong climate. The only things that slightly spoils it are the persistent technical issues, not major enough to be game-breaking, but very much visible – the constantly bugging-out backlog, combined with the inability to roll back dialogue, was especially irritating. The nowadays rarely-seen 4:3 aspect ratio also was something that took me some time to get used to and could be a major problem for some readers.
           Still, those were definitely minor gripes when confronted with the overall enjoyment I’ve had with this VN. I came to me pretty much out of nowhere, from an era long before I was even interested in visual novels and when it goes to storytelling, delivered one of the most fun experiences I've had recently. While it might be advisable to wait for some minor fixes, and possibly even the addition of June’s route, before you read it, for the modest price of 10$ it’s still a great catch. If you can, support the devs behind this project – against all odds, they managed to provide us with a fun, memorable title and I really hope that they’ll work will ultimately be appreciated.
 
Final score: 3,5/5
 
Pros:
+ Good art and scripting
+ Great cast of characters
+ Highly distinct, compelling romance routes
 
Cons:
- Bland protagonist
- A LOT of small bugs


VNDB page
Buy Ruler by Default on Steam

Friday, 23 November 2018

Episicava Vol. 1 Review (Western Visual Novel)

7e534f26c0256d608c9f0684759cbb2e_origina
Chuunige is one of the visual novel genres that are barely present in OELVN scene, at least to any “serious” capacity – among the more popular and high-quality releases there’s very few that would even loosely fit the “fighting VN” formula, or especially effectively replicate the unique feel of this particular current in Japanese fiction. Recently, however, a fledgeling studio under the name of Epic Works decided to remedy this sorry state of affairs by creating a content-rich, Fate-inspired EVN called Episicava. The first volume, of what was apparently planned to become a longer series, was released on Steam in April 2018, in a slightly disastrous state – full of graphical bugs and various technical issues, the game made a rather poor first impression. However, since those problems were mostly fixed with patches in the months after launch, it’s a good moment to look at Episicava and ask the most important question – did it manage, in its improved state, to capture some of the magic of Fate/Stay Night or Dies Irae in a downscaled, low-budget form of an EVN?
Village_burning.jpg
The edgy opening of the VN is just as over-the-top and trashy as the rest of it, but the climate often shifts between brutal, gory action and comedy
 
While Episicava claims to be inspired by classic chuunige, I think it would be much more accurate to think of it as a VN adaptation of some particularly trashy and bloody shounen anime. The first feature it offers in abundance is edge – the game is full of over-the-top violence and gore (although nearly exclusively in textual form – CGs are mostly very tame), with even the prologue featuring a very graphic sequence of protagonist’s (who’s at the time still a young teenager) village and family being slaughtered without provocation by foreign invaders. Later, we go through many scenes with absurd death-counts and our anti-hero killing people rather indiscriminately in his quest for revenge, getting out-eviled only by the cartoonishly vile (and usually pretty dumb) antagonists. The fighting, utilizing confusing and overly-elaborate superpowers, involves other annoying shounen tropes, such as power levels and everyone shouting names of their techniques aloud whenever they use them.
            The protagonist, Arin, is the ultimate edgelord, initially driven solely by revenge and planning a genocide against the nation that he considers responsible for his people’s demise (although, for some reason, the game still starts in a high school setting with him masquerading as a student – after all, we can't just skip on overused tropes). While the game tries to communicate that he has some kind of basic moral code and gives him some development later down the line, he’s still a violent, messed up asshole who tries to resolve everything with brute strength and mistreats people around him, including the heroines, who he insults on a regular basis and even, in one case, coerces into sex (in an h-scene which also pretty much ruins one of the strongest female characters in the story). There’s even a scene where he ponders raping one of the game’s love interests – and while it’s clear where the writers were coming from, trying to portray a character broken and demoralized by his traumatic experiences, he’s primarily a piece of shit that you can barely ever relate to or truly care what happens to him. Some people might be okay with this kind of setup, but I barely ever felt such a strong disconnect between me and the protagonist in a VN – and every time it happened I very much didn’t enjoy it.
phrnss9keefjfiz7mvrq.jpg
The heroines definitely are not the worst part of the experience, but they have only marginally more common sense and likeable qualities than everyone else in Episicava's story
 
Other characters, sadly, are similarly shallow, even though the two romanceable heroines, Alacria (a daughter of one of the game's villains) and Anian (a warrior and heir to a tribal nation's chieftain), are somewhat likeable. The latter probably received more development than any other character in the game and even more than that, she even has a semi-legitimate reason to care about the protagonist, while Alacria pretty much shows out of nowhere and immediately declares a crush on him (the game, by the way, repeats that the protagonist is extremely handsome and generally loved by women to the point it’s hard to tell what the authors were trying to achieve, apart from making the juvenile power fantasy even more obnoxious than it already was). Everyone’s personality and motivations feel underdeveloped and cliched and while the game has a lot of time to build the characters (if offers around 20 hours of reading between all routes), it very rarely manages to do something interesting with them.
            The general plot also offers relatively little excitement, with rather predictable twists and few, mostly meaningless choices (in the vast majority of cases they only lead to an abrupt game over screens or let you access the newly-unlocked route after finishing your first and second playthrough). It’s essentially linear, with three routes and an enforced playing order (starting with Alacria’s route, then Anian’s route and the “true route”, which somehow manages to be the dumbest and least satisfying of them all). The stakes are always kept high, with world-ending conspiracies and global conflicts at the culmination of every story arc, but the silliness of it all and the fact how hard is to really care about the cast make it all fairly insignificant. The same goes to fights, which are actually not terribly done, considering dev’s limited resources and do a decent job of presenting unique fighting styles of the lead characters and keeping them consistent. They, however, get repetitive fairly quickly and often have very little significance for the plot. Without the visual fireworks that would accompany them in an anime series or a high-budget Japanese VN, they start feeling like pointless filler – there was literally a few that get me somewhat excited and felt compelling in their results (for example, the first confrontation between Arin and Alacria and the final showdown of the Anian’s route). Other than that, they just don’t have the kind of impact every fighting VN relies on.
https://steamuserimages-a.akamaihd.net/ugc/915799791359919999/85B1B5ADF9F92C85785F45D151722ABF9C6EC325/?interpolation=lanczos-none&output-format=jpeg&output-quality=95&fit=inside%7C1024%3A*
The protagonist is, of course, a magnet for women – after all, who would not fall in love with an unpleasant, cringy, borderline-suicidal scum like him at first sight?
 
The game’s visuals and sound effects are of decent quality, although not in any way impressive. The fighting CGs are very often recycled, with very few event-specific ones. There’s also a strong disconnect in the artstyle between the sprites and fighting scenes on one hand and the slice-of-life event CGs and h-scenes on the other. The sprites for some characters are fairly similar to each other, which make them even more contrasting with the vastly varied CG designs. The sound effects (like gunshots and explosions) and music mostly fit the “very angry shounen” vibe, but they usually show up in appropriate moments don’t get overbearing (the music at rare occasions might now fit the situations presented on the screen, with tense battle tunes turning on during casual SoL scenes, but that problem currently seems much less prevalent now than it was in the launch version).
            In the end, is Episicava worth reading? Who is it targeted towards? My answer to both is, at best, “I’m not sure”. The game definitely fails in the storytelling department, spewing cliches and obnoxious edginess as its main content. Fights are, ultimately, without much excitement, mostly because only in a few you actually somewhat care about whether the protagonist wins them – and even then, not because of him, but because of the causes he ends up fighting for. The degree to which he’s unlikeable also nullifies much of the pleasure the romance and SoL segments could’ve had – Arin is not enough of a villain or enough of a hero to be compelling and that makes everything around him similarly meaningless. Most likely, even fans of trashy shounen or dumb chuunige won’t be satisfied with Episicava, as the low budget didn’t allow it to be properly flashy and fun to look at. The h-scenes are also too few and far between to make it work simply as a source of fanservice and porn. In result, it ends up being a game for no one and without any merits significant enough to recommend it with a clear conscience, even with the relatively modest asking price. I also wouldn’t expect Volume 2 to ever be created, but maybe Epic Works’ team will learn from this game’s mistakes and their upcoming chuunige, Rainbow Dreams, will improve on the formula (the plot and character description suggest, however, that the cringe factor will be alive and well). For now, I can only suggest staying away from their VNs – there are many, many better things to spend $10 and 20 hours on, even within the EVN niche.

Final Score: 2/5

Pros:
+ Impressive amount of content
+ Decent production values
 
Cons:
- Obnoxious and shallow characters
- Poorly-written story with innumerable plotholes
- Questionable sexual content


VNDB Page
Buy Episicava Vol. 1 on Steam or Itch.io