Friday, 16 August 2019

Shall We Date? Blood in Roses+ Review & NTT Solmare's Despicable Business Model (Predatory Mobile Visual Novel)

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I’ll be completely honest: I didn’t have a good opinion of NTT Solmare even before approaching the game this review is about. After exploring their sole non-otome visual novel, Moe! Ninja Girls, I was absolutely stunned with the predatory monetisation and poor quality of that title. I was still curious about their otome projects though and decided to check out one featuring the theme I personally enjoy a lot: vampires. Thus, I ended up playing Blood in Roses+, one of the over 20(!) games in the Shall We Date? series and what I found there was an extension of my Moe! Ninja Girl experience, along with some interesting surprises (which doesn’t mean any of them were particularly pleasant).
                First, however, a bit of context is required. NTT Solmare is a Japanese company producing e-books and mobile games primarily for the Western market. Shall We Date? Otome games are their flagship product and can be split into two categories: paid apps, which are mostly Android/iOS, English-localized ports of other companies' otome VNs, including some Idea Factory/Otomate titles, and free apps which are produced by NTT Solmare themselves. Since 2011, they’ve released literally dozens of cheaply-made, but aggressively monetized games, particularly in the free-to-play segment. This is also the category where Blood in Roses+ fits in, being a fully free-to-play mobile VN, in which you can theoretically experience an impressive and constantly-expanding pool of content without paying anything. There’s a catch though… Or a dozen, which are all worth discussing in detail due to the unbelievable abuse of the VN format they represent.
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The consistent setting and a cast of characters shared between the many alternative-universe scenarios are among the game’s few redeeming qualities
 
Before I get to ripping the game to pieces for its business model, what is Blood in Roses about? At its core, it’s a supernatural romance featuring a human protagonist becoming involved with a group of powerful vampires and other fantasy creatures – nearly all of them in the form of ridiculously-attractive ikemen, of course. Every one of the 25(!) hero routes (there’s a token yuri one too) revolves around the Hotel Libra Sincera, a castle built at the crossroads between the human and magical world, and a core cast of characters, including Alfred and Rupert, the vampire twins in charge of the hotel. There’s also the mystical rose garden present within the Libra Sincera's walls, which the game takes its title from and which usually proves to be of crucial importance to the protagonist. Every hero arc can be considered an alternative-universe scenario, telling a self-contained, conclusive intrigue and romance scenario. While there are some recommended “beginner routes” that work best as an introduction to the game’s lore, the only thing you probably shouldn’t do is starting with one of the arcs featuring the “hunter” protagonist – the second version of the lead character, added in one of the later updated to the game, original one being the “witch”. Those play a lot on the previously-established lore and will be more fun to experience if you know the “core” stories like Alfred’s and Rupert’s.
                While, in general, the game’s writing is generic and often quite uninspired, most routes have their interesting moments and the ability to see so many version of the story and different perspectives is quite fun, making the game more enjoyable the more you play it. The protagonists (they’re explicitly two versions of the same person from different timelines, but are also different enough in their skillsets and behaviour to be considered separate characters) are also rather fine, with a major caveat that I mostly enjoyed them when choosing “moonlight” dialogue options. This is part of the game’s karma system, determining which ending you get: moonlight choices usually involve the protagonist being more decisive, aggressive and openly affectionate towards the hero, while the opposite “sunlight” route basically means her being a bag of wet noodles (or in other words, a stereotypical otome protagonist). Especially in the case of the witch, who starts her story as a prisoner of the vampire brothers, sunlight choices are rather jarring to observe and often lead to submissive endings that rubbed me the wrong way.  
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The avatar system and all the gameplay mechanics of Shall We Date? games are more roadblocks preventing you from experiencing the story, than actual sources of fun
 
Thus far, it doesn’t sound so bad, right? What’s the issue then? Well, the first problem is that you read the story in tiny, 1-2 minute bits (scenes), each of them costing a story ticket. You can get up to 6 free story tickets per day (with up to 5 stored at once), but if you want to read faster, you have to buy premium tickets at an insane price of $2 apiece. This already creates an extremely stilted reading experience, exasperated by the Blood in Roses’ clunky UI and very high input lag – the client acts pretty much as a web browser, with all the nasty implications you might be familiar with if you played old browser games in the early 2000s. If you think, however, that you’d be able to just buy $200 worth of story tickets and read a full route in one go, you’re sorely mistaken. The game also forces you to participate in the crude minigame called “Miss Rose Contest”, where you compete with other players to farm two in-game currencies: Tokens and Lady Level. You require both to bypass “Love Challenges”, literal roadblocks that prevent you from reading the story any further until you buy a specific avatar item for Tokens or reach high-enough Lady Level. This is, of course, another way to extort money from you, although bypassing these challenges with cash is so expensive that you should probably forget about doing so unless you’re a Saudi sheikh.
                There’s another layer of scummy to Love Challenges: using premium currency to buy special items in some of the challenges will reward you with premium version of the story, with special dialogue and an extra CG that will save to your library (quite often for a price of a full route or two in a much better game). The Love Challenges are also designed to show up often enough and with so high Token prices required to bypass them, that you’re likely to get stuck for literal days farming currency to just continue reading (no matter how many story tickets you might have). And if you wondered if there was some aspect of the VN experience that wasn’t monetized yet, the aforementioned moonlight/sunlight endings also have a trick to them. You cannot go back on your choices without resetting the whole route (each consists of ten chapters, or around 170 scenes total) and losing all the story tickets you used and Lady Level you farmed (it always resets after finishing or switching a route). This means that if you mess up the dialogue too many times and don’t get enough points in either alignment, you’ll end up being stuck with a short, bad “Farewell Ending” – that is, unless you use the premium currency to boost your points. What makes all this even worse than Moe! Ninja Girls is that while that game also represented shocking levels of greed, it at least had the decency of consistently awarding you premium currency through events and rewards for finishing story chapters. Here, you can only rely on your wallet to get you any of the game’s premium features.
                Speaking of events, as you can imagine, those are pretty impossible to complete in without going full pay-to-win – in my first experience, even using up all of the very significant starting bonuses (around 70 premium story tickets and other expensive item you get for free in the first two weeks of playing) I could just barely keep myself in the top 1000 ranking and earn some worthwhile rewards. Interestingly enough, after I already invested a lot into said event (they work in 20-day cycles), the game sabotaged me in a way by starting a new character’s launch bonus, giving five times the diamonds for reading chapters in his story, which I had no interest in (and would have to abandon the route I was two-thirds into and actually enjoying). The sudden need for choosing between reading something I had little interest in and shooting myself in the foot gameplay-wise was not something I enjoyed. 
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Some of these heroes might look like abusing assholes at first, but ACTUALLY, they are abusive assholes with minor redeeming qualities, which magically make everything they do acceptable...? 

Of course, the are minor prices in the events that you can get to just by playing consistently and one of the Blood in Roses’ features I actually like comes into play here too – you can get a lot of minor bonuses, like extra diamonds for events, extra energy for Miss Rose Contest and faster story ticket recovery by watching ads. This is something I consider a much more reasonable option that just asking you to pay up, but it hardly changes the predatory nature of all the game’s core features. In this topic, I should probably quickly go through the avatar system, which lets you equip items you get from mandatory Love Challenge purchases, the events, the "Make a Date” gacha (another thing that is fuelled mostly by the Miss Rose Contest, as every 5-win streak will award you tokens for the gacha machine) and unreasonably-expensive premium gachas. For a non-paying player this is another source of frustration, as while there’s a number of cool items you can buy for Tokens, if you also want to read the story consistently, you’ll pretty much never have any extra ones to buy an item you actually want, rather than the ones you need to progress through the roadblocks. Also, there’s a pretty strict limit on how many avatar items you can own, possible to expand through pricey consumables – another limitation that seems to have little purpose other than making you pay up If you’re not lucky enough to earn those from events or gacha and you run out of space.
                In the end, literally everything in Blood in Roses is an aggressive, meticulously-crafted scheme to extort money from the player. The depth of predatory monetisation is so severe that I have a hard time to consider it a game, or especially a visual novel – it’s a scam disguised as one. It might look and sound decent-enough at first, but quickly shows its ugly face of a cynical money-making machine that puts manipulating the played into spending money over any kind of fun or creative integrity. While the daily routine of interacting with the game might not be wholly-unenjoyable, I find what it truly represents nothing short of disgusting, mostly because it’s not an isolated case, but simply an iteration of NTT Solmare’s utterly corrupt business model. This is mobile gaming at its absolute worst and a gross bastardisation of the visual novel formula – if you care about our niche at all, otome and beyond, please don’t support this company and other ones utilizing similar practices. They don’t deserve it.


Final Rating: 1,5/5

Pros:
+ The art isn’t bad
+ Most routes have their moments
 
Cons:
- All-around despicable business model
- Overly simplistic, tacked-on gameplay mechanics
- Clunky UI that makes daily tasks an absolute chore
- Ultimately shallow storytelling
 

VNDB Page
(Please don’t) play Shall We Date? Blood in Roses+ for free on Android or iOS

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Fuwanovel Revitalisation Efforts & my The Language of Love review


Today there's a thing happening that is probably pretty minor in anyone else's eyes, but feels quite huge to me: my review of ebi-hime's The Language of Love is being published on Fuwanovel main site as my first contribution there. It is also the first review to go up in the Review Hub after the leadership changes and attempts to revitalize the site started a bit over a month ago. While I'm a latecomer when it goes to the VN community, Fuwanovel played a massive role in my involvement with it, with discussions on the Forums and people I met there being a constant source of fun, information and motivation to pursue this hobby further. It is the Fuwa Forums where this blog originated from and where I've spent a decent portion of my time and energy in the past two years. 

From early 2017, I was consistently one of the most active people in the Fuwanovel community, sharing the anguish of others seeing the site die due to its owner's absence. This was all happening despite the presence of many people willing to work on giving the site a new life – whatever our initiatives tried to achieve, always ended up crashing on the barrier of not having access to the main site and the impossibility of getting anything from the admins. After a few months of trying, even I simply had to accept that Fuwa is a sinking ship and there's quite likely nothing I'll be even able to do about it.

My Fuwanovel Forums stats clearly show that I've spent way more time there than should reasonably allowed...

I'll not get into the specifics of Fuwa's internal drama, because it's neither important nor it'd be in good tone to share any of that. There's a much more important thing I want to say: for the first time in literal years, Fuwa is making steps towards recovery. And while I'm hoping to keep doing my part in the foreseeable future, there's something the site needs more of in order to survive: contributors. Fuwa was always a community, but also a fan site that offered something interesting and useful for anyone willing to visit it from time to time. Was it VNTS, the review hub, news articles... This usefulness was completely lost of the last period of the site being dead, and is something we need to reclaim.

If you think there's something you could offer to Fuwa's main site, check out this recruitment post or try visiting our Discord and asking around. We don't expect anyone to overwork themselves for us, or contribute stuff on any fixed schedule. We don't pay for content, as no one is making money from the site. We just want to keep this community alive and share our love for VNs. And if you think that is something worth helping with and decide to join us in this project, we'll be forever grateful for it.

And as always, thank you very much for following my work and I hope you’ll enjoy the review! If everything goes according to plans, that’s not the last one I’m putting there.

Friday, 2 August 2019

No One But You Review (English Original Visual Novel)

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In our obscure EVN market, there are rarely games or events that could be described as major controversies – even the most unfortunate releases or Kickstarter disasters usually don’t involve enough people and money to gather the attention of the community for a longer period of time or spark a mass backlash. Along with Aeon Dream Studios’ k-pop fan game debacle (a really amazing story of incompetence and borderline-fraud, if you care to follow it), No One But You is possibly the most controversial and polarizing EVN ever released. Appearing on the relatively-barren landscape of early 2015 and promising experience similar to the high-budget Japanese VNs, it sparked a lot of interest and hope for the second coming of Katawa Shoujo – an EVN that would not feel overly niche or amateurish, but actually capture the charm of beloved Japanese titles and rival them in its storytelling.
            The reality, of course, proved much more underwhelming. The unexpected Kickstarter success (the campaign reached over 1200% of the initial, $1200 goal) resulted in a highly upscaled and complex project, developed within just a year by then still-unexperienced Unwonted Studios. Involving a network of over a dozen writers and artists, and a heavily-rushed release (which was never moved from the initial KS campaign claim despite of many major features being added through stretch goals), No One But You was eviscerated by many reviewers, with Fuwanovel notably giving it lowest possible score in two separate articles, and received only a mixed reception from the readers after showing up on Steam on January 2016. In a way, it remains one of the most infamous story-centric EVNs, possibly only beaten by the cheap ecchi titles such as Sakura games in the amount of hate and ridicule it gathered. However, looking at it three years later and with all the fixes and additional content added post-launch, is it really that bad?
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The opening sequences of No One But You make it look like your typical, cute moege with minor mystery elements, making the whole experience something of a bait-and-switch
 
The first thing worth addressing when looking at No One But You is its production quality, which is both one of its biggest strengths and possibly suffered the most from the rushed release. The character sprites and CGs are of really good quality, with all the characters (including the protagonist, who thankfully isn’t a faceless mannequin) being nicely designed and pleasant to look at. The designs of the heroines are admittedly so standard that you can immediately recognize the archetypes each girl represents just after looking at her for a few moments, but that doesn’t nullify the sheer appeal of the character art. This part of the game is also, unlike in many other EVNs from that era, quite consistent both in style and quality – the CGs might not be very numerous or spectacular, but they are good enough to do their job effectively and do not clash with the other assets, while the sprites are pretty and expressive enough to carry the more casual/SoL scenes. Backgrounds, on the other hand, are anything but consistent: while some are absolutely gorgeous, many more, including frequently used ones like the protagonist’s kitchen, look overly-simplistic and undercooked. This might slide if you don’t pay much attention to details, but it’s still a huge shame it spoils the great first impression character art offers. Also, the illustrations are at times clearly mismatched with the game’s text or the scenes that lead up to them, the most striking example being a CG in Yui’s route, in which a long sequence happening on a rainy evening suddenly transfers to broad daylight, with blinding sun rays all over the place. Such obvious mistakes devalue the art and kill the emotional impact of some of those crucial scenes.
                The soundtrack is another interesting topic, as it consists of an impressive number of 34 instrumental tracks, including character themes and melodies unique to important story sequences. It’s not brilliant by any means, but solid enough to enhance the climate of the game and represents a level of effort few EVN devs are willing to put into this area. There’s also the opening song with Japanese vocals, included in an update some time after the initial release of the game – a decent, but arguably pointless addition, as I imagine most people finished the VN before it was implemented and while they could come back for other content added post-launch, such as afterstories and h-scenes, they had little reason to revisit the beginning of the game. This can also be a general comment on how the launch was handled – pushing the game out in such a bare-bones state and fulfilling most Kickstarter promises months later undoubtedly contributed both to many of its persistent problems and the atrocious initial reception it received. Some major promises, like the English voice acting, manga adaptation and a sequel never even materialized, adding to backers' disappointment, while others were realized in a manner that hardly matched what was promised – this particularly applies to afterstories, presented in the campaign as major extra chapters but which proved to be just brief epilogues.
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The tropy heroines and predictable twists make even the better elements of the story, like the Chinatsu route written by ebi-hime, quite underwhelming
 
So, what No One But You is actually about? The initial setup is as standard as it goes – a perfectly-generic Japanese high-schooler, Hideaki, moves back to his hometown after many years of living in a bigger city. In the new school he quickly manages to make new (female) friends – a cheerful and strangely clingy student council member Megumi, reclusive beauty Shiro, standoffish redhead Yui and a studious senpai named Chinatsu. He also reluctantly becomes friends with the class clown Ryo and at this point, it looks like nothing will disturb his fun in the new school. Only strange, recurring dreams of drowning suggest an underlying mystery connected to protagonist childhood and the reason his family left the town in the first place. If you thought, however, that this game is a moege with slight drama/mystery elements, you couldn’t be more wrong – in depending on the route it varies between a rather poor attempt at nakige to a full-on utsuge, with over-the-top depressing, edgy plot developments and endings.
                Past the average and trope-filled, but reasonably enjoyable common route, the game is at its absolute worst in Shiro’s and Megumi’s routes, the former featuring some comically-incompetent yakuza going after heroine’s father, and the latter a paedophile-murderer teacher who apparently managed to stay in the profession after brutally killing a student in broad daylight, with multiple witnesses. To say these scenarios make little sense is an understatement – they are utterly absurd from start to finish and at times plain uncomfortable to read due to the protagonist’s questionable behaviour. Or course, the worst of his actions are usually completely unavoidable (like the extremely messed up h-scene near the conclusion of Megumi’s route, but also the over-the-top cruel rejection he gives her in Shiro’s arc) – this easily kills the last bit of immersion the numerous plot holes and absurdities didn’t already murder. Yui’s route is mostly on the opposite side of the spectrum, being quite down-to-Earth and using a relatable theme of bullying, spoiling it slightly through the inclusion of some anime romance clichés (notably forgotten childhood promise), but being ultimately pretty sweet and satisfying. It also offers one of the two genuinely good endings present in the game, where for once no one dies or get traumatized for life (that's, of course, only if you make the right choices, as her worst ending is also notably over-the-top). The second positive conclusion available in No One But You is a major surprise – it shows up in Ryo’s route, which might at first look like a throaway scenario for those players that didn't manage to get any of the girls, but quickly transforms into a slightly vague, but still easily-readable BL scenario. Storytelling-wise, it’s arguably the best part of the game – it involves Ryo’s toxic family relations and the feelings of rejection and depression he hid under the façade of a cheerful class clown. Not a particularly novel idea, but still way more interesting than what rest of the VN had to offer and I applaud the dev's courage to include this kind of romance in an obviously male-targeted title.
                The last storyarc I didn’t address is Chinatsu’s route, notably written by ebi-hime (whose pen name was gracefully misspelt as "ebi-himi" in the credits). It’s a fully-linear scenario that is deeply intertwined with the protagonist’s backstory and is overall very competent. However, the main mystery in it is very easy to read, just with the clues offered in the common route and the storyarc itself suffers from the same problem Shiro’s and Chinatsu’s stories did – the overexposure to tragedy and over-the-top plot developments quickly makes you numb and kills the emotional impact the writer was going for. This is also related to the fact that the route, just like all the other ones, felt heavily rushed – with around 10 hours of content No One But You is hardly short for an EVN, but nowhere near long enough to handle five dramatic, complex storyarcs, or develop its cast of characters properly. In a way, it feels like one of those overly-condensed anime adaptations that cut and modify massive source material to fit it into tight screen time, to the point it loses any semblance of coherence or depth. The one, crucial difference being that Unwonted Studios have no excuse for why they let it happen, apart from chasing the unreasonable deadline they set out for themselves.
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No One But You’s visuals, and its production quality in general, are rather good for an EVN of that era, but can only do that much to compensate for often dreadful writing past the common route
 
One of the common complaints about No One But You is connected to its extremely shameless copying of JVN storytelling tropes and stylistics, to the point that even its language looks a bit like a fan translation of a Japanese game. To some extent, however, I think this criticism was overblown – while the game’s setup is indeed extremely iterative, adherence to tropes is not really a major problem past the common route. Also, some “inconsistencies”, like the use of honorifics, seem pretty deliberate – Japanese mannerisms show up mostly in really fun sequences of characters texting to each other, which emulate the style of writing teens would use in that context. While the game definitely struggles with its identity and writers had a hard time restraining their otaku sensibilities, I think even most reviewers would easily look past this if the core story wasn’t so kitsch and, well, plain stupid much of the time.
                One last thing that I should probably mention are the h-scenes – there’s one for Megumi, Shiro and Yui, but I’ll be completely honest that knowing in what context Megumi's scene happens and seeing one still of it on VNDB, I wanted nothing to do with any of it. As I kentioned before, all scenes were added to the game after release, along some other promised features such as the afterstories (those, BTW, in many cases added very little to the respective routes or even attached a new layer of stupidity and inconsistency to them, particularly in Shiro’s case), being more of a minor bonus then a selling point. Other illustrations might be less broken than the one I was referring to, but it’s still probably not something you should seriously take into consideration when deciding whether to give this game a try. And staying on this topic, I'm not sure I consider No One But You worth buying as anything more than a curiosity – it has its moments and won’t bore you the way the recently-reviewed Sakura MMO would, but reading most of it is still akin to watching a burning trainwreck, rather than genuine entertainment. If that’s what you’re looking for, or are interested in it because of its unique place in EVN history, feel free to give it a try, but… You’ve been warned.

PS On the final note, No One But You proved extremely difficult for me to rate. Above all, it's extremely inconsistent and its most off-putting elements are mostly confined to just two out of its five routes. On the other hand, even at its best it can only be considered decent (I'd probably rate Ryo's route, my favourite in the game, at a 3 or 3,5), while at its worst it comes very close to the absolute rock-bottom of awful storytelling available in plot-oriented VNs. If judged by Megumi's and Shiro's routes alone, it would indeed be a clear 1/5, just as Decay and Tyrael claimed in their Fuwanovel reviews. Thus, on the very limited scale I use here, I had no other choice but to give No One But You a 2/5. At the same time, I want to make clear that its actual entertainment value is slightly above other VNs I've rated this low, especially if you skip the cursed routes or read them just for laughs, fully aware of what you're getting into.

Final Score: 2/5

Pros:
+ Good character art
+ Decent common route
+ Yui’s and Ryo’s routes
 
Cons:
- Poor pacing in heroine routes
- Unconvincing, over-the-top plot twists 
- Mostly unsatisfying or illogical endings
- Frequent mistakes both in writing and visual assets
- Cliched as f***

VNDB Page
Buy No One But You on Steam

Friday, 19 July 2019

Sakura MMO Trilogy Review (Yuri Visual Novel Series)

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Winged Cloud, creators of the infamous Sakura series, are visibly past their prime, which shows not only in their diminishing Patreon support and smaller interest in their games in general, but also the lack of marketing effort and innovation. For two and a half year now their VNs are only becoming shorter, simpler and more iterative, making the already not-particularly-impressive projects from the peak of studio’s popularity, such as Sakura Nova or Sakura Fantasy, look like absolute heights of quality and ambition. At the same time, the company seems heavily disinterested in actively promoting their work or opening new niches, even nearly dropping the production of straight eroge for the sake of pushing out more yuri games, feeding of this niche's popularity with Western audience. And few things symbolise this sorry state of affairs quite like the Sakura MMO trilogy, the latest three entries in the mainline Sakura franchise, this time tackling the grossly overused theme of gameworld isekai.
            Coming out between October 2018 and June 2019, with little fanfare (the second and third game pretty much appeared out of nowhere, with no communication from Winged Cloud’s social media accounts before the releases) and to a rather lukewarm reception from players, Sakura MMO games still stand out in some ways from Winged Clouds usual output. Particularly, it was the first time since Sakura Beach that a game in the series received a direct sequel, and the only instance one received two. This, at first glance, makes it look like one of most ambitious projects Winged Cloud ever attempted, but one thing should be said in advance: all three Sakura MMO games are very short (3-4 hours) and heavily overpriced, with each costing $10. For the amount of content you’d usually find in one 10-15 dollars VN, you’re asked to pay 30, while also having to deal with issues that wouldn’t be there if it was all released as a single product or a well-constructed episodic game, like your choices not transferring between parts and somewhat shoddy continuity. But aside from it being a shameless cash-grab, is there something worthwhile within this trashy sub-franchise?
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Inma’s art is, as usual, one of the selling points of the game, but even it gets diminished by the constant reuse of assets and straight-up mistakes
 
Sakura MMO follows the story of Kotone, a bored Japanese salarywoman who blows off steam from her stressful job by playing an MMORPG called Asaph Online. There, with her mage avatar named Viola, she became something of a dominating figure, styling herself as a “dark witch” and casually humiliating other players – the act she enjoys so much that she considers herself a sadist. While having relatively little fondness for her real-life routine and few meaningful bonds with other people, she is still deeply in shock when she one day wakes up in her avatar’s body, in one of the bedrooms of Nightmare Citadel – the massive castle acting as her player-owned residence and holding her immense in-game wealth (no, you won’t see much of the castle, only a few generic-looking rooms). She’s also immediately greeted by Neve, a darkling NPC who she placed in the castle as mere decoration, but now became a real person, dead-bent on serving her as a maid and bodyguard (with impressive magic skills to aid her in both tasks). Thus starts Kotone’s, or rather Viola’s adventure in search of meaning behind her summoning to Asaph and, possibly, a way back to her world. And probably most importantly, a journey of creating an ultimate harem of cute, gay girls for her to dominate – after all, if life gives you ultimate power and wealth, it’d be a shame to not indulge yourself at least a little bit?
              If by this point you feel a certain disconnect between the serious and trashy, ecchi-oriented parts of the setup, you’re definitely not wrong – the Sakura VN template prioritise fanservice over anything else and the more serious and grand the premise, the more obvious Winged Cloud’s shortcomings become. Art prioritizes random boob shots over crucial events in the plot, the story frequently comes to a halt to give space for variably out-of-place scenes of cuddling and lesbian sex. One remedy that could make it bearable is humour, which is what JP fantasy eroge often use to keep the formula fun to read, but this might actually be Sakura MMO’s biggest problem – for the most part, it feels utterly humourless and the few jokes that actually are there rarely land. It introduces a high-stakes main intrigue (even if it's heavily trope-filled), but couples it with one-dimensional characters and repetitive interactions that make it hard to get engaged in the story, failing to even give satisfying context to the porn the way some older Winged Cloud titles did. Splitting everything into three games help little, as each part only has space for two-three significant plot developments between fanservice and pointless banter. The bickering between heroines, by the way, would not be a bad thing if it was funny or witty enough to justify its existence, but it fails to do so even by Winged Cloud’s mediocre standards. The whole storyline ends up feeling soulless and dull, despite a few relatively fun fights and amusing moments scattered around.
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Like in every other game by Winged Cloud, fanservice constantly gets in the way of Sakura MMO’s story, but the surprisingly serious main plot makes this dissonance particularly visible
 
If there’s something genuinely intriguing here, it’s probably the protagonist, who’s a contradictory character but not necessarily in a bad way. She likes domineering over others and as Viola, she maintains the boastful, aloof persona she relied on while playing, proudly announcing to be a villain and a sadist. At the same time, she cares about her companions more than she is usually willing to admit and is capable of self-sacrifice when the stakes get really high. With better writing, she could’ve easily become a very compelling lead and still manages to be the strongest part of the whole scenario. Other characters lack either potential or proper growth. Neve is mostly a one-beat heroine, with her clingy, servile and overprotective attitude towards Viola growing irritating quite quick. She gets an excellent piece of development and crucial role to play in the third game, but kind of reverts to her previous behaviour after that, to my genuine frustration. Fion, a homeless thief that steals a powerful artefact from Viola in the first game is a lazy, demoralized glutton and there’s honestly little more to her character all throughout the storyline. She also gets the dumbest ending, illogical and absurd in its implications. Eleri, the knight, is probably the most consistent heroine, hiding her shy and insecure personality behind a facade of a stalwart defender of law and justice. Being the only other character transported from Japan and having a much more traumatic arrival to Asaph than Viola, she is hell-bent on coming back and acts as a counterweight of sorts to the protagonist and her embracing of life in the fantasy world. In the end, while not the most attractive love interest personality-wise, she’s the most believable and least irritating girl of the bunch.
              The secondary characters and the overarching intrigue (finishing with an epic [?] confrontation with a fallen deity), suffer from similar problems – they might even look reasonably good on paper, but are implemented in a deeply mediocre way. This extends even to the thing usually working as the highlight of every Sakura game – the visual assets. While I’m personally fond of Inma’s artstyle and there’s plenty of amusing fanservice and softcore porn illustrations in the game, there’s also a good deal of things that should’ve been shown in CGs but are only described in text, straight-up drawing mistakes contradicting the game’s text and battle illustrations reused on every possible occasion. This very much reminded me how Sakura Agent screwed up its theme by never showing the aliens and generally, why Sakura games in action-oriented genres generally don’t work – the dev team simply doesn’t want to invest appropriate resources into these projects, Sakura Dungeon, Fantasy and Nova being the only outliers. MMO at least manages to wrap up its story properly, with romance endings for each heroine and a harem one, but in every possible path, the journey leading to those conclusions was heavily underwhelming. There was also the issue with the episodic structure of the story, as Sakura MMO 1 & 2 also offered romance-oriented endings for each heroine, but as your choices do not transfer between the games, the scenario more or less resets with every new chapter – it's not a huge problem, but it further undermines the already wonky cohesion and immersiveness of the storyline.
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The storyline in Sakura MMO is far from being the worst thing Winged Cloud produced and concludes in a rather satisfying way, but each game on its own feel short and underwhelming, hardly justifying the $10 price tag
 
Continuing the topic of h-content, Sakura MMO is distinctly softcore even when compared to some other entries drawn by Inma – the scenes generally rather vanilla, don’t show genitals and are rather short. They offer decent variety, including a lot of milder sequences of cuddling & nudity, but don’t include the kind of straight-up fapping material you’d find in Sakura games with art drawn by Wanaca – something I don’t mind personally, as that is not what I’m after with these ecchi VNs, but might easily leave some people disappointed. One interesting gimmick connected to erotic content in MMO trilogy  is that the games often place Viola in intimate situations with the heroines and it depends on your choices whether you escalate each interaction, or back down from it – it’s the kind freedom I’m always fond of, as while it isn’t crucial to the endings you get (that where the more story-centric choices come in), it lets you effectively “roleplay” different routes within the game’s linear framework, pursuing only the girl(s) you're actually interested in.
              Like other fantasy games by Winged Cloud, Sakura MMO includes a climatic, JRPG-style soundtrack by Zack Parrish and a decently-varied set of pleasant-looking backgrounds, but in the end, these qualities can hardly save it from feeling dull, undercooked and cynical. Apart from people interested solely in fanservice CGs, I can’t really imagine any audience that would be fully satisfied with what this trilogy has to offer, or the value proposition it represents. Despite my questionable fondness of trashy ecchi VNs, I find it hard to seriously recommend getting into Sakura MMO, even if you find it on deep sale – it simply excels at nothing to a degree that would make it a worthwhile experience, and lacks the junky charm that makes more comedic Sakura games fun to read, even if they were never genuinely good. If this is the quality level Winged Cloud is going to offer from now on, their games might stop being fun to follow even in a semi-ironic fashion, or for the die-hard fans of their formula. And by this point, it’s kind of hard to imagine them stepping up their game – I just hope that whenever this studio fade into an uncomfortable, but closed chapter of EVN history, someone will utilize the admittedly impressive skills of its character artist to some much more worthwhile projects.

Final Rating: 2/5

Pros:
+ Decent art
+ Good variety of fanservice and hentai scenes
 
Cons:
- Dull heroines
- Short episodes and rushed main intrigue
- Cliched writing devoid of wit and humour

VNDB Page (Sakura MMO; Sakura MMO 2; Sakura MMO 3)
Buy Sakura MMO Trilogy on Steam

Friday, 5 July 2019

Without Within Trilogy Review (English Original Visual Novel Series)

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In the EVN world dominated by clichéd romance stories, titles by InvertMouse, a long-time indie developer from Australia, stand out in a few significant ways. Staying away from most common genre tropes and easily-marketable story elements, the games he creates often focus on topics such as friendship and struggles of everyday life, rather than grand tales of romance and adventure. The three short VNs in the Without Within series are particularly unusual and interesting in this regard, tackling themes of ambition, motivation and talent in life of an artist, in the rare setting of modern-day Australia and South-East Asia – all of this in a highly comedic style, but not without serious messages underlining the, most of the time, silly storyline.
                Another thing that makes these games interesting is their complicated development history. The first Without Within was a very short, freeware title, published in December 2014 as one of InvertMouse’s earliest works. The second, commercial entry followed nearly a year later, showing up on Steam in December 2015 and offering a much more substantial story, but in a very similar production quality and tone. The final game, however, didn’t release until mid-2018 – by this time its creator had a lot of more experience and technical prowess, which makes it a visibly different experience from its prequels. Still, with how short and thematically-consistent the three games are, I’ve decided to tackle them as a single package – the third part ends in a rather open-ended way, but with InvertMouse moving away from VN development, it’s pretty clear that the whole trilogy should be treated as a complete story and there’s little chance for any kind of continuation. So, what is Without Within series about exactly and what makes it worth your attention?
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Vinty’s visual design is just as caricatural as her personality – this, however, doesn’t mean her story is nothing but a sequence of gags

All Without Within games follow the story of Vinty, a comically-unfortunate and unsuccessful calligraphy passionate, trying to make a name for herself within the somewhat obscure niche and struggling to keep her dream alive against the crushing pressures of everyday life, and various discouraging mishaps. Throughout the three WW titles, she is portrayed with a nearly constantly dejected, chibi sprite (the only exception is being her delusional daydreams, where she imagines herself as a star). This represents her hopeless mental state and feeling of inadequacy in comparison to the talented and successful calligraphers she meets in her adventures, particularly her idol and the biggest celebrity in the world of calligraphy, Excelia (she and all other characters outside of Vinty have normal proportions and are drawn with a very decent level of detail). Excelia herself is Vinty’s direct opposite – wealthy, incredibly talented and famous, representing everything she aspires to be at the beginning of the story, but also hiding a darker side that will make Vinty reconsider her priorities. This duo of caricatural, exaggerated characters are the main heroines of the series, acting as both counterparts and rivals for each other, bound by their shared love for calligraphy.
                The first title in the series focuses on the everyday life of Vinty, showing her usual struggles: ugly apartment, hostile landlady, unsatisfying job and hopeless attempts at selling her work on the streets, broken up mostly by her delusional dreams of greatness. The bitter comedy is accompanied by a few choices that will decide whether she can keep her goal of becoming a full-time artist alive, or be forced to give up on it (possibly crashing & burning in spectacular fashion in the process). It’s a simple, somewhat ironic game about motivation and chasing your dreams, and these themes will be the driving force of the story throughout the series. It doesn’t mean, however, that all three VNs are exclusively gag comedies. Without Within 2 follows Vinty on a government-sponsored trip to a calligraphy convention in Melbourne and mixes the humour from its prequel with travel-guide-like descriptions of the experience of leaving her hometown for the first time. This includes links to real live videos of various landmarks and elements of public transportation that show up in the story – these elements will either amuse you or bore you out of your mind, depending whether you find mundane trivia about foreign countries interesting (or possibly plan to visit them yourself and have a real use for all that information). It’s a bit of a strange mix and in certain ways kills the pacing of WW2 and 3 (that one takes Vinty to Singapore and Malaysia), even despite both sequels getting rid of choices and branching paths – if you want to enjoy them, you have to be ready for quite a lot of downtime and trivia between actual story developments.
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Vinty’s idol and rival Excelia is a polar opposite of the protagonist and just as exaggerated – the setup that works fine for comedy, but can hardly handle shifts into a more serious tone

While the gag comedy and overly-detailed descriptions of Vinty’s travels somehow merge into a particularly slow, casual SoL experience that will not be to everyone’s taste, but is not objectively bad, the issues with this formula show up as soon as the games introduce serious drama. This transition first happens in the ending sequence of Without Within 2, when Excelia is exposed for vandalism of other calligraphers’ work and loses her reputation in the community, after which she is comforted by Vinty. The dramatic reveal and the heartfelt moments after it are not done terribly, but simply feel out of place due to the earlier tone of the game and the exaggerated features of both main characters. This issue becomes even deeper in Without Within 3, in with Vinty and Excelia go on a joint trip to Singapore, to solve the mystery of the “ghost” of famous calligrapher Kiki showing up in various places connected to her life. At some point the investigation transitions into a fully-fledged backstory segment for this character, who died of cancer at an early age before reaching her full potential, and her turbulent friendship with Tai, another calligraphy star.
                The story of Tai and Kiki is hands-down the best part of the whole series, showing a deep and dramatic tale that I never really expected to find in it. However, while it’s meant to have an important meaning for both Excelia and Vinty, helping them reshape their goals and attitudes towards life, it also showcases their flows as characters – both of them are, more or less, caricatures and by the point Without Within 3 was made, it was very hard for InvertMouse to give them proper depth without breaking up the whole formula. Especially for Vinty the conclusion is kind of unsatisfying – as the butt of every joke, she’s just as unfortunate and unskilful at the end of the journey as she was in the beginning, her only success being the fact of finding a bit more balance in her approach to art and competition. While not the worst possible payoff, it makes you wish for something at least slightly more hopeful and substantial.
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The detailed descriptions of Vinty’s travels and locales she visits are occasionally interesting, but hurt the pacing of Without Within 2 & 3 significantly

When it goes to production values, each Without Within game was an improvement over its predecessor, especially when it goes to the number and quality of CGs, but they’re also very consistent stylistically. Vinty’s chibi sprite is always contrasting with rather detailed backgrounds and good-quality portrayals of other characters – none of it is ever particularly amazing, but solid nonetheless and especially the third game impresses with its sheer variety of visual assets, representing the many locales visited by the heroines. Also, all of the games feature catchy, energetic soundtracks, which honestly help to keep the slower moments of Without Within 2 & 3 reasonably entertaining.
                In summary, Without Within trilogy is unusual and sometimes contradictory, but I still find it worth experiencing. It rarely conforms to your expectations, telling a rare story about being a small-time artist without dishonest wish-fulfilment or tacked-on romance plots. Even its most dramatic and exaggerated moments are, in their core, mundane and painfully realistic, telling simple truths about life and struggles of an unsuccessful creator (which, in relative terms, might be the majority of people that ever attempt becoming one). It comments on our reality and explores real places rather than providing means of escapism, but if that is something you’re interested in when you pick it up, you most likely won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: 3/5

Pros:
+ Unusual story with interesting themes
+ Fun, humoristic storytelling formula
+ Well-stylized visuals and good soundtrack

Cons:
- Lacklustre character development
- Poor pacing in the sequels
- Inconsistent tone of the third game


VNDB Pages (Without Within 1, Without Within 2, Without Within 3)
Buy Without Within Trilogy on Steam