Saturday, 23 May 2020

NaNoRenO 2020 Highlights, Pt 1: Otome/GxB Romance


NaNoRenO, the Ren’Py visual novel jam, is for many years now the biggest community event for EVNs, always bringing dozens of upstart developers, amateurs and veterans of the visual novel scene to share their work, ranging from demos and prototypes to complete (and often substantial) games. Since I’ve started the blog I’m always looking forwards to the opportunity to go through the projects submitted to the jam and present to you my personal highlights – games that are worth checking out not only from the perspective of a VN-obsessed weirdo such as myself, but also the average reader.

                What set this year’s NaNoRenO apart from the usual routine were, quite predictably, the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, while one could expect them to interfere with the development cycles and result in fewer games, the organizers’ decision to extend the traditional one-month deadline by two weeks resulted in more projects than usual getting submitted (105 to lats year’s 89 and 2018’s 73). This included dozens of complete games that I was interested in, clearly signalizing a need to change the formula in which I shared my impressions – listing them in one place, even when after relatively rigorous filtering, would be both unwieldy for the readers and tedious to make. Thus, I’ve decided to split my coverage by genres, starting with the niche that arguably proved most compelling this time around – otome and other GxB romance VNs. So, please join me while I do through six games in this formula that showed up in NaNoRenO 2020 – and if you find any of them interesting, clicking the titles will bring you straight to their Itch.io pages. As always, all NaNoRenO releases are fully free-to-play, so the only thing they’ll demand is a few hours of your time. Let’s get this started!


Criminally Overdue


Criminally Overdue is the newest project by Elowan, the author of Alloys over Flowers, one of my personal favourites from last year’s NaNoRenO. This time, instead of being a period drama, the game tells an unusual story in a modern setting: the protagonist is a librarian who after hours helps police in tracking down and arresting drug dealers – a part of a personal vendetta of sorts for the death of her mother, who died of an overdose after years of addiction. During one of her investigations, she targets a local university student, which leads her to listening in on the girl’s conversation with a teacher who accidentally learned about her involvement with drugs. Hearing the girl’s motivation for drug dealing and teacher’s attempt to steer her on a better path causes the protagonist to doubt her actions, something she didn’t feel for years and as the teacher in question becomes a frequent patron in her library, she has to reevaluate her choices and think about a path forward – either overcoming her obsession with drug dealers or doubling down on her crusade against them.

                Criminally Overdue stands out with its conflicted, bitter protagonist and moral quandaries connected to her fight with drug dealers, and although I can’t say I find it as compelling as Alloys over Flowers, particularly the path where the heroine steps away from her unhealthy “hobby” has a lot going for it. The game’s love interest, the young university teacher I’ve mentioned earlier, is a believable catalyst for the protagonist’s change and a pretty cool character in his own right – caring and eloquent, but also somewhat shy and occasionally awkward. The scenario where their romance blooms is genuinely cute and heartwarming. I just wished the alternative conclusion was at least a bit less of a bad end – Elowan’s previous game made a good job of making alternative endings interesting, while here I kind of wished for the whole experience to be kinetic and focus even more on the protagonist's transformation and her troubled path to romance. At least for the “right” path, though, this VN is definitely worth checking out, also because it looks and sounds very solid for a game jam project.

Final Rating: Recommended

Enamored Risks


Enamored Risks by Crystal Game Works, the studio of NaNoRenO and Yuri Game Jam veteran Mikomi Kisomi, is one of the most traditional otome games I’m writing about today. Despite being very by-the-numbers, however, it’s possibly my favourite VN so far from this developer and the easiest one on this list to recommend. It follows the story of a nursing student living a dull life filled by schoolwork and constantly being pestered about her academic performance by her demanding parents. One day, she gets fascinated by a blog exploring urban ruins and abandoned buildings in her city and soon after discovers that one of her university friends is involved in it. This kicks off a story of friendship and romance with three possible love interests, two male and one female one, all of them with their own themes/problems to overcome and really good chemistry with the protagonist.

                Trying to explain the appeal of Enamored Risks is a bit tricky, as describing its story details will ultimately sound mundane, with the theme of urban exploration being the only unusual element. What truly makes it work is the solid design of the love interests and the writing (which is, to be brutally honest, significantly above what I’ve seen in other game jam projects by Mikomi). By the end of it, I was deeply fond of each of the main characters and the romantic conclusions of each route were appropriately satisfying. My only criticism is connected to the CG art, which wasn’t always by the same artist as the excellent character sprites and whenever that happened, the contrast in quality was impossible to miss. Still, it could hardly ruin the overall impression – sometimes simply getting the basics right to this degree is enough for a compelling experience. And with 3-4 hours of content, it’s an excellent way to fill one or two evenings – if you’re a fan of otome, yuri (the GxG route is arguably the best one in the game) or romance stories in general, you’ll likely enjoy this one a lot.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Dream Dilemma!

Dream Dilemma is less of a romance game and more of a short horror story, although the main pairing between the female protagonist and her “destined” soulmate, who shows up in her dreams since her childhood, is central to the plot. Sadly, what is a rather excellent concept is brought down rather significantly by rushed execution. The protagonist’s recurring dream, always featuring the same person who seems to age alongside her and interact with her (although without the ability to speak with each other or otherwise exchange complex information), is disturbed by the appearance of a nefarious being that introduces himself as Phebetor. Our lead, being on the demon’s mercy, has to solve his three riddles to avoid death (or, possibly worse than that, endless torment), and learn the truth about the boy that accompanied her in her sleep nearly every night.

                The promising setup, mixing some very modern VN horror tricks with themes from Greek mythology is not completely wasted here, but simply does not receive the buildup and genuine tension it needed to be truly effective. Especially the connection between the protagonist and the boy she sees in her dreams just screamed for more elaboration and romantic tension, which would make their eventual meeting in the real world more meaningful to the reader. Still, the framework of the story is rather solid and with how short the game is, it doesn’t cost much to check it out and reach all the possible endings – just don’t expect anything more than a quick distraction.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

The Punniest Pun Messter

The Punniest Pun Messter is the most amateurish of the games on this list, with very simple visuals and absurd writing, but it’s not necessarily without its charm… And not without quite a lot of content, as it offers a script of over 80k words and three fully-fledged routes. This story of a female protagonist who’s been cursed by the mysterious “Jester” to constantly spew puns, and her similarly quirky high school friends, do not shy away from some painfully dry humour and old internet memes. However, it also involves wild plot twists and general silliness that you might associate with amateur projects made purely for fun – and if you approach it with an appropriate attitude, a lot of that enjoyment will be preserved in the reading experience.

                Obviously, the production quality is not the selling point here and while the crude sprites and simple photographic backgrounds could be seen part of the semi-parodistic formula, the choice of stock music is arguably abysmal and I highly recommend bringing your own soundtrack if you want to read this one. Also, to be completely clear, despite its meme’y nature, the game is highly inoffensive and generally kind-spirited. It’s also not completely random or self-indulgent – there is a genuine story in there, buried under the mountain of dad-jokes and purposefully-awkward references to internet folklore. While I won’t recommend everyone to check it out, if you’re looking for some silly entertainment, it’s not as bad of a choice as the crooked character designs could suggest and I imagine that in the future, if they have such ambition, this VN's author could create something genuinely interesting.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Red-Handed Robin

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Including Red-Handed Robin on this list goes against my usual policy of only covering complete games, as for the time being only the first half of it is available, but it’s a game that is already shaping up quite well and a full version of which I’m heavily anticipating. This story of Robin, a con-woman involved in the murder of a wealthy jeweller (with a passion for imprisoning and murdering his lovers) is plenty-twisted, but also does a pretty great job of borrowing themes from classic detective stories. While trying to flee the country on a luxury train, along with the aforementioned jeweller’s servant that helped her escape captivity and kill him, Robin meets her childhood friend – a former servant in her house that vanished suddenly, but now is revealed to be a police investigator. This provokes a battle of wits – and affection – that will decide whether, and in what way, Robin might get away with her crimes and how she will reconcile with the troubled history of her family.

                While I can’t say for sure how compelling the resolution of the story is going to be, particularly with the first chapter being rather short and apparently containing most of the choices important for the plot’s resolution, the setup that is already here is genuinely brilliant. The fun dialogue and moral ambiguity of the central characters, combined with the complex relationships they share have tons of potential and even if this won’t be used to the fullest, it’s very likely to offer a fun and satisfying experience. While I don’t necessarily recommend to read this game in its incomplete state, I will suggest checking it out as soon as the complete story is released – particularly because it looks and sounds just as good as it reads.

Final Rating: Recommended

Dear Devere


Katy133’s Dear Devere is not a traditional VN, but more of an epistolary novel, telling a supernatural love story through letters exchanged between a lonely young woman and a mysterious Mr Devere, all in a small town in the WW2-era Britain. While it’s a short game, and maybe a tiny bit rushed when it goes to romance, it offers some very nice artistic qualities. Most letters are elaborately (and beautifully) illustrated, making the game’s mode of storytelling surprisingly compelling in its visuals. Also, the letters between the protagonist and Devere are fully voice acted, giving the experience additional personality and relaxed pacing (the latter being, in a way, quite appropriate for a story told through correspondence). Another interesting touch is the perspective from which we learn the story – that of a police detective investigating the protagonist’s fate.

                If I had to summarize Dear Devere with one word, it would be “charming” – it’s a lovely little experience that is more about style and composition than it is about the plot, but isn’t truly devoid of substance either. With how short it is, there are really few reasons to not give it a try and appreciate all the amusing details and unique illustration it includes – and if you also get charmed by its slightly mystical romance, all the better.

Final Rating: Recommended


So, that’s it for today’s summary – I hope you enjoyed it and will consider giving some (or all) of these games a chance. While few projects in this year’s event truly impressed or surprised me, there are many which are very solid and enjoyable, making them deeply attractive offerings as freeware games. Enamored Risks proved to be the highlight among otome ones just through the virtue of keeping things simple and executing the standard romance formula is a very consistent and effective fashion. Someone who reviews pieces of media by the hundreds, like I do, often feels the need to demand innovation and fresh takes on the classic story templates, but simply creating relatable characters and heartwarming romance will never lose its value, and Mikomi’s team really succeeded in this regard. If you’re looking for something different, games like Dear Devere and Red-Handed Robin offer interesting spins on either the mode of storytelling or the usual tropes of VNs.

                As always, there’s a lot of enjoyment to find among NaNoRenO entries – and when it comes to my coverage of it, it’s just the beginning. I hope you’ll be willing to join me in two weeks for the second part of my highlights, this time themed around horror. Thank you for your time!

Friday, 1 May 2020

Mizuchi 白蛇心傳 Review (Yuri Visual Novel)

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Anyone observing the EVN scene should know well that yuri, besides being my personal obsession, is one of the most vibrant niches for non-JP visual novels, with many studios and creators dedicated to this theme and a very active fanbase. This seems to be particularly clear nowadays, as even companies like Winged Cloud, the infamous producers of low-effort VN smut, capitalized majorly on the trend, producing mostly GxG games for the past few years. On the other side of the spectrum, Studio Elan recently pushed the standard of quality for EVNs in general with their modern fairy tale, Heart of the Woods. As a result, yuri fans have a lot to choose from, both when it goes to quality work and amusing trash.
                The game I’ll be writing about today, Aikawa Collective’s Mizuchi 白蛇心傳, definitely aimed for the “quality” side of the spectrum and seemed like something that could rival Studio Elan’s hit with its climate and visual spectacle. This yuri-themed retelling of the famous Chinese folk tale, the Legend of the White Serpent, looked spectacular in its promotional material and easily reached its Kickstarter goal of $8500 in September 2018. While the development cycle for it proved long, going 9 months beyond its initial target of August 2019, it never lost its place as a promising and highly-anticipated yuri EVN. Releasing on Steam and Itch.io in mid-April 2020, it gathered overwhelmingly positive feedback – but, did it truly live up to the hype?
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Don’t worry, for those like me not blessed with proper knowledge of Japanese, these scenes get explained later on, but not knowing what is said is actually pretty important for the game’s mystery and climate-building
 
Mizuchi is a story of a young, poor peasant girl from the game’s equivalent of medieval China (her default name is Linh, but it can be changed). After years of living a harsh, but simple live as youngest daughter of the family, she’s unexpectedly proposed to by her childhood friend, who just came back from serving in a war. Just a few days later, after discovering something unexpected about her fiancée, she’s falsely accused of adultery and as a “trial” thrown into a pit of snakes. Left for certain death, she’s miraculously saved by an entity she assumes to be the serpent god revered by her community and wakes up in an unfamiliar house, whose only other inhabitant seems to be the said deity, now using a monstrous, half-serpent, half-human form. Terrified and confused, she has to navigate this new situation, made even more complex by the arrival of Jinhai – a strange, but kind female monk with a deep-running and turbulent relationship with the serpent goddess.
                While Mizuchi incorporates many fantastical elements, particularly with the serpent goddess, Ai, being a major focus, at its core it’s a slice-of-life VN, spending most of its time on the backstories and personal development of the three main characters. This is often done with slow-paced, casual interactions and depictions of daily life in the estate, near-perfectly isolated from the outside world. For those expecting a more dynamic story, or even a primarily romantic one, this might be a disappointment, as you’ll find in it at least just as many discussions about cooking and the local variety of mushroom as you might scenes that contribute to the romance or plot progression. This casual-feeling routine is only occasionally broken up by more dramatic events or tension, with the main axis of conflict being what Jinhai perceives as Linh’s imprisonment or forced servitude to Ai. Things change significantly in the final act of each route, with a lot more stress on supernatural phenomena and higher stakes, but this part might be slightly hard to get to for anyone not tolerant to slow pacing and very subtle character development.
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The amount of ultra-casual moments and “pointless” trivia sometimes threaten to devolve into genuine boredom, particularly in some of the scenes in Jinhai’s route
 
The reason I nearly never had a problem with the game’s relaxed approach to storytelling is that the setting and characters it builds are excellent enough to justify it. Linh starts overwhelmed and hurt, limited in her understanding of the world and striving to come back to her familiar home despite the struggle and possible danger that awaits her there. Her journey is mostly one of understanding her full potential and the injustice of the position she held in her village, which she previously considered as natural and inescapable. She’s believable in her reactions and the game delves pretty deep into emotional mechanisms of trauma, with which she has to deal with over time. All this definitely has a touch of female empowerment in it, as Linh has to break free of the constraints and common sense thinking of her extremely patriarchal and conservative community, with Ai offering her broader perspective on the world and promising new opportunities. Thankfully, it’s done well enough to never feel like pandering and is not exactly detached from the historical realities of medieval China the game takes inspiration from.
                Ai’s and Jinhai’s arcs are harder to talk about without spoilers, but the goddess in particular make for a really interesting character. As a powerful, shape-shifting spirit often moving between the worlds of nature and that of people, she has an attitude that combines a form of misanthropy with curiosity about humans and appreciation of specific individuals. Her arc is mostly themed around fully understanding humans and being able to grasp the love and devotion they often show to each other – a wish clearly signified by her adopted name. Jinhai is arguably a lesser character, as she’s defined mostly by her relationship with Ai and the responsibility she feels to keep her in check. The development she receives is definitely not as deep as that of the other two main characters and her route, by extension, is less captivating – which doesn't mean she isn't plenty likeable and doesn't have her own inner conflicts to resolve.
                I previously mentioned that Mizuchi’s romance arcs are not its central focus and I’m willing to stand by this claim, although I have some conflicted feelings in this regard. The game does some really excellent things when it goes to showing intimacy between the characters when the romance finally blossoms, with a set of mature, but not explicit scenes for both routes (inexplicably delegated to a patch on Steam, while they definitely should be a part of the core package and can hardly be considered "adult-only"). The road to those scenes is, however, kind of cliched and pale in comparison with how interesting the backstories of the characters and the core intrigue are. The positive part is that each route adds something to the understanding of the overall story and lore of the game’s world. Still, the non-romantic “harem” ending felt most satisfying to me, which is really weird for a yuri fanatic such as myself. My only explanation is that seeing all the characters staying together and overcoming traumas of their pasts simply feels like the best possible outcome, so this friendship scenario ends up being more satisfying than romance that naturally pushes someone out of the equation.
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The game does a good job of including some nudity and intimacy without explicit visuals – all mild and tasteful enough that the inclusion of Steam content patch for much of it feels pretty uncalled for
 
Now, for genuine complaints, I have very few, but my biggest one is probably the choice structure. It relies on an invisible affection system, with some choices contributing to it in a less-than-intuitive manner. This means that reaching some of the 5 endings, particularly the true ending for each heroine, can be really frustrating without a guide – while the number of choices is not massive, the sequence you need for those is really specific. Also, the execution of some of the endings was somewhat lacklustre, as they not always managed to explain well-enough what was going on and maintain reasonable pacing. Also, it’s clear that even among the “true endings” Ai’s felt a lot more robust and satisfying, showing where most of the team’s focus actually went.
                Visually, Mizuchi is absolutely beautiful, although it definitely prioritizes quality over quantity. Because the action of the VN is limited to less than a dozen locales, all the illustrations are really high-quality and do a great job of projecting the far-eastern-legend feel of the story. Sprites do not have much variety when it goes to poses and clothes, but once more make up for it with being highly-detailed and gorgeous – and to be fair, the sheer amount of forms Ai shapeshifts into required quite a lot of work to portray properly, in practice creating a significantly higher character count. CGs are relatively few and the high quality of other art kind of prevents them from having as much impact as they would in an average EVN, but that latter part is something I wish I could complain about more often. The music is fairly tranquil in its feel, matching the overall climate of the story – it was very pleasant and never got in the way of reading, which is just what I want from a VN soundtrack.
                In summary, Mizuchi is a game with a slightly niche appeal, due to its heavy focus on slice-of-life content and one that occasionally doesn’t seem to rise to its authors’ ambitions (particularly with the impact of the romance subplots). Despite all that, though, I found it to be a rather excellent experience, with charming characters and story that should satisfy not only yuri fans – while it doesn’t shy away from delving into the GxG love stories, its most important parts are much more universal. Its climate and unique approach to the far-eastern setting are something that should appeal to a broad audience and I recommend every VN fan that wasn’t scared off by my earlier criticism to give Mizuchi a chance. Also, as Aikawa’s debut, it’s a very promising achievement – hopefully, they won’t stop there.
 
Final Rating: 4/5
 
Pros:
+ Beautiful visuals
+ Well-constructed, unusual fantasy setting
+ Likeable heroines
+ Good psychological depth of the main characters
 
Cons:
– Uneven pacing and occasionally dull slice-of-life content
– Unintuitive choice system
– Romance subplots lack impact


VNDB Page
Buy Mizuchi on Steam or Itch.io

Saturday, 11 April 2020

Rainbow Dreams Review (English Original Visual Novel)

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Epic Works is a pretty unique phenomenon in the EVN scene: an African studio, developing games openly inspired by Type-Moon's visual novels and other classic chuunige. Their first release, Episicava, was something of a glorious trainwreck, launching with multiple technical problems and borderline-unbearable, edgy storytelling replicating most of the worst tropes of the chuuni game subgenre. The follow-ups included an unholy abomination of a nukige known as Analistica Academy, and a clunky and inconsistently written, but occasionally appealing RPG VN The Adventurer’s Tale. None of them proved genuinely impressive, but each showed some forms of progress, particularly in the visual department, which by the time of The Adventurer’s Tale’s release got both appealing and consistent in style and quality.
                As unhealthy curiosity is one of the driving forces behind my blogging endeavours, I couldn’t stop myself from being attracted by the studio’s latest Kickstarter campaign, aimed at creating another chuunige-style VN in the Episicava universe (although with no direct connection to the latter’s main plot). Despite my disappointment with their debut titles, I was very interested whether this new project, Rainbow Dreams, would represent an improvement for the studio and correct the massive issues with the tone and writing quality those earlier games suffered from. And despite apparent development issues and heavy delays, resulting in a January 2020 Steam release (7 months after the initial goal), I’m happy to say that while not all problems were remedied to an appropriate degree, when it comes to the sheer entertainment factor, Rainbow Dreams is a major step in the right direction.
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As usual, the Epic Works newest protagonist is not exactly balanced, but at least his attitude is a lot more bearable than that of his predecessors
 
The story of Rainbow Dreams is the most straightforward power and romantic fantasy imaginable: an immensely talented, but troubled teen, Luka, is suddenly approached by a girl claiming to be the god of his universe. Nearly as soon as they meet, she reveals that the protagonist is her soulmate and fellow god, created by an accident millennia ago, and that she left the heavens to become his partner. And while you can’t go much higher when it goes to power levels and convenience for the main character, there’s also a problem: while the goddess, Myra, is benevolent and don’t waste time showing her power by changing the protagonist’s life for the better, the most powerful of her servants, Lara, hate the mortal races and will do anything to eliminate him and keep her influence over the goddess. To prevent that from happening, Luka will have to open his heart, learn to use his newfound powers and understand the link that binds his and Myra’s souls together.
                The fact the story is straightforward doesn’t mean that its execution was done without hiccups, mostly drawing from the fact the game was too short for some of its ideas to be fully fleshed out. This means that some of the secondary story elements and characters show up and they aren’t utilized in a meaningful way or don’t get explored beyond the bare minimum. The most striking example is the witch that shows for literally one scene, subtly aiding the protagonist and leaving him with a vague warning that doesn’t match anything happening later in the story. These problems make the universe of Rainbow Dreams feel a lot less robust than that of Epicisava and underline the general impression that the game was downscaled from the team's original ambitions. There’s also the issue of “meaningful choices” promised in the Kickstarter campaign, which also very likely got scrapped during the development process: the three choices that made it to the game are so pointless that it would seriously be better off being a kinetic novel.
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As many lines in this game will show you, the quality control it received was not exactly “fine(/i)”
 
Characters are a mixed bag: while the main couple has some things going for them, the supporting cast differentiates between paper-thin and obnoxious, with pretty much two exceptions. The protagonist, Luka, represents a similar misanthropic, overconfident asshole archetype as the Episicava's MC, but thankfully toned down to bearable levels: as jaded and arrogant as he might be, he cares a lot about those close to him and avoids pointless violence. He also warms up to Myra pretty quickly, masking his thoughts  with a nasty attitude, but never truly ignoring her feelings and taking things around him with proper consideration. Myra herself poses for a spoiled, naïve princess that left her divine realm on a reckless adventure, but shows a lot more depth when the perspective switches to her, or when the stakes get high. Both of these could become truly compelling characters if the game took more time developing them and its writing was more consistent, but they’re serviceable nonetheless and their bickering makes for some fun slice-of-life moments. Whether the cartoonishly-vile villain, Lara, works for you is probably up to personal taste, but I found her at least properly menacing – an insane demigod terrorizing the mortal races by manipulating the goddess is a pretty compelling idea, even if the “mad” part is showed in the game a lot more than brilliant scheming. Also, most of her screentime is connected with another decent character – demon Cardea, who combines an aloof, carefree Façade with a lot of wit and battle prowess gathered over her centuries-long life.
                Those that are familiar with Epic Works games will probably know that they’re not free of some weird, questionable elements and in this respect, I have a few, probably most important warnings for those interested in buying Rainbow Dreams. While the game suffers from an unpolished script, with fairly frequent typos and often awkward English, some storytelling choices also made me scratch my head. Maybe the most glaring one is Trica, Luka’s best friend who half-jokingly flirts with him in every interaction, spewing heavy-handed gay "jokes" and receiving similarly uncomfortable (that is, borderline-bigoted) responses. Whether you’re sensitive to such stuff might decide whether you’re going to have an enjoyable time with this VN in general. Thankfully, the actual romance subplot between Luka and Myra is much more balanced, with a decent amount of agency and respect on both sides. This also extends to the game’s two sex scenes, which are pretty vanilla and strongly connected to the romance progression, rather than showing up as random fanservice (also unlike Episicava, where at least one scene was a pretty awful insert, pointlessly disrespecting one of that game’s strongest female characters).
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The game’s fighting sequences aren’t necessarily thrilling, but they also never overstate their welcome or show up without a proper reason
 
Rainbow Dream’s biggest strength, however, lies in its visuals – the general artstyle is gorgeous and while most of the story is showed through sprites, the CGs that are present have enough variants and look good enough to create a relatively dynamic experience. The weakest part of it all is probably fighting scenes, which mostly rely on a small set of frequently-reused illustrations, but they aren’t an as big part of the experience as they’re in an average chuunige, and the flow of the battles (as it is presented through text) is pretty unique each time. The music is pretty upbeat most of the time, matching the relatively lighthearted tone of the story, although it can get intense in the dramatic moments – none of it is particularly memorable, but it does its job.
                In summary, Rainbow Dreams is a serviceable VN – it does not rise to excellence in any department and has a good number of issues big and small, but also manages to be just enjoyable enough to justify its existence. With 5-6 hours of content and already mentioned lack of polish, one could argue whether it’s worth the $10 price tag, but I’d have no issues to recommend giving it a chance when it goes on sale. And despite not being that impressed with it, I’d still be happy to see it get some recognition and encourage Epic Works to continue working on their VN formula and their skills as developers – more diversity is never a bad thing and the chuunige niche in EVNs is distinctly underdeveloped. Whether the relative lack of interest for their latest releases prevents that, only time will tell…
 
Final Rating: 2,5/5
 
Pros:
+ High-quality visuals
+ Fun, straightforward main plot
 
Cons:
– Unpolished script
– Underdeveloped/forgotten story threads
– Weird/questionable moments
– Choices are not just meaningless, but pointless


VNDB Page
Buy Rainbow Dreams on Steam or Itch.io

Friday, 27 March 2020

The End of an Actress Review (English Original Visual Novel)

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Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of the game by the developer. All opinions presented are my own.

Human beings are contradictory creatures, whose behaviour is rarely as consistent as we would like to see and whose motivations are often complex, to the point they’re not fully understood even by the specific person themselves. This fact is often minimized in fiction, which instinctively strives for clear narratives and characters that are ultimately possible to fully understand and assess according to some kind of moral standards. At the same time, there’s undeniable value in exploring the ambiguity of the human condition and ebi-hime is one of the EVN authors that do it with a borderline-painful consistency, often creating harsh or melancholic plots and populating her stories with deeply flawed, realistic-feeling characters. And her latest release, The End of an Actress, definitely do not break this trend.
                Released on Steam in late February 2020, this new title by ebi is loosely based on the last years of Marie Antoinette’s life, where she was imprisoned by the revolutionaries and eventually executed for her perceived crimes against the French people. It transfers these core events and many features of the queen’s biography into a fictional setting, closely resembling 18th-century France, but without any pretences for full historical accuracy. However, instead of a grant political tale, what plays out on this stage is a very intimate drama involving the deposed queen, Liliane, and Marcus, a revolutionary who led the assault on her palace and unwittingly became her jailor. In isolation and hopelessness, the relationship between the two will be redefined in a few possible directions, fluctuating between naïve fascination, hate and, possibly, mutual understanding and affection, making for a rather captivating literary experience and one of my new favourites in ebi’s catalogue. But what makes it this special?
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Considering its inspiration, the game’s plot leads to some predictably grim conclusions – however, it’s hardly a full-on utsuge, featuring many ambivalent, and even hopeful moments
 
Me calling The End of an Actress “intimate” is connected less to its romantic elements and more to its storytelling formula, focused very heavily on interactions between Liliane and Marcus, with other characters present in a purely episodic manner, usually without even having sprites. After capturing the queen, Marcus is tasked with keeping her imprisoned in her palace until she can be tried for her crimes – a process that is constantly prolonged by the legal and political disputes between the revolutionaries. With Liliane permanently confined to her bedroom and Marcus, as the most trusted agent of the revolution’s leadership, unable to leave his post as her jailor, the two become the only meaningful sources of human interaction for each other for months-on-end. In this time they have many opportunities to rework their preconceptions about each other and the peculiar “relationship” they shared – a hopeless fascination of a poor orphan, sparked by the queen that once embodied hope and national pride, but became the reviled symbol of monarchy’s corruption, turning all that love into disappointment and hate.
                While we observe the story primarily from Marcus’ perspective, the most interesting part of it is probably still the queen. Proud and arrogant, she never allows herself to show fear or weakness, even when her life is threatened by the revolutionaries. She also seems to show little remorse for the disastrous reign, despite being confronted with her failings by Marcus on multiple occasions. Over time, however, she shows more of her true thoughts, as fatigue and new tragedies striking her family make her persona crumble. Her relationship with Markus evolves accordingly, although how far this change will go depends on the player’s choices. There’s even an option in which Markus kills Liliane immediately after storming the palace, which is more or less the outcome she hoped for, allowing her to escape the humiliation of being imprisoned and executed like a criminal. Other endings, while also tragic in their own ways, involve Marcus and Liliane getting closer to understanding each other and forming a genuine bond – with the “best” ending blooming into a short, hopeless romance.
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The game’s art, with its level of detail and otome-feeling character designs, does a good job of presenting the quasi-historical setting and building appropriate climate
 
While the game definitely has an utsuge vibe, with no “happy ending” that could fully circumvent the characters’ hopeless circumstances, I wouldn’t necessarily call it depressing. It focuses less on the impending death that is awaiting Liliane, and more on the paths that led her and Markus to this point, along with their clashing personalities and ideals. The true strength of the VN lies exactly with how compelling they are as characters – both are essentially wearing masks, playing roles they think they’re obliged to perform while hiding their true feeling and the pain the current situation brings them. The more their façades crack, the more complex things become, with internal conflict, regrets and vulnerabilities showing up on each side. Particularly the character of Liliane is, even at her most sympathetic moments, highly ambiguous, quite like her historical counterpart. Her unhappiness and limited influence in no way absolving her selfishness and careless pursuit of pleasure at the time when her kingdom was crumbling, but lets the reader understand her better. At the point they’re at, neither Liliane nor Markus can hope for redemption, but they can achieve some kind of closure and the endings in which this happens are, in my opinion, more touching than plain sad.
                In the “best” route, the romance between the queen and Marcus leads to the game’s sole sex scene, which is quite like the one I complimented last year in ebi's The Language of Love – not overly explicit and very much story-relevant. I was quite worried it would feel out of place considering the dire circumstances the characters are at, particularly in the later parts of the story, but it felt like an appropriate and believable conclusion to the troubled romance, exploring the characters in new ways. I find this “softcore” formula a lot more meaningful than the typical h-scenes and I’m glad that’s how the erotic content was dealt with in this case. And speaking more broadly, I have a hard time pointing out something I didn’t like about the story in The End of an Actress. The biggest one I can think of is that between the 5 different endings, not all of them are very distinct. Also, not everyone will be satisfied with its small-scale, melodramatic approach to topic, resembling a minimalistic stage play rather than an epic political drama, but I think that it was excellent in what it was trying to achieve. Even the way the queen’s character has been modified, being younger and less politically involved than her historical inspiration, shows that this was meant to be, above all, the story of her and Markus as people, very much succeeding in this task.
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The typos in the initial release often showed up in most unfortunate moments, but in my experience, such details are pretty much as far as this game’s flaws go
 
Visually, the game uses a rather detailed artstyle somewhat resembling otome games, which are also quite often period dramas – this also applies to Markus’ design, as he could easily pass as an ikemen in an Otomate title. The setting, while fictionalized, represents XVIII-century France in a rather believable manner, with environments and various details of daily life seeming decently-researched and consistent. For history buffs, the highly-simplified version of the French Revolution, starting with the abolition of monarchy and imprisonment of the royal family, might be something of a disappointment, but it's believable-enough as its own story and gives all the necessary context for the core narrative, that is one about the relationship between Lilian and Markus. The minimalism of the story also made it possible for the few backgrounds and CGs being decently-detailed and while the game does not linger on the extravagance of the royal palace or show much of Liliane’s life before imprisonment, it gives a good-enough impression of its lavishness. And finally, the music consisting mostly of classical tunes, would not be out of place in a good TV drama set in the same period – it's nice to listen to, despite the overall sad tone and enhances the climate of the whole experience. There's even an original song that kicks in during some of the most touching moments of the story and although I usually prefer instrumental background music in VNs, this one blended in very well without taking me out of the experience.
                Ultimately, The End of an Actress was a highly refreshing and satisfying experience for me, using a formula heavily under-utilized in VNs other than otome and telling a genuinely emotional, impactful story. While its clear focus on personal drama and romance will not appeal to everyone, it delivered on its promises and kept good pacing and climate all the way through. While I had a somewhat ambivalent experience reading ebi's previous period drama, Blackberry Honey, being tired of the persecution the protagonist constantly suffered through and the extremely slow story progression, here I was kept engaged by the character progression and thought-provoking ambiguity of the events. It wasn't perfect, as the romance didn't avoid a few cheesy moments and the first bad ending CG got a clearly-unintended chuckle out of me, but such details could not really undermine my overall, extremely positive impression. If this kind of story is even remotely within your preference, I deeply recommend giving this VN a try – in its category, there are few better ones.
 
Final Rating: 4,5/5
 
Pros:
+ An interesting, complex relationship between the main characters
+ Well-constructed quasi-historical setting
+ High-quality art
+ Climatic soundtrack
 
Cons:
– Some endings feel similar to each other/repetitive
The political context is only vaguely portrayed, as a background for the personal/romance drama


VNDB Page
Buy The End of an Actress on Steam or Itch.io

Friday, 6 March 2020

EVN Chronicles' Steam Curator Wrap-Up – Winter 2020 (Legend of Everything; Weeping Willow; Usagiri; Revenant March; Tell a Demon)

Hello and welcome to EVN Chronicles' seasonal Steam Curator Wrap-up, where I cover the VNs sent to me for review through Steam's Curator Connect functionality. Lately, I’ve come to a sad realisation that I’m unlikely to keep up with all the games I’m receiving, with the appropriate tab in my Steam library growing more and more intimidating over time. However, I’ll be still working to give a chance to as many of them as possible, and assess them for all of you.
                This time around, I've been able to check out five titles, the main highlight being the newest VN by the Indonesian studio Kidalang, Legend of Everything, with its deeply unique spin on the isekai formula. This is, however, not where the interesting stuff ends, as the climatic Revenant March and wonderfully-stylized Tell a Demon also proved to be strong contenders, making this one of the most compelling lists I've worked on in this series. So, please join me in this brief overview and if any of the games catch your interest, you can go straight to their Steam pages by clicking their titles. Enjoy!

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Legend of Everything is definitely the most unusual visual novel in today’s post, particularly because of its subject matter. At first glance, it might look like a simple spin on the isekai formula, with an inhabitant of a fantasy-themed, video game world being the protagonist and interacting with a particularly chaotic person transported there from our reality. However, pretty soon it transforms into a giant thought experiment, and basically a lecture on the simulation hypothesis – the idea that our universe is actually a simulation created by some advanced intelligence. This notion might seem absurd at first glance, but is made less so the more you learn about modern physics theory and strangely arbitral rules that govern various phenomena it describes. While never fully abandoning the formula of comedic fantasy adventure, Legend of Everything thoroughly explores this idea and conveys tons of legitimate science knowledge, basically becoming the most moe course on modern science you're likely to can find, presented in a highly accessible, but genuinely educational way. If you’re at least marginally interested in this kind of topics, the game should be quite enjoyable to you.
                What’s less impressive, in my opinion, is the visual side of the experience, dependent on subpar-quality 3D sprites and environments. It’s particularly disappointing in contrast with the rather-stylish art in this studio's previous titles, An Octave Higher and One Small Fire at a Time. However, I was pretty quickly able to look past it thanks to how enjoyable the writing was, consistently combining well-constructed science discussions with quirky characters and humour, and even some epic and heartfelt moments worthy of a “proper” fantasy story. Saying anything more would inevitably involve spoilers, so I’ll simply recommend everyone to check this game out – it offers a lot more than you’d expect at first glance.

Final rating: Highly Recommended

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Weeping Willow is a short (2-3 hours of reading, no choices) detective story observed from the perspective of Sophie, a young demi-human woman whose recently-wed husband, a wealthy noble, disappeared mysteriously during a plague. After she starts working with the local investigator to learn what happened, a man claiming to be the missing Baron von Wolf enters her house. Desperate to expose the impostor before she’s removed as an obstacle, but without appropriate proof, she has to cooperate with the investigator, who's also suspicious of the Baron’s sudden “return”. This creates a tense, high-stakes story with a decent amount of twists, while Sophie fights to preserve both her life and her sanity amid a conspiracy that proves even more complex and hard to break than she could imagine.
                Once more, saying anything more would inevitably involve spoilers, as the story relies very heavily on mystery and subverting reader’s expectations. While the plot involves some minor contrivances if you analyse it closely enough, I have to say that I deeply enjoyed the writing and production quality the game offered. The art and music were maybe not exceptional, but fully serviceable and the intrigue never stopped being suspenseful. Also, for the low price of $2, it’s an amazing value proposition. If murder mystery and detective stories are your things, you should definitely check this one out.

Final rating: Highly Recommended

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The newest game by a veteran of this section, Mikołaj Spychał, is something of a disappointment even by the humble standards of his usual output. It tells a story of a person (you can choose the protagonist’s name and gender) who becomes a patron for two bunnygirls – humanoids that appeared on modern Earth in mysterious circumstances and were all placed under an assimilation program, where they receive education and get acclimated to human society under volunteer caretakers. The protagonist is one such volunteer, anxiously awaiting their first assignment. 
                What follows this brief setup is an extremely fluffy and by-the-numbers slice of life story without any real twists, or even romantic elements one would usually expect. While this is not a huge issue by itself, when coupled with relatively low production values, just around 3 hours of linear story and the relatively steep $10 price tag, there’s really no way to recommend buying this game. The author’s previous titles at least let you derive some entertainment from their unusual approach to romance and the ability to utterly ruin it with irresponsible decisions. This time around, even this hook is absent, which alongside purely-meaningless choices condemned the game into being utterly generic and forgettable. You can feel free to skip this one.

Final rating: Not Recommended

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Revenant March is another one of those low-budget EVNs that might look very unassuming, but compensate for that with strong climate and imaginative setting. This short mystery game follows the story of Olenine, a young exorcist who gets hired by a powerful merchant to save his daughter from a town beset by a curse. After travelling through magical mist, she finds her target kidnapped by a powerful spirit and the town’s community extremely hard to cooperate with, despite being besieged by an army of undead. To succeed, she’ll have to uncover the many secrets hidden in the town, including the one directly connected to the spirit’s presence – and not die while doing so. Quite appropriately to this theme, progressing through the game involves navigating a massive maze of choices (including many dead ends) through which Olenine attempts to gather information and build alliances with people crucial for her goals. At the same time, we’re learning details from her own, disturbing past, and the path that led her to the craft of dealing with the dead.
                The game, at first, seems pretty simple visually, but includes a lot of assets which are all stylized in a way that reinforces the suffocating, gloomy tone of the story. There’s a good number of major characters that are important for uncovering the town’s secrets, pretty much all of them very decently designed, and well fleshed out when it goes to personalities and motivations. Despite the rather brief main story (3-4 hours), Revenant March managed to be just as multi-layered and full of twists as I'd expect from a good mystery game, and even the sub-optimal ending I've reached on my first playthrough was pretty satisfying. The only real negative might be the choice-maze which makes it really hard to identify the path leading to the best ending, which also unlocks an epilogue expanding on Olenine's story. Even with this small caveat though, it's a worthwhile experience for anyone liking the mystery/investigation genre – if you're even remotely interested in those, I highly recommend checking out this VN.

Final rating: Highly Recommended

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Tell a Demon, the sequel to a freeware VN Asher, is not a new release, first appearing on Steam in mid-2017. It is, however, obscure enough that it completely escaped my attention before being sent to me through Curator Connect – and I’m glad it was, as this small series, despite some issues I have with its mechanics, has many interesting things to offer. It utilizes a unique Urban Fantasy setting, taking place in a city on a secluded continent, once ruled by the universally despised, immortal Empress. While the tyrannical monarch was killed by one of the nobles from her court, the blood-drinking demons she created, as both servants and enforcers, still roam the land, despite being considered a mere legend by the general public. Both games involve the same set of central characters, demons and those whose lives are influenced by them in the shadowy corners of the Asher city, stylized after 1920’s US but full of magic and hidden, ancient artefacts.
                Tell a Demon combines this setting with a striking, painting-like artstyle and a complex intrigue with three protagonists, the fate of whom will be decided by the player’s choices. Those choices, however, might be the single biggest issues I have with the game – with the number of them present and the ability to either pick a dialogue option or let it time out, they create a maze-like structure that only the most dedicated readers should approach without a guide. This is more of a personal preference though and other than that, the game’s complex world, eerie climate and atmospheric music are deeply enjoyable. I’d recommend Tell a Demon to anyone interested in mystery VNs that escape the usual tropes – although if you’re not sure it’ll be to your liking, it’s anyway highly advisable to read Asher first and familiarize yourself with the setting, some of the main characters and the visual style of the series.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Like I’ve mentioned, today's list was rather exceptional when it goes to the quality of games that got sent to me and it’s always very satisfying when I can compliment the developers that decided to share their work with me. With the sad, but somewhat expected exception of Usagiri, all these VNs impressed me with their creativity and interesting concepts. In this, they’re showcasing the best features of the EVN niche, able to overcome its small budgets and often tiny development teams through creativity and ability to escape overused tropes. I hope you’ll consider giving at least some of them a chance.

Have a great weekend everyone, and until next time!