Friday, 19 October 2018

Plk_Lesiak’s Shovelware Adventures: Dharker Studio’s yuri games

Dharker Studio is one of the better-known development teams on the EVN scene, active since early 2015, but also one that quickly became rather infamous due to their low-quality, fanservice-filled titles. Games such as Sword of Asumi or Divine Slice of Life gathered a lot of attention, as they were released on then still quite barren EVN market and quickly found their way to Steam, but were also quite harshly rejected by reviewers and poorly received by many VN fans. Later down the line, the company focused on purely erotic titles, with much-telling titles such as Army Gals or Battle Girls – admittedly with slightly more artistic(?) success. While most of those games followed a very standard formula, with faceless self-insert protagonists and number of females to “date”, there are also two notable yuri eroge by Dharker: Negligee, released in late 2016 and Galaxy Girls, published a year after that. Today, as the appreciator of yuri that I am, I’ll take a closer look at those two girls’ love-themed games, both of them quite curious examples of commercial success despite many, many problems they suffered from. As a "bonus", I'll include the Negligee's prequel, Love Stories, in the article the game that earned the unexpected honour of being the first uncensored, fully explicit eroge accepted by Valve for Steam release. While this game's content is mostly straight hentai, it has one notable yuri subplot and features all the girls from Negligee, being worth a closer look from everyone that enjoyed the first title in the series. So, let's get this thing started!

While writing the two dozens of shovelware reviews over the last 6 months I've noticed that ecchi EVNs seem to work better with casual, more or less realistic settings – there are few things more painful than mediocre-at-best writer trying to create a fantasy or sci-fi setting with the use of kitsch, exaggerated characters and all the most overdone cliches, just to give an excuse for persistent close-ups on anime boobs and a few hentai scenes. The game we're talking about now, thankfully, chose a rather simple and straightforward premise and made a pretty decent use of it. As the player, you control the actions of an assistant manager in a lingerie shop (titular Negligee), that is suddenly forced to take over for her boss (who runs away in mysterious circumstances) and find some new employees. Soon, three candidates show up and as they all seem reasonably fit for the job, we have to take our female protagonist (who is, by the way, a quite gorgeously-designed, busty redhead) through a week-long trial with the girls and decide which one of them she should hire. And, as I probably don’t have to explain, the store’s sexy merchandise will find many, many uses throughout the whole experience. And also quite often it will be falling on the floor...
            While, obviously, the premise might have relatively little significance here in comparison to fanservice and h-scenes (although, surprisingly enough, those are mostly bonus content, served to you after finishing the main plot),the game offering a serviceable story, with the possibility to properly present the characters and get the reader at least a tiny bit emotionally involved is something I always appreciate. While some of the mechanics Dharker used here, like the large number of bad endings, make relatively little sense within the formula (I don’t think many people bought this game for unexpected drama-filled, negative conclusions that don’t even feel that connected to the choices you made), the heroines are likable and get just enough character development to make the whole thing fun to read – and nice to look at, as art is admittedly of very nice quality, just as you would hope in a quasi-nukige. In the end, however, it's just a bit too short (it takes only around 4 hours to 100% it) and shallow to prove truly satisfying, especially for the base asking price of $13. Because of this, I don't think I can give it a rating higher than Rabbit Poo, although, if you find it on deep sale, it’s still a reasonably enjoyable piece of yuri smut, definitely worth it for the fans of the genre.

Final Rating: Rabbit Poo
Negligee's prequel already claimed a place in PC gaming and VN history, regardless its quality, but in my opinion, it turned out to be a positive surprise not only by heralding the end of Steam's strict anti-porn policies. Love Stories, which contains four short, separate episodes, explores the backstories of the three main heroines from the first game and the paths that led them to working in the titular lingerie store, along with the story of Loren, the Negligee's old manager. It does a very solid job of expanding on the very basic characterisation the cast received before, placing all of them at the center of some decently-written drama. Every episode has a clear theme (like sex addiction for Sophie or failed marriage and cheating for Loren), with choices that can either lead you to the resolution of the conflict and a positive, canon ending (which also awards you a short epilogue) or a negative, "dead end" one. Interestingly enough, hentai scenes are quite often connected to the "bad" choices, with more narratively compelling resolutions being connected to characters rejecting sex or at least being reluctant about it. This makes an impression of a nukige that actually tries to tell a story and cares at least somewhat about the consistency of its narrative a pretty rare occurrence, especially in the low-budget EVN scene.
            Interestingly enough, Love Stories' flaws spawned a substantial amount of criticism towards the game, making it barely stay above "mixed" ranking on Steam. And there are definitely some problems there: the choices often don't affect the story in meaningful ways, sometimes literally being followed by 2-3 unique lines and only making any difference when it goes to the ending you'll get. The episodes are also short, with the whole VN ultimately having a similar completion time as the first Negligee and most likely only feeling compelling to those familiar with the original story and interested in exploring its characters further. Out of context, it will only be a decently-drawn, short nukige, but if you're familiar with the original game and enjoyed it, both titles supplement each other really well and create a rather enjoyable experience. Not one deep beyond what you could reasonably expect from porn VNs, but pretty high up there in its own category – and I see no reason why we shouldn't appreciate that.
Final Rating: Golden Poo! 
Galaxy Girls
Galaxy Girls is a game with a somewhat complicated history, but one aiming at simple goals. It’s a remake of the Reine Works’ Blossoms Bloom Brightest, a free Yuri Game Jam title, which Dharker expanded on, and added h-scenes and fanservice, pretty much completely absent in the original. While keeping the general structure of the plot and even much of the dialogue, they added a fourth character (the story follows a small group of women stuck together on an involuntary, one-way space mission and having to cope with their situation), replaced all the artwork and, ultimately, shifted the tone of the whole experience from drama to porn (including some seriously out-of-place fanservice scenes, especially the solo ones in the common route, featuring the protagonist, who acts as the ship’s captain). Even the character designs, while clearly similar to the original ones, feel much less mature and are visibly more “sexy” (it’s hard to miss Kotoha’s sprite magically going from B cup to D+).
            While all these modifications are rather understandable, considering the Dharker’s history and the kind of content their fans might expect, things that weren’t changed are more puzzling. BBB’s story begged for major reworking, with its rather one-dimensional characters, messy plot progression and the main intrigue going nowhere, but all its biggest flaws are completely intact in the remake. Addition of the extra character, Emilia, is also done in a very poor way, as she’s inserted into a story definitely constructed around the original three girls and their interactions, so throughout the common route she barely has any role to play and literally nothing meaningful to say, to the point it’s rather hilarious, while the choices that lead to her route rarely make any sense. A DLC episode, added months after the game’s release, give us some insights into her character and her backstory, but it’s definitely too little, too late to salvage her as a meaningful addition as anything other than fanservice fodder.
            The game, obviously, has a decent amount of hentai – as someone who cares little for anime porn, as usual, I’m not the best person to assess it, but its variety and quality of the art are definitely on a very decent level. Still, the trainwreck that is Galaxy Girls’ story did little to get me excited about the sex and romance in it and that’s never a good sign, even if you want to treat this game as a nukige (and I think it’s less of a porn game than Negligee, considering its much longer story and the hentai once more being mostly at the end of every route). It’s definitely not the worst thing ever, probably not even close to some games covered in this series, but even considering it’s more reasonable when it goes to price/content ratio (especially including DLC episodes, there’s quite a lot of reading and quite a lot of porn in there), I see few reasons to recommend it. Only for those really starved for some hot yuri action (although I would still suggest saving your money and investing into something like a SonoHana game or the recently-released Sisterly Bliss).
Final Rating: Rabbit Poo 
And this, for the time being, concludes the topic of Dharker Studio’s yuri games and marks the beginning of a short hiatus of Shovelware Adventures. It, however, doesn’t mean that Dharker is already off the hook – when the series comes back, it will quite likely be their titles, especially the very early ones, published under the label, being torn apart. These games are especially interesting to me, as they’re all quite important parts of the history of the whole EVN scene, even if rather unfortunate ones and I can’t way to see whether all my negative assumptions and knowledge about them will be proven right. For now, I hope you all enjoyed our little journey through the world of visual novel shovelware (and, maybe, even other parts of my humble blog). Until the next time!

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Venus Blood Frontier - a normie's perspective
Disclaimer: This post is not sporsored by Ninetail and I'm not in any way affiliated with the studio - this is simply an expression of my personal interest and support for the game

There are two days left until the end of Venus Blood Frontier translation Kickstarter campaign - a huge undertaking by Ninetail, who decided to bring to the West one of their most expansive and technically complex game, as pretty much their first step outside of Japan. One that apparently proved successful, even those the game's fate was uncertain just a week ago, before two individuals put an absurd amount of money on the table, to sponsor some custom story content - I applaud their dedication, as thanks to them, the English version have a good chance of being the best and most complete release of Frontier, something we rarely get as Western VN fans.
          But, why am I even talking about this, on my EVN blog? Why did I support this game and don't hide my excitement about it, even though it's not only a bit outside my main interest, but also, in the Japanese version, includes depictions of sexual violence that I have no interest in whatsoever? To put it as simply as possible, it's about the kind of story it tells, and the kind of choice it offers to the player. But first, a bit of a digression...
With all Star Wars: The Old Republic's failures, it was possibly the only game that caught the fantasy of playing as a Sith, with the freedom to embrace the Empire's brutality or try to reform it
A good few years ago, a now-dying MMO called Star Wars: The Old Republic was released by Bioware, promising to be the first title of this kind to offer a deep, personalised story for every player character. As I Bioware fan, I pre-ordered it and jumped right into the action as a Jedi Knight... And dropped the game before max level, deeply bored by the gameplay and storyline. The fantasy of being the saviour of the galaxy was just as over-the-top and bland as what I've seen in hundreds of RPGs before, the flashing lightsaber and Star Wars soundtrack not being able to make it that more engaging.
          However, two years later, I came back with the resolution to check out the other side of the coin - Sith storylines. It wasn't a natural choice for me, as I abhor most "evil" choices in RPGs, never being able to follow a truly dark path. I can accept my character being harsh, or even ruthless in following their goals, but not without the underlying cause being just. In other words, I'm a huge pussy that can't harm undeserving pixels without feeling sick. What I found in the Empire storylines, however, was mesmerizing to me. With my approach, they were stories of people that found themselves in hopeless circumstances, looking for ways to go through them with some kind of honour and looking for power to change their reality for the better. The game offered freedom to conform to the expectations, becoming a murderous maniac, or subvert them and find your own way through the horrors and challenges before you, creating a perfect fantasy of being a Sith - freedom through power, with the possibility to remain relatively pure, but without constraints put on you by the Jedi Code. For me it was, and is to this day, the best role playing experience I've ever had, in the quite literal sense of the term.
Loki is never really a "good guy", but if you can steer him to become a ruthless oppressor, or a benevolent tyrant who uses force to change his ravaged world for the better
What all this has to do with Frontier though? A lot, actually, as the protagonist, Loki, is in a very similar position to the Sith of The Old Republic. He's a high-ranking demon, an ancient enemy of mankind sent on a mission to conquer the last bastion of humanity. He's a villain by default, having all the means and motivation to cruelly subjugate the human lands, along the goddesses that protect them and corrupt them into willing servants (through some very non-consensual meeting with tentacles) - servants who can help him to get his revenge on the Demon King, murderer of his parents and claim the supreme rulerships over his crumbled world. Considering how weak his forces are initially, the game pretty much compels you to use all the resources at your disposal, without looking at the moral value of it all.
          It, however, also offers a different path and many choices that lets you craft your personal story and your own interpretation on what Loki is really about. Will you be a just ruler, or wreak havoc across the land? Will you corrupt the goddesses to gain powerful servants, or leave them as they are and earn their loyalty through your actions? Will you romance one of them, form a harem, or skip that part of the experience altogether? The options are... Well, not limitless, but impressive, in a way that is pretty hard to find in Western media. A compelling anti-hero, in my opinion, is an extremely rare occurrence and one that should be celebrated.
I know keeping the goddesses pure and following the Law route strictly is not the "main" allure of the game for most, but the option to do so is no way an afterthought or a lesser experience
And now let's address the elephant in the room. While you can imagine how I will play this game, it's not really what this series is known for in Japan or what some would consider an "intended" way to experience it. The corruption mechanic is pretty much the selling point of the Venus Blood series and the original cover of Frontier leaves no doubt that tentacle rape is its core element, part of its identity even. I'm also not sure how playable the Chaos route, normally full of such h-scenes, will be in the all-ages version of the game. However, the existence of Steam version and the way it was marketed in the West makes it possible to experience the game's storyline and impressively deep SRPG mechanics regardless whether you're ok with that kind of content or not.
         So why I'm writing all this? I do because I want you to consider supporting the Kickstarter - it's very close to the first stretch goal, with will include additional guarantees for the translation quality of the final product, including full retranslation of the trial portion of the game. This is something that will likely influence the future of this title and the possibility of other Venus Blood titles reaching the West. And above all, I want you to keep an eye for this game, which not only caters to my personal "storytelling fetish", but also seems like an great piece of entertainment that has something to offer for pretty much anyone - hardcore eroge fans, people looking for strategy RPG with a compelling narrative and even VN fans in general, considering how flexible the difficulty settings are, up to the ability skip much of the gameplay and focus on the story parts. It is something worth supporting and cheering for and I hope you'll consider giving it a chance, either now or when the English release is out.

Thank you for your time!

Friday, 12 October 2018

Interview with ebi-hime (EVN Developer Spotlight)

For the last month, we were going through the impressive catalogue of free VNs by ebi-hime, one of the most celebrated creators within the Western VN scene. As a conclusion to this series, it’s my great pleasure to bring you a short interview with none other than ebi herself. During our conversation, I’ve focused on the dominating themes in ebi’s works and topics directly connected to the freeware titles I was reviewing lately – if you want a more general overview of her inspirations and questions connected to her other work, consider reading the interviews done in the past by The Yuri Nation and Sekai Project. Also, if you’re not familiar with ebi’s free VNs, check out my previous posts about them (Part 1; Part 2) – they should give you the context necessary to understand what we’re talking about in the more context-specific questions. So, here it comes – hope you’ll all enjoy it!
Plk_Lesiak: Thank you for accepting my invitation! I don't think there are many Western VN fans who wouldn't be familiar with your work, but can you share something about the person behind the ebi-hime label?
ebi-hime: I’m ebi and I like cute things, maids, and magical girl anime... And that’s about it! Honestly, I’m not very interesting.
PL: As you talked about your inspirations and interests in other interviews, I would like to focus on the dominant themes in your games. You're one of the few EVN authors that frequently set their stories in the West. Do you have a favourite setting to write about?
ebi: I think England is probably my favourite setting to write about, because it’s the country I live in and I’m reasonably familiar with it (though I don’t know everything about England, of course). It’s easier to place my characters in a setting I know relatively well, as I don’t have to do as much research, and the end result feels more ‘authentic’.
I also like setting stories in Japan because I got into VNs through reading a lot of Japanese VNs which were (what a surprise!) set in Japan. I also watch a lot of anime, and I went through a period where I exclusively read Japanese crime fiction, so I’m fond of Japanese settings! If I don’t feel like setting my stories in England or Japan, I’ll usually pick a European country I’m somewhat familiar with, like France or Italy.
PL: Much of your work is yuri-themed, including some unusual setups for f/f romance. How did Samuel Taylor Coleridge become a woman?
ebi: I love Romantic poets (especially Coleridge) a lot, and I really, really, really wanted to write a VN featuring him as a character, but dropping a real, historical figure into a fictional story felt kind of weird. Changing him into a cute girl made him feel distant enough from the real person that I could write about him without feeling too awkward.
Turning male historical figures into cute girls is also pretty popular in VNs, so I thought I might as well! Girls are cute! Although I think the real Coleridge you can see in his personal letters/diary entries is cuter than Samantha…
PL: Girls are cute indeed, but especially in Asphyxia, you ended up creating a really “heavy” story with a very cute exterior. Was this contrast something deliberate?
ebi: I wanted a very soft, almost doll-like art style for Asphyxia because I thought it would complement the mannered, flowery writing style. The character designs themselves are quite cute, but I think they’re drawn in a style that’s enough of a departure from a more traditional ‘anime’ style that most people would realise Asphyxia is not a ‘moe’ VN based on the screenshots?
I wasn’t trying to use the art to trick anybody, or make the story seem cuter than it is. I chose the art because I thought it enhanced the story’s gloomy atmosphere. 
PL: Still, Yuri romance is also pretty commonly associated with something light-hearted and a bit saccharine, like Kiss for the Petals series for example. Were you worried about the reception of your early yuri titles, considering how much they deviated from this formula?
ebi: The first yuri story I ever read was the manga Gunjo, which is very grim and dark and lots of horrible things happen to all the characters, so maybe that’s where I drew some of my initial inspiration from.
Initially, I wasn’t worried about the reception Asphyxia might have because I didn’t intend to release it. I wrote it solely for myself, and I made the prose as pretentious and the content as depressing as I wanted because I figured nobody else would have to suffer through it. Then, I stumbled across SillySelly’s art, and I thought it would be so perfect for Asphyxia I decided to commission her. I still thought about keeping the story solely to myself, but I thought her art was so gorgeous it would be a shame not to release it and share it with people. My reasoning was, even if people hated the writing and the story, they would probably still like the art!
PL: Even beyond Dejection and Asphyxia, many of your protagonists are writers or poets. Do they reflect your personal passion for writing, or is there something else that draws you towards this archetype? Have you done much writing beyond visual novels?
ebi: The characters in Dejection and Asphyxia write poetry because they’re all based on poets. I’m pretty terrible at writing poetry myself, and I don’t like doing it. Moreover, my interest in the Romantic poets mostly stems, not from their actual poetry, but from their lives and their personalities, since they were all very melodramatic (apart from maybe Wordsworth) and they did a lot of ridiculous things.
I’ve written a few original characters who are authors (Blake from Where the Sun Always Shines and Eiji from Six Days of Snow are the best examples) because I like writing, so it’s a hobby I can understand and talk about somewhat credibly. Still, I try not to make all my protagonists writers, or even interested in literature, because I’m afraid it might get boring.
I used to write my own ‘original stories’ in my notebooks when I was about six or seven, and I wrote a lot of fanfiction between the ages of 12-18, so I did a bunch of writing before I got into VNs. Unfortunately, most of my old writing is awful, so I’m not going to share it!
PL: Another prevalent theme in your work seems to be depression and mental illness, with a culmination of sorts in Lynne and its gruesome portrayal of teenager's anxiety. What makes this topic attractive to you as a writer?
ebi: They’re interesting themes to write about, and I imagine a lot of people have experience with these issues, but perhaps don’t always feel comfortable talking about them? I’d like it if some people could read my stories and relate to some of the characters, and maybe feel a little bit less alone with their worries.
The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns
PL: And one more notable trope – ghosts and afterlife, including lovers, doomed in life, being reunited after death. It seems that most of the romances you write can only ever work out "on the other side", if at all…
ebi: I don’t think I agree with this. I’ve written a lot of sad/depressing stories, but I’ve also written several cheerful stories, too! Strawberry Vinegar and Blackberry Honey have happy endings! I also don’t view my romance stories where people die and reunite as ghosts as particularly ‘tragic’. Emmeline Burns and Windswept Night were both intended to have uplifting, optimistic endings, even if the characters suffer a bit to get there.
I know people can’t really come back from the dead to reunite with their loved ones, but that’s why writing scenes like that in stories is so satisfying. It’s nice giving couples in stories closure even after they’re dead, especially because it’s not possible in reality.
PL: Visual Novels are often a medium of escapism and wish fulfilment, quite akin to the trashy romance novels you sometimes ridicule in your writing. Yours... Rarely so. Do you ever feel like you should spoil your reader's a bit more, giving them more control and a chance for happier endings?
ebi: Well, I don’t know if the first statement about VNs is entirely true. There are lots of really, really good VNs there that aren’t all about escapism and wish fulfilment. The first VN introduced me to the medium was Umineko, which is pretty… not like that. And there are VNs which have fanservice and sex scenes that still tell interesting stories, like the Kara no Shoujo series. I don’t really think the stories I write are all that different from many existing JVNs, with the exception that I set a higher percentage of mine in Europe.
Though some of my characters poke fun at ‘trashy romance stories’, I have no real problems with them myself. Generally, I think people should be free to like whatever fictional media they like. I know there’s a scene in Empty Horizons where Lyon makes fun of Mireille for reading Totally-Not-Twilight-But-It’s-Actually-Twilight, but the scene concludes by saying there’s nothing inherently wrong with wish fulfilment stories if they’re not harming anybody and they make people happy.
Anyway, with a lot of my kinetic stories, I have a very clear idea of what I want to happen in the story and how I want the characters to act. If giving the reader choices gets in the way of the story I want to tell or the message I want to explore then I won’t include any.
Conversely, if experiencing multiple possible outcomes is the ‘point’ of the story, then I’m fine writing that too (like The Way We All Go). Really, it depends on what I think is best for the story I’m writing. Sometimes I think a story benefits from having multiple routes and different endings, and sometimes I don’t. And sometimes I think a story benefits from happy endings, and sometimes I don’t.
PL: One of your VNs I've personally enjoyed greatly, and which surprised me a lot was Lucky Me, Lucky You. Are we going to see other queer stories in a modern setting from you, or was it more of a one-time experiment?
ebi: Oh, I’m glad you liked it! I really enjoyed writing Nanami’s character – she was a lot of fun. Her ‘voice’ is also really different than most of my other main characters, since she’s more abrasive and assertive (but still kind of a sweetheart deep down).
Lately, I’ve been pretty fond of writing historical stories because I feel like I can get away with being more exaggerated and melodramatic with my vocabulary, but I want to write more modern stuff too! It’s fun to experiment with different styles.
Sweetest Monster
PL: In other interviews, you mentioned that you have many ideas for light-hearted, cute stories. Still, very few of them turned into actual games. Will there be more of those in the future?
ebi: Well, hopefully! I’m sitting on a bunch of scripts in various states of being finished right now, and some of these are very light-hearted and goofy. I’d love to make them all into VNs at some point (especially my very cute magical dog girl story, which is a full 26 episodes long!), but I don’t have enough time or money to develop too many things at once...
PL: A few months ago you wrote on Twitter that you'll most likely stop making freeware games, as they drain too much of your time and resources. If that really happens, should we hope for more frequent commercial releases from you?
ebi: I hope so, but I doubt it. Like I said, I’m sitting on a lot of scripts for unreleased projects in various states of completion. I’d like to release these more quickly, since I’m very fond of some of these stories and want to share them with people, but it’s not always possible. I’m not the only person involved in making my stories, and the production can sometimes get slowed down by various factors beyond my control.
It also doesn’t help that some of the scripts I’ve finished are quite long, have a lot of characters, and I haven’t started looking for artists or composers for these stories yet. I’d really like to release 3 commercial stories a year, but I doubt it will be possible this year. I’ll do my best, though! >_<
PL: Is there anything you would like to share about your current plans and the projects you're working on? Will we learn more about the yuri with bunnies in near future? ;)

ebi: Well, my latest VN, A Winter’s Daydream, will be releasing soon! It’s quite a light-hearted slice of life/comedy story set in Japan, that features an elderly grandmother being magically transformed into a cute girl. 
I was inspired to write this story after stumbling across the ‘grandmother x grandson incest’ tag on VNDB. I was surprised this tag existed, and I thought it was funny such a niche fetish featured in enough VNs to warrant a content tag in the first place. After looking through some of these VNs, I saw that the grandmother love interests looked rather young and good-looking for grandmothers, and I thought, ‘what if I wrote a story where a more traditional-looking grandmother transforms into one of these impossibly cute “anime” grandmothers overnight? How would her grandson react to that?!’ Some of my ideas are kind of weird, I guess. :I
In the end, A Winter’s Daydream ended up being a little more serious in tone than I originally intended, though it still has some goofy moments. I’m quite fond of it, and I hope other people enjoy it, too! (Sadly, while the grandmother character is the main heroine of the story, in the sense that she’s the female lead, she’s not a love interest. I hope this doesn’t disappoint anybody haha…)
As for the ‘yuri story with bunnies’ I mentioned on twitter a while back… I actually finished writing the first draft, but I’m not sure when/if I’ll release it. It’s quite a cute, fluffy story (I suppose it’s similar to Strawberry Vinegar in tone), but I have other scripts I’d rather work on before I get around to polishing this.
PL: Thank you for your time!

And this concludes my series on ebi-hime, for the time being. I want to give my utmost thanks to ebi herself, for putting up with the somewhat-prolonged process of preparing this interview and some of my purposefully-annoying questions. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with her on this and I'm extremely happy that I can share her insights with all of you through this article. Obviously, this is not the last time her VNs are present on my blog - in two weeks, you'll see the first part of my Yuri Game Jam retrospective, which couldn't possibly be complete without mentioning Ebi's work. Also, I'll definitely work on covering more of her commercial titles in the future, both the old and the newly released ones. 
So, I hope you've enjoyed this content and will join me again in my adventures through the world of EVNs. Until the next Friday! :)

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Love Ribbon Review (yuri visual novel)

This review was originally published on Fuwanovel Forums on March 23th 2018.
Incest is not a rare theme in visual novels – many titles, even very serious ones, have romance routes involving protagonist’s sibling in various different configurations, while nukige are full of taboo sex in every conceivable form, including that between family members. Still, this topic is very rarely done in a deep, compelling way, usually leading to a cliché conclusion like “we’re not blood-related after all, we can be together” or simply ignoring the deep social stigma connected to it and delivering an unconvincing happy ending. Even pieces of Japanese media that tried to get away from these tropes, like Oreimo, authors of which wanted to lead brother/sister romance to its logical conclusion, were cut short by the producers wary of negative reactions such story development could gather.
            Love Ribbon, a yuri visual novel developed by Razzart Visual and published on Steam in January 2017 is a rare exception to the trend I’ve described above – it not only offers a rather unusual sister/sister romance scenario, but also gives its full focus to the theme of an incestuous love affair and explores it in interesting and rather realistic ways. It’s also an example of OELVN that offers very explicit erotic content, but implements it as an optional feature that fits rather well with the story content, but isn’t in any way essential for experiencing it and doesn't affect the "SFW" version of the game in negative ways.
The girls are both close to pure archetypes, but their backstories and interactions make the whole scenario rather believable and compelling
When looking at a game advertising itself through incest romance and offering h-content, it’s not that hard to expect it will be just a vessel for taboo porn – however, Love Ribbon's pacing and story set-up quickly dispel this notion. The lead characters, Iris and Zoey, are high-schoolers who were raised not knowing of each other’s existence, in very different backgrounds and financial situations. By initiative of their father, they are meant to start attending the same school and living together in a rented house. From the very beginning, their personalities clash in a borderline-violent way – timid and well-mannered Iris being unable to cope with Zoey’s hostile and undisciplined behaviour, but still doing her best to get closer to her, initially leading to even more antagonistic reactions. Soon after, however, a sexual tension starts building up between them, leading to a surprisingly compelling story, involving not only the theme of forbidden love but also discovering one's sexuality (on Iris’ part) and exploring the shame and social stigma connected to incestuous relationships. The game never forgets the costs associated with protagonist’s choices and the challenges it could create, while also being able to deliver a satisfying, warm ending (mostly thanks to the extended epilogue, added sometime after the game’s release). It’s most likely the best use of the theme I’ve seen in VNs so far, without cheap plot devices nullifying the problem or naive optimism.
            Of course, it doesn't mean that the story is in any way perfect – the main characters, while good enough to carry the plot, are somewhat standard archetypes and rarely ever surprise you with their actions – they’re believable, thanks to their backstories and good visual design, but don’t offer much depth. The scale of the game also limited the ways in which they could be developed – thankfully, the fact they’re the sole focus on the story helps a bit, as we don’t waste time on any unnecessary subplots, but just observe their developing relationship and the ever-intensifying drama connected to their circumstances. While the whole VN takes around 6-7 hours to finish, it’s well paced and keeps you emotionally engaged all the time. It lacks the complexity of some bigger titles, for example offering only very minor, ultimately insignificant choices, apart from the final one which determines the ending, but it doesn't get in the way of communicating a compelling story. Also, I have to mention that some readers complained about the moral message of the games "main" choice, but I personally saw it not as a moral statement, but as a conflict of values between the characters - while the option that leads to good ending is questionable, is simply works for what kind of persona Zoey is and what she expects from others and the alternative, bad ending is not any kind of horror fuel and more about the sisters simply falling apart, with both regret and acceptance that what they really wanted would possibly cost them too much.
Just like in Starlight Vega, Razz’s art is one of the strongest parts of the game, giving it a pretty unique style
Love Ribbon’s story is complemented by relatively high-quality visual assets – especially Razz’s sprites and CGs are both pretty and quite distinct from the generic anime style we often see in low-budget VNs. While not very heavy on details, they’re definitely pleasing to the eye – one might criticize the lack of sprites for supporting characters, but they’re also so rarely present in the story it’s not really that noticeable. Music, while very much standard and not in any way memorable, was definitely inoffensive and flowed well with the story content. 
            What some could possibly find offensive though, on a few fronts, is the h-content. The standard Steam version of the game has its fair share of erotic moments, without explicit images, but often coupled with pretty graphic descriptions. All these scenes serve as fairly crucial parts of the plot though and it’s hard to question their inclusion – for example a scene where Iris looks up lesbian porn on the internet and then masturbates to it might seem like an opportunity for cheap fanservice, but serves both as an important part in her character development (as she tries to understand her attraction towards Zoey) and a crucial plot device (in a way I won’t mention to avoid spoilers). From this point of view, it was probably one of the better-implemented pieces of sexual content I’ve seen in VNs still, some could be uncomfortable with the tone of these scenes even in the "clean" version of the game. It's definitely not all fluffy and innocent.
The game can be experienced both with and without h-content – the “SFW” version still have the right pacing and a few compelling erotic moments, never making you feel like you’re missing something important
The unlockable, partially-animated h-scenes (there’s two, pretty lengthy ones) are, in my opinion, a bit more complicated issue – I might not be the best person to assess them properly, as I simply don’t enjoy hentai that much, but I can say they left me with mixed feelings, even beyond that produced by my usual biases. They appeared at rather appropriate moments,  didn’t feel forced and I also can’t say anything bad about their visual execution or the text accompanying it (although, it contained often surprisingly pornographic wording). Still, as the nature of Iris and Zoey's relationship and the sexual tension between them was already communicated well enough in "SFW" version, these hentai segments didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than fapping material – and as I wasn’t interested in that, I actually only felt nostalgic for softcore scenes from Starlight Vega. For me, that approach is definitely more “hot” and fun to read, giving my imagination something to do rather than bombarding me with Pornhub-style close-ups. Yuri hentai enthusiasts should be satisfied with this content though and what’s most important, it’s completely skippable – the story’s pacing or comprehension doesn’t suffer in any serious way when these scenes are cut out and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the vanilla version still has its share of milder, but still satisfying sexual content.
            In the end though, Love Ribbon is a surprisingly compelling and enjoyable VN, obviously directed towards people already interested in yuri and not being easily put-off by taboo topics, but offering much more than just a bait in the form of a controversial subject matter. For those who like the taboo-breaking aspect of it (to some extent I’m definitely one of those), it will be a real treat but should be worth looking into for anyone that finds “forbidden love” stories appealing – the h-content being just a bonus for those really interested.
Final score: 4/5
+ Serious, mature approach to the theme of incest
+ Good visual assets
+ Well-done 17+ erotic segments
+ Fully-optional h-content
- Rather short
- Mostly meaningless choices

VNDB page
Buy Love Ribbon on Steam

Friday, 5 October 2018

Plk_Lesiak’s Shovelware Adventures: Silver Cow Studios’ Ecchi VNs (non-Time Tenshi edition)

While Time Tenshi, which I covered two weeks ago, is definitely the flagship franchise for Silver Cow Studios, the company never settled for only producing new iterations of their breast-expansion/time-travel formula, releasing two other ecchi VNs since their debut in 2015. Those games, while they didn’t abandon the giant boobs and over-the-top storytelling that could be considered Silver Cow’s staple, offered their own twists to the fanservice-filled and trashy, but hentai-free format. The first one, Burokku Girls, appeared just three months after the first Time Tenshi game and… The lack of reasonable development time definitely showed, in a few ways. The second, Battleship Bishojo came out in early 2017, after Time Tenshi 2’s Special Edition and proved that the devs had their formula figured out much better by this point in time. Still, what exactly are these games about, besides exclusively-kyonyuu heroines and are they as good serviceable as Time Tenshi proved to be?

Burokku Girls (the first part of the title apparently represents the Japanese pronunciation of the word „block”) is quite possibly the most bizarre VN I’ve seen since Legends of Talia: Arcadia. Although it’s not as devoid of humour as the Winged Cloud’s unfortunate “dark fantasy adventure”, it still manages to mix incredibly trashy fanservice and character designs with a rather grimdark story about a last bastion of light in the world besieged by darkness – a conflict so hopeless that the people of the last town standing are pretty much just waiting for their final battle and inevitable demise. Our generic protagonist enters this world-ending scenario through a full-immersion VN machine, constructed by his father. The virtual reality set goes haywire in an inexplicable way and transports him to a reality built with the titular Blocks – voxel-like elements, which were used in past immemorial to create an artificial paradise for people to live in, but was since invaded by the “Underworlders”, exiles trapped in the dark chasms beneath the “Overworld” and sealed away with the Blocks.
            This fairly elaborate, even if the cliched setup is coupled with a few other decent ideas. The execution of the story, however, is… Less than ideal. The first sin is the writing, which reaches the absolute highs of repetition and absurdity, clashing constantly with the brutal story playing out in the background – the authors’ borderline-unhealthy obsession with boobs and limited vocabulary to describe those get pretty mind-boggling, with awkward phrases such as like “feminine flesh” repeating in every other sentence. The second major issue is the heroines, which are just as uninteresting as their designs are trashy – the only borderline interesting characters were the villains, but they, on the other hand, received very little screen time and development. With typos, some poorly-drawn CGs and no real humour, Burokku Girls ended up being one dreadful VN, pretty much from start to finish – and it really didn’t have to be that way, considering the fairly interesting aesthetic (voxel-based backgrounds) and the general outline of its isekai setting. Sadly, as we’ve seen so many times before, you need more than an idea to produce a decent game after all…
Final Rating: Smelly Poo 

Possibly taught by their previous experiences, Silver Cow approached their second non-Time Tenshi VN in a very different manner, creating something similarly dumb, but much, much more enjoyable than Burokku Girls. Battleship Bishojo starts with our protagonist, a navy sailor named Daiki, drinking away his last day of leave with a friend and falling into the water. Soon after, he wakes up on a strange ship, sailed by four women with giant boobs (after all, some things never change in the Silver Cow universe – and probably shouldn’t change), quickly realizing he was transported to another world, full of mythical creatures. Having no obvious way of returning home, he teams up with the crew that saved his life in a borderline-insane hunt for rare, legendary specimen.
            While the story only becomes more absurd later on, with elements like giant monster-girls (it seems that giantesses are a primary theme here, along with the usual kyonyuus) or borderline-mentally-challenged rival of the main crew, there are a few things that make it work. The first one is the protagonist, who’s a bit of a smartass, never getting flustered by the women surrounding him and constantly poking fun at the craziness of everything that happens. He also rarely loses his cool in the more intense situations, making for a fun lead character, much less bland than other protagonists in Silver Cow titles. The game also focuses on humour, never trying to take itself seriously or overdoing it with the dark undertones within the story – while it has a bit of a plot and some rare touchy-feely moments, its main purpose is definitely silly fun and it succeeds in delivering exactly that. Also unlike Burokku Girls, it has an actual conclusion, rather than baiting a pointless sequel – and a pretty adequate one at that. So, if you’re looking for an ecchi VN that is simply pleasant to go through, look no further – Battleship Bishojo have you covered with its whole, unapologetically dumb glory!
Final Rating: Golden Poo! 

Going through the Silver Cow’s catalogue was quite a wild ride, both similar and different from the other ecchi developers I’ve tackled so far. The absurdity and trashiness of their VNs are coupled with a surprising amount of restraint when it goes to implementing overused harem tropes and fanservice – elements which make many similar titles, such as Sakura games, quite obnoxious after a bit of reading. The lack of h-scenes and toned down romance elements are also very unusual, going pretty much against all the common conceptions of what really sells on Steam. For me personally, all this contributed to a quite satisfying experience, with the sole exception of Burokku Girls – a game simply poorly put together and poorly thought-out, but thankfully being an outlier in this respect. I wonder, however, if there’s even a market for this kind of “softcore” VNs anymore? Time will tell. Personally, I will definitely continue to observe this studio’s work and hopefully, take just as much trashy amusement out of their upcoming titles as I did while making these two posts.
And once again, my special thanks go to Bosskwar, whose videos are the light of my miserable existence of a VN-trash-eater. ^^