Friday, 22 March 2019

Heart of the Woods Review (Yuri Visual Novel)

Studio Élan, a company founded by Josh Kaplan, one of the authors of the highly-appreciated yuri VN Highway Blossoms (check out my review of it here), gathered an unusually large and enthusiastic following since its formation in early 2018. Engaging high-profile artists for their projects, utilizing Kaplan’s renown within the VN community and brilliantly spreading its message through social media, the relatively small team managed to become of the most high-profile actors on the EVN scene before releasing even a single title (not counting demos and prologues, which, of course, also had a large role of building the studio’s profile). With follower counts and Patreon support that could make many veterans of the scene jealous, the company spent the last year working on two interesting and well-marketed projects, both of them gorgeously-looking yuri VNs, while seemingly only getting more and more attention.
                Considering the hype building up at insane rates, it was that much more crucial for Studio Élan’s debut title, Heart of the Woods, to deliver a compelling and memorable experience. While few people could doubt its stunning aesthetic – the demo and plenty of promotional material made that part perfectly clear – it was still a question whether it could create characters and story able to at least rival those of Highway Blossoms, to which the new game would be inevitably compared. Thankfully, I can quite confidently say that the full release, which showed up on Steam mid-February 2019, was pretty much everything fans could hope for – and maybe even more than that.
The game impresses with its visual quality and aesthetic from the very first moments and delivers more eye candy at pretty much every opportunity
I usually leave the discussion of visuals for the end on the review, but here it’s pretty much impossible to not address it right away. The visual aspect of Heart of the Woods is amazing and features a very consistent, detailed stylisation on a level that I genuinely haven’t seen in EVNs, apart maybe from Dicesuki’s otome games. The VN used art by three different authors (not counting the numerous background and UI artists), but all the assets fit the “modern fairytale” climate superbly, stay faithful to the character designs and, maybe most importantly, are simply a joy to look at. The sprites just ooze personality and even though they’re not as expressive or varied as I’ve seen in some other EVNs (most of the girls could probably use a few extra poses and sets of clothing), their level of detail and aesthetic qualities compensate for that quite well. The CGs are not extremely numerous (there’s around 20 for the 6-8 hours-long experience, including the H-scene ones), but similarly impressive in their quality and the game utilizes interesting visual tricks which should feel familiar to those that played Highway Blossoms. Even the small details in the UI and transition screens underline just how much thought and effort was put into the visual side of the experience and the end effect is nothing short of fantastic. The atmospheric soundtrack complements the art extremely well, giving the game a very consistent and compelling climate.
                The story side of the experience, in my opinion, doesn’t fall far behind the visuals and utilizes a very interesting mix of modern-setting drama and fantasy. The beginning, featuring Tara and Maddie, two friends who run a YouTube show about paranormal phenomena, riding a train to a remote location to which they were invited by a fan, is pretty tense and down-to-Earth. After Maddie decided to quit the show and return to school after years of helping the charismatic, but irresponsible Tara in her internet-celebrity career, things are extremely tense between them and the introduction of Morgan, their strange and apparently mythomaniac host, only makes things worse. These opening moments establish the characters as believable and flawed individuals, dealing with relatable, every-day problems and while the game gradually introduces more and more fantastical developments (including the addition of the fourth main character, the ghost of the forest – Abigail), it never forgets about its cast being more or less regular people, struggling to cope with the unusual circumstances they found themselves in. They all grow significantly during the story, which is shown especially well thanks to the frequent switches in perspective, but also never lose their relatable qualities. While Maddie, at least initially, serves the role of the primary protagonist (later on the scales tip slightly to the side of Morgan, who also makes all the choices that affect the story), all of the girls are occasionally given a leading role and thanks to that we can learn about their thoughts and the events happening while members of the group are separated from each other. All of this adds quite a lot of variety and depth to the overall narrative and differentiate HotW from most stories of this kind.
The genuinely-interesting mystery elements and surprising plot twists make Heart of the Woods a more dynamic and refreshing experience than your standard, SoL-focused yuri VNs
While the writing for the game is generally very solid (I only have minor gripes with how certain crucial plot developments were dealt with later on and how the pacing got slightly weaker after the first half of the story), what is especially worth complementing is its prose. Heart of the Woods reads better than the vast majority of EVNs and reminded me how rare titles with real literary qualities are within the genre. The writing is not overly fancy in its language and structure, but extremely polished, have a very good flow to it and greatly articulates the different personalities of each heroine. The plot itself managed to positively surprise me a few times, with some pretty bold and dark twists saving the game from ever becoming overly-schematic. The final chapters maybe didn’t fully live up to the awesome build-up of the first three, but they still kept me engaged enough to never let me feel truly disappointed.
                The excellent quality of the writing also extends to what some could expect to be the “main point” of the game, that is the yuri romance. As the plot here is mostly linear, the couples are pre-determined and your choices (there are four in the whole game) only determine the ending you’ll get. The romantic arcs are compelling and emerge in a rather “organic” way throughout the story, while never overshadowing the supernatural thriller that is at the core of it. The game never forgets about the life-and-death threat looming in the background, balancing between the slice-of-life moments and moving the plot forward in a consistent manner. The chemistry between the girls is also very well-done, with them gradually opening to each other and finding a connection through their shared hardships. Admittedly, all of this culminates in a rather cheesy “love conquers all” message and an extremely optimistic true ending, but for this reason I also very much enjoyed the two, alternative “bad” endings – those are not really fully negative, but rather bittersweet and are a bit more in line with the general tone of the story and the nature of the threat the girls faced.
Heart of the Woods’ romance is heavily-intertwined with other aspects of its story and develops rather organically throughout the plot, without ever dominating the narrative
The h-scenes (featuring exclusively Maddie and Abigail), which were probably also anticipated by many fans considering the game’s beautiful art, are in many ways similar to those from Highway Blossoms – relatively vanilla and showing up in places where it makes sense, without disturbing the story. They also offer a little bit of character development for Abigail, probably to the point I would recommend reading them even to people that normally skip on hentai, especially as they’re not long or explicit enough to get really uncomfortable. On the other hand, their absence is practically invisible in the “clean” version of the game and while the scenes themselves were definitely nice-looking and well-written, they’re in no way a necessary part of the experience.
                In summary, I think Heart of the Woods is a fantastic debut by Studio Élan and an appropriate choice for the first 5/5 rating on my blog. It’s not a perfect game by any means (even to the degree that creating one is reasonably possible), but one that had a very high bar set out for it and still managed to surpass expectations in a spectacular manner. While Highway Blossoms was, at its core, a very conventional romance story, this VN managed to surprise and charm me in ways that I honestly did not anticipate. It should be able to satisfy not only yuri fans, but everyone interested in experiencing an interesting and emotional story, and I see it as a new standard by which all other EVN should be judged. It shows that the Western scene is by no means bound to mediocrity and iterative, forgettable titles as many VN fans make it out to be, while still being an indie and relatively low-budget title, just like every other commercial EVN. So, if you like visual novels at all and you’re not particularly averse to any of Heart of the Wood’s main themes, give it a chance – it’s really worth it.

Final Score: 5/5

+ Beautiful visual design
+ Interesting, well-developed characters
+ A well-paced, engaging main intrigue
+ Compelling romance that doesn’t overwhelm the “core” story
+ Superb prose
+ Great soundtrack
- Gets cheesy by the end
- Some plot developments are a bit too convenient

Buy Heart of the Woods on Steam or

Friday, 15 March 2019

My Little Pony Fan Visual Novels, Part 2

Welcome again to my short series on the My Little Pony fan visual novels! In the last part (if you missed it, check it out here!), we’ve looked at six games of vastly variable quality, climate and state of completion, and this trend will definitely continue today. Also, this post will include a (un)healthy portion of fandom cringe, although mostly connected to embarrassing fan fiction tropes, common in the creative output of many online communities, rather than the sheer fact the stories are about ponies. On the other hand, today's list features one of the very few, if not the only MLP VN project that could be seriously interesting to people that are not avid fans of the show – the still-in-development Starswirl Academy, with its impressive (humanized) reimagining of the Friendship is Magic setting and characters. So, let's get this party started! *the Party Cannon rolls in*

Most people agree that, apart from the randomness of internet memes, some of the main sources of Friendship is Magic’s success are its memorable leading characters – the six ponies that fuel the show with their memorable visual designs and vivid personalities. The people from Rosin Entertainment made a pretty obvious conclusion that this general characterisation, if transferred into a humanized, semi-realistic setting, would make a great basis for a moege, and started turning that idea into a reality. Thus, Starswirl Academy was born – an MLP fan game that, while still borrowing a lot from its source material, for an unassuming reader could easily pass as a normal, lighthearted romance VN. And, most importantly, quite a lovely and enjoyable one at that.
            Unlike many other “human versions” of MLP, including the official Equestria Girls, Rosin’s project is a total reimagining of Friendship is Magic's fictional world, including details like normal, human names for all of the characters and a modern-day, boarding school setting that makes logical sense. Game’s reinterpretations of the Mane 6 are cute and well-designed (with Twilight as an Asian over-achiever and protagonist’s childhood friend is my personal favourite), both catching the appeal points of their original versions and adjusting them to the context of a "normal" romance story. The dialogue is genuinely fun and while the game seems to focus exclusively on SoL content, it does so in a way that made me seriously excited for the full release. Even the protagonist (named Tom Stone – those familiar with the show should easily catch the reference), while rather average, it not a faceless hunk of meat, with especially his teasing of Tai (the already mentioned, humanized version of Twilight) being extremely fun to read.
            Of course, this wouldn’t be an MLP VN without its own development problems, although the team behind this game made a wise decision to not give any kind of timeline or dump frequent updates, but rather working on it at their own pace, with an explicitly stated “when it’s done” approach. For this reason, it’s rather hard to predict anything, although a 2019 release does not seem completely out of question – and if it happens, it quite likely be the one My Little Pony visual novel that I’ll be able to recommend even to those that normally would want nothing to do with the whole franchise. If they don't also hate moege, that is…
Final rating: Highly Recommended

My Little Dashie is one of the most famous MLP fanfics, in which a depressed, lonely brony, living in pauperised industrial neighbourhood finds a box with filly Rainbow Dash, so young she’s unable to speak. Deciding to take care of the pony before any harm comes her way, he ends up becoming her surrogate father in this foreign world. Over the years, he guides her through crucial developmental moments and creates a parent/child bond, while anticipating that whatever magic brought her to Earth will one day come back to reclaim her. It’s a tear-jerker in pure form, combined with the questionable wish-fulfilment of self-insert fan fiction, but executed well enough to gain a widespread appreciation from the community (and regardless of what you might be imagining, the brony fan-writing sphere is neither small, nor is its work of particularly low-quality).
            It’s shouldn’t come as a surprise that it was this MLP fic that became one of the very few pieces of fan literature to receive a visual novel adaptation. Produced by Daily Oat Studios and released in early 2015 after a long development, My Little Dashie: The Visual Novel is a faithful, although slightly simplified adaptation of the source story, presented through an hour-long chain of CGs and narration, with very little dialogue and no interactivity – very much an “illustrated book with music” kind of VN. With relatively simple, but pleasing visuals and music, all this makes it possibly the most enjoyable way of experiencing the My Little Dashie story. However, if you would expect anything beyond a direct adaptation, you’ll be sorely disappointed, Also, the story itself definitely caters to the brony sensibilities, to the point where it would probably be pretty hard to digest for anyone at least not familiar with the show and the fan culture around it. It has no romance plot, so it’s not anywhere as creepy as the numerous Human x Pony shipping or porn stories, but will work best for those that, at least at times, would genuinely like to have a pastel-coloured, cartoon horse in their life.

Final rating: Recommended

Newgrounds has a long tradition of flash hentai games and animations parodying various pieces of media, and MLP is no exception to that trend. My Sexy Anthro “series” is a bit of a peculiar example, as it doesn't have much in common with its source material, outside of names and general characteristics of the girls. With as little as the game does when it goes to story (the first one pretty much only includes a minor introduction before the h-scene, with only the second going a bit more into “proper VN” territories), the scenario presented seems to have a bit more in common with Nekopara than MLP, with the hypersexualized “anthros” living among humans and an average-guy protagonist who just happens to catch the attention of a whole harem of those busty, horny creatures. The visuals and dialogues are also distinctly porny, so while designs and personalities of the heroines hold some resemblance to their Friendship is Magic sources, every piece of characterisation is dedicated to making them into walking sex dolls.
            Interestingly enough, the anthropomorphic designs are definitely inspired by furry artwork, but look rather distinct and a bit more on the “human” side of things. The h-scenes are of similar quality as in other flash games of this kind, that is not bad, but relatively low on detail and far below professionally-made nukige that you can easily find on the market nowadays. Because of all this, I really don’t see much of any kind of appeal in these games, as they only very superficially cater to either of its potential audiences (that is, either bronies or furries) and aren’t particularly attractive by themselves. Still, if you’re looking really hard for some highly-interactive MLP fap material, My Sexy Anthro is probably among the better option available to you (for whatever that's worth).

Final rating: Not Recommended

One of the notable organizers of the Thai MLP fandom, Parnkung, is also among the most persistent brony game developers, for many years now working on his series of pony dating VNs. While his most ambitious project, My Little Sweet Heart: Story of the Mane 6, is still being produced, in late 2015 he released the Story of Double Diamond – a romance tale with a human, female protagonist, featuring the titular Double Diamond, a mascot of sorts of the Thai brony community, as the main love interest. All these elements are placed in the setting of season 5 opening episodes – the village of brainwashed ponies, fixated on “equality” brought through nullifying their cutie marks and led by manipulative Starlight Glimmer.
            With partial (Thai) voice acting and a fairly substantial story, Parnkung’s VN is arguably one of the more ambitious brony fan games in general, but falls into some typical pitfalls of MLP fan fiction. Above all, the Pony x Human romance is immediately weird and the protagonist falling at first sight for a pastel-coloured, talking horse feels unbelievably awkward. It truly is an unholy union of the most embarrassing otome tropes and ponies, with cringe-worthy scenes of the MC getting bashful or disbelieving in her attraction to a non-human. While the game develops the main intrigue quite nicely and even gives a proper justification to the protagonist’s creepy, zoosexual urges, it definitely requires a bit of tolerance and patience to get into. And if you can get past the steep entry barrier, you’re rewarded with a decently-produced and competently-written piece of romance, that can obviously be enhanced heavily by reader’s knowledge of the show, but could possibly even stand on its own.

Final rating: Recommended

With how easy basic VNs are to put together, the EVN scene always spawned its fair share of plain troll games. ICBTPAST is definitely in this category, being a sequel to a similarly obnoxious collection of ugly doodles, copyrighted music, ear-exploding sounds effects etc. There are a few, minor fun things here, which include the premise (the protagonist goes around insulting every character he meets in creative ways, and composing those insults is the main “gameplay mechanic” offered to the player, at times giving some slightly amusing results) and some fandom-specific jokes (like the horrible “princess” OC that plays a crucial role in the story), but generally, we can only be glad that this project was dropped after the first episode and will most likely never be finished. For once, the curse of MLP VNs did something good for humanity.

Final rating: Not Recommended

One of the newest MLP VN projects is a full-blown, erotic dating sim that promises to feature a vast number of romance options, unique character arcs for all of them and explicit Human/Pony sex scenes. All that within a parodistic, but surprisingly faithful adaptation of the FiM setting (basically, everything outside of the everpresent sexual humour feels quite "right"). The art and dialogue, wherever they’re complete and not placeholders, are actually among the better ones I’ve seen in the MLP fan games, making this a surprisingly promising trial, which actually made me want to see more, despite how creeped out I am by the erotic content it might offer later down the line.
            The main problem is, that while the Alpha version launched with quite a lot of fanfare last September, even half a year later, there’s actually very little content in the available build, with only Mane 6 having any meaningful interactions and one story scene for each pony, outside of the short prologue. Of course, if the production quality and humour I’ve seen in finished parts of the trial are indicative of what’s to come, it should be worth waiting for. That is, if it ever gets finished – while the decent Patreon support for the team behind it makes this more likely than with many fully-noncommercial projects, there's still a very long way before this game gets even close to being complete. Only time will tell...

Final Rating: Not (Yet) Recommended

And that’s it for now every… Body! What these two posts presented to you is pretty much a complete list of MLP visual novel fan projects, the only exceptions being ones that were never released in English, like the Russian fan games Equestria Flower Day & Hearth's Warming Day. With the last season of Friendship is Magic cartoon coming and the fandom itself shrinking rapidly, I wouldn’t expect many new ones showing up, but if the already-in-development games such as Starswirl Academy and the second My Little Sweet Heart title come to fruition, they might be something worth taking a separate, more detailed look at. For now, I free you all from this den of overly-colourful weirdness and for the foreseeable future, go back to my usual EVN routine. Thanks for following me on this little, bizarre adventure and see you next Friday!

Friday, 8 March 2019

Eldritch Academy Review (Yuri Visual Novel)

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

One of the interesting differences between yuri in Japanese and Western VNs is that while in Japan it’s mostly limited to a very specific niches, with either nukige or fluffy high-school romance dominating the genre (meaningful exceptions can literally be counted on two hands), among EVNs the theme is prevalent enough to frequently find its place in all kinds of stories. Eldritch Academy, a low-budget project by a single developer using the label Jackkel Dragon and the topic of today’s review, is among dozens of examples of this trend, mixing tame yuri romance with horror and chuunige elements while it uses many tropes typical for Japanese media, they're all set in a configuration you would be unlikely to actually find in any of them.
                Released in early January 2019, the game promised a fairly impressive amount of content (over 10 hours of reading) and a tense thriller story, starring a group of high school students put against a supernatural threat none of them even suspect to exist. Directly referencing magical girl stories and various other types of otaku media, while also being set in a Japanese all-ages school, it’s definitely one of those distinctly “weeb” projects, but one that avoids pointless fanservice or forced sexual content and dedicates itself to telling a compelling story, with mystery and romance subplots being of more or less equal significance. Does it manage, however, with it’s obviously limited resources, to make this concept actually enjoyable to read?
The unlikable protagonist makes the game relatively hard to get into, even if her attitude changes along the way

The introduction to Eldritch Academy’s story is not overall bad, but quickly reveals one of my major issues with the game. At the very beginning the protagonist, Yue Ishikami, while trying to find an excuse to not sit during the launch break with a pair of her classmates who recently became a couple (and irritates her with their flirting), begrudgingly asks Cho, a tomboyish girl she apparently dislikes a bit less, to eat together. This way, she gets introduced to Cho’s small group of friends, including timid and disturbingly-stoic Kasumi and an unbearable flirt and glutton named Akomi. Later that day, a strange incident happens, in which one of the girls in the school gets heavily injured. Unable to contain her curiosity, Yue sneaks out to investigate, soon followed by the whole group – this leads to them finding magical stones, to which they refer as petals and being forced to fight the ancient evil that lurks within the school, for both their own and other students’ sake (while also forming strong bonds thanks to their shared, life-and-death struggle).
                 The general premise is nothing unusual, at least at surface level, but stands out through its focus on horror and the growing toll the progressively more hopeless fight takes on the girls. New plot developments frequently reinforce the urgency and danger of the situation, with little chance for outside help or any kind of relief from the constant onslaught of monsters (which come out only at night, but don’t release the heroines from keeping the facade of being proper students) and various side-effects of this supernatural predicament. And while it sounds cool in theory, there are some glaring issues with this setup. The first, already suggested problem is Yue herself, who is not just asocial and standoffish, but an all-around jerk who on multiple occasions astonished me with her insensitivity. This theoretically gives her a lot potential for growth, but details like her apparent total lack of sympathy for the girl that nearly got killed by the monster at the beginning of the story and her obviously-distraught girlfriend is not something I can easily look past. Even after the wounded girl’s return from the hospital, she treats her like a pest and is similarly dismissive towards the main heroines most of the time. The argument that she “cares deep inside, but have trouble expressing it” doesn’t help her from being one of the most unlikeable and alienating leads I’ve seen in VNs and I find it unbelievable that anyone would be able to put up with her, unless forced to do so like the three other “chosen” girls fighting the monsters.
The horror elements of the game are not utterly unenjoyable, but only rarely manage to create proper tension or disturb the reader, at least outside of the bad endings

The second major issue is the repetitive nature of the story, especially in the context the repeated playthroughs. Every night, the girls venture into the abandoned portion of the school, hunting for monsters before they can break through and hurt other students, while also looking for clues that would lead them to the source of the whole phenomena. Considering the limited visual resources, there is relatively little flair to the fights and while their exact details vary depending on which girl you pair up with, the sequence in which the monsters show up and the general outline of the story are identical every time. These scenes get pretty old even during the first playthrough, but when aiming for new heroine arcs they’re pretty much completely skippable, making much of the 130k+ word script into essentially just brain-melting mush, that you’d never want to read through in detail, but at best quickly scan through to notice most important differences in girls reaction's and fighting styles.
                There are also major issues with the game’s tone. While it goes into fairly disturbing and tense territories in the last act, when the girls are learning more about the meaning behind their situation and are progressively more and more on edge because of it, it definitely underplays the initial shock and danger of what’s happening. The first explicitly life-threatening incident comes very late into the story, making it very hard to care about the fights and giving space for some overly-fluffy slice-of-life moments. Those, by the way, consist mostly of the romance-related events, in which the protagonist decides to spend time with one of the heroines, usually initially not enjoying herself very much, only to warm up to them over time (as it's often the case in VNs, the overall timeline of the story is too short to make this change really believable, but its also not the most egregious example I've seen). The girls, for an unclear reason, are all otakus and the romantic arcs are closely related to their hobbies, which they bring the protagonist into – this is not a major issue, but the lack of thematic variety feels a bit lazy and adds another layer of repetitiveness when replaying the game.
The romance plots have some genuine charm to them, although they are rushed and shallow in typical VN fashion and recycle very similar themes through all routes
To be perfectly clear, the main intrigue of the game isn’t bad and there are some interesting touches that show the genuine care and effort that went into crafting its story, like the bonus side-chapters for both all of the main characters and  some supporting ones, unlocked by reaching specific endings. Those provide epilogues for all the romance arcs, supplement some missing pieces of the game’s mystery plot or simply expand the setting in ways that aren’t really necessary, but which give it some additional depth and make it feel more alive. The end effect is slightly brought down by the minimalistic production values, especially the lack of action scene related CGs and very average character designs, but the art is at least competent enough to never feel completely amateurish or unappealing. The game uses royalty-free music for all of its soundtrack, which is something I don’t really mind in this kind of productions and for the most part, it works well enough.
                In summary, is Eldritch Academy something I recommend buying? I’m a bit on the line in this regard, as while “on paper” it offers a lot of content and includes themes that I very much like, the execution is still deeply flawed, maybe not to the point of making it unenjoyable, but definitely discouraging a careful, 100% readthrough. It’s also a bit pricey, going for $12 on – once more, a price that sounds reasonable considering the size of the VN, but I'd typically argue that games with this level of production quality should be slightly cheaper and I’d be more comfortable suggesting to buy it when on sale. However, for fans of yuri romance and horror themes, it’s a decent-enough value proposition at least to consider picking it up – and if you do, you should have a reasonably good time with it.

Final Score: 2,5/5

+ Interesting mix of themes and character archetypes
+ Decently-written main intrigue
+ Enjoyable bonus content

- Visuals are average at best
- Repetitive routes and mostly dull combat sequences
- Off-putting protagonist

Buy Eldritch Academy on

Friday, 1 March 2019

My Little Pony Fan Visual Novels, Part 1

While probably few people following my VN-related writing know that, for quite a long time I had a peculiar relationship with the brony fandom. Being brought into the community by my RL friend, a popular fan-artist working under the pseudonym Pony-Berserker, I’ve written a few dozens of My Little Pony comic scripts and, more importantly, based my master’s thesis on researching the fandom – more specifically, exploring the bizarre world of MLP fan erotica. While my current involvement with Bronies is minor at best, I’ve decided to commemorate both my previous and current hobbies by reviewing the humble catalogue of My Little Pony visual novels – in this post, and the one two weeks from now, I will go through pretty much all VN-style fan games made by bronies that are currently available in English, which is just around a dozen titles, including large demos and trials. So, if you have the courage, please join me in this bizarre adventure through the world of shipping, bad fanfiction and, maybe, some genuinely interesting, imaginative VN project within the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic universe!

The MLP visual novel scene seems to be a hell of demos, dropped projects and never-ending development limbos. Some of the most notable games in this niche suffered from perpetual delays or straight-up died halfway through the production cycle, and Welcome to Ponyville might be the best-known among the latter. After releasing a substantial demo in mid-2012, the team behind quickly started becoming more and more silent, and after two years with no meaningful updates, the chances of the project being finished were clearly gone. The already available first episode, however, is still quite an interesting piece of content that is arguably worth experiencing on its own. Telling the story of a pony arriving to Ponyville to settle within the town (you can choose the protagonist’s gender and the breed of pony they represent), it showcases some of the most notable achievements of the brony fandom: art that very closely resembles that of the show, both in style and quality, and full voice acting that faithfully mimics the original voice cast of Friendship is Magic.
            The 1,5h-long demo is mostly composed of casual, amusing SoL scenes in which the protagonist organizes his stay in Ponyville and takes odd jobs, while meeting the Mane 6 (brony term for the 6 main characters of the show: Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Applejack and Fluttershy), along with various other inhabitants of the town. At the same time, the game introduces Silent Hill-like, disturbing dream sequences, suggesting there’s something sinister hiding underneath the fluffy surface… While we’ll never know in which direction this project would go exactly and I would normally not recommend wasting time on approaching unfinished games, Welcome to Ponyville shows the creativity of the MLP fandom at its finest and give a taste of what we could’ve got if more of its energy went into projects of this kind.
Final Rating: Recommended
Part Time Job is a pretty well-known horror game, very much in the same spirit as famous “shock fics” such as Cupcakes or Sweet Apple Massacre. Sadly, I think it has more in common in the latter rather than the former – for those not familiar with MLP fan fiction, the story of Cupcakes used the well-established tropes and parts of the setting, twisting the inherent unpredictability and borderline-insanity of Pinkie Pie into a homicidal obsession. What made it fun to read (obviously, if you enjoy this kind of macabre) was exactly the way it played on actual MLP lore, twisting it, but not completely ignoring the most important elements of the setting. Sweet Apple Massacre, on the other hand, made Big Mac, one of the most gentle and loyal characters in the show, into a psychopathic murderer, which was simply completely disconnected from the original character and for that reason, not particularly interesting. The game we’re talking about now suffers from a similar problem, not really getting what makes this kind of transformation or parody work.
            Part Time Job features an original character, a failed artist named Pastel Sketch, looking for a job after going broke due to no one buying her work. After going through a few heavily-foreshadowing offers, she decides to answer the one about becoming an aid at a local hospital. To her surprise, the hospital turns out to be a mental institution, run by none other than Fluttershy, and soon after she accepts for the job various disturbing things start to happen. To not spoil too much, while the game plays on most obvious characteristics of the MLP cast and well-known parts of the brony fanon, it’s all pretty shallow and inconsistent. With Mane 6 treating each other like strangers, villain’s behaviour and motivations making no sense, Part Time Job’s main entertainment value lies in its over-the-top silliness and grotesque moments. Those are good enough to make the 1-hour time investment reasonable (that’s how much you need to pretty much 100% the game), but not to actually make it good. With production quality and writing being similarly basic, it’s somewhat worth it for the fans, but just barely. Although, I guess considering how few MLP VNs there are, beggars can’t be choosers…
Final Rating: (Cautiously) Recommended
My Little Investigations is one of a few Ace Attorney-inspired MLP fan projects, but definitely the most technically impressive and ambitious one. Following closely the formula of Miles Edgeworth Investigations games, the demo offers one impressively-crafted case, well-embedded in show’s lore and aesthetic. What surprised me the most though was the quality of voice-acting – the fans mimicking voices of both the main cast and the supporting characters were for the most part brilliant, to the point it would be very easy to convince me that I’m looking at an official product licensed by Hasbro (only some jokes and dialogue lines breaking the illusion, not because of their low quality, but by referencing the MLP fanon in a way no official release ever would). The general quality of the gameplay, animation and writing don’t fall far behind, making for a genuinely impressive package.
            Of course, we are talking about an MLP fan game, so it won’t surprise anyone that the game will quite likely forever stay at its introductory chapter, with the team behind it going silent over a year ago. If it gets finished, however, it has all the necessary elements to become a genuinely great game, that would be worth looking at not only for the hardcore fans of the show, while the first case, even though in large parts a tutorial level, is still quite a compelling piece of content. Whether we'll ever ger more, only time will tell…
Final Rating: Highly Recommended
Shipping is undeniably one of the primary pastimes for bronies and this, above all, involves fans making pairings between the members of the main cast (which are, quite obviously, all females/mares). Of the MLP fanfiction archives, you’ll find pretty much an unlimited mass of work involving such scenarios, pretty much in all possible configurations and levels of explicity. And while I was never that much of a fan of the practice itself (and especially making pairing out of friends from the canon felt pretty dull), many MLP pairings, if they’re not taken into the uncomfortable, R34 territories, have a bit of a similar charm that I enjoy in more traditional yuri – they can be extremely cute and heartwarming.
            The Difference Between Us, a short slice of life VN involving a relationship between Fluttershy and Pinkie Pie, have all of those qualities, coupled with surprisingly solid writing and a lot of variety in choices and endings. It’s visually crude and falls victim to some of the issues typical of shipping fan fiction (if the pair the story focuses on is a couple, everyone’s a couple – why limit yourself to just one ship when you can sail an armada?), but still manages to tell a lovely, mild romantic story, while mostly staying true to the original characters and never going into truly creepy territories. It’s the kind of VN which allows the reader to forget about the inherent weirdness of the MLP setting and immerse themselves fully in the pleasant narrative. While definitely not for those that find lesbian horse romance a bit too extreme of a concept, it’s a small and rather charming experience that I can quite confidently recommend.
Final Rating: Recommended
How could this list be truly complete without some bizarre piece of self-insert, crossover fanfiction VN? While it might not be the Sonic’s Ultimate Harem or any other, similar masterpiece, J5’s debut in visual novels combines well-known anime characters (alongside his own anime-style OCs) with MLP – a mix that really makes my disgusting, brony/weeb-hybrid heart grow fonder. Putting my edgy commentary aside for a moment, the actual content of this VN (based on an extremely-obscure webtoon by the same name) is not as universally horrible as I’ve expected, having a few borderline funny moments and amusing interpretations of the “borrowed” characters. The production quality is, however, quite abysmal, both in visuals and writing (I guess president Trump doesn’t have a monopoly on random capitalizations and alternative grammar). Also, the aforementioned aspects of self-insert power fantasy, coupled with the weird romantic plot, are pretty uncomfortable to watch.
            So if you ever felt like playing a humanized version of Sonic the Hedgehog who’s close friends with Pinkie Pie and gets caught in a love triangle between Haruhi Suzumiya and author’s anime OC, I guess this game got you covered. It’s probably also worth mentioning that this is one of two VNs I’ve found that featured fully-humanized versions of MLP ponies, although sadly, this time it’s a very minor bonus at best...
Final Rating: Not Recommended
Making a dating game in which you can romance various character from the source medium is one of the more obvious ways to approach fan-fiction VN and Pony Amnesia is maybe the most straightforward attempt by brony creators at doing just that. A pony protagonist without memories, only with slight hints at originally being a human, is dumped by the outskirts of Ponyville and soon starts interacting with the Mane 6. With an upcoming festival, he gets many occasions to mingle with the residents (including mild flirting), earns favours by helping them out, and settles in, while more clues about his lost identity arrive over time. All this is portrayed with slightly off-looking, but serviceable art and decent writing, and a promise of romance routes not only for the main characters from the show, but also supporting ones such as Trixie or Big Mac. Also, the full version means to include a protagonist gender choice, which, in the case you play as female, would make it mostly a yuri VN (and that always makes my heart grow fonder).
            That’s, at least, what was promised over five years ago, at the time of demo’s release. In the meantime, the project went through multiple deaths and revivals, but seems to be alive and steadily progressing for the past year or so. While the curse of MLP visual novel development never truly relents, there’s a decent chance that we’ll see the final version of this game in 2019 – and while there’s little reason to think it’ll be a masterpiece, it might be a fairly satisfying SoL/mystery VN for the fans of the show and the demo is interesting enough to be worth taking a look at – that is, if the self-insert romantic stories with ponies don’t freak you out.
Final Rating: Recommended

The world of MLP VNs is not only a mess of long-forgot and unfinished projects, but it’s also surprisingly poorly documented and archived. While doing research for this post, it took me quite a lot of time and help from others to both catalogue everything I'm writing about, and to get my hand on copies of some of these games. The final result was, however, much more varied and interesting that I actually expected and I'd consider at least some of the titles I'ver written about today as pleasant surprises. Two weeks from now, I’ll have another six reviews for you all and despite what I believed earlier, it seems there are still notable MLP VN projects being worked on, with a decent chance of at least two coming out this year. While the brony fandom itself is definitely losing steam (especially now, since the announcement of the end of Friendship is Magic TV show), the creativity that once brought me into it is still not completely gone and maybe, one day, I’ll be able to make a meaningful follow-up to this series. For now, I hope you enjoyed this little trip into the bizarre world of pony fan fiction and that I’ll see you again in two weeks, on the second half of my coverage. Have a lovely weekend everyone!

Friday, 22 February 2019

Doki Doki Literature Club Purist Mod Review (Visual Novel Fan Modification)

Warning: Major spoilers for the original Doki Doki Literature Club ahead!

The viral success of Doki Doki Literature Club in late 2017 sent shockwaves throughout the visual novel world, sparking some highly polarized reactions. While many hardcore VN fans dismissed the game as shallow and expressed irritation towards the over-the-top praise it received, Team Salvato’s project had a lot going for it and quickly gathered an enormous fanbase. Excellent use of visual and sound gimmicks and brilliant subversion of the basic visual novel/dating sim gameplay conventions made it an extremely effective, creepy horror game. While in no way an in-depth critique of the genre and having very little replayability because of its reliance on gimmicky plot twists, I still see it as a masterfully-crafted and enjoyable experience, having relatively few contenders on the EVN scene when it goes to memorability and attention to detail. While it might be hard to see past the overwhelming meme culture and misconceptions around it, on its own, DDLC defends itself perfectly well and I consider it a solid 4/5 title – not a masterpiece, but something I would be willing to recommend to pretty much anyone with interest in VNs as a genre.
            A part of DDLC that many people casually ignore is the moege-like first act, which is, in my opinion, a great piece of lighthearted, SoL-focused storytelling. While it was on purpose fluffy and generic, Salvato’s writing, designs of the heroines, the ingenious “poem writing” route selection mechanic and the romance progression were actually very enjoyable and engaging – after all, the first twist would never be even close as effective if the game wasn’t able to immerse you in its faux dating sim climate. I’ve myself many times expressed the thought that I’d be very interested in playing a “normal”, lighthearted version of DDLC, especially because how gratifying it would be to see happy endings for the heroines, with whom I've developed a bit of emotional connection, after how harsh the main game treated them. And it was after sharing this thought that someone pointed me towards DDLC Purist Mod, an ambitious fan project based on exactly that premise – transforming Salvato’s game into a proper romance story and giving a chance for happiness for all the girls of the Literature Club, including its tragic villainess, Monika.
The mod’s authors definitely struggled with pacing their story, inserting some wholly unnecessary dialogue and filler scenes
To be fair, saying that the Purist Mod exactly matches the idea I’ve expressed above is an exaggeration, as “lighthearted” is probably not the right word to describe it. Released nearly exactly a year after DDLC’s premiere, the mod picks up where the base game ended, but with the player taking control back from Monika and promising to “make things right”. Because of this, the new story segments (there are around 10 hours of new content in total) focuses not on the fluffy romance, but rather on resolving the heavy drama that was hidden beneath cute facades of all the heroines: Sayori’s depression, Natsuki’s domestic problems, Yuri’s low self-esteem and self-harm, and, as the conclusion, Monika’s conscious entrapment within a fictional world. Instead of transforming DDLC into another game entirely, modders played within the ruleset already established by Dan Salvato and created a positive conclusion without breaking it, which was both smart and ultimately satisfying to experience.
            The execution of this concept, however, is not entirely smooth. To the fair to the authors, the deck was in many ways stacked against them – using only slightly modified Act 1 as their basis, they worked on a story which has been built towards the genre shift and maximum shock value, rather than compelling slice-of-life drama. Sayori’s depression especially was an element introduced to disrupt the flow of the romantic story, and had to be dealt with in some way to even make other routes possible. The modders managed to resolve this problem somewhat effectively, but still couldn’t avoid the tone shift being painfully obvious – the cute, lighthearted charm of DDLC’s first hour inevitably disperses as soon as the drama is introduced and it becomes the player’s explicit goal to overcome the personal problems of the heroines. And while all of this is rather justifiable, a bitter gripe of mine might be connected to the inclusion of additional choices and bad endings – while the mod is very careful to not go overboard with depressive plot elements and stay away from the original’s horror themes, I’m not sure whether there’s any point in adding new layers of misery to DDLC’s story. The new content being purely kinetic (or having “meaningless” choices serving only immersion purposes), but more focused and polished would probably leave me with a much stronger impression, although I know that’s in large part up to personal preference.
The choices added in the mod are very much on the “obvious” side of things, but undoubtedly matter more than the ones from the original
The bigger and more “objective” problem than the tone and structure of the new content is the quality of writing, which in my opinion never rises to the levels of Dan Salvato’s. Pretty much the moment the new lines kick in you can feel the pacing of the game and the quality of prose going down significantly. I’m a bit torn on whether criticizing this is fair in a fan project, but it’s obvious to me that a professional-level editor could do wonders when it goes to how the mod reads, with obvious mistakes such as word repetition and overuse of characters’ names in dialogue showing up consistently. There’s also undeniable excess in the first three routes, with too much internal monologue and filler scenes that are neither necessary nor very amusing. While I’m generally a huge fan of SoL, here the authors quite often missed the point on what makes it meaningful or amusing, with way too many moments feeling just mundane and empty.
     The thing I’m absolutely comfortable criticizing, however, is the numerous inconsistencies when it goes to character development and continuity. The original DDLC characters were inherently exaggerated, so it was hard to keep them completely “intact” when transferring to genuine drama, but their quirks and mannerisms were far too often completely lost in the added parts of the game – and those were among the main factors that made the original SoL moments endearing. While the “intimate” moments between the protagonist and the heroines still work more often than not, many of the extra scenes in the Literature Club during Yuri's, Sayori's and Natsuki's routes are surprisingly bland and off-character. There are also some very disappointing plot holes and instances of hardly-justifiable “anime logic”. The protagonist’s bond with Sayori seems completely reinterpreted from what he expresses at the beginning of the game (suddenly he always cared for her deeply), undermining the significance of her confession at the end of Act 1. Parents do not exist for any of the characters, except for the one instance when the plot demands it (that is, obviously, Natsuki’s route) and the new content introduces scenarios that make this absolutely absurd (like the protagonist living with one of the heroines for literal months without anyone intervening). These things are painful to observe mostly because they were easy to fix without much technical or conceptual effort, and the fact the game’s world is explicitly fictional does not really justify it – it would only work if the mod played really hard on the meta aspect of DDLC and it really doesn’t, at least outside of Monika’s route.
The additional art is a bit hit and miss, but does its job decently enough and underlines the crucial moments of the new storylines
Speaking about Monika’s route, for me it was definitely the most enjoyable part of the experience and the real pay-off of the Purist Mod. Admittedly, with her being so much of a wildcard character, it was way harder to get her “objectively” wrong. Still, this part of the mod did many other things right, focusing a lot more on the Literature Club and (non-comedic) fourth-wall-breaking aspect of the game, keeping a climate quite similar to the official first act. It also didn’t have to invent drama, because the problem was clearly laid out by the original – we have Monika struggling with her unnatural situation and guilt from what she originally did, which is developed and resolved in a way much less contrived and overdramatized than what the other girls go through. Also, as other heroines stay in their support roles, their behaviour is more consistent with what we already knew, while Monika herself is a truly tragic heroine, who despite some writing slip-ups and cheesy dialogue gets many of the most touching and interesting scenes in the mod. The contrast between my enjoyment of her arc and the ones before it makes me quite comfortable with saying that you should feel free to just scan through Sayori’s, Yuri’s and Natsuki’s routes, to get a feel of how their problems were resolved and focus on reading through Monika’s route carefully – it only unlocks after finishing all other arcs, for narrative reasons, but it’s where the Purist Mod’s true strength lies.
            A bit also has to be said about mod's visual and sound assets. Those were also visibly not on par with the original, but for the most part, mimicked its style quite effectively and you should easily forget about the slight inconsistencies when you immerse yourself in the story. As the game uses most of the non-horror-related assets the original offers, only a few extra CG’s and backgrounds were enough to make it feel like a proper VN and the new tunes complement the sombre moments much more prevalent in the added portions of the story. In the end, I think that the Purist Mod is very much worth checking out for all those that enjoyed DDLC not just for its gimmicky horror, but also the interesting story elements and characters it created. It was meant to give the player closure that the original by design didn’t even try to offer and in this respect, it works fine. With all its flaws and inconsistencies, it’s a very impressive fan project and one I in many ways enjoys – and the possibility to play through a proper, intelligently-crafted Monika’s route might by itself makes it worth experiencing.

Final Score: 2,5/5

+ Decently-sized and ultimately satisfying routes
+ Well-embedded into DDLC lore
+ Well thought-out and compelling Monika’s arc
- Mediocre prose
- Inconsistent characters
- Irritating plot holes

Download Doki Doki Literature Club and the DDLC Purist Mod for free