Friday, 24 January 2020

Fallstreak Review (Free Visual Novel)

You probably saw many cataclysms in stories you’ve read or watched in the past. Disasters that were natural, technological or magical in nature, limited in scale or apocalyptic, resulting in short-lived crises or civilisation-ending. From Muv-Luv through Swan Song to I Walk Among Zombies, plot-oriented visual novels never shied away from presenting these kinds of scenarios, and along with literature, they’re uniquely positioned to explore deeper consequences they could have for both individuals and whole societies. 
                Fallstreak, a free game released on Steam on October 2018 as a debut title of a small studio under the name Centicerise Productions, is one less-common EVNs tackling this topic. It does so by focusing heavily on a group of people affected by such a catastrophic event – mostly average folk, crippled physically and emotionally by the mysterious Fire of Collapse that ravaged their isolated country without a warning or identifiable source. It’s also, generally speaking, a wonderfully-produced piece of VN that I’m wary of recommending to people due to its surprisingly extreme content and open-ended story, quite clearly meant as an introduction to its world and a prologue to future games utilizing the same setting. So, what are the main reasons to check it out, or to skip on visiting the fantasy realm of Socotrine at least until Fallstreak’s continuation shows up?
The amount of stories-within-a-story and subplots that are never elaborated upon makes Fallstreak feel more like a prologue leading to a proper story than a standalone experience

Fallstreak’s Steam page claims that the game’s protagonist is Adelise Cotard, the daughter of Socotrine’s ruler and a little girl with a mind of an adult. Atypically mature due to the time she spends in the Golden Dream, a lucid dreamworld full of knowledge which she enters nearly every night, Ade is indeed the character through which we initially experience the story. These introductory chapters, rather relaxed and light-hearted, mostly follow her and her group of friends through some everyday situations – a normal life in which only physical scars some of them bear and occasional reminiscence hint at the dramatic past. However, she’s neither sole focus nor the only protagonist of the game. In its second half, when we start learning about other characters’ backstories and the details of Fire of Collapse though flashbacks, she’s not only pushed to the background but mostly absent, with crucial events taking place before she was even born. At this point, the game switches perspectives on a regular basis, focusing mostly on various members of the Lirit family, whose children are Adelise’s classmates in a private school for those orphaned or otherwise affected by the cataclysm.
                In the meantime, we’re also introduced to a ton of interesting information about Socotrine itself, a land isolated from the outside world by the apparently impassable, magical mist. Its impoverished, but stable history was shaken up by the arrival of a refugee convoy from beyond the barrier, around 20 years before the game’s main events. Bringing with them advanced technology and knowledge of the outside world, refugees affected drastically both the land’s political balance and the way of life of its people. Eventually, the convoy’s “Lost Children” revolted against the ruling aristocracy of Socotrine and brought in an era of prosperity. At the same time, the game opens many questions about their origins, actions after traversing the mist and their connection to the Fire of Collapse which nearly destroyed the whole realm. Adelise’s personal story is also apparently related to much of this, with the Golden Dream, her father’s dethronement of the Lost Children’s leader and her mother’s death all signalized as mysteries crucial to understanding Socotrine’s predicaments, although without many hints on how they’re actually significant.
Fallstreak’s story turns bleak without much warning and introduces scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the darkest of horror stories – it’s not a VN for those faint of heart

If this sounds like a lot to fit into a relatively short, 80k-word VN, it definitely is. I also skipped a number of lore details and subplots that could be considered spoilers, and as you can imagine, very few of those receive any kind of answer or satisfying conclusion. The game does not shy away from extensive infodumps and introducing character after character, many of them either signalizing stories that might be told in the future or being little more than exposition props. It also includes allegorical stories-within-the-story, told by various characters, which further draw the readers attention away from its actual plot-points and protagonists. At times the memorable, high-quality visual design and solid characterisation are main things preventing it from devolving into an incomprehensible mess. The unique characters and the sheer beauty of all visual assets make it easier to get immersed in the world and look past the absolute overload of story threads the game bombards you with, without ever tying most of them together. It's also impossible to deny that the setting itself and the mysteries associated with it are well-thought-out and rather imaginative, making you want to know more.
                While the pacing is definitely an issue in Fallstreak, the most problematic part might still be its tone: it often jumps from rather relaxing slice-of-life moments to unsettling mysteries, and then to over-the-top tragedy and absolutely grotesque violence. The aforementioned backstory of the Lirits is full of gut-wrenching moments, drastic enough to disturb even a relatively experienced and desensitized reader like me. I’m not sure all of them belonged in this story – some very much balanced on the border of absurdity and if they had a real narrative function beyond the sheer shock factor, it’s not clear at this point. It’s not a massive problem if you can handle that kind of content, but it definitely makes Fallstreak not an experience for everyone, especially because the intensity of these segments was not properly signalized by previous events and very much caught me by surprise.
The visual design of Fallstreak is impeccable and helps a lot in fleshing out its characters and world, making them surprisingly memorable

If what I wrote so far paints a pretty bleak picture, it’s because Fallstreak’s problems could’ve been fatal if not for how just this polished and well-put-together it is. The prose and dialogue, despite the heavy exposition and anachronistic jokes that I’m not sure make sense in the setting, are very solid. Elements such as character’s speech patterns and personality quirks save them from being forgettable in the overcrowded storyline. And in the end, it’s the beautiful visuals and music that really make it stand out. The characters look distinct and expressive, while backgrounds and CGs are hard to take your eyes off. The assets are also pretty abundant for a free VN, with just enough environments, sprite variants and full illustrations to consistently keep things fresh. The original soundtrack is very climatic, with mostly sombre piano tunes underlining the sad reality of the game’s world. It all comes together in a way that I’m not sure I’ve seen in another free VN.
                So, ultimately, what do I make out of Fallstreak? It’s definitely not a bad game and the main problems it suffers from came rather from the developers being overly ambitious than a lack of effort. They definitely tried to fit too much into one package and didn’t follow up properly with new chapters. If I read it right and it is a starting point for a commercial franchise, we should already be seeing much more concrete signals about its continuation than the sporadic teasers present on the developer's social media. It’s not an abandoned project, considering I was directly approached by the studio behind it not a long time ago and the latest updates on the continuation are fairly recent, but whether you should read it depends mostly on whether you’re ok with reading a story that is essentially unfinished (and is going stay like that for a while), and whether you're willing to deal with its grimdark elements. For me, it was definitely worth the time I’ve spent reading it and as a free VN, that time is all it will ever ask from you.

Final Score: 3/5

+ Beautiful visuals
+ Climatic soundtrack
+ Memorable main characters

– Frequent infodumps and clunky exposition
– Gets over-the-top with the brutality of the backstories
– Feels more like a prologue than a full story

Play Fallstreak for free on Steam

Friday, 17 January 2020

Chemically Bonded Review (English Original Visual Novel)

Ds-sans is a British VN developer whose work I've been following since the times I started writing my blog, first being charmed by his free romance game Sounds of Her Love, (check out my review of it here). Released on Steam March 2017, this very tame and heartwarming, small love story was extremely by-the-numbers and rather cliched, but stood out through its solid execution and likeable heroine. Later, I’ve checked out this author’s first VN, Lost Impressions, which also proved enjoyable despite being something of a mess visually and including edgy story elements typical for many beginner VN writers – a rather standard amateur project, but showing traces of genuine talent.
                As you can imagine, I was quite interested in reading ds-sans’ first commercial VN, Chemically Bonded, announced and successfully crowdfunded in late 2017. It promised to continue the wholesome, romantic climate of Sounds of Her Love, but with a more in-depth, branching story and better production values – pretty much a product catered exactly to someone like me, who enjoys fluffy slice-of-life content in VNs over pretty much everything else. After a full year of delays, the game finally came out on November 2019, proving to be… Very much a mixed bag. But, what could go wrong with a project this straightforward and one with such a promising background?
The game is full to the brim with trivial internal monologues from the protagonist, narrating mundane events and expressing the same exact sentiments towards the heroines over and over again
Chemically Bonded is a story of an unassuming Japanese high-schooler, whose boring routine is turned upside down when he’s invited by Kiyoko, the best student in his school, to join the science club. With her being the only other member, the protagonist is pretty much guilt-tripped into accompanying her in the various “club activities”, and by this is thrown right into the center of a conflict between Kiyoko and Naomi, the captain of the track team and quite likely the most popular girl in her year. The two heroines, formerly friends, fell apart in a dramatic manner, and our lead takes it upon himself to bring them back together. Here we encounter the first of the game’s major issues: the (nameable) protagonist is the blankest of blank slates, with less background information and personality than the average male lead in a Sakura game. He apparently also doesn’t have anything going on in his life apart from dealing with Kiyoko and Naomi, as we never observe him interacting with his family or other people in school in a meaningful manner. This really detracts from the experience, as even the Sounds of Her Love protagonist, still arguably a self-insert, had a decently-defined family that played into the story and provoked fun dialogue, making him feel like an actual person. His characterisation also made it somewhat clear why he connected so well with the heroine – here, there’s pretty much nothing meaningful that can be said about the lead and it’s hard to tell why the girls are even into him.
                There’s one more, deeply problematic thing about the protagonist, which is also the biggest issue the whole game suffers from – his monologues. While visual novels strive on dialogue and meaningful interactions between the key characters, Chemically Bonded’s idea of core VN content is overly-colourful narration of trivial, everyday occurrences, and constant repetition of a few uninspired statements about the heroines’ emotional state and the protagonist’s intention to help them. It’s very hard to fully communicate just how broken the game’s writing is in the first two acts (first 3-4 hours of the game) and how much it damages the pacing of the story. Moments that push the plot forward are drowned in countless lined about dust particles dancing in the sun or descriptions of how deeply heartbroken either Kiyoko or Naomi is. It also borderline-ignores the visual input of the game’s assets, often describing things that are in plain sight or obvious from the scene’s context. The situation improves significantly after the breakthrough is achieved in the conflict between the girls and they start interacting with each other a lot more, but the experience of getting to that point is generally not that great.
Naomi’s tsundere persona wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t this exaggerated and inconsistent – even with all the explanations for her behaviour, she’s just not relatable or endearing
Another thing that starts broken and gets (slightly) better over time is the tsundere heroine, Naomi – in the opening segments, she’s juggling at least three different personas in a completely incoherent manner, switching between abusive, boastful and flustered modes in a way that is neither believable nor amusing to watch. The game makes a point of her initial behaviour being fake, but this doesn’t help it feel any more fluid or cleverly-written, and even the overall very talented Amber Barile, who voices the character, couldn’t make the confusing, stuttered dialogue sound right. This also changes after the second act, when Naomi mostly drops the pretences and only playfully re-enacts elements of her “tsun” persona, but it’s a bit too little, too late to make her arc truly satisfying. Kiyoko, on the other hand, is a fine heroine – the science theme in her story is paper-thin, rarely going beyond chemistry puns, but her cheerful personality and her relationship with the protagonist are fairly believable. As someone heartbroken and isolated from her former friends, I can see her falling for someone who treated her without judgment and offered his support. At the same time Naomi, essentially a school celebrity, have very few reasons to show her “dere” side so quickly (it’s there nearly from the beginning), especially if we consider that the game’s plot plays out literally within a few weeks. If I have any problem with Kiyoko, it would sadly be her VA – at the beginning, she sounds more like a small child than a high-schooler, and even later her tone and mannerisms hardly match the sharp, energetic personality the game is trying to communicate. Voices of the secondary characters (all dialogue in the game is voiced), by the way, are just fine – nothing more and nothing less.
                If you’re waiting for me to stop complaining, we’re nearly there, but… I have to say a few things about secondary characters and cameos. While the Sounds of Her Love heroine Ceri showing up is pretty fun (also because she’s simply an endearing and well-designed character), other supporting characters which received sprites (three in total, random schoolmates/teenagers Ken & Sae and a teacher, Mr Kabeer) didn’t seem to serve a real function in the story. They were sometimes used for humour, but most of the jokes didn’t land well enough to by themselves justify their presence – all three feel more like artefacts of the development process that planned for their inclusion early on and then failed to find a proper role for them to play. In a way, this is also the feeling the whole Naomi route gives out – because of how the game was conceptualized her romance arc was necessary to make, but I haven’t seen in it an actual idea on how to execute it in an effective and cohesive manner. The supposed feelings between her and the protagonist show up practically out of nowhere and most scenes with her are narratively empty, adding nothing to the story. In result, it simply doesn’t work as a romance plot, in contrast to the reasonably satisfying Kiyoko’s arc, which is maybe still a bit rushed, but goes through all the steps necessary to get you emotionally invested in the relationship. Starting with Naomi’s scenario was both a curse and a blessing for me, as it initially soured me towards the whole game, but also let me skip a lot of repeated narration while reading Kiyoko’s arc and fully enjoy its genuinely good moments, which are basically the best narrative elements of Chemically Bonded. Naomi is also much more tolerable as a secondary character and honestly, she should’ve stayed as such, with Kiyoko’s story getting more development.
The one thing Chemically Bonded definitely got right is the visual quality and aesthetic – if only the story was this consistent...
Reminding me slightly of PixelFade’s Crystalline, the thing that works the most in Chemically Bonded is its visual quality – being something of ds-sans' speciality, the level of detail and visual cohesion of all the assets are pretty great. The heroine sprites have a very good degree of variation, with clothes and hairstyles changing depending on the situation, along with a proper set of facial expressions. It’s clear a lot of effort went into this aspect of the VN and it all helps to offset the very limited number of dedicated CGs (11 in the whole game), mostly present in the introductory scenes and crucial romantic moments. I think a few of the more casual scenes also could've gained a lot from some additional illustrations, but the quality of what’s already there is hard to argue with. Many immersive details, like a believable smartphone interface showing up for texting and calls, are also present in the game, even though I feel they weren’t used to their full potential. For example, it’s a shame that text messages the characters exchange aren’t more involved, as it would be a great method to expand on their relationships without using the expensive, voiced dialogue – these, however, are nitpicks rather than serious complaints. The game’s original soundtrack is overall very good, although at times misused: while I fully enjoyed the ambient themes in more relaxed parts of the game, when the heavier moments kicked in the music tended to go overly-dramatic, to the point of distracting me a bit.
                What are my final thoughts on Chemically Bonded then? When I started reading it, I was genuinely afraid it will prove to be a complete waste of time, but Kiyoko’s arc ultimately proved satisfying and I’m willing to recommend the game just so you can experience it. Naomi’s romance is better left ignored and because that means skipping quite a lot of content, it’s probably a good idea to wait for a significant discount before buying this VN. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that ds-sans himself is very much aware of the problems CB suffered from and he’ll be able to correct his mistakes in his future project – despite this one definitely being a disappointment, I’m very curious what he’ll come up with next.
Final Rating: 2,5/5
+ High-quality, stylistically consistent visuals
+ Good soundtrack
+ Kiyoko’s arc
- Poorly-written and bloated narration
- Weak pacing in the first half of the story
- Weak and inconsistent characterisation of Naomi

Buy Chemically Bonded on Steam

Friday, 10 January 2020

Bewitched – that visual novel I've helped proofreading & other games by Graven Visual Novels

Today I wanted to talk a bit about an interesting project, and one that provided me with a unique opportunity to, for the first time, act as a proof-reader and do minor editing for a sizeable VN. Because of this personal involvement, this won’t be a full-on review, but more of a loose rant, highlighting both the worthwhile aspects of the game and my somewhat-peculiar experience with it. The VN in question, Bewitched is indeed a rather interesting one, as all games by Graven Visual Novels are – just as they are weighted down by extremely awkward translations from Russian and inherent flaws of their author’s prose. This time, however, the developer made their first attempt to work on properly polishing the game’s English script with the help of a few volunteers (including my gloriously dyslectic person). This move was quite likely inspired by the discussions I had with them regarding their previous projects and the problems with their English versions. If my involvement in the EVN scene ever made a tangible difference, this is the most concrete example of it, and I hope you’ll be willing to join me as I briefly explore what that difference actually is…
Gruesome and featuring a memorably grim story, Silenced had a lot of potential that was never fully realized, mostly due to its writing and poor translation
I’ll be very blunt: Graven’s first game, Silenced: The House was something of an amusing trainwreck. Its interesting artstyle and effective gore were combined with edgy, needlessly flowery writing and rather awful English, creating an experience that was nowhere as fun to read as it was to look at. The general idea, with a villainous protagonist luring a group of obnoxious teenagers to meet their doom in a haunted house, is the kind of cheesy fun I genuinely enjoy, while the amazing amount of well-stylized art could easily make it an absolute treat. The clunky user interface, most quality-of-life features typical for visual novels missing or broken, underlined the fact that its ideas and efforts of the visual artists were simply squandered by poor execution of all other aspects of the game. The end effect was something I didn’t hate, but still had a hard time recommending to anyone.
                The studio’s second project, Still Alive, was more competent from the technical standpoint, but repeated all the other issues that plagued Silenced: occasionally confusing script and English that was well below acceptable levels. This time, the consequences were more significant: as it tried to catch people’s attention on Kickstarter, neither the project page nor the demo could gather the confidence of English-speaking crowd and despite the unique premise and once more decent art, the game barely reached half of its funding goal. This was something I was personally a bit sad about, as the sci-fi horror and yuri elements were very in-line with my taste and I expected to enjoy the end product quite a lot if the game hasn’t been cancelled.
Terminator-like, post-apocalyptic setting of Still Alive showed quite a lot of promise, especially because Graven were never afraid to go really dark and grotesque with their games – even in the demo, some events and enemy designs were genuinely unsettling
It wasn’t that long after the Still Alive’s Kickstarter failure that I was surprised with a proposition to help edit the script for Graven’s newest project, a game named Bewitched – a story about a young boy becoming an apprentice of his Aunt, a powerful witch and potion maker. It was by most measures a stark departure from the studio’s grim horror stories and while working on the game’s text, I couldn’t help but enjoy the change in stylistics. The English script, however, was once more a giant mess, with me and another volunteer editor (who I had no contact with) tasked to make it readable within a pretty short timeframe. The effects were, as you can imagine, pretty ambivalent – a major improvement on the original draft that was still not fully up to standards I would usually like to see from a VN. While I’m really satisfied with some of the things I’ve done while polishing the text, a lot of awkward sentences and even occasional typos slipped through. Ultimately though, after seeing the final game, I think we managed to make it reasonably enjoyable to read, at least not less than the Russian original likely is, which makes the game something I’m willing to recommend. Maybe if I wasn’t involved, someone else would step in to do the proofreading, but there’s also a chance I’ve saved this game from being more or less lost for the English-speaking audience, and that is honestly quite a good feeling.
                And speaking about the game proper, Bewitched getting destroyed by a bad translation would be a genuine shame. While working on the text, I wondered how certain things would be portrayed in the final product, but I didn’t expect the art to be this detailed and vibrant. Some of the CGs and backgrounds are honestly stunning for a tiny indie game like this – visual quality was always Graven’s strongest side, but Bewitched still managed to be a major improvement in this regard. While from the technical point of view it’s still not perfect, mostly because of not being made in a dedicated visual novel engine, its story is fairly linear, without much reason to fully replay the game and really feel the absence of some quality-of-live features, such as a precise skip-read option. While some branching is present, it’s fairly minimal and mostly related to how you approach certain puzzles in the point-and-click adventure game sections. The interactivity, by the way, is pretty significant, so the game might not be a good pick if you’re not into exploring environments and completing tasks through various interactions – while there are many “pure” story sections, especially dominating its later chapters, you’ll spend a good portion of the 4-5 hour playtime collecting ingredients and exploring the protagonist’s aunt’s house.
Bewitched created an effective vision of a wacky, danger-filled magical world – one colourful and cheerful at first look, but featuring plenty of dark undertones
While I stressed the stylistically change between Bewitched and Graven’s previous projects, it doesn’t mean the game is all sunshine and rainbows. Like in the studio’s previous titles, there’s a plenty of ways to get the protagonist killed and there are intensely dark moments to its story and setting, along with some disturbingly grim humour. You can easily feel that the story was ultimately created by the same team, still holding very similar sensibilities and whether intentional clashes between the colourful visuals and edgy plot elements will bother you is very much up to personal taste. For me, it’s still quite enjoyable, especially when presented through more-readable English than Silenced and Still Alive. It’s also not a deep experience, with neither the story nor characters being particularly complex or meaningful, but it’s fully functional as a silly adventure tale and at times genuinely imaginative.
                In the end, while I’ll refrain from giving Bewitched a rating, I think it’s definitely the best title Graven produced so far and something well-worth the 5$ asking price. It will also always hold a special place in my heart, as I’ve learned some valuable things through my involvement with it. So, give it a chance – and if you ever think editors did a questionable job polishing certain VN’s text, remember that you don’t know what they were starting with. 😉

Buy Bewitched on Steam

Saturday, 28 December 2019

EVN Developer Spotlight: ds-sans (interview)

This interview was originally published on Fuwanovel Forums on May 4th 2018.

In March I've brought you two interviews with notable yuri and otome OELVN developers, talking with Nami and Reine Works' founder, Jackie M. Today, however, we're venturing into the world of very, very traditional romance (with equally high levels of cuteness), as my guest is ds-sans, the author of a lovely freeware VN Sounds of Her Love (be sure to check my review of that game) and the upcoming commercial title Chemically Bonded. I encourage you to join us as we discuss the place of all-ages romance in the VN scene, the role of voice acting in OELVNs and more.

Plk_Lesiak: Welcome and thank you for accepting my invitation! While many people in the VN community might recognize your nick, they probably don’t know much beyond that. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
ds-sans: I wouldn't really say that I'm that interesting. I'm currently an undergraduate student at university in the UK studying geography, with an interest in anime and related media in my spare time. (Although, that's died down in recent years.) If I were to describe my current background, it'd be fairly cliché, just like the stories of my VNs. I started developing VNs in 2015, while I was 16, but really showed an interest in January 2014. I didn't make it that far though and only really came back to it to prove that I could do something if I tried.
PL: Sooo... Where did the "ds-sans" label come from?
ds: In all honesty, I don't think the name really means anything. From what I remember, I think I honestly scrambled a few letters together from a car's registration plate, but this was a good 4 years ago. To clarify though, it has nothing to do with Japanese honorifics at least. I'd only started getting into anime a few months prior and still had no clue as to their usage.
The story itself isn't that special, but the name stuck and at this point, I feel that it's too late to change it.
PL: You create rather tame, cute romances in a market that seem to reward ecchi and h-content over anything else. Why this formula?
ds: Pure romance novels have always been very diverse in the EVN industry, in my opinion. From what I've personally seen, many of the tamer romance titles are either a lot more Western in style or are low-scale non-commercial in nature and target a different audience. As far as I'm aware, there are relatively few commercial B x G titles with no 18+ content which take significant influence from Japanese VNs.
Reading Clannad was really influential in my decision to focus on cute romance stories as I wanted to emphasize emotional connections between people over physical. If I were to add scenes like that into the stories, they'd need to supplement that motive as opposed to attracting more sales or getting people off. Katawa Shoujo is a good example of a VN which does h-scenes in this way. It's the formula which my inspiration is driven from, but it's not as if I'm not open to expanding into different genres for different audiences in the future.
Lost Impressions
PL: Your first VN, Lost Impressions, used some pretty heavy themes and drastic plot developments. What inspired that project and what do you think about it today? 
ds: Lost Impressions is definitely the 'black sheep' of my VNs, but I feel that's because it was the first. At that point, I didn't really have much of an idea as to what I was doing and a lot of the inspiration came from the early animes I was watching. A fusion between the cutesy romance shows and series such as Higurashi and Mirai Nikki. I just wanted to get something out there.
I can't say whether I hate it or love it, really, it just sticks there in my past as an obscure title. There are definitely parts of it I think could be better conveyed, looking back. It's something I'd like to do one day. 36,000 words wasn't nearly enough for what I was trying to convey, especially when it's split between three routes. The development process too is just as confusing as the plot itself. Most of the resources that were original to the game were sourced through work/art trades or volunteer work. A lot of that depended on just sticking with what was done, which is why there's about 5 different art styles. Still, I'd never say that I regret making it.
PL: You consistently use Japan as the setting for your VNs. Why set a Western-made game – and a one with English voice acting on top of that – in Japan?
ds: One of the main reasons I take Japan as the setting for the stories comes down to the freeware nature of my first two VNs. Finding backgrounds for the games which would fit into a global range of scenarios was a challenging task at the time, with many having Japanese itself somewhere visible in the image. It's not something I minded, since at the time it aligned with my anime interests, but now that I'm starting out in the commercial market, getting custom assets is a lot easier. Even though everything in Chemically Bonded is unique, I still felt that setting the story in Japan would be appropriate to get the interest of my target audience. Writing stories set there accurately is the biggest problem about it though, which is why with Sounds of Her Love I took the approach of setting the story in an international school to avoid cultural discrepancies.
With the voice acting, it really comes down to my reasoning behind having it in the games in the first place.
PL: Staying on that topic then, you're one of the relatively few OELVN developers who seem to consistently rely on voice acting. What's your rationale behind including VA in your projects?
ds: Hiring voice actors is honestly one of the most ignored gems of making a visual novel, at least for projects with an emphasis on the story. Having an idea of how a character might sound or react in your head is one thing, but guaranteeing that each reader will think the same is another. It's one thing to add a s-s-stutter to the dialogue, but hearing the nervousness and embarrassment in a VAs voice really sells the emotions and feelings of a character and adds to the situation.
It's also easier to add personality to the characters too. In Chemically Bonded, Kiyoko is a lot more upbeat and cute whereas Naomi is blunt and insulting. Writing the lines for that is easy enough, but connecting a voice to them that suits the characters I feel allows readers to really grasp their personalities quicker than with just plain text. With voice acting, selling the scene is a lot easier and really helps to convey the story to the reader. You also get to work with really great people too, which is always wonderful to be able to do as it not just builds a community of players around the VN but a community of different people working on the project (in a way, a temporary studio of freelancers?).
I don't think Sounds of Her Love or Chemically Bonded would have done as well as they might without the use of voice acting in them.
Chemically Bonded
PL: How would you describe your experience with implementing VA in a larger project such as Chemically Bonded? Have you struggled with any aspect of it?
ds: There haven't really been any major problems in having VA in Chemically Bonded so far. You have to account for the rate of people's work and your own ability to describe clearly how each character should sound. Most of the struggles just come from implementing that many lines into the game, especially when there's an increased focus on the conversation between the characters. Ensuring that each line is clear too is another minor thing. It's not something that usually happens, but it's always something you have to consider when having VA in a project. So far, working with the voice actresses in the project has been a wonderful experience.
PL: Sounds of Her Love, your second freeware game, had pretty high production quality and gathered quite a lot of attention. Did you make it with the switch to commercial VN projects in mind?
ds: Sounds of Her Love was really intended to be my last project at the time of starting development. After releasing Lost Impressions, I felt the need to produce something of a higher quality before really giving up on producing VNs. I never really intended to go commercial until after SoHL was released, since I didn't expect it to get that much attention.
The budget for the entire project was around $300, allowing me some leeway with hiring artists with the style I was after (the sprite artist for SoHL now working with us on Chemically Bonded as both the sprite and CG artist). The real reason I decided upon producing a commercial VN was after working for DEVGRU-P on their game Stay Stay DPRK and using the funds from their payment to invest into a Kickstarter campaign.
PL: Speaking of DEVGRU-P, they act as a publisher for both SoHL and Chemically Bonded and you seem to have a close relationship with them – in the era where self-publishing on Steam and other platforms is an easily accessible option for VN creators, do you think there's any major benefit to such cooperation?
ds: Publishing is probably one of the harder aspects of developing a commercial title. I wouldn't call our relationship that 'close', since I've really have had complete independence in creating and managing my projects, but it really is 'ideal' for a developer-publisher relationship. They're really great to work with and have picked up a few other EVN groups which I believe them to help out considerably more with certain aspects.
The only real downside to having a publisher are some limitations with managing the sales and figures of the title. I have considered self-publishing, but right now having the support of a larger entity is a real benefit and I would recommend it for people starting out with commercial game development. I can't speak for all publishers, but working with a group with an ability to provide support and additional marketing truly helps.
PL: Coming back to Chemically Bonded. Even though you reached the first stretch goal, your Kickstarter was a pretty close call, being funded less than 48 hours before the deadline – did it teach you anything about crowdfunding and would you do anything differently when attempting another campaign?
ds: Social media and the importance of reaching out and spreading awareness was definitely something I took out of running Chemically Bonded's Kickstarter campaign. The work doesn't end after you launch, a lot of effort had to be put into marketing the campaign, you can't just rely on the hope that people will come across it through Kickstarter itself. Twitter was one of our biggest platforms for spreading awareness, but it reached a point where it stopped being useful in gathering interest. Contacting game/anime/VN journalism outlets was a key help in getting us past the funding goal. 
One real regret is not releasing a demo for the project to go alongside the campaign. At that point, there weren't enough assets to really create one and even then I was against the idea, but having gone through most of the latter half of the campaign with the assumption that it'd fail to meet the goal, I changed my mind about the idea. I think it'd definitely help when crowdfunding another title.
Sounds of Her Love
PL: For those who know your style of storytelling from SoHL, should they expect a very similar experience from your new game or is there something that might surprise them?
ds: People can hope to expect something similar in execution, but with Chemically Bonded a lot of the key parts have been done differently, which should hopefully surprise people and prove to be more enjoyable than what SoHL was. Looking back on it, there were plenty of issues with the story and the way it was written. I wanted to address these within Chemically Bonded as I didn't feel that they'd work out in a longer VN whereas they seemed to work given SoHL's short nature. Having two love interests too really changes the way the story has to be written, at least to include both girls into the main story without keeping their routes entirely separate.
Chemically Bonded is a lot more grounded in reality, I've tried to make the events that happen a lot more likely than what occurred in SoHL and Lost Impressions. There are no car accidents or tragic backstories, the romance isn't cliched as hell and the characters are a lot deeper than my previous works. The choices are a more vague too, rather than being predictable, so the routes and endings achieved should hopefully reflect the reader's instincts. I could go into a lot more detail, but to summarise I'd say people can expect a rather captivating romantic story like SoHL had, but will give people a chance to connect with more fledged characters and themes. That and the production quality is a lot better now we have the funding to do it, so, all in all, I think people who liked SoHL will appreciate Chemically Bonded much more. The story doesn't just end after a confession either, so I think people will appreciate that too.
PL: Assuming that Chemically Bonded meets your expectations when it goes to sales and general reception, do you have any specific plans for future VN projects?
ds: If it does, I'd like to continue making VNs at some point. I don't have any specific plans yet, and I feel like I'd need the time to really recoup interest in developing another project. I've always had on and off ideas for future VNs throughout developing all three, but when it comes down to creating something new I usually come up with a fresh idea and discard the old.
For a while, I promised a full sequel to Sounds of Her Love, and I did create plans for it, but I don't feel the need to rush into it after Chemically Bonded releases. I'd hope to branch out into different story genres, but even then I'd find it hard to escape producing romantic stories since that's what I've really become accustomed to at this point. Who knows? I might try developing two at once and see how that goes, or I might leave it at Chemically Bonded. I know for a fact that I won't be producing a sequel to it though. At the moment I stick to what I like to work on, which I think is what people should really follow when making any kind of creative project, not what the market expects.
PL: Thank you for your time!
I hope you all enjoyed the interview – it was definitely the most detail-heavy one so far and I've had some great time working on it. As always, all feedback will be highly appreciated. What more would you want to know about the devs I invite here? Are there any specific ones whose thoughts on certain topics you would like to hear? Let me know what you think and, once again, have a great weekend!

Friday, 13 December 2019

Yuri Game Jam 2019 – Visual Novels Overview (Updated)

The Yuri Game Jam is a yearly event celebrating my favourite romantic setup in visual novels in all configurations imaginable. Each edition attracts both newcomer and experienced developers, flocking to share their work of various sizes and various states of completion, and while it's not a purely VN-oriented event, in practice it was always dominated by those. From the early days of my interest in VNs as a medium, it held a very special place in my heart, spawning both celebrated classics, such as The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns, and dozens of overlooked, but lovely games I’ve mentioned in my past coverage and retrospectives.
                At the same time, like most events, Yuri Game Jam is fairly crowded and full of demos and prototypes that can be interesting only to the most dedicated yuri fanatics – for this reason, I once more took upon myself to search out complete VNs submitted to the event and assess them for all of you, making it easy to find out which games are truly worth your attention. As always, I’ll be skipping the in-development titles in my coverage, also because unfinished projects can very easily stay that way forever in the world of indie VNs. And if a game I’m writing about catches your attention, you can go straight to its page by clicking its title – all Yuri Game Jam entries are free to download.
                Yuri Game Jam 2019 was the smallest YGJ edition to date, with even fewer entries than the first event in 2015 and less than two-thirds of last year’s submissions, a drop from 60 games to just 39. It’s also pretty objectively the weakest one yet, with very few titles standing out and the overall production quality of the games being particularly low. Same applies to the length of the visual novel entries, as none of them was much longer than an hour. This is a sad thing to see, but also made my work a bit easier his year, with 9 complete projects to go through, all of them pretty short and straightforward. The highlights of the event were several sci-fi dramas, with Remeniscience Overwrite interestingly touching on topics of memory and communicational barriers, and Package Chat surprising the reader with its fresh ideas and uncompromising narration. My pick for the best game of the event, however, have to unquestionably go to Crescendo’s CafĂ© Bouvardie, which combined lovely art direction with a unique setting and greatly-written characters, turning out to be the most feature-complete and satisfying experience this time around. I still encourage you to read through the whole list though, as depending on your preferences, there might be more games worth your attention – so, let’s get started!

Npckc is an author of cute, small VNs about being different, and the prejudice and discrimination that comes with standing out from the “normal” society. Spring Leaves No Flowers is the third game of a trilogy focused on Haru, a young transgender woman living in Japan and her two friends, Manani and Erika. The first two entries in the series, One Night, Hot Springs and The Last day of Spring, mostly explored the exclusion and misunderstanding transgender people experience in everyday situations, by the example of a visit to hot springs. The third one switches things a bit, focusing on Manami and her struggle to understand her own feelings, after she discovered that she might also be different in the way she experiences relationships and her attraction to other people...
                Those that are familiar with this author’s work, will know exactly what to expect – Spring Leaves No Flowers is minimalistic, straight-to-the-point and offers a believable glimpse at experiences connected to its subject matter, which this time is being asexual and/or aromantic. It avoids pandering or being overly moralistic, but simply shows typical situations members of sexual minorities find themselves in and different ways of coping with them – both negative and positive ones. If you’re looking to learn a bit about these issues, or they’re already part of your experience and you’re seeking a relatable story in a different cultural context, you should be satisfied with what you find here.

Final Rating: Recommended

If I had to pinpoint a leading theme in this year’s Yuri Game Jam, it would be games with no soundtrack (which is always kind of baffling, considering the amount of quality, royalty-free music available online). A Matter of Dosage is the first among the disturbingly-silent entries, telling the story of Eliza, a young woman who, because of her boyfriend’s indiscretion, becomes trapped as a guinea pig of a powerful medical corporation. As part of experiments that give people superhuman abilities, she has to find a way to regain her freedom and bring down the company that essentially robbed her of her life. And to do that, she has to recruit the help of other test subjects, none of whom really seem that interested in cooperating…
                While this setup sounds pretty cool, everything else about this game… Just isn’t. I could probably look past the fact it’s short, or the not-very-appealing art, but the core writing is consistently weak and full of plotholes, which is much harder to ignore. While I was being bombarded with unusual romantic setups of the characters and the accompanying terminology, the intrigue stayed paper-thin and unconvincing all the way through. The twists were boring, character’s powers barely saw any real use and the conclusion, no matter what route I've chosen, always felt deeply anticlimactic. Some of the game’s core ideas, like the basic characteristics and backstories of the main characters, weren’t bad, but were put together in a way that never proved very enjoyable and never me truly care about what’s happening (also because the protagonist is simply unlikeable). In the end, I simply have no reason to recommend reading this VN – everything it attempted to do it did so mediocrely that there are no high points that’d make it worth your time.

Final Rating: Not Recommended

It’s definitely a bad habit to spoil a game’s story, and visual novel’s story in particular, as it’s usually the main point of the experience. However, I think I’m justified in this specific case. And Nothing Was Wrong is a very short VN about isolating oneself and being crippled by self-doubt – one that starts intriguing, but ends with a strange and disturbing suicide sequence which ultimately felt out of place and pointlessly depressing. While I was confused in the past by this particular author’s strange, borderline-trolling games, this one tackles a topic of transgender person destroying the bonds they build in the past and being crushed by loneliness due to their own insecurity – something that definitely happens in real life and can lead to similarly tragic consequences. Exactly for this reason, it should be handled with the utmost care and careful consideration of its possible consequences, and this game, despite apparently being inspired by author’s own struggles, did a poor job at warning the readers of its content, or properly building up to the drastic turn of events. While its minimalistic presentation and core writing are pretty interesting and solid, approach it only if you’re prepared to read something deeply depressing and strange.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Going back to silent VNs, Reminiscience Overwrite is maybe a particularly sad example of that problem, as everything else about it is very solid and the omission of proper background music hurts the consistently-positive impression I’ve got from it. The game features a (mostly blank-stale) female protagonist who is kidnapped by aliens and gets experimented on with some kind of memory-altering device. While trying to understand what’s going on and find her way out of captivity, she develops a peculiar bond with one of the alien scientists participating in the tests, gradually finding shared emotions and experiences between them – a connection that might prove to be her only chance of salvation.
                While very brief, Reminiscience Overwrite’s story managed to present a few interesting themes and provide a satisfying payoff to its intrigue. Unlike in A Matter of Dosage, pretty much every scene and piece of information in it had meaning for the plot, while the story progression was tied to the slowly-removed language and cultural barrier between the protagonist and her captors. The art direction is also among the strongest ones in this year's YGJ, with an aesthetic and consistent look, even though it's not in any way spectacular. With a bit more content and polish, it could’ve been quite an exceptional VN, but even now it’s fully worth experiencing, particularly if you enjoy the mix of sci-fi and light romance.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

The Start of Something Amazing is the most by-the-numbers love story among the games on this list, featuring two childhood friends who finally recognize their feelings for each other during a sleepover. While it’s not the greatest VN of this type when it goes to art direction, it’s so full of wholesome warmth and chemistry between the heroines that it’s hard to truly dislike it. If I really had to seriously complain about something, it would be that it also fell victim to the no-soundtrack epidemy, openly asking the reader to run their own music in the background. It also, quite predictably, relies a lot on the typical “I can’t be in love with my best friend” clichĂ©s, with the protagonist being confused about things that seem absolutely obvious. In the end, however, it’s all done in a rather charming and enjoyable way. For those looking for traditional yuri wholesomeness, it’s worth giving a try.

Final Rating: Recommended

A Walk With a Cloud is a cute, short VN about Eddie, a birdgirl who can’t fly. While she’s stuck on the ground during the day of a sky festival, alone and sulking, she meets a strange figure – a cloudperson, visiting the world below for the first time. While they explore the local area together, they’ll discover an unlikely connection between them, along with pieces of history the cloudgirl’s family has with Eddie’s town. That is, only if Eddie decides to open up to the visitor and visit some places she’s not fully comfortable with... With the presentation stylized to look a bit like a child’s drawing, the game has a really cute and comforting atmosphere, tackling the fairly-typical Yuri Game Jam themes of being different and self-acceptance in a subtle manner. It’s not particularly groundbreaking in any of it, but just pleasant enough to justify giving an hour of your time to read through it.

Final Rating: Recommended

There’s a pretty popular dating sim template followed by many Yuri Game Jam VNs, one that involves a festival or event of sorts and a short amount of time to choose between a few heroines that could be invited to it, with selectable interactions along the way.  A Latter For You basically took that framework and filled it only with the bare-minimum amount of content to create a comprehensible story. One portrayed in large part through rough sketches that are often genuinely hard to decipher and monster-girl theme the game pretty much does nothing with. While I don’t like to complain about such games, clearly made for fun and usually having its amusing moments, there’s simply not enough of either substance or eye candy in this one to make it worth picking up – while it’s ultimately inoffensive, I still recommend skipping it.

Final Rating: Not Recommended

One of the most interesting games of the jam, despite its technical simplicity and relative lack of polish, Package Chat is a sci-fi story about a girl stuck in a deeply-uncomfortable space journey from the dying Earth to a remote colony. Consciously trapped for months in a life-support pod, with only virtual reality to distract her from the misery of it and little motivation to interact with other people in the ship’s network, she can barely stand her situation. Breaking this depressing tedium, a crew member – one of the small team of people operating the ship and thus not stuck in the containers – starts talking to her… Opening with something that sounds like a very bad pickup line.
                The awkward interactions between the two women give the opportunity to present the background of the perilous journey on an unfinished spaceship, forced by the deteriorating situation on Earth. At the same time, we learn some elements of the girls’ personal backstories. All of this is conveyed in a very crude, naturalistic style that doesn’t shy away from gross details of travelling through space as living cargo, crude comment from the characters... And a lot of swearing. It provides worldbuilding through the protagonist’s obviously-biased and cynical perspective, but offers enough details and original ideas to engross you in the game’s world. As a piece of interactive fiction, with no sprites or elaborate CGs, but just simple backgrounds and music, it’s not the most visually impressive game in this year’s YGJ, to say the least. However, it turned out to be one of the most through-provoking and most satisfying reads among them, and I recommend both checking it out and keeping a closer look at its author – which a debut like this, they might create something really spectacular in the future.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

My favourite game from this year’s Jam is an unusual one, with an imaginative story somewhere on the cross between fantasy and science fiction. It features an unnamed protagonist, a time-travelling agent living in the immortal dimension known as the End of Time. After finishing a mission and solving a time paradox she feels a “pull” – a warning sign indicating her next travel into past or future would likely kill her, which means the end of her career. Unexpectedly, she’s faced with an eternity of retirement in the End of Time, needing to find a new purpose and place for herself after completely devoting herself to her work. Looking for answers, she visits the titular CafĂ© Bouvardie, a place which is said to give respite to agents in her position. There, she meets the two owners of the cafĂ©, Clementine and Lotus, who share their stories with her…
                CafĂ© Bouvardie has a clear theme of finding one’s place in the world, with time travel and the unusual setting being, more or less, devices to ask some very universal questions. This, however, doesn’t mean that background isn’t worth attention – it introduces a lot of interesting questions and ideas, ones which I have a suspicion will be used by the game's authors for other projects. And, honestly, it would be a waste not to do that, because the End of Time provides more or less unlimited possibilities, with its immortal characters from different ages, arcane machinery and the organisation fighting to keep the world’s history undisrupted. The game’s story is also quite enjoyable to follow, with Clementine and Lotus being instantly likeable and the conversation between them and the protagonist leaving a good impression. At times I had a feeling it tried a bit too hard to be profound, but it mostly works as a coming-of-age metaphor, with the quality of writing and presentation being enjoyable enough on their own – even if you don’t fully embrace its message, it shouldn’t spoil the experience for you. Also, the romantic angle is so light that the story is definitely not something directed only to yuri fans – I’m willing to recommend it to pretty much anyone and really, there’s no reason to not give it a chance.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

And this ends my summary of the Yuri Game Jam 2019 – a little underwhelming considering the really great titles I was discovering in its past editions, but still offering some worthwhile VNs to read through. I’m really interested whether this slowdown is a sign of things to come, with generally fewer hobbyist/freeware projects the visual novel scene, or just a one-time anomaly. While we’ll have to wait a while to find out, I’ll be looking forward to the chance to cover future events: make sure to look out for my NaNoRen0 and Yuri game Jam summaries next year. And for now, thank you for reading this one. Have a great weekend everyone!

Post-deadline update

Two full weeks after the end-of-December deadline two games arrived to change the gloomy picture I’ve described above, at least a little bit: the cheesy romance VN by the event veterans Team ANPIM, with a title too long to cite more than once, and my new “winner” of the YGJ 2019 – the stylish and intense short drama story by the name of Double Exposure. So, stay with me a little longer, while I explore what these Jam latecomers have to offer!

Team ANPIM does practically one thing – short, cheesy romance dramas that are purposefully embracing typical yuri tropes, but are also written and put together well enough to be genuinely satisfying – at least if this kind of fluff is your thing. Their newest game, with its light-novel-spoof title, is not any different and despite feeling a bit unpolished, not any less lovely than their previous work. It focuses on Hinata, a closeted lesbian high schooler maintaining a cold, aloof persona to keep people at distance and don’t get found out for her sexual orientation. One day, she slips up by checking out the most popular girl in class during a boring lesson and getting noticed by her. This leads to a somewhat unpredictable chain of events ending with a very predictable, but still charming, romantic resolution. The presentation is a bit stiff, with sprites being stuck in one position and having just a few expressions, while CGs are also very few, but the chemistry between the main girls and fun slice-of-life content are definitely there. Personally, I never get bored of this kind of awkward love stories and f/f kissing scenes, so if you’re like me, this is probably the best treat in Yuri Game Jam 2019.

Final Rating: Recommended

Double Exposure was a major surprise and nearly slipped past my attention due to its really late arrival. At the same time, it’s a game that I’d hate to see overlooked, as it’s simply the best story in this year’s Jam. The protagonist, Selena, is a young and accomplished fashion photographer, who doesn't seem to care about anything outside of her job. Her attitude changes when a mysterious phenomenon from her past reoccurs – after having a session with a talented young model, Lizzie, she sees a mark on one of the photos. The mark, invisible to anyone but Selene, appeared once in the past and turned out to be a premonition of death for that person – a tragedy that traumatized Selene and made her into a career-obsessed recluse she is now. Deeply shocked and unsure on how to approach the situation, she ultimately decides to do everything in her power to not let the history repeat itself, particularly because she quickly starts to care about Lizzie as more than just random person in danger...
                While Double Exposure is short and maybe even a bit rushed in the later portions of the story, there’s a lot to love about it. The mental strain and neurotic reactions of Selene are really well portrayed and while she might come out as unlikeable at first, the game quickly explains why she acts the way she does. Lizzie is nearly a polar opposite of her stiff, overly-professional personality and the interactions between them are really fun. On the other hand, with Selene progressively more on edge, believing Lizzie is in mortal danger without knowing the source of it, the tension gets very intense pretty fast. There’s only one choice in the game, with one option probably leading to a bad ending, but I honestly didn’t have the courage to check what it is, considering how invested I was in the story and how much I didn’t want to see a negative resolution to the plot. The presentation is another strong point, with really nice-looking sprites and consistent visual style – while there’s a near-lack of CGs that could make the story even more impactful, the assets that are there are still solid enough to carry the plot. For me it was a genuine gem among this year’s YGJ submissions – one that I hope won't stay hidden, as it's really worth checking out, and not just as a yuri game, but simply a great short story.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

And with this update, my Yuri Game Jam 2019 coverage is truly over – any game appearing after this kind of forgo any reasonable right to be included. I’m, however, really happy this update happened, showing that there’s still a lot of potential in events like this – hopefully, the next one will prove satisfying without the need to wait for latecomers. Thank you for reading!