Saturday, 13 February 2021

The short post-mortem of EVN Chronicles + new content on Fuwanovel

EVN Chronicles is in many ways a huge source of pride for me – a project that I was able to keep running for more than two years, producing an impressive library of content. I've learned a lot about VNs and about writing while working on it, trading the early passion for talking about the medium I've then recently fell in love with for decent amounts of knowledge and somewhat-justified confidence in my work. While my burnout effectively put a stop to me using that in any meaningful way for many months, I never doubted that my hiatus for writing won't be permanent, even if the hiatus of the blog itself is.

So, this is enough rambling, I'll get to the point. Staying in this weird position of ex-blogger that doesn't do anything useful wasn't exactly inspiring or comfortable, so I want to close this chapter officially. EVN Chronicles as a project is over. I will continue the Steam Curator, as it is something I just organically do while reading VNs on Steam, but other than that, the blog won't receive any new updates.

That doesn't mean I gave up on writing. From now on, any projects and reviews that I find interesting enough to work on will find their way to the Fuwanovel frontpage. The newest piece of content I've published there is an interview with one of my favourite upstart VN devs, PunishedHag, but I hope to throw game jam coverage and an occasional review to the mix. It won't be very frequent, but I want every post I put there to feel worthwhile. Fuwa is a very dear place to me and at this point, I feel it's way more meaningful to apply myself there than to struggle to keep this personal project alive. I'll post about everything I post there on Twitter, so if you want to know about my future projects, please consider following me there. 

Once more, thank you all for following this blog and, hopefully, see you on Fuwanovel!

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Thank you all for coming along for this ride! (Indefinite Hiatus)

Hey there all!

I will start with saying  that I really treasure my time spent writing this blog and interacting with various people involved in the EVN community. You guys were awesome company in this journey and despite the obscurity of this project, I feel like it benefited me personally in many ways and maybe even helped people appreciate the value within the non-JP visual novel scene. I'm really thankful to all the people that read my blog, the devs that offered me their time and gave me their games for review – they all made these 2+ years into something special.

When I started this project, there were two main things that motivated me. The first one was the frustration over dismissal of EVNs which is still common sense in the large parts of the VN fan community – belittling of the very games that made me fall in love with the visual novel formula. I wanted to create a space that is fully dedicated to discussion and promotion of EVNs as worthwhile and significant part of the genre. The second part was even more personal – my personal struggles with video game addiction and other issues, my ambition to shift my focus into a more challenging and creative activity. In many ways, I consider both my goals relative successes. While slowly, the perception of EVNs is changing and the scene evolving in interesting ways – while it shares pretty much all the suffering of other indie niches, with PC gaming in general being oversaturated and hard to navigate, I feel that it at least established itself as a significant formula that is attractive for story-oriented devs and appreciated by a significant audience. In other words, EVNs are here to stay and in time fewer and fewer people will be able to easily dismiss them as poor imitations of Japanese games. Whether my work had any impact in this regard? Apart from a bunch of people on Fuwanovel that I know I influenced in personal interactions, I honestly have no idea. I want to think there was some minor impact, but I had enough fun in the process and learned enough that I don't mind either way. I did my best and changed a few things about myself, which was the most important part for me.

Of course, I'm in no way saying that I'm putting the blog on hiatus because my job here is done. The real reason is much more prosaic – I just can't keep up with it. The last month was particularly devastating in this regard, with very little time for me to either read or write. And while an obvious answer would be to just work at my own pace and publish stuff whenever I'm able to, it's not really something that would work out for me. Missing deadlines, thinking about future projects, it all became a source of stress rather than a source of fun, and I feel it would only get worse with time. While I really wanted to keep the project alive, I don't want to do so at any cost. I feel burned out. I barely read VNs for fun. I don't watch anime for a few months now. I need a change of pace and ability to rediscover my love for these hobbies. The blog, sadly, became a prime obstacle in this.

So, what's going to happen now? The blog will cease to get updates, unless something special happens. I might still do game jam summaries, as those are something I massively enjoy. I might also publish something on Fuwanovel from time to time – I'm theoretically still an editor there. The one part of the project that's definitely here to stay is the Steam Curator account. The devs that sent me their games deserve to at least get a Steam review and, generally, an evaluation of their work. I will also use my Twitter to publish updates about new games listed on the Curator account. The Steam reviews themselves will likely be a bit more polished – not that much though, I don't want to jump straight into the same burnout-inducing rabbit hole.

So, once more, thank you for sticking around and I hope my project gave you some amusement. And, of course, see you around – I'm not giving up on EVNs and the community around them any time soon. :)

Saturday, 12 September 2020

The Fairy's Song Review (Yuri Visual Novel)

The last time we talked about a “modern fairy tale” VN with a yuri spin to it, it was a very special one – Studio Elan’s Heart of the Woods, which I confidently gave my first and, so far, only 5/5 rating. The way it mixed relatable, modern characters with an emotional fantastical plot resulted in an experience in many ways unmatched within the EVN scene. It also showed the huge potential of this formula, handling the clash between mundane and supernatural in a different way than typical fantasy or horror stories. Today we’ll be looking at a game that took similar themes and utilized them a more low-key, light-hearted way – ebi hime’s newest yuri VN, The Fairy’s Song.

                Released on Steam and early August 2020, this project is a slight departure from ebi’s usual, angst-filled storytelling, focusing more on cute romance and comedy. Fairly similar in tone to 2016’s Strawberry Vinegar, which also combined modern-day slice of life story and supernatural elements, it plays on classic themes of knights, monsters, magic and sleeping beauties, but puts them in a configuration that gives the whole setup a very different meaning… Which doesn’t necessarily mean The Fairy’s Song manages to offer many surprises or that it feels particularly fresh in how it utilizes those tropes and story elements. But why is that exactly, and is it really a bad thing?

But have they really…? There is certain sloppiness to The Fairy’s Song's lore and the overarching fantasy plot, but thankfully it can’t overshadow the charm of the characters and the yuri romance

The Fairy’s Song's protagonist is Marnie, a goth teenager who tries to make up for her small stature and naturally cute looks with dark clothes and a (slightly) mean attitude. We meet her when she’s being dropped to her grandmother’s house in a small, remote village, quite unhappy with the time she’ll have to spend there while her parents travel abroad. Her grumpiness is only strengthened by the fact her grandmother, struggling after the death of her husband a year earlier, is a shadow of her former self – not just frail and weighted by her loss, but also disturbing her family with frequent talk of fairies and other magical phenomena supposedly present in the surrounding forests. However, what was meant to be a boring and depressing stay is turned on its head when Marnie ignores her grandmother’s warnings and walks deep into the forest. There, she is confronted with several inexplicable events, but most importantly, she discovers an unconscious girl dressed like a knight – Leofe, who apparently spent centuries sleeping in the enchanted grove and is now determined to repay Marnie for waking her up.

                The story from this point is slightly messy and strangely-paced but also has quite a lot of charm. The fantasy subplot suffers from a few inconsistencies (like Leofe claiming her magic comes from the forest’s fairies and later describing them as untrustworthy and hostile to humans) and rather predictable mystery elements. Its interplay with the slice-of-life moments also leave a little bit to be desired – the premise would make you expect the main couple spending quite a lot of time in the enchanted forest encountering various magical phenomena, but those moments were few and far between and felt a bit disjointed from the mundane drama. This mild sloppiness and lack of dedication to the theme felt uncharacteristic for ebi’s writing, but thankfully the story worked much better in the most crucial departments: the characters and the relationship between Marnie and Leofe.

…also, at no point fairies show up on screen and there’s no trace of the titular fairy songs, but there’s enough fay magic and enchanted woods in the story that you’re unlikely to feel cheated

Marnie represents the angsty teenager archetype that can easily become irritating, but she is actually a nicely balanced character, with enough self-awareness and compassion to never become off-putting. Her fierce attitude also makes her adapt pretty quickly even in extreme circumstances, which comes in handy a few times when she encounters supernatural dangers. She does not change much during the story, her attitude softening rather in response to specific circumstances than due to some internal epiphany, but she’s compelling enough as a character for that not to be a problem. Leofe, even outside of a few secrets and plot twists she’s involved in, is an interesting character that only over time I fully appreciated. Her over-the-top, knightly persona and constantly-declared devotion to Marnie might feel absurd at first, but the role of that facade becomes more understandable later on. Stranded in an unfamiliar world, one in which she has no place to call her own, falling back to her ambition of being a knight is a defence mechanism that she initially relies on to keep on going. As her relationship with Marnie deepens, we can see her attitude and mannerisms becoming more natural – this aspect of both girls gradually lowering their defences and becoming honest with each other is one of the most compelling aspects of the whole VN. A lot of good can also be said about the supporting cast, particularly Marnie’s family. Her parents have fun personality quirks that make them believable and fairly defined despite their limited screentime. Her grandmother is a little bit more one-note (same can be said to characters connected to Leofe/the enchanted forest), but full of warmth and she supports Marnie in crucial moments of the story, which makes her plenty likeable.

                Then, there’s the yuri relationship itself, which includes choices that may or may not be to your taste. While the game is fully kinetic and ends on a very positive note, it doesn’t go very far in developing the love story, as the girls end up still slightly uncertain about their feelings and what their future will look like. There’s also no epilogue that shows them being together, which is a bit of a wasted opportunity in a story that is in large part about finding a place for oneself in an alien world. Just a little glimpse to how Leofe was going to adapt would be very satisfying. Overall, there are enough cute moments and kisses to satisfy most yuri fans, but I hoped for something a bit more conclusive. The game also mostly avoids explicit LGBT themes – while Leofe’s past as a girl going against social norms and striving to become a knight has a clear feminist/empowerment angle to it, neither hers nor Marnie’s attraction to women is ever elaborated upon. While I know some readers prefer things to be this way, for me at least acknowledging the issue makes the story more immersive, so I wish the game was at least a little bit less vague.

In a major way, The Fairy’s Song is also a tale of waking up in an unfamiliar world and trying to find a place for oneself – with all the troubling and ultimately-heartwarming implications

The game’s visuals are kept relatively close to standard anime art and they are overall very cute and colourful, setting an appropriately light tone. The level of detail didn’t amaze me at any point, but the character art, backgrounds and UI are all nicely stylized and fit together very well, creating an overall very pleasing effect. Music caught my interests a bit more, as it mixed typical slice-of-life VN ambient tunes with more dynamic ones reminiscent of JRPG soundtracks. The switches in style complemented the transitions between more mundane and more adventure-filled segments of the story – a choice that felt well thought out and deliberate, which is not necessarily true with most EVN soundtracks. Generally, the VN left nothing to complain about from the technical standpoint, a few typos scattered throughout the story being the biggest issue I can think of – and even those were relatively few and far between.

                So, do I recommend buying and reading The Fairy's Song? Generally speaking, yes, but it's also not an offering that will completely satisfy fans of ebi's usual storytelling, or those seeking for a cohesive and engaging plot. With how casual the flow of this VN was and with some of the quirks in its art reminding me of Winged Cloud's Inma Ruiz's work, I sometimes couldn't suppress the feeling like I'm reading clean, better written fragments of a Sakura game. Personally, I'm all for that kind of low-brow fun, as I can easily get past some messy plotlines and enjoy cheesy romantic moments, but you need to adjust your expectations properly to not feel at least a bit disappointed approaching such a game. The Fairy's Song will occasionally ask you to embrace its silliness and go along with a few overly-convenient plotpoints, but if you're able to do that much and if you enjoy cute yuri romance, you'll have tons of fun with it.

Final Rating: 3,5/5


+ Fun main couple with good chemistry

+ Lovely visuals

+ Good soundtrack



– Mild inconsistencies in the game’s writing

– Very standard plot that adds nothing fresh to the formula


Buy The Fairy’s Song on Steam or

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Synergia Review (Yuri Visual Novel)

Have you seen Blade Runner 2049? The cyberpunk epic that charms the viewer with its climate and polished visuals, but is probably a bit too convoluted for its own good and offers relatively little payoff for its massive, multi-layered plot? Now, imagine watching that movie without the context of original Blade Runner and accompanying shorts, all offering crucial pieces of worldbuilding and linking the main entries in the franchise together. How much meaning the sequel would lose and how hard to follow some of its subplots would be?

                This “Blade Runner 2049 without context” metaphor is the best way to explain my feelings about Synergia, the long-anticipated cyberpunk EVN by Radi Art. First announced in mid-2017, the project gathered a lot of attention with its well-defined, gloomy aesthetic and an appealing story outline. After that, it went through a number of hiatuses, with the creator behind it often going silent for long months and many assuming the project was dead. In mid-2019, however, the full development of the game was resumed and after a successful Kickstarter campaign (and another series of delays), we finally received a finished product in August 2020 – one that, in my opinion, proved way less mystery-filled and more flawed than the promotional materials made us hope for. But why is that exactly and to is this game actually bad, or just not living up to the hype?

The few characters central to the Synergia’s plot showed great promise, however, most of them remained relatively unexplored and their stories left without closure

Synergia tells the story of Cila, a police operative and negotiator specialized in dealing with androids, living on a far-future, desert-covered colony planet. Serving as a private contractor to the oppressive imperial government, the dominant polity of the unnamed world, she’s depressed and demotivated, barely managing to fulfil her duties despite being highly-trained and skilful in dealing with both AI and augmented humans. Soon after the game's start, however, her apathetic routine is broken when her best friend Yoko, a shady android merchant and gang leader, gifts her a replacement to her recently-defunct companion android. The new robot, Mara, seems incredibly advanced and human-like – arguably more human than the repressed and corrupt population of the imperial capital – and astonished Cila with her unpredictable and independent behaviour. Soon her unclear origins and level of intelligence, suggesting the use of illegal forms of AI, become signs of trouble, which Cila is unsure how to deal with. However, even she does not expect the real depth of the conspiracy and the significance the android might have to the future of her country (and, possibly, the whole colony).

                While this setup sounds both fairly typical for cyberpunk fiction and decently complex, the way the VN approaches exploring its story is pretty unique and depending on your interpretation can be considered either minimalistic or plain lacklustre. With just a bunch of characters dominating the plot, extremely limited use of exposition and very few opportunities to explore the setting in any significant fashion, we get a core story that is largely suspended in a narrative void. Crucial elements of the plot like Cila’s past traumas and broken career within imperial special forces are very shallowly explored, while other central characters, like Yoko, barely get any development at all. I’m all for subtle storytelling and natural presentation of background information, but Synergia just gives the reader way too little to work with. The way the world is presented is even more cryptic, with some contextual information present (like web articles and messages occasionally showing up when you use computer interfaces), but not enough to get a cohesive sense of the setting. The Empire in particular, while its presence is talked about a lot in the game, is never showed much or interacted with in a manner that would justify its menacing reputation. This might be less of a problem to some readers, but for me exploring interesting visions of the future is a huge part of the appeal of cyberpunk as a genre and Synergia underdelivers heavily in this regard.

The game’s red and blue-tinted, neon aesthetic was one of its major draws and the final art do not disappoint – that is unless you find the heavily-skewed color pallet jarring

Then there’s the pacing and overarching intrigue related to Mara which are not bad, but also not spectacular. The game is relatively lacking when it goes to tension and sense of danger. Fights or confrontations are few and far between and Cila is barely ever put in real danger, which is kind of out-of-place considering her perilous line of work and the powers she’s working against in the latter half of the story. There’s also a very real lack of story development around the midpoint of the plot, before the game branches out to “good” and “bad” route (the difference in tone between them is not as huge as those labels would suggest, with “bad” ending being more of a “neutral” one). Particularly, this is the portion when the romance between Mara and Cila should be given time to grow and gain meaning, but that’s simply impossible within the brief segment between the main intrigue being established and the final act kicking in. This makes even the yuri aspect of the game feel underdeveloped – also because we learn very little about the “mechanophilia” incident from Cila’s past, one that could give more depth to her character, her feeling for Mara and even the overall setting, as her tragic "love affair" with an adroid had serious repercussions for the whole Empire.

                The resolution of the mystery plot, involving Mara’s origins and the significance of her existence, was quite imaginative, but some parts of it were also pretty contrived and unconvincing. Synergia’s promotional materials were giving a vibe of outlandish conspiracies and, possibly, deeper transhumanist themes, while the game itself was trying to build tension with a mysterious countdown to the “Synergia incident”. The real resolution of the plot was hardly that spectacular and Cila’s role in it somewhat irrelevant – whenever she has significance for the overarching story, it’s because of what other characters want from her or because of something she did in the past (and the game never shows those events, just briefly references them). While her initial apathy is explained in the plot, she’s the kind of protagonist I really don’t like in VNs – it’s fine for MC’s influence and agency to be realistically limited, but here they’re not only being tagged along by greater powers, their most interesting moments are also delegated to the vague backstory. This doesn’t make Cila a bad or unappealing character, but a poorly-utilized one – exactly because she’s a genuine badass that should get more than two or three scenes taking lead.

The game’s red and blue-tinted, neon aesthetic was one of its major draws and the final art do not disappoint – that is unless you find the heavily-skewed color pallet jarring

From this you could probably get the feeling that I disliked Synergia or that it’s an overall poor experience, but that’s not the case. The major elements boosting its enjoyment factor are definitely the art and music. Visuals are highly-stylized, with a dark and distinct colour pallet that boosts the gloomy and oppressive feeling of the setting. While sprites and CGs are relatively simple when it goes to the level of details, they look appealing and very in-line with the cyberpunk formula. The soundtrack is exactly the kind of electronic ambience music you would hope for in a game like this and I enjoyed it a lot. At the same time, it always stayed comfortably in the background, without even threatening to distract me from the reading (which is exactly how I like things to work). Before I conclude the review, however, I also have to mention another important problem of Synergia: the English script is weighted down by spelling mistakes and occasional awkward phrasing. These issues weren’t massive, but visible enough even for a non-native speaker such as me, so take them into consideration.

                So, what’s my ultimate take on Synergia? Despite all the complaining I did, the issues I write about were not something that could ruin my experience, but rather areas where I saw clear wasted potential. The game tried to tell a complex story but did not take the time (it's 6-7 hours of content) and attention to detail necessary to fully immerse the reader. I could much more easily look past the main intrigue not blowing me away if the game’s world and main characters felt alive and decently fleshed out, but they always fell short of that threshold. The result is a game that is fun enough to follow for fans of the genre, but one that never manages to rise above purely average levels. Maybe the free story DLC promised by the author will do something to give the experience some real depth, but for now, I can only recommend Synergia to people who’re particularly fond of the cyberpunk aesthetic and themes – while it hardly adds something new to the formula, it’s a decent enough iteration of it, especially on the relatively-barren landscape of cyberpunk VNs. And if the author decides to expand this universe, it can still hold a lot of promise – the foundation is solid, it just needs a lot more substance on top of it to truly shine.

Final Rating: 2,5/5


+ Great cyberpunk aesthetic

+ Climatic soundtrack



– Weak worldbuilding

– Underdeveloped/underexplored characters

– Average-at-best main intrigue and mysteries


Buy Synergia on Steam or

Saturday, 8 August 2020

Stellaren II Review (English Original Visual Novel)


Stellaren, released exclusively to mobile devices in 2017 was an important game in my engagement with VNs. A dark sci-fi adventure with a captivating setting and a tense, at times brutal story stood out significantly from most other visual novels available for smartphones and I think to this day is one of the best dedicated Android/iOS games of its kind [you can find my detailed review of it here]. It also cemented my love for VNs as a storytelling formula and while some of that infatuation was definitely connected to me being a fairly inexperienced reader, many elements of Stellaren’s worldbuilding and character development are genuinely bold and interesting – and to the point where I wasn't even bothered by its rough edges and clunky gameplay elements.

                Because of all this, it is an understatement to say I was excited to hear about the release of Stellaren II July this year, coming out not only for mobile devices but also on Steam. Promising heavily updated visuals, a set of better-polished gameplay elements and a substantial, conclusive story (its predecessors had a tendency to end on cliffhangers), it seemed like a massive treat for someone like myself, already in love with this universe. What I found was both different and more complex than I expected – but did it capture the charm and stomach-gripping qualities of the original?

Stellaren II minigames are a massive step up in quality over the first game, and mostly skippable if they turn out not to your taste

Stellaren series is set in far future, where humanity is a space-faring civilisation mostly united under the Neo Galactic Conglomerate – an Earth-based government that manages numerous colonies with an authoritarian and exploitative approach, treating its inhabitants like second-class citizens. A few centuries back this injustice led to a civil war, ultimately won by Earth, while the breakaway faction, the Colonial Rebel Forces, established a ragtag domain composed of most remote human colonies. Over this background, the original game tells the story of M., a junk merchant scraping by on an impoverished planet by scamming NGC pilots. A sequence of unpredictable events gets him trapped on an NGC warship and involved in what would soon become a massive galactic conflict, with the stakes being the survival of mankind as a whole. I don’t want to go any deeper into the lore of the games, as I strongly recommend checking out the first Stellaren – something not necessary to enjoy the sequel (it recounts the most important plot points and most of the crucial lore), but worthwhile by the original game’s own merit.

                Stellaren II is set in the aftermath of the aforementioned conflict, on a remote and relatively isolated mining colony of Horus. It follows a blank-slate protagonist whose neural implants were hacked, forcing him to take part in a brutal rampage in the colony’s starport and wiping out all his memories. With few clues on his identity and past, he ends up working with two detectives investigating the murders: Lana and Rene, private contractors for the Weber Corporation, a powerful conglomerate that is the de-facto ruling power of the colony. Similarly to M’s story, during the 10+ hours experience this initial intrigue gradually escalates to galaxy-altering proportions, eventually linking with the plot of the prequels and giving conclusion to the overarching storyline of the series.

                All that being said, here comes my first issue with Stellaren II – while it works heavily to be a worthy conclusion for the main story of the whole saga, its most enjoyable moments are still connected to the initial 2/5 of the experience, happening on Horus. The two heroines that define this portion, aforementioned Lana and Rene, are interesting and well-developed, and after the game moves to space to pursue its grand narrative, they mostly move to the background, while other characters become the focus – particularly Len, the mysterious ex-NCG operative who appears in the colony following her own agenda and forms an alliance of convenience with the protagonist and his companions. At this point, the game also opens up with a space-travelling interface and several interesting locales, but in my opinion it never manages to recapture the good pacing and emotional impact of the initial chapters.

Who the protagonist is to one of the heroines… While the general tone of the story is dark and often brutal, the game offers enough humour and colourful personalities to never feel overly depressing

The next problem of Stellaren II is the sheer complexity of its story, combined with an unusual structure of the experience (at least partially connected to it being a Unity game, rather than one using a dedicated VN engine). With saving only possible at the beginning of every (often substantial) scene, a massive number of choices and an extensive affection system tracking your relationship with over 10 characters, it’s easy to get lost in all the options available to you. What makes it even worse is that the actual goals and consequences for affection building are obscured and nearly impossible to get right on your first playthrough. Often one slip-up can cost you the life of your preferred heroine and deprive you of the ending you wanted, with little to no indication on what you did wrong, or whether an alternative outcome was even possible (there are only two endings currently implemented, but more are being developed). In practice, you’ll likely have to finish the game once getting a default (Len’s) ending and then study the game’s wiki to get any other result – a problem not unheard of in VNs, but hardly an optimal situation.

                All those issues, however, can’t nullify the main strength of the game, that is its writing and worldbuilding. The post-war galaxy it presents is a brutal and chaotic place, with suffering and death ever-present. More importantly, Stellaren II is not afraid to make even its most important characters vulnerable and always handles their (either potential or inevitable) demise in meaningful ways. Every tragedy visibly impacts the protagonist and those around him, but at the same time they cannot give up on their mission, with stakes only rising as the time goes on. The occasional game over screens add to the feeling of vulnerability – the protagonist and his allies are routinely confronted with enemies they have very limited means of fighting against and the game makes it explicit that every bad move might be their last. At the same time, this dark picture is being offset by cleverly-written character interactions and humour, showing that the cast is making the best of their circumstances and adapt to the harshness of their world. Even in my initial playthrough, when I failed to avoid any of the “optional” character deaths, the ultimate message of the story felt hopeful rather than depressing.

                Two areas of the game’s story I found fairly weak are the protagonist and the villains. The lead character is explicitly a blank slate and while we later learn a few things about his past, he does not have the backstory and compelling character arc of M. from the first game. It’s even something of a recurring joke that characters question the reasons for him being included in some events and his connection to the heroines, even though he eventually proves himself as a valuable member of the team. The one positive is that he’s not a harem protagonist who wins every girl’s heart for no reason – the romantic tension in the game is very low-key and mostly shows up if you really push for it with your choices. The antagonists, while properly menacing, lack depth. The main threat throughout the story, a homicidal clone called X2, is simply pure evil, murdering and torturing people without remorse and with somewhat unclear motivations. What’s worse, this is in stark contrast with the character she was created from, the rebel commander X. who served as the initial antagonist of the original Stellaren – someone who might’ve, at first, seemed like a sadistic monster, but showed a lot of nuance and conviction later down the line. The pirate lord Roto, on whom the mid-section of the game is focused, is hardly better, for the most part just feeling cartoonishly vile. Even the broader antagonistic factions, like the Horus' terrorist group called the Butchers could've easily been more compelling, instead of just serving as cannon fodder for battle minigames – particularly because the Weber Corporation they fight against is hardly a benevolent, moral institution.

Their returning characters and conclusion to the Stellaren’s overarching story should satisfy fans of the series, although the initial chapters on the planet Horus are still the best parts of the sequel... And yeah, we still don't know what those one-letter names are about

Minigames were always a crucial part of the Stellaren experience, particularly with space battles thematically integrated into story segments. Outside of the starfighter sections (this time in the form of a shoot 'em up), the sequel includes tactical ground battles and a real-time infiltration minigame. When it comes to the level of polish they definitely go above the clunky dogfighting from the original, but are still fairly simple. They are also, outside of the infiltrations, fully skippable, making the experience of replaying the game for alternative story paths, or simply for those only interested in the VN content, less painful than it could've otherwise been. At the same time, the one unskippable minigame still gets in the way on new playthroughs, while the ground battles felt very dull to me, with stiff mechanics and snail-paced combat. Even the power-ups bought with credits awarded for winning encounters are simply passive bonuses, offering little in terms of customisation and giving a weak sense of progression. Generally, the minigames were neither a negative nor a major positive in my experience, but I also generally prefer my VNs keeping their focus on the story. One other mechanic worth mentioning is timed choices, showing up in more dramatic portions of the story and often associated with game-overs. My feelings are often mixed on such gimmicks, but here they never overstayed their welcome or became frustrating with their difficulty, while also conveying pretty well the dynamism of some scenes.

                When it goes to the visuals, the game is a major step up in comparison to its prequel, with detailed sprites (including some poses and clothing variants) and a good number of dedicated illustrations, both full CGs and simpler lineart spicing up the crucial moments of the story. Backgrounds are still a mix of 2D art and edited photos, but their quality and tone feels a lot more consistent than in the first game – the original Stellaren took many shortcuts which were possible to ignore when playing on a smartphone, but the sequel avoids such jarring dips in quality or mismatched assets, giving a solid impression even on a large PC monitor. The soundtrack, while mostly composed of stock music, is very consistent with dark sci-fi theme and generally supports the tone of the story very well.

                So, what is my conclusion on Stellaren II? Among mobile-oriented VNs it's still among the best things available, with a compelling story, good production quality and none of the exploitative business model you usually find on smartphone apps (and mobile VNs, curiously enough, are often among the most despicable examples of unethical monetisation and bastardisation of the source formula into a money extortion scheme, with things like CGs, choices or even progressing the story being routinely paywalled). Particularly for fans of the dark sci-fi stories it should be a treat on whatever platform they choose to play it (at least when the paid "pro" version hits the mobile stores – the free one include adds and doens't let you skip combat). On the other hand, some of the elements that made me fall in love with the original Stellaren, like the moral ambiguity of major factions, compelling growth for the protagonist and surprising character development are less present this time around. As a result, the game was both more and less than I hoped for. Despite that, I feel no hesitation to recommend this series to anyone who isn't allergic to gameplay elements and various quirks typical for VNs created in not-dedicated game engines (i.e. missing options and quality of life features). Particularly for the low price of $4, it's a great value proposition and if any of the themes and storytelling techniques I've described in my review appeal to you, you should consider giving Stellaren II a chance. Hopefully, we'll get more smartphone VNs of this quality in the future.

Final Rating: 3,5/5


+ Interesting, dark sci-fi setting

+ Well-paced, tense main story

+ Large cast of memorable characters



– Fairly weak minigames

– Confusing affection system

– Weak antagonists


Buy Stellaren II on Steam or play it on Android and iOS