While this situation is changing significantly nowadays, as the Western visual novel market is professionalizing both when it goes to development and publishing, in the past EVN scene was primarily a world of extremely short, freeware titles, created by countless enthusiasts as minor passion projects or game jam entries. While these games, often very simple and minimalistic, rarely deliver sufficient material for full reviews, many of them are still worthwhile and artistically pleasing titles that I would like to cover more consistently. For this reason, I’ve prepared this new format on tge blog – mini-reviews, that will provide the basic outlook of the VNs in question and rate them on a simple, three-point scale:
Highly Recommended: for short VNs that provide an exceptional, memorable experience despite their limitations
Recommended: for titles that are enjoyable, but significantly flawed or advisable mostly for people enjoying their specific subgenre/dominant themes they use
Not Recommended: for titles that in my opinion simply fell flat or were misguided to the point they’re most likely not worth your time – a rating I expect very rarely to use, considering the games and authors I’m going to cover
In the next few months, I hope to deliver a few posts in this formula, while I’ll also be redacting the old Yuri Game Jam/Free Yuri EVN lists accordingly. As a starting point, however, I’ll take a look at a developer with maybe the most impressive catalogue of short, free VNs, some of which I’ve already covered in the YGJ series. While The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns and Once on a Windswept Night are most likely ebi-hime’s best-known freeware titles, since late 2014 she has released 8 other free games of varied scale and quality (I am skipping the earliest ones, not listed on her Itch.io page – those were mostly humorous experiments with the VN formula rather than fully-fledged pieces of storytelling).
Recently, ebi announced abandoning freeware projects for good, as they were draining too much of her time and resources – and while it might be a sad thing to hear, it’s both understandable from the viewpoint of any commercial developer and a good opportunity to look back at her extremely generous contributions to the EVN scene. Today, I’ll cover the first four games from the eight mentioned before, in the chronological order, starting with Dejection: An Ode, released on November 2014 and ending with Round the Mulberry Bush from the mid-2016. Two weeks from now I will complete this list, starting with Where the Sun Always Shines and ending with the 2018 April Fool’s VN Learning in Love!. I hope you’ll be willing to accompany me on this little journey and enjoy reading my reviews!
Taking its title from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, this VN is a direct predecessor to Asphyxia, taking the same themes of gender-bent, romantic-era English poets, depression, substance abuse and unrequited love. Samantha, female version of Coleridge is placed here as the protagonist, suffering due to an unhealthy obsession with her best friend and fellow poet Lillian (William Wordsworth) and constantly struggling with what we can assume is a bipolar disorder – episodes of extreme agitation and inspiration, followed by extreme depression and inability to work. Her struggle is shown through minimalistic visuals, with just basic-looking sprites and a few backgrounds, but the dynamic and stylized prose makes it a very enjoyable and convincing read. The abrupt, inconclusive ending might feel slightly disappointing, but the story makes it clear that any proper resolution of the plot would be even sadder and harder to accept. While it’s definitely a simple and minimalistic game, visibly from the very early period of ebi’s activity as a developer, it’s still very much a worthwhile read, especially for the fans of her characteristic style of writing and storytelling.
Final rating: Highly Recommended
While Dejection was a historical drama, Is This The Life? explores similar themes in a modern setting, following the story of Luis, a French teenager trying to cope with the death of his mother. The plot is centred around his harsh, sometimes violent rebelling against the world that deprived him of the person closest to him, and his inability to cope with this new situation. The already rather disastrous setup is made even worse by an unrequited crush towards his young, attractive math teacher – all of this presented in the same, minimalistic visual style known from the previous title and simpler, context-appropriate prose.
Unlike Dejection, which I, for the most part, liked a lot despite its depressing themes, this game left me with highly mixed feelings. While the trauma Luis goes through and the way he pushes away people trying to help him are understandable and to a large extent not really his fault, the continuous deterioration of his family relations and the few social bonds he has outside of it don’t really make for a pleasant read. The ending it all leads to mostly left me tired and frustrated and while I can’t blame it on the quality of the writing or the characters (it’s as hard to go through as it is exactly because they’re believable and consistent), it’s also not an experience I would like to go through again or blindly recommend to others. It is a good VN, but might be worth reading only if you’re ready for its genuinely-depressing tone or are looking specifically for the themes of loss and unresolved grief.
The third freeware game by ebi, released in March 2016, brought both an improvement in the visual quality (with much better-looking sprites and some very-much-welcome visual effects) and a change in tone. Its story follows Nanako, a lesbian college freshmen going on a rather absurd journey – one to meet the erotic model who was her first crush and the factor that made her realize for the first time that she’s gay, and whose area of residence she found out by sheer accident many years later.
Also featuring Nanako’s cross-dressing gay friend, Ryo, Lucky Me, Lucky You is very heavy on LGBT+ themes, but approaches them without any kind of moralist fervour. Nanako’s slightly obnoxious personality, the vulgar language she uses (maybe more vulgar than the Japanese language would actually make possible) and flashy way of dressing above anything else makes her feel like a genuine, flawed person whose problems and anxieties, while often connected to her sexual orientation in some ways, are in their core universal and relatable. Same goes for Ryo, whose eccentricities, while in plain view, are not really his defining features, as we learn quite a lot about his personality and his friendship with Nanako. While the two VNs described above were somewhat alienating with their depressing themes and rather hopeless conclusions, Lucky Me, Lucky You tells a very humane, original story that simply makes you enjoy the characters and even while they might anger you at times, cheer for them in their struggles. For this, I consider it a thoroughly positive and worthwhile experience.
Final rating: Highly Recommended
If you thought that through the bittersweet Lucky Me, Lucky You we’ve escaped the world of angst and tragedy, Round the Mulberry Bush comes to prove you wrong in a manner that probably deserves a proper trigger warning. While the story of a stableboy becoming a friend and hopelessly falling in love with a young daughter of a wealthy noble clearly foreshadows the sad ending since its opening moments, the extreme character of the conclusion it proposes is something I didn’t really expect (andcsomething that I probably wished I was warned about beforehand). My personal complaints aside, this VN, with a plot spanning over 8 summers and 8 meetings between the protagonist and his ever-slipping-away love interest under a mulberry tree, proves ebi’s talent as a writer and willingness to explore darker aspects of human nature in all their nasty, gory reality. However, as I’ve found this one particularly painful, I hesitate to recommend it unless you’re really sure you can handle its soul-crushing plot developments. There’s no denying though that it is a solid piece of writing, interestingly stylized and bold in its storytelling. So, if you’re willing to excuse me, I’ll just go to a corner and cry some more...
Final rating: Recommended
To be absolutely honest, while I knew that ebi-hime is not scared of some heavy themes and borderline-macabre plot developments, going through her early work was tougher then I expected. Not because I could ever complain about the actual quality of what I was reading, but exactly because everything in her VNs was convincing and engaging – everything worked splendidly to make the dark narrative choices particularly heartwrenching. Apart from the sole exception of Lucky Me, Lucky You, I’m both impressed by what I’ve experienced and borderline disturbed by the intensity of the negative emotions filling those stories. While I usually treat my VNs as a form of escapism, these ones are the exact opposite of that – they’re brutal confrontations with harsh realities of human life and the extreme suffering it can bring to people. An interesting, in a way compelling experience, but one you have to approach with extreme caution.
Still, it's hard to find more interesting material to review than this kind of stories and I hope you've enjoyed my little overview of ebi's early work. In two weeks, we’ll be continuing our journey, hoping there’s some kind of light in this world of endless suffering (spoiler: there is. Kind of…). ;)