Today, we’ll be continuing our agon… I mean, out adventure through the world of free VNs by ebi-hime (check out the first part here if you missed it!). While the earliest games we’ve covered, like Dejection and Is This the Life? were very visibly ebi’s early works, simple on the technical side of things and featuring minimalistic artwork, today we’re jumping straight into very recent projects, all released not earlier than 2017. Mostly staying true to the general climate of heavy, existential topics and endings that are never the typical happy, wish-fulfilment scenarios, these games are once more not far detached from ebi’s commercial projects and while smaller, could easily have a modest price tag attached to them, with few people being able to claim they didn’t get their money’s worth (especially in the cases of Lynne and Six Days of Snow). But what are they exactly about?
Where the Sun Always Shines is another bittersweet story, although in a wholly different climate than Lucky Me, Lucky You. Featuring a 32-years old writer, suffering from a deep depression after losing his wife, and a teenage girl from his neighbourhood with whom he forms an unlikely friendship with, the game explores themes of grief, inspiration and moving on after losing one’s feeling of purpose, but is also maybe the only title on this list that provides a truly positive, hopeful conclusion. Before it gets to that point, however, it presents to the reader some rather convincing descriptions of writer’s block, anxiety and self-pity of the leading character, along with interesting interaction with Sunny, the aforementioned teenager, who first visits him out of pity, but then forms a bond of sorts over their mutual interest in musical – all that accompanied by very decent artwork. In a way though, it’s possibly the least impactful of the ebi’s stories, being overall solid and enjoyable to read, but lacking any interesting twists or highly emotional moments from the previous games. Definitely a worthwhile VN, but not necessarily a must-read.
Lynne, on the other hand, is probably one of the most impactful and original VNs by ebi and, without exaggeration, one of the best horror stories I’ve seen in the format. Rather than relying on jump scares or supernatural elements, it goes deep into the psychological suffering of a teenage girl, Lynn, being crushed by her difficult family situation and the pressure for the academic success she doesn’t feel capable of. The highly-disturbing dream sequences, protagonist’s disastrously-low self-esteem and her growing obsession with Lynne – a girl from her school, similar to her both physically and in name, but born to much more fortunate circumstances – all make for a deeply emotional, unsettling story, that made me uneasy like few other visual novels ever could. The well-stylized, pixel-art visuals and great use of sound (both music and effects, kicking in during the tensest parts of the game) do a great job of enhancing the already suffocating climate and highlighting the game's main theme of stress. With a really dark ending on top of that, this title left me genuinely devastated, but I couldn’t in any way deny its merits. It’s something every fan of EVNs should read – but only if they’re sure they can handle it.
Final rating: Highly Recommended
While many ebi-hime’s VNs can be described as disturbing, or at least plain sad, Six Days of Snow is a bit more ambivalent, leading you through some highly uncomfortable plot developments, but not without a rather hopeful conclusion. The uncomfortable parts might be the main thing some people take out of it though, especially if they’re wary of the romantic scenarios with underage characters. The story follows a middle-aged writer, going on a trip to a remote hot springs hotel to look for inspiration and escape from the suffocating routine of his everyday life (including his devoted and proper, but dull wife). There, he develops a doomed-from-the-beginning relationship with owner’s young daughter – a beautiful girl, suffering heavily from the loneliness in the isolated resort and harsh discipline enforced by her mother.
The art, slightly similar in style to The House of Fata Morgana (and probably not just by a coincident) creates a very unique, eerie climate. Backgrounds, portraying the scenic environments of snowy mountains and forests are especially gorgeous and works well with the minimalistic soundtrack to further enhance that mood. Still, while the production values are undeniably great (the VN is also slightly longer than most free ones, with 35k words), the story might put off some people – being another kinetic novel, it’s slow-paced, full of introspection and leaves all the choices of the protagonist beyond player’s control, even though it feels like the way he and the heroine hurt each other was something easily avoidable and the whole scenario could probably benefit a lot from some alternative paths and endings. As with many VNs by ebi, it’s much more a story she wanted to tell rather the something you could relate to and have your own agency in as a player, so be sure you accept that arrangement before you reach for this, otherwise very much worthwhile game.
Final Rating: Highly Recommended
An “April’s Fools game” that offers much more than that phrase would suggest, Learning in Love! is an amusing remix of characters and story ideas from other ebi-hime’s games. While every one of the six routes present in the game is comedic and rather lighthearted (even if the source material is a direct opposite), each of them offers a proper story, leading the protagonist to befriending or romancing some of the “borrowed” characters. Some of them are even explored beyond what we could learn through their original appearances – like the major role given to Hattie, the friend and love interest of Toma, the protagonist of The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns.
Obviously, relying on reader’s knowledge of the characters and themes from a large number of works, this game is above all a piece of (non-sexual) fanservice and while decently-written, will have a very limited appeal for someone not intimately familiar with ebi’s VNs. However, for those who are fans of her titles, it gives a unique opportunity to revisit their favourite characters and see them in new situations – and also, giving some of them positive conclusions and closure that they could never hope for in their original titles.
Final Rating: Recommended
Most likely, Learning in Love! concludes the history of ebi-hime’s free VNs. During four years, she has released an impressive amount of freeware titles, many of which left a mark on the fledgeling EVN scene, both gaining a significant following, and proving to many the potential of the non-Japanese games in the visual novel format. The main thing I personally took from the experience of going through these games is the impression that ebi is not only one of the most talented writers within the Western visual novel scene, but also one of the few that takes this craft very seriously – not catering to the audience’s expectations or following common tropes, but doing the projects she wants to make and often in quite an unapologetic manner. While many of her games made me uncomfortable, I was always left impressed with their quality and the way they stood out from the typical, uninspired galgames dominating the VN scene. And while we might not get much more of her work for free, I’m very hopeful that the time and resources that would go to them will bring us more interesting commercial titles – and ebi is one of the authors I never hesitate to give my money to.