Friday, 19 October 2018

Plk_Lesiak’s Shovelware Adventures: Dharker Studio’s yuri games

Dharker Studio is one of the better-known development teams on the EVN scene, active since early 2015, but also one that quickly became rather infamous due to their low-quality, fanservice-filled titles. Games such as Sword of Asumi or Divine Slice of Life gathered a lot of attention, as they were released on then still quite barren EVN market and quickly found their way to Steam, but were also quite harshly rejected by reviewers and poorly received by many VN fans. Later down the line, the company focused on purely erotic titles, with much-telling titles such as Army Gals or Battle Girls – admittedly with slightly more artistic(?) success. While most of those games followed a very standard formula, with faceless self-insert protagonists and number of females to “date”, there are also two notable yuri eroge by Dharker: Negligee, released in late 2016 and Galaxy Girls, published a year after that. Today, as the appreciator of yuri that I am, I’ll take a closer look at those two girls’ love-themed games, both of them quite curious examples of commercial success despite many, many problems they suffered from. As a "bonus", I'll include the Negligee's prequel, Love Stories, in the article the game that earned the unexpected honour of being the first uncensored, fully explicit eroge accepted by Valve for Steam release. While this game's content is mostly straight hentai, it has one notable yuri subplot and features all the girls from Negligee, being worth a closer look from everyone that enjoyed the first title in the series. So, let's get this thing started!

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While writing the two dozens of shovelware reviews over the last 6 months I've noticed that ecchi EVNs seem to work better with casual, more or less realistic settings – there are few things more painful than mediocre-at-best writer trying to create a fantasy or sci-fi setting with the use of kitsch, exaggerated characters and all the most overdone cliches, just to give an excuse for persistent close-ups on anime boobs and a few hentai scenes. The game we're talking about now, thankfully, chose a rather simple and straightforward premise and made a pretty decent use of it. As the player, you control the actions of an assistant manager in a lingerie shop (titular Negligee), that is suddenly forced to take over for her boss (who runs away in mysterious circumstances) and find some new employees. Soon, three candidates show up and as they all seem reasonably fit for the job, we have to take our female protagonist (who is, by the way, a quite gorgeously-designed, busty redhead) through a week-long trial with the girls and decide which one of them she should hire. And, as I probably don’t have to explain, the store’s sexy merchandise will find many, many uses throughout the whole experience. And also quite often it will be falling on the floor...
            While, obviously, the premise might have relatively little significance here in comparison to fanservice and h-scenes (although, surprisingly enough, those are mostly bonus content, served to you after finishing the main plot),the game offering a serviceable story, with the possibility to properly present the characters and get the reader at least a tiny bit emotionally involved is something I always appreciate. While some of the mechanics Dharker used here, like the large number of bad endings, make relatively little sense within the formula (I don’t think many people bought this game for unexpected drama-filled, negative conclusions that don’t even feel that connected to the choices you made), the heroines are likable and get just enough character development to make the whole thing fun to read – and nice to look at, as art is admittedly of very nice quality, just as you would hope in a quasi-nukige. In the end, however, it's just a bit too short (it takes only around 4 hours to 100% it) and shallow to prove truly satisfying, especially for the base asking price of $13. Because of this, I don't think I can give it a rating higher than Rabbit Poo, although, if you find it on deep sale, it’s still a reasonably enjoyable piece of yuri smut, definitely worth it for the fans of the genre.

Final Rating: Rabbit Poo
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Negligee's prequel already claimed a place in PC gaming and VN history, regardless its quality, but in my opinion, it turned out to be a positive surprise not only by heralding the end of Steam's strict anti-porn policies. Love Stories, which contains four short, separate episodes, explores the backstories of the three main heroines from the first game and the paths that led them to working in the titular lingerie store, along with the story of Loren, the Negligee's old manager. It does a very solid job of expanding on the very basic characterisation the cast received before, placing all of them at the center of some decently-written drama. Every episode has a clear theme (like sex addiction for Sophie or failed marriage and cheating for Loren), with choices that can either lead you to the resolution of the conflict and a positive, canon ending (which also awards you a short epilogue) or a negative, "dead end" one. Interestingly enough, hentai scenes are quite often connected to the "bad" choices, with more narratively compelling resolutions being connected to characters rejecting sex or at least being reluctant about it. This makes an impression of a nukige that actually tries to tell a story and cares at least somewhat about the consistency of its narrative a pretty rare occurrence, especially in the low-budget EVN scene.
            Interestingly enough, Love Stories' flaws spawned a substantial amount of criticism towards the game, making it barely stay above "mixed" ranking on Steam. And there are definitely some problems there: the choices often don't affect the story in meaningful ways, sometimes literally being followed by 2-3 unique lines and only making any difference when it goes to the ending you'll get. The episodes are also short, with the whole VN ultimately having a similar completion time as the first Negligee and most likely only feeling compelling to those familiar with the original story and interested in exploring its characters further. Out of context, it will only be a decently-drawn, short nukige, but if you're familiar with the original game and enjoyed it, both titles supplement each other really well and create a rather enjoyable experience. Not one deep beyond what you could reasonably expect from porn VNs, but pretty high up there in its own category – and I see no reason why we shouldn't appreciate that.
 
Final Rating: Golden Poo! 
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Galaxy Girls
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Galaxy Girls is a game with a somewhat complicated history, but one aiming at simple goals. It’s a remake of the Reine Works’ Blossoms Bloom Brightest, a free Yuri Game Jam title, which Dharker expanded on, and added h-scenes and fanservice, pretty much completely absent in the original. While keeping the general structure of the plot and even much of the dialogue, they added a fourth character (the story follows a small group of women stuck together on an involuntary, one-way space mission and having to cope with their situation), replaced all the artwork and, ultimately, shifted the tone of the whole experience from drama to porn (including some seriously out-of-place fanservice scenes, especially the solo ones in the common route, featuring the protagonist, who acts as the ship’s captain). Even the character designs, while clearly similar to the original ones, feel much less mature and are visibly more “sexy” (it’s hard to miss Kotoha’s sprite magically going from B cup to D+).
            While all these modifications are rather understandable, considering the Dharker’s history and the kind of content their fans might expect, things that weren’t changed are more puzzling. BBB’s story begged for major reworking, with its rather one-dimensional characters, messy plot progression and the main intrigue going nowhere, but all its biggest flaws are completely intact in the remake. Addition of the extra character, Emilia, is also done in a very poor way, as she’s inserted into a story definitely constructed around the original three girls and their interactions, so throughout the common route she barely has any role to play and literally nothing meaningful to say, to the point it’s rather hilarious, while the choices that lead to her route rarely make any sense. A DLC episode, added months after the game’s release, give us some insights into her character and her backstory, but it’s definitely too little, too late to salvage her as a meaningful addition as anything other than fanservice fodder.
            The game, obviously, has a decent amount of hentai – as someone who cares little for anime porn, as usual, I’m not the best person to assess it, but its variety and quality of the art are definitely on a very decent level. Still, the trainwreck that is Galaxy Girls’ story did little to get me excited about the sex and romance in it and that’s never a good sign, even if you want to treat this game as a nukige (and I think it’s less of a porn game than Negligee, considering its much longer story and the hentai once more being mostly at the end of every route). It’s definitely not the worst thing ever, probably not even close to some games covered in this series, but even considering it’s more reasonable when it goes to price/content ratio (especially including DLC episodes, there’s quite a lot of reading and quite a lot of porn in there), I see few reasons to recommend it. Only for those really starved for some hot yuri action (although I would still suggest saving your money and investing into something like a SonoHana game or the recently-released Sisterly Bliss).
 
Final Rating: Rabbit Poo 
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And this, for the time being, concludes the topic of Dharker Studio’s yuri games and marks the beginning of a short hiatus of Shovelware Adventures. It, however, doesn’t mean that Dharker is already off the hook – when the series comes back, it will quite likely be their titles, especially the very early ones, published under the AJTilley.com label, being torn apart. These games are especially interesting to me, as they’re all quite important parts of the history of the whole EVN scene, even if rather unfortunate ones and I can’t way to see whether all my negative assumptions and knowledge about them will be proven right. For now, I hope you all enjoyed our little journey through the world of visual novel shovelware (and, maybe, even other parts of my humble blog). Until the next time!

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