Friday, 30 November 2018

Yuri Game Jam 2018 Visual Novels, Part 1

Yuri Game Jam, having few limitations on what can enter the event outside of including some form of yuri or LGBT themes, was always a good arena for various devs to show off demos or prototypes and gain visibility or feedback for their projects. At the same time, it consistently attracted many complete projects, often surprisingly solid when it goes to their quality and the amount of content they offered. This year this was no different, with over 20 full games entering the event, including 11 original VNs, ranging from extremely short and basic, to a few-hours-long and artistically impressive ones. In the last month, after the end-of-October YGJ deadline has been reached, I was going through all these titles and today I'm offering you a full overview of what a VN fan might find in this year's event's roster. Or, well, at least the first half of it...
          In my coverage, I will, for the most part, ignore all the in-development titles – the production cycles of indie games are always a bit unpredictable and I’m highly distrustful whether some of the demos we can find in YGJ will turn into actual, finished products in foreseeable future. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the fully-released visual novels in the event and providing a short overview of each of them, along with a simple rating on a scale of “not recommended/recommended/highly recommended”. I will also, obviously, skip on the games from other genres that took part in the Jam (although if you value story-driven yurige, I encourage you to still give them a chance). So, I hope you’ll join me on the journey through this interesting collection of queer, freeware VNs and uncover all the surprises this year’s edition of YGJ holds for us. As always, all the games mentioned below are completely free to play, so if you click the links in their titles, you can try them out right away with no charge. Let's get to it!

We’ll start things off with what could be described as another quintessential YGJ VN – a piece of cute, visually pleasant and utterly heartwarming GxG romance with some minor, cool spins to it. In this case, the story of tomboyish Selene trying to bake a perfect Valentines Day's gift for her girlfriend after they had a falling out, is spiced up by brief point-and-click gameplay elements, requiring you to buy and select the right ingredients for the dessert of your choosing. If you follow the subtle clues the game provide you with along the way, you can easily find the best combination or home-made delicacies and bought presents to quickly salvage the threatened holiday. But if you mess up, there will be consequences… A very brief (up to an hour for 100% completion), but fun and lovely-looking experience.
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Probably the most substantial piece of fanfiction in visual novel form that I’ve seen to date, Symmetra’s Qualifying Matches is essentially a giant festival of gay shipping in the Overwatch universe (both involving the titular protagonist and lots of other pairings), but not one without some peculiar charm. Its artstyle will definitely not be to everyone’s liking, but grew on me during the experience (it's crude, but goes quite well together with the absurd story), to the point where I was even able to look past the persistent visual glitches and certain less-fortunate illustrations.
          Outside of the visual side of things, the game includes pretty elaborate references to Overwatch's story and offers some seriously amusing interpretations of the game's characters. As any other fanfiction, it doesn’t work well without decent knowledge of the source material on the side of the reader, so unless you want to do some major research just to follow what’s going on and fully understand the humour, I can only recommend it to actual Overwatch fans with a decent grasp of that game’s mechanics and its extensive, but scattered lore.
Final Rating: Recommended

NewWestGames’ entry into this year’s YGJ is definitely rough around the edges, but offers surprisingly satisfying characters and story, at least as much as it is possible within its brief reading time. It follows a team of misfits, dropped by their commander into a barely-running, decommissioned starship and having to survive on the frontlines of a galactic war with little more than their ingenuity and teamwork. It includes a variety of queer themes and talks about them and the discrimination characters have suffered from in a pretty believable way, why also offering a relatively fun main storyline and well-stylized artwork. The very fast pacing and short script do not leave that much place for depth, but what is there is simply fun to read through – and for the low price of nothing, there’s simply no reason to not give it a chance if you’re not completely averse to its subject matter.
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

As mentioned before, events such as YGJ are open to all kinds of games, including even the most basic, low-effort ones, put together with a bunch of free assets and a bit of original text and programming. Little Green Girls takes this approach pretty much to the point of pure trolling, with its super-cliched, short story, one stock character sprite (with some MS Paint-level modifications) and, for the most part, complete lack of sound. It can be a bit funny with how brazen and self-aware it is, but it’s still not something I would ever recommend reading – even considering how hard to find a decent fix of human x alien yuri romance, this one is simply not worth it.
Final Rating: Not Recommended (although I regret nothing!)

This remake of the first, freeware VN by MikomiKisomi (now working under the label of Mikomi Games and an author of some relatively interesting and stylistically distinct otome and yuri titles) is a great improvement over the previous version when it goes to visuals, but does not fix the core issues it suffered from. Based on a very promising concept of magical necklaces connecting people through space and time, Crossed Paths has all the building blocks necessary to create a satisfying story, but never manages to pace its plot properly and ends it in an incredibly abrupt and anticlimactic manner. While it’s not a terrible read while it lasts, in the end, it’s simply too basic, too unfocused and too lacking in any kind of impact to be worth recommending – you’ll probably have much more fun by checking out any of Mikomi’s other projects instead.
Final Rating: Not Recommended

Inspired by Ancient Greek mythology and appropriately stylized, Naxos is more of a short choose-your-own-adventure book than a traditional visual novel, but still offers a visually-pleasing user interface and a compelling premise – a bond forming between an noblewoman, dumped on a deserted island in unclear circumstances and hopelessly waiting for rescue, and a female minotaur, who turns out to be much more than a violent monster everyone expects her to be. While the story is tiny and rather open-ended, not revealing much on what kind of future awaits the main characters, it's fairly unique, climatic and written well enough to be definitely worth checking out.
Final Rating: Highly Recommended

I usually have reservation towards visual novels made in unity, as if they follow the traditional format, they usually make for inferior experience in comparison to those created with dedicated VN engines – they not only rarely work as smoothly as games made in Ren’Py, but also lack various quality-of-life features, such as skip-read function or easy access to the backlog. It can be worth it, though, if the developers deviate from the traditional VN format and use Unity’s flexibility to offer an alternative take on the genre. In The Cards might put some people off with its visual quirks (VR-like environment, literal cardboard cut-out character models) and cryptic dialogue, but is also a very interesting experience which, successfully or not, tries to tackle some universal topics and tell a subtle, mostly implicit love story which most yuri fans should find satisfying.
Final Rating: Recommended

Honourable Mention: Mystics of Sapphia – Prelude
The sole exception to my "no-demos" policy is a prologue chapter for a simple-looking, but highly promising yuri VN which has been successfully kickstarted a few weeks ago. Mystics of Sapphia follows the story of a Princess in a fantasy world, who is assassinated, along with the rest of the royal family, and because of a magic necklace trades bodies with her personal maid moments before dying. Haunted by guilt for taking her closest friend's life and struggling to survive in her new role as a lowly servant, she still does not give up on the idea of solving the mystery behind the assassinations and during that quest, meets three powerful women who become game's heroines. While the campaign leaves a lot about the final product's length and content a bit vague, this is one of those projects that are definitely worth keeping an eye on as a yuri fan. And if the developer's promises can be trusted, should be getting our way in just a few months.

And this concludes the first part of my overview! From the VNs presented so far, Valentine Disaster and Starship XO are probably the ones that I would recommend trying out the most. While lacking polish, like it is often the case with these Game Jam entries, they are really fun and interesting little experiences, perfect to full up a slow evening with. Also, I hope you've enjoyed reading this and if you did, be sure to check out the second part of my YGJ 2018 coverage, coming up next Friday!

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