Friday, 14 December 2018

Highway Blossoms: Remastered Review (Yuri Visual Novel)

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Since being published by Alienworks in mid-2016, Highway Blossoms earned its place as one of the highest-rated yuri VNs on VNDB and could easily be considered as one of the most successful Western visual novels to date. The game from the very beginning stood out through its unusual setting, plot structure and high production qualities, seemingly appealing even to the more demanding or JP-focused yuri fans. It wasn’t a great surprise then that Highway Blossoms’ authors, despite their second title, The Human Reignition Project, being stuck in a development hell, decided to further capitalize on their previous success and create an updated version of HB, with features such as partially reworked art and full voice acting (the initial release had none). The Remastered edition was released on May 18th 2018, two years after the game’s premiere, with quite a lot of fanfare and became available as a free update for both existing and potential owners of the game. So, how that does the enhanced version of everyone’s favourite yuri EVN presents itself, and does it live up top the hype? Spoiler: it does. Kind of...
The climate of American deserts and road tale story formula immediately set Highway Blossoms apart from most EVNs, even with its somewhat generic artstyle
 
Highway Blossoms is a kinetic novel, following the story of Amber, a 19-years old, tomboyish girl travelling alone in an old RV through Southern-US highways. While on her way to a music festival, she accidentally stumbles upon Marina – a cute, naive girl whose car has broken down in the middle of a desert. First just expecting to help the stranded woman to get her car running again, through a bizarre chain of events Amber winds up travelling together with her and even joining her on a treasure hunt for a long-lost stash of gold. During this adventure, she forms a bond with Marina, that will ultimately help her deal with the grief and loneliness connected to the passing on her grandfather, the closest person for most of her life and the only family she ever had.
            The setting is something that immediately differentiates Highway Blossoms from the typical “Weeb” games and is much more than an interesting coat of paint. The characters (both the main couple and the relatively small, but memorable supporting cast), details of their backstories, the locales of American deserts and folkish soundtrack all contribute to building a very unique climate. This is further supported by the structure of the story, with the couple constantly travelling between both famous landmarks and various obscure locations characteristic of the areas to which their quest for gold brings them. If you’re looking for a well-researched, believable detox from the Japanese high-school setting and all the tropes connected to it, Highway Blossoms might be one of your best bets.
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While it’s the treasure hunt that brings the main couple together, the true focus of the story is definitely the girls themselves and their growing relationship
 
All these things said, there’s also a way in which this game is nothing but standard. While the treasure hunt and the scenery of American highways are a breath of fresh air, the core content of Highway Blossoms is still a romance story – one that is excellently paced and satisfying thanks to its characters, but ultimately quite predictable and cliched. The feelings between the girls bloom rather slowly and take into account the uncertainty of their positions. Even after the treasure hunt is over, they are little more than strangers to each other, Amber still dealing with her fresh grief and doubts about Marina's sexual orientation, while Marina herself, despite their straightforwardness, is also struggling with what for her is a completely new and unexpected situation. It’s all, once more, quite down-to-Earth and believable – even if some of the plot conveniences are sometimes a bit too good to be true, the story in general much less contrived or detached from reality than your average JP yurige. However, the final bit of drama, sparked by the already-described situation, is something I’ve seen at least a hundred times before. While I like how it was resolved, it’s just good to remember when approaching this game that it doesn’t offer any real spins to the core structure of VN love drama – it’s just a particularly well-executed one.
            Speaking about well-executed, the Remastered versions’ primary selling point, voice acting, really is something worth praising, especially in the context of an EVN project. The voice acting for both Amber and (especially) Marina is for the most part excellent, with only a few of the more dramatic moments disappointing, at least partially because of the voice editing (I know those few screams were meant to make an impact, but they shouldn’t threaten to blow off my headphones – that’s simply not how you do this stuff). The supporting cast is at least just as solid, which is always something I appreciate a lot, as it’s an aspect some developers neglect in order to save resources, often ruining the immersion and climate of the whole story. A minor gripe of mine of that the script was apparently not thoroughly screened before including the additional voiced lines, often explaining things that are clearly for everyone to hear, like emotions in the VAs voices.
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While being an adult game, Highway Blossoms is practically devoid of anime-style, forced fanservice and used its erotic segments to enhance the story
 
Another thing that needs a bit of elaboration is Highway Blossom’s status as an 18+ title – while I’m usually not huge on adult content in VNs, especially in yuri, this game, in my opinion, approaches it just right. Its one erotic scene, while still relatively explicit, is not overly porny and have actual plot relevance, leading to the final conflict the girls have to work their way through before earning a happy ending. It’s definitely a core part of the romance, rather than a piece of fanservice and suggest playing the game in its uncensored version whenever possible (the 18+ DLC is now available on Steam, for free). It’s also worth noting that other than this one scene, the game does not force any ecchi-style fanservice into the experience, making it a really good choice for those fed up with the more trashy yuri tropes.
            Of course, the lack of creepy panty shots does not mean the game offers nothing to look at – its artstyle is quite gorgeous and the quality of both sprites and CGs rather excellent. It’s not extremely-heavy on CGs, but all those that are present are really nice to look at and memorable. It also includes some rather unique visual setups, like the repeated sequences of the main couple interacting on the front seats of the RV during their travels, which have their own set of poses and expressions.
            So, what are my final impressions of Highway Blossoms? It definitely is an excellent game with a unique feel to it, but also a game catering to a very specific group – fans of yuri romance. In reality, it does very little that could interest people that don’t like the genre and even disappointed me a little with how little it innovated when it goes to core story structure. In the end, though, it’s unfair to judge it on anything more than what it tried to achieve and in that respect, it really is among the best in its own category. If it’s compelling GxG romance that you’re looking for, you definitely won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: 4/5

Pros:
+ Unique setting
+ Well-paced and compelling story
+ Pleasant visuals
+ Solid voice-acting
+ Tasteful approach to romance and erotic content
 
Cons:
- At its core, it’s still a very standard love story

VNDB Page
Buy Highway Blossoms: Remastered on Steam or Itch.io

2 comments:

  1. "It's just what it tried to be"/10

    Incidentally, it is worth noting that the initial version had no voice acting whatsoever, contrary to what's stated in this review.

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    1. Indeed? I think I've got that impression from VNDB data, another research fail on my part. Thanks for pointing it out. :s

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