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Published January 19, 2016

Let’s be honest on this one: Sickness from Unwonted Studios is launching tomorrow. That means that regardless of what I say here, it will not be taken into consideration. It was a demoralizing realization as I played the Sickness demo over the past few days, because that means all that is left is a bloodbath. This feature is going to be a bloodbath, the eventual review is going to be a bloodbath, and even those we have enough waterproof clothing to keep the blood from staining our clothes, it won’t do anything for the smell of Sickness’ dismembered corpse or the inevitable clot that will form in the drain trying to spray down your murder room.

Yeah, I didn’t like the demo, but this one has a special dislike that I haven’t felt in my time so far as a reviewer. I know that seems strange coming from someone who not only has nearly five years under his belt, but also has experienced the best of what Winged Cloud, Red Panda Studios and AJ have to offer. But here’s the thing; those studios didn’t leave their comfort zone. I cannot say the same for Unwonted Studios who, for reasons that continue to elude me, decided it would be fun to make a crime thriller visual novel. Yes, the people behind this decided at some point they were capable of making its polar opposite. And it probably would’ve slid under the radar too if they also didn’t think it would be a good idea to insist that a longtime and noted fan of crime thrillers play the demo. ‘Because absolutely nothing can go wrong if JP plays it!’ They surely lied to themselves.

With all of that said, you all probably have realized I haven’t even hit the tip of the iceberg that is this train wreck. I cannot think of a single sentence that was good in this demo. The way my brain works, I just want to drag each and every sentence on the carpet for summary execution, but I’ll do my best not to ramble. I suppose that means the best place to start is the beginning when our main character kills his boss.

Sickness Screenshot 1

This was probably the worst possible foot to start on for a few reasons. The biggest one is that it was supposed to highlight Suoh’s (our protagonist) mental issues. For those unaware, the premise of this game is that the car accident that killed Suoh and his sister’s parents also put him in the hospital for a long period of time, resulting in lapses of memory that tie into violent outbursts. Unfortunately, other than this one scene, it doesn’t work that way. Situations like training for MMA and riding along to loan shark with his jackass friend (we’ll get to him) actually has him arguing against violence and not wanting to put himself into situations where he or others can be hurt. So it’s kind of hard to believe he’s on a hair trigger and could snap into a blood mist under the right stimulus.

However, the ‘violent episodes’ do come in handy if you actually want to like Suoh and, regardless of how it promotes itself, the game wants you to like Suoh. This is backed not only by the fact that his blood rage only occurs when the writing team wants it to, but also in his frequent internal monologues. Our introduction to this game is Suoh narrating to himself about wealth inequality which leads to his excuse to why he killed his boss: he wouldn’t give him a raise he asked for. It’s still a pretty dark rationale on its face, but then the monologue continues and he reveals the money would have gone to ensuring a comfortable life for his twin sister Sarah. So, what you’re left with is a narrative that is supposed to be putting us in the mind of a young man on the sociopathic edge that reads like, ‘That greedy bastard was making life hard for Suoh and his sister and society is unfair and corrupt and really if you think about, what he did was kind of understandable because of how bad and unfair the world is!’

The key here is underneath his supposed murderous front, the guy is pretty much your standard issue Generic Male Protagonist: angry about injustice, but also compassionate towards his only remaining family member and averse to violence the plot demands it. He’s only a threat to the people the plot deem are truly threatening and that creates character dissonance right off the bat. It gets even worse later on when the game really pulls out all of the stops in order to get you behind Suoh, but that’s a rant for another section. And why jump ahead, when I have so much to work with in Suoh’s internal monologue?

One of the running themes of the Sickness is that, as bad as Suoh is supposed to be, the rest of society is much worse. Crime is rampant, the corrupt take advantage of the weak, and the poor get poorer as the rich get richer. It’s a familiar chestnut and one that is cracked from time to time in this sphere, but rarely is a visual novel as reliant on that theme as Sickness is. As I’ve already said, Suoh’s parents have been killed off via car accident which would make him the only source of income for him and his sister. The game tries to play this up and create a picture of desperation for Suoh. That in order to keep the only family member he has left from being homeless and hungry, he not only snapped but it also led him into a life of crime. Unfortunately, if you’ve been reading this very feature closely, you’ve already realized that’s not the case.

I don’t feel that this is just a problem with Sickness per se, but also a problem with the current generation of anime, manga and the Western works inspired by them. It’s a hypothesis we’ll have to explore in another feature though, so for now let’s just focus on how Sickness in particular deals with a working class protagonist and the struggle Suoh and Sara have to survive in this ‘two-class society’. The short version is that they really don’t. The examples the game gives us of how hard these two have it are either ineffective because the creative team either doesn’t know what it’s like to struggle economically or doesn’t know how to write character that are working class. What kind of examples are that?

  • The oven not working exactly right.
  • Only having instant food (instant ramen for example) to eat for a while.
  • Only having a few outfits to wear.
  • Having to sleep in the same bed because they can only afford one and it’s a single bedroom house.

‘JP…couldn’t one of them sleep on a futon in the living room?’ Yes, but trust me; you don’t want to dig too deeply into that last example…yet. Sickness loves to tease with hints of incestuous attraction between the siblings, but the heaviest hints you can avoid so it’s mostly there for fanservice(?). The full game will show where Sickness decides to take this particular tease, so for now back to their economic situation. Some, honestly, will read the above list and sympathize because they are not used to seeing working class protagonist and assume any lack of luxuries denotes some sort of unfairness. However, to be absolutely clear, luxuries are all these two are lacking.

Sickness Screenshot 5

The funny thing about all of this is the game doesn’t even bother to hide this. After getting a few thousand dollars delivered to their home for no particular reason, Suoh and Sara discuss briefly what to do with it and none of it focuses on ensuring their own stability. In fact, a good portion of that money went into buying new clothes. I’m sorry, but I have a hard time believing a character or group of characters is struggling financially when they get a windfall and their first thoughts are on luxuries, not their survival. Even if you want to make the argument that they are not mature enough to take proper financial care of themselves, you’d then have to concede that any judge in his right mind would either submit them to foster care or move them to a relative because not having a relative ‘living nearby’ doesn’t mean they don’t have any who can step in. Bloody Hell, even Ace Academy got that much right.

Adding to this point is the screenshot above us where the writers put themselves into an even bigger hole as they try to flesh out Suoh and Sara’s situation later in the game. Seem their parents left behind a will with a considerable amount of money and real estate along with having no outstanding debts upon their deaths. Even if, for some unbelievable reason, their parents did not make a clause in their will on how their children can access their money upon their deaths, even a completely crap probate lawyer can make the case that the parents would have wanted their own children to be cared for in the case of their untimely demise. So yeah, the only reason Suoh and Sara have to deal with the evils of their corrupt city is because the writers want desperately to have social commentary in this game, but they don’t know how to pull it off and it all comes off as contrived BS for the sake of forced drama. Great.

After the murder Markus, the friend he calls upon to help with his boss’ remains, pulls him into a life of crime. As of this writing, I’m still not completely sure that the criminal organization Suoh is pulled into is a threat to anyone but themselves. Let’s take a few good examples so I can better contrast how they introduce their criminal organization versus how Sickness introduces its own. In The Godfather, the first shot is of Amerigo Bonasera from Vito Corleone’s point-of-view. Bonasera is clearly distraught as he tells his story and the camera backs out slowly as he talks to behind Don Corleone’s back. We don’t even see his face until Bonasera says, ‘For justice, we have to go to Don Corleone.’ This conversation and cinematography puts on Don Corleone because our question isn’t ‘Why is Bonasera here?’ it’s ‘What is Don Corleone going to do about his situation?’ So, inside of a single conversation, we know that Don Corleone is a powerful man and the organization he runs is outside of the law.

In my opinion, the only thing that tops The Godfather’s opening scene is Goodfellas’ opening line which tells you everything you need to know about the movie in a single sentence. ‘As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.’ We all know what gangsters are and the violence and destruction that comes with that life. And even with that knowledge, because of how young Henry Hill has mythologized his neighborhood’s mobsters, we too are drawn into this particularly twisted hero worship. This is especially true because Hill was the amoral character Suoh is trying to be, unless you think it’s perfectly normal to watch a completely innocent man get threatened with being shoved into an oven because you’ve been skipping school.

So we have Goodfellas and Godfather: two of the most influential crime films of all time to use as a contrasting point with how Sickness shows us its crime family and what life Suoh can expect to live. Some would argue that happens at the beginning, but that’s doesn’t’ really delve into what Markus and his superiors deal with. That actually happens shortly after the starting incident, when Markus takes Suoh with him on a loan sharking expedition. In my humble opinion, this is where we first really get an understanding of Suoh’s new life and the criminal organization he belongs to. Was it effective? No; not even close.

I get the feeling this was yet another example of, ‘Yes Suoh is bad, but look how much worse everyone else is so you have to like Suoh!’ And yes, there are criminal as dumb as Markus in this world who thinks that this is how you send a message to people. However, let’s go back over this again. Markus killed a Chinese money launderer for pocket change. Ignoring the fact that by killing him, he cut off his boss from the services and financial network one would need to run even a half-decent money laundering enterprises, by killing them all Markus made it impossible to get the money he knows is hidden up somewhere in the restaurant. And when other people find out what happens their reaction isn’t going to be fear, it’s going to be anger because NOW they realize that they’re screwed no matter what they do.

And it gets even worse if you can believe it.

Sickness Screenshot 3

Markus’ direct superior is a guy named Andrei who not only teaches Suoh how to fight but also oversees the body clean-up of the murders Suoh and Markus commits and their loan sharking. One of the key businesses of this criminal organization is providing this particular type of ‘service’. He allows Markus to do whatever the Hell he wants for reasons that are never properly discussed or even hinted at. Even when he goes to clean up after Markus slaughters an entire family for less than one hundred bucks, his response is to sigh and shrug his shoulder as if he just found out Markus accidentally hit a baseball through his neighbor’s window.

If he has his own reasons for not caring about getting caught or enforcing any type of discretion or discipline if only to preserve the hierarchy and financial well-being of the organization, that’s fine BUT you have to show it goddammit! You actually have to show WHY Andrei doesn’t give a damn. And, for that matter, you have to show why their boss Karasu doesn’t give a damn either because he doesn’t actually intervene in this nonsense until irreparable damage has been done to his organization: at least on the street level. Markus attempts to do the loan sharking thing on his own and fails miserably when his target fought back. When he and Suoh go out together again to another target after his failure, he gets killed when that person tries to fight back. Suoh manages to fight back but the damage, in any well-written crime story, is done.

The people who owe you money know that they can fight back and have a good shot at getting away with it, so why should they be afraid when one of your representatives come knocking? Hell, why should rivals or enemies be afraid of you if you are so ignorant of your own organization that crap like this can happen for so long without the boss intervening to restore order? Why should the police or any law enforcement agency put up with Karasu’s organization when he’s clearly barely holding everything together? A teenager who has binged watched Law and Order could convict all of these morons within a day yet somehow I’m supposed to believe that this organization is a threat? Bullshit.

Speaking of bullshit, where in the blue Hell is the police? The authorities aren’t even mentioned until the final act of the game and we have seen several public murders, an underground fighting match and there hasn’t been one investigation into any of it. And it’s not like Andrei is a master cleaner who is so thorough that there is nothing for the police to work with. Suoh literally walks home covered in the Chinese family’s blood after Markus kills them. On top of that, they would have a mountain of physical evidence if someone decided to investigate Suoh’s boss’ disappearance because they were, at the time, the only ones in the office. There would have been security cameras, logs, witnesses, something more than just the body and blood to show that the disappearance was suspicious. Hell, the disappearance in and of itself would be suspicious! The creative team may be trying to yet again ineptly show us how seedy and corrupt everything is, but even then you still need to have the police present to show that they’re corrupt. They are largely absent in the majority of the game and when you consider just how juvenile and incompetent Suoh, Markus and every other criminal in this game is, that is mind-boggling.

That brings us to it doesn’t it? Everything else I’ve talked about so far leaves the Sickness demo a broken mess of bad writing and worse ideas, but this demo saved its lowest blow for last. From the beginning, it was clear that Sickness was pushing hard to be dark and edgy for the sake of being dark and edgy. With the violence, casual racism and constant wealth inequality commentary, the world the creative team desperately wants to paint is one where every evil is commonplace. So, of course, at some point that would also include sexual violence and it becomes one of the subplots near the midpoint of the demo.

Sickness Screenshot 7

Suoh notices that Sara has been acting more emotionally unstable over a few days and she seems to want to get out of town in a hurry. Suoh decides to look into this and sees that she’s being harassed and stalked by two guys on her way to school who have less than pure intentions for her. Now, the demo doesn’t outright say this, so it is admittedly conjecture on my part. However, taking into account Sara’s behavior during and after this subplot, she acts like someone who has been sexually assaulted. This is made plausible by two scenes. The first is when the two jackasses abduct one Sara’s classmates and take her to an abandoned building to rape her and film themselves doing it. This is critical because when Suoh brings up the fact that they were recording everything and ponders out loud what could be on the tapes, Sara’s mood instantly changes and she becomes melancholic and tries to avoid details about the subject.

Here’s the thing. If they had just been verbally harassing her up to that point, someone with Sara’s personality would have been very clearly relieved to have avoided that bullet. Although the game’s synopsis tries to frame her as a selfish brat, she shows none of that behavior during the course of the game. In fact, she also more than likely would’ve been emphatic with the ones that were assaulted since that could have been her. Instead, when Suoh brings up the camera Sara appears to experience a traumatic flashback and, after she recovers, begins to openly idolize the person who stopped the two from raping her classmate. That isn’t the behavior of someone who has only had to put up with verbal harassment. It’s the behavior of a victim of physical attack.

The second reason that led me to the conclusion that Sara was assault by these two jackasses is because of an overarching narrative thread in this game: the creators want you to like Suoh.  No matter how wicked and violent the rest of the world is, Suoh is always cast as a decent person with some amoral tendencies. In this particular subplot, right before the rape occurs Suoh springs into action and takes them both out. It’s the only other time his blood mist episode thing is invoked in the demo and the results of him following through on it turns him into an anonymous vigilante. However, by game’s end he shows that he’s willing to kill the girl he saved in order to remain anonymous. So, what was the point here if he’s just going to kill off the girl? Revenge for his sister by killing her assailants. Having Sara as a victim here accomplishes what this scene is here to do: make you like Suoh and think that he’s cool.

And that is disgusting.

Am I saying you can never, ever include sexual assault in fiction? No. You know who did it right in the EVN community? Cupid. If you have played that game you know there is a scene that centers on a sexual assault and it is one of the best written scenes of 2015 because the creative team understood what they were getting into and the characters who would be involved. It built tension and drama without feeling exploitative and even invoked sympathy for people you didn’t think it would. It’s how any sexual assault should be handled if you’re going to cross that line and Sickness doesn’t do it.

In Sickness, sexual assault is a shock tactic. Unable to construct a meaningful cast or plot, this game goes full ‘dark and edgy’ not to create emotional resonance and development, even cheap development at that, but to force us to side with its bland protagonist because the creative team couldn’t think of any other way to do it. Whenever anyone else in media and entertainment uses sexual assault this, people rightfully lose their minds because of how cheap and pathetic it is. Using it in an EVN doesn’t suddenly make it a good creative device. Shame on you Unwonted Studios for allowing your name onto this.

Sickness is out tomorrow and this is how it will begin. A badly written cast, a terrible plot, anvicilous themes and a sickening use sexual assault makes this visual novel an early contender for Worst of 2016. The hole is so deep on this one, I cannot see a way for Unwonted to climb out of it in its current stage. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt and see what the full product entails, but it’s going to take one Hell of a miracle to save Sickness from the hellish pit the demo dug for it. JP3: OUT.

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