The University setting is quickly becoming an ideal breeding ground for what I’m loosely calling the ‘Infatuation’ subgenre. We’ve seen this in a handful of EVNs starting with Winter Wolves’ Roommates and arguably Obscura’s Coming Out on Top and Love Conquers All’s Ladykiller in a Bind (still haven’t played it either, so I’m just going with an outsider look). The crux of an Infatuation title isn’t to try and nurture an emotional relationship between the audience and two characters through the ups-and-downs of their romance. Simultaneously, it’s not just a quick fling designed to get the audience off. There are enough nuances so that the audience can believe two (or more) characters want to have a physical relationship and it usually mirrors situations that lead to the bulk of human intimacy.
After all, most relationships start with a somewhat shallow marker. That usually being, ‘I like hanging out with you’. This usually happens just by living your life and having the same person be a part of your day-to-day. Sure, it doesn’t pay the same emotional dividends as developing a more complex love story. However, it does open more possibilities when it comes to visual novels that decides play on the shallow end of the pool. For the moment, let’s talk about the latest entry into the Infatuation subgenre: Hanako Games’ English Exchange.
Hanako has been busy over the past few years with Black Closet and A Little Lily Princess, so you could consider this something of a cool-down IP for them. The premise on its own is fairly simple as you play a fairly typical American college student, either Malia or Flynn, who enters a student exchange program in the United Kingdom. Both MCs are hoping for a little excitement in their relatively average lives with the trip, while their friends are determined to get them laid. Because, what else are friends for, am I right?
It’s an extremely simple setup that, for better or worse, restricts the audience’s expectations. All things being fair, even though I have yet to play a Hanako title that insults my intelligence; other developers who go the ‘low bar’ route never end well on this site. If there is a weakness in the final game, it’ll be here where it simply meets the relatively low bar it sets for itself and that’s it. That doesn’t mean the final product has to suddenly go deeper than the material calls for. It DOES mean that it better be a Hell of a fun ride.
That’s where things get pretty tricky in the UK. While our MCs are perfectly milquetoast in that woobish, lovely way, the majority of our housemates (hostelmates?) are, to put it nicely; jerks. This may be the most purposely unlikable of manageable characters that I’ve seen in a VN…and I leave room for Japan to prove me wrong. Only a minority come off as remotely pleasant and that’s only because this is the demo and we barely know them.So in the fully game, I’m fully expecting Ashley and Peggy to cut someone’s throat out with a bendy straw.
This is fun turn for me and could easily be the biggest selling point of the entire game. Most romantic games portray their love interests as fundamental good people. They may have their rough edges, but in the end those edges are smoothed with the Power of Love™. Here we have more than just a few rough edges. Any relationship, fling or otherwise, would have to be based on some intangible that is only truly clear between the MC and said love interest. In other words, you’ll be trying to romance some jackasses strictly because of what the MC finds attractive about them.
If this is the road EE goes down, I love it already. A small piece of me because of things I’ve espoused before on this site: that sexual material in fiction only works if it’s written for the characters involved and not to fit into an audience preference. Since it appears NO ONE in the cast fits into a fandom stereotype, that makes Option A viable and we can see how hot (for lack of a better word) the relationships get with such a narrow focus. On a larger scale, I love it because it is a very grounded concept. You’re playing a person living overseas in a relatively stressful school and work environment who is just beginning to accept the possibility of a relationship. As we establish with the MC’s friends who do their damnedest to keep all potential sexual doors open to the MC, they are more or less an open book in this area. The situation itself creates tension, tension makes what appears to be unlikable more attractive, which leads to -drumroll please- GOOD. STORIES.
I’m going to keep reminding you guys of that until you believe me.
As I said before it isn’t a slam dunk. I actually have to play the full game to pass judgment. However, just based on the demo, I feel like this road is more likely. I focused a lot of my time on Peggy: an ‘enthusiastic freshman’ who talks faster than a salarian and always has a cause on hand to fight for. Her youthful, idealistic zeal is somewhat annoying to the old man pulling the MC’s strings (me), but I can’t help but also find it attractive in its own way. Any relationship path between the two makes total sense and it’s all built on by just spending time with her in between classes, work and running around like a madman.
England Exchange intrigues me: it really does. Beyond what could be a serious error, the title seems to be making the most out of being based on excursion material. It could well be the first of its kind in EVNs: a game that fully realizes the entertaining parts of human infatuation without diving into sleazy fanservice. But, then again, that header picture had to come from somewhere didn’t it? At the moment, I’m strictly in ‘wait’ mode because I have enough games to play. But, when I’m ready to depressurize (which I do once every new moon), I’m looking forward to picking this one up and seeing what it’s store.
If you’re interested in England Exchange, check out the Hanako Games website so more information here. JP3: OUT!