If visual novel developers had a patron deity, I’m convinced it would be a God or Goddess of Love.
For this particular corner of the Internet, love in all of its forms is the most consistent theme for most Visual Novels in existence. From the bonds of friendship that can be seen in something like Autumn’s Journey, to the romantic idealism of 99% of dating games, to even the more erotic stuff we’re getting now, love is nearly always presented as the ultimate good in the world. It is a force so pure and powerful not only can it dramatically alter the people within the story, but also challenge the structure of time, society and, if love is felt strongly enough, can even topple empires.
It’s also one of the reasons I sometimes refer to myself as the EVN Devil or the Lucifer of Visual Novels. Beyond plenty of reasons I’m sure developers can give on that, considering my early reputation of antagonizing otome fans, mocking most romantic scenarios regardless of audience, and pushing for logical and mentally-heavy plots instead of the emotion-driven stuff cements my side in the larger battle between the mind and the heart. This is one of the things that interests me about Kokorogawari: the first commercial project by the group Precatio. Yes; once again we’re diving into the rose-colored, saccharine world of Otome. And whether it has anything to offer anyone outside the Otome faithful will depend on who wins out: God or the Devil.
As always, I will explain…hopefully within one thousand words.
At the center of Kokorogawari is Asami Matsubayashi. She is an art student currently living at home with her divorced mother. While she is the breathing definition of classical Japanese beauty, she is also the breathing definition of the Ice Queen trope…with caveats. She’s certainly not afraid of forming friendships and she does try to treat people well enough. However, she actively avoids romance and the efforts of her friends and mother to get her into one constantly annoys her. Her solution for this annoyance is a mixture of stone cold logic and snark, with a little extra snark thrown in for those in her own age bracket.
While I admit that I’m far from an expert in Otome, Asami presents a very interesting concept: a character with a legitimate case on how most people deal with romance. Everything Asami says in defense of her own cynicism is 100% accurate. Beyond that, her psychological scars from having a front row seat to the disintegration of her parents’ relationship are also very real and clearly has a deeper effect on her than she sometimes acknowledges. Her intellect and psychology form the bulk of her character and the easiest way to break this game (or any game for that matter) is to treat someone with a few emotional bruises, but otherwise of sound mind, as a broken soul waiting to be repaired by overdosing on a brain chemical.
This is more me throwing a caution flag more than anything. For the most of the demo, Kokorogawari allows Asami some moments of depth that gives you a feeling her character is much deeper than the typical maiden. That gives the impression that all the relationships we’re seeing, both familial and potentially romantic, will mean a bit more than cheap heart-string pulling. However, the closer you get to the end of the demo, the more you feel the writers salivating at the prospect of defrosting her as her logical arguments turn into, ‘No, he’s not REALLY interested in me! I’m ME!’ and she starts opening up just a teeny bit with one of her potential beaus.
I’m willing to chalk up the sudden rushed feeling of the demo to try and assure the majority audience for this game that there will sweet, fluffy romance despite the chilly start. So, in the middle of its appeal, it ended up throwing everything off balance. However, it does bring to mind one common complaint I have for many a romance game;
To clarify: the beau she begins warming up to is the one in the header looking out of a bus window in absolute shock at her. This is because they go to the same school and he was taking a nap on the bus after annoying her, so she decided payback is a mofo. This problem takes all of five seconds to resolve thanks to Asami’s bubbly friend to push more relationship advice onto her, leading to the eventual door cracking we see in the later portions. Beyond the obvious critique of the guy whose name escapes me at the moment for being such a pushover, the larger problem is that this is supposed to somehow interest me in a relationship between the two and/or make said relationship feel more organic. It accomplishes neither and, in facts, makes whatever relationship spawn between them more predictable and boring.
It doesn’t help that anyone not Asami can be incredibly one-note. We’ve seen these characters before and little is done to make them stand out beyond agents of tooth-rooting emotionalism. It’s a shame too because as I said, the character of Asami does give the game a veneer of depth early on that many of its contemporaries just don’t have. While I’m no longer expecting it, it would be nice to see that story play out and the only way that can be accomplished is if the story has more time to settle in. Everyone knows that love is going to win out in the end (yaaaay) so there isn’t a need to rush anything, in my humble opinion.
That doesn’t mean I just have gripes. The artwork for this game is fantastic. I love the watercolor style and how it fits into them being art students. Even in just the screenshots, the level of detail and overall atmosphere you get from this style fits its genre nicely. I also like the small extra they put in like a glossary to keep track of the fictional and non-fictional terms the game throws around from time to time. And I only spent any real time with one of the three targets of the game. For all I know, the other two have routes developed with patience and delivers on the early promises of Asami’s character. One in particular, Yuuya Takahara, seems to be similar in ideology to Asami in many ways. So, watching them both go through similar intellectual conflicts as they come to terms with potential feelings for one another could be a lot of fun.
Kokorogawari can be a solid VN, but it must avoid the mistakes of many in its field that speed through any potential development in the name of fluffy event graphic. Ironically, only time will tell how patient Precatio is. For now, the Otome faithful should give the demo and look and will hopefully demand the group’s best possible effort. You can find out more about Kokorogawari, including pre-order and potential crowd funding information, right here. JP3: OUT.