I like to think my thought process is a bit more nuanced than that, but I’m not 100% sure what to take away from Sugar and Massacre. This isn’t the first time we’ve crossed paths with a demo that left more than a bit of confusion here on VNs Now. However, it is one of a select few that seems purposely designed to be a mind screw. All the information I can find on it keeps any actual plot details at arms length and the demo I played focused on completely random events in the lives of the main cast. So, at the very least it seems to have done it’s job as planned? Unfortunately, that’s not going to be a good thing.
Here’s what I was able to gleam from the demo. I hope this makes sense.
Sugar and Massacre is, ultimately, a romance game set in a cyberpunk future featuring a world that has both technology and magic. Because tech advanced faster than magic, magic is resigned to myth and legend while humanity stumbles towards a dystopian, neon-lit future. In one of these cyberpunk cities, a woman named Olivia arrives for…some reason and is destined to cross the paths of four other women: a witch, a witch hunter, a Nier: Automata cosplayer, and a ginger. Each of these women have their own dark pasts, except for seemingly the ginger? She seems to just be a hedonist and I know that because that’s one of her nicknames in the promotional materials. And exploring and coming to terms with their pasts will be a part of their story arcs as their lives intersects with Olivia’s. Also sex…if the title ‘S&M’ wasn’t on the nose enough for ya.
So, what’s the problem JP? Well, in theory the four short stories presented in the demo are fine if the goal is to show that the developers can, in fact, make the game’s programming run without error. If the goal was to give us a sense of who the main cast was and get us interested in the larger story of the game, then we have a problem because the characters as presented are flat. There is no point of interest here that the audience can grab on to in order to build up the rest of the story. Take for example, the witch and the witch hunter. Their stories hint at being in conflict with one another. However, to garner audience investment in either separately, that conflict needs to have context outside of those two.
I.E., if the world is so technologically advanced and magic is relegated to myth and legend, why should we care that there are witches fighting in the shadows? Are they being hunted to extinction? If not, are they a radical or terrorist cell that threatens humanity? Has it always been like this or is this a recent development? It’s hinted in the promotional material that the witch hunter may be doing this for familial reasons? Okay, so its it a personal grudge between this particular witch’s family and the witch hunter’s family? And if it isn’t recent, then how has magic been relegated to myth and legend? Is this a Blade thing were magic functions more like a biological function instead of a supernatural one? Is any of this going to be addressed in the game or is it going to take a back seat to all of the sex?
The same goes for the 2B expy. She’s apparently some sort of tyke bomb that has been brought out of stasis for some reason that has earned her the ire of those around her…because of course it does. All we need to know here is what her character does: some example of what she is. The only clear hint we get of it is when she gets upset at being taunted, cuts her hand and somehow her hair absorbs her blood from her hand when she touches it and gives her red streaks in her hair. You know, because angst.
Okay, so she’s not human then. But, we got that from the opening scene of her sitting half-naked and not giving a damn about it. What she can do, or the purposes for her being reactivated, gives us context to her character as well as the world at large. It also creates gives us a narrative hook outside of her being a poor, bullied not-quite-human girl. Since we don’t get it, the audience is forced to sympathize with her archetype and not her character. It’s a terrible position to leave the audience in because if all we have to go on is a character archetype, then we can get better elsewhere: hence the consistent references to Nier: Automata.
The only thing that survives the demo in a decent place are the ginger and the overall direction of the game. Her story is just her laying around her apartment in workout clothes bored. While it does seem to fit her characterization, it literally doesn’t go beyond those four walls so whatever development occurs in the game proper will not clash with how we’ve been introduced to her. And the direction is very good: focusing on cinematic cuts and angles that make the most out of their graphics and soundtrack. This is vital for creating a more somber atmosphere that seems to be in line with the world the game takes place in. Unfortunately, the mood is often broken because of the characters in that world, but I’ve ranted about them enough for one day.
That leaves the game’s engine. I cannot say for sure, but this feels like it was programmed with TyranoBuilder. I’ll save the full rant for later, but between Unity and Ren’py there are much better options than this. I have yet to play a visual novel made in TyranoBuilder that I didn’t want to throw into a wood chipper just know that its hard to fully immerse yourself into the game’s tone when you cannot change the game’s aspect ratio to fit into your monitor. Or thanks to the haze that seems to be over all of their games: like a static filter that won’t go away. It just ruins the visual fidelity and makes the artwork look rougher than an actually is. I’m sure people will continue to use the engine. I’m just waiting for the one game that shows VNs made with it can hang with the others.
So, where do we go from here? I don’t know. The cast, as presented, just aren’t strong enough to build interest towards the full game. They have no world and not plot to play off of, so everyone lands flat here. There’s nothing to really build off of for a full game, so my best suggestion is to box this demo and try again. Instead of trying to sell the characters, try giving the world they’re in better context than, ‘FUTURE! MAGIC! SEX!’ Unless there is no plot for this, knowing the details of that plot and showing more than one dimension of the characters can only help at this point. It certainly can’t make the cast any more dry and tepid than they already are.
If you’d like to check out Sugar and Massacre for yourself, you can get the demo here. JP3: OUT.