This reminds me of Jacob’s Island.
You’ll be forgiven for not remembering Jacob’s Island. If you do, you know that means to lay out the tarp. Jacob’s Island was the first demo feature I ever did for VNs Now back in 2013. It was a story set in a fantastical world with a human protagonist on a floating island filled with sexually adventurous beings painted as nothing short of utopian. I still remember what I felt when the protagonist immolated herself to the point of death and was revived without a single singe. In fact, I just laughed thinking about it.
Of all the flaws that game’s demo possessed, its biggest was its utopianism. Critiquing that aspect of Jacob’s Island and other games that followed its idealistic footsteps has not and will not be everyone’s cup of tea. I understand that, because one of the benefits of writing fiction, especially fantasy fiction, is to create worlds that would be nominally better than the current reality. And please do not misinterpret me to mean a writer should never create a fictional world fitting their ideals. However, just like writers must avoid creating over-idealized characters, writers should also learn how to not create over-idealized settings if only because you can lose the plot by focusing too much on why the fictional world is preferable to the real one.
Now we can finally get to the item of the day: Women of Xal. Like Jacob’s Island, this visual novel takes place on a world alien from our own and the demo spends a good chunk of its runtime establishing the titular continent and the lore of this world. The Cliffnotes (does anyone still use that site?) is that Jehovah has a brother named Dhaj who created the world of Xal. The citizens of Xal appear human, but are biologically different from us thanks to the mystical force of xala. Also, you’re going to see a lot of Xs in this feature…it’ll get normal somewhat. Anyway, xala dictates the culture and politics of Xal and it is more naturally inclined to females than males. Therefore, the world of Xal is matriarchal in contrast to the patriarchal, Abrahamic societies.
Got it? Good.
We’ll come back to the society of Xal, but let’s segue here to the plot. Our main character dejure is Xjena: one of six young women summoned by incredible wealthy Xuna Xaovant for a contest to decide who will be the heiress of her fortune and one of the most powerful woman in Xal’s society. This brings us to our first road bump: it’s The Apprentice. Considering all the Trump and/or Omorosa jokes I could make now, I hope my fellow Americans can appreciate my restraint. The overarching point here is that reality shows come with their own bundles of tired clichés and tropes and Women of Xal borrow from damn near all of them to give us the basic characteristics of the cast: both male and female.
The rationale for this is quite clear once you hit the second half of the demo, but in the beginning the combined characterization you get and fifty cents wouldn’t get you a cup of coffee. The biggest standout in it, in fact, is one of your rivals: Clanice. The only reason she stands out is because she comes to Xuna’s brothel (we’ll get to it) dressed casually. That’s usually not a good sign when the most noteworthy character is the attire, you might have a small issue.
Fans of the game will come in at this point and counter with the mountain of lore that has been discussed by the development team on their official channels. Now, if I have to look in extraneous, outside material to get the bare minimum of characterization the demo should’ve provided, something, somewhere, got screwed up. What makes matter worse for this critic is that there was ample time to translate the apparent K2 of characterization for us in the demo, but that opportunity was not taken in favor of what we got.
Wait, I’m forgetting something…ah yes, the males of the game. Let’s not get to the second part of the game before we talk about them, shall we? As I said, Xuna owns a brothel and this is where the game will be taking place. You will meet most of her harem of bishounen in the demo and they mostly play their roles as whores well enough. That sounds a bit harsh, but they are unequivocally on the lower rung of this society’s totem pole. The most they can hope for is to be the personal plaything of whoever takes over after Xuna and except for maybe two, that’s the game they’re playing. If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ve seen this acted out with prostitute characters: even the male ones. So, it won’t be that too shocking.
‘So, JP, you’ve talked some about the plot setup and the character but not the plot itself.’ Some might be thinking and the truth on that one is that it’s somewhat complicated. The plot of Women of Xal deals a lot with the politics of the overall world. We get a taste of that in the second half of the demo that has our six women discussing their relations with Earth and the status of men in their society, along with some issues with Eastern and Western Xalians…Xulians? Oh whatever. Apparently, this world is just beginning to adapt to some societal reform that not only eases relations with Earth, but also gives men certain ‘protections’…which don’t help too much but I suppose that’s the point.
How you position Xjena will matter just as much as who you romance, but that hinges on if you’re invested in said political machinations. This means that there need to be a bit of a push FOR you to develop an investment in this world’s politics and to pick a side. To this one, that means the last place Xjena should probably be is in a contest for a fortune that is entirely dependent on a singular political ideology remaining in power. Better yet, it would be a great help to care about this game’s politics if the approach, ‘Well, Xal not perfect, but it’s still so much better than what Earth has going for it!’ I’m not kidding: that’s said in the demo. And throughout the demo, that is basically the mindset as well, with only a nominal defense of human society to go on…thanks to steak and memes.
To which this Earthling must retort, you’re wrong and you should feel bad about being wrong.
For all the dirt underneath its fingernails, the world of Xal is simply far too idealistic to warrant any real interest in its politics. This brutal system has produced a society on par with Earth in reality and superior to Earth in the view of its inhabitants. If Xal was on the brink of revolution or ruin, then the waters would be muddied enough to become a political mover and shaker. At this point it is history, it really feels like Xjena and anyone who thinks like her is just rocking the Magical Matriarchy in the Sky just because and that purposelessness leaves the demo to end on a sour note.
I wish I could say this meant I hated the demo, if only because that would mean it brought out some strong passions from me. But, in the end, I felt ambivalent overall. I understand what Project Trinity want to do, but their ideas for the world and their methods in executing those ideas aren’t mixing together. Deepening the characters is something that will most likely have to wait into the full game, but changing how the world is portrayed: now that is something that can happen sooner rather than later.
Xal is an oppressive, militaristic society where some of its members actively support the genocide of the human race. If anything, it should be a glaring neon sign that matriarchal rule is no better than patriarchal rule and that should come through as the audience is trying to make-up Xjena’s ideology. But that catalyst will never come through if everything is framed as perfectly fine. Why should it? The lore should be secondary here to the audience trying to make up its mind and every new revelation making that task more complicated.
That’s not too much to ask from a ‘political otome game’, I hope. Heh, a Utopian I’m not: clearly. If you want to check out Women of Xal for yourself, you can find the demo on the Kickstarter page here. JP3: OUT.