While I’m sure there is a very good psychological reason for the past five or six years of fictional trends, I still cannot explain the continued draw of post-apocalyptic works. From The Walking Dead to The Last of Us and everything in between, it is the ‘it’ factor of fiction: sweeping all areas of entertainment and dominating them like –insert your own sexual metaphor here–. So it was inevitable that, considering its prominence, it would soon come to the English Visual Novel community. Currently the biggest expected title with a post-apocalyptic setting is
Backstage Pass Exogensis: Perils of Rebirth which has been highlighted by JesuOtaku and several other gaming outlets. There is also a kinetic novel series with this setting, but that is another review for another time.
The only other standout that comes to mind is one I found out about early this year; Aloners. The premise it starts off on is familiar, but nevertheless intriguing. The rest can only be explained with a thorough review! As for the header picture for this review, let it not be said that I never did anything for the otome faithful.
- Genre: Romance, Post-Apocalyptic
- Date: November 2014
- Developed: Sonnet009
- Language: English
- Platform: PC
- Website: Official Site
Aloners is the tale of young woman who wakes up a few decades after the end of the known world. She finds herself in the shack of a scavenger appropriately named Trash. Trash lives in the middle of what is called the Dust Bowl: an area ravaged by a toxic cloud that mutates anyone who has the bad luck of being caught in its wake. As far as he thought, before our main heroine stumbles into his hut naked, he was the only living human being in the Dust Bowl. Now that things are a little different, what else will change for these two?
I can think of no better place to start than with the male lead Trash. He’s a survivor not only of the toxic dust cloud which has laid waste to humanity, but also a survivor of both the violent infected (here called ‘Muties’) and the violent uninfected. These experiences make him practical and cunning, yet it hasn’t made him ruthless or cynical. It also leaves him aimless before a naked girl is dropped, more or less literally, into his lap as he is ultimately waiting until the inevitable day when his supplies run out. There’s an excellent reason why he stays put and accepts this morbid fate, but you’ll have to play the game to figure that out.
I do not pretend to be an expert in the otome genre and I know the minute this review is read certain people will be coming for my head (coughLorecough), but when I say ‘otome’ certain tropes and clichés enter your mind and mine. From the outside looking in, while otome games cover different subgenres their character archetypes usually remains the same. The Flirt, The Tsundere, The Delinquent, The Elder Brother; these archetypes are invasive of all romantic visual novels these days and, speaking only for myself, their dominance and overuse has been the worst thing to happen to fiction since E.L. James…and if you don’t know who E.L. James is…GREAT.
Trash’s character, on the other hand, is formed outside of those familiar otome archetypes. Not only does this free me from creating another list of hilarious Bishonen jokes that I know you all love (we’ll save it for another game) it allows Trash to have a more natural development path without the specter of an established trope hanging over his head. Especially considering that the relationship between him and the Protagonist is vital to the entire story working, I was pleasantly surprised to read the story without groaning due to a forced moment between the two characters thanks to Trash being yet another skin job of yet another otome prince. This also gives Trash two things that I never thought I’d say about a romanceable target: relatability and complexity.
Yeah, I just said that and pigs aren’t flying through your windows. I’m shocked too.
Terrible things have happened to Trash over the course of his life and in any other piece of Post-Apocalyptic fiction he’d either be completely insane or just another vicious, soulless human. While he has a definite ruthless streak when we meet him, that is more or less just being practical and it never goes as far as to be cruel to anyone for cruelty’s sake. He does everything in his power to continuing surviving, yet at the same time doesn’t sacrifice his humanity to do so.
That isn’t to say that he’s ideal as he keeps several secrets throughout the game and makes his share of mistakes that nearly gets him killed. But ultimately, he does try to do the right thing not only for him but for you as the protagonist. He is, simply put, EXACTLY who most of us would want to be if we were put in a terrible situation like the zombie apocalypse. Calm and compassionate, yet decisive and intelligent while still maintain recognizable flaws. This also us as an audience can find something about him to like as well as giving a potential relationship between him and the protagonist time to cultivate.
And WOW I’ve spent several paragraphs gushing about Trash (insert yet another Lore and/or Toudou inside joke here), so let’s move on.
It isn’t enough to just have one good character in this type of story and our Protagonist is just as interesting as Trash is. She manages to survive the apocalypse thanks to being forced into a government program that hints at a much larger backstory that will hopefully be explored in the future. She wakes up not only grossly unprepared to face the ravages of the new world but also forced to define her relationship with, to her knowledge, the last human being alive.
The story wisely takes it times with our nameable girl here and tailors the options to cover her growth within the story rather than building or decreasing romanceable points with Trash. This may seem minor, but by focusing your choices directly on her rather than trying to win Trash, it has the extraordinary effect of correctly pacing their relationship and making their romantic moments feel more genuine. This, in turn, makes her development into a strong survivor in her own right more genuine for us as readers since we made the choices that guided said development.
It’s amazing how these things work out, isn’t it? The brilliance of this direction is best seen early on when the toxic dust cloud force Trash and the Protagonist to stay in the same space for an extended period of time. Predictably, this begins to wear on them both and it leads to a fight were the Protagonist has several choices of critiques to lash out at Trash with. Regardless of what you pick however, our Protagonist decides not to pull the trigger. This choice of story direction tells more about their growing relationship and both characters individually while giving the Protagonist a sense of individuality.
It’s the difference between, say, Booker Dewitt from Bioshock: Infinite and Jack from Bioshock and it is also the moment where the majority of players will connect with the Protagonist. Her choice not to fire back in order to keep the peace, even taking away the player’s ability to choose in doing so, was a very effective game mechanic that was played with to more psychotic affect in Cave! Cave! Deus Videt and I hope to see more EVN writers experiment with game mechanics in this way without fully taking away the reigns.
Bottom line, our girl is a great lead and her development fully invests you into the larger lore of this world. This larger story itself takes more than a few notes from the aforementioned Walking Dead as well as the excellent Playstation title The Last of Us where most of the suspense and drama comes from the trials of survival rather than a large looming threat; at least for two-thirds of the game. The first act is just the Protagonist and Trash trying to figure out how to make it to another day as well as exactly what they mean to each other, up until our leading lady figures out that just because they’re the only ones in the middle of the desert doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones left on Earth.
Yeah, slipped in a spoiler there…If I don’t sound sorry, it’s because I’m not.
The second act is probably the best as conditions as the elements are not kind as they try to figure out if anyone else is out there. Now, it’s well established that I enjoy the suffering of fictional characters as writing them out of that suffering will either make them stronger or kill them: leading to great fiction all around. Both the Protagonist and Trash suffer in the second act and it gives us some of the best moments of the game. The writing here walks the line between convenient and Deus ex Machina but ultimately falls on the right side as desperation and luck are a far cry from the hand of God. It all felt earned throughout it and watching them barely slip through the hands of death brought a relief that I hadn’t felt from an English Visual Novel in some time.
Oh how I wish this held up through the third act.
Yeah, while the game doesn’t fall apart completely in the third act, it does stumble pretty hard. This is due to the introduction of other people. I will not spoil their role in the story or with Trash and the Protagonist, but I will say it feels like the author was trying to figure out exactly what to do with them and by the time they do, it carves several plot holes into the story that the story never tries to patch up. They’re just move on as if the logical turn of the story was that the two don’t end up somehow gutted like a Big-Mouth Bass and that is about as much as I can say without spoilers.
This is also where the game takes it’s ‘Mature’ rating very seriously. It’s a pretty familiar well for the Post-Apocalypse genre to draw from so that isn’t really an issue. The overall issue is that, again, that whole gutted like a Bass thing that is stopped by Deus Ex Machina rather than by Trash’s or the Protagonist’s cleverness. And while I did enjoy the final few scenes, the ending of the game was unsatisfying considering the solid build up right up to the middle of the game. So, overall, the story is a good read that uses both Trash and the Protagonist to build a believable relationship in the middle of the apocalypse, while bringing out the best of two well-loved genres. However, the time spent having to get through the mess of the third act does leave its mark and, unfortunately, Aloners doesn’t recover.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
The Presentation here is not quite as impressive as the Story. The only characters sprite is Trash and, to be fair, the artist did a great job on the kid. His model covers a wide range of emotions and the CG art manages to convey whatever emotion is going through the scene at that moment. However, everything that is NOT Trash is lacking hard. The filtered photo backgrounds are okay at best with the open desert and cramped hallways getting the point across fairly well.
The blacked-out, stand in sprites used to represent other characters, however, didn’t work out at all. While it may have been a hassle, there needed to be more sprites than just Trash: especially by the third act when they become vital to the story. It’s hard to be invested in the tension of the story when all you have to stare at is a shadow. With the weaknesses in the tale by that point, it doesn’t help hold your attention in the same away that a defined visual would.
The soundtrack is also mixed. The biggest disappointment here is that there are no sound effects in the game. This works against the game when it’s trying to create a certain mood or impact in the more action-oriented scenes. The few tracks we get are more bohemian in nature; which is worlds away from the usually bleak, folk-style that we get with Post-Apocalyptic works. I didn’t mind it for the most part, but there is a moment early on where Trash and the Protagonist figure out how to fix a CD player and to have that glorious moment come to a screeching halt when they plat it and the same Rastafarian-esque tune starts playing is jarring to say the least.
Gameplay is what you probably expect with very straightforward choices. As you get closer to the end, those choices become more critical as they can lead to a sudden Bad End which keeps you on your toes at least. Other than that, there are no bugs or glitches to report.
As a free-to-download game, the only thing you’ll be burning is time. Going at a pretty easy pace, I knocked it out at just near two hours. This makes it perfect for a lazy afternoon when you’re looking for something to play that’s entertaining and straightforward. While the options don’t lead to multiple, unlocking endings, there is a lot of value here due to the quality of the story so don’t let that stop you from downloading a copy.
I’ve talked about 2014 at length here on the site and in other venues. The ‘big’ titles of the year were either average or rage-inducing, and a legitimate question that I’ve had in conversation is, ‘How many EVNs in 2014 were good?’ To be fair to the developers, there were several good projects in 2014 and Aloners is one of them. The story managed to bridge the Post-Apocalypse journey with an Otome story and gives us two strong characters that grow together rather than are lost in saccharine romance. However, it cannot hold itself together during the entire stretch of the story and unfortunately falls apart thanks to some indecision on the writer’s part and liberal use of the Hand of God to try and ensure that the Good End was the best possible Good End it could be.
It’s a copout: there’s no other way around it. But everything leading to it gives me hope not only for our little corner of the Internet, but for the writer as well. We’re going to see good things from Sonnet009 in the near future because Aloners is definitely worthy of your curiosity. Check it out with tempered expectations and look forward to whatever this team does next.