Just to be fair to everyone, the following review discusses several themes in Atom Grrrl that can be offensive to some readers; including racial slurs, graphically described violence, sexual assault and other unsettling material. I talk about all of this with examples so please keep that in mind.
Have you ever read or watched a piece of media and realized that the creator had become numb to any sense of embarrassment?
Believe it or not, I’m a proponent of embarrassment in the right circumstances. I don’t think people should embarrass one another, but it is healthy to be embarrassed of yourself in self-reflection. It’s a sign of maturity and, for creative people, it’s a sign that they are learning and growing in their craft. It doesn’t mean that a developer would agree with everything I or any other critic said about their work. It does mean that they can acknowledge their flaws. As for the audience, if you care about said developer, you should hope they learn from both the good and the bad of their work and not ignore bad feelings in the name of false comfort.
The worst type of developer or creative mind I’ve come across is someone who ignores or can no longer feel embarrassed by their work. It’s a sign of stagnation and it needs to be profiled if only so that those who do want to grow as creative minds can learn how to avoid it. This brings us to Atom Grrrl: one of the latest localizations from Sekai Project. And if the above few paragraphs were not enough of a warning; strap yourself in because it’s going to be a rough ride.
- Genre: Comedy, Romance, Crime Story
- Release Date: March 1, 2016
- Developer: Cosmillica
- Publisher: Sekai Project
- Language: English
- Platform: PC
- Edited By: Ozzytizer
Returning to Las Vegas from studying abroad in the island nation of Yamato, Jessica L. Huster comes back to lead her gang The 99th Floor, only to find out her family is in trouble with the dominating mafia boss, Big E.
Jessica and her friend Anna come together to face their troubles however Jessica’s cousin Very could turn out to be a “very” big problem for them.
So, what is this story about? Honestly, very little. It borrows the basic elements from Pulp Fiction: several people whose worlds collide thanks to a series of interconnected crimes. Where it fails pretty much immediately is that the writers don’t know how to make criminals likable. It is a literary accomplishment when you can get the audience behind someone who has openly committed violent crimes and has little to no regret about it. It’s why characters like Michael Corleone, Hannibal Lecter and The Joker stand the test of time. But doing so has a basic first-step requirement that you cannot avoid: you HAVE to acknowledge that what they are doing is wrong.
Not only does that not happen, little Jessica and her friends are specifically framed as good guys. Their gang’s only stated purpose is to keep lower criminal organizations from committing crime: mainly gambling and narcotics. Why gambling and narcotics? Well, the narcotics are obviously thanks to whoever watched The Godfather without understanding that the film takes place in the late 1940s before the establishment of the French Connection. And even then, narcotics were a profitable enterprise for most lower-end criminal organizations in the 1920s, which lead to the mafia muscling in on it in the first damn place. And EVEN then, ignoring narcotics completely, gambling is one of the oldest rackets in organized crime so there is literally no reason at all for a gang to force other gangs not to participate in it. I’m going off on a pedantic rant right now, but the bottom line is that although the game wants to spoof criminal culture it misses hard by making their main ‘gangsters’ relatively harmless.
The top of that ‘harmless’ totem pole is our supposed main character Jessica Huster. Jess is your standard-issue comic relief and I’m not convinced that her character wasn’t supposed to be some sort of parody that misfired. She spends the majority of the game either screwing up or getting bonked by her friend Anna. Funny enough, while the majority of the first half is spent on her and her antics, the creative team loses interest in her when about halfway through the game. Her screen time (and Anna’s by default) is reduced to near nil for the second half of the game. I can’t help but feel this is because they got bored with her one-note characterization and tried to salvage the game by narrowing her and Anna’s roles to sex puppets to be trotted out every now and then for the thrill of the audience.
Well perhaps I’m being too harsh on the little moron, because the rest of the cast doesn’t fare that much damn better. Just as bad as Jessica is Big E: an Asian crime boss who wears nothing but her bra and panties all day and whose major operation seems to be running a prostitution ring where all of the workers are trained to act like cats. At least, I THINK they’re acting like cats and aren’t actually cat girls…yes; fucking really. When she’s not preaching about the sins of American capitalism, she’s swearing up a storm. However, since she’s only a threat to the persistent stream of men who want to rape her, it’s impossible to see her as anything other than a one-note, paper badass.
The other characters are there to either provide comic relief (like Uncle Vinnie) or be hapless losers whose existence make everyone else look more tough in comparison (hi Dave). The only one in this mess to even remotely hit a note outside of annoying is Very Huster: the only sane person in this universe. She’s the default antagonist because she is a criminal acting like a criminal. Her actions are consistently foiled despite her best efforts and by game’s end, the power of familial love ends her attempts to break out on her own. Yes; fucking really.
As one note as these characters are, what doesn’t help them is the determination of the creative team to try and be as offensive as possible. Right out of the gate, we get racial slurs thrown in our faces with all of the subtlety of a teenager trying show off how ‘edgy’ they are. From there the game tries its best to be irreverent as it makes light of mass murder and body mutilation, but it never rises out of its immaturity which is more often than not a failed distraction from the lack of story here. About the only thing it takes seriously is sexual assault and that’s because Jess and Big E became friends after she saved her from being raped. But considering that this won’t be the last time we see Big E put in that position, it feels less like a lazy trope and more like the writing team just want to be absolutely clear that their ‘psychotic’ crimelord who wields a KA-BAR dildo is, in fact, not as bad as she seems.
The sad thing is that some of the events of the story could have worked if the creative team actually stuck to the ideas they claimed inspiration from. A good example happens shortly after Jess and Anna were escorted off stage right. Big E figured out the home of Dave, the aforementioned loser who is also a drug dealer who slipped one of her prostitutes something that nearly killed her. Swearing revenge, she goes to the location intending to kill everyone in it. Ironically(?), Very Huster is heading to the exact same location in order to get the narcotics Dave left behind as well as a briefcase containing a listing from the apparently very profitable catgirl sex slave ring she needs to return to Big E. Knowing that these two forces are about to come face-to-face, the game attempts to build up tension to the inevitable conflict and foreshadows that a bloody end for either Big E, or Very, or both is highly possible.
The setup is classic Tarantino: hell, it’s classic for most action movies. It should have been a highlight of the game and one that would either resolve the stakes heading into it, or spin them further out of control. And it falls completely flat. The creative team manages to grasp the general idea, but there are no real stakes heading into the confrontation because in order to have stakes, the audience has to be attached to the characters and that can only happen with an authentic, honest portrayal. The second reason is that, up until now, any confrontation ended peacefully with none of the major cast in any real danger. Because of that, there’s no reason to assume either Big E or Very will actually be harmed if they were to face off.
Not only did both walk away, but the game bullshits its way through the entire scene to try and squeeze some comedy out of it. The result is that it drains whatever interest is left, only to then stumble away from the ruins of that scene intent on getting your interest back. How? By having a police officer attempt to rape Big E. Yup.
It’s pathetic. Again, I know they’re trying to be edgy and controversial, but there is a such thing as trying too hard. And Atom Grrrl crosses the ‘trying too hard’ line before the game even begins. I wish I could pull some more from the story to critique, but the repeated cycle of trying to offend, only to retreat to trope-heavy comedy or bad drama when it fails, only to retreat from that to try and offend again leaves very little meat on the bone.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
So what can I say about the Presentation? Not much really. The character design, like the story, is married to familiar moe designs which makes it is bland and forgettable. Most of the Event Graphics resort to a chibi art style which usually signals the aforementioned shift from attempting to offended to attempting comedy. I’m assuming the sex scenes look entirely different, but since I have the Steam version I don’t have to worry about that. The backgrounds don’t help anything being filtered photographs. Rarely have filtered photographs for backgrounds been a good thing in visual novels and it only makes the overall game feel cheaper in comparison to even the lower end of Sekai’s catalog.
As for the technical end of the game it’s a bit of a mess as well. There are a handful of day one bugs that caused the game to crash. Those bugs were tied to the menu: specifically, the volume controls for voice acting and music. While I did notify Sekai Project of the issue, the safest way around it was just to mute the volume entirely to ensure that it wouldn’t break again. Considering that voice acting is usually one of the touted features for any VN, creating a situation where it’s safer to mute it because trying to toggle how loud it is can actually break the game is astounding.
There were some odd moments in the translation as well, but nothing quite tops the game-breaking bugs I ran into in the menu. Hopefully that has been corrected and if it hasn’t, I hope they will be soon. Not that I’m going to go back and check, but it goes towards Sekai’s reputation as a publisher: a heavy topic of discussion for VNs Now in the past month. Regardless of the internal opinion of Atom Grrrl (or even the critical opinion of it), it still deserves Sekai’s best foot forward when it comes to technical quality.
I’m sure anyone that has never seen anything actually controversial before will get a little thrill when the game goes into the gutter. But, those of us who have actually seen things that are controversial, and even the spare Tarantino film from time to time, knows a gimmick when they see it. Every ‘irreverent’ thing Atom Grrrl tries, from the constant swearing to the tacked on ultra-violence, is a gimmick to hide a very bad game.
The few fans I’m sure it has will say that we’re not supposed to take it seriously, but that’s not the case. The creative team repeatedly go out of their way to paint the main cast members as decent people. Violent? Yes, but overall good people. The insistency of their good nature means that we as an audience are supposed to like them. This is supposed to lead to scenes like I mentioned earlier where we are supposed to want everyone to come out of the situation alright. Of the few clear messages we get from Atom Grrrl, the biggest one is that we are supposed to care about the characters involved. But the writing is too confused and poorly thought out to make those scenes and characters mean anything. So we’re stuck with the game trying to get our attention by shouting naughty words, only to stutter and get completely lost when the audience has their eyes on them.
Atom Grrrl has nothing to offer to anyone. It’s a pathetic attempt to tell a story and if there is any creative drive left in anyone responsible for bringing this thing to the West, then they should all be embarrassed that their names are attached to this. For the rest of us? Avoid this desperate, ugly mess at all costs.