It’s good to be a part of the EVN community right now.
Between all of the new talent finding their footing through crowd-funding and the old guard stepping up their game, your favorite villainous reviewer has plenty to ease his appetite with in 2014. For those of you who remember my Most Anticipated EVN list, you know that three have already been delivered to my table: Asher by Sun Labyrinth,Icebound by Fastermind and Autumn’s Journey by Apple Cider. We’ll be addressing the first two in good time. Today, however, we’ll be discussing a title that has been eagerly anticipated by myself and others for over a year now.
Autumn’s Journey was originally announced for NaNoRenO 2013. Unfortunately, a good idea cannot be contained to such a short time period and what was originally a small feature that represented the first team up of artist Dejicita and writer KittyKatStarGal began to grow. After NaNoRenO passed, development of the game continued and the team grew into the coalition dubbed Apple Cider.
So a year has passed and now the tooth-rotting horror of Autumn’s Journey has been unleashed on the world! And while I enjoy the collection of young GRRMs this small corner of the Internet is supporting (looking at you Lore), no one ever died from the Power of Friendship…although apparently the Power of Love has laid waste to entire nations. With that said, let’s dive into Autumn’s Journey!
Autumn’s Journey is the story of Auralee: a young woman who aspires (read: obsessed) to be a knight. While training with her Mother to reach that goal, she spends her days preforming services for her hometown of Berri. This leads her to finding a young man sleeping in the woods. This young man, named Kerr, turns out to be a dragon who has been forced into human (here called ‘Heavenkind’) form for being a douche. If he learns enough about humanity, he’ll be freed from his bipedal form. Another dragon, this one named Ilmari, is supposedly sent to help him in his task and together three set off on an adventure!
Usually I do not start my reviews with criticism, but in order to get to the parts I like we have to. The pair, especially KitKat, made it clear several times that they had no intention of writing anything other than a warm and fluffy friendship game and that is exactly what they deliver. However, this means that the first half of the game is completely predictable. As much as I respect KitKat, by the time we get to the scene where Auralee’s dream isn’t handed to her on a silver platter, only for a chance to prove herself to be handed to her on a silver platter by an old-school knight who ‘respects the old ways’, I was a little worried this was going to be a sit.
This is especially true considering that despite being dragons in human form, ergo completely out of their depths, the two manage just fine. There is never a moment where cultures actually clash and it was a missed opportunity to show steady development and something more to the story than the static tropes that makes them no different than any other long-haired bishonen in this genre. It isn’t necessary that there needed to be scenes where the dragons and humans get into a bar brawl (possibly while singing The Rains of Castamere) to explore just how deep the divide is between the two cultures, but a scene along those lines would have given another dimension to the friendship that is the central point to the entire game.
But, speaking about that friendship, the final major issue of the game are the romances. Bottom line, it’s not good. You have the option of becoming more intimate with either Kerr or Ilmari, but the writing for both side scenes is far below the writing for the of the game. The only worthwhile addition is a scene where Kerr and Auralee decided to see who the strongest is between them…and nothing is funnier than seeing a supernatural being get his ass kicked by a girl bringing all 100 lbs (if that) soaking wet into the fight. Other than that, it is only there to appease those who wanted the option and adds little else to the tale.
Now, with all of that said and done, let’s get to the good stuff.
The story is far more invested in watching the relationship between Auralee, Kerr and Ilmari than telling a larger story about the world around them, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get information about this crazy place. Autumn’s Journey is rich in detail and back story when it comes to its larger world. By the end of the game, much of the world of Ishtera is firmly established in terms of lore, culture, governments and spirituality and much of it done without dumping information on the audience. The greater universe is deftly handled and more games can learn from their approach.
A big factor in the solid world building is the overall humor of the game. Autumn’s Journey doesn’t take itself seriously in any way and that goes a long way for our three heroes. While they have a collection of softer moments where obvious statements are stated (Kerr) and there’s a lot of blushing and ear-wiggling (Ilmari), the humor they shared is what ultimately sold me on their connection. The jokes about their personalities and behaviors flow well and are executed with near flawless timing. I found myself laughing at the silliest things AJ had to offer, but at the same time I found myself liking them all more than I would watching any attempt KitKat would’ve made to be super-extra-original. Not saying it completely excuses the first half of the game, but I enjoyed the story far more because it was sincerely funny.
And all of this barely factors into the best points of the game: Auralee herself. Not only is Auralee a fun character; she’s a strong one. And before you say, ‘NO SHE’S NOT’; you’re wrong. ‘Strong’ and ‘Complex’ are not synonymous. And while I don’t think anyone at Apple cider intended on creating a shonen hero, Auralee’s strongest points are that she is straightforward, wears her emotions on her sleeve and is extraordinarily thick-headed. She has just as much bravado as a Yusuke Urameshi, Ichigo Kuraski, or Edward Elric, but at the same time she also shares their compassion and courage. The best part is that, at a certain point, the story slows down just enough to let her be vulnerable. Again; just like Strong and Complex are not synonymous, neither is ‘Weak’ and ‘Vulnerable’. The second act allows Auralee to be vulnerable without being tragic and it works out great for everyone while solidifying her place in the overall world.
Bottom line: if you’re going to write a female action hero, Auralee’s a great place to start.
Finally, I really like how AJ hinted that the world wasn’t quite as idyllic as Auralee imagined; especially since the only ‘real’ knight jobs she could find made her, essentially, a mercenary. This comes to a head when she assists in transporting some cargo that both dragons have a problem with. How they go about trying to address this problem is handled very well since, ultimately, there is no immediate solution. Considering that just a few acts before this when Old-School-Knight guy snaps his fingers and fixes a big issue with Auralee, it is very refreshing to see the sacrifices that have to be made by our intrepid heroes to scratch the surface of the problem.
Yes the game ends on something of a cliffhanger. However, allowing the troubles our heroes unearth to go unsolved is a big plus in the game’s favor. Not only does it give plenty of material for the eventually sequel that will be coming to us VERY soon (HINT HINT), but it also closes out this chapter very well. While I wish there was more meat on the bone, especially in the first half, the game ends with just enough delivered for a nice book end. It’s one of the few times an EVN doesn’t overstay its welcome or moves too fast to deliver its story. It ends right when it needed to end and it’s all the better for it.
So ultimately, this is a success. A lot more could have been done to strengthen the boys and give the readers a more invested experience, but outside of that Autumn’s Journey is a legitimately fun and warm story about the friendship between three people from two different species. I laughed, groaned a few times, but I mostly couldn’t keep the dumb smile off my face from watching these three.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
Presentation wise, this is the best-looking EVN in 2014 so far. Everyone familiar with this corner of the Internet knows there were three artist who could take the anime style and make it unique for them. With one doing his own thing, that leaves Auro-Cyanide and Deji. Being the other half of the original team and the lead artist, Deji brings in her A game and delivers some of the best sprites and CGs she’s done to date. ‘Original’ might be pushing it, but I’m speaking more along the lines of details. Oh and THANK YOU for making Auralee’s Mom look her age! In this genre, where the oldest of the oldest still looks fresh out of high school, it’s refreshing to see a mature character actually look like a mature character.
Deji gets back up from a ragtag crew of familiars and newcomers including Nellie Wong (a2: a due) who worked on animation and chibi artwork, Arowana (a2: a due) who worked on the coding and technical what-not and S-Morishita (A Troll’s Fairy Tale) on the backgrounds. The entire team does a terrific job of making this one as graphically strong as possible. The only real visual complaint I have is that the big throw down in the final act doesn’t get its own scenes. Considering how the final boss was described, some visual aid would’ve gone a long way. This is a running issue I have with a lot of visual novels in general where some scenes are given more artistic weight than others, which ends up hurting consistency. Maybe I just wanted to see Ilmari nearly get crushed to death…I am a twisted bastard aren’t I?
We also have some voice actors here! It isn’t fully voice acted though, but considering all of the ‘partial’ voice work I’ve heard to listen to this year, I have to admit I prefer a few sentence to boost the dialogue rather than full voice acting to start and stop. And a special shout out goes to one Jason Chen and Jasmine Clarke. The game uses two tracks with his permission for the end credits and the planned opening video. Not only would the opening video been awesome if it was finished (though it still could be HINT HINT), I loved the ending credits as gave the final scene a strong send off and added a bittersweet touch that kept the silly smile on my face.
Gameplay wise this game runs mostly smooth and I didn’t experience any bugs or crash issues. I DO wish the GUI was a bit clearer. It relies mostly on icons and I didn’t know there was an Auto Save and Quick Save menu until I realized that back arrow on the Save screen led to them. Also the Extra menu could’ve been a bit more extensive. We get galleries for the CGs, Chibis and Music, but the planned opening and finished credit videos, along with a few planning bits, would’ve made a good extra touch.
You can knock out Autumn’s Journey very easily within an hour. That makes it excursion material more than anything: perfect for a weekend when you just want to read and enjoy something without worrying about watching your favorite character get their head crushed like a grape, or strangled, or shot on the toilet you know what? This only makes me want a Game of Thrones/Autumn’s Journey crossover more. #KHALESSIAURALEE DAMMIT
Ultimately, there is replay value here as long as you can enjoy the softer, lighter premise.
So where does Autumn’s Journey sit on the pantheon of games we review here at VNs Now?
For their first official team up, the entire Apple Cider (Cidre?) have a lot they can be proud of. Everything comes together like they’ve been working together for years and they actually deliver on what they promised. My critiques on the presentation and story boil down to a wish list for the next game, as they have much more to work with now than what they had last year when they embarked on this little adventure. They build a great foundation to open up more of the world and adventures and even allowed for material to not directly involve this game’s protagonists. The opportunities for this metaverse are both vast and infinity, so I only hope they learn from the few missteps presented and go bigger and bolder on their next outing.