In the final months of 2014, you may have heard Chris Tenarium and I trashing 2014 as a whole as a weak year for the EVN community. To be fair to me, I had only played the most notable commercial games of the year by that point so while I still hold part of that opinion as far as commercial EVNs go, I was ignorant about the gems that the community produced during the previous year.
One that I have had on my playing queue for a while now is Basiliska. From the creative minds behind The Knife of the Traitor, Basiliska bucks the trend of EVNs that pull their narrative inspiration from the Source Wall (anime and manga) and instead gives us characters and atmosphere that almost feels ripped from a theatrical production. This is a story about two women: one young, one not so young, and the secrets they keep that have cost them both a great deal.
Come inside. We have a lot to discuss.
The ‘Not So Young’ woman, named Cecily, we meet first. She is a master sorceress and runs the local apothecary in a small country town. The young woman is named Thea and she is the apprentice of another sorceress in the town. Both have rumors swirling around them from a public wary of magic and warier of people who keeps secrets. When the Sorcerer General (I love that title, I’ll get into why shortly) enters both of their lives with sudden news, only the truth can keep them from destroying one another.
One of the best aspects of this story that I don’t see discussed much in its reviews is the level of political intrigue weaved into it. Much of the plot’s background is implied to have spun from policies and cultural norms surrounding magic. It’s very bureaucratic with a council and officers like the Sorcerer General governing those with magical abilities. Along with the rumblings about an elected assembly, corrupt guilds and a more libertine aristocracy, it gives the entire world its own history as well as a ‘lived in’ atmosphere that many English Visual Novels struggle to create.
This is especially vital for games that want to extend itself beyond just one game and think they have to pile own backstory and catalog upon catalog of journal entries to do so. Basiliska creates the potential for future works in this world without ever giving us a clear picture of that world. Hell, we don’t even find out the name of the country they live in: just that it’s a colonial power and they’re far from the mainland capital. And it accomplished all of this world-building by having the characters have the type of conversations people in their positions in life would have. That brings us to the next vital part of Basiliska’s success: the age of its cast.
A strong theme running through the game is subtly and, because of that, we never get the cast’s ages. We can infer, however, that Thea is in her teens and both Cecily and Orson are somewhere in their thirties. Visual Novels as a whole is a medium where the average character age is seventeen, so please excuse me for a moment while I step back and marvel at the fact that we have actual ADULTS not just in an English Visual Novel but they are the MAIN CHARACTERS in an English Visual Novel. Because the majority of our main cast has lived and experienced things the reader hasn’t seen with them, it gives them something that all of the angsty childhoods in the world cannot duplicate: weight. Cecily’s backstory, which I will not be spoiling here, simply wouldn’t have thematic weight coming from someone in their teens or twenties.
This is a vital point as far as this website is concerned because of the wider range of stories we can all have if writers didn’t stick with freakin’ high school. For the long-time readers of this site, you know this has been an issue with me and Basiliska shows what you can bring out of a character if they’re not stuck in perpetual pubescence. Cecily’s age has just as much to do with her story as the details of her scandalous lifestyle, which means it’s time to dig into our leading duo.
As for Cecily and Thea themselves; I wish they had more than an hour. The game takes great lengths in the beginning to pace their relationship and sells the audience on the worst case scenario. Both women tip-toe that line as they repeatedly lie then tear down those lies. It is expertly written and culminates into an explosion of magic and grief. This is the entire first half of the game and despite the tension and dread the story builds as Thea and Cecily head into their inevitable confrontation, it feels like the game tries to wrap everything up as much as possible as soon as it ends to focus on Cecily’s background in the second half.
This, in turns, affects the entire game and creates a sense that nothing is ever resolved; especially with Thea. Her immediate magical issues are hand-waved off, and her emotional scarring is never brought back up. This is a person who is so powerful, their mood affected the weather and who has caused actual misery just by being alive (you’ll have to play the game to understand that one), but as long as that magic can be controlled, apparently every other emotional issue is water under a bridge.
It isn’t a deal breaker with Basiliska, but like I said before, I wish there was more time to show Cecily and Thea’s relationship fully flesh out and for Thea to have a moment of much-needed catharsis. As for Cecily’s story, it is also unresolved but mostly because her story hinged on returning to the place that left her with her mysteriously afflicted eyes. This is more ‘fun’ than Thea’s since most of Cecily’s problems can be linked to her own libido and, quite frankly, it’s kind of all her fault.
In fiction even illicit relationships are usually shown in a positive light and I am intrigued to see Cecily’s downfall linked directly to her sex life. Whether or not her feelings are genuine concerning that relationship are questionable because, if nothing else, our girl is a very good liar. But the story puts her in a position where she will directly have to confront that, as well as her paternal relationship with Thea, in order to truly get back on her feet. For the most part she does, but as always she keeps her cards close to her chest. Like with Thea, this storyline doesn’t complete resolve itself. Unlike Thea there is a clear character arc and the Cecily we have by game’s end is much more stable than when we first see her. It is very good work done here by the team and it crafts one of the better EVN characters 2014 had to offer.
Despite my critique, this story isn’t a mixed bag. It is very good and features a rich setting and well-written characters. So much is packed into so little time; the next chapters of the tale are practically gift-wrapped to the creative team. And while I wish more was done for Thea, the twists and turns the relationship between her and Cecily takes make both of them much stronger characters as we are left on one Hell of a cliffhanger.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation here is, for lack of a better word, beautiful. The game feels like an 19th Century oil painting given a fresh breath of life and, considering the tone and setting, that feeling is apt. The character designs stand out the most as each of them is eye-catching and memorable: especially Cecily. But then again, this is a European woman in a kimono and a silk blindfold. There are only so many ways you can’t make that one memorable. One of the biggest winning points of the designs is the subtle variations in characters’ expressions: especially for Thea. The difference when is sarcastically upset and legitimately angry are told in the direction of her eyes and hands, not just some extreme, cartoonish outburst.
It’s a little bit more subtle for Cecily who has to contend with not having eyes to use in art direction. Yet they pull off a wide range of emotions just with how Cecily interacts with her (opium?) pipe. This is fantastic art work that gives the story much more flare and makes the most out of its atmosphere and characters.
The soundtrack, interestingly enough, isn’t an original. They are all royalty free tracks, yet they feel made for this story. These are all great choices that, again, develop a great atmosphere for the game as a whole.
Gameplay is minimal. This is a kinetic novel so as long as the Auto function worked, there weren’t going to be any real problems. Saving and Loading also seems tedious considering the run time. However, I did enjoy the extra menu that showed the planning sketches from Carrogath (Writer) and Clua (Artist) as well as some guest art. While there wasn’t a separate gallery for the Event Graphics, it still came together well.
Again, Basiliska is a kinetic novel and it only runs for an hour. I can see this one going into the great HQ library to be pulled down whenever I have a quiet afternoon to myself. There is also a Twine-based side story featuring Cecily and Thea called ‘Drink’: yes, it involves what you think it involves. I haven’t cracked this story yet, but it extends your time in this world. I highly recommend playing both, but even if you only spend an hour with Basiliska, it is an hour well spent.
I often talk about getting more from this medium than just one game and Basiliska provides an extraordinary opportunity for some aspiring thespian out there. This could easily be distilled into a stage performance (with the team’s permission of course) that will make crowds unfamiliar with English Visual Novels laugh, hold their breath in fear, laugh again and finally applaud at the end. There is so much potential here for more tales in this world and with these two women that I sincerely hope that something is in the works from a team that doesn’t appear very often, but when they do they have the incredible ability to bottle lightning.
Critiques aside, Basiliska is one of the true gems of 2014 and if, like me, you’re late to the party it isn’t too late to get caught up. I enjoyed the time I had with it and anything that leaves itself enough room for more is good in my book. Play it today if you already haven’t and if you have, play it again!