In 2012, one of the young groups that stood out to me was a two-person team called Cyanide Tea. Auro-Cyanide and Lorelei had accomplished little at the time, but their big project showed a lot of promise…even for a Boys Love title. While they were working on Break Chance Memento the group also developed an impressive library of work that includes Ristorante Amore, The Elevator, Nachtigal, The Blind Griffin and my EVN of 2014, Taarradhin. In their short history they’ve proven themselves to be one of the most creative teams in this small corner of gaming, and one of the small joys I have as a critic is that I’ve been able to watch their progress.
But now here we are with their long-time big project Break Chance Memento. It spent some time in development and, at last, it’s in my hands. I’ve been anticipating this one since its announcement and had a lot of fun picking through the demo some time ago, but it was all just an appetizer for the main course. So is it trés fantastique or have we stumbled into our first ever Cyanide Tea misfire? Let’s all find out together.
Shuuki Amamiya exists, that’s for sure. The youngest member of the Amamiya family has garnered quite a reputation as a brat and that’s putting it nicely. The rest of his family isn’t fairing much better; existing in a perpetual fugue state since the untimely death of Shuuki’s twin sister Fuyuka. Arguably the hardest hit was the eldest Amamiya brother Natsume who their parents blamed for the accident that killed Fuyuka. However, they continue to truck along, each member of the family existing until another tragedy; the gruesome death of the middle Amamiya brother Masaharu shakes everyone out of their melancholy. Shuuki is then approached by a mysterious figure claiming to be from the future and bearing a device he claims can not only help Masaharu, but also help heal their broken home by traveling through time. Unfortunately, Shuuki isn’t the only one with a device that can break the bounds of time and one murder isn’t going to be enough to stop them. Can Shuuki save his family and friends from a grisly demise or is he fated to be stuck in blood-drenched sorrow forever?
So the best place to start is that I do not have a crush on Shuuki. Many on Twitter have spread odious lies in order to twist my witty and intelligent jokes about Shuuki as a crush, but that is far from the case. Shuuki is a fictional character after all and he is a total jackass. Plus, I am, as I have often pointed out, a romantic/sexual wasteland with many bleached, dry, dead bones covering the withered expanse of what was once my heart. NOW THAT I HAVE GOTTEN THAT OUT OF THE WAY, Shuuki’s definitely one of the more noteworthy EVN protagonists in my run on VNs Now.
The overarching themes of the game deal with remorse, grief, and learning how to properly manage both. Shuuki is at the forefront of these themes and his adventures are very interesting to read, with plenty of tense moments to flesh him out from just being a brat. One of the best scenes to show this slow build happened about midway when you have the option of talking to Natsume several years in the past. You run into one of Shuuki’s exes, who we also met during the opening chapters of the game, in a far more compromised position. The conversation that happens between Shuuki and his future ex is drenched in regret because Shuuki realizes in that moment everything he threw away for no reason. It’s entertaining yes, but also sad, and the game is full of these moments that force Shuuki to grow bit by bit. He doesn’t fully mature by game’s end, but if you’ve been following VNs Now for any real length of time you know that the best characters usually don’t complete the process. It’s how far he gets along that path and the little moments in between where he is honest-to-God learning and moving forward that builds his character. It all came together for a fantastic ride and I couldn’t imagine a better protagonist for this work…even if he could use a kick to the teeth. And a haircut. And better fashion sense. And –
While Shuuki is the character that stands out due to his position as the main character, the rest of the cast, for the most part, makes a strong showing themselves. There are still favorites though and the narrative makes the best work out of Chiaki and Natsume. Natsume is the most psychologically scarred going into this one and his acceptance of the current stagnation, even with the damage it does to his own life, makes his shifts from forced cheer to somber acceptance to even blind rage both heartbreaking and terrifying. However, as you’ve probably guessed, Natsume isn’t as dim or borderline psychotic as he appears to be and some of the best scenes not focused on Shuuki deal with Natsume’s intelligence, creativity and guile. I spoil nothing in saying his future self is responsible for the time machine Shuuki uses and by the end of the game you fully believe he is capable of that and much more once he forgives himself. It’s solid writing here and works hand-in-hand with Shuuki’s character arc.
Alongside Natsume is the only character in the game that has it harder than any of the Amamiyas and that’s Chiaki. I’m not going to spoil the Shrimp’s story, but it is several different shades of screwed up and really serves as a kick from a mule once his chapter is served up. His overall attitude helps very much in his likability so that by the time the inevitable happens, you want to save him. However, it’s learning more about his background and how he manages to be the most mature and balanced in the cast despite it that drives you to spend more time with him; something none of the other non-Amamiyas have. Tiny here is the only one that manages to serve as a viable love interest to Shuuki, mostly because he doesn’t put up with his crap but also because he’s just that interesting on his own to make a potential pairing fun to watch develop.
Outside of these three, the cast’s range and influence in the story varies. Masaharu is solid, but doesn’t go too far outside of his established character. This was fine for me as he didn’t really need to do much but be reliable and reestablish his familial relationships that he severed in order to try and move forward. So while you shouldn’t expect anything too engaging, Masa’s still fun to have around and adds needed weight in his scenes. Kyousuke, the time traveler who gives Shuuki the watch in the first place, does not play a vital role outside of his first appearance.
That leaves Yukinari. I didn’t like Yukinari. As insufferable as Shuuki can be, at least he has cause. Yukinari is a brat because money is a Hell of a drug. Outside of that he really doesn’t add anything substantial and the chapter on him feels like filler if you’re not trying to get his romantic route. I wish there was more I could add here, and while it didn’t harm the story overall it didn’t feel like a positive addition. And before I forget, shout out to Dorm Mom for still rocking it. You’re a beast, Dorm Mom. I don’t care what anyone else thinks about you.
As for the story itself, BCM is pure science fiction and familial drama. The time travel is as straightforward as can be done in fiction without breaking the brain: you need something from the past that is attached to a strong memory that person would have at that moment in order to travel to that point in time. Yes, that makes time an emotional spectrum in BCM that can be traveled by quantifying strong emotion. Yes, that means Cyanide Tea came up with the idea at least two years before Christopher Nolan did something similar with Interstellar. It’s the simplest version of the concept and it works for the purposes of the story because it explains the two major science fiction concepts at play: alternate universes and an ‘infinite loop’. The execution of these isn’t flawless, but it does execute enough right to where nearly everything can be explained if you’ve read enough comic books…or at least watched the DCAU’s Crisis on Two Earths.
Unfortunately, the time travel aspect can get a little choppy; especially when you realize how miraculous it is that Shuuki never miscalculates and runs into himself and creates a time paradox that collapses the multi-verse. The game manages as well as possible to neatly tie everything together, but in any time travel story there’s going to be plenty of loose threads to pull. On top of that, BCM simply isn’t going for anything that requires that much mental investment. So while it is a problem that does have some repercussions down the line, like Yukinari, it isn’t enough to derail the game’s narrative.
So, does that mean that there are no problems at all in BCM? No. While the game has several successes and manages to navigate a notoriously difficult subgenre of fiction no worse for wear, it does have its share of flaws. The biggest flaw has to do with a close, personal friend of this particular corner of the Internet: Death. Long-time readers know that there is art to pain and death in fiction and Cyanide Tea have been students of that art in their last few games. And while the pain is definitely here, death loses its sting after Chapter 2 and the threat of the murderer lessens along with it.
You will hit a point where you stop caring about the deaths and the serial killer aspect of the story: it’s unfortunate, but inevitable. Not enough bread crumbs were left in the plot to keep an interest in the murder storyline as most of the game’s energy went into exploring the familial baggage. That doesn’t help when you get to that gloriously rendered murder scene and your reaction is, ‘Meh’. The murders and serial killer subplot are another tool to explore the family relationships and I accept that but it cannot replace that feeling right at the midpoint of the game where I was going through the motions to stop the deaths and felt little to nothing when those deaths happened.
This feeling, unfortunately, leaked over into the time travel mechanic. It is a brilliant concept and the team brought it together very well in a unique way, BUT ultimately it serves as a very advanced map system. There is no real challenge or mystery finding the mementos you need to stop the murders from happening, so once you’ve saved them you’ll have plenty of time to spend more time with one of the other boys. Ignoring the low hanging fruit labelled ‘missed opportunities’, as I’ve already stated there’s only Little Man’s romantic path that actually adds anything to the story at large. And because you can get through the game and get all the information you need without focusing on him in particular, you will be shocked at how much time you will find yourself spending with either Natsume or Masaharu.
So there’s really no need for the romance and the overall serial killer storyline is shaky as Hell. To be fair to BCM, it does begin to recover a lot of tension in the third act. It throws in one Hell of a twist that uses its science fiction inspirations well, but its attempt to weave in a larger threat in the final moments falls flat. What the world ending threat lacks in weight is made up for by a cathartic moment for Shuuki and his family.
I know it’s a little rough, but overall I enjoyed the narrative and when it focuses on the story it wants to tell it can reach an emotional depth very few EVNs manage to hit. However, there are a handful of moments where I felt it could’ve shifted out of second gear and really gives us a ride, but is content to just be good. As a fan, I’m fine with that. As a critic though, it is something to note.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
Auro-Cyanide is back behind the presentation and once again she does the job well. The game is extremely beautiful and the updated sprites and event graphics blend in well with the older backgrounds for a great presentation. I will always have a nostalgic soft spot for the older art, but the new art does excellent work. I’d also like the compliment the overall atmosphere as a lot of scenes take place at dusk or at night and we don’t get nearly enough dusk or night scenes in EVNs.
The music is also a nice touch. It isn’t quite as distinctive as CombatPlayer or Isaac Schankler, but adds to the overall atmosphere of the game and that is its primary objective. As for the technical end, the biggest thing to talk about is the Memento system. Yes, it is a glorified map system, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t a well-executed one. The brilliance of it comes with its restrictions. You only have a certain amount of time, usually two or three hours, to both stop the murder and explore the story either by pursuing a romance of just barging in on one of the others in the middle. You also have five slots to work with at any given time, so the trick to the system is balancing the mementos you need to explore the story with the mementos you need to stop the murders and while it isn’t straightforward it all functions very well.
True to Cyanide Tea form it also has its own unique user interface and hotkey system that can throw off those who prefer the traditional visual novel UI, but it is quick to learn. The biggest asset is that everything in the game, including the Extras menu, can be accessed from within the game. Most insidiously, along with tracking the event graphics you unlock through the game, it also tracks all of the Mementos you scan. And as any true completionist knows, that’s like throwing gasoline on a fire. Even if you’re not that interested in playing through, say, Yukinari’s route, you will come back to see if you can get the Mementos you missed and unlock the stories behind them. It was a wise move and damn you all for putting it in there.
All together it’s a solid technical achievement. I didn’t run into any glitches or bugs so kudos there as well.
Break Chance Memento retails for $19.99 and it took me roughly seven hours to complete a single playthrough. I have gone back and played it again to do other routes and experience the different perspectives the story offers, so if you’re a completionist you can easily clock in over thirty hours before you finish for good. So yeah, I can safely recommend this one. If you’re expecting either a murder mystery or a game committed to BL romances, you’re going to be really disappointed. But if you enjoy reading a solid drama and good science fiction, please consider adding this one to your gaming library.
Outside of that, you have the option of buying two booklets that were released a few years ago on both the art and a collection of short stories during the early period of its development. While I cannot speak to its current canon, it does serve as an interesting marker in the development of this game and the history of Cyanide Tea as a whole. It’s only a dollar and you can download it from Itch.Io. If you get this game, be sure to pick those up as well if only for historical perseverance.
I’m not going to lie, when I first finished Break Chance Memento and I wasn’t leaping out of my ergonomically correct chair to shout its praises; I was a little worried. And for a moment, I was really focused on the missed opportunities and narrative lulls that the game finds itself in and was ready to write something far more critical. However, for once in my sinister life, I had to check myself, remove myself from an emotional response and ask myself the question that all visual novels get, without exception, when they cross my desk; ‘Is it good by VNs Now’s standards of being good?’
When it’s focused on what it wants to achieve, Break Chance Memento achieves it. The bloody journey of maturity Shuuki and the others have to undertake is well worth it with plenty of moments, both warm and chilling, to keep you going even when some of the more flawed elements of the game set in. Shuuki himself defies his awful personality, punchable face, and terrible hair to actually stand out and be relatable through his flaws and development from those flaws; something that is sorely lacking in a medium inspired by an industry that is determined to stamp out any truly flawed characters. Most importantly, when the credits rolled I wanted to, and did, keep going to see what else the game had to offer.
Most importantly here we are full circle: back to the place we started. It’s been four years since I first interviewed Cyanide Tea and five since I first heard of them. EVN developers that I thought would be noteworthy have come and gone; projects that I was interested have vaporized. Yet not only have Auro and Lore remained, they’ve thrived. If you would’ve showed me The Blind Griffin or Taarradhin back in 2012 and told me it came from the same folks who did Ristorante Amore, I don’t know if I would’ve believed you, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have been too surprised. They both always had the potential for it; it’s what attracted me to their work in the first place.
Break Chance Memento isn’t shaking any foundations, but it is still a very good visual novel and easily one of the best of 2015. Auro, Lore; good job.