Okay…nobody panic…but we’re going to talk about diversity today. I SAID NO ONE PANIC.
I’m sure everyone reading this already has an opinion on the representation of different ethnicities, genders and sexualities in Western media. I want to make clear from the offset that we are not here to debate the larger cultural clash and its many fronts. However, it is fair to be clear from the offset where I stand and exactly how this relates to the subject of today’s review: Brilliant Shadows – Part One of the Book of Gray.
It’s really quite simple: I am for all for greater diversity and representation of different genders, sexualities, etc. in media so long as the end goal isn’t representation alone. Why? Because the goal of representation for the sake of representation is an easy out and doesn’t require a lot of creativity to do. I’m sorry to rain on a lot of Kickstarter campaigns with that one, but stuffing your work with different ethnicities and sexualities isn’t a sign of quality or giving me as your potential audience a better understanding of the type of story you’re planning. If anything, schilling anything based on its ‘representation’ alone is a sign of intellectual laziness and serves as a warning sign for most; even those who WANT to see the end goal achieved.
Admittedly, it’s a hard road to ask creators to avoid. It always feels good to be pandered to. It’s the simple part of the human mind, yes, but it surprising just how good that spot feels when scratched. I must admit, when I first played Brilliant Shadows I really liked it, sang its praises on social media and if my turnaround time had been better, would have scored it very highly in a review. Time, however, is the enemy of emotions. Whether or not Brilliant Shadows will be left standing after proper retrospective is what we’re here to find out.
Shall we get started?
Veronica Ashmar, informally known as Ash, is a necromancer who has recently completed her training with her friend Prudence; a paladin. At their academy, necromancers and paladins perform a pairing ritual upon graduation to bind themselves to someone of the opposite skill set. This ritual allows them to become true mages and ties their lives together in more ways than one. Ash is expecting to be paired with Prudence, but unfortunately for her the ritual doesn’t go as planned and Prudence is instead paired with the powerful, but stoic necromancer Hektor. As for Ash, the ritual did work. They just have to find out who exactly it paired her to.
Unfortunately for this review, there is no way to discuss it without spoiling a few things. I will do my best to keep spoilers at a minimum., but there are a few things that have to be touched on if I’m going to fully make my point here Either way, consider this a spoiler warning if you haven’t played the game. With that said, let’s slay this elephant.
One of the things I love about Brilliant Shadows is the overall world. When it comes to fantasy worlds, my key rule is that the world has to make me want to walk around it and explore without any particular goal in mind. This is a world I really want to get lost in and explore its history and secrets, and this feeling was accomplished with only a few background hints to its culture and politics. Clearly Ithaqua Labs is planning to expand on this world with both Book Two and another game released this year: Embers of Magic. I am thoroughly fascinated to see what they come up with on that front and it is easily their second strongest card to play.
Their strongest card? Their secondary characters. But, to get to them, we have to go through our protagonist and let’s not be coy here: I didn’t like Ash as a protagonist. As a secondary character, she probably would’ve done very well. But as a main character? No. Sorry, but no. It really comes down to her storyline in the game which is fully focused on Ash coming to terms with the fact that she didn’t get paired with Prude. Her despair goes beyond simple friendship as Ash has had a crush on her friend, which is hinted to be what made her realize she was a lesbian. And for those about to jump down my throat because, ‘You just don’t understand it JP!’ Yes: yes, I do.
Everything we see of Ash before the pairing ritual points to an introverted girl who has probably been quiet and a bit snarky all her life. As one of her few friends, a romantic attraction to Prudence is understandable, but so is the reality of her situation well before the pairing ritual even happened. To put it bluntly: Prudence is straight. Not questioning, not curious: straight as a stainless steel pole. So, on top of coming to terms with her sexual identity, Ash also has to deal with the probability that her first crush will never feel the same way about her. When combined with the threat of throwing away the only real friendship she has if she confesses her feelings to Prude you can understand why she has so much invested in the pairing ritual.
Now, to be fair to the writers this is strictly theory and the game doesn’t confirm or deny this particular train of thought, but it would fit completely in Ash’s character if she had wanted the pairing ritual with Prudence to work so she would fall in love with her. While not everyone who is ‘paired’ become romantically involved with their partner, not falling in love is the exception rather than the rule. Actually, the only onscreen mage-pair that ISN’T romantically involved was forcibly paired as part of Hektor’s experiments. So, being paired with Prude solves all of Ash problems and she doesn’t have to risk anything…which is probably why it doesn’t work out.
So yeah, I get it. The setup is a powder keg of a narrative as Ash has to come to terms with the fact that she isn’t getting what she wants and has to define her sexuality without the catalyst for said sexuality. Here’s where I use the game itself to rip that narrative apart. First off, this type of narrative only works with introspection. The internal dialogue and psychological back and forth as Ash comes to terms with what happens and makes peace with it is key to building her circumstances into a strong narrative. That does not happen because Ash is immediately given a scapegoat to put her blame onto: Hektor.
It is understandable that she would feel some kind of way about the emotionless woobie who was paired to her friend/crush instead of her, but that understanding only stretches so long. The game stretches said distrust for two-thirds of the game: long after the reader has determined he’s had nothing to do with it. Her constant distrust of him is less of a plot point and more of a defense mechanism for the writers to protect their protagonist. This feeling only intensifies when you realize Ash’s plotline could be tied up in a neat bow within an hour.
While the magic of the pairing rituals can be mumbo-jumbo, the end results are the same: both mages have the same mark on their hands. Ash does get a mark, which means she is paired with someone. It’s just a question of who. This point is put on hold since apparently an inquiry happens while Ash is still brooding and the school’s administration is sure none of the students could be Ash’s partner. And they’re right, but it turns out that someone in the building who is not a student is actually her partner. So, how do they go unfound for so long? Well, Ash becomes distracted thanks to the supporting storylines that overtake her own; leaving her plotline dangling into the end of the story. It’s a paper-thin excuse for why this particular storyline had to be stretched as far as it did and it only causes issues for the second half of the game when the secondary characters drag this thing away from the cliff it was about to dive off of.
Make no mistake: most of the first half of the game is frustrating. Ash’s brooding both after the pairing and after Prude rejects her feelings for good was only broken up whenever Prudence and Hektor were on the screen. These two are the proactive characters whose actions in the wake of the pairing ritual gives us the actual plot of the game: mostly dealing with Hektor’s background and Prudence’s status as a crown princess. From there, the narrative gets all of its complexity and depth as Ash and the others are pulled into the larger politics of the world thanks to Prudence and Hektor’s complicated history which puts them toe-to-toe with the Grey Mages.
Side note here: Grey Mages are one of the antagonistic factions in this world. The group has gained their infamy by conducting human experiments in order to create true mages without pairing. How exactly this works is too fun of a spoiler, so I won’t discuss it here. But, it leads to some very strong scenes from Hektor and gives him and Prudence plenty of material to work off of as they build their relationship. It’s absolutely solid, but unfortunately hamstrung by the limited time to build up to the tenser, more emotional scenes involving the two. This is especially true for the third act when the emotional haymakers start to come out, but many miss from of the lack of build-up.
The third act could be a completely separate section of this review, because it is damn near a clusterfuck. We get a lot of material to build a sequel off of, but there was very little buildup or explanation for the events leading up to it. It just happens because the aftermath is needed. Presumably Hektor and Prudence, who both end on a low note with serious questions heading into Book Two, will again serve as the narrative backbone for the sequel while Ash has resolution to her storyline. Yup, all of her loose ends are tied by game’s end so we’ll presumably get some material about her new relationship while Hektor and Prudence deal with the fallout.
Wow, I didn’t mean for this to turn into an Ash punt-fest. As I said, once the story shifts to Hektor and Prude everything improves and the story touches its full potential. And as a character, not a protagonist, Ash is actually good: bringing snark and humor along with the two other side characters, whose names escape me right now, who take part in Hektor’s experiments.To be fair to the writers, the overall game is actually funny and it’s humor helps break the moments of bleakness that come from the second half of the game. If the script was flipped and, say, Prudence was the main character instead of Ash, this game would have been fantastic because then we would have been able to focus on them more and fill in the missing details for the third act.
The problem is that Ash is a weak lead and her being in the lead forces the story to stop so it can focus on her literally doing nothing. While there are some great moments, there are also some truly head scratching ones and, in the end, I enjoyed the story in spite of itself it. Hopefully that is something that can be remedied in future chapters.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
While I have mixed feelings about the direction of the story, the Presentation is absolutely fantastic. The artwork is automatically distinctive and eye-catching, with everyone standing out in a way we don’t normally see from the VN sphere. However, this isn’t the first time that this site and this artist, Sita Duncan, has crossed paths. Some of our long-time readers may remember a little feature I used to do called ‘You Asked For It’ and the first demo I took on via request: Jacob’s Island. Whether or not you can consider Brilliant Shadows to be a spiritual successor to Jacob’s Island is an argument for another forum at another time, but I am very happy to see this artist continuing their work and improving since we last met.
The only real visual weak spot are the Event Graphics. Both the designs and backgrounds hold up very well, but the Event Graphics usually blur out the backgrounds and go for colored gradients or over-saturate the backgrounds themselves. This only worked a few times and tended to be more distracting than anything. But it does deliver a few solid moments, so on this one I’m happy to leave it at a style preference.
However, the voice acting is not a style preference. The dialogue for them has its moments of cringe-worthiness (‘Lights and Shadows’ am I right?), but overall the team manages alright. Unfortunately, it did feel like most of the performances had trouble with consistency and tone. This is seen in a few of the more ‘emotional’ scenes in the second half of the game where the voice acting just couldn’t deliver on what the story was demanding.
The exception to this is Alex Weber, who voices Hektor. He had some truly heavy scenes that would have broke the game if he gave a weak performance and, credit where it’s due, Weber delivers. A little more time in the lab may be in order for the next performance though. And now that this one is under their belt, hopefully everyone will feel more comfortable in Book Two.
Technically speaking, the game is surprisingly solid. Considering all of the moving parts, you would expect a glitch or two. But credit to the QA and programmer because they did a fantastic job ensuring it would be a smooth experience. I didn’t notice any egregious grammatical or spelling errors either, so good work all around on that one.
Brilliant Shadows Book 1 took me roughly seven hours to complete. Some of that may have been me pausing to rage, but really, this game is pretty damn long. On top of that, there are actually three endings to the game dependent on your choices. Now, considering my stated issues with the plot, I don’t think anyone will be surprised to know I haven’t gone running back in to see the other two endings. However, I think eventually my curiosity will win out and I can see this particular type of fantasy story appealing far beyond my criteria.
So, let’s meet somewhere in the middle, shall we? Brilliant Shadows is available for $6.99 on both Steam and Itch.Io. That isn’t an obscene ask, in my opinion. So, if you like what you’ve heard of the game so far, go ahead and purchase it at the asking price. If you hesitate for any reason, hold off. Depending on what happens for Book Two, you might get a better deal for your money.
So, that was Brilliant Shadows.
I am actually positive about this series’ future. The world is vast and inviting. The characters are fun most of the time, but can show a surprising amount of depth a la Hektor and Prudence. And when the story is focused on them, it is one of the better ones of the past year. However, the unfortunate news is that it’s not their story: it’s Ash’s. And with that in mind, a very hard question needs to be asked of Ithaqua Labs:
Is there any reason for Ash to be the main character other than her sexuality?
This brings us back to representation and my rule on it. Ash is not a bad character; she’s just in the wrong role in my humble opinion. It feels like she exists to check off some sort of imaginary diversity box instead of used to tie the different plotlines together into one, great narrative. Instead, so much story was diverted or rushed or ignored entirely to focus on her sexuality that it becomes a problem. The rest of the game saves itself and I can recommend it because of that, but it walked the razor’s edge for a zero-sum.
Again, I’m all for diversity, but not at the cost of storytelling. This should be a 9 or 10 out of 10 game, and it’s not because of its choppy narrative. When any project veers off that course, my only responsibility is to point it out and hope that, sooner or later, we get a game that marries narrative and representation without all of the bumps in the road. Hopefully, Ithaqua is weighing these things out and will be the group to do it in the future. And if they insist on keeping Ash in her spot, then hopefully Book Two will integrate her and her partner better into the overall story as they continue to build on the solid story around Hektor and Prude. This series has a lot of potential to it, but where it goes from here is strictly on them and what they feel is more important: the overall story or their zeal to ‘represent’.