If visual novel developers had a patron deity, I’m convinced it would be a God or Goddess of Love.
I’m sure if you dig far enough into antiquity, there is an actual deity for creative minds. I do know that there are Greek deities for tragedy and comedy: specifically, Melpomene and Thalia. However, for this particular corner of the Internet, love in all of its forms is the most consistent theme for the majority of English Visual Novels in existence. From the bonds of friendship that can be seen in something like Autumn’s Journey, to the erotic passions of games like [insert hentai VN here], even to people literally named ‘Love’, Love is nearly always presented as the ultimate good in the world. It is a force so pure and powerful not only can it dramatically alter a person’s life, but also challenge the structure of time, society and, if love is felt strongly enough, can even challenge the Will of God himself.
It is easy to see why such a simple emotion is so enthralling to both audiences and developers alike, especially when it is always presented as a universal good. However, that wasn’t always the case. If you look back to Greek mythology, love and desire caused just as many problems and tragedies as it did happy endings. Hell, if you want to take a critical look at it Aphrodite, the Greek Goddess of Love, could be considered one of the greatest villains in Classical Literature. This is best seen in one of the most well-known Greek myths, the Iliad, where she is responsible for starting the Trojan War. Well before that however, Aphrodite had no problem ripping apart entire bloodlines for small slights and driving people insane for avoiding romance.
Love and desire can be powerful goods, but they can also be terrifying evils. Luckily for your humble reviewer, the good folks are Fervent Studios understood that as well. We talked about Fervent before when I reviewed Who Is Mike. Cupid continues in the territory that they started to chart with Who is Mike; focusing on love with a sinister undercurrent of horror. So, what horrors does Fervent have for us today? Well, the 2015 Visual Novel of the Year decided by me; that’s what! Let’s get started.
- Genre: Fantasy, Tragedy, Gothic Horror
- Release Date: April 08, 2015
- Developer: Fervent Studios
- Language: English
- Platform: PC
- Website: Itch.Io
In 18th Century France, a young flower girl named Rosa crashes a fancy party and befriends a musical prodigy named Catherine. Both girls impress Marquis Guilleme de Gul: a charming and charismatic noble with a womanizing reputation. Already planning to fund Catherine’s career as a pianist, he also bends to her wishes and brings Rosa in from the streets as a servant. Unfortunately, the older they get, the more traumatic their lives become in the House of Gul and all three get caught in a spiral of madness spurned on by a force they can barely understand or even control: love.
It would be an injustice to spoil the plot of this game here and it’s unavoidable to do so when actually discussing it. So instead, we’ll be discussing the key characters of the game. That may overlap with certain plot points, but it should be vague enough that we don’t spoil anything. Usually I wouldn’t do this for games I like; especially titles that are nearly three years old. However, Cupid is so good that even now, I’d rather keep certain points in the dark and encourage you guys to go play it rather than spoil it for a deeper discussion of the game. So, go play the game.
The player assumes the role of ‘Mother’: a dissociative personality born from Rosa’s broken psyche. ‘Mother’ is a cruel reflection of Rosa’s long-deceased Mum: forwardly and passively crushing the girl’s spirit whenever she decides to speak and driving every dark intuition that crosses her mind. In retrospect, Mother is one of the primary antagonists of the entire game: making her one of the few playable villains in the EVN sphere. While I’m sure it’s a lonely circle to be in, Fervent can take some pride in writing one of the best villains the EVN scene has ever produced along with Guilleme – who we’ll get to. You guys know how I feel about my villains and the criminal lack of them in our little corner of the Internet. So to get one so well thought out and sinister for the player to control and use to actively antagonize the heroine of the story is more than a breath of fresh air. And, simply put, the game wouldn’t have worked out if it had taken any other perspective.
The game’s choices come at certain intervals of Rosa’s life when she’s at her emotional and psychological lowest. Mother is always in her ear, but it’s when she’s down that we have the option on how to hurt her. These moments come at key points when the different narrative strings need to connect, so it allows the player to feel as actively engaged in the process while serving our role as an antagonist. It also controlled the pacing of Rosa’s development.
If we had control of Rosa instead of just influence her from another character, I feel we would have had to rush through a lot of her growth and character arc because the choice structure would have allowed the player to rebel against Mother early on and take away that slow burn. It would feel like the character was stuck on rails and would’ve been unsatisfying in the end. Placing us outside of direct control maintained a feeling of influencing the story without rushing through anyone’s character development and it works out as the story progresses.
Taking a step back from Mother, Rosa, Catherine and Guilleme are what keeps the game going: deconstructing and examining familiar character types to the bone and making something more out of each of them. All of them have their own fragilities and issues that aren’t as extreme as Rosa, but still makes them very grounded and (for lack of a better word) human. Rosa especially wears the protagonist mantle well: constantly evolving throughout the story from a broken shell of a human being to either a strong-willed, independent woman or an even more broken shell of a human being.
Then there’s Catherine who, thanks to a slightly healthier family unit, maintains a girlish crush on Guilleme that matures into outright love as she got older. Rosa she viewed as another sister: fostering a very close relationship until the day she died. She helps define Rosa’s growth as much as Guilleme does and provides Rosa with her healthiest relationship: giving her a mostly platonic relationship to balance out the darker idea of love given to her by her Mother and, eventually, Guilleme himself. She’s also the catalyst for the story with her shocking death about an eighth of the way into the game giving us a reason to be emotionally invested in the story. It’s an old trope that has gotten butchered in the times gone by, but a character’s death, when properly presented, can invest the audience in knowing more about their life and how it ties into the larger narrative.
In Catherine’s case, it adds all of necessary lighter moments to the game while ramping up the tragedy. She wasn’t perfect, but that’s because the shade of love she represented isn’t supposed to be perfect or idealized. That is something considering characters in her position usually are idealized to the point of unbelievability. Yet, Catherine stays grounded and, through that, makes what happens to her and the people she loves messy and complicated. The mess she leaves behind after her death forces Rosa and Guilleme onto different sides of the character alignment scale as they both have to clean up it.
As for Guilleme, his role in the story is perfect: the exact definition of utilitarian perfection. It is important to note here that despite the roles he plays, Guilleme isn’t the primary antagonist of Cupid: the player is. So, while he eventually becomes a villain, when Rosa needs a father-figure and Catherine needs a support system, he can be that. When both girls need an object to express their desires with, he can be that too. And when both need a tangible antagonist force, Guilleme is there. What makes this great is that none of this removes Guilleme’s individuality or character development. The story takes great care to make sure he is a fully fleshed out character in his own right: being both tragic and frightening in a way few other pieces of media, let alone visual novels, can produce.
Beyond being important in a character sense, it’s important to the overall story since Guilleme’s role is the crux in which the major theme of the narrative hangs on: love versus lust. Guilleme sees no difference between love and lust; or rather, he sees no reason to differentiate between the two. The reasons for that are fascinating and deserve to be revealed in the story without spoilers, but this viewpoint is painted negatively by the larger narrative while allowing him to justify it. His justifications for his world view is bleak in the way that The Joker’s monologues on the world in The Dark Knight are bleak. You understand where he is coming from and your response to learning more about him will determine your next steps. But the fact that you do, by the end, fully understand Guilleme as both an villain and a full character is an achievement on its own.
So, where does the infernal bounds of ‘love’ come to play here? Well, what the cast of Cupid goes through is cruel in many aspects and covers topics I not only rarely see, but actively run away from when covering visual novels. This game contains child abuse of every shade, suicide and two, yes TWO, rape scenes. It sounds gratuitous on paper, but in practice the creative team shows a great deal of restraint and uses its darker theme. The idea is familiar enough: if you want to be happy, you have to earn it through maturation and building internal strength otherwise the world is going to crack you like a cheap egg. It’s one of the more ingenious moves the creative team takes as it not only fits perfectly into Rosa’s coming-of-age tale and the larger choice structure and endings of the game, but it also creates this fantastic parallel between Guilleme and Rosa that serves as a foundation for their relationship.
More so, love is shown as both necessary and unneeded in terms of maturation. True love’s first kiss isn’t going to solve anything and the past is still the past: there is no running from it. Yet, love, in all of its shades, can help you explore the parts of yourself you didn’t know you had: good and bad. It isn’t always a good thing, but learning from love and how people express love is often more important, strangely enough, than being IN love. Any more than that and I risk spoiling the story. But it is a fascinating take that deserves its own space to be discussed.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation is both Cupid’s greatest achievement and biggest flaw. While the character designs are done in a very familiar manga style, how those styles are used along with the music is nothing short of (at the risk of digging up an old cliche) cinematic. So much care and detail were cleared poured into the smaller details: especially when it came to the Event CGs. The focal point for the eyes, the angles of the characters and even the colors of the scenes they’re involved with bring so much more to the table that an average CG meant to break up the rampant dialogue in a visual novel.
I can show you better than I can tell you, so just look at this CG here to understand what I’m talking about:
Again, it’s all of the little things that make it work. How the light bounces off them both, the focus being on Catherine’s body, how the audience can just barely see how much Catherine is enjoying herself. But most of all, even without narration, you get a sense of the several layers of story-telling at this particular moment. How Catherine clings to Guilleme and, specifically the state of her hands. Then there is the act in and of itself. Not only is it a sexual act, but it is also a maternal one. It hints at how Guilleme sees her: both as a lover and as a woman. This grows more complicated narratively and psychologically when you remember that this CG was preceded in the story by THIS CG:
I’m on record at this point of talking about how important art is in the visual novel world and how it should be used to enhance the story so that you don’t spell every little thing out. Cupid is a masterclass in this: using its art and music to add layers to the story and enhancing the narrative beyond just what is written down.
The only downside are the backgrounds outside of the CGs. They are not all bad in the original version, but a lot of the new 3D models clash very badly with the 2D art. I’m sure for most it will be a matter of tastes, but for me I’m just happy I still have my original version. The good news is that this caveat mostly applies to a handful of exterior shots in towns and outside. Once they switch to interior models, it gets much better.
Outside of that, I didn’t get any technical issues so we’re good to go from there.
The Replay Value here is insane. There are four endings plus a Secret Ending that will take some patience to get right. On top of that you have, once you have 100% completed the game you unlock both a secret epilogue and extra content for the game. The extra content adds dialogue for Mother: giving more information about her past and how she became who Rosa remembers, while the epilogue is set in modern day with some…interesting repercussions for the ending of the game. Whether or not it’s canonical is anyone’s guess, but the idea is brilliant and could set up for the developer to return to this world if they chose to.
Not only that but you also have the in-game production notes and seperated art book: both of which provide context and details on how this world was made. And while the artbook will run $3, THIS GAME IS FREE. Yes, one of the best visual novels ever made is FREE. It’s one of the reasons I am not including a Steam link here, on sheer principle. If you’re getting this, I humbly ask you to consider getting it on Steam where you have the option of tipping Fervent.
I feel like I’m cheating you guys a bit because even with what I’ve said, it doesn’t feel like it’s near enough. Cupid is, flat out, amazing. Even three years after I first played it is stands out as one of the highlights of the visual novel genre. It is as brilliant story that has yet to be fully matched in gaming, much less topped. If VNs Now is still around in 2021, I may do an Visual Novel of the Decade and I am hard-pressed to think of a visual novel that can properly challenge Cupid AND I AM PREDICTING A POTENTIAL EVENT THREE YEARS FROM NOW.
It is that good: seriously. If you have never played Cupid, why? Okay, trigger warnings: I get that. But if those warnings don’t affect you, it’s time. Play Cupid.
Cupid is, simply put, everything I've ever asked for from a dramatic EVN. This game will hurt you and you will love it for doing so.