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Published October 29, 2013

I like vampires.

Considering the current trend in popular culture of turning this particular legendary monster into a toothless Abercrombie model for tweens to fawn over, that statement probably seems a bit strange. But as a classical literature guy, I know the roots of the vampire and its origins connect to humanity’s most obsessive thoughts on faith, youth, death and sexuality. And yes I can back them all up and I didn’t take a master’s class on Bram Stoker.

So how does that fit into this particular review? Well let’s discuss the subject itself. Nachtigal is an ambitious title from Cyanide Tea: the group that has brought us Ristorante Amore, the Elevator and the upcoming Break Chance Memento visual novels. It’s ambitious, even for them, because it wants to tell an old-school vampire story but within the realm of ‘otome’. Yeah otome: the genre not exactly known in the West for avoiding the ‘toothless Abercrombie model for tweens’ stereotypes. BUT even with CT’s track record, considering my reputation on otome this can only turn out bad for yours truly right?

STORY

For me, it is hard to understand Nachtigal without understanding that it has rules. I know that seems a little ridiculous to say out loud, but for stories dealing with the legendary monsters of horror, rules are something you want to establish early and make concrete. So, what are those rules?

  1. Tension Creates Fear, Not ‘Scares’
  2. We Need To Like Miranda

These rules seem like the complete opposite of your atypical otome fare and that’s for good reason: this isn’t your typical otome fare. I would say it’s a deconstruction, but that doesn’t quite fit into what Nachtigal is trying to accomplish through its consistently tense atmosphere. The threat of death hangs over Miranda, our heroine, for most of the game and that feeling of insecurity drives her actions and reactions to the vampires: Adrian and Luca. And if you don’t feel said insecurity when you start, you will after experimenting with a few early choices that shows you what happens when you smart off to the immortal death machines.

The game is peppered with several unapologetically violent scenes that leave Miranda with more than a little scratch that keep the threat alive as you venture into relationships with either Adrian or Luca. Now a lot of people, including my very own Otome Sidekick, have interpreted the violence of the story to be a type of Stockholm syndrome since Miranda remains in the house and even claims to feel sorry for them both at one point. At first I didn’t understand this interpretation, now I kind of smile at it because it means that the horror side of Nachtigal was a rousing success: people were scared for Miranda.

But let’s be fair to those that see this issue in the game. If I had to guess, the opinions that Nachtigal includes and even romanticizes Stockholm syndrome on Miranda’s part is due mostly to Adrian’s route which fits more in line with a straightforward otome game. While it is far from terrible, if this game had a weak link it would be here. Due to the game’s length, we don’t get to see Miranda’s full stay at Palace Nachtigal. We get the key moments, more or less and that’s it. And while the major themes of Adrian’s route are handled well, it doesn’t change the fact that within two weeks Adrian and Miranda go from predator and prey to, well not love per se, but definitely interest in something more than just friends.

Like The Elevator, there just wasn’t enough time in this route given to fully flesh out Miranda going from fearful victim to survivor and vampire confidante, and so her sympathy for Adrian is lost on us. UNLIKE The Elevator, it is just a small issue in Adrian’s route. Take a trip into Luca’s route and there is simply no argument that can be made where Miranda experiences Stockholm syndrome. Much of that has to do with a key scene: THIS key scene to be exact –

This is the scene where Luca gets the tables turned on him and it is clear from the beyond pissed off look on his face that Miranda succeed in getting under his skin. Seriously; he is literally eating out of her hand. There are few stronger places to be than that and from that point on Miranda’s holding all of the cards in their relationship. This follows through to the ending which fully realizes all of the rules and gives us the best possible ending an otome-vampire mash-up can have: curious infatuation.

Miranda herself is an excellent protagonist for this type of story. While she doesn’t quake in fear of the vampires at every turn, the game makes it clear that her attempts to adapt are a part of her desire to survive. However she really never falls into despair during the game proper and maintains her optimism, which allows for some comedic moments during the normal tale and makes the moments of violence much more vicious. Only when her relationship between either Adrian and Luca (or both as ONE ending illustrates) is on a more level playing field do we get anything hinting at romance between them and even then it is more full-blown infatuation rather than idyllic love.

I say that to say that while Miranda isn’t a perfect character, I liked her the minute she stepped into the mansion. Her victories never feel cheap or gained solely because she wilted at the exact right moment, but rather earned through a consistent drive not to become food. And when her survival instincts aren’t there and the player finds themselves on one of the two bad ends, you never feel like her suffering is cheap or expletive. You just feel cold and that is the way you should feel after a grisly finale to a horror story…or at least that’s the way it used to be.

Speaking of those ends, the other routes play through on the horror angle to a tee and the two illustrated bad ends of the story put a pit in my stomach that I can still feel when the wind blows. Lore has come a long way from the first Break Chance Memento demo and both the Feast and Pet endings paint a chilling picture with nothing but words and one CG you see after a prolonged darkness. It says something about talent when you can accomplish this and the fact that I can still recall how I felt as those endings played out means that, as a horror title, this is a solid hit.

I think that’s why the tone of this review is different and I warned every one of that coming in. Because it is so good on its horror elements and the horror elements are one half of the game, for me it’s almost harmonic. While Adrian’s story shows the weaknesses that can happen from mixing otome and horror, outside of spending more time developing the relationship between Miranda and Adrian in that particular path, I can’t think of what more I could’ve asked on the story front. It’s a good, old-fashioned vampire story that scares you as well as put you behind an intelligent but also optimistic female protagonist.

I thought that was what we ALL wanted to see more of in fiction?

 

PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY

Auro-Cyanide’s work really shines here: especially the backgrounds. The castle has a dreamy, Kubrick-quality (YES I’m invoking Kubrick TRY AND STOP ME) to it with its white and red hallways and painted rooms, but it also has small details that the detail freak in me loves like the decanters of what can only be blood in the foyer and the broken mirror in Adrian’s study. Also, par the course for Auro, the sprites look very good with my favorite being, of course, Miranda. Her expressions are fun to watch and plus she’s Aboriginal which adds to the feeling of her being a stranger in the midst of the vampires.

Outside of just her, the character sprites all have their own range of emotions that give them all a unique feel from Luca’s subtly to Adrian’s blushy-blushy embarrassed face (see below). Also I need to make a quick, final note about the Ending CGs because they are all awesome.Beyond just how well Auro draws blood (it’s soooooo pretty), the two horror endings are my favorites as they evoke the style of classic horror to deliver a brutal final note in the story. Luca and Adrian’s CGs deserve their own special note, though, because clearly this CGs had a plan behind them as well. Taken completely on their own without any dialogue to back them up, they portray the complete story between Miranda and each vampire which is impressive. In fact, considering most CG art is used as a stand-alone to show the importance of one scene, one would say that it was most impressive.

Gameplay is interesting because we see a return to the hotkey system that was toyed with in Ristorante Amore. For those used to the traditional menu system of Saving, Loading, etc, it’s going to take a few minutes to get used to the learning curve. However, once you have the basic buttons down it is much easier to get acclimated to than RisAmo was. Also the story keeps tracking of time with a Moon calendar: nice touch.

While Cassie reported to have run into some technical errors, I haven’t hit any yet and I have been trying to break this one. It may be her download in particular, but from what I last heard it is being worked on. Other than that, it’s all good stuff here.

 

So Vampires CAN Blush In Otome!

REPLAY VALUE

Nachtigal is a pay-what-you-want visual novel and if you haven’t been paying attention to the site, we’re all of the opinion that you should put a little something for Cyanide Tea even though you could get it for free. Each path takes roughly an hour to complete and with six endings to burn through, that means it takes roughly six hours to complete. Each path has their own enjoyable turns with one ending that I haven’t talked about and won’t spoil because it’s actually very funny. So I feel there’s plenty of replay value here for whatever you put towards the game.

 

OVERALL

Much of the delay of this review is because I’ve been wrestling with this part: the final recommendation. Nachtigal is an interesting creation and it will most likely be the start of a trend from Cyanide Tea of short, horror stories: starting with The Elevator of course. This story is one of the better ones I’ve read this year and it is one of the best horror tales I’ve read in recent history. All of the characters were well-handled with the small issue that more time was needed for Adrian’s. On top of this, as a student of fiction, art and film I just find this game’s presentation fascinating.  The planning and direction of the CGs is masterful and the tone of those two bad endings is fantastic. I could probably teach a class using those in terms of lighting, tone, etc. and I was fully invested in every play through I did.

So, screw it. I’m sure I’ll be standing alone on this one (won’t be the first time), but this is the kind of game I hope we see more of. It’s smart, it’s dark and it’s been on my mind all month. Play it if you haven’t and expect great things from Cyanide Tea in the near future.