So, what is it about wish-fulfillment protagonists that rakes my crotch?
I can’t say I have a problem with the overall concept. Some of my favorite characters could be considered a wish-fulfillment fantasy after all (Batman, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, etc.). But, at least to me, it never felt like we were supposed to like them on cool factor alone. The problem wasn’t solved by them showing up. They still had to do their jobs and find the answers. The wish-fulfillment came from wanting the abilities to be the smartest detective, or the master of one-hundred martial arts, or being able to shoot someone dead between the eyes and make a bad pun (THAT’S A SKILL I’LL HAVE YOU KNOW). Or, at least, that’s what young JP took away from all of it.
Nowadays, it feels like wish-fulfillment fantasies are more about infantilizing those who enjoy said fantasies than giving them a goal. You no longer have to learn a special set of skills to save the world and quite frankly you’re an idiot if you do. You exist after all! You can be completely charmless and have nothing to offer anyone but the privilege of being treated like an ejaculation disposal unit, yet still have every person of your preferred sexual orientation pulled by sheer gravitational force of your crotch into your orbit and not allowed to leave: ever. Your story isn’t so much a struggle as much as it is you just sitting back and being you: sipping on a mojito as the world bends over backwards to kiss your ass with a smile.
Outside of such an existence being lampooned by someone like ONE, I just can’t wrap my brain around the appeal of these types of stories…and nine times out of ten, I’m their target audience. This brings me to Just Deserts: a visual novel brought to us by an Indonesian group partnered with our old friends Sekai Project. On synopsis alone, it should appeal directly to someone with my level of blood thirst as you take on the role of a soldier tasked with fighting off an alien invasion. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have started this review talking about things raking my crotch if it succeeded, would I? Let’s get started.
The introduction to Just Deserts is probably the most concise setup to a genre wish-fulfillment fantasy I’ve ever read. Mankind begins advanced space travel; an alien race uses that as pretense to attack Earth and now you must travel to where the aliens have all gathered and defeat them with the help of your Valkyrie Squad. The entire intro is told in pretty much the exact same time span as I just did with just as little build up or creativity. I can’t even call it an information dump as it completely relies on the audience’s prior knowledge of anime tropes and clichés. It might as well have just had a text crawl saying, ‘Hey, have you seen a harem anime recently? Have you also played God Eater? Good, you’re up to speed.’
I may be giving it a bit too much credit on that front, because if it had presented itself in that tongue-in-cheek way, at least it would’ve been worth a laugh. Instead the game cant’ really choose a tone. It tries to be both a straight look at soldiers in a dire situation AND campy harem ‘fun’ between a milquetoast protagonist and the woman who want to bone him. This works about as well as you’d expect in the way that it doesn’t work at all. But, just to be sure we’re all on the same page, Just Deserts introduces and ties up its plot in a neat little bow five minutes into the game. That leaves the girls to save the day…yeah.
I cannot overstate how simultaneously technically necessary yet narratively pointless the romantic routes of this game are. What we learn about each of the girls is fundamentally window dressing about ‘the horrors of war’ that has been beaten to death in international media for roughly the past fifty years and doesn’t bring any dimensions or depth to them. BUT, they do get closer to the GMP; which is the overall point here. I mean, yes they use tropes of actual mental and psychological trauma to do it, but that just gives the Protagonist a bigger reason to be there! His love will heal their emotional battle wounds!
Yes, I’m being sarcastic. Yes, we’re going to talk about this.
I was teetering on this title of either being true garbage or a guilty pleasure until a particular scene in Jennifer’s route. Jennifer is a cocky pilot who is basically the jock of the group. As you woo her, you begin to realize she’s suffering from Survivor’s Guilt: or at least this game’s version of Survivor’s Guilt. Here, it manifests itself in a key moment when our GMP and the Quiet Girl (her name is Eve) are pinned down by hostile aliens. Jennifer commanders a helicopter to save the two of them. One problem, well two. First, she completely ignores orders to do this. Second, the helicopter she takes has no armaments.
Of course, there are no repercussions for this because, again, the game can’t mix their tones or create an interesting character narrative. However, it does highlight that you simply cannot reconcile the psychological traumas of certain characters the game tries to insert in the name of melodrama. But how can we make this particular cocktail worse? Oh, we’ll find out in the Technical section. Trust me, it’s the perfect sugarless icing on this dry, bland cake.
But how did the main character fair? As warned, the main character is a literal blank slate who’s only defining characteristics is that he’s the Special: able to fight off the telekinetic powers of the enemy aliens thanks to a radical procedure that was briefly mentioned in the breakneck opener. There are no additional details and he himself barely speaks during the events of the game. He’s just there to eventually save the day. Until then, he more or less exists for the same reasons you keep a potted plant in your house.
That kind of makes him unique because even certain Winged Cloud GMP’s had more definitive traits than this bland mofo. Definitely not all of them, but the protagonist in Angels and Swim Club respectively were very clear on WHY the protagonist was doing what he was doing and why the female character where interested in him. Here, we don’t even get that much. In fact, this game doesn’t even do the cheap GMP trick of removing every other available male from the general area. There are plenty of other men for the girls to choose from, if they so desire. Yet, they can all be eventually wooed by the protagonist, because he’s just…so…special.
I’m sorry, but when you’re getting lapped by this shit, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation for Just Deserts is decent enough, but it’s decent by default. It’s your typical manga art style done well, but it never gives its characters enough distinction to be memorable. I mean, the only thing separating these girls apart from one another is their hair color: one of the most mocked tropes in anime and manga today. So, me saying that might be a foregone conclusion. However, it becomes a bit more important when we turn to the enemies the group faces which can, at the most positive, be described as ‘stock art’.
For reason unknown to me, the aliens you face in this game are, for the most part, geometric shapes. The exception to this being the final boss, a floating isotope with an eye, and the few times you face a literal sun…yup. This feeds into the idea that there just isn’t a credible threat worth our attention. Of course not, because of the girls right? But, considering how much time put into fight this particular enemy, making them visually distinct would have been something. Instead, we got this. Riveting.
I mean, really: the freakin’ Sun? That’s an enemy type? Really guys?
Finally, there is some voice acting in the game. It’s mostly limited to dialogue scenes and it varies in quality. I will not mention a worst actress because, well….ANYWAY. Easily the best given the material is Cecile Chevalier. The script is extremely basic, but given what she has to work with she does her best to bring the character to life. I cannot speak to the quality of her French accent, but the scenes with that actress in it were much better than the scenes without. Check out this scene to see what I mean.
This all goes into the technical aspect of the game, because there is something of a logic to the gameplay. Each girl requires you to do certain quests to gain affection with them. Each mission requires something from you: either building a stat, purchasing an item or defeating an enemy. This is actually smart, because it always give the player something to do while advancing the story; limited as it is. Strangely enough, it may well be due to the story being as weak as it is that the game doesn’t give you any down time when it comes to the relationships and building your character for the inevitable final boss battle.
And that’s where I have a bone to pick with the gameplay.
The gameplay is structured to have a certain RNG quality to it: insomuch that there is no guarantee the girl you’re trying to do quests for will be where you need her to be to do the quest. Let’s look at it on this wise. Let’s say Jennifer gives me a quest to work out with her three times on the beach in three days. Simply enough, right? Nope, because you can’t just tell her to meet you on the beach to do her quest: she has to already be there. There’s a reason for this, but we’ll put a pin in it for now. Suffice to say, this particular gameplay feature makes it difficult to build a loadout and stats that can take on the final boss alone.
Luckily each girl has primary and secondary attacks to use in battles. The greater their affection for the GMP, the more attacks you can unlock. Because of the limits of time (you only have twenty days in-game), money and weapons, these attacks are key to beating the final boss who is Street Fighter Third Strike Gill levels of cheap. You will need every power-up, item, and to max out whatever stats you can just to hang ten turns with this one. And that will require maxing out your particular girl and getting at least two others into secondary territory to unlock their attacks. And EVEN then, it’s not a guarantee.
To date, the only way I’ve found to beat the final boss is the way the game starts flat-out telling you to once you’ve finish one of the girl’s routes: to go and unlock the rest of them. Yeah, the gameplay actively encourages the player to go for a harem and, keeping what I said in mind from earlier, you will have to start building said harem from day one to have everything you need for the final fight.
I guess I should be grateful in a weird sense. I mean, the internal logic for the harem route to be there outside of just a player fantasy is solid. And going for each of the girl’s routes in one playthrough adds a difficultly level to it that requires time and experience, so it also increases your replay value. It’s just screwing with my mind a bit that the best thing about this game is that the female characters are literally slutty power-ups.
And now I’ve gone cross-eyed.
As I said, figuring out how to best achieve the harem route adds a lot of replay value to this game if you’re so inclined. The question is whether or not one would be so inclined. A single playthrough will run about twenty to twenty-five hours minimum and because of the structure, it won’t feel like you’re wasting time. However, if you balance everything right the first time and knock off the final boss no problem, I cannot imagine just picking this up again: even as the guilty pleasure it’s aiming to be.
There is plenty of supplementary material: mostly costume DLC for the girls in-game. But you have to want that type of variety in a game that already gives you plenty of fanservice to begin with. There are certainly worse things in the the world to throw money at, but this is excesses for this title. The only DLC item I would be comfortable recommending is the soundtrack, because that was at least decent. But it almost feels like I’m pulling at straws because of my feelings on said soundtrack and the fact that without it, we’re back to that unfortunate truth about the girls. Ugh.
I know what Just Deserts wants to be: Sunrider with a heavier dating sim slant. The problem is that somewhere along the development process, they realized the girls for said dating sim were not interesting enough to warrant that much attention. So they had to go back and figure out a way to keep the dating sim aspect and keep the game interesting at the same time. I cannot in good conscience say they failed, because I cannot say I was ever bored playing this game. However, that’s not because the quality was so good. The game was just very effective in keeping me too busy to be bored.
It still didn’t stop the awful writing, bland characters and milquetoast protagonist from wearing on my nerves. The lack of any real narrative stakes in a scenario we’ve seen beaten into paste keeps the audience from engaging at even a base level. And, in the end, when I finally did drop the final boss, it was only rewarding in a sense that it was done: not because it served as a successful building of your skills, in-game knowledge or even to close the story of the cast. Like it’s protagonist, Just Deserts simply exist and is pleased enough for that. In that, it’s a interesting type of bad. One I feel deserves its existence, but only as a warning at how dull our collective taste buds have gotten. After all, even trashy, guilty pleasures should have some standards.