This…this has been a long time coming.
In the opening of my Impulse review last year, I specifically stated that this very title was on track to be the Worst of 2016 until the broken wreckage of that wannabe Scooby-Doo crew landed on my desk. But why? Impulse earned its criticism, yet Lucid9: Inciting Incident appeared to be perfectly fine in the eyes of the populace. It sits on a 9/10 cumulative user score on Steam and other gaming sites seemed to enjoy it. So why would I, noted old man yelling at the kids on his lawn, think that such a well-received title is one of the worst 2016 has to offer?
Well, it’s a mixture of issues. Lucid9 is the definitive bar of low expectations: combining a lot of the worst aspects of EVN developer culture (including mimicking anime and being overly reliant on memetic humor) with a business model antithetical to the construction of its story. On it’s own, the premise of Lucid9 bland in every sense of the word; only taking a break from its extremely vanilla offering to dip its toes in darker waters it is nowhere near capable of handling. I know I won’t be able to make the case to everyone on this one, because I have personally seen how stubborn people can be on these types of titles. But, if only a few can see my side on this one I’ll consider it a victory.
So, let’s get to me explaining myself. This is Lucid9: Inciting Incident.
‘Lucid9 is a visual novel focused on a web of intricate mysteries set in the fictional 2018 metropolis of Isamu. Inciting Incident is the first part of the story, where you play as Yama Ishimoto, a cynical high school student who would like nothing more than to keep his life free of school drama and hard choices. However, he’s forced to face his circumstances when an eccentric detective blazes into his life, alerting him of a string of brutal murders at his school. As Yama furthers this investigation, he must dig through the secrets of the city, bringing him and his friends closer and closer to danger in the process. Every step leads Yama to the most unexpected – and terrifying – culprit…’
That’s the developer’s word-for-word synopsis of Lucid9. Here’s what actually happens in the story starting with main boy Yama Ishimoto. I’ve spent the better part of a year breaking down the context of a Generic Male Protagonist here on VNs Now: how the archetype can work, but mostly how it consistently doesn’t. Whether you like the games these protagonists are featured in or not, it is usually a harbinger of narrative sins to come and Yama here is no exception. What makes it all the worse is that he’s on the Holden Caulfield side of this slippery slope and the story desperate needs him not to be.
Look, I know the argument in Yama’s favor will be that he’s simply a flawed protagonist meant to be more grounded than the legions of sterling visual novel guys who usually helm these titles. However, ‘Flawed Protagonist’ isn’t a character archetype: it’s a character arc. Either the protagonist comes to terms with their flaws and begins to change or they are brought down by said flaws. We’re not supposed to like the protagonist at the beginning of this process and we may not like/agree with their choices by the end. However, we can clearly see the process and decisions that connect Points A and B and measure its overall relevance to the plot as an individual in the audience.
In Lucid9, Yama Ishimoto lives in a steel-reinforced bubble. He is always handed an excuse for his behavior, therefore there is no start to a character arc to address his issues. And boy, does this kid have issues. Yama Ishimoto is arrogant, ignorant, immature, cowardly, and entitled. The story views these awful qualities as indelible to his character. In fact, let’s focus in on that last bit: entitled. All of Yama’s negative qualities would have been manageable on their own, as I don’t require a likable protagonist to enjoy a story (case positive right here). However, the sheer insistence that Yama is not only right to feel how he does, but also that he deserves to feel right all the time no matter what his decisions are, wrecks whatever could possibly be done with his character.
One of the major plot points that enforces this bubble deals with the eventual mystery aspect. Later in the game Yama mocks one of his classmates whose girlfriend has gone missing. It’s an asshole move, but what makes it worse is that the girl ends up being a victim of the serial killer. At this point, the issue should write itself. Either Yama doubles down on his jackass behavior or he man’s up and apologizes: taking a well-deserved punch in the face as a part of his character arc. Instead, he sees that guy drowning in a river, tries to help him, ALSO starts drowning because apparently he doesn’t know how to swim, someone else saves them both, and the guy thanks YAMA: dropping the issue entirely.
After explaining this scene to my editor Ozzytizer, he referred to Yama as a GUP: a Generic Useless Protagonist. I have a hard time refuting that since the only thing this event accomplishes is to reinforce Yama’s entitlement bubble, and it has to go so far out of its way to do so it just makes him look more pathetic.These writing decisions will have consequences later on and makes it clear that the end result of Lucid9 could’ve been avoided. But the development team couldn’t help themselves because protecting their GUP was more important than writing a good protagonist. Yay.
While Yama is the bottom of the narrative barrel in this one, the girls don’t fare much better. If you have seen any Moe anime in the past ten years, you’ve seen these clichés before. We have several shades of tsundere, a tomboy, an affable idiot, a sadistic bad girl, and even a deadpan loli with a taste for peaches and horror stories…okay. I cannot say I expected anything different right out of the gate and none of them add anything to the proceedings other than a helpful visual guide on who Yama’s dick presumably belongs to the most.
What’s even worse is that much of the cast seems there to help reinforce Yama’s undeserved entitlement complex. One such incident involves Rui, Misaki and Yama’s past. While I’m not going too heavy into spoilers in this review I need to spoil this to make my larger point. So, if you don’t want to get spoiled, either skip a paragraph or play the game and come back later. Anyway, when Yama was a kid he had two female friends: Rui and Misaki. Misaki moves away as her Mother is bent on pushing her daughter’s modeling career and Yama promptly loses his shit: falling into depression and attempting suicide. When both girls finally meet back up, the big argument is focused on what Misaki leaving did to Yama and my frontal lobe damn near shut down completely.
I’m not here to mock or otherwise desensitize depression and attempted suicide, but four years after the fact, the only thing mattering to anyone involved is who cares the most about Yama and that is bullshit. Not what this old friend has been up to or that her modelling career was taking off. Not even if she returned looking to catch up with her old friends in the first place. Nope; an event completely outside of her control made Yama feel sad, so Rui wants to make Misaki feel guilty over it. The entire scene is just one massive cradle for Yama to hop right into while two of them bicker over him and it frames their interactions going forward in the worst possible light.
To be fair to the overall structure of the game, I like what FSS were attempting to do. Instead of throwing the audience headlong into the mystery, it attempts to build some semblance of normalcy that encroaches into the cast’s lives. Used right it could serve as excellent atmosphere; slowly ramping up tension as Yama and his friends grow increasingly unable to avoid the body count around them and the paranoia that comes with not knowing what’s going to happen next. In a competent writer’s hands, this is a grand idea ripe for writing…and if it happened in Lucid9, I wouldn’t have had to spell it out for you guys.
The reason for this is unfortunately obvious. But I don’t want to put words in their mouths, so let’s let the developers themselves explain, shall we? Shortly before the release of Inciting Incident, a very detailed post was released on Lucid9’s Steam page. Here’s the relevant piece:
This release is the first part of Lucid9’s story. I guess you could consider that Lucid9 is somehow episodic. If you’re more familiar with how VNs work, Inciting Incident can identify as a common route, though unlike most VNs, this common route has a self-contained story and is actually plot driven. The next release (which should be a patch to the current release) should continue directly onto the different heroine routes, though we’re still a long way to go.
So, in this context, it’s understandable why the female cast and the SoL storyline is front and center: it must be. The rest of the entries into Lucid9 depend on the audience getting attached to them and not the storyline that ends with this entry. Unfortunately, as we covered earlier, these girls bring absolutely nothing to the table plot-wise. Even the handful of choices that allow you to spend a bit more time with each of them lead to nothing substantial in any category. So, either you are such a mega-fan of these particular anime clichés that even the shadow of them invests you enough in the game to keep going, or you’re not.
That leaves the mystery aspect to save Lucid9…under the loosest possible definitions of the words ‘save’ and ‘mystery’. Because of the hyper focus on the Slice-of-Life stuff, the only real tie-in we have to the mystery plot through the bulk of the game is a character called Shigure Enomoto who literally pulls Yama off the street and involves him in her investigation because she can do that. As smart as Shigure is supposed to be, the scenes involving her ultimately boil down to random in-jokes and comedy scenes: culminating in her on-screen humiliation as one of her contacts makes Yama decide on which barnyard noises Shigure should make in exchange for information.
A decent mystery story needs build-up, atmosphere and most importantly clearly defined stakes for your character. For example, in the original Jisei, Kangai finds a dead body and wants to avoid the authorities for his own reasons. Figuring out who the murderer is clears his name and allows him to move on with his life. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that cut and dry as our hero finds out. However, those original stakes cement his motivations and build his character. Now, just imagine the first Jisei game is about Kangai getting coffee, casually chatting with everyone in the café, maybe running into a girl he had a crush on way back when, then leaving and hearing later that a dead body was found in the café he was just at. Then he gets a phone call telling him he has to come back to help solve the mystery long after he could be of use.
The latter is the essence of Lucid9. The game smothers any opportunity to build up tension and effectively neutralizes any mystery plot thread with either pointless comedy via Shigure or wandering off in another direction with Yama and his friends. The point where Yama insults his classmate over his missing girlfriend should have been a tonal turning point in the game: finally allowing a serious enough moment to begin building tension. However, as mentioned already, the developers crap on that potential to protect Yama’s fragile ego. So, the bulk of this ‘mystery’ game actively avoids anything to do with its own mystery until the near end when it finally shows up at Yama’s doorstep and there isn’t a reason to give a damn about it.
The final acts of the game are also where the team pulls their final card to try and inject the necessary tension and that is to try and frame first Yahiko, a friend of Yama’s, then Yama as the potential serial killer. The crux of this idea is that because of his backstory and that reinforced bubble I mentioned earlier, Yama has moments where he blacks out and regularly visits a psychiatrist. This has led, in story, to Yama having an unreliable memory and so he COULD™ have something to do with it! Anyone COULD™ have something to do with it! How can Yama trust anyone if he can’t even trust his own mind! Maybe he even has a split personality doing all of this! SUSPENSE™!
One problem: that’s all bullshit.
The overall conjecture is that we have to believe Yama and his friends are capable, in any sense of the idea, of killing someone without there being a shred of evidence left behind. With Yama in particular, you have to believe that he has gone on regular manic killing episodes involving mutilated corpses, was conscientious enough not to leave any evidence tying him to the scene of the crime, made sure to cover his tracks back to his living quarters, and woke up the next day with no knowledge of what he did or anything hinting that something is off.
It is one of the most insane logical circles I’ve ever seen. Because Yama is such a weak and insufferable lead, he cannot fulfill the role of an unreliable narrator in a mystery story. So, it all comes off as more of a joke on us than anything. Ironically, this opens other plot holes as well since this story takes place in a totalitarian version of Japan. Security is tight everywhere and the citizenry has various checks and monitors to keep track of them just in case. So, all the evidence to track down this murderer targeting this one school should be at said school.
Nope! All the evidence has been tampered with! ALL OF IT! The entire city built on advance technology strictly to create one giant panopticon can be turned off with the flip of a switch. It’s almost like it’s one massive contrivance built on another massive contrivance to try and make up for a lack of solid storytelling. Hmmmmm……
The team must have realized the massive plot holes throughout the game that this idea created, but was too late to change the story. So instead, the writers grab the reader’s hand and pulls them through the rest of the mystery: pointing out everything it can in the hopes that we’ll be impressed with being spoonfed the crushed bits of narrative. Even so, there is just nothing left to hold this one up on and whatever ending you choose only cements the fact. At least both the Bad and True Endings gives you one more laugh on your way out the door, but I’m sure that’s the last thing the developers want to hear for their purported franchise launch title.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation is deceptive considering the rest of the game. There is someone on the team with a decent understanding of visual direction and makes the most of the game’s assets. The soundtrack is decent and the tracks fit both styles of storytelling the developers tried to write for. The color palette is also fantastic: lending a washed-out aesthetic to most scenes that help the backgrounds feel more alive. There is a broad range of cinematic cuts and transitions used as well that really shows a desire to make Lucid9 look as good as possible. Unfortunately, all this work is for character sprites that are bland and forgettable.
I won’t go so far as to say everyone looks the same, because that isn’t the full case. There are some similarities in overall style, but there are enough variations in body types to distinguish which girl is which. Outside of Yama, only two other boys his age has sprites. However, this art just fades into the ether even as you’re playing the game. There is no effort at making these characters distinctive in any sense from any other work with an anime art style. I can usually forgive this for visual novels, where the manga and anime trends flow so strong. However, with what this game was trying to accomplish, it desperately needed a style that stood out among its contemporaries.
The Event CGs have their own issues. It’s alright in the beginning; nothing special but nothing too horrendous. Then, suddenly it becomes bad. I’m not asking for anyone to be an overnight professional with this. I am asking for people to know their limits and use what they have to the best of their ability. And considering there are plenty of VNs out there with no CGs that are good, there was no reason to put out sub-par art other than it featured someone’s favorite character and they didn’t want to leave that potential piece of the audience out.
This isn’t a slam on the artist. For what they got, I’m sure they did as well as they could. The execution of the presentation just doesn’t leave an impression when it’s good and leaves the wrong impression when it begins to degrade.
Technically this game is very sound. The biggest issue I have is with the choice system itself, since it has very little narrative purpose. Other than that, there is some use of animation here with different objects in the world: prominently Haru’s cell phone. That, along with excellent timed cuts and other presentation tricks, keeps everything flowing well here. And, for those wondering, no bugs or glitches to report.
It will take you fifteen to twenty hours to push through Lucid9: Inciting Incident. A great deal of that is due to padding with the rest of the cast. The bulk of your choices through the game deals with opening scenes with the different girls, so you can either play through the game several times to unlock those scenes on separate playthroughs or you can do it all in one go.
On top of that, there are two endings that branch off in different ways to close out the game. All of your options are hilariously over-the-top all things considered, but if I had a choice getting the True Ending is the perfect way to cap off this train wreck. It also conveniently leaves you with no reason to replay the game. So, should you have the morbid curiosity to play this game, it is free, and you’ll only have to do it once.
I will give this title this much: in the end, when the developers truly don’t give a damn, Lucid9 hits So Bad, It’s Kinda Good marks in just how absurd everything becomes. If everything was this insane from the jump, we might be looking at a completely different result with this review. But we’re not, are we?
What struck me most about Lucid9: Inciting Incident isn’t something that happened in game, it’s what happened before and after. Before the launch of this title, Fallen Snow was determined to get across that this was only the beginning and more was coming as seen in that lengthy launch blog. In recent months, Fallen Snow realized something that probably should’ve been caught a lot earlier. That concern was vocalized with this tweet:
To which I say, of course some people did. Why wouldn’t they? What, exactly, in the game, invites the player back for more? The girls? You’d have to have seen these tropes done somewhere else and liked it there first, which means I would’ve had to have found said media for said troupes more interesting than this. The mystery? Said mystery is shot in both legs right out the gate, then solved by the end of the game in such a messy, haphazard, soap opera-esque way that it completely misses the mark and becomes a comedy. The larger, dystopian society? Please. Better has been done with so much less in the EVN realm. Yama? Okay, I laughed at that one.
The primary goal of Lucid9: Inciting Incident wasn’t to tell a mystery or even a Slice of Life tale. It was to introduce us to a cast of characters that would make the audience want to spend more time with them. Of all the things this title fundamentally fails at, it’s that. And do you know what the worst thing about that failure is? It’s hard to even remember anything about this game outside of it. I had to repeatedly go back and replay portions of it to make sure my notes were accurate. After a few days, your experience playing Lucid9 literally evaporates into the ether: leaving nothing behind but the feeling you’ve wasted your time. And for a launch title for the series, that is the last sensation you want your audience to have.
It is a bad we’ve never encountered on VNs Now before: forgettable bad. And in the end, that might be a fate worse than being The Worst.
Can you believe I held that review in me for nearly a year? Neither can I. I hope you guys found the review enlightening and I hope that FSS puts a better effort into their next project. For those who like the ideas Lucid9 was using here, there are a few better options I can recommend:
- If you really just want a murder mystery featuring Moe-style, there’s only one option: Higurashi When They Cry. It has earned its cult classic status and while it’s eternally on the backburner here in the HQ, it deserves to be in the library of every visual novel fan.
- Now, if you just want the Moe antics and Slice-of-Life stuff without the blood and gore, then my best suggestion for you is Nyu Media’s Cherry Tree High Comedy Club. I have this game, it is actually quite funny, the cast is extremely likable and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it: Moe fan or not!
The beginning of Fallen Snow's Narrative Universe is DOA thanks to terrible characters, a uninteresting mystery and how easy it is to completely forget about it once you're done.