The Gold Standard here is written in blood.
That hasn’t stopped being true for VNs Now from the moment I first uttered it. However, even my long-time readers forget the corollary to it. Exploring the more dramatic and even the more traumatic side of fiction gives your work a better chance at being good, this is true. But, the line between a truly deep narrative and flailing edgelord scribbling dreary nonsense is razor thin and a thoughtful writer will keep that in mind as they move forward. Hell, the review I first said that line in was for Cursed Sight: a VN that tried to walk that line and stumbled more than once on its way to the finish line.
So, while I do enjoy my blood and strife, that enjoyment only raises my expectations. This brings us to Zetsubou. We’ve discussed Zetsubou here before and they should be a developer whose work appeals directly to me. The pen name ‘Zetsubou’, roughly translated, means ‘despair’ in Japanese and their work deals with darker aspects of drama and fiction that I usually parade around on my shoulders. Beyond that, Zetsubou’s one of the most prolific EVN writers on the scene right now: joining the likes of Ebi-Hime and Katy133 in terms of sheer volume of work. However, at least for me, Zetsubou’s work has been a mixed bag.
While I have yet to play their debut title Sickness, my impression of the demo wasn’t favorable. They were also involved with RazzArt and Unwonted Studios for No One But You, Catch Canvas, and Love Ribbon which will all be very interesting reviews if I ever get to them. I have heard praise for Wander No More and To Libertad: both of which are personal projects for Zetsubou and not commissioned works. The ‘personal works’ catalog also includes Max Massacre: a VN that is probably best suited to give us a better hint than the Sickness demo on Zetsubou’s writing style and approach to building a story.
So, let’s step into the crimson with Zetsubou’s Max Massacre and see what this writer has in store for us. Oh, and there might be a mild spoiler in the review as well. It’s nothing heavy, but if you want to go into the game completely clean, you’ve been warned!
In a medieval world where monsters roam the countryside, a young man named Max shoulders the abuse and mistrust of his fellow townsfolk as he trains to protect them. At his side is his long-time friend and roommate Celeste: a talented magician who he lusts after to the point of having dreams of them having sex. The situation for Max is at a stand-still and something needs to change soon for him to truly come into his own. The only question is who Max will be once that choice is made.
While I have and will continue to criticize how gaming as a whole, and VNs in particular, use sex and sexual desire, here it is presented just right. Max’s infatuation with Celeste is key to his character and critical to understanding his drives. At heart, he doesn’t want to be a punching bag for society and clearly wants to be more than a dependable friend for Celeste. Like most adolescents (I’m guessing they’re adolescents anyway), he really isn’t sure of the best way to go about it and it leads to the lucid fantastical dreams he experiences. There is plenty of humanity in this character and as we follow his daily life, we want to know more about his philosophy and how he became the person he is, along with looking forward to seeing what decisions he makes about his future.
The same goes for Celeste. I wrote a commentary about how to properly write a character’s sexuality and Celeste fits that bill perfectly. She presents a kind façade to the rest of the town, however when they’re alone she doesn’t hold back her disdain for them for their treatment of her and Max. She is also the only person to compliment Max’s strength and abilities: flattering him to the point of outright seduction whenever she can. Interestingly enough, more than being the girl that has caught Max’s eye, she also represents his restrained Id. Everything he wants to do with her goes together with him wanting to prove himself as the superior to those who bully him. It’s a fantastic way to present a love interest and the audience can accept their mutual attraction.
By the end of the first act, you are invested in Max and Celeste. Both clearly complement one another with Celeste being just dangerous enough to provide a darker tint to their relationship and infatuation. Also, we have the larger plot point of Max dealing with his own hang-ups and whatever his reasons are for accepting being the target of his fellow students and the townsfolk at large. There is plenty of room to work and the stage is set to deliver a satisfying story. So then, how in the Seven Capital Cities of Hell does Zetsubou manage to screw it up?!
MM’s second act repeats everything the audience learns in the first while shooting the character development we got for Max and Celeste straight in the face. The first barrel comes with Max as several of his bullies corner him one day looking for a fight. Max, pushed to the edge, is ready to step up and would’ve have gotten into a fight with them if their instructor had not intervened. It creates a moment, however brief, to explore the overall contempt for Max and why Max doesn’t fight back against his aggressors…and it’s not taken.
There is no attempt to look any deeper into Max’s issues with the rest of the world. The only explanation we get is that they sense a ‘corrupted aura’ around him, unfortunately that handwave is scuttled thanks to one of the endings that shows it doesn’t matter. They just hate Max and Max accepts it. This is a theme familiar to visual novels that want to be ‘dark and edgy’: the protagonist, regardless of gender, will often have to face the ire of a cruel world despite their inner nobility or being special. Which means that any emotional resonance must be brought to the table by the audience, and that is something I need to break down in depth.
I mentioned this in the comments of my We Know the Devil review, but it’s a very interesting trick for writers who want their work to appear deeper and/or darker than they can write. Max on his own isn’t that deep or interesting as a protagonist, therefore to have any resonance the audience has to have felt like him at some point. They had to have felt like the center of the world’s rage and disdain, but for whatever personal reasons the audience has never retaliated. So, because they’ve felt like they’ve been Max at one point in their life, the assumption is that Max must have the emotional depth they have since they’ve gone through the same situation. And so, you’ve artificially created character development, when it’s just the audience’s reflection looking back at them.
This narrative sleight-of-hand beckons back to the bloodier anime and manga of the 1980s and 1990s (MD Geist, Devilman, Elfen Lied, your basic Anime Abandon staple). However, it is still not a substitute for actual character development since the audience isn’t going to like a protagonist by default. For all the time we spend with Max, he never develops into an interesting main character on his own. We never see beyond the writer’s cynicism and misanthropy, and it comes back to bite them in the end when the pivotal choice is laid to the audience and the audience doesn’t care.
The second barrel comes when Celeste openly tries to seduce Max. Up until that point, it was fair to assume Max’s feelings for Celeste were one-sided: hence his internal conflict. That falls apart when Celeste wakes Max up by climbing into his bed. He immediately jumps out and Celeste invites him to come back in. Overwhelmed with a surge of desire Max…runs away?
Okay, I’m not going to sit here and say that ‘no man runs away from sex’. That’s chauvinistic at best and ignores personal philosophy and maturity when dealing with the subject. I have no problems with Max not having sex with Celeste if it went against his personal code of ethics or if he felt he wasn’t ready. However, that isn’t the sense I got when Max runs away. The sense I got is that the writer wrote themselves into a hole and this was the only way out.
It was made clear by Max during his vivid sexual dreams to be waiting for a sign from Celeste on whether he should be open with his feelings about her. The narrative logic up to that point makes perfect sense, but that ends with a trigger the writer wasn’t ready to pull. With how the plot was building to that point, narrative logic states that the game’s key (and only) choice would be right here: to have Max choose between having sex with Celeste or not. However, they would also have to have more thought out for them both to finish the second half of the game. Since they didn’t, they punted and it unfortunately cost them.
Because of these issues, the second half is stagnant. This spirals until they finally decide to give us the much-anticipated choice for Max, but it has no impact thanks to its dependence on how much you agree with the writer’s misanthropy. And do not be fooled: that is what this choice hangs on. There is no good ending per se as it comes down to just how much you hate the people around Max; again relying on narrative tricks instead of a solid narrative.
I sincerely wish there was more to dig into than that, but both endings haphazardly try to tug at your heartstrings and end when they have nothing left to say. It’s an unfortunate climax and culmination, but one that was totally avoidable.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
Credit where it’s due, the Presentation is decent enough. It’s a simple style, but one that evokes the fantasy genre well. It has no set location, but blends both Western and Eastern aesthetics to create its world. That, and the excellent background work, makes for a solid setting that feels interesting and lived in despite being secondary. I certainly wish I could say the same about the character art; which is much more hit or miss. Max is fine: very basic but fine. His look reflects his everyman character and appeals directly to the audience’s empathy for that sleight of hand I was discussing earlier. I also enjoy that the entire supporting cast has their own unique sprite. Usually they get a black outline, so it was a nice touch. As for Celeste…well…she just appears kind of wonky to me.
I know I’m not usually one to talk about this because of my definite lack of artistic talent, but Celeste looks cobbled together from various other character sprites. Especially if you look long enough at her face, you realize there’s no sense of proportion or similarity. It gets worse as you look down and realize one of her arms is bigger than the other and her chest, well, yeah. There is no definitive way to draw female breasts, but I’m still throwing a flag on this one because that is clearly boobs pasted onto a male sprite’s chest. Her look greatly improves when you get to the Event CGs, but that’s mostly because it’s clear one artist is doing all the work and can make sure everything is symmetrical. Unless I see evidence otherwise, I’m standing by that assertion.
Overall it isn’t terrible by any means, just a little off here and there. Technically, the title is also solid. There’s little flash, but the game was smooth and I didn’t notice any bugs or glitches.
Max Massacre takes about an hour and half to get through and with a single choice, there is honestly very little reason to play through it a second time. Because it is free, I would consider at least one playthrough worthwhile if you’ve ever been interesting in Zetsubou’s work and wanted to see what their mind could get up to on its own. Other than that, it’s a one and done experience.
This review went by quickly…I’m a little shocked actually. The biggest reason why is because there really isn’t much to talk about with Max Massacre. The potential is certainly there, however the execution is way off. The characters simply didn’t have the depth or development to keep the game going after the halfway mark and certainly couldn’t sell the choice the audience was finally given. I certainly don’t need a revolutionary narrative experience with every single VN I play, but a stable plot is a requirement. Max Massacre doesn’t have that. It has a decent idea that it built an entire game around, but couldn’t deliver due to its laser focus on that idea. It’s an interesting enough idea, and one that could’ve worked with better planning, but ultimately it ended up being an average visual novel.
Perhaps another look at Zetsubou’s library will get us better insight into their ways? We’ll have to see another day.
So that was Max Massacre. They’ll get another crack at bat, but with one and a half strikes already all I can do is hope for the best with whatever I play next in their catalog. But what else can you play if you want to see this setting and concept work? Well, maybe you should consider –
- Children of the Gate: This title owes more to Attack on Titan than anything in the 80s or 90s, but it has a similar dark fantasy setting and an similar backstory between its main characters and the main characters of this title. Any more than that would lead to spoilers, so check it out an see what you think!
- Basiliska: Another dark fantasy title and another game that approaches the misanthropic subtext of Max Massacre. However, it has the depth this one was lacking and because of it, the story goes in a much better, and more fulfilling, direction. I’ve already recommended Basiliska here so if you haven’t played it yet, it’s time to give it a go!