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Published December 19, 2013

As an outsider looking in, I would define Winter Wolves’ 2013 as a resounding ‘Meh’.

If the EVN community had a ‘legacy’ brand, it would most likely be Winter Wolves. They were one of the first into the fray of the public market and won Studio/EVN Circle of the Year in the 2011 Best Ofs on this very site for the consistent quality of their work. Moreso, Loren the Amazon Princess helped lead to the creation of the Best Hybrid EVN category that recognizes those that integrate other gaming elements with visual novels.

With that sort of pedigree, 2013 looked to be very promising. However, while I don’t receive regular financial reports from Celso Riva, critically the chain of sequels we got from the group hasn’t exactly been memorable. While I am still deciding whether or not to review Heileen 3 on this website, I did take on Bionic Heart 2. Now the group is looking forward to 2014 with a new slate of releases being led by the sequel to Loren, but before they do we have one more Winter Wolves project to dig through.

Nicole has a good amount of ambition behind it. An original IP, it looks to marry otome and mystery story-telling. A DLC pack, featuring lesbian romances, was announced before release which means Winter Wolves intents for a decent investment into this new IP. So with that said, how is the game itself?

Well, there’s only one way to find out! And for those absolutely dead set on getting this game, there are mild spoilers below so consider yourself warned.

STORY

As much as I would love to do a beat by beat commentary picking a part the flaws of the story, the simple truth is that there isn’t much on the bone to pick. Once you get pass its biggest flaw, everything is sort of dangles in the Noon sun. And that is the big question concerning this game: what is its biggest flaw story-wise?

First, let’s all get to the same starting point. This is the official trailer for Nicole. Please watch and decide what the primary focus of the story seemed to be advertised as. See, I could be wrong, but with the hand-print in the logo and all the talk about a mysterious chain of event that has led to three girls missing, along with the trailer flat out telling you that Nicole is the next target, you’d think the driving plot point would  be the mystery surrounding said disappearances right? Hell, don’t take my word for it! Let’s go with the freakin’ plot synopsis on the game’s website:

Nicole is thrilled that she managed to get into her first choice school and is looking forward to experiencing college life there. However, as soon as she moves into the university dorms, she finds out that there’s been a series of mysterious disappearances going on around the campus! So far, three girls have already gone missing and Nicole could be next if she’s not too careful – not quite the ideal college experience Nicole had in mind.

Sounds exciting right? Interweaving a thrilling mystery with a few softer romantic notes that creates a white-knuckle ride that leaves you hanging on with every click until the final resolution? Yeah: ‘symphony’ is a bit reaching. At the absolute best, the mystery plot feels slapped on at the last minute; as if the writing team realized after cooing over its male targets that they had mostly promoted Nicole as a mystery and needed to come up with something to justify itself. It is riddled with plot holes that are deep enough to make the Grand Canyon weep in jealousy starting with the premise of the abductions themselves. The girls in question disappear for three days in a relatively small town, disappear for three days and upon being set free skip town to never speak of the crime again….HOW?!

They are victims/witnesses in an unsolved crime with a proven, active criminal and all happened within a year of each other. The worst criminal prosecutors on the face of the Earth know that you do not allow your witnesses to leave the damn city in the middle of an open investigation. This isn’t graduate law school stuff; you can learn this on an episode of Matlock! I DID LEARN THIS ON AN EPISODE OF MATLOCK!

On top of that there is the small fact that this is 2013 going on 2014. In a high-profile series of crimes, it would take a truly incompetent police force not to be given access to high-grade technology to study things like the purity of chemicals in a victim’s bloodstream or study their clothes to determine the most probable location they were being held at. This simply isn’t ten or even five years ago and a living victim can provide much more evidence than just their testimony. So even if, somehow, the victim was able to leave town during an active investigation into her own abduction, the evidence they would have found when she was discovered alive would have built a solid suspect list which, considering the cartoonish levels of villainy the bad guy of this game displays, would’ve put him out of commission well before Nicole showed up.

That is also one of the biggest draw backs of the game: the bloodless nature of it all. When the dark and sinister plot of the story is that all of the victims walk away after three days with barely a scratch on them, it takes away a sense of urgency and danger needed to give a mystery weight. No matter how disturbing the game wants to make the scenes where Nicole has a stalker, it isn’t enough to rise to the level of a threat when you realize none of it makes sense and there isn’t even decent motivation to go after Nicole in the first place. Plus the worse she could possibly experience would be missing a few days on her online blog and, while not to trivialize real-world abductions, makes this fictional one more laughable than anything.

I’ll be getting into this a bit more in talking about the romantic side of the game, but the fact that all of the victims walked away from their ordeals aren’t going to be a standard bearer for fiction anytime soon. Pick up any thriller, mystery, political, otherwise, and the books always end to start the same way: with a dead body.  Murder, especially murder of a female victim, may be a cheap way out but it gives the audience a sense of direction as well as thematic weight. Here the crimes create an overall sense of malaise on the campus where everyone barely discusses it despite it being a matter of national media attention in the hands of any other writer. It is mind-boggling how ridiculous it all is.

And it REALLY doesn’t help that this stupidity is compounded by the fact that the story tries to hold itself together by turning the titular character, Nicole Grave, into every stupid horror movie character you’ve ever seen. As I stated earlier, she draws the attention of the story’s villain through plot convenience and begins her own investigation into the matter. And, from a writing standpoint, Nicole’s investigation into the crimes has all the seriousness of giving your four year old cousin an unplugged Nintendo remote so that they can think they’re playing Mario instead of you. At no time, with the stalker clearing in town and using a TRACEABLE LOCAL CONNECTION to text her and send threatening private messages via Tumb-I mean Rollr, Nicole just trucks along silent because SHE A BIG GIRL AND CAN SOLVE THIS ON HER OWN!

This brings me back to the beginning on this entire thing being slapped on at the tail end of the production. It is an unfocused, uninspired, almost laughable attempt at a thrilling mystery and if that was the entire game, this review would be over right now. But we have to touch on the dangling bits left which is actually the major thrust of the game.

Despite its advertising, Nicole is a romance game and it spends most of its time building up its various romantic situations. And while it isn’t as much of a joke as the mystery plot line, it is a very straightforward excursion into familiar territory. All of the familiar tropes and clichés are here and you can pretty much predict every single warmed-over story save for one that deals with the mystery plot and is so hilariously bad it almost dives into the soap opera melodrama of Bionic Heart 2. But while predictable, it wasn’t offensive.

To be fair I wasn’t emotionally involved in Nicole so the attempts to deliver a somber back story or emotional moment probably flew over my head thanks to all of the other issues I’ve touched on with the other plot. But at the same time it wasn’t badly done predictability. The production team’s interests are clearly with the romance and it shows because they make every effort to show all four guys in an earnest, nearly human light. It isn’t something that can clear the tropes, but it is something where you can see a clear plot line that involves a competent romantic heroine which Nicole does MUCH better than trying to be Scooby Doo.

It is what it is: all stuff that I’ve seen this year already from romantic VNs. There is no attempt to stand out here, but at the same time they clearly do put in the work NOT to suck. I can (and do) despise the less than amateur effort made at writing good a mystery, but it was never meant to be that in the first place. It was included, really, to try and spice up a serviceable, middle-of-the-road otome game. I may not personally like it, but clearly there are people who enjoy that sort of thing and I didn’t walk away from the final play through cursing the game for wasting my time.

So, in a very twisted way, Nicole manages to avoid the wreckage of its own damnation by playing to its vanilla roots. Weird huh? Nicole is saved from the wrath of JP by being average.

OH NOES! A SQUIRREL IS WALKING THROUGH A BUSH!

PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY

The Presentation is actually strong here. The style and design are inspired by Always Remember Me: another visual novel by WW. It gives everyone a relatively mature look that fits perfectly with the college theme. Considering my recent ranting on age-appropriate art styles, I can appreciate it. The only real draw back to the designs is that some character expressions just look goofy and most of them belonged to the female set.

Other than that the background art is very slick and well done. The soundtrack for most scenes is something I actually prefer. Instead of music, Nicole employs ambient noise to create its atmosphere. This usually works with the exception of a few lines of dialogue that break the moment. And, when the music does play, it doesn’t overtake the story that is trying to tell itself and instead builds the moment. It is all together a very well done production that deserved a much better story to be attached to.

Gameplay is a different matter. Let’s see if everyone can follow the bouncing ball on this one. The core gameplay mechanic is a stat builder that requires you to level up a certain statistic in order to romance a certain guy. You can see an idea of these statistics on the graphic below. Building a certain statistic can be done with various activities, jobs and purchases you can make during the week. This is also your main way of investigating the mystery as key scenes are unlocked by building the ‘Clue’ statistic that is monitored at the end of the day Summary screen.

That’s right it isn’t something you can direct on your own. You have to build stats to solve the mystery. But wait! It gets better!

There is no set value on how much you can earn from certain tasks and you have to max out both the Clue stat and that particular guy’s stat (Zeal, Diligence, Amity, Wit or Savvy) in order to get their specific endings. HOWEVER, as you increase a particular guy’s stat, the Clue stat will increase in value. In other words, the more you do what one of the guys like, the more mystery scenes you can see!

Now let me peel one more layer off this onion. Nicole has ten endings total: four for each romance, four special endings if you solve the mystery and two bad ones. That may sound like a lot, but if you play like Nicole wants you to play, then realistically its two endings per romance. And again, you have to max out these stats in order to get these endings; otherwise you’ll get one of the two bad endings.

‘So JP, if I’m hearing you right, that means in order to get the endings  you need to beat the game I just have to grind out one guy’s main stat to increase the values of the Clues I find!’

Yes grasshopper: that is correct.

‘And how long do I have to do this? A month in game? Two months?’

It takes one college semester grasshopper.

‘….Four months?’

And you will need every day of those four months to correctly grind the stats to max them out, grasshopper.

‘JP…that sounds really boring.’

Yes. Yes it is. With the simulation taking up more than half of your playing time, the truth here is that regardless of whether or not you’re interested in the story, eventually you will lose interest because you have to spend so much time grinding to the next plot point. Even if everything hummed along at a perfect pitch and I had no complaints about the story, the entire game stops when you have entire WEEKS in game where nothing happens. It is an unfortunate mechanic that, honestly, didn’t help what was already a floundering experience.

How About You Take My Fist IN YO FACE!!!!

 

REPLAY VALUE

Each path takes roughly five hours to beat; making this a lengthy 25 to 30 hour experience. If romance is your thing, it may be on your dance card. But before you commit the $19.99 needed to be on the floor, I just want to warn you that ‘replay value’ here consists of clicking one spot repeatedly for weeks on end until the game allows you to get to the ‘good part’.

It is a very restrictive experience that doesn’t promote a desire for repeated play through. If you are still interested, have at it. But for those who want to invest that much time into something a bit more; just consider your options before you purchase.

 

OVERALL

So yeah…that was Nicole.

Considering the commercial nature of the project as well as Winter Wolves’ past achievements it is a somber note in their history. We all have low tides, but that doesn’t change the fact that Nicole ends the year with a joke of a mystery tied to a romantic game we have all seen done before. It is a bland, joyless drive that slides through only because when it isn’t trying to be what it isn’t (thrilling, suspenseful, etc.) it doesn’t insult your intelligence and just gives the raving, love hungry crowds what they want.

It is phoned-in. And ask any teacher of any grade level, having a student with proven excellence phone something in is ten times worse than the student who constantly fails. Here’s looking forward to better days for Winter Wolves in 2014.