The concept of a civilization has various appearances in the pages of history, but usually follows a few noticeable guidelines. Those guidelines are how to keep its people fed, how to ensure some sense of order and on how to care for those people who, for whatever reason, cannot function in established society. That last one is something that is critical to the continuity of social harmony, because that’s usually where human civilization shows just how cruel it can be. Said cruelty isn’t always malicious, consider physical ailments such as leprosy or the Plague, but it is an unfortunate reality.
Things take a much darker spin when you start looking at how societies treat people with psychiatric ailments and that is the space One Small Fire at a Time has boldly chosen to work in. Brought to us by Kidalang, the creators of the award-winning An Octave Higher, this visual novel serves a prequel to the events of AOH and is uniquely focused on one of the original’s antagonists: Commander Janis Woolf.
Thirteen-Year-Old Janis has a problem: she cannot use magic. Diagnosed with ‘Magic Deficiency Disorder’ from an early age, Janis lives in a madhouse with others who, for one reason or another, cannot function in the magical society of Overture. She spends her days in magic therapy along with playing with her handful of friends and avoiding bullies, as you do. However, her life changes when the asylum gets a visit from three gentlemen investigating the owners that find there is more going on here than meets the eye.
One Small Fire at a Time gets so much right and it starts with expanding the world of Overture. In AOH, a lot of the world building happened through explaining how magic works in their society and how that has caused societal advancement. This was mostly explained through mathematics and philosophy, which many readers found a bit grinding even though most, to the best of my understanding, got the gist. Instead of trying to reiterate the themes from the first game, or try to reestablish the theories that make a world like Overture work, Kidalang instead focuses on the human element: taking a hard, often dark look at living in a society dependent on magic.
It doesn’t sound that revolutionary until you look at how magical fantasy worlds are usually presented. The more present magic is in a society, the more utopian that society is usually portrayed. These worlds are things like The Last Airbender franchise…yes TLA fans, I’m counting it. Despite the Hundred Year War in the original series and the various uprising and revolts that mark the second series, the entire franchise operates on a single rule that maintains its utopian state: as long as the Avatar is active, everything will work out. The war of the first series lasted as long as it did because Aang was frozen at the bottom of the ocean. Within a year of him being thawed out, it was over. Repeat that four times over with Legend of Korra and no matter how intense a situation can become, the Avatar will eventually make things right.
TLA’s universe isn’t perfect, but it is a far more ideal than even it present itself as. Overture flips the concept and presents itself as utopian straight off. It’s only when you dig beyond the surface details that it shows its true darkness. Yes, magic here is real, but because it is so vital to society the use of magic is heavily taxed and regulated. And similar to Western society along the same time frame, there is little attempt to understand any type of medical science outside of its magical utility. Why would there be? You can cast Heal on every physical injury and as long as you get to a person in enough time with Revive (yes, these spells are all canonical), you can prevent an untimely demise. If magic cannot fix it, then the issue is the person that magic can’t fix since magic fixes damn near everything. Hence the madhouse and the place we find Janis in at the beginning of the game.
This attention to detail is pivotal for the game and the world development we get shows a lot of growth in the development team. In AOH, Overture was interesting as a philosophical theory if anyone ever sat around and thought how a magical society would actually work. Here, Overture feels far more tangible as a setting and it helps weave together the larger narrative along with the social commentary that ties into it.
At the center of this narrative perfect storm is Janis herself and she is one of my favorite visual novel protagonist to date. The key to her character is that while she is bright for her age, she is still just a kid. Often, she is in way over her head: giving the audience time to legitimately sympathize with her when she finds little moments of peace or happiness. I also appreciate that she’s far outside of the uber-badass mold many protagonists of visual novels and other media fit into these days. She does have her badass moments mind you, but they come well thought out and thoroughly explained, alongside the caveat that usually when Janis is being awesome she’s also scared out of her wits.
Janis’ portrayal keeps the game tethered to an essential humanity that adds to the palpability of the game. Everyone feels real and everyone makes mistakes often. In many cases, those mistakes are quite cruel. There is no clear solution for any of the issues facing the cast and they’re grappling with all of them the best they can. By the end, its clear that there is no right answer: just people doing the best they can to help, even if the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
On that note, two of the best scenes of dialogue I’ve ever read in a visual novel came from One Small Fire and it featured two sides of that argument: both from supporting characters. On strictly the surface level, both conversations fit into an expectation that most media doesn’t hit: two highly educated characters sounding highly educated. Just being able to read the conversations were a delight, but going into the deeper context for the story, as well as its commentary on how our current society deals with mental illness, show what this team can do when they put their minds to it. It doesn’t need the audience to know every detail of psychology, but it does require them to understand the points of views of the people who do.
These conversations on societal norms and what’s best for those who fall on the outskirts is also where a lot of narrative subversions come into play. The writing team expects the audience to have certain prejudices and reactions to the archetypes it presents. For example, and being as vague as possible, Candela (a friend of Janis’) fits every anime archetype of an innocent, female best friend you can think of. The concept of her lying to anyone doesn’t fit her archetype and the writers know that. They use that knowledge down the line, when several major reveals about what’s going on in the madhouse happen with Candela at the center. At the front of your brain, your instinct is trust Candela, but not because of the evidence in the game. Rather, it’s because of your own prejudices and that opens the door to some heavy moments and twists dealing with that character.
The same goes for most of the cast. Commander Aidan Woolf, the Sherwoods, and even Janis herself rely on you taking their archetype at face value, which leads to said archetypes being subverted in masterful fashion as the game begins to spill its secrets. It’s a bold turn that I’d argue is necessary, lest the audience begins to judge the characters for their mistakes.
As much as I would like to pretend this game was all darkness and grit, it wasn’t. As much as I enjoyed AOH, One Small Fire is where the team poured the charm of Overture with plenty of comedic moments and even a side romance story before events turned too dark to do them. Before the narrative turned, I spent most of this game with a goofy smile on my face as the game completely seduced me with its lighter tone. This served the story well as things never got so cartoonish that the larger picture was lost, but it also made the darkness of the later game feel that much darker and the consequences of people’s decisions so unequivocally human.
Believe me, I would love to go into more depth with this plot. However, I don’t want to spoil anything more than I may have already done inadvertently. You owe it to yourselves to play this game knowing as little about its secrets as possible. You’ll thank me for it.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
This, unfortunately, is where things go south for this game. Off the bat, the character sprites and event graphics are all fantastic. Years ago, I noticed Kidalang added a little touch to their character animations that separated them from other VN developers: their heads turned to whoever was speaking. I am neither a programmer nor an artist, but I’ve been told by programmers and artists it’s a pain in the ass to do. So, for Kidalang to continue it here is commendable.
However, outside of the madhouse exterior itself, a lot of assets come from An Octave Higher. Several miscellaneous sprites, a bunch of backgrounds and nearly the entire soundtrack pull double duty here. There are a few new piano pieces that were great additions to the atmosphere, and a part of me can even understand why the backgrounds for Overture were reused. We’re talking about a difference of twenty or so years between prequel and sequel, so it makes sense that a major city wouldn’t radically change in that time span.
Unfortunately, I must also take into account that this is a full commercial release for Kidalang and Culture Select: their publisher. If this had been free DLC to go with AOH, I could have forgiven its flaws on the Presentation front. As it is, it’s good, but that’s because the artwork and visual design of AOH was very good and it was literally transplanted here.
Things don’t get any better when you go into the technical aspects of the game. There is little to no technical polish here with flashing sprites in many scenes to transition their facial expressions and blocks of text taking up the entire screen to get through certain scenes. The choice structure is also strikingly unnecessary. This was an issue in AOH where choices were slim and didn’t feel as important to the overall game as it was. Here, it’s mostly used to open extra scenes with three of the supporting characters.
I’m grateful that it wasn’t wasted space, but the choices again feel irrelevant to the overall plot. It really is the textbook definition of window dressing and if the Kidalang team is going to insist of having a choice system in their work, they must figure out how to make it more substantial. Extra scenes are a good place to start, but fleshing them out and making better use of the mechanic should be a proper end goal. Or just make a purely kinetic novel: I’m personally fine with that.
Either way, on a strictly technical end it feels like amateur hour. Tied in with the repeated presentation assets and this is easily the weakest part of one of the strongest titles of 2016.
One Small Fire at a Time currently retails at $9.99. For that, the game throws in a few alternate endings depending on whether you taking advantage of those extra scenes. However, getting the True Ending is literally child’s play and with the choice structure being the way it is, I had little incentive to go back and replay it for other endings. It all comes down to your enjoyment of the five-hour story and if you will play it again just for that.
Allow me to ease your concerns: the minute you get finished with One Small Fire the first time, you will want to play it again.
A great narrative makes every moment count, and even small moments feel bigger when you look at them with the knowledge of how something ends. This axiom is well-played here as you understand the characters better after everything’s said and done. You can even recognize how bold the writing was for them once you get beyond your own biased viewpoints of their archetypes. There is one character this is especially true for, and I’m trying to get out of here without spoiling just how deep the rabbit hole on that one goes. But I will leave you with one hint: remember that in Overture, magic can heal just about anything. Just keep that in mind.
It’s that depth that will keep you coming back, which means that $10 for this is almost highway robbery. I would strongly suggest picking up An Octave Higher as well and playing both back-to-back if you can afford to. Neither is necessary to appreciate the other, but playing both gives a deeper context to the world both games live in and make things far more interesting than just playing them separately.
Very rarely in this world do you get an opportunity to make a second impression on someone, but Kidalang managed to do it with me. With An Octave Higher, this group showed they had the potential to write a compelling and intelligent story, but were still a few years away from connecting their knowledge to practical fiction. With One Small Fire at a Time, Kidalang showed they were a group that not only can learn from their earlier work and aren’t afraid to shrink their scope, but also that they could be the première world-builders on the visual novel scene now: rivaled only by Moacube and Sukeban. Between both games, fans now have a full picture of Overture’s society and history: opening many possibilities for other stories to take place in this setting. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the world expanded to fit in other media like books or comics, as there is more than enough information to support them now.
It is a testimony to their skills, both latent and learned, that Kidalang could deliver such a gem to us. Save for the unfortunate blemish with its presentation and lack of technical polish, One Small Fire kept a smile on my face, made me think, and had me on the edge of my seat as it reached its bloody and deeply satisfying end. It is easily one of the best of 2016 and I cannot wait to see what this team does next. Well done.
It almost feels disrespectful to do this when I praised One Small Fire at a Time. I loved the game and encourage everyone here to pick it up, but if you just want others in its field I can recommend a few to you that follow through on the ideas of dark magical worlds and solid world-building.
- Let’s start with another 2016 entry: Solstice. The game takes its time building up The Jewel of the North like how Kidalang takes it time building the world of Overture. It also features a solid story with plenty of dark twists that will keep you on edge until its conclusion. Moacube does have a leg up on choice structure, and your actions do carry a lot more weight here. So, if you, like me, were a bit dissatisfied with the choices in this game, you should see them remedied with this one.
- And on the bend of dark fantasy tales, well I don’t think you can go wrong with my 2015 EVN of the Year: Cupid. It has a similar scope to One Small Fire and is also heavily reliant on audience subversion and this mixture of light and dark moments where we, as an audience, can only view everyone involved as extremely human. Pick it up today if you haven’t.
One Small Fire at a Time is a masterful bit of storytelling that earns every smile and every shock it generates in the audience.