Have you ever watched or read a piece of media and was completely enraptured by a storyline or character that the author clearly wasn’t? I know the question seems odd on its face. After all, why would an author include a character or storyline they didn’t care about? Yet, it tends to happen more than one would think: especially in Western media.
This brings up an interesting philosophical point for me when it comes to bad writing and where the line is between a disagreement between audience and writer over what the writer finds important and actual bad writing. It’s something that I’ve gone back and forth with in discussing the Brilliant Shadows series here on this site and it started with Ash. If you read my review of the first game, you’ll remember me pulling what’s left of my hair out over Veronica Ashmar: the main character of the game who spent most of it in a terrible mood because she didn’t get the girlfriend she wanted. Meanwhile, the actual narrative weight, character development and thematic drive of the game were put into the hands of Prudence and Hektor: something I did (and do) consider a grave mistake that could have been corrected by switching character roles.
Did that make the first game badly written? Not necessarily. The final act was a total mess. However, we still got a complete character arc for pretty much everyone involved. The stage was also more or less set if the series wanted to continue. Ithaqua Labs could follow Ash and her partner, Terra, as they started to learn more about each other. Or, they could follow Hektor and Prudence who would be a ground zero for the repercussions of the events of the first game. Hell, even the other side characters could have been given compelling storylines as they tried to move on. The key would simply be focus: pick one storyline and run with it.
And seeing how this introduction is going, you better strap in because IL threw focus out of the window and down a hill: choosing to go with ALL the storylines. Pale Spectrum everyone. Let’s get it.
The Ryuusian Royal Cabal thought that the discovery and research of five new forms of magic would be the greatest undertaking of their lives. Unfortunately, they drastically underestimated the difficulties of love, mental health, family, and the occasional mad demigod. That is putting it mildly and may invest a bit too much drama in what actually happens.
We’re going to do things differently in this review, people. I try to take things piece by piece in this subsection and analysis their overall affect on the plot. However, that only works when there is one unified plot or lack thereof. I lost count of the orgy (for lack of better terms) of subplots writhing together to try and make this game coherent about three hours in, so I’m going to try and stick to things that just stuck out to me in the game and see if we can find any connecting themes to critique.
You know all the stuff in the intro about love, mental health and family? The bulk of that comes from Hektor and Prudence (AGAIN) as they wrangle with the repercussions of the previous game. Prudence is now sovereign; however, it came at the cost of losing her mother and nearly dying herself. She is, at the very minimum, experiencing PTSD and it has affected not only her ability to rule, but also her relationship with Hektor. Hektor, meanwhile, has lost his ability to use magic…completely changing his physical appearance somehow but that’s neither here nor there. While he teaches what he knows to his friends, he is still trying to cope with the loss while trying to figure out how to even be in a relationship.
It also allows for something we don’t see a lot not only in this game, but in visual novels as a whole: maturity. For lack of better example, Hektor and Prudence are the adults in this game: tasked with dealing with their own internal and external problems without an immediate magical solution. What they come up with isn’t always perfect and they make their share of mistakes, but it doesn’t have to be perfect to perpetuate the story and advance the characters. Just like in the first entry, by the end of this game it feels like both have changed due to their own decisions and it allows them to stand head and shoulders over the rest of the cast.
So, what’s the problem? The problem is that the larger plot really doesn’t care about either of them. What Hektor and Prudence do in the background is usually used as setup for another character to step in and the story switches to their point-of-view. This leaves a lot of the heavier topics touched on by the two characters on the wayside and we never look back. This includes that PTSD I mentioned earlier, which had a very controversial solution that isn’t confronted or challenged that I’m assuming will come up down the road. It also makes the attempted world-building with both the politics of different species in this world and the idea of alternate universes, far messier than it needs to be.
While no game needs to stick to a singular, narrow pathway, Pale Spectrum goes so wide in scope that it damages the world’s tangibility. Tangibility, in a fictional context, is important because it allows the audience to not only believe that the world presented could exist, but also that the events happening in that world could happen. Taking an example from recent films, the Nolan Batman movies are tangible insomuch as we can believe Batman could operate there, but it wouldn’t work for any of the other DC superheroes. By including so much extra information about the world and widening the scope from battling dark magic to potential saving the multiverse, Pale Spectrum effectively smashes the world’s tangibility. It just stops making sense about halfway through and the audience stops trying to make sense of it. And sense a lot of what we see doesn’t affect the current story, once you get the basic premise down you can honestly skip over a lot of it and not be any worse for wear.
So, where does that leave us in looking for some good here? Well, that would be the Random Ass Adventures of The Magical Diversity Squad (Trademark Pending).
Okay, before anyone starts, let’s put a clarifying point right here. Having different types of characters of different races, genders and sexualities is an inherent and obvious good for writers because it allows a different perspective on the events of the narrative that can enrich it. The key to that sentence, however, is narrative. There must be something there for them to do and the biggest sin of Pale Spectrum is that for as big as the cast gets to by the end, easily over two-thirds of them have nothing to do in this game.
Let’s take the sort of lead character in this newly ensembled cast: Veronica Ashmar…yay. Since we last saw her, she has not only become more powerful than even she could imagine, but also landed herself a shape-shifting girlfriend. The core of her narrative drive here is…being happy with her girlfriend. That’s it. Ostensibly, it’s to investigate why their former head teachers tried to overthrow the government and killed Prudence’s Mom. These issues are solved in two shakes of a lamb’s tail with the presumed threat being more of a running gag: think The Purple Man from Jessica Jones but completely incompetent.
What follows is an attempt to give Ash something heavier to deal with as a character, but it falls flat due to it not really affecting her. Without spoiling too much, the question it leads to is a much bigger issue for Prudence. To be fair, I’m still grinding through the rest of the path options, so maybe Prudence will confront this big character issue and if so, I’ll edit that in (EDIT: HERE). For now, though, it’s a moment that doubles-down on Ash’s new ridiculous power level and gets her closer to Terra. Yay.
We also spend a lot more time with Belinda this time around who, after having been saved from the brink of death has slimmed down and become far more powerful under Hektor’s tutelage. All this means is that she drools over boys more. It does lead to the introduction of her adopted yeti brother who is awesome, but unnecessary in the events of the game. And a literal vital character choice is dropped after its made, because if it wasn’t she wouldn’t be there to drool over a fish man. Yup.
Between the two of them, Ash and Belinda take up most of the game’s running time. Aelfnod and Aku (a new character) bring up the rear by going back to The Mountain as the new heads, but the storyline is so disconnected from the events of the game that it might as well be a spinoff. Whether or not you like this game will depend on what you’re coming to this game for. The story, on its own, simply isn’t enough. It’s too broad and bloated with its enlarged cast and wandering gaze to flesh out anything meaningful. However, if you want to see the Romantic, Random Ass Adventures of The Magical Diversity Squad (Trademark Pending) you’re in luck! It’s the only time the game focuses and you will find your choice of romantic overtures and hinted sexy times here.
If you’re a long-time reader, though, you probably know what side of the fence I’m falling on.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
I am severely on the fence with Ithaqua Labs’ style and direction, mostly because of its heavy reliance on color. When we talk about background art in visual novels, color isn’t exactly the first thing you think about. Again, going to tangibility, it has to make the world the game is apart of feel like it could exist. The best background art in this genre makes their stories feel apart of that world’s longer history instead of a snapshot of a singular moment. I would point you to the work of Moacube, Alice in Dissonance and We Are Muesli especially for exemplary work in that field.
This is a difficult critical point to flesh out because it is so subjective, but if you look at the screenshots I provided in this review, you can see the sprites basically take up the entire screen. The backgrounds aren’t terrible but seem to be more focused on providing a color palette for the sprites. There isn’t anything wrong with this approach as an artistic idea, as it gives the developer’s work a unique aesthetic. But there are two critical points that need to be made: it doesn’t work for every background and it makes a lot of the Event Graphics look baaaaaaad.
How bad? This bad.
Again, it’s an artistic choice and, to be fair, it does work out more often than it fails. However, nothing stands out beyond the artistic idea. There is no frame of this that really sells the audience on what is going on in the story and that is the core goal of any good presentation.
Outside of that we have the soundtrack and voice acting. Let’s start with a little sugar to temper some of the vinegar I’ve been pouring on this thing. The voice acting is good with just about everyone involved either stepping their game up or maintaining the quality they had in Brilliant Shadows. The only time most of the character seems to break and go for a more melodramatic tone is when things got serious. Considering the material, this is understandable. However, outside of Sakevisual’s catalog, I can’t think of better implementation of voice acting in an English Visual Novel. So, bravo for that.
The soundtrack is also good…on its own. It was made for its genre overall rather than the game, so a lot of the tracks create a certain dissonance in certain scenes. In fact, all the music for the scenes featuring The Purple Man Wannabee AFTER he is bitch-slapped by Ash seem almost comical. He’s just not a threat in any capacity, yet that’s the tone it keeps going for. This translates to a few other scenes that are reaching for a level of depth and drama that the writing cannot, and often doesn’t try to reach. As I said, in another game with a different tone it would’ve been perfect. For now, it’s fine as a stand-alone project.
Outside of that, on the technical end, I have no issues to report.
So far in Pale Spectrum, I’ve gone down three of what I believe are five paths. Those three paths took me around twenty hours to do. So, by the end, I should be clocked in at over thirty. I have put some time into some visual novels, but this has been a test mainly because there is very little draw to keep going on the different alternate routes for the previously stated reasons. I believe I have the gist, so I’m comfortable doing this review. HOWEVER, please keep these concerns in mind as a lot of what the developer wants to do is stashed away in routes that you may not bother with playing.
As far as price goes, it is normally priced at $16.99. For all the reasons stated, if you are just incredibly curious to see how the tale is going, I would wait for a sale, a GOOD one, to ensure you get your money’s worth.
I wanted to like this game so bad.
Brilliant Shadows had its issues and a messy end, but it also did just enough right to make a sequel enticing. Just about all of that potential, however, was dropped in favor of a bigger, messier sprawling narrative that can’t seem to find any real direction. There are no stakes: nothing to fight for. Just about everyone has already won well before they stepped onto the field and reaped all of the pleasure that come with it.
I don’t know why this couldn’t have just been one massive interconnected love story because clearly that’s what the developers care the most about. It could allow for so much extraneous material to have been cut. Hell, at that point, Prudence and Hektor could have been cut and given their own spin-off to focus on the serious end of the story while everyone else traversed the landscape to bang. Aku and Aelfnod’s entire story could have been cut as well and molded into its own thing as well. Anything but just dumping it all into one pot and hoping it tastes alright in the aftermath. Because that aftermath, for as admittedly sweet as it can get from time to time, is mostly saccharine and makes for a very forgettable tale.
I’m leaving just enough room in this review to go back and 100% complete this game. Hopefully enough will happen to change my mind. But, for now, at best it’s barely average.