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Published August 12, 2015

Before we begin, I want to thank everyone who was patient with the lack of reviews in July. I decided to quietly step away for a bit to rest my brain and prevent my reviews this year from dropping in quality. But rest cannot go on forever so ooooooohhhhhh yeeesssssss, I have returned to deal great justice and/or horror depending on your opinion of VNs Now! So, let’s see what’s up first on the chopping block this month.

While High/Epic Fantasy was slowly experiencing a revival shortly before the series was a hit, 2011 is the year that it became mainstream thanks largely to GOT and another little title you may have heard of: Skyrim. Few Western series have attempted to challenge GRRM’s throne on the small screen, however gaming has produced several noteworthy additions to the sub genre: especially with Shadow of Mordor last year, the Dragon Age series and The Witcher series. We’ve seen a few similar works in the EVN community with Autumn’s Journey and Hierofanía coming immediately to mind. But no one has been as consistent in this particular subgenre as Jenny Gibbons.

Gibbons, also known by the pen name Jayden Woods, has been working on the Serafina story for a few years now. There has been a novella, an animated short, and Serafina’s Saga in 2012. This year we have had a few short stories but most the her creative energy has been focused on bringing this game to life. And after the disappointing release of Quantum Conscience last year, a return to form is definitely in order. But, can this sequel deliver?

  • Genre: Fantasy, Drama
  • Developed: Woodsy Studio
  • Language: English
  • Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
  • Website: Itch.Io

STORY

Seven years after the events of Serafina’s Saga, the Kingdom of Darzia is rocked when Queen Bellatrix suddenly dies. Due to the traditions of the kingdom, the royal houses must convene to elect a new monarch and the leading candidate is none other than our titular character: Serafina Elborn. However while Serafina is the title character, we will be assuming the role of Odell Perin: the headstrong daughter of House Perin and cousin to Nikolaus from the first game. Odell has been traveling the world free of the attachments that come with noble blood, but is found by Arken Jeridar (another prominent character) to take her Mother’s place in the assembly and elect a new queen. Upon arrival in Darzia, it’s announced that there is probably cause that the deceased queen’s death was actually murder and the election is suspended until it can be proven that all potential candidates are innocent.

So, who is to lead the nation during the investigation? Well, Odell is standing right here so why not her?

One of the biggest positives Serafina’s Crown has going for is simply the fact that Serafina is no longer the main character. As much as I enjoyed Serafina’s character in the first episode, the major appeal of her character was her status as an outsider. By game’s end, that status had dissipated and whatever role she would assume next was left outside of our control. This left room for another outside to explore parts of the world that Serafina couldn’t due to her status and the results of her journey…and because Word of God demanded that she be married to a jackass. But that’s for later. For now, the audience needed a fresh pair of eyes to explore the world in and Odell Perin fits that particular role.

The biggest different between Odell and Serafina is that Odell’s ignorance is self-inflicted rather than externally enforced. She is every spoiled rich girl you’ve ever read/seen/heard about/witnessed in living color/ To make matters worse, she is fully invested in her purely infatuation-based relationship with a foreign war prince named Lorenzo. Even as she gets dragged back to Darzia, Odell spends most of her time spouting trope-worthy, pseudo-romance about her and war boy you can’t help but appreciate when she gets verbally dropkicked by the other Darzian nobles. Or at least it did for me; I won’t speak for you guys.

The beauty of Odell’s ignorance is two-fold. On one fold, the game doesn’t pretend that her behavior in the game isn’t bratty so it becomes an important tool in building the rest of the narrative and ultimately developing her enough to show definite change from the Odell in the beginning of the game. Like Serafina’s path in the first episode, Odell isn’t completely different by game’s end, but her experience clearly alter her point-of-view depending, of course, on the choices you make. It is actually a very refreshing way of building characters in this particular medium where a lot of character just happens, leaving a character incomplete but markedly different is valid and I hope that it inspires similar development in future EVNs.

On the other fold, it works so well because the game actually treats Odell’s regency seriously. Odell’s ascension to the throne comes at a critical time in the nation’s history and the entire country could be split if all-out war occurs between the Darzian government and the Southern rebels. Every major debate deals directly with addressing the concerns that brought the nation to the brink of war and there is no right way to go about it. The war and Nikolaus’ involvement carries most of the game and while there were a few areas that got stuck in neutral, for the most part it does it job and maintains the necessary tension to keep the story interesting.

Backing up the overall narrative of Odell trying to manage the rebellion is the fact that with the death of the Queen, there is currently no patron god of Darzia. Enter Picard: a clownish deity who is looking for a place to kick up his heels. His presence ties this particular episode with the overall world and lore Gibbons has created for the Serafina stories. It’s a very detailed world that does a great job blending fantastical elements with more realistic issues and hopefully it’ll encourage players to invest time in other works in this franchise.

Now, those are the broad strokes of the story and for what they are it is enjoyable. However, as I mentioned before the game does tend to get stuck in neutral from time to time and that is mostly the fault of the supporting cast. In a game of aristocratic politics, war and murder, everyone is about as straightforward as you can expect. There aren’t any hidden agendas and Odell never has to worry about her fellow nobles plotting against or trying to manipulate her. In fact, outside of certain parliamentary debates, everyone is pretty much cordial and focused on their particular role in the government.

The problem with that is without any agency or agenda outside of those particular moments, the rest of the cast barely have an impact on the story and become stagnant. The exceptions to this are Arken and Kallias Jeridar. Kallias, who was the evil king of the first episode, is back with a ridiculous pornstache looking for redemption. How he reached that point and how the story treats his innate abilities as a servant of his particular god as an addiction is very grounded and interesting to see play out. Similarly, Arken’s storyline has been going for the entire history of the franchise so he’s bringing in the weight of several decades. His long history is weaved in well and, by the end of most paths in the game, you do feel like he’s gotten the ending his history has been building up to.

Everyone else fades into the background when they’re not on the opposite side of Odell during a debate. On paper this would have been an excellent role for Reuben Jeridar since he was such a douche in the first episode. However, since he married Serafina (NOT A SPOILER!) and they have kids, he’s become far more subdued and just doesn’t fill the role anymore. While a bunch of scheming advisers and nobles can be pretty trope-worthy in this particular genre,  with the murderer set-up, the story itself warning you to watch your back and the fact that you have a total political novice on the throne during the biggest crisis in the nation’s history, the lack of intrigue and straightforward characterizations of the rest of the cast means you’re not really going to be all that interested in them when you’re not locking horns.

Which brings us to the next big issue of Serafina’s Crown: romance. The supporting cast can be romanced (yes even Reuben and Serafina) and these new potential relationships have to contend with Odell’s feelings for war boy. Even if you go for one of the Jeridars, the romances never feel worth the time and conversation required to unlock them. A part of this is due to the blandness of the characters you are trying to win and another part of it is due to the gameplay mechanics; which I will get into in a moment. But, to be fair to Gibbons and crew; the biggest reason why the romances didn’t work for me is because in the grand scheme of things romance is pretty irrelevant to the story.

Even with the supporting cast being as bland as I found them to be, if it felt at any time that Odell needed a physical relationship with someone (much less a romantic relationship) then it would’ve been more bearable. But it never feels that it’s a need or even a want until the story determines that it has to be a need/want. I’m not saying it should’ve been a romantic game: dear God no. I am saying that the romances are not gently weaved into the narrative like the other plot threads and it causes the relationships to feel more like dead weight than a useful addition to the story unless you just need an Odell/Serafina/Reuben three-way in your life.

Okay, this is the third Woodsy Studio game I’ve played where the romances don’t work out. Is this officially a pattern?

Finally we’ve come to the catalyst of our story: the mystery surrounding the death of Queen Bellatrix. Gibbons and crew actually come at this from an interesting direction as Odell isn’t directly investigating the death. Evidence is gathered by other nobles and it’s up to Odell to decide who should be prosecuted for the potential murder. It fits Odell’s storyline and role so I have no complaint about that. It also gives everyone in the cast probable cause to have a hand in the murder even if they didn’t do it. It was all going great for a while…and then the twist happens.

I’m not going to spoil it here, but I will say that the big reveal at the beginning of the game’s third act creates far more questions than it does answers. This leads to the reveal of the actual murderer and I am on a constant fence with the revelations. There are days when I think the reveal of the ultimate antagonist is actually pretty good and fits in with the psychology of some of my favorite comic book villains. And there are days when I think it was pretty bad, but mainly because the punishment doesn’t fit the crime by game’s end. It fits into the overall lore, but it isn’t as satisfactory and, again, opens far more plot holes than it closes.

Ultimately though, while it was a flawed experience, I enjoyed what Serafina’s Crown did right. I was invested in the major storyline and Odell was a great choice to lead the tale. It’s hard making something interesting in such a well-worn genre and the fact that Gibbons and crew have managed to do that with not only this game, but the entire Serafina series, is commendable.

 

With Those Arms, You BETTER Be Good At Fighting.

 

PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL

The Presentation follows in the steps of the Story itself and delivers a mostly mixed bag. While the characters are well designed and have a nice range of expressions, it’s hard to ignore that this story is apparently during the Middle Ages and most of the cast looks like something off an 80s pop music chart. It’s honestly kind of fun, despite being so anachronistic. Also there is a fun mechanic that allows you to alter Odell’s outfit that keeps it in line with updates to the first episode. Personally, I enjoyed the fact that Odell’s hair changed color depending on your choices. It was a nice touch that led to a lot of Living Mood Ring jokes in the HQ.

One of the big sticking points for Gibbons and I when it came to her has been backgrounds and Event Graphics. The background art here is actually pretty good and has much more depth than the muddier designs of Serafina’s Saga and the WTF-Is-That designs of Quantum Conscience. There is still a ways to go as things can still get kind of weird, especially for certain exterior designs. As for the Event Graphics; those remain hit or miss. It still mostly focuses on the romantic stuff and that’s where the pictures can get a little murky.  It was still decent work though and I’m not one to knock progress. More than likely in Woodsy next offering that potential will be manifested very well.

Oh and this game has voice acting! Yeahhhhh I’m sure everyone gave their best effort, and in a few scenes the actors were clearly enjoying the material, but there are more than a few scenes that feel forced. It does not help that the voice acting is erratic throughout the game. Some scenes will start off fully voiced only to stop halfway through and resort to the Fire Emblem-style of voice acting where the text crawls and the VA will have a sentence emphasizing the overall point. It was an interesting attempt, but voice acting will require more of an investment in the future if this is the way Woodsy wants to go. Big shout out to the VA for Picard who pulled off a damn good Mark Hamill impersonation.

On the technical side, there are two gameplay devices of note. The first is the debate system that is a core element of the game. It operates like a random number generator where you and your debate opponent each pick a number and, depending on whether the rule is Higher or Lower, that you win points for your side. Either the first over thirty or the one with the most points after four rounds wins.

It seems simply enough and as I played through and won the early debates without breaking a sweat, I worried that we were wandering back into QC territory again. Then Roza kicked my ass: an act, I’m sure, she is used to in the fiction world of Darzia. So then I thought it was a completely random mini-game and there was no strategy involved. I was wrong in this because the strategy, like any good political system, happens before the debate even happens.

Before any debate, you have an opportunity to spend time with one of the other nobles. If you do, you earn abilities you can use during the mini-game. If you actually expect for Odell/You to have her/your way during this game, you have to win the Important Debates: which is where the difficult spikes. Which means those cheats are vital to the actual gameplay and story. Now: here’s the rub.

Getting these cheats and unlocking a romantic path are diametrically opposed. The romance works in the traditional way: you spend a lot of time with a person, then you can unlock as special romance scene which leads to more lovey-doveyness. Doing this also give you the maximum amount of cheats for that person; which means as long as you take their side in the debates, regardless of your own opinion, you have a better chance of winning.On the other hand, you can spread your time out equally, never really commit one way or the other, get the most cheats for everyone you can which will give you options when it comes to the Important Debates and pretty much ignore most of the romance stuff.

Decisions;decisions.

Once I figured out what was going on and the actual choices the game wanted you to make, not just the superficial ones, I enjoyed the Hell out of this mini-game. It’s nice to see an EVN have a little fun with the consequences of player’s choices and gave value to who you spent time with in-game outside of a potential romantic CG. It encourages experimentation and with gameplay in this particular genre of gaming being so secondary, I applaud the move.

There isn’t really an extra menus: or at least not one I managed to unlock. There are also smaller QTE events tied to certain routes that will keep you on your toes. Other than that, the game ran smooth for me.

 

 

Kallias, Points To You For That Righteous Burn

REPLAY VALUE

Taking my time, I clocked Serafina’s Crown at four hours for a single playthrough. Because of the structure of the mini-games and the dialogue options throughout the game, there are a good selection of endings for those who are interested in repeated playthroughs so there is some value here for those who enjoy the story despite its flaws. I can tell you that I am going to play Serafina’s Crown again out of curiosity about the different routes, but I am not rushing back to do it right now. Currently the game retails at $7.99 on Itch.Io, but I STRONGLY recommend playing Serafina’s Saga first. It’s free and without it a lot of Crown’s lore and history is going to fly right over your head.

 

OVERALL

One thing I’d like to leave us all on is that for all of its ups and downs, Serafina’s Crown shows a marked improvement from Quantum Conscience and is a step above of the first release of Serafina’s Saga. And a lot of that positive growth is due to the time and effort that was invested into the Serafina series as a whole and not just one particular game. So, all devs reading this are probably wincing thinking about all of time that was needed to do a visual novel, some novellas, an animation, recruit voice actors, that wincing isn’t getting any better is it?

It has taken some time for all of that hard work to pay off and deliver something that could just stand on its own two feet. I’m happy to report that Serafina’s Crown can. There is still a lot of work for them to do as there are still plenty of flaws in this title to learn from, especially when it comes to romance and linear characters. But what we got is worth your consideration. I don’t know what will come from Woodsy in the future, but hopefully this will be the launching pad for it.