So, I think the best way to start this one out is first with some backstory. At some point I’m sure we’ll get to the actual game, but this has to be handled first to ensure everyone is on a level playing field.
Sword of Asumi was once a game called Swords of Edo. Originally put in Kickstarter in 2013, the project has gone through several Kickstarter campaigns. Combined those campaigns raised a total of £35,885, or a little bit over $50,000. Despite the success on Kickstarter, the game has had several production issues and I know this because last year I played the demo for its second Kickstarter. It was a mess of game mechanics that crashed every five minutes, so let’s all just be happy that I chose to let that demo slide. After nearly two years and a drastic reduction of the original promises surrounding the game, including an RPG mechanic, Sword of Asumi launched this past month on Steam!
Now, why did I take time to explain all of that? Because, other reviews of this game won’t cover the history of it. This isn’t me assuming anything because I’ve read the reviews I speak of and either they don’t mention the history around Sword of Asumi OR they only point out the one Kickstarter campaign clearly labeled ‘Sword of Asumi’. I’m willing to accept that many of these reviews, and subsequently their writers, simply didn’t know or bothered to look any further than surface details. But, let it not be said that your humble reviewer doesn’t provide quality services for his fellow reviewers!
Here is the story/interview VNs Now did on the subject for any reviewer who is planning on covering Sword of Asumi! You’ll be glad you did, especially after my review. Speaking of which, let’s all pull up a chair and some popcorn: this is Sword of Asumi!
Sword of Asumi takes place in an alternate universe Japan. Here a young woman named Asumi is training to become a Justicar: a black ops unit of female samurai who fight in the shadows against threats to Japan and live by a high moral code forbidding them from underhanded tactics. Wow, that kind of sounds familiar. Asumi wishes to join the Justicars, but before she does her handler Kami (really?) wants her to learn that there’s more to being a Justicar than just killing people. Keep a pin in that one; we’ll come back to it.
Kami sends Asumi to the Battle Academy, yes, the Battle Academy, to pose as a student and find a terrorist codenamed Raven who is planning an attack in Tokyo in order to topple the government. So, honestly, this is the part I was looking forward to. Yes the idea of an unstoppable badass posing as a high school student has been beaten to death by anime well before this idea was ever conceived, but I’m always up for a little spy thriller action: especially in the visual novel realm. Having Asumi trying to maintain her cover as she sneaks around the school to investigate leads and interrogate potential suspects could give the game a sense of urgency and importance and it’s really a shame that most of you know me well by now, which means you know if I have to draw it out for you; it didn’t happen.
The terrorism storyline is shoved into the background the minute Asumi steps onto campus. It is replaced with a trope I wish could die a screaming, painful death: Defrosting the Ice Queen. Asumi is originally presented as an all-business, 100% focused on her goal assassin; which clearly her handler has a problem with because…reasons. So the game not only ignores Asumi’s attempts to preserve her nation and save hundreds if not thousands of lives, IT ACTIVELY STOPS YOU FROM INVESTIGATING THE PLOT. Do you think I’m joking?
Early in the game you are invited to a pointless social party and Asumi realizes she can use this as an opportunity to investigate the school administration’s files to see if anyone could fit the profile of the terrorist. If you choose to take advantage of this obvious opportunity, you will either barely make it out of the main office without any new information OR your handler (who is posing as a teacher) will find you and chastise you for not being at the party.
Yeah, I can’t believe I typed that either.
I have railed against this attitude in fiction before and it pains me to see it continued here. What is the point of introducing a threat as the main focus of your plot if you’re not only going to ignore it, but stop the reader from digging any deeper that High School BS? BUT WAIT! IT GETS BETTER! After the aborted attempt at espionage during the party scene, you’ll return to that whole boring ‘save your country and earn your dream’ business nearly an hour later when some student no one knows and you as a player has no reason to care about gets killed. The poor bastard doesn’t even have a name. He’s just Student #255 in this game.
I cannot understate that this is the major selling point of the game and it is, at best, an afterthought. This is double-downed on shortly after Student #255’s untimely demise when your mentor has to leave and tasks you to quickly figure out the real identity of the terrorist mastermind and assassinate them. Yes, this is after the game bends over backwards to try and paint a difference between Justicars and Assassins. Yes, this is after the very same mentor slows down any potential investigation so that you can just be a normal girl. And, finally, yes; YOU STILL CAN’T INVESTIGATE WHO THE TERRORIST IS AFTER SHE LEAVES. You go through the entire game without any actual investigation into who the terrorist mastermind is supposed to be.
To be fair on a few points, you can figure out who the terrorist mastermind is very early on. In fact, the minute the terrorist came onto the screen in their student disguise, it was beyond obvious. However, this unintentionally leads to the first actual gameplay paradox I’ve run into playing a visual novel. Since I need the Gameplay section to handle OTHER business; let’s just talk about it here.
After pulling yourself through the game you make it to the end and you’re faced with a choice of deciding who the terrorist is. Again, it is blatant so I went with the obvious choice. I was correct and then I was swiftly killed by the terrorist’s henchman who wasn’t as obvious as the obvious henchman in the story. Sorry for being vague, but this is one of those twists you’ll have to see to believe. As Asumi bleeds out for a Bad End, the terrorist gloats about how they used the henchman as a red herring to keep attention off them and this had me genuinely curious. So I started the game over and, now knowing who the henchman was, focused all my attention to see how the game tried to play that character off as the actual mastermind. You know how effective the henchman was as a red herring?
None. The answer is none effective.
Just like the actual mastermind of the game, there is nothing in game to give you any hint that the henchman is supposed to be a red herring for the actual mastermind. So, if you’re following along, that means the ONLY way to beat this game (if you play it without reading this review…in and of itself a paradox I guess) is to go directly to the main villain, have the henchman reveal themselves and kill Asumi, start the game over, CHOOSE THE HENCHMAN WITH ASUMI ASSUMING THAT IT IS THE MAIN VILLAIN WITHOUT ANY EVIDENCE TO PROVE IT AND KILL THE HENCHMAN, which will reveal the actual identity of the main villain and you can confront them without getting shanked.
So, the only way to win is to lose first. Wrap your brain around that one.
Now I know what you’re thinking by now, ‘JP, this game doesn’t make any damn sense.’ And I think I can explain why. The majority of the game is actually focused on Asumi adjusting to school life, going on dates and hanging out with her friends. This is where the major issue of Sword of Asumi comes to light since the school plotline is really of a collection of various scenes with little connection to one another rather than a coherent, connective plot. The classrooms scenes offer little context other than to just have something to do in the game and open up one or two dating pathways, since none of them give you any other option than to be a participant in the class events.
I’m assuming it was designed to be this way because a previous build of the game offered a RPG element to the game which would have given these scenes its own strengths, but with that removed all of the classroom stuff is more bland than bad, though I do have to give it kudos for introducing me to the sacred art of swimming with Samurai armor on. There’s your next fujoshi anime right there!
Unfortunately the romances are, at best, tacked on to the game. This is what the game fights to hold up as important over its own central thesis, yet there is little charm in most of your datable options and even the scenes we do get make little impact on Asumi by design. I say this because before you get to the final option of choosing who the terrorist, you get to choose who Asumi wants to fall in love with. As long as you unlock at least one date scene with a character, you will be able to choose that person regardless of any interaction with another character. So, imagine how hard I laughed after I spent most of the game specifically working towards a specific character, then realizing by cosplaying as a catgirl, I achieved the exact same outcome?
It really is a mess of a narrative. I could sit here and dissect Asumi and the rest of the cast, but at no time does the story give room for them to be anything other than the tropes from much better games. After the last few years to at least get this part of the game right, but this is just the various scenes lined up one after the other with the barest possible thread of cohesion to try and time them together. A thread that snaps by the design as the game tries to drag its mangled corpse over the finish line, only to be repeatedly stopped because of the team’s ineptitudes. It’s kind of amazing really.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
This is where the game gets better right? No? Okay, just checking.
Let’s start here with a positive! The Event Graphics are the best thing going presentation-wise. A lot of time and effort clearly went into making them look as good as possible and the artist for those graphics achieved that much. Kudos to that noble soul; whoever they are. Also the soundtrack fits into that group of music between synthetic and Asian inspired. It feels like something out of a typical shonen anime and is mostly okay, but it doesn’t give the game a unique feel and there are far better EVN OSTs out there.
Now for everything else, because SOA just looks bad. Say what you will about Winged Cloud’s stuff, but Wanaca is at least a talented artist. CLEARLY the entire cast was based off the same blank male and female models, only with different hair, eye colors, height for the guys and bust sizes for the girls to separate them. It gives them a very cheap feel and unless you’re easily distracted by basic muscularity or big anime boobs, you’ll notice it immediately.
The backgrounds range from artistic yet out-of-place to extremely dated. When you’re not in the woods, the artwork for the school and classrooms will make your eyes bleed. Considering the length of time the production took, I’m assuming it would have required yet another Kickstarter to update all of the old art and make sure everything was streamlined. This only drops the quality of the game since even the newer background art will eventually be dragged into ‘dated’ territory in a few months.
Gameplay is also on the lower end of the totem pole. When Sword of Asumi launched, several bugs were quickly discovered by fans and it took a few weeks to get a stable version onto Steam. But even with it, SOA is plagued with broken English and grammatical errors, as well as mismatched nameplates and a user interface that is mostly for show.
At least it can safely be said that Sword of Asumi isn’t lacking for options. Along with the dialogue tree, there are certain missions that will give Asumi the options to kill or disable her opponent. This has no actual impact on the plot, as there is no Order vs. Chaos meter to keep track of your choices. The choices themselves also only work if you care about the outcome. For several classes, the outcome of your choices depends on if you’re willing to go to the Internet and look up the questions so that you can get them right. As you may have already figured out, the only real plus you can get from a good ending to your classes is a romance scene. Considering the issues with the romance scenes, you’d work out fine BS’ing your way through the classes.
So, what’s the point of having a wide variety of choices, if there aren’t satisfying outcomes to those choices? I’ll let you guys be the judges on that one.
Believe it or not, I could put up with the issues of the game so far. It was bad, to be sure, but ‘bad’ in a way that can be explained. However, this part has no worthwhile explanation, as far as I’m concerned. I will get into the specific details of its replay value in a moment, but first let’s talk about how much this game costs. Sword of Asumi can be yours for a retail price of $15.99. BUT if you’re really a fan of SOA, there are also DLC packs you can buy to go with the $16 you’ve already spent. Let’s run down the DLC:
- The Graphic Novel Swords of Edo which is the idea that inspired this game. You can get the entire 240 page comic for $5.99.
- The Original Soundtrack for the game which is available as a separate download for $5.99.
- The Character Creator which, if you look closely at it, I BET you can figure out my issues with the Character Creator without me going into a rant about it, is available as a DLC where you can creator a female character. You cannot actually put your creations into the game, but if you just wanted an easy way to create your own waifu, you can for the low price of $2.99.
Now, putting aside the obvious issue considering the price tag for all of this, you have to face the reality that DLC (when DLC works) compliments the game it’s a part of. It isn’t just a bunch of random merchandize thrown onto a storefront to try and make a little extra money. I don’t mind the idea of DLC in the English Visual Novel community, but I have yet to see it done in a way that makes sense for it to exist. Even the most well-known EVN DLC pack, Hate Plus, turned into its own game because Christine Love isn’t as crazy as the rainbow hair would lead you to believe.
First Christine joke for 2015: the first of many.
As for the stand-alone value of the game, I completed this game just after two and a half hours. Along that two and a half hour playthrough I unlocked most of the Event graphics, which revealed most of the side plots and romances. You can, at most, knock this thing out in four hours and after that there is no reason to return unless after spending so much time playing SOA, Stockholm Syndrome set in.
Now, here’s where this all gets interesting. For all of my criticism of this game, I have an odd respect for its creator: A.J. Tilley. The last few months have been frustrating when it comes to crowd-funded games because there is a distinct difference in philosophy in how crowd-funding should work. There are some creators who see it as their personal bank accounts, while it should only be used this cover the expenses of their project without factoring in personal expenses of any kind. This is why I am alright with games developed through Kickstarter being sold commercially. If you do it right, you should need to sell it for profit since the only thing you’ve used the money for is to get it made.
The caveat of that is the understanding that by crowdfunding your work, your work no longer belongs to you. You cannot suspend something indefinitely and you cannot refuse to publish anything created with other people’s money. If you crowdfund your EVN, then it belongs to the group of people who donated to make it happen. They gave you money with certain expectations that you, as a developer, have to fulfill. It’s almost like a devolved stock exchange: only instead of getting part of the profit back, people expect a work they think they’ll enjoy to be finished.
That isn’t to say that should be the rule for every English Visual Novel ever crowdfunded. I am well aware that the creative process is fickle and there is no guarantee anything you put your money towards will be successful. It’s insane to think otherwise actually. But I do believe that if you have the brass to ask for other people’s money, you should respect their sacrifice and release whatever you create with that money: even if it sucks. It’s called being a responsible businessman and it is what many EVN developers need to realize before they launch their Kickstarter or Indiegogo pages.
For better or worse, Tilley realizes that simple reality. After two years and four kickstarters, he released the promised project. That shows respect to the fans of his work as well as the people who put their money towards his work. So, as a businessman, I respect Tilley more than I do several developers who have taken the good will of their fans for granted (coughMillercough).
With that said, Sword of Asumi is a bad game. If this is the best nearly $50,000 and several years of development can do under Tilley’s leadership, anyone still giving money to Tilley’s organization and projects should definitely reconsider until they get a working demo to show what they’ve learned from SOA. The plot is fundamentally broken with no clear direction or motivation, and it actively ignores its main premise to bore you with high school BS. The presentation and gameplay are horribly dated and unforgiving to look at for long periods of time. And, less we forget, the only way to win the game is to lose the game first.
Finally, the good will built by the game’s release is quickly stunted by the game’s price. $16 is a joke: there is no way around it. You can buy a few good EVNs on Steam for $16 total. Hell, you can get a few BAD EVNs for $16 total. That needs to be reconsidered immediately and, hopefully, the next visual novel Tilley puts out will be an improvement. To be frank, after this there is nowhere for Tilley to go but up.