Alrighty. Shall we go over a quick list of things I’ve been heavily critical of in the past?
- Teenage Romance
- High School Drama
- Sexual Fanservice
- Sexual Abuse Used as Backstory for Villains
- Stupid Characters
Rounding out this list of ‘Things JP Has Been Critical Of’ is the developers themselves: Zetsubou. At best, their work has been ‘Meh’ with Max Massacre and To Libertad being alright, and games likeSickness hitting the lowest of low rungs we have here. Tomboys Need Love Too looked to be a change of course: switching from the bloodier tales of the late eighties and early nineties of anime to a high school romance.
It’s just enough outside of Zetsubou’s comfort zone to illicit some interest, while giving some avenues to experiment with. So, how does our familiar writer make it through this one? Let’s find out.
Kai is your typical teenage boy just trying to make it through the day in one piece. He’s aided in his journeys by his childhood friend Christine AKA Chris. As both prepare to graduate high school, Chris’ parents have to leave town for a week: arranging for their daughter to stay with Kai and his Mother. Kai, your atypical teenage boy, is distracted by their beautiful classmate Sophie. However, Chris is determined to use the week to ‘evolve’ their friendship into something more.
From here, the setup feeds into two narrative threads that we as an audience need to see to be invested in both Chris and Kai as individual characters and as a couple. The first is their friendship, which needs to be more than just ‘this is my childhood friend whom I’ve known my entire life’ that we get in, frankly, a metric butt-ton of visual novels. The second is, quite frankly, we must want that friendship to evolve and that can only be accomplished through a slow, methodical build-up of clear, sexual tension. If either of these two lines faltered, then this review would have a very different tone. Luckily for us, Zetsubou slams a home-run for the ages.
Kai and Chris are, simply put, two of the best developed characters ever put into an EVN. Their relationship is something that was attempted in Max Massacre, but failed because of the focus on the game’s conflicts and singular choice rather than focusing on the characters themselves. Here, most of the game’s energy is spent making Chris and Kai feel like real people and it pays off thanks mostly to the story’s solid narrative foundation.
Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule and we’ll get into why later. But, most of the game is connected to an internal logic that directly feeds into the characterizations and narrative. For example, why is Chris spending the week at Kai’s house during the events of this game? Well, their families are friends and her parents asked Kai’s Mom to let her stay over so that Chris can be cared for. Done. No outrageous twists in logic that makes the clay foundation of many a harem title. The setup for the narrative is one of the most common things one adult with children can do for their friend who also has children.
What brings our narrative threads together here is that both sets of parents aren’t idiots. They know what can happen with two hormone-driven, idiot teenagers under the same roof and Kai’s mother is actively rooting for her son and Chris to hook up throughout the events of the game. So, if Chris is going to act on her feelings for Kai, this week of game time is going to be her best chance since she has the boy to herself and has active support behind her.
This foundation frames every interaction Chris and Kai have going forward and gives their interactions a depth of context that is often not seen in storytelling anymore. Without that context, the game would be much weaker because the banter would become pointless filler and the fanservice would be, well, just like the fanservice we would see in any other game dripping with it. If there is one thing that should be learned from this game is how much room a developer must work if the narrative foundation of their projects is solid.
It also allows for important moments to happen without the lens of importance…that sounded preposterous, but it’s true. When you think of ‘important romantic moments’ in a media context, what you usually get is a dramatic shift in tone. The music changes, characters who had a very particular way of speaking to other characters change their intonations and it usually feels like time stops just for those two. It is patently designed to get the audience to fall over themselves. However, since it is also a narrative cue mostly for the audience, there are very few ways for that kind of thing to be subtle.
And everyone here should know by now my love of narrative subtly.
Chris and Kai are different in that there ‘important romantic moments’ happen off-hand or in the spur of the moment, and it feeds into the natural feeling the two of them have together. One of my favorite scenes happen early on after Kai disappears from class for the day for reasons we will shortly get into. He keeps the finer details hidden from Chris, but you do have a choice to be as honest as possible when directly pressed on the subject. If you are and tell Chris that Kai was thinking about Sophie, there is a little back-and-forth before she hits Kai with this:
That line is solid gold to me. It advances all the plot threads, deepens both of their characters, feels completely genuine and, most importantly, the scene doesn’t stop for that line. It is a natural part of the conversation, which makes it all the more effective. The game does have some heavy fanservice and romantic moments, but most of the relationship between Chris and Kai is built with moments like these: little moments sewn into their larger banter. It is fantastic writing and it keeps you invested in these two as they grow closer.
So, is it all wine and roses here? Well, not really.
This brings us to Sophie who is, well, a pressure gauge to put it nicely…otherwise she’s completely useless. Zetsubou has a certain misanthropy that we’ve touched on in talking about their work in the past. Potentially, this is due to some narrative influence from the darker, ultra-violent years of anime and manga. However, with every new release, the less I believe this is just a preference and is more of an impulse. In other words, Zetsubou NEEDS to have some unrepentant asshole in their work with no other role in the story than to be an unrepentant asshole. And in this game featuring high school and teenagers, I bet you can see where this is going with Sophie.
To be fair, when we first meet her, she is in a bad way: having been knocked around by some other girls for that whole unrepentant asshole thing I mentioned earlier. Kai, who has a crush on her, finds her after the fact and gets her out of the school: saving her dignity. This setup could have gone in a much different characterization direction for the kid: making Sophie just as legitimate of a romantic interest for Kai as Chris is by giving her a genuine interest in the boy who helped her at her darkest moment.
As the game progresses, you realize all of the rumors around Sophie are true and her only interest in Kai is insomuch as she can destroy his relationship with Chris. Why? Because she gets off on breaking up couples. The backstory we get in the route devoted to her is insulting and comes so far and fast from left field that its clear purpose was just to shock the audience instead of giving Sophie’s actions some much needed context. And her actions desperately need some sort of context.
There is a scene on the friendship path of the game where Sophie invites Kai on a date. If Kai accepts, she literally forgets about it until Kai runs into Chris, at which point she injects herself into the conversation and tries to drag him away. A variant of this is also in the True Ending route where Sophie more or less stalks Chris and Kai on their first date and sexually assaults Kai to break them up.
This has a backlash affect on Kai and his character arc. Kai is a idiot teenage boy, and as a former idiot teenage boy I can absolutely understand his position. He has fantastic perception of himself and the events around him, but very little comprehension on people’s motivations beyond the surface details. So, Chris hitting on him early on flies over his head, but he learns with time. With Sophie, he wants to see the best to justify his crush. However, as you continue down Chris’ routes, Kai clearly figures out Sophie’s game because he isn’t a dumbass: just a teenage boy. On Sophie’s routes, Kai IS a freakin’ dumbass who outright ignores the blaring klaxons of Sophie’s behavior, even the outright joke of Sophie literally ignoring him until Chris was in range for her particular brand of venom.
Kai is provably not that stupid. He actively avoids thinking with his cock even when he has a half-naked girl sitting in his lap. So for him to suddenly switch personalities for Sophie isn’t giving his character depth or complexity. It’s handing him an idiot ball and making him run with it to keep Sophie’s routes from completely falling apart. It doesn’t work and it only makes the mess even bigger as a result.
Don’t get me wrong; the game more than recovers from what could have been a fatal misstep. Chris and Kai make up roughly 80% of the game’s story and are the focus of three of the five endings. If that metric was any different, this review would be completely different. Sophie’s role is just toxic and seems to be they’re not to provide an antagonist to Chris, but because Zetsubou needs this kind of character in their writing. If her character was written differently, or if her toxicity was given better context (say, being Kai’s ex who never liked Chris instead of his crush who ignored him until that point), then at least she would have the logical chain needed for her actions to have weight. Instead, the only thing we are really left with is the strong feeling that Sophie doesn’t have to be in this game.
Sophie’s inclusion is a scar on an otherwise incredible experience. The majority of the writing is solid, well-thought out and invests you in Kai and Chris in a way that many other games only dream about. Like the line from earlier, you will be shocked by how many seemingly insignificant comments will take your breath away here. It’s a love story even someone such as I can get swept away by…and that’s saying something considering who we’re talking about here.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
Over the course of the last year, the artist Adyrn has grown in profile to be one of the more prolific artists on the EVN scene. I first saw their art with Sickness and even then, one could see there was clearly a lot of promise there but also a lot of rough spots to iron out. Almost a year later and that’s still the case, but progress is still progress even when it’s slow.
The biggest improvement has been with their sprites. Adyrn clearly loves facial expressions and much of their sprite work focuses on giving each one a distinct look. Those expressions are what sell the small, but significant moments I was talking about earlier. It doesn’t always work, and I’ll get into why in a moment, but when the visual syncs with the narrative it delivers here.
The weakest part of the presentation here, however, are the Event Graphics. This isn’t every CG shown here and most of the Ending CGs, especially the key one for the True Ending, are decent enough. But, the bulk of the ones during the regular game suffer from bad proportions and odd camera angles. Ironically, you can see this most often with CGs featuring Chris’ head altering its very shape and mass depending on the angle of the shot. See, here and here for context.
Consistency is the mountain Adyrn has had to climb from the beginning. Their work is distinctive and growing better with time, but when the art distracts the reader from the story (kind of like seeing Chris’ orgasmic face for the first time near the end of the game), then it becomes a problem. Hopefully more time will continue to polish this artist’s skills. For now, the presentation is good but inconsistent with the soundtrack providing a decent atmosphere for the most part. There are some some tracks that are feel like something out of a Lifetime movie, but it’s well enough in-game to add where it needs to.
Technically speaking, there are some grammatical issues scattered throughout. However, it was never so much that I had to call foul on the experience. The choice system is decent, if not a bit biased. Most choice feel like they are gently pushing you towards the True Route, Chris’ route, and you have to fight for any other option. It makes getting the other endings a bit more complicated, but there is an issue with the endings themselves that we’ll get into shortly. Overall, the technical aspects of the game are fine and I have no bugs or glitches to report.
Before we get into the price point, let’s talk about the endings. Tomboys Need Love Too has five endings: two for Chris, two for Sophie and one Bad End that is hilariously cruel and I won’t spoil it for anyone. You’ll just have to go find it: it is that insane. Because of my twin issues with Sophie’s character and the chain of choices distinct for her, the question for me is if there is replayability despite it. I’d argue, for the most part; yes. The Bad Ending and the two endings for Chris aren’t flawless, but they are solid enough to enjoy without worrying about nagging plot inconsistencies.
So, where does that leave the price point? You can get Tomboys Need Love Too for the price of $9.99 and I cracked through all of the endings in five hours or so. I feel most will be happy with this at full price. Even with my issues, there was enough enjoyment for the bulk of the game to not hamper the asking price. However, if anything I’ve said here or the short length of the game gives you pause, it won’t hurt to wait for a sale either. Both options are completely understandable, but for me this game is still a buy in either case.
Tomboys Need Love Too is a very good title. The majority of the game is well-developed, the characters are strong and you are legitimately invested in their growing relationship. It even has some of the best use of sexual fanservice I’ve seen: integrating it into Kai’s developing feelings for his friend and weaponizing that same fanservice for Sophie. For the near future, whenever someone needs an example of well-written romances or just building believable characters, Chris and Kai will be on the list of characters I use as a reference and that is an achievement the developer here can be proud of.
However, we cannot ignore its flaws. In the end, whatever this indulgence is with characters like Sophie served as the metaphorical albatross around this game’s neck. Her character simply wasn’t needed here and her singular role as a sadist who simply wants to make Kai and Chris suffer because that’s what gets her off was seemingly included on a whim, or urge, that has dogged Zetsubou’s work since the beginning.
I cannot say for sure what Zetsubou’s next move is from here. There is plenty to learn, both good and bad, from this title and they’ve shown a remarkable ease with shifting tones and genres instead of sticking to a dedicated wheelhouse like most EVN developers. But, they have my attention for now and hopefully their next project builds on what made this game one of the best EVNs 2017 has to offer.