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Visual Novel Review Digest (1/15/2021)

Today’s edition of the Visual Novel Review Digest covers seven visual novels. It is 3953 words: a 30 minute read.

Happy New Year all! I hope 2021 has greeted you and your loved ones with grace and hope. I wish I could say the same but I live in the United States of America so….yeah. But enough about political turmoil, let’s start this off with political drama! Suzerain has been one of my most anticipated titles in the past year and I have been looking forward to playing it. It is a minor miracle this didn’t just become an old review and I spent 4,000 words pontificating over this one. But enough time hopefully will be spent on other solid and not-so solid titles in this VNRD. I hope you enjoy!

 

Suzerain

Developed By: Torpor Games | Publisher: Fellow Traveler | Release Date: December 4, 2020
Available On: Steam

The mad lads did it.

Suzerain entered a familiar field with lofty goals and I won’t bury the lede: they nailed it. This political opera feels epic well before the game even starts as the game charts out the long history of instability, autocracy and hope in the alternative history Eastern European nation of Sordland. As Anton Rayne, you are greeted with a mountain of issues with no clear answer. The economy is in the tank, poverty is rampant, various ideological and corporate factions are trying to take advantage of the incoming administration, old wounds amongst the different races are about to split open, and that’s just the stuff happening inside your borders. The best tip I can give anyone thinking of picking this one up is to spend their first hours with the game thoroughly reading the Codex. The developers give you all of the information of the nation, its history, political and cultural factions, as well as the larger world up front. While every situation will prompt a link to the specific Codex entry you will need to make a decision, knowing as much as you can up front will help you determine your course of action better.

The length the game goes to in order to make your actions as President feel consequential pay amazing dividends throughout. Every action, every response, every agreement and disagreement all have weight. This creates a hierarchy of short and long-term goals you form on your own, figuring out who to sacrifice for and who to appease to reach your ultimate goals. It was thrilling to play and gratifying as all Hell when you achieve one of your goals. And what’s fascinating about all of this is this autonomy is granted while growing and developing Rayne as a character. Your choices define him very well and, by the end, you get a sense of who he is at his core; for good and bad. My original playthrough was as a reformist and the moment the game clicked with me happened a ways in: when you’re having a barbeque with your son and you have the option to share a beer with him. Up to this point your son, Franz, has been reclusive because he’s a teenager and because I had chosen to sacrifice spending time with has a kid to build my political resume. So, to have this option and the total shock that came from Franz when he realized what I was allowing him to do was its own kind of satisfaction. Suzerain is filled with these small, personal moments with Anton’s friends, family and supporters that help flesh him out as a man and, by the end, either the audience wants him to succeed or fail based on those values formed from our choices. I wish all VNs had these choices, moments and characters. Even if politics bores you to tears, the game is worth it on that alone.

As for the game’s few negatives many have mentioned it, but there is no manual save function. I understand the diegetic reason for this decision, as it puts more  weight onto your decisions as Rayne. However, while there are multiple decisions you have to make, they all feed into either four known good endings for the game or the multitude of bad endings. So there will be moments where the audience are trying to figure out what choice led them on the path they’re on. Because it is a locked-in narrative, even with its variety, if you are trying to achieve a certain ending, this does make the game repetitive in a way having a manual save option wouldn’t. Also, the political nerd in me cannot forgive how simplistic the game’s foreign policy sections are. This isn’t to say they are badly written, because they’re not. However, they are very straightforward to fit a black and white, Cold War narrative. There are moments where you have to negotiate with other nations and it is, frankly, easy. I do appreciate the impact these decision can have domestically, but a little more nuance would have gone a long way for me. Finally, the endings are a little rushed. With so much poured into the narrative, I can see how the developers were ready to close things off at the end. But, there are certain scenarios that needed a little more fleshing out before the end.

These negatives are not game breaking though. I have said publicly this game is what I have been waiting for about as long as I’ve been playing video games: a proper, well-written, well-researched political drama. My only hope is that other developers play it and try to top it. Thank you Torpor Games and Fellow Traveler for this title.

Final Score: 10/10 (Excellent)

 

Sucker for Love

Developed By: Akabaka | Publisher: Dread XP | Release Date: August 21, 2020
Available On: Steam

Akabaka is a group I’ve kept my eyes on since the demo and announcement for Chromatose: a very promising mystery/RPG title. However, while the frequently updated demo has shown that the full game should be a standout for its release year, the developers still needed that freshman release: that opportunity to show both their potential and where they need more work. Enter Dread X Collection 2: a game jam featuring twelve unique developers creating horror games based on the same theme. Using the theme of ‘Lovecrafting’ Akabaka developed Sucker for Love bringing its approach to narrative and its relationships with establish voice actors (specifically Michaela Laws) to the table. So how they did they? Okay, in my opinion.

What I find most interesting is what the developers chose to focus on from a narrative standpoint. It is hinted early on that Ln’eta, the eldritch being summoned by the Protagonist, does not look nor act like she does in the game. Rather, her character is a project of the Protagonist’s mind to try and keep itself together upon witnessing something beyond its comprehension. It’s a nod to a familiar horror trope of hiding terrifying, gruesome stories in Slice-of-Life or Romantic Visual Novel tropes and as someone who has been playing these as long as I have, I appreciate the nod. It also goes towards pacing and while this game is short, they make the most of their runtime by milking every scene for what its worth. We get some more nods to traditional Cosmic Horror here, and it builds up a fantastic level of tension for the time its given. Really it does come down to time management here: making the most of the story with a very limited schedule and the developers succeed on that front.

It also hits the same bumps as other visual novels with game jam restrictions. The Protagonist is literally just a random weeb with ill-defined goals. While we do get multiple endings, the reality that the Protagonist is literally willing to risk reality to even START the ritual much less see it through points to either gross stupidity (since he has the option to change his mind) or total disbelief the events of the game where happening. The situation is enough to cover most of the weaker character aspects, but a little more time setting up the inciting incident and clarifying the Protagonist’s mental state would have been good. Also, one of the best things about Cosmic Horror is establishing the lore of the horrors within. Robert W. Chambers did this very well with The King in Yellow where more time was spent with others trying to comprehend not just the being itself but also its kingdom Carcosa. We get nothing with Ln’eta outside of a solid performance by Laws. We definitely needed more lore there to make the horror more impactful, but again this is where the choice I mentioned earlier comes into play.

Overall, it is a decent romp. There are rumors this could get a full, independent release and, if it does and everything is fleshed out, I can see this entering the territory is some truly blood-chilling Cosmic Horror stories: especially with using VN horror tropes as a base. For now though, since it comes in a collection, definitely give it some thought and take a look at the full games list before committing to a purchase.

Final Score: 7/10 (Decent)

 

Eternal Enigma

Developed By: PixelFade | Release Date: August 21, 2020
Available On: Steam

Oh look. It’s Pixelfade.

I have often called Pixelfade a great tech company’ and that can seem…..cruel, I admit. However, the group has put so much time and investment into developing its game engines, Live2D, and various presentation assets, that it has yet in its five years of existence to develop something other than generic weeb trash. So, with that said, let’s start with what PixelFade feels is most important, then touch on the story. This is probably the best and worst their technical and presentation work has been, in my humble opinion. The main cast all have Live2D sprites here, but only Erilynn (the main girl) has the polish to necessitate its use. The others slide down the quality scale quickly with Kosei, the atypical Best Friend, gets it the worst as his frame is visible in several poses. Live2D is still limited in expressions as well and most characters, despite what their VA is saying, look dismissive or deadpan throughout. When they do attempt some expressions from the sprites, again with the exception of Erilynn, it is stilted and robotic. I imagine in two more games, the developers will advance Live2D enough to allow more fluid animation. For now though, we’re still a long way away from the ‘unrivaled immersion’ they tout.

VOICE ACTING. One of the positives I can give this developer is that they’re one of the few visual novel groups that consistently hires voice actors for their games. That is a good thing and hopefully more groups will be able to do that moving forward. Now, if only they had a better script because strictly on a technical level of writing, this is bad. This is probably their most talented VA team on deck too and you can hear them trying make it work, so kudos to them. And there are several laughably bad scenes at least that alleviate things. But, the rest of it is forced and dry: clearly done without either a table read or consulting with a director familiar with voice work or, bare minimum, the writers reading it aloud amongst themselves to make sure the actors could perform the script. Again, I’m not even touching on the story yet. This is just a technical writing issue that has plagued this developer’s work for a while now. So, I’m all for more VAs in VNs, but let’s get them better written scripts please?

NOW for the actual story: it’s basic weeb trash in line with the rest of the developer’s catalog. It’s a step up from their last few outings at least in which I didn’t feel like I completely wasted my time. The setup of Ethereal Enigma is similar to your basic harem comedy: a girl from another world somehow is teleported to ours and some poor dumbass has to help her fit in long enough to figure out what’s going on. Erilynn coming from another world is barely used in the plot. She might as well be yet another spoiled rich tsundere from down the street as far as this game is concerned. From there we go through your basic Slice-of-Life plot with no real surprises, interesting character moments or -checks notes- interest. Everything you think will happen happens and any potential fun that can be had is drained out of the scene almost immediately because we are not here for that. You have your bargain bin ‘little sister’ trope, so just shut up and be happy, I suppose. I get that there is only so many different ways to tackle this subgenre, but given the choice between what they chose and, say, Tenchi Muyo, I’d much rather deal with the archetypes of that series and the tropes involved.

I’m done here. It’s more bland than bad at least. All I know is the day Pixelfade gets their crap together and puts out a good VN, this site is going to be lit.

Final Score: 4/10 (Below Average)

 

Moe Era

Developed By: Comfy Company | Release Date: February 4, 2020
Available On: Steam

Free Visual Novels are always a crap shoot here on VNs Now because while the lack of a a price tag means any audience for the title only have themselves to blame if its bad. However, there’s also a chance it can be a hidden gem. Moe Era falls somewhere in the middle. Any hope this is an atypical ‘moe’ sim is shot right out of the game as you’re presented with a surrealist montage that hints at the game’s theme. From there you, well, waste your time. The bulk of the game is a legitimate waste of time as you bounces between your three female classmates, your teacher and Ermy to pass the day. Only after you are away from everyone does the theme press itself onto the audience, namely, ‘Are you happy just being mediocre?’

I do think the use of familiar VN tropes here was solid and stripped away a lot of the escapist pretense of subgenres like Harem Comedy and Slice-of-Life to essentially ask what the audience is running from in their lives. I also appreciated the various nods to Russian literature and art that often grappled with similar themes and subjects. There are references to the poet Konstantin Simonov and the author Fyodor Dostoevsky that nail home the starkness of life and the fatalistic view brought by knowledge. However, the game only approaches these ideas from a surface level. It is far more interested and entertained by calling out the audience then developing the theme into something the audience can consider and meditate on. In many ways, it can feel more like a college-educated troll spouting off the notes they got from their psychology class and they haven’t actually thought about it beyond that.

For me, this hurts the final product. Even with an admittedly clever final twist, the game accepts being a meme more than anything: following in the footsteps of others who wanted to break the fourth-wall, only to stand in the wreckage unsure what to do next. I’m sure a few will appreciate its depth, however shallow that depth is. But, a little more research and willingness to explore itself would have made for a much more interesting think piece; especially given the history of Russian thought into the themes presented. It is an interesting experiment and if you just want to keep up with the Russian VN development crowd, its good to play as a marker in history. But other than that? It’s strictly just alright.

Final Score: 5/10 (Average)

 

Across the Grooves

Developed By: Nova-Box | Release Date: June 17, 2020
Available On: Steam

Across the Grooves, for me, is Nova-Box reaching their creative peak. There is still so much the developer can and will do, but after two solid entries into their catalog, this game succeeds where those fell just a bit short: narrative and influence. The plot itself is something worthy of a Christopher Nolan project. At its heart, its a supernatural thriller with our protagonist following a trail of time-bending breadcrumbs that leads her to a shadow war involving secret societies and ancient magic. It’s a fun turn that uses its time travel elements to both flesh out and explore the Protagonist, but also build tension in the story. On the exploring the Alice front, it is interesting because (mild spoiler) looking back, we get to know the basics of her character and little else. There is a great in-game reason for that, but the character development from innocent bystander to active participant is done very well and even with the limitation makes Alice very compelling.

The rest of the cast are a mixed bag though, admittedly. The game pushes what I can only describe as ‘bohemian romanticism’ with all of the characters embodying a different take on musical culture of the mid 20th century. The goal isn’t so much to have this well-developed cast, but to invest the audience emotionally in the feeling of living like someone in this culture. Once again, my strict Southern Baptist upbringing has certain feelings about being around so many pagan hippies in one shot. But, beyond that, it does restrict much of the larger supporting cast to push Alice into embracing this romantic lifestyle rather than having an organic reason to be in the story. This is especially evident around the midpoint when you leave France for the United Kingdom. There is an entire segment that might as well be labeled, ‘We’re going to get Alice laid now!’ and it takes a bit of work to fold that section into the larger plot. The developers barely pull it off, but a lot of that could have been solved with a stronger cast rather than a devotion to the idealistic.

One thing is this game has something I rarely talk about, but has been sorely missed: replay value. Most VNs in the last year have been fairly straightforward and after two playthroughs you’ve gotten everything you need to get. So far, Across the Grooves invests enough in its choice mechanics where each playthrough is a unique take on the overall plot. For me, that bumps up the score because it ensures it will be a while before I repeat my choices in my original two playthroughs and for $12.99 that is incredible value. Overall, this is a fantastic edition to the Nova-Box catalog. This developer has one of the more enviable slates of work in the VN world right now and I’m excited for their future projects.

Final Score: 9/10 (Great)

 

 

Sierra Ops Episode 1: Collapsing Daybreak

Developed By: Innomen | Publisher: Sekai Project | Release Date: January 16, 2020
Available On: Steam

….This is a glorified demo. I am not even remotely joking. I played the crowdfunding demo years ago and Episode 1 is nearly identical in both time played and content. Some scenes have been expanded and there are a handful of optional scenes you can play that I do not believe were in that demo, but it doesn’t change the reality. This episode is what Sekai Project (I won’t even blame Innomen Team for this one) hopes convinces you to put down $17.99 for a season pass that will include the rest of the episodes. This is not new for Sekai Project either. They have show similar disrespect for the audience’s wallet and the fact that it continues with this embarrassing. Sekai Project should be ashamed, but they won’t be. So I’ll take this mini-rant and just tell you there are far better titles that respects your money than this. DO NOT pay for a season pass for this. It is a insult to the time you spent earning your money.

Now onto the context of the game itself. The gameplay is the standout from the technical side of this and it is okay. It is much less clunky than in the demo but still is mostly counter-intuitive: forcing the audience to awkwardly maneuver and bend around the map due. We’ll have to see if there is any depth to it in future titles and if the controls smooth out to something less sluggish. The story is a problem. I’ll be including a link to my review of the demo from a few years ago because, again, it’s nearly word for word the same so there’s no point in rehashing that critique. A deeper level of analysis is that I think the developers did not research the genre they were writing for. There is an attempt to build up mystery around our protagonist Junius Fahrenheit by having other characters speak vaguely around him and the well-worn stereotype of ‘bad dreams’. Here’s the problem: this isn’t our first rodeo. It doesn’t make Junius more interesting to be a mystery in a story the vast majority have seen done before elsewhere and I’m not even including the factions of players who are making a direct comparison between this and, of all things, Sunrider. It would be far better in my humble opinion to just let the situation do the storytelling, drop the attempt at mystique because it isn’t working, and accept that Sierra Ops isn’t exploring any new territory.

A deeper problem than that is that I’m just not interested in this potential adventure. Not because I haven’t seen or played it elsewhere, but because the cast are dead-eyed and boring. Soldiers in space operas are often sent to battle and aren’t expected to have deep, interconnected backstories to the fight they are in. However, there are ways around this and just a touch of genre-savviness could have made the cast interesting enough to invest the audience in their story. Since that didn’t happen, I can only imagine the only reason anyone would be invested in this title is to support the developer, not necessarily because the title itself is good. If that’s your rationale, fine. But let’s not lie to people about what this is, shall we?

Final Score: 3/10 (Bad)

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The Thought Police Hotline Episode 1

Developed By: Voonle | Release Date: December 3, 2020
Available On: Steam

I think we can make this one fairly quick. The Thought Police Hotline is supposed to be a comedic take on the well-worn science fiction dystopian subgenre. I will now dispense with any potential subtext and tell you what the joke is supposed to be: the Protagonist really believes he’s on the right side. That’s it. He’s supposed to be the type of self-absorbed manchild protagonist that the audience nevertheless likes because their hijinks keeps things interesting. It doesn’t work because the setting is a totalitarian state. While you can get decent comedy out of mocking a totalitarian state (EG The Death of Stalin), there is never an attempt made to mock or satirize the state. All of the jokes are on John directly or painful attempts at ‘LOL So Random’ humor which, no. No.

Attempts to expand on the joke are made by making it clear a lot of what we are seeing is just an elaborate performance to make our manchild protagonist feel special. Around the halfway point, the game does several exposition dumps to try and critique the mindset of the protagonist, rather than just make fun of him. It’s lazily done and its reach to try and connect the Protagonist’s mindset to the mindset of those who promote real-world autocracy could break some bones if they’re not careful. There are much better ways to deliver this message and the developer flat-out refuse to here. I am sure there are ways this could have worked, but this is needless. The developer does not care, so why should we?

The entire experience was a mess and it devolves and sinks lower and lower until the end. I’m well aware comedy is one of the most subjective, but even a five year old would be insulted (I’d hope) by the attempts at comedy in this game. The idea that this is episodic hurts my soul and the reality that this is $5.99 when much better titles are released FOR FREE is a slap in the face. I’m done with this BS. No. Just No.

Final Score: 1/10 (Fail)