Today’s edition of the Visual Novel Review Digest covers six visual novels. It is 2767 words: a 21 minute read.
In my last VNRD, I spent a lot of time taking about visual novels that appealed to my tastes well before I played them. So, this time around I wanted to move outside of my comfort zone and try some titles that aren’t a part of my well-worn wheelhouse. After all, it is important to avoid monotony as a fan of any form of media. One may notice a……pattern with the games I review here today. As I said, it is important to actively avoid being monotonous if you can. So, enjoy the next few thousand words of me cringing, with a few surprises here and there.
Seduce Me the Otome
This one has been on the back burner for a while, and it is finally time to dig into the catalog of one Michaela Laws. Her claim to fame, despite her horror VNs, is definitely the Seduce Me series: an Otome franchise with a solid base and appeal beyond the visual novel sub-genre. Why? Because it’s a mix of Eastern Otome archetypes and Western Young Adult archetypes. This leads to an experience that I can best describe as…..safe.
It’s not a bad game, in my opinion. Just one that is very comfortable playing in the familiar: especially as a romance game. Once you get pass their archetypes, all of the demon brothers serve the exact same role in the story proper. Even James, who in the narrative is fairly important, falls into the trap and is forced into being the bland love interest. I will go further and say that even though the game goes out of its way to make nearly every side character romance options, ALL of them are one-note. The positive of this is that the plot is not dependent on the player’s choices to remain stable. The negative is obvious: ALL OF THEM ARE ONE-NOTE. It doesn’t matter who you romances, they ALL serve the exact same function.
The same goes for the game’s antagonists who file in to keep the plot moving more than anything, get their rear ends handed to them by, for lack of better words the Power of Love™, and are summarily dispatched from there. The overarching plot could have fleshed this out: especially with how the internal politics of the protagonist’s human family and the demons’ supernatural family line up. But, the game simply isn’t given the time to make those plot threads matter. From what I understand, the sequel is given a lot more time to develop these ideas; which is good because I got the Complete version. However, as a stand-alone, it’s clear this is a game more about learning the ropes than writing a strong story.
The overall Presentation is decent and the fact that Michael Laws pushed voice acting in her games in 2015, a time where it was still rare, is commendable. Overall, as I said in the beginning, this is a very safe experience for those looking for it. But, and I can’t believe I am the one saying this, if you’re looking for decent Otome, there are stronger options.
Final Score: 5/10 (Average)
Oppaidius Tropical Cruise
Developed by: Sbargisoft | Release Date: January 15, 2020
Available On: Steam
-checks notes- Yup. I didn’t hate the first game. It was not burning the world down with its ambition, but it delivered on the well-worn tropes of a nerdy guy crushing on a hot girl for the most part. It also worked fine in its own closed loop and why the developer looked at that and decided it needed a sequel is beyond my tiny human mind. What I do know is that what was a simple enough premise collapsed in the sequel.
This game is bad. Before we even get into the characters individual, the plot has no focus. It wants the audience to be as captivated by its new ‘gifted’ heroine Angela as we should have been with Serafina. But Angela is a cool, distant celebrity while Serafina was literally the girl next door. There is nothing connecting the Protagonist and Angela, so the game attempts to throw several ‘wacky’ scenarios to get them in the same room, but they never develop the chemistry needed to pull the audience in. Much worse, Angela is being stalked early in the game and frequently makes clear how uncomfortable she is with the thought of being drooled over. Several of those ‘wacky’ scenarios involve doing just that and knowing her discomfort just make these scenarios cringe.
Without this relationship to anchor the plot, everything else feels scattershot. The introduction of Rika, a barista on the cruise, is a major symptom of this as her appearances and personality are clearly meant to be the opposite of Angela. But the potential contrast isn’t given time to develop. Whether this is because the developers thought the antics involving Angela were a better use of time or simple because Rika is flat-chested, we will never know.
And the final insult? This is a prequel to a game they are currently working on where the Protagonist and Angela are trapped together on a desert island. That could be an interesting scenario, but only if it divorces itself from everything leading up to it.
Final Score: 3/10 (Bad)
Aisu Paradise (AisuPara)
Developed by: Maranyo Games | Release Date: May 24, 2019
Available On: Itch.Io
This game wants to be pornography. Some may be confused by that declaration, as I have reviewed plenty of games with explicit sexual content. To which I say, Aisu Paradise desires to be so horny I’m pretty sure you can guess what the secret ingredient is in that ice cream the two girls are trying to serve the protagonist in the header image. The game was intentionally created to cut out any potential substances beyond what was needed to get to the sex scenes. AisuPara isn’t the first developer to take this approach and like AJ Tilley (Yup) the results are similarly bad.
The great irony of this game is that as much as the developers wants this to be pornography, they don’t know how to write pornography. Both Natsuko and Sachi (our female leads) are stereotypical through the story: barely developing anything worth a character beyond their aesthetics. This would make sense if the sex scenes here were just about either of them riding the Protagonist’s through the floorboards. But it isn’t. The game attempts to have you build a ‘relationship’ with them: going on dates and sharing private moments. But without any personality, these scenes have no substance and the subsequent sex scenes don’t work. Even it those scenes were written better, it wouldn’t matter because they rely on the cast connecting to the audience in a way that the developers purposely do not try to write.
You cannot have your cake and eat it too here. Either you’re writing your game in a way that the audience can just get off OR you need to develop the characters in a way that invests the audience in their actions: including their sex lives. AisuPara never makes a directional choice and never comes close to delivering on its premise as a result. It may have been good, or at the very least may have been what it wanted to be: porn. Instead, it’s just a mess of bland characters and meaningless scenes. Hardly the sweet treat that was planned, but hopefully it will serve as a lesson for the future.
Final Score: 3/10 (Bad)
Hazard: Magical Girdle
Developed by: KEXBOY | Release Date: October 8, 2019
Available On: Itch.Io
Hazard: Magical Girdle is the story of a young explorer who is sent on a hunt for the mystical girdle of the Greek goddess Artemis. His journey to its last known location has him arrive on an island outside of time where the mythical amazons exists along with a band of pirates whom they share a tense detente with. And it could have been a decent little guilty pleasure. The Protagonist is the kind of cocksure idiot that evokes characters like Nathan Drake from Uncharted, but definitely missing both his charm and sympathetic elements. The overall world is definitely interesting and the mythology behind the island, the two factions and the girdle could have delivered a fun story. Maybe not our definition of ‘Good’, but fun.
However, it is hamstrung by two glaring issues. The first is the most drastic one: this is poorly translated and edited. The developer is either Russian or from Eastern Europe, I believe. So, some grammatical issues can be expected. Here it is constant. There are entire chains of scenes that do not make any sense as written and you can only understand by pressing on, getting to the next scene that is better edited and translated, and hope it explains what the Hell is going on. This keeps any potential momentum smothered and the very act of reading it a chore.
The second issue is that even if it was perfectly translated and edited, the game is reliant on mini-games that are broken. It starts with a puzzle that you cannot solve. The game does not give you the correct clues and even looking up the answers doesn’t solve the problem. You have to do the puzzle in a certain sequence in order to move on, but this is figured out by dumb luck and happenstance. Hopefully you figure it out, or you will be stuck at the beginning of the game for all time. This continues on with puzzles in the game that never gives you enough information properly solve them. You either dumb luck your way through them or give up and move on. Considering the Protagonist is supposed to be somewhat intelligent, this could have been the feature that sold us on his character in the same way nearly every other game in this blend does. But no; no such luck.
There are other issues in the game I can mention; especially its portrayal of its mostly female supporting cast. However, the amount of work the audience would have to do to reach those issues is a level of torture best reserved for the Spanish Inquisition. This game is an unplayable wreck and shouldn’t even be played as a morose curiosity.
Final Score: 1/10 (Failure)
Developed by: TroyHolman | Release Date: June 15, 2020
Available On: Steam
Spoiler Warning for those who give a damn, but really….why? Kidnapped Girl is about a teenage boy who, yes, kidnaps a teenage girl. He does so because he has convinced himself he is psychotic and wants to commit an act of violence to prove it.
Said girl is named Alice and when he brings her back to his place unconscious do to ‘evil things’ to her, he finds bruises from her being physically abused at her home. We then go through an extended sequence of scenes where the Protagonist hides her in his home to try and psych himself up to hurt her while she obliviously acts nice to him because, again, she’s being abused at home so this is serving as a reprieve. This sequences ends when he gives her a small cut on her chest, proceeds to vomit and realize HE IS NOT A PSYCHOPATH, HE’S JUST EMO. At which point, you have two options: either the audience can guide these two wacky kids into becoming a couple, (the Good End), or they go their separate ways (the Neutral End).
The themes of domestic abuse needs to be handle very, very carefully. The worst thing any developer can do is reduce it to a shock tactic in lieu of making their story and character unique. I wish Kidnapped Girl did it for shock value: because then, at the very least, its offensiveness could be restricted to it being lazy. But no. What makes it so much worse is that it uses these themes as the foundation of a relationship. Because the audience realizes fairly quickly that the Protagonist is just a punk ass emo kid caught up in his own emotions, we know he won’t actually do what he’s thinking about doing. But that extended sequences of him wrestling with it allows for Alice to develop feelings for the Protagonist based solely on the fact that he’s not beating her. And even when he does hurt her slightly, she stays with him and actively pursues a relationship.
But the girl is cute, so this disgusting unhealthy narrative about essentially taking advantage of an abuse victim is perfectly fine, right? NO!
Final Score: 1/10 (Failure)
Developed by: DrPinkcake | Release Date: December 10, 2018
Available On: Steam
So, it will be hard for many people to climb out of the Uncanny Valley on this one. The 3D backgrounds and models can off-putting in certain scenes: especially the sex scenes. However, for those who 3D art isn’t a make or break issue, I think they’ll find a fun guilty pleasure with Acting Lessons. It isn’t nearly as deep as some reviews says as it is more of an erotic soap opera than a drama or thriller. However, the developers does the best they can with the plot: playing most of its elements completely straight and presenting a decent Slice-of-Life story with a heavy emphasis on dealing with life.
The vast majority of the game never feels overbearing. It sets up straightforward scenarios and allows for its characters to make their own choices, for good and for bad. To say they feel human doesn’t quite fit, but they do feel three dimensional and complex. It also helps that the developer knows how to cut the drama with decent humor and there is a lot of humor through the majority of the game. This is most seen through the character of Liam and despite myself, I got invested in his YOLO (do people still say that?) approach to everything. It’s a solid tonal balance that keeps the game flowing.
However, this game is hardly flawless. It’s biggest issue is how it deals with sexuality. The Protagonist of the game can have sex with virtually the entire female supporting cast. There is an attempt here to distinguish between lust and romance, but it falters because there are never any consequences to the Protagonist’s lust. Much of that is rested on him coming to terms with why his finance cheated on him and they broke up, but there are several instances were the Protagonist should rightfully be chewed out if the audience decides to be a lothario and it doesn’t happen. In a game that holds up its adult nature and melodrama, that is something I felt was a missed opportunity.
Speaking of said melodrama, the game leans into it hard in the third act and it, like the artwork, will be hit or miss. I don’t want to get into spoilers, but several choices and the soap opera nature of the overarching plot felt like a departure from what had been building up to that point. It also shows there attempt to handle serious mental issues and it would be commendable, if not for them bungling Melissa. Melissa is a friend of the main girl Megan and she is technically the first girl you can have sex with. She is also dealing with emotional and physical abuse from her stepfather. The game doesn’t address this until the events of the third act. Until then, you deal with her situation at home by having the option of beating her stepfather to a pulp and letting her live with you, but the key to her storyline can only be gained if you have a sexual relationship with her and ignore the possibility of her using a sexual relationship as a coping mechanism for trauma.
It’s…messy, to say the absolute least. The game does attempt to build emotional resonance with Melissa to differentiate her in the lust vs romance theme. But, you can also literally start flirting with her while checking on the black eye her stepfather gave her. Some sort of space in between her issues at home and seeing her as a possible romance would have been more palatable in my opinion.
Still though, this was a surprisingly solid game. I was shocked by how quickly I went back to finish the other routes and that I could enjoy it even with its flaws. It isn’t the perfect way games of this nature should go, but it is a valuable key to learning how to get these types of games right.