Today’s edition of the Visual Novel Review Digest covers eight visual novels. It is 4492 words: a 34 minute read. (Sorry)

It’s been a minute, yeah? Unfortunately, my return is going to be a bit ranty as not all of the offerings are up to par: hence the word count. My hope is that over the next few days, I can explain why certain titles on this list just missed the mark with me. For now, I hope you enjoy this return to form, starting with a highly anticipated title:

Necrobarista

Developed By: Route 59 Games | Publisher: Coconut Island Games & AGM Playism | Release Date: July 22, 2020
Available On: Steam

Necrobarista is a title with a fair amount of hype. It had a unique style and marketing that captured the imagination and those who followed its development were definitely interested in how it would end up. Now that it has been released, this is going to hurt because Necrobarista is not good. The title has a lot of good ideas and themes, but the developer never settles on a central, connecting plot line. Instead, the game grazes over most of these ideas throughout two-thirds of its runtime with the emphasis being on the main character Maddy and the rest of the cast and even that is underselling the overall narrative conceit. Everything hinges on whether or not the audience relates to these characters personally, because for the bulk of the runtime their overall characterization is minimal outside of Ned Kelly, who is arguably the best written character in the game, and the constant reminder that ‘Maddy is so damn cool, can you believe how cool she is?’. Without a structured plot to give these characters anything to do, most of the game is literally them sitting around and goofing off, with the occasional bit of snarky banter.

For some that will be enough. And, to be frank, even I was willing to let certain things slide since the game clearly wanted to be a Slice-of-Life tale in some form and it didn’t want to be the game it marketed itself as. Then, the last third of the game happened. The final third of the game is the closest we get, I think, to the original vision of Necrobarista. We get an engaging plotline, the characters suddenly begin to flesh out and we go through this third of the game so quickly that its obvious the developers couldn’t wait to be done with it. This led to an ending that is not earned by the overall story and I walk away from the game ultimately unfulfilled. It also ripped the threadbare logic the game had been running on for hours to complete shreds. After the late reveal, nothing makes sense anymore and there is no time left to address the several, gaping plot holes that are left in its wake. A game should be judged by what it put on the table, not by what-ifs on what it could be. But, a review Necrobarista is incomplete without noting that the true tragedy of this title is that the thread of an idea delivered in its closing hour could have been a good, if not great visual novel. Instead, it’s the largest and more definitive nail its in coffin.

Route59 isn’t ready to tell the story they seemingly want to, though there is some latent fascination there. I would love to see Necrobarista revisited maybe in five or ten years, when the developer hopefully has more published titles under their belt, to fully flesh out all of the ideas they had for this one. For now though, we do have a mess on our hands. Necrobarista is unfocused narrative with some good ideas but no structure or point for the vast majority of its runtime and fully reliant on ‘relatability’ and SoL antics instead of a solid story. As much as it hurts for me to admit it, the truth is that this just does not cut it.

Final Score: 4/10 (Below Average)

 

Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star

Developed By: Lorenzo Redaelli | Publisher: Santa Ragione | Release Date: August 13, 2020
Available On: Steam

Milky Way Prince – The Vampire Star is a tough one to put under the microscope. According to the promotional material, this is both a game that deals with an abusive relationships and it is semi-biographical. Divorcing the connections from the straight-line narrative and execution of the project when it is so personal is difficult. However, let us try.

MWP’s approach to its darker story is decidedly experimental by using its presentation to get the audience to feel their way through it. For what it is, it does have a very decent style behind it and its use through the game helps convey the horror of living through this. But, this is strictly a surface-level feeling. The game does not take any time to explore the feelings they are trying to evoke in the audience and because of this and a general lack of structure, the ideas mostly stay ideas. You do get a broad sense of both of the main characters’ personalities early on when they meet. But even then, both their relationship and them personally is thin: rolling the dice on the volatile ‘relatable character’ idea to skip over the necessary time needed to get the audience invested outside of the surface level. This is a gamble whenever it is used, but considering the context it is being used, I am very, very sorry for whomever can relate to either of these two.

Ultimately, it’s biggest sin is by the midpoint of the game; AKA the point when it becomes clear how toxic the relationship is and the audience has started to tune out. The game feels self-aware here as it ramps up the visuals for a trippy, nightmarish turn to keep everyone invested. I did my best to try and keep up right to this point, but once we hit here my brain just turned off. Partly to better process the bright, flashing colors and partly because whatever story was attempted to be told by both the visuals and the narrative stops too. If you’re along for the ride emotionally, you may have a better chance of holding on to the end. For me, I needed far more narrative meat than the game was willing to provide. More care needed to be given to ensure everything linked up and the story could properly invest the audience regardless of how uncomfortable the story got. The developer eschewed that in the name of its visual experiment and it does not work. Because of that, I cannot in good faith recommended this title.

Final Score: 4/10 (Below Average)

 

Blankspace

Developed By: NoBread Studio | Release Date: July 23, 2020
Available On: Steam | Itch.Io

Blankspace was not intended to be the next project for NoBread Studios. That distinction was supposed to go to Whiteheart Woods: a project still in development. Various factors led to this being greenlit first and while I have yet to play this first title SoulSet, Blankspace is solid. The overall world is well designed and I enjoyed the idea behind it overall. Chris and Beryl especially are a fantastic set of characters and considering these two are the cast of the game, leaving everything to rest on their shoulders, it was critical they got them right. It’s interesting to note how though because they both become more unlikable as the game goes on. This is planned as it is due to exploring their characters more and not because of bad writing. The why would be a spoiler, so I’ll leave that alone. However, how the game transforms from a fairly decent, Saw-esque mystery to pondering on a few moral questions and meditative thoughts about human nature. These themes are not fully fleshed out, and if I had a narrative critique, it would be here.

Blankspace is short and the first half teases at the larger mystery, only to mostly dump it on you in the second half. Chris and Beryl remain stable throughout, but what ties these themes and makes the game work is Chris’ life before he finds himself in this situation. The second half, and the moral questions that come with that, needed more time. An extra hour at minimum, would have allowed for some very dark results. A part of me thinks that’s why the game remained as short as it is; that and it’s technically a tie-in. However, the door on it was opened just enough that a little more exploration would have been interesting. I may touch on that in another space, but for now it’s something I just wish they would have went deeper into.

A quick note on the game mechanics now. To progress in each room, you have to solve that rooms series of brain teasers. Just about all of them can be solved through observation and basic critical thinking. There are a few that require more thought than others, not because of their complexity but because you’re missing a detail from Beryl or by not fully exploring the room. This is purposeful as the puzzles are more of a thematic tool and less about how smart the audience is: especially in the second room. The game is very clear later on why it takes this route and there are optional, harder puzzles for you to put your mind to if you prefer. Ultimately, it’s a mechanic that is enjoyable, but like with the narrative themes, I think would have benefitted from some extra time on the clock. Not necessarily to make the puzzles more complex, but to get the fully use of them as a thematic tool.

So, I liked this one fairly well. It came down to a matter of time, but what the developer were able to do with the time they gave themselves was solid. I’m looking forward to seeing what they can do in their next project and, naturally, will shamelessly plug my brother-in-nepotism Tryinmorning’s fun playthrough of SoulSet. Cheers.

Final Score: 7/10 (Decent)

 

Dear Devere

Developed By: Katy133 | Release Date: April 12, 2020
Available On: Steam | Itch.Io

Dear Devere is the sixth visual novel from Katy133 and, like most everything in her collection, is a treat to play. The main characters of this one are Angela and Devere. Both are solid and their story told entirely through a series of letters evokes the best of 20th Century Romanticism. It was an inspired mechanic that made the most of is setting and cast and one I can easily see other visual novel developers adopting similar to VA-11 HALL-A’s bartending gameplay. Another thing that went well for this cast is the voice acting. Angela and Devere are the only ones in the cast who are voiced which gives their letters a certain life to them. My compliments to the VAs as well as the tone of this particular script had to be fairly tricky and relied more on narration than back-and-forth dialogue. And a special note goes to the Presentation as well because the design of the letters not only provided great visuals throughout the game, but also helped with narrative context for the rest of the cast who are not quite as ornate as our main characters.

My non-complaint that is sort of a complaint here is it feels like this one should be a little bit longer. The jump from the first to second acts introduces the rest of the cast, including an antagonist, as well as poke at the game’s overarching narrative structure: the fact that the main character (you) are neither Angela nor Devere. Some extra time in this section would have helped flesh out the antagonist a bit. It isn’t necessary to the entire story though as the antagonist’s role here is very limited. For me, it just would have added another fold while not being sympathetic and deepen what we get from our main characters by the ending. It also would have deepened the setting of a woman trying to live a fairly normal life after the First World War and a potential Second one brewing overseas. In fact, that more than anything would have been my biggest complaint of the game: the setting should have impacted the characters more.

Any other critique here feels pedantic on my part. It’s a short and sweet work that delivers on its main ideas and, ultimately, is a fine edition to the Katy Catalog. If you are looking for a breezy read to go with your afternoon Earl Grey, check this one out.

Final Score: 8/10 (Good)

 

Coffee Talk

Developed By: Toge Productions | Release Date: January 29, 2020
Available On: Steam

I already discussed why I did not like this title, so I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing the argument. This will just a few notes about the story in retrospect, but we’ll start with the gameplay. Coffee Talk was clearly inspired by one of the best visual novels of all time: VA-11 HALL-A. It’s barista mechanics echo the bartending mechanics with two big differences. The first is that unlike in VA-11 HALL-A, you do not have full access to the drink mixing catalog from the jump. You have to figure it out as you go. Considering the tone of this game, this should not be an issue because your customers will usually be fine with what you serve. However, for me at least, it fed into the feeling that you’re stuck and you shouldn’t invest too much into what you’re doing. The second is that conversations do not build off the drinks you’re serving. This makes a lot of sense because alcohol and coffee are not the same thing and most people do not order multiple rounds of coffee (I think. At most I can drink two cups black with a little sugar).

There was simply no way around this particular change and it ultimately limits what the developer could have done in this setting. All things considered, it came out okay and one of the few areas I didn’t think was a downgrade. It’s just a reality of where the devs chose for the story to take place and they made it work. The same cannot be said for the overall narrative.  The idea of a fictional world mirroring human flaws, prejudices and addressing them from the safety of not criticizing a particular group is not new in fiction. This isn’t the sloppiest its done, but that’s less about narrative finesse and more because this game’s story is on rails. No mistakes, but no charm either. The characters feel like they’re reading from a script (as odd as that sounds to type): going through the motions of a story arc we’ve seen done better thousands of times before. Gala and Hyde come the closest to overcoming the story’s limitation, but that is literally only when they’re both together. This is because their characters are allowed a little more depth and history than the others and I can only deduce this was done in lieu of just making them an official couple like everyone else in the cast.

Does that means there’s something fatally wrong with the game? No. It’s not a bad game, just a painfully dull, average one. If I had ever seen that play Rent, this is probably where a Rent reference would fit. The only things I know for sure is that the characters line up from how people talk about them. As I said in my ‘What Went Wrong’ feature, it plays its hand far too safe and the results is a tepid experience that is more determined to ensure the audience ‘feels safe’ than writing a decent story. It is what it is. Hopefully next time Toge can give us something with a bit more flavor.

Final Score: 5/10 (Average)

Also Check Out:

 

The City of Broken Dreamers: Book One

Developed By: PhillyGames | Release Date: August 7, 2020
Available On: Steam

Adult Visual Novels are getting better, let’s just acknowledge that fact right now. Even with the over-reliance on 3D artwork, there is a strong push to make the games as narratively strong as possible along with providing their particular audience with the content that they enjoy. The City of Broken Dreamers hopes to join in the crowd by mixing porn with one of the most reliable subgenres of fiction in the world: cyberpunk. Does it succeed? Sort of.

The cyberpunk themes here are fairly well worn. If you have seen any science fiction television series in the past thirty years nothing will surprise you. There is some effort here to flesh out the world by not only applying a level of history to it, but also slowly going through the backstories of the characters. It’s a shallow depth, but one that did lead to some solid moments that helped connect the audience with the characters and the characters with each other. The moments that’s the most interesting and gets the most weight is his relationship with his ex-wife. Thankfully, this isn’t clouded by either of your libidos, but it serves as a way to not only better understand our protagonist but the world around him. Right behind that are Katie and Ellen who, based on their own personalities, relationship with the protagonist and needs, have wildly different interactions with him. Had this been push a little more than, well, the sex, some of the more emotional moments could have landed with a harder thud. What we get isn’t terrible, but it isn’t nearly as strong as it could have been. I also appreciate the developers recognizing that a visual novel is, yes, a visual medium. The text here is very minimal; used only for dialogue and occasionally to provide situational context. After dealing with VNs that spent paragraphs describing what was right in front of my eyes, this was much appreciated.

Now, let’s just be honest; you’re here to see my frigid ass try to get through talking about the sex scenes without my Southern Baptist Upbringing(TM) crashing through the walls like Jason Voorhees whenever teen hormones are in the air. I know this one is supposed to be short, but I’ll extend my time a little bit to cover the bases.

Alright, they weren’t all bad, but a lot of them were. As I mentioned earlier, the stuff with Katie and Ellen is solid because of what they bring out of the protagonist and themselves. But plenty miss the mark. Unfortunately that includes Victoria: because when you look like this in a porn game, what do you think is going to happen? Unfortunately, a major narrative arc runs through her (no pun intended) and it doesn’t work because the emphasis with her character was always how much ‘fun’ you could have with her, not on her internal growth and conflict. A similar problem exists with our Damsel in Minor Distress: Gloria Connors. You never have the option to sleep with her thankfully because she’s 16 (something the game makes clear early on). HOWEVER, if you wanted to perv on her a bit through the game it’s only mildly discouraged. You know; Look, don’t Touch.

Beyond the moral indignity there is a narrative problem here. The game spends so much time with the protagonist either helping her escape from her pursuers or trying to keep her from getting stressed over the situation, it never fully explores her character and the bribe to the audience to ignore that is the developer saying, ‘Hey check out this jailbait!’ The entire story revolves around her character so to have such a bland central point is…honestly…unfortunate, but not surprising. The game isn’t bad, but whenever it is given the chance to embrace its horny or tell its story, it goes full-tilt horndog: including with characters like Gloria and Victoria it really shouldn’t. It keeps expectations low, granted, but it also keeps the game from being more than the porn version of Dark Angel. Yes, I remember Dark Angel. No comment.

Final Score: 5/10 (Average)

 

 

Crimson Spires

Developed By: Woodsy Studio | Release Date: October 27, 2020
Available On: Steam | Itch.Io

This game is a bad. Generally, this developer puts out decent work. I have yet to play their Echoes of the Fey series, but the Serafina series was okay and showed a lot of promise for future titles. But this is a total mess from the top down. Years ago, in reviewing a demo for a prospective VN called Locked In, I said the following about narrative tone that is apt for this review,

“…This moment is immediately offset with Luke being a moron, but it has the side effect of dosing this hazy harem wannabee with the reality of death. In a high school setting, Luke’s haplessness could lead to him getting embarrassed at the absolute worst. In PRISON, his haplessness can get him killed.

Crimson Spires suffers from the exact same issue. It wants to be an Otome/Horror game inspired by Urban Fantasy novels and television that merges the trashy romances of soap operas with the fantastical…and one day, I promise I’ll get into my brief fling with Urban Fantasy that hurts my snob cred. However, it never takes that ‘horror’ part seriously. That especially goes for our protagonist Erika who in another setting would be the slightly uptight Otome heroine who desperate needs to get laid. In this setting where there is a supernatural force warping reality, killing people en masse and there are vampires running everything for unknown reasons, IT CAN GET HER KILLED.

Despite being lauded as ‘an FBI agent’, Erika is what can only be described as a professional idiot. She has no interest in doing any kind of investigative work, she doesn’t think deeper than her absolute base instinct (which is usually off by a literal mile), and she has no set moral guidelines that lead her. She will easily forgive an admitted murderer because he made puppy dog eyes at her while raging at an innocent civilian for perceived biases and so forth. This melts down to the supporting cast who ticks every box in basic love interests checklist (which includes Optional Lesbian Romance C for those who are interested) which forces them all to be not only being dumber than Erika, but also not being anything other than a narrative crutch for her in the moment: erasing whatever minor character traits they had. Again, toss them all in high school and it’s bearable. Here? No. It doesn’t work.

If I don’t stop ranting, this digest won’t end. There are gameplay features that feel pulled form an 90s narrative adventure, but they are limited to only investigate what Erika wants to investigate. So for the most part, you’ll just be walking around in a grainy 3D space hoping to bump into one thing that gets the girl off the fence. Lovely. The presentation is okay, but there are times you can see where the art hits the limit of what the artist can express. There are scenes where the artwork feels either stilted or out of place, which is interesting on an artistic note simply because expressions are one of the few key Presentational necessities in this subgenre. All that being said, this one bombs almost right out of the gate. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record: do research. If you’re going to include mystery or horror elements in your work: DO RESEARCH. And no; binge watching Criminal Minds, Hannibal, SVU or whatever the top cop show is right now doesn’t count.

Final Score: 3/10 (Bad)

 

 

Ken Follett’s The Pillars of The Earth, Book One

Developed By: Daedalic Entertainment | Release Date: August 22, 2017
Available On: Steam

One more for the road? I’d hate to end on such a sour note, after all.

Thanks to the global COVID-19 pandemic, when I wasn’t working I often found myself playing games I knew were good. I found myself replaying this one and, even though its only been three years, it still stands as a pinnacle many in its class can only hope to reach one day. Daedalic’s adaptation of Ken Follett’s magnum opus is beautiful in all of the ways you would hope. From the beginning it is both stunning poignant and breathlessly tragic: setting the tone for a game that centers on a subject often mishandled in fiction. Christianity is a sore spot for many authors and in comes through whenever they try to write about it. However, in the historical context, the role of the Christianity in the West, especially in Europe, is one that cannot be understated. Follett’s understanding of that history creates a great drama on what might be one of the most outwardly mundane subjects: building a cathedral. Not only was it important for the poorest, but it was also the only stable institution with a reliable tax system: tithing.

This creates a complex web of political, social and religious interests that are navigated through three characters: Tom, Philip and Jack. Of the three, Philip has far more to do. As a monk, he is closest to the center of the web and his action affect the rest of the cast in small and large ways. The game has no narrative weak points, but it is easily at its strongest as Philip navigates the world, increasing his role in the church and the state. The others are slow-builds: both approaching the more intimate themes of faith and survival with a more deliberate pace. This leads to some very poignant moments: especially for Jack who has literally been living in a cave. It flows very well and hits some truly frightening lows in certain sections of the game. The developers are not shy about this being the Dark Ages and does not hide the brutality of the world from the audience. It never indulges it, but watching everything happen and feeling your soul sink because you’re not sure if our cast will make it through on one piece is a fantastic accomplishment.

The one nitpick I have is that not all of the choices seem to matter in the overall narrative context. The choices that do, DO. But it feels kind of obvious when the time is just trying to keep the part of the audience used to pressing buttons involved. I also would have loved to see how closes the choices that did matter align with the canon of the Kingsbridge series, but that is neither here nor there.  Ultimately, the story is excellent, the voice acting is amazing, the entire Presentation is so fantastic it could stand on its own as an animated series and the fact that it has taken me so long to publicly give this game its laurels is something that deeply, deeply shames me. If you want a great game and you are on this website, check out the Pillars of the Earth. It is well worth your time.

Final Score: 10/10 (Excellent)

Also Check Out: