Today’s edition of the Visual Novel Review Digest covers ten visual novels. It is 3337 words: a 25 minute read.

I’ve been in a bit of a bloodthirsty mood lately. The current world situation and spending a month working from home probably hasn’t helped. Luckily for me, I have an entire slate of dark visual novels that I either haven’t touched or haven’t reviewed yet. So, let’s lower the lights, ignore the chills in our souls, and talk about a little horror and tragedy, shall we?

 

A Salem Witch Trial

Developed by: Digital Bento | Release Date: Jan 29, 2018
Available On: Itch.Io | Steam

Digital Bento is an interesting case study in the drawing power of the Visual Novel. Ben Ho, the founder of the studio, has an extensive CV as an animator and concept artist for companies like Capcom, ITV, Netflix and Dreamworks. For me, the big question will be how that experiences will be reflected in Mr. Ho’s independent work. And, at least in the first outing, there is a lot of room to grow as a writer. This does make sense considering the bulk of his work was as an artist and the game has a distinct visual presentation and feel that makes it feel unique in a crowd of very similar looking titles.

However, the story for A Salem Witch Trial is weak. Unfortunately, too much effort goes into trying to sell the Gothic atmosphere of the plot and not nearly enough goes into the mystery underpinning it. There are multiple red herrings, most of the witnesses don’t give you want you need to put the case together and, ultimately, it comes down to an educated guess rather than the summary of evidence. It is unfulfilling as a total package and I hope Digital Bento can either evolve as a writer or partner up with a talented writer to go with the fantastic presentation. There is a foundation here, but right now it’s only that.

Final Score: 4/10 (Below Average)

 

Grotesque Beauty

Developed by: Digital Bento | Release Date: November 4, 2019
Available On: Itch.Io | Steam

Grotesque Beauty is the second offering from Digital Bento and yes, essentially, I played them both back-to-back. This title promises a ‘Junji Ito inspired horror experience’: a very ambitious goal. Now, let me go ahead and temper anyone’s expectations: it misses that mark by more than a bit. It is a step up from their debut title A Salem Witch Trial, but I wouldn’t go into this expecting Tomie. Instead, it’s a fairly straightforward monster story with two girls trapped in their house against a creature neither of them are prepared to face.

What works in the story is the tension that occurs with the monster is revealed. It never feels like you’re safe from that part and all of the efforts you take as these girls is just not enough. The weaker parts of the game deal with the attempt to give some backstory and flesh out our protagonists. This developer really likes red herrings and it shows again here in a way that I’d argue is to the game’s overall detriment. It offers the possibility of some psychological horror, but doesn’t give the idea enough time to breathe. The backstory given to establish the titular painting and the monster that comes from it is also very weak. I’m not the biggest fan of ‘horror backstories’, but this one definitely needed a bit more than what we got to solidify the dread. Another hour or so of gameplay would have been a great thing for this one. But ultimately, it’s a fun monster feature that will keep you entertained.

Oh, side note: I am fairly sure Digital Bento uses TyranoBuilder and I have yet to play a game built on that platform that I liked. Strictly speaking on a technical level, the platform may be great from a developer standpoint, but isn’t user friendly. I was once asked if I would consider rating the different VN engines and that day may have to come after all.

Final Score: 6/10 (Above Average)

 

The Doll Shop

Developed by: Atelier Sentô | Release Date: October 29, 2018
Available On: Itch.Io 

There are a lot of approaches to game development. More often than not what inspires most games are other games. We are a market-based artist enterprises and whatever is leading the market tends to influence everything else. Visual Novels are not exempt from this: especially in the West were certain stereotypes about the subgenre equals profitability more than market trends. Anything that bucks that trend has a way of standing out and that is especially true for the French development group Atelier Sentô.

I have been a low-key fan of Atelier Sentô style for a few years now; especially since their work is inspired by their trips to the Japanese countryside and by Japanese folklore. To date, they only have four visual novels to their name: each game growing in both length and complexity with time. The Doll Shop is unique in their catalog as it doesn’t feature a lot of supernatural elements. It’s just a young man in a quiet town in the Japanese countryside harboring dark secrets. The game keeps you unsettled throughout with its minimalist score, attention to detail and one of the most untrustworthy protagonists I’ve seen in a while. You never feel comfortable playing as him or seeing the world through his eyes. It could have been use to garner sympathy, but the developers use it instead to racket up the tension and dread for its bigger scares later in the game.

I do feel like the final act is a let down, though. A lot of finer details are left on the table: specifically of the young woman who enters the narrative halfway through. Again, it’s a situation where a little more time could have fleshed out the story enough to where that final act really knocks the audience back a few steps. What we get is good though and easily puts The Doll Shop on the small list of top-tier, EVN horror titles. Check it out if you haven’t.

Final Score: 8/10 (Good)

 

[redacted]Life

Developed by: Katy_133 | Release Date: March 28, 2016
Available On: Itch.Io 

Speaking of low-key fandoms I have also quietly been a fan of Katy_133’s work for years now. She isn’t afraid to experiment with her narratives, which has led to some of the best writing in the visual novel genre and yes, you can quote me on that. I was planning on something covering the entire catalog, but I spent a lot more time than I intended replaying [redacted]Life, so that gets covered in the VNRD about blood, death and tragedy. Go figure.

[redacted]Life eschews the cheap thrills other titles that won’t be mentioned here shoot for when it comes to meta-narrative horror and, instead, goes for a more methodical approach. This is clearly something building in the background of the first stages of the game, but when it shifts to a completely different subgenre, a romance game, that’s when I personally started getting creeped out. While selling the horror, it also allows for a few subplots to flesh out our protagonists: including some meditations on how narratives shape our sense of self and what happens when the story we tell ourselves about ourselves is a lie. Not too much time is devoted on that end and I wish it was because the scene of Adrian and Hana questioning whether their memories were real or not gets me every time.

There are some nitpicks I can make, but mostly those are issues with time. Katy made shorter games back then and this is one that could have used an extra thirty minutes or so in the beginning to better establish the threat. But it still holds up well nearly four years later artistically; which says a lot considering how fast titles in this genre can age. It was one of the best of 2016, arguably one of the standout visual novels of the 2010s, and it’s free. Go play this game.

Final Score: 9/10 (Great)

 

Enigma:

Developed by: Uzumeya | Published By: Fruitbat Factory | Release Date: November 15, 2018
Available On: Itch.Io | Steam

HOW did I not review this one? HOW?

ENIGMA: is a game I had a fantastic time playing/roasting a few years back on my Twitter page, yet I never pulled the trigger on a review. Wow. I think, looking back, this was one of a handful of VNs I kept to play for my own enjoyment, not to put on the block. It’s a shame too because ENIGMA is a solid visual novel that focuses on a core theme of death and memories.

The game does it’s best to put the audience in the mindset of someone with a terminal illness and it excels at that. There are great moments of levity as our protagonist Chester explores the island he ran aground of. However, the threat of death is never far behind. If isn’t symptoms of Chester’s illness coming up, it’s Envirio: the creepy, blue-haired androgynous human(?) in the promo material who not only knows Chester is dying, but wants, let me check my notes here, ‘his color’ before he dies.

Yeah.

My biggest complete is that of all the games on this list, this has aged the worst in terms of presentation. The game initially came out in 2015 and we were well beyond the aspect ratio used for it. Also, the narrative does demand the audience grind out all of the endings: good and bad. Playing with my cards face-up here, I needed a guide at a certain point (Envirio) to make the right choices to get the endings. The expansion from drama to body horror and the supernatural is worth the grind, but it’s still going to be a grind. Overall, I can easily recommend this title. It is a great, bittersweet tragedy about the small beauties of human life.

Final Score: 9/10 (Great)

 

Over the Hills and Far Away

Developed by: WarGirl Games | Release Date: September 16, 2015
Available On: Steam

Okay, so I came across this title shortly after discovering what a ‘crying game’ was. That I discovered after playing the High King of Crying Games: Planetarian. So to see this marketed in the same vein, I was prepared to have my nuts kicked in; emotionally speaking. Over the Hills and Far Away thankfully doesn’t hit that hard, but mostly because it plays less to the audience’s heartstrings and more to their minds. And it does in a unique setting rarely explored in Western media or fiction: the War of 1812….you know, the one where America tried to annex Canada. Long story.

The narrative demands a great deal of maturity and, credit where it’s due, the developers deliver on that front. Both sides of the war and the innocents caught in the middle are treated with respect and it nails a wartime atmosphere that well over 90% of video games simply cannot. The tension alone makes the introduction of Mai a small relief. Not that she lightens the story (much). Rather, it’s because while neither can communicate well, both have one thing in common: to the United States of America, they are foreigners.

The biggest issue is simply the ending. It goes far out of its way to try and make it as tragic as possible. Unfortunately, I don’t think the developers realized things were already as tragic as it needed to be. Trying to dial it up to go for that heart punch just made it obvious and took me out of things for a bit. But this is still a worthy tragedy and one of the best war stories in gaming.

Final Score: 8/10 (Good)

 

A Light in the Dark 

Developed by: CreSpirit, Storia, Narrator | Publisher: Sekai Project | Release Date: June 15, 2018
Available On: Steam

Okay,

I came into A Light in the Dark with high expectations because it’s setting is one that works very well on a tight budget: a kidnapping. It provides for high tension, drama, the fight to live versus the ambitions of the kidnappers. It is a literal boiler that can go as high as you want until the narrative climax and it almost always works (looking at you Eli Roth). However, you have to commit to the setting, allow for the protagonist/antagonist relationship and write it out naturally in accordance to the opening setup. Think of it like Chekov’s Gun. If someone is willing to kidnap someone, they better be ready to do anything else they need to do to get what they want.

A Light in the Dark does not do this. It goes an alternate direction by making this a tragedy, not a thriller. Everyone involved has almost no narrative agency of their own: instead acting as victims of circumstance and angry at a society that barely knows they exist regardless of their spots in the social strata. The social commentary does descent to anvil levels: unable to hold back from damning everyone not the kidnappers for what the kidnappers did. This would be a problem as is, but the fact that the solution is so clear and offered by the protagonist of the story repeatedly makes the Woe-Is-Me stuff unbearable at times.

Even if they didn’t go the ‘thriller’ route, if they simply committed to the tragic story they wanted to tell, the game would be okay. However, less than a year after the initial release, the developers added an ending to the game that can negate that. Between that, an inconsistent choice system that feels like it is outright lying to the audience at points and the utter lack of any narrative tension, I had a hard time with this one. It isn’t bad, it just isn’t what it wants to be: poignant.

Final Score: 5/10 (Average)

 

The Mind’s Eclipse

Developed by: Mind’s Eclipse Interactive | Release Date: January 25, 2018
Available On: Itch.Io

I said earlier that gaming is a market-based field of art and that the market was often driven by the most successful titles in field. That is not always a constant, however. Take, for example, System Shock 2. While the title is considered one of the most influential video games of all time, it was a commercial flop at the time. It wouldn’t be until years later and the release of Bioshock that it got the full appreciation it deserved. Even then, the Irrational formula seems rare outside of visual novels. But when it works, it works. One of them is The Mind’s Eclipse.

The question is often whether or not the game can simply pay homage to its inspiration or if it can only mimic it. Honestly? It struggles. Both System Shock 2 and Bioshock benefited from gameplay elements visual novels don’t typically have: combat and upgrades being at the top of the list. With no enemies to fight, the world is empty. The narrative does its best to fill in the gaps similar to Analogue: A Hate Story: using journal entries and other media to fill in the blanks. You also have a partner-in-crime in the fashion  of Atlas and Hyun-Ae: L. These elements do a lot of work in keeping the game from feeling too empty and it does help. However, there are several scenes in the game that begged for a little more interaction.

What helps the title stand on its own is that it subverts the ‘failed utopia’ archetype and plays the reality that the roots of these settings (especially Raptures) are in real-world cults. The CORE, our setting for the game, never promised a utopia. They promised an answer to a question and TME focuses on that. That strife and the destruction it caused both to the larger world and the personal life of the Protagonist is fascinating to explore. It is still very much a product of its time, but it is also a solid drama that makes the most of its inspiration and presentation. I enjoyed what I got.

Final Score: 8/10 (Good)

 

Selenon Rising, Episode 1

Developed by: Fastermind Games | Published By: Sekai Project | Release Date: April 29, 2016
Available On: Steam

Most of you probably remember Chris Tenarium who used to exclusively play visual novels on his YouTube channel before deciding to speedrun JRPGs. One of our old debates was on the new (at the time) trend of making a ‘visual novel’ episodic. On the surface, it seemed like a good way to build up capital for new developers by splitting their projects into parts. However, as young Tenarium often noted, that meant there was no guarantee they would finish the entire series. Only a handful of titles in that time have proven to be the exception to that prediction and they didn’t cross the line unblemished. Hopefully, the same will be said about Selenon Rising in the end.

The concept behind Selenon Rising isn’t particular new, but it is still fun. Playing as the domestic agents of an occupying force presents a chance to explore intricate details of war that are often ignored. Two-thirds of the game focuses on walking that line. The mystery blends a lot of pulp fiction elements and makes them work while hinting at the history of this world and the threat looming just overhead. I enjoyed the pace and while the characters felt limited, with the narrative working across a series of entries rather than in one shot, a lot of that could be forgiven.

Then the Third Act happened. Oh boy.

Even four years later, I’m not comfortable spoiling things. However, it’s safe to say that the developers wrote themselves into a corner thanks to a few climatic fight scenes. It was too soon and only seemed to echo the shounen inspirations behind the developer’s portfolio of work, not the tone they were going for in this particular game. After its all said and done, the stark reality is that this chapter could have stood on its own with a cliffhanger for possible future theories around the game: not as a setup to potential future entries. Think less Law and Order and more Se7en. To the best of my knowledge, Episode 2 was released in 2017 so I will play that to see if the narrative managed to pick up the pieces. But, for now, it was fun to go back and play this one; even if the last hour or so was a kick in the teeth.

Final Score: 5/10 (Average)

 

The Last Birdling

Developed by: InvertMouse | Release Date: August 31, 2017
Available On: Steam

The Last Birdling is a story about, frankly, a toxic friendship. Tayo and Bimonia seem to fit the archetypal inter-species relationship in that their refusal to see the other as less than an equal inspires others to drop their long-standing differences. However, it doesn’t do that. It commits to the reality that there are some relationships you just cannot keep because the world won’t let it happen. Literally. And both girls pay a gruesome price for their innocence.

This is not a game for everyone. I understand the reality that, considering the themes they wanted to cover, the developers couldn’t let up. They had to commit to the narrative arc and, in doing so, it’s often better to be told to ease up than to put more effort in. The game benefits more from this philosophy than it is hurt with the exception of one scene. There is a rape scene in the game and, really, it didn’t need to be there. The conflict and suffering by that point had been more than enough to make things clear.  Also, for some reason, this clearly Asian setting is ruled by clearly European royalty? Seriously guys?

However, these nitpicks don’t detract from the otherwise excellent writing, Tayo and Bimonia’s perfect characterizations and arcs and the pacing of the revelations as they grow into adulthood and that uniquely adult sense of horror of realizing how much was hidden from you as a child. That is another positive in the game’s favor as they spend just enough time investing you in these characters that when things start going wrong, you still want them to be okay. And as things get worse, you realize slowly that there may not be a happy ending for these two. It’s a master work for sure. InvertMouse’s visual novel magnum opus  is one of the best one’s ever done and it will be some time before another tragic tale comes close.

Final Score: 10/10 (Excellent)