One of the fictional genres more EVN creators seem to be interested in these days is one I’ve talked about before and remains a personal favorite: thrillers. In a genre where Love is still god, convincing a new developer to create something other another teenage love story is equivalent to ice-skating uphill blindfolded and on fire. So, whenever someone breaks that mold and has the pure brass cajones to step into one of the most widely abused sub-genres in all fiction for their first game…let’s just say it deserves more than just passing notice.
Fervent Studios caught my eye over NaNoRenO when they released the demo for Cupid: a game which looks to be interesting, but didn’t give me a true taste of what this new developer was truly capable of. While working on the big project, Fervent released their actual first game: Who Is Mike? Unlike most of the past month where NaNoRenO projects were released with great fanfare and a waiting public, the launch of Who Is Mike has been relatively tempered. In fact, if I didn’t follow Cherubim Scribes on Twitter (Hey!) I would’ve most likely have missed the launch completely.
However, now that I have played it, we’re going to call an audible here on VNs Now. I’ve decided to table everything else I’ve been working on today to review this game. Why? Because, to be frank, with the way it was launch it could’ve very easily gotten lost in the shuffle. We’re still in NaNoRenO’s sunset as the EVN faithful continue to work their way down the list, we have several old favorites making their way onto Steam over the next few weeks and if other titles stay on schedule May and June will be extremely busy. So let’s not let this opportunity pass us by because, despite a few hiccups, Fervent’s first completed projects deserves your full attention.
Mike wakes up in his home one day with a terrible headache, only to find that he’s not alone. He is faced with him: a exact living copy of himself. Or, is it the other way around? As you and you try to figure out exactly what is going on, ‘Mike’s’ long-time girlfriend Sarah is brought into the mix to figure out who is real and who is fake. With every choice determining the outcome, who is the real Mike is a question that’s secondary only to ‘what if I’m not the real Mike?’
The set-up is very classic for horror and supernatural tales and the game borrows a lot of that inspiration for its atmosphere and pacing. The audience isn’t given any explanation into what is going on with Mike and Mike and no back story to use as a differentiator. It also removes the opportunity to fight for your identity from the table by making Mike’s long-time girlfriend Sarah the judge and jury of who the real Mike is. This creates a level of tension in the first scenes that immediately hook the reader for the long haul and it’s only punctured to do a few rookie slip-ups. We’ll get to it, but first more positives.
With the little material they had to work with, the characters of Mike and Sarah are well done. Much of their relationship and personalities are hinted at throughout the story and they come off as more or less average during the course of the game. I enjoy this touch because, for the story it’s trying to tell, Mike and Sarah doesn’t have to have any deeper context given to their characters. The fact that they’re apparently normal people thrust into a bizarre and malevolent situation gives us everything we need to hope that they survive.
Finally, a special note to the villain of the peace. I have hungered for decent villains in the EVN sphere and the antagonist for Who Is Mike easily earns their place next to Chance from the Jisei series and Eun-a Oh from Hate Plus on the short list of excellent evil-doers. Once they’ve been revealed in the third act, Sarah and the real Mike immediately become prey in a battle they are not equipped to survive; let alone win. It is something ripped straight out of the movie Fallen or Seven as this force of pure evil and malice begins to really cause some pain. I enjoyed every second of the game’s third act, but I had an uneven ride there.
As the game begins the questioning part, the tension deflates some due to the round of questions both Mikes get asked. It is implied that Sarah and Mike have been together for a while and lived together for even longer, yet the questions are mostly surface details about their relationship as Sarah tries to figure out which one is real. The worst it gets is when Sarah takes him to task about a female neighbor. Otherwise the gloves stayed on during the entire second act, when I feel the story would have hit a new plateau and deeper level of tension if the gloves came off.
There was supposed to be a comedic factor for the game and it’s clear from some of the reactions between the Mikes. However, as entertaining as some of the jokes were, it didn’t fit the atmosphere. The second act could have been one of great suffering for both the real Mike and Sarah as Sarah pulls out details only the real Mike could intimately know about, which would have made the excellent third act simply the cherry on top of a cake of excellence. Off the top of my head, their sex life and Mike’s apparent inability to ‘put a ring on it’ for lack of a better phrase, could have been the tip of a very sharp, very deep knife that left the playable character in a minefield of their own making. For me, this would have achieved something the game promised but never really delivered on: allowing the player’s choices to define Mike’s character.
For two-thirds of the game your constant choice, regardless of the situation, is to ‘tell the truth’ or ‘tell a lie’. This doesn’t alter the dialogue between your character, ‘Mike’ and Sarah, so apparently it’s the intent that determines the alignment of the player’s Mike. This keeps the player character on a rail that it cannot pull away from and it never truly feels like you really have a say. Some will say that this is the case for most games with choice trees, but I disagree a little here. Making the dialogue options more morally grey instead of forcing everything into either ‘tell the truth’ or ‘tell a lie’ would have removed the controlled feeling of the choice options and maintained a steady, tense atmosphere for the reader to stew in.
That’s where the minor details of the questions, the intimate knowledge only the real Mike and the real Sarah would know, comes into handy. Whether or not Mike is a decent person is a question we will never know. But his long-time girlfriend should know all of his quirks and mannerisms; when he lies and when he’s honest. Tie that knowledge with options to avoid the question, or flat out lie, or be honest regardless of if it leads to your own damnation would have made the entire game much more intimate and much more terrifying. Digging beyond the surface yields much greater rewards when the stakes are this high and I hope the Fervent team, and anyone else looking to invest in the thriller sub-genre, considers it moving forward.
The third act is, without a doubt, the best of Who Is Mike. Every variation is a heart-pounding thriller at its core and there were several moments I was outright holding my breath. The action is bloody and ruthless, the artwork chilling and, in what may be my favorite moment in any EVN: the game pulls a SNK Boss moment and flat-outcheats. I will not spoil it here, but when I figured out what was going on, as well as the only way to win, it was nothing short of glorious. Most EVNs with multiple endings are ‘take it or leave it’, in my humble opinion. There are some good ones, usually the True or Good Ending, and the others you can pretty much ignore. However, with WIM each endings deserves to be played through and experienced on its own merits. It is excellent storytelling and deserves your full attention.
Who Is Mike has its flaws, but I should point out that its flaws didn’t stop it from being entertaining. It is a solid story that, for the most part, uses its atmosphere to build a darker class of story that I enjoyed thoroughly. A more personal touch would have given its darkness a much bleaker shade that really would’ve stood out, but for what we get it is a good thriller. Maybe there’s hope yet…
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
The Presentation for Who Is Mike is serviceable. The sprites are standard anime style, but of the two Mike fared better than Sarah. You can still see the faint outline from where she was copied and pasted into the various scenes. The music is all royalty free, but hits all the right notes in keeping a somber atmosphere. However, the Event Graphics do their job nicely and hit an emotional chord at all the right moments. Even out of context, they remind me of the bad ends for Nachtigal in their effectiveness.
I do appreciate the fact that WIM is never properly lit as well as the backgrounds for the game. All of these appear original and the main one in particular, the living room, feature several pictures of Mike and Sarah in different art styles. It’s a very interesting touch that adds character to the background in an age where yet another fantasy or high school setting dominates the visual landscape. Overall, the presentation does its job with a few stumbles here and there.
On the Technical side, as I said, at one point WIM flat-out cheats; making it one of the better uses of certain visual novel mechanics in a long time. The biggest problem I have with it I discussed during the Story section, where the dialogue options were limited. This causes a bit of frustration with several endings, since figuring out the right combination of choices is more a matter of luck than choice. There are no bugs or glitches to report however, so I’m thankful for that.
And while we’re on this part, let me introduce everyone to the ‘Technical’ side of the review! It will be taking the place of ‘gameplay’ since that has a very strict definition to a lot of people. Technical will cover the use of all gaming mechanics in a VN, yes even the dialogue options, as well as its overall stability. Please look forward to its inclusion in all future reviews!
A single path of Who Is Mike took me roughly forty minutes. However, with tactical use of the save option, you can knock out a few different endings in one shot. This means your realistic play time is around two hours maximum. With this being a free game, though, I highly recommend playing it to 100% completion. As I said early, all of the endings deserve a read and getting to them is well worth the investment in time.
I really enjoyed playing Who Is Mike, as you can all probably tell by now. The issues I have with it I believe come from it literally being the first EVN made by Fervent Studios. It made a few promises it didn’t manage to keep and didn’t dig quite deep enough to maintain its excellent atmosphere during the second act. However, it managed to entertain well enough for the chilling third act that made me fall in love with it again and again…or whatever version of ‘love’ my shadow of a heart is capable of.
I believe once this group learns from their missteps here and strengthen their already sound ability in storytelling, along with a little more practice in Sprite Copy and Paste 101, that they will create works that will be truly remarkable. For what we get, Who Is Mike is a solid introduction and I hope to see many more bloody tales from Fervent Studios.
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