This is going to be different.
I’ll be the first to admit this is an incredible gamble. The EVN market, even in its short history, is littered with shovel-ware and cautionary tales of ambitious projects that never see the light of day. In all, nearly half of a million dollars have gone towards various EVN crowdfunding campaigns that have amounted to nothing. And that is to say nothing to the personal lives that have been forever altered after taking on projects they were not prepared for.
More so, I generally don’t post support without the full facts. I don’t say this that often, but I have been wrong about visual novels. Some have had incredible promise and, upon release, simply couldn’t live up to it. Most of my demo reviews are outright negative or cautionary, and even then I prefer to tell you guys to try it for yourself and decide rather than make a definitive declaration on an unknown. So, trust me when I tell you I do not write this post lightly. The odds are steep even with the talent they have behind them so far.
Even so, and with all of the caveats out of the way, let’s talk about Chromatose by Akabaka. This post will partially be a review of the demo, but also some observations from the last few weeks of recommending this to others and watching the reaction to the start of its Kickstarter campaign. However, let’s be clear: this isn’t an objective, unbiased post. My hope is that by the end, I’ve made a case within these paragraphs for anyone who is on the fence or who have never heard of Chromatose to throw their support behind this project and help it become reality as I plan to both on this platform and financially.
But, this is somewhat a review of the demo so let me at least do a nominal job at trying to cover the technical and presentation bits. So, let’s talk about why you (yes you) should support Chromatose.
The Chromatose demo covers roughly four hours of in-game content: the beginning of the game as well as the beginning of two levels. That gives the audience a chance to sample not only the story and presentation (the game’s selling points if you will) but also what’s under the hood: the game’s interface, programming, usability, etc. Currently, the developers are using an engine I had not heard of before: VNGen by XGASoft. From what I’ve read of its features (which you can read here), the engine prioritizes animation: allowing for developers to blend several different visual functions together to make a seamless presentation. That may seem redundant, but once you play the demo, you realize how complicated it is to pull off.
Let’s put it this way. The typical visual novels I review here, regardless of engine usually focuses on three different animations (for lack of better word): text movement, scene transition and sprite layer transitions. To put that into context, how you read the text, when the scene changes, and the expressions of the characters in the scene. There is a simplicity to this formula and nearly every visual novel artist functions based off this programming dynamic, with most of the efforts going into leading the players to the Event CGs and nailing how a character’s sprite looks in a particular moment…E.G. the First Kiss in a Romance Game. This dynamic is so important that even with all of the technical advances made by a company like PixelFade, it still fits within it as their animated character sprites still follow the same logic.
Now, with that in mind, let’s take a look at this scene in Chromatose and see what is easy for the average gamer to dismiss, but is a big step forward for visual novels as a medium (sorry I couldn’t get the clip out of the tweet):
Adding critic NPCs to the Precarious Penthouse standalone free-LC. A couple more + Sheer's scene and the scene will be up for download ^^#screenshotsaturday | #gamemaker | #visualnovel | #indiedev | #vndev pic.twitter.com/rSjkzg7yUI
— AkaBaka – CHROMATOSE 🔛 Kickstarter! (@ChromatoseDev) December 15, 2018
There is a lot going on in this scene, but the key to understanding it all is parallax. ‘Parallax’ is essentially the speed which objects appear to an individual based on their closeness to said object. In animation, it is difficult enough to try and mimic this sensation with objects on the ground, which is why many television animation studios don’t bother. Here, Akabaka succeeds in creating a sense of parallax thanks to the multiple layers in the background each moving at different speeds as the main character crosses the stage. The clouds move faster than the main character, but slower than the statue. These various speeds give the audience a sense of distance for each object, which gives us a sense of our current location: the palm of the statue’s hand.
This denotes certain character points and hints at a few things in the ‘Pink Arc’ BUT without even touching the character study, let’s just focus on this point: this is very, very good animation. The demo shows this off several times by balancing several different sets of animation functions for the backgrounds, transitions, sprite art and character sprites. This creates easily one of the few truly unique visual aesthetics and presentations on the English Visual Novel side: maybe Visual Novels, period. It still needs some polish, but if this is the start point, how it is should be incredible.
The one weakness is that it gets clear in the presentation when the engine slows down. It can only do so many things at once and, at least right now, it looks like the demo is pushing every function it can to get optimal performance. At first, I thought the loading screen where there for show or to mimic its inspiration (we’ll get to it). However, about midway through my playthrough it was clear that it desperately needed those screens as some loading points to a few minutes to complete. This was double-down on during Tryinmorning’s stream of the demo, where the game took a bit too long to load, then didn’t properly load in the battle screen. These are relatively normal issues that come with more complex programming, but it will be important to make sure those are ironed out to keep the game running smoothly as multiple animations are running.
Another issue is less noticeable but still import: the aspect ratio. The aspect ratio for visual novels are a tricky subject because, unlike a camera with a real-life subject, visual novels are not typically adaptive to different aspect ratios unless the images in that visual novel are drawn large enough to accommodate that shift. For context, most EVNs made before 2013 had an aspect ratio of 4:3. This is somewhere around 800×600 or less. The backgrounds and character images for that aspect ratio are only drawn so big to fully fit into the camera. So if you played an older visual novel on an updated version of, say, Ren’py, the newer tech will stretch the older aspect ratio to fit into the modern standard: 16:9. This always, ALWAYS, looks awful.
However, that meant drawing much larger pieces of art to accommodate the aspect ratio and still look good. To non-artist, this doesn’t sound like a big deal. To all of the artists reading this, their hands probably subconsciously cramped reading it. However, the larger artwork ‘future proofs’ the game to a degree, because the developers do not have to go back and update the art assets to fit engine updates that will make it look like crap.
All that being said, without the ability to adjust the size of the screen, I can’t say for sure what the game’s aspect ratio will ultimately be. This could affect the final performance of the game’s engine as well as how the team will market the game moving forward. But that is a business matter. For now, I’m just interested in the pixel sizes for the art, because that will ultimately determine how good the final product looks.
Now let’s talk a bit about the gameplay.
What interested me about this game from the very start was that it labeled itself an ‘Action RPG’. I have seen various takes on this formula from the Loren series of visual novel/RPG hybrids by Winter Wolves to my recent obsession Thronebreaker as well as Ash of Gods: Redemption. So I really wanted to see what their vision for this mode would be. Surprise Surprise, they decided to go with a card-based RPG system…and yes, that is what I’m calling it. Because that is what it is.
The system works like this. You have to put together a deck of cards based on the positive and negative attributes or the main cast of the game. For example, Primadonna (the best girl in the game thank you very much) has cards that emphasize both her courage and recklessness. The positive cards give you a good effect for your hand and larger damage to your enemies, while the negative cards give you negatives effects and less damage. You gain cards by interacting with the other characters. In order to win battles, you have to play as many positive cards as you can while avoiding the ones with negative ones before time runs out.
This is a simple system, but also brilliant in that it forces you to think quickly about what you’re doing. If you hesitate or use too many redraws to get a better hand, you’ll run out of time. And no matter what, you will get negative cards, so you have to be strategic in how you play them in order to avoid the negative effects from building up and costing you the fight. Going back to the Primadonna example, the negative cards, if played, can block all the card slots in your hand: making it impossible to play anything without redrawing your hand, giving the enemy time to block all of the card slots in your hand. I got stuck in this cycle of defeat for a bit in my playthrough of the demo and it is about as frustrating as it sounds.
The only way to get around this is to balance your deck properly so you can reasonably expect to have enough of the positive cards to use tactically with the negative cards. And this is where the RPG side of the game comes in.
As I said, the cards reflect certain aspects of the cast personalities. This would align it with your typical RPG developmental skill tree. Depending on other potential features within the game (we’ll get to that shortly), you may only have a limited amount of time to interact with certain characters to get their cards. So, we should all have a slightly different deck by the end of the game depending on our choices and how we played the game. The demo is limited in how this concept will fully flesh out, but a pretty good hint is how I played the demo verses how Michaela Laws played it.
I played the demo like Metroidvania: going back and forth between levels to make sure I have the most balanced deck and did everything I could with both Quentin and Primadonna to get extra cards. Michaela focused on each level at a time and only did the unwind scene for Quentin. Just by that metric, by the end of her playthrough, her deck looked and played very different from my own. The depth potential here is obvious and, depending on how the developers go with it, could lead to a fantastic system that brings out something unique with each run of the game.
It’s not a flawless system though and a lot of work is continuously going into it. One of the issues I had was the gameplay is that on its Original setting (currently the most difficult setting) it would punish you for not having the right card balance. I was stuck on Primadonna’s first boss until I got some help AND lowered the difficulty. This has been addressed recently by carrying over damage for enemies in a fight so long as your mental health count doesn’t hit zero. And since there is already two levels of difficulty in the game, I imagine that will be extended with at least one further difficulty: something like Insane difficulty that most modern FPS games have. That’s my personally hope anyway and there will be other refinements to the system, so I’m confident in saying it should be strong in the end product, even if it doesn’t get as deep as I or others might like it to.
This will depend on one final gameplay factor that needs to be discussed: time.
In battle, the monsters don’t attack you per se. Instead, the waste your time and run down the clock: causing the main character’s mental condition to degrade. This goes into certain worlds as well. Quentin’s level, for example, is sinking and the more time you spend with her, the deeper it sinks. At a certain point, you won’t be able to save her, so it becomes a time management issue. But that depends on how the developers plan to use the clock, or even if they plan to use a clock. This is probably the biggest question when it comes to Chromatose’s gameplay because it will set the tone for the entire game.
The premise going in is that you have a limited amount of time to get these people out of their worlds in order to save their lives. The question then becomes, ‘Well, can I save everyone?’ and to that question I cannot say yes or no right now. In Michaela Laws’ playthrough, there were some things she missed because she got on the elevator after a fight: moving the clock forward and, potentially, making that goal harder in a full game. There is plenty of evidence that says that you won’t be able to save everyone, which would give the narrative far more tension and make your decisions much harder and as meaningful as they’re marketed to be. But, that is not an easy trigger to pull: especially when the game is marketing itself through its cast.
There still a good chance it comes out rather toothless: looking for ways to save its entire cast. This would water down the core premise and remove a lot of narrative tension, in my opinion. However, if Chromatose does pull that particular trigger and really make this a desperate race against time, it could lead to one of the strongest stories told by an English Visual Novel….which reminds me I’m nearly 2,500 words in AND WE HAVEN’T TALKED ABOUT THE STORY. I guess I’ll see you guys in Part 2! JP3: OUT!
If you want more information about Chromatose, check out the Kickstarter page here!