In Part 1, I spent a lot of time focused on the technical aspects of Akabaka’s Chromatose demo. We covered all of the technical innovations, the engine potential and the different parts of its game mechanics that promises to bring a unique twist to the Action RPG subgenre. That, in my opinion, is worth the attention I and other critics have been giving it by itself. But the praiseworthy parts of the Chromatose demo are today’s subject: the story, inspiration and characters. If you did not read Part 1 of this demo feature, go ahead and read it now. For everyone else, let’s dive back in.
To understand the plot of Chromatose, it’s best to understand its narrative inspirations. A lot has been made of its stylistic inspiration from Japanese developer Atlus. From the menus, to the soundtrack, to the artistic style of the character sprites, it’s obvious to see the love and appreciation for Atlus’ catalog here. But while you can certainly gleam a few major thematic threads from the particular games Akabaka noted as inspiration (Catherine and Persona 3), Chromatose feels more directly inspired in its narrative by two pieces of media in particular: Far Cry 4 and the Monogatari series. Which, for this critic at least, provides an interesting idea of the arc for our protagonist Leroy.
Far Cry 4 and the Monogatari series have a lot of different things to offer depending on your tastes. However, one of the most interesting critical points both titles provide is a look at the protagonist’s journey. Most writers are familiar with the concept of the Hero’s Journey archetype which sets the stage for most narratives both ancient and modern. The archetype is still used today to answer some fundamentals every story starts with, ‘Why is what is happening, happening?’ ‘Why are we following this particular character during this particular stage of their lives?’ This succeeds and fails in equal degrees based on complexities of what the narrative wants to do and in gaming it more or less succeeds because most players don’t need a very detailed explanation in the more seminal series of the medium (Mario, Metroid, Sonic, Zelda, you get the idea).
What makes Monogatari and Far Cry 4 unique is how they view and subvert the hero’s journey archetype: especially Far Cry 4. In the Monogatari series, the drama and action comes from the various protagonists of the story arc trying to avoid the true issue that start their journey. However, it’s framed as a positive most times. Senjougahara could have resolved her personal issues without Araragi. So, her journey isn’t for a solution, but rather to meet someone she could trust after the events leading to her family’s ruin. Most of the journeys here are like that; suggesting that the ‘hero’s journey’ is less about solving a problem and more about learning to open yourself up to other people and be honest with yourself, even while you’re trying to resolving personal issues.
On the other side of that track is Far Cry 4: arguably the best in the series. While the Monogatari series argues that the protagonist’s archetypal journey is a good thing, but for a different reason than the archetype originally gives, Far Cry 4 argues that it can be a bad thing and that you can become a worse person if you try to follow the path naively. That’s was a consistent theme from Far Cry 2 to 4: however, 4 perfected the theme with Ajay Ghale. The audience is given no reason at all to believe in or side with The Golden Path. In fact, they’re told outright from the start that the group are insurgents at best, terrorists at worst. All we have is the potential instability of Kyrati dictator Pagan Min and his questionable understanding on how to use chopsticks. From there, we are given a subconscious choice: stick your nose where it doesn’t belong or complete the task you originally came out to complete. One choice is the prototypical hero’s journey, the other a calm, if not boring conclusion a son mourning his mother.
Of course most people would pick the hero’s journey. After all, isn’t that the point of the game? To discover Ghale’s unknown history and topple a sadistic king? Nope.
Everything Ajay Ghale did in the main game storyline made the situation in Kyrat worse. It is until the end, when Pagan Min subverts the trope of being the game’s final boss and instead repeats the choice from the beginning of the game, does the audience finally realize they weren’t supposed to get involved here. They’re not the hero of this story: hence completely subverting the typical protagonist’s archetype and fully expressing the game’s true theme: that the world isn’t waiting for you to be a hero and the best solution to most situations is just to mind your own business.
This brings us to Leroy.
Let’s set the stage. Leroy wakes up in a hospital, only to find out that he is comatose from a head injury. Izzy, a girl that claims to know him, tells him that since he is in the situation by accident, rather than by a conscious choice, that he can interact with other people trapped in this purgatory. Also, if he just wanted to leave and wake up, he could do so at any time. Intrigued by the nightmarish world, Leroy decides to explore it and discovers other people stuck in worlds spawned by their lives before; trapped in them until they undo the ‘mistake’ that led to their coma.
The paradoxical nature of the narrative, as presented anyway, allows us to examine Leroy’s character based off the world he’s inhabiting. After all, just because he can interact with others in their own worlds doesn’t mean that the purgatory they’re all in is a hospital. Clearly he is being tested as well and that test falls along the same lines as the themes from Monogatari and Far Cry 4: that of the hero’s journey archetype. Leroy is being presented with an unspoken opportunity to play a hero. The hints we get of his backstory further that idea: showing that while he was fired from being an EMT, he still considers himself one on a subconscious level. Even with little memory and no practical knowledge of the world he’s in, the minute it looks like someone is in trouble he goes rushing in without thinking.
It fits into the bits of backstory that are sprinkled in: specifically in how Leroy nearly died. However, the more you play the demo, the more you realize that it may not be up to Leroy whether or not he CAN save anyone in that world. This begs the question of his fatal flaw: regardless of what Izzy told him about his situation. For argument’s sake, IF I was building a world where someone could reverse the situation of their death and they died from trying to be a reckless hero, I would keep putting them in situations until they stopped. And that, at least for this critic, is where Chromatose truly gets interesting because while it critiques Leroy’s character flaws and the protagonist archetype he seems destined to follow, it also won’t give you a chance NOT to follow.
For this we have to talk about the most doubted girl in the entire game (so far): Izzy. Due to lack of evidence, we have to take her word that she knew Leroy before entering this world. We don’t exactly now how SHE got here, but her understanding about the world, as well as its inhabitants, tells us that she knows far more than she’s letting on. Interestingly enough, there is a choice halfway through the demo where you can wait with Izzy for the purported ambulance that will allow Leroy to wake up. Listening to her, unsurprisingly, leads directly to a bad end. But that bad end is just staying with Izzy: possibly forever. It certainly explains her motives somewhat, but it leaves open her true identity.
One thing that Izzy makes clear, from the offset, is that Leroy cannot save everyone. Everyone in the world is identified by a mark somewhere on their body. She makes it clear that White Marks cannot be trusted (although not showing us HER mark for some reason).By laying out that rule, it makes it clear that much of the storyline will be focused on Leroy’s futile efforts. That doesn’t mean that everyone in this is about to die and we are party to their last moments, but it does mean their lives are out of hands. This is made especially clear with the first two secondary characters we interact with: Quinton and Primadonna.
While physically and emotionally different, the careful reader will realize that both Quinton and Primadonna got into their situations the exact same way. Primadonna, a professional fighter, got into a coma because she refused to stop fighting despite severe health risks and going blind in one eye. Interestingly, she’s not a violence junkie. She’s not fighting just because she likes hitting things. In fact, as we learn in the demo, she hates it. She just thinks that’s the only option in her life and goes full boar until it nearly kills her. Quinton is the same way: having drowned and gone into a coma after being pressured into an after-school diving club. Despite knowing every detail of her level, including that she can breathe underwater, where to get food, and the general layout of the building, Quinton hasn’t tried to escape yet and is waiting for someone to come and get her out of there.
All of the characters shown so far have similar running threads: there is a personal, psychological reason that is keeping them in the Hell they’re in. The only exception to this rule are the aforementioned ‘White Marks’: Isaac and Lilith Lecroix. According to them both, they were fated to be in this world so they cannot leave which led to Izzy’s warnings about them trying to manipulate others into staying trapped with them. Interestingly enough, neither tries to manipulate Leroy: at least not in the context of the demo. Lilith (who just doesn’t like you at all) is honest to the point of being beyond blunt, and Isaac, while getting some sadistic fun from taunting Leroy, doesn’t seem to be interested in lying to him either.
This creates an interesting overall arch for the story. We start with the themes of the protagonist’s journey and the archetypes surrounding it at the start of the demo, but by the end it’s about the journey for truth. SOMEONE is trying to use Leroy for unknown, potentially sinister ends. Finding out who’s telling the truth should be Leroy’s narrative drive now. This conveniently allows him to continue playing the hero as finding the others in the world should get him the answers he’s looking for. It’s a fantastic bit of progression that shows this is a evolving narrative that isn’t interested in sticking to one basic theme and I appreciate it as a reader as it gives me more to look forward to in the main game.
If I had a critical issue with the narrative as presented in the demo, it’s that it is non-diegetic. Diegesis in visual storytelling, for the uninitiated, is the idea that everything that the audience can see in the world of the story exists in that world. So, say, if a song is playing over a scene, it’s not just the soundtrack of that particular scene but it also must be playing somewhere in the scene for the characters to hear it. Non-Diagetic means the exact opposite: things exist in a visual context that the audience can see but the characters can’t. In Chromatose, one of the biggest storytelling tools is non-diagetic: the clipboards.
Before entering a new world, the audience can interact with a clipboard outside of the world that describes the medical condition of the character inside. You will then shortly after be treated to a conversation where Leroy clearly didn’t read the clipboard and has no idea what he’s walking into. This creates a disconnect between the audiences and Leroy and it something that can be jarring: especially near the end of the demo where Isaac Lecroix goads Leroy to the point where Leroy grabs him and realizes he’s a quadriplegic…only if you read the clipboard outside, he should’ve already knew that. It’s something that should be reconsidered, unless there is a strong narrative reason why that bit of non-diagetic storytelling is there.
Guys, if you can believe it, there is still a lot more I want to say. I’ve thought about doing a deep dive into the Presentation beyond just the technical aspects and animation, but it really does speak for itself. It’s a beautifully designed game with a fantastic sense of style, distinct and visually-appealing characters, VERY CREEPY MONSTERS and a general richness that helps it stand out in a field that can sometimes be aesthetically similar. It is very rare that I walk away from a game’s demo excited for the full product, but this I wish was coming out tomorrow instead of potentially 2021.
Yeah, 2021. That’s the time frame for development laid out by Akabaka in the game’s crowd-funding campaign. It’s a reasonable goal that allows them plenty of time to get it right, but my God is it going to be a long wait. Until then, I think we can all be excited for the future of visual novels with Chromatose to look forward to. It has earned my support and I hope it has earned yours as well. As of writing this, there are two more days to support it on Kickstarter. Check out the campaign here, play the demo for yourselves, then do what you can. JP3: OUT.