It’s back to the visual novels. And it’s also back to the itch.io bundle, and specifically last year’s racial justice donation bundle, not to be confused with the recently ended Palestine relief one I talked up last post (which I will be getting to in turn, because there are a few interesting games in there as well. Also thanks to itch.io for that bundle again and to everyone for putting up over 900K for a great cause.)
But for now, here’s the 2016 kinetic novel Highway Blossoms, which I just got around to reading after a year of owning it. This is specifically the recently released remastered version, which adds in voice acting and probably a few other features I didn’t notice because I didn’t play the original. I’m not sure if the old version is even around for sale anymore, but it seems this is the definitive version anyway. (And some story spoilers, since this being a kinetic novel, there’s not much to talk about other than characters and story. But that might not be such an issue either way.)
Highway Blossoms tells the story of Amber (above, left), a young woman driving down a highway in the American Southwest in the RV she inherited from her recently deceased grandfather. As our protagonist drives along, she comes across a hitchhiker standing next to her car on the side of the highway, and against her better judgment she stops to help out. Said hitchhiker is Marina (right), another young woman looking for a lift from a stranger. Which is also against all good judgment and common sense, as Amber herself says — but we’ll soon learn that Marina is a bit lacking in the common sense department.
Amber decides to bring Marina along, afraid of what might happen to her if some seedy weirdo comes across her instead. And so their adventure brings, and also their romance, because Highway Blossoms is a yuri (i.e. lesbian) romance VN and this is our couple. That’s not really a spoiler, either: the game bills itself in exactly that way, and its promotional art makes it very obvious that these two will get together, so I don’t feel like dropping that fact here is a big deal when it says all this stuff on the cover basically.
There’s another major aspect to Highway Blossoms aside from the yuri romance, and that’s the travel guide one. This game takes place entirely in the American Southwest region, starting in New Mexico, running through Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, and ending in inland California. What starts as a simple lift turns into an extended trip through an entire quarter of the United States when Amber learns that Marina is out on her own searching for a legendary treasure of gold scattered and buried in parts by a 19th century prospector with clues left about their hiding places.
Amber is a naturally skeptical type, and the fact that this prospector’s journal is being sold at gas stations and corner stores all over the place and has sparked a new “gold rush” to find his treasure cements her opinion that it’s all a scam. However, Marina seems dead set on finding these stashes of gold, so Amber unaccountably (even to her, at least at first) agrees to help her.
This gold rush is the excuse for Amber and Marina’s tour through this part of the country, and we get to visit some big natural landmarks along with them, like Shiprock and Arches National Park, places where the prospector hints that his treasure was buried. And of course, a rivalry develops between Amber and Marina on one side and a team of treasure hunters they keep running into on the other, spurring them on to try to find the gold before the other group cleans them out.
Finally, between these points, we get a nice dose of what people call “Americana”1 — it’s a term I always found strange, since it only seems to refer to a narrow slice of what life in America is like, but here we’re talking about country/western folk sort of music, 24-hour roadside diners serving heart attack food, and weird man-made tourist attractions like the tallest thermometer in the world. All the stuff you find on Route 66, even though that famous US highway isn’t mentioned at all in Highway Blossoms unless I missed something. But since Amber and Marina are bouncing between different states constantly, it makes sense that they’d have to go off the beaten path a bit more.
Before going into what I liked and didn’t like about Highway Blossoms, I want to acknowledge something that I very probably got wrong last year when I wrote about visual novels here in the West — they seem to be more popular here than I gave them credit for. I was thinking more about mainstream popularity then, which I feel VNs still don’t really have here, but my perspective was too narrow to see other niches this medium has gotten into, especially with all the otome games out there.
Original English-language visual novels (OELVNs as they’re commonly called) still look like a niche thing to me, but I might still be out of touch in that area — Highway Blossoms is only the third one I’ve played in my life after Doki Doki Literature Club two years ago and Katawa Shoujo (or part of it anyway)2 last year. But it also feels like a first for me in the sense that it’s an entirely American VN with regard to its setting and characters. I also get the impression that the writers at the indie developer Studio Élan are American, or at least that they’ve been around the Southwest and are very familiar with the cultures down there.
There’s still a lot of very obvious influence from Japanese VNs in certain aspects like the character design (which I’m naturally not complaining about — I am still a damn weeb after all, and Amber and Marina and a few of the game’s other characters look pretty fine) but this is otherwise very much an American work, and as an American who’s somewhat into the visual novel medium, that’s nice to see.
In general, Highway Blossoms feels pretty polished, with full voice-acting, original music that mostly fits that Southwest country/western folkish feel, and some pretty nice CGs. Including a few in its 18+ scenes near the end of the story — the base game is all-ages, but there’s an 18+ patch you can download and apply from the Steam page, even if you got Highway Blossoms through itch.io like I did. It only adds maybe ten minutes to this ~5-6 hour game, but to the publisher’s credit, the patch is free.
The only real complaint I have with the game’s presentation is that the otherwise nice-looking character portraits looked a bit crusty in their outlines when set against the backgrounds, but then maybe it was an issue on my end somehow. I don’t know enough about the technical aspects of putting a VN together to say. It’s not a big annoyance for me either way, but just something I noticed.
Now for the writing, which is certainly the most important aspect of this game considering that there’s no gameplay here to speak of. And this is where I have a few more substantive criticisms to make, one of which has to do with the central relationship between Amber and Marina.
If you’ve read or played or watched any similar romances, it’s not much of a surprise: Amber is the serious one, somewhat bitter for her age and carrying around an emotional burden she’s trying to deal with (the recent death of her grandfather, the one who raised her in place of her deadbeat parents and the only person in her life she really cared for) and Marina is the free spirit she comes across by chance, the one who shows her a new way to think about life and who helps her resolve that emotional burden. The road is a bit bumpy; there are a few arguments and one big fight near the end between them, but the two are finally able to come together and realize and express their love for each other. There’s a happy ending as the pair set aside uncertainties over their futures for the moment and embrace their love.
I’m not saying the above is even that unrealistic, but it does feel like a tired sort of story. Maybe I’m just a bitter fuck, but believe it or not, I actually can appreciate a good romance if it gives me something new and fresh to enjoy, and this doesn’t really. For all her impulsiveness and spontaneity, Marina might even be put in that dreaded “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” category that film critics created in the mid-2000s to describe such free spirits. See the 2004 film Garden State for a good example of that character type: the free spirit in this case being Natalie Portman, who pulls depressed guy and writer/director Zach Braff out of a slump with similar results.3
To be fair, though, I think Highway Blossoms avoids falling into that old trope too much, because Marina does have a backstory and a personality beyond “cute girl who loves life and doesn’t let things bother her etc.” She’s not nearly as out to lunch as a few of the other characters I’ve seen stuck into that category either — Marina’s actions seem to make sense to her, at least, without just coming from a place of pure whimsy or whatever the hell nonsense those other movies were trying to pull. The “Marina’s thoughts” feature helps a bit there — throughout the game, we hear Amber’s thoughts, but certain objects the pair collect are catalogued in a separate menu with Marina’s thoughts on them in the attached notes. It’s clear that though she does lack some common sense, Marina doesn’t deserve to be called a simple airhead. Even if she does a couple of profoundly stupid things in the course of the story that Amber ends up having to fix.
The bigger problem is that as a kinetic novel without any player choice or interaction, the story is all Highway Blossoms has beyond its nice art and music, and there’s not much there for me to enjoy. The romance is nice enough, but nothing more, and all the treasure hunt and travel stuff feels like a reason for the romance to take place more than anything. Again, maybe I really am just an embittered type too far beyond that point of life to appreciate the game’s messages. Maybe this game simply wasn’t meant for me — the main characters in it are 19 and 18, both with their whole lives ahead of them, and while I was once like that, I’m now a professional chained to my desk with no real personal goals beyond “get a few hours of total escapism a day to put up with this shit”, all of which is entirely my fault.
So I’ll go for a complete, shameless cop-out and give the typical lawyer’s answer to the question of whether Highway Blossoms is a good visual novel: “it depends.”4 I feel now like I did when I was looking at Blend S, in fact, only instead of the feeling being “this is for me but might not be for you”, it’s “this isn’t for me but might be for you.” If all of the above really appeals to you, or if you’re the type who melts at romance, you might want to check the game out. I liked Highway Blossoms a hell of a lot better than I did Garden State, at least, if that gives you any point of reference. If it doesn’t, I’ll just say that while I didn’t exactly dislike this game, it did fall flat a bit for me.
Maybe Highway Blossoms does have some value as a Southwest travel guide, though. I’ve never been to that part of the country before, so I can’t say how well it captures the region and its natural beauty, cultures, and all that. But if it does so sufficiently, some of the states it features might consider officially adopting it as a tool to drive tourism — Japanese VNs do this sort of thing often enough, with Our World Is Ended for example set in Asakusa and even talking up particular restaurants.
Something to think about, at least. Though I don’t know how Utah would feel about using a lesbian-themed visual novel to promote itself. Maybe about as good as they would using a lesbian-themed visual novel to teach their schoolchildren Esperanto. There really are a lot of great potential uses to VNs, aren’t there? 𒀭
1 Of course, there’s also apple pie and baseball, as seen in this photo I found under “Americana” taken by someone at the USDA Agricultural Research Department. Those are somewhat more widespread in the US, but I’d say still partly outdated as a representation of what America is considering how far baseball has fallen against other sports like basketball, football, and NASCAR (and even soccer, which has been steadily rising in popularity here recently.)
Apple pie is still good, though. I’m more of a cake guy myself but I can appreciate it.
2 I have a load of very old notes on Katawa Shoujo and I still might write something about it here. The trouble is I don’t know if I should write about it if I’ve only gotten through two of its five routes, but then again it is a proper 30+ hour visual novel with branching decision paths and bad ends and all that. Maybe I’ll just finish the damn thing finally, since I’ve thoroughly liked what I’ve played of it so far (there’s your preliminary review of it at least.) In any case, there are more visual novel reviews to come as I plow through what I still have in my massive backlog.
3 I don’t remember their characters’ names, but these two were quite big back at the time: Braff was one of the main guys in the TV comedy Scrubs, and Portman was in quite a few other movies throughout the 90s/2000s, including the first run of bad Star Wars films. The only movies I saw Portman in that I actually liked were Heat and The Professional, the latter of which admittedly had some very weird vibes that may have been explained recently by what’s come out about director Luc Besson. I don’t know how well it holds up, but Jean Reno and Gary Oldman are both always good. But then there are those weird vibes again, so I don’t know. Maybe it’s worth a re-watch?
4 I don’t mean to say here that it always depends — I absolutely don’t subscribe to the view that the quality of all art is a subjective matter. I just feel this is one of those cases where the problem might be partly with where I am more than with the work itself.