A review of Ame no Marginal (PC)

It’s another visual novel review, this time of Ame no Marginal (also titled Rain Marginalame means “rain” anyway, so it’s basically the same title, but since it officially goes by its halfway-translated version I’ll keep using that one even if it’s awkward.) This work came out in 2015 and was developed by Stage-nana, the same people responsible for the famously melancholic VN Narcissu. Like Narcissu, Ame no Marginal seems to be pretty well regarded, but my feelings about it are complicated.

First, I may as well get this part out of the way: this review is going to spoil the whole plot along with the ending. Ame no Marginal is another kinetic novel like Planetarian, so aside from the art and music, there’s nothing to talk about other than the story. But unlike with Planetarian, I can’t give it an unqualified recommendation. Then again, I also can’t not recommend Ame no Marginal, because there are things I liked about it, and it’s entirely possible that the aspects of it that bothered me won’t bother you. It’s also possible that I missed some important plot points somehow that would have cleared up the issues I had with the work if only I’d seen them.

But I doubt that too. I wish I could find a way to express those doubts without giving away too much, but all I can say without doing so is that although the game’s premise and characters were interesting, its ending was abrupt and unsatisfying and didn’t make a lot of sense. To explain why I feel that way, I naturally have to get into the story, so let’s do that now.

Ame no Marginal begins in a rainy world consisting only of a flat landscape of paved ground and a large body of water nearby. It also has exactly one resident: a young girl, who we see peering through a magical portal watching a man in the game’s initial scene. This world seems to be separated from ours, and it also seems that the girl looking through the portal can’t reach our world, as she wonders out loud about whether the man remembers her at all.

The story then switches perspective back to our world, to the nameless male protagonist and other main character of the game. We can guess that this is likely the guy the girl was watching in the opening scene. It’s Monday and he’s on his way to a job he hates, living a life he finds pointless. This is confirmed when instead of going directly to his office, he takes the elevator in his building to the seventh floor, the top one, walks out to the roof, climbs over the fence around it and hangs over the edge.

Our protagonist isn’t intent on suicide: he doesn’t jump from the roof, but climbs back over the fence and returns inside. As he puts it, while he doesn’t want to die, he also doesn’t want to continue living. This climbing over the fence is merely a reminder that he can end it at any time, which he claims brings him some comfort and lets him make it through the rest of the week.

The next day, the protagonist returns to work and gets on the elevator again. This time, however, he notices a button for the eighth floor that wasn’t there before. But didn’t this building only have seven floors yesterday? Protag can’t resist pressing that 8 to see what’s going on. When the elevator doors open, he steps out into the rainy world we saw in the game’s first scene.

Protag is naturally shocked to see this seemingly endless landscape of paved floor below and a gray, rainy sky above, all on top of the building he works in. But as he’s exploring, he runs into a young girl, who welcomes him to her world.

This seems to be the same girl we saw in that first scene, but something’s off. Her personality is a bit immature as you’d expect from a kid her age; even though she’s all on her own in this world, we learn she’s only ten. In the intro, though, the same girl seemed to be quite serious, and even her voice was more mature-sounding. In any case, protag hasn’t seen what we have, and while he’s surprised to see another person and even more surprised to see a mere kid living here alone, he accepts it and starts asking her about this mysterious world.

The girl, who calls herself Rin (another female VN main character named Rin; there are really a lot of them) claims that this is a world where time stands still. The rain never stops, so she takes shelter under a pavilion that seems to be the only structure in this place. There’s also a body of water nearby, a sort of river that flows up and downstream, but the river also apparently has no opposite bank, or at least not one that Rin could find. Rin explains that she sometimes find items from the “real world” floating downstream, so she does her best to salvage useful things, even clothes to wear. No worries about running out of food, though — because time stands still for her, she says she’s never suffered hunger or even thirst in this place.

Protag is naturally very confused by what the hell he’s walked into. One thought comes naturally to him: he’s died without realizing it and this is the afterlife. Rin doesn’t think that’s the case, however. She even tells him that two people normally can’t exist in this world and that he’ll be “sent back” after three days, something that’s happened to visitors other than him — even if he were to refuse to leave, it would happen automatically. She also tells him he can leave by entering the elevator again, but she seems happy when he says he’ll stay for a while, presumably excited to have company after being alone in this world for so long.

After this initial meeting, Rin and protag to go sleep under the pavilion and the scene ends, sending the player back to the scene selection screen where a new entry titled “Rin” has been unlocked. This one takes us far back into the past, seemingly into Rin’s past in the real world, where she and her older sister were Shinto priestesses in a secluded shrine in the mountains. The sisters have no other family and were adopted by this shrine to carry a burden — to shoulder a “debt” to the gods as they put it. The older sister is forced to live an austere life, eating only once a day, bathing in cold water every morning, and following a vow of silence, one so strict that her younger sister has never heard her voice.

Rin is naturally upset by watching her sister endure this lifestyle, even though she willingly carries it out in order to perform what she sees as her duties to the shrine and its gods. When her sister’s health starts to decline as a result, Rin becomes angry with the shrine and even with its gods. And she falls into despair when the head priest of the shrine tells her that her sister will soon die and that she’ll have to carry the same burden of constant silence and self-deprivation afterwards, one that must last without stopping for 333 years, three months, and three days, always with a substitute available to take over when the priestess carrying the burden dies.

Her older sister’s life ends not from illness, but rather from a more violent kind of sacrifice. The head priest says that they can’t risk her breaking her vow of silence while she slowly dies, so he and his guards kill her while her younger sister’s mouth is gagged to ensure the proper transfer of the burden. It’s here we learn that the older sister’s name is Rin — the younger one who we meet in the rainy world is never properly named, but has adopted her sister’s name perhaps to carry on her memory.

This new Rin decides that she now doesn’t believe in these supposed gods who let her sister die without helping her. Even so, Rin also resolves to live her sister’s old life and continue paying the debt if only to not let her sacrifice go to waste. However, one night a guard rushes into her room and tells her to flee because the shrine is being attacked and all its priests and staff slaughtered by armed men. Rin runs away into the mountains, still maintaining her silence despite the fact that the shrine is being destroyed along with the head priest she hated. A mere girl like her doesn’t last very long in the cold mountains, and after going without food for three days, she lies down and decides it would be better to die, not wanting to risk a return into town or to what might have been left of the shrine.

After this backstory section ends, we’re thrown back to the scene selection screen, where two new scenes have been unlocked. The middle part of Ame no Marginal proceeds down two story paths, each part of which has to be completed before continuing to read so that the player alternates between them. One path returns the perspective to our modern-day protagonist as he tries to figure out exactly where he is and why both he and Rin are there. When night falls in this world, a completely different side of Rin, or perhaps a different entity altogether, appears. In contrast with her childish daytime self, this Rin seems distant, bitter, and a lot more mature than you’d expect from her apparent age. Despite her cold attitude towards the protag in these nighttime sections, she does answer his questions about the rainy world more clearly than she does during the day, though there still seems to be a lot she doesn’t understand about it.

Also in contrast to her daytime self, this Rin demands that the protag hurry back to the elevator and leave. He refuses to do so, at least for now, reasoning that he’ll be automatically sent back in three days anyway. And in any case, he decides that he might prefer the boredom of the rainy world to his own life in the real one, even if he can’t stay for good. This version of Rin keeps trying to convince him to leave when they talk again the next time, but she also seems to accept that he’s not going to leave of his own free will that easily.

The other story track follows the same girl after what she first supposes is her death in the mountains. As the reader might have guessed, instead of dying, she wakes up in the rainy world and meets its sole inhabitant: a woman who simply calls herself “Lady.” Lady welcomes this girl into her world and gives her essentially the same tutorial that our modern-day protagonist got from Rin: this world only allows for one resident and will kick visitors out after three days. However, Lady is quite mysterious. Despite claiming she doesn’t know why this world exists or who created it, she has the ability to control the flow of water around her.

The girl, who I’ll just keep calling Rin, is amazed by all of this, but there’s a more pressing matter: upon entering this world, she broke her vow of silence by yelling curses at the gods for what they did to her sister. She relates her whole story to Lady, who seems sympathetic but tells her it’s still probably for the best if she leaves this world through a hole in the ground that acted as her portal in. Rin, like nameless protag, is hesitant to go back right away and reasons she’ll be sent back automatically in three days, and she’ll almost certainly die when she gets back in any case. By the end of her stay, however, Lady admits that she’s lied: the one who’s sent back after three days is the one who’s been here longest, and Lady also admits that she’s used force in the past to remove previous visitors so she could remain in solitude for her own reasons.

Lady is seemingly done with her stay, though, because on the appointed third day, she takes Rin to the hole in the ground only to jump in herself, but not before telling Rin that she can still complete the 333-year vow of silence burden in this world if she feels like it, and that it probably will be meaningful somehow. After this talk and a promise that she’ll return one day, Lady drops through the hole and leaves Rin alone in the rainy world.

We then follow Rin as she searches for and finds both exit and entrance portals to the real world in the endless river near the pavilion, and as she discovers to her despair that she can’t use them to leave. By this point, Rin has lived in this world without any visitors or company for several hundred years. Along the way, she’s also managed to complete that 333-year vow of silence, but seemingly without any result. Rin reasons that because she still resents the gods for what they’ve done to her sister, they will continue to keep her in solitude. As a bit of a bonus, Rin does end up developing the same water manipulation powers as Lady, but there’s not much point to having them if there’s nothing to actually do with them, so they don’t bring Rin any happiness.

The two stories now rejoin, with nighttime version Rin finally telling protagonist that he needs to get the hell back to the elevator on the third night or else he’ll be trapped in this world. He reluctantly gets on and returns to his old life, seemingly forgetting about the rainy world and Rin and looping us back into the prologue. However, who happens to show up at this point but Lady! She tells Rin that she’s the one who purposely selected and sent protagonist to the rainy world for Rin to meet, and also that she should jump into the elevator and chase after him for some reason. Turns out the real world is a bit boring to Lady, who wants several hundred more years of solitude to practice her water magic skills. So Rin finally leaves, and we get to the game’s epilogue.

Wait, what?

And somehow, Rin’s now a student riding the same train as protagonist. They end up accidentally running into each other and meeting again, with a strong hint that Rin remembers who protag is and even that protag has some memory of Rin. Then they walk off on the same street to school and work together and the game ends.

So I just recounted the entire plot of this VN, something I didn’t intend on doing when I set out to write this post. However, it’s hard to talk about Ame no Marginal otherwise because the whole thing’s so weird, and not entirely in a good way.

But let’s start with the good stuff. I liked the premise of an isolated place like the rainy world that may or may not be meant as a sort of divinely mandated time-out. This worked as a hook to get me interested in the game. The story of Rin and her sister is also very tragic, but not so tragic that it’s unbelievable: some people have greatly suffered in the name of maintaining tradition in the real world, and the priests of the temple are depicted as committing these cruelties because they genuinely believe they must, not simply because they’re evil (though you could certainly argue that pushing this debt owed to the gods onto young orphaned girls who have no choice in the matter is a real asshole thing to do.)

The head priest acts like enough of a shithead in this scene alone that I don’t feel bad for him getting killed later on.

I also felt a strong connection with the male lead at the very beginning of the game, even if he’s one of those typically faceless VN protagonists. His section of the prologue, especially when he says to himself that he doesn’t want to die, but also doesn’t want to live — this is an expression of depression that made a lot of sense to me. Even if those two feelings sound contradictory, they really aren’t. And the game does try to tie the protagonist’s disappointment with his life into the plot when he talks to nighttime Rin about the possibility of staying in the rainy world and leaving the real one behind for good. No amount of insisting “but life is a gift” or “you have so much to live for, you should treasure every moment” helps in a state like that, and that’s something Ame no Marginal seems to get.

Even when the protagonist comes to believe that the real world is worth living in because it’s dynamic, unlike the static life of the rainy world, that’s not necessarily a resolution of the feelings expressed at the beginning of the VN. I see it as more of a coping mechanism for getting through life, and that’s a lot more realistic than having the story simply resolve his depressive feelings if that’s what they’re meant to be. So while Ame no Marginal doesn’t fully address the protag’s situation, I feel it does at least acknowledge it.

Going to work with a sense of dread and bitterness, that’s something I can relate to. Not anymore thankfully but good God is it miserable.

This makes it all the more disappointing that so many questions are left hanging. One of the more obvious ones is the nature of the rainy world itself. Neither the protagonist nor Rin learn why it exists, whether it was created by some gods to punish human souls or it simply exists for no reason at all. Even Lady, the self-professed queen of the rainy world, seems to have no idea about its origins. This is one question that I don’t think the story needed to answer, and I even prefer this ambiguity.

However, there are other mysteries that should have been better addressed, like the nature of the difference between the cheerful, childlike daytime Rin and the mature, serious nighttime Rin. She’s clearly putting on some kind of act for the protagonist during the day, but to what end? Maybe it’s to disarm him and make him feel comfortable, but then why bring out “nighttime Rin” at all? This double personality issue is never explained in the VN, and it’s one that really should have been because it has a direct bearing on the characters and plot. It’s also quite hard to believe that several hundred years of isolation didn’t drive Rin completely insane. She’s clearly angry, bored, and distressed for a long time even before protag arrives, but she’s still somehow in full control of her mind even after centuries of walking through a seemingly endless body of water. Sure, she doesn’t have to eat or drink and never ages, but the mental and emotional toll of such a life would have to be extreme.

Maybe all the isolation is supposed to be where Rin’s dual personality comes from? But it still doesn’t really explain that.

There’s also the matter of the ending. It’s as if writer Tomo Kataoka couldn’t think of a good way to get these characters out of the jam they were stuck in, Rin still in the rainy world and protagonist sent back to the life he hates living, so a happy ending is pulled out of nowhere. Lady somehow finds a way back into the rainy world, presumably by taking the same elevator protagonist did (in fact, she shows up very briefly in the elevator near the start of the story, leaving it when protag is getting on, so at least that much is set up.) It’s very convenient that she doesn’t mind going back into isolation for a while, and it’s even more convenient that Rin was somehow able to get set up as a student when protagonist meets her at the end, presumably with a family and friends and everything. How the hell is that supposed to work? Or maybe she’s living under a bridge and pretending to go to school.

There’s a sort of answer to this in the developer notes: Kataoka says that Ame no Marginal is actually a prequel to the light novel series Mizu no Marginal (or Water Marginal, which sounds a lot like Water Margin but probably has nothing to do with it.) Since the VN is a prequel, presumably Rin and maybe the protagonist are characters in it, so there had to be an ending that connected the two. So maybe this bizarre ending is explained in Mizu no Marginal, but I don’t care. I shouldn’t be required to read a sequel to understand what happened at the end of the preceding work: the work should stand on its own in that sense. Kataoka’s notes imply that the ending was thrown together out of necessity, so maybe there’s no other explanation to be had anyway.

And what are Rin and protagonist even going to do now, hang out? She’s a water-bending former Shinto priestess who’s either ten or several hundred years old depending on whether you count her time in the rainy world, and he’s an office worker in his 20s or something. What the hell are they going to talk about? It’s all a bit weird. Maybe the light novels answer this question?

I still wonder exactly what idea Ame no Marginal was trying to express. It seems like it was trying to express something, but the message is obscure if it’s there. Is it a message not to give up on life if you’re in despair? That’s nice and positive, but I don’t think the story bears it out that well, not if the solution it proposes is being transported to an otherworldly plane of isolated existence and meeting a new friend who teaches you the value of life in the real world. And especially not when it pulls a happy ending out of its ass. It’s certainly not an issue with the novel’s length, either: when I compare it to the other short VNs I’ve read like Planetarian and Saya no Uta that have coherent, satisfying endings, the lack of such an ending in Ame no Marginal feels all the weirder.

Even so, like I said before, I can’t quite not recommend Ame no Marginal. The art is nice, and the soundtrack suits the atmosphere of the game very well. There’s a lot to like in the premise. The story is even pretty emotionally affecting in a few places. While its nonsense ending is definitely a problem, there is a lot of craft in this VN, and it seems like it was created simply to tell a story that the writer wanted to tell rather than one calculated to sell as many units as possible.

A gray, depressing game about characters who are giving up on life doesn’t sound calculated to be a big seller to me, at least.

In any case, I think whether you’d find the game worth your time probably has to do with how much or little this kind of ending affects your experience — if you’re the type who enjoys the journey more than the destination, maybe — and with how well you connect with these characters. I don’t regret playing Ame no Marginal despite my issues with it, but your time with it may be very different if you choose to play it.

Then again, I just spoiled the entire plot for you if you haven’t played it yet. So who did I write this review for? I have no idea. Maybe I wrote it for myself. Maybe I need a few hundred years in the rainy world to sort myself out. 𒀭

A review of The Expression: Amrilato (PC)

I wasn’t kidding when I wrote a while back that I had a bunch of visual novels to get through. When I wrote that post about visual novels still being a bit of a niche thing in the West, though, I wasn’t thinking of The Expression: Amrilato. No, this game beats all the rest in terms of its niche-ness: it’s a yuri romance visual novel that teaches you Esperanto.

What? Yes, this is a real thing. I first heard about Amrilato when Valve briefly refused to stock it on Steam for depicting a romance between two students, the main characters Rin and Ruka (if you didn’t know this was a yuri VN at first, the cover says everything.) They soon thought better of it and put it back up in their store. It’s an all-ages VN anyway, so I’m not sure what the fuss was to begin with — by the same logic, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet would be banned from the platform, which seems stupid enough.

In any case, this minor incident got Amrilato more press than it would have received otherwise, because it’s how I learned about the game. And after that I filed it in the back of my mind to play, and now I’ve played it. And now I’ll write what I think of it in a very long-winded way, because I have a lot to say about it.

First, an introduction: this is our protagonist, Rin. Rin is a hardworking, cheerful Japanese high school student who’s also pretty thick and often says and does things without thinking. One day, Rin buys a taiyaki (something I’ve never had myself, but I’ve heard a lot about, sounds like a kind of sweet pastry?) and eats it while on the street. Then she blacks out and wakes up on more or less the same street, only now the sky is pink and everyone’s speaking in a language she can’t understand.

Rin is understandably freaked out by this and suspects her taiyaki was drugged, and she goes to cry in a corner, where she’s approached by a girl in an impossibly frilly outfit who tries to talk to her in that mysterious language. Rin is still frustrated, but she does her best to communicate with this girl, whose name is Ruka. Fortunately, Ruka knows a little Japanese and invites Rin back to her house after establishing that she needs help.

Naturally, Rin feels like she’s in the dark at this point — her phone isn’t getting a signal, everyone’s speaking this weird language, and why the hell is the god damn sky pink, even at night? However, she manages to sort herself out in an impressively short time after trying and failing to find her parents’ house. While the city she’s currently in is very similar to her own, there are many subtle differences, and it soon becomes clear that Rin has somehow entered an alternate-universe version of her hometown. Which means no getting back to her family or friends, at least for the time being.

Yeah, yuri vibes from the very beginning

Thankfully, Rin is in Ruka’s care. She soon learns that she’s considered a vizitanto, or visitor, and Ruka takes her to a kind of combination library/government office to get a special ID from her own mentor, the librarian Rei Arbaro. Rei explains that Rin is now something like a resident foreigner, a status that comes with privileges like discounts at stores and a special allowance. Since Rin’s not the first vizitanto to accidentally fall into this dimension, the government has a system in place to care for people in her position until they can get on their feet and be productive members of society.

This is where the game really begins and where we’re introduced to the first of the two major aspects of Amrilato: the Esperanto. As a vizitanto, Rin has to learn Juliamo, the common language in this world. Aside from a few vocabulary and grammar differences and a customized alphabet thrown in to make things feel more other-dimensional, Juliamo is the same language as Esperanto. The player can switch between this fictional Juliamo alphabet and the Latin alphabet used to write the real-life language, but it seemed like a waste to not use the custom alphabet, so I stuck with that.

And naturally, since Rin is learning Juliamo, we’re learning it along with her. As the story progresses with typical dialogue and narrative stuff, Rin gets presented with language lessons that she has to complete as part of her new education. A lot of these involve one-on-one sessions with either Ruka or Rei, and you get to take quizzes and exams at the end of most of these lessons, an experience that will surely remind you of your school days if you’re past them now like I am. These exam sections can be deactivated in settings, but they’re turned on by default, and I get the impression that the developer SukeraSparo intended for the player to actually take the lessons and learn the words, expressions, and grammar rules that they teach.

I was barely familiar with Esperanto before picking up Amrilato. All I knew is that it was a constructed language, or a language created purposely and not developed naturally over thousands of years like English or Japanese. It has an interesting history — the creator, L. L. Zamenhof, was a Polish Jewish eye doctor who in the 1870s came up with the idea for an international language because he thought it would put an end to war. This unfortunately didn’t happen (a sad end to that part of the story, especially considering the fate of his family, still in Poland at the start of World War II) but Esperanto has gone on to become the world’s most widely spoken constructed language.

One of the most interesting parts of playing Amrilato was in seeing Rin’s thought process while learning Juliamo. Even though she’s the player character, her experience with the language and mine were very different. A big part of this difference has to do with the origins of Esperanto: from the basics I learned of it by playing this game, most of it’s derived from existing Romance and Germanic languages, seemingly with more of a lean towards Romance. So if you speak or you’ve studied languages like Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Italian, a lot of this Juliamo will be familiar to you right away. Even someone who only speaks English and has no familiarity with the Romance languages will probably pick up on some of the vocabulary and grammar by instinct because of the strong historical Romance influence on English (it’s a Germanic language, but we’ve also got those Latin roots and the additions from Norman French after William the Bastard Conqueror’s invasion of England.)

Aside from its loanwords, Japanese has barely any relation to these or the other Indo-European languages that form the basis of Esperanto, and so root words and grammatical concepts that might sound natural to a westerner may not be so intuitive to a native Japanese speaker. The lesson sections of Amrilato consist largely of Rin’s thoughts about what she’s studying, and she’s often forced to try to remember her meager English knowledge that she picked up at school to help her understand Juliamo. Things as seemingly simple as the sounds “si” and “zi” are a bit hard for Rin because those sounds don’t exist in Japanese, instead becoming “shi” and “ji.” However, Rin’s stubborn, hardworking nature comes out in these sections, especially when she pushes herself to practice her Juliamo on Ruka, Rei, and strangers when she’s out buying groceries and running errands, and so she manages to push through it.

A lot of Rin’s struggles with Juliamo made me think of my own efforts at learning Japanese. I’m not immersed in the language like Rin is, but it couldn’t be more different from my native language of English, so I find myself asking some of the same types of questions Rin asks when she’s taking Juliamo lessons. Questions like “how the fuck am I supposed to tell when 人 is pronounced nin or jin in a compound kanji?” Questions that sometimes seem to have no answer other than “that’s just how it is” or “you just have to remember it.” These are aspects of language that native speakers grow up with and take for granted, but to the adult brain (or near-adult, in Rin’s case) they can’t simply be absorbed. Fortunately, with Esperanto/Juliamo being a constructed language, most of its aspects seem to have real explanations that aren’t “that’s just how it developed over time, so remember it.” My native language is notorious for shit like that. Sorry to all the ESL students out there.

amrilato-4

Not the face you want to see when you make food for someone

This is where the language-learning aspect of Amrilato connects with its other major aspect: the yuri romance. Rin is very obviously attracted to Ruka from just about the beginning, and as the game goes on, this attraction shifts from being about Ruka’s looks and style to being about the connection that’s grown between them. Even though Ruka is younger than Rin, she takes on the role of Rin’s language tutor and legal guardian, and her mature attitude sometimes makes her seem older, creating an unusual sort of teacher-student relationship. Ruka soon tells Rin that she wants to learn more Japanese, and so each becomes a teacher to the other.

Eventually, these feelings turn romantic, though we initially only see that from Rin’s perspective. At first, the game throws in some hints that Ruka might be interested too, or that she wouldn’t at least be not interested in a romantic relationship with another girl, and even these parts play with language in interesting ways. Early on, for example, Rin buys what looks like a fashion magazine from a vendor that’s wrapped in plastic with the title “Blanka Lilia.” Rin is too thick to get it, but usually when a magazine like that is wrapped in plastic there’s a reason. And anyone who knows the origin of the Japanese term yuri that describes themes of lesbian love/desire in fictional works knows that the same word 百合 also means “lily” and can probably work out that “blanka lilia” means “white lily” and guess at the magazine’s contents.

amrilato-3

When Ruka accidentally gets a look at those contents, she gets red in the face, which suggests a lot more than just indifference. After this episode, there are a few others that are also suggestive, and a lot of Amrilato consists of Rin wondering how Ruka feels about being with another girl, and specifically about being with her, and agonizing over whether she should say anything. The language gap between the pair makes things more difficult, and when Rin finally confesses her love to Ruka, she uses a Juliamo phrase that Rei taught her and that translates into something like “I’m thirsty for you” with some unintended lewd/embarrassing implications. Rei also likes to tease the two students and knows exactly what’s going on even before they do, so her addition into the mix as a kind of older sister/mentor makes things easier in some ways and more complicated in others.

Complicating things even further is the character of Rin herself. She’s stubborn and hardworking, but she also totally lacks self-confidence. By acting before she thinks, Rin ends up getting herself into awkward social situations, but then she gets carried away thinking of what a grave mistake she’s committed and imagines outcomes that are a thousand times worse than what could realistically occur. She also constantly thinks poorly of her own intellect, looks, and general desirability as a partner. In reality she’s a little thick but not at all stupid and perfectly capable, and her looks are just fine. She keeps thinking of herself as out of shape, but the character art doesn’t give me that impression at all. Maybe it’s the effect of that soft anime art style the game uses, but I prefer to think this is just Rin being unnecessarily down on herself, which would fit with her character.

I can see how Rin’s awkwardness, her yelling in surprise at inappropriate times, and her constant second-guessing of herself could get on a player’s nerves and make her a grating character, but most of these traits just made me feel bad for her. I find her lack of self-confidence to be relatable, in fact, which is a pretty shitty thing to deal with. It can be dealt with, but Rin doesn’t seem experienced enough with life at this point to have figured that out, which leads to a lot of emotional turmoil in the game — up until the player gets the few massively important choices near the end of the game that have serious relationship and ending implications. And there are a few different endings available, two of them pretty sad. But even if you give Rin lousy directions, you won’t have to backtrack very much to see the other endings. There’s only one route in Amrilato, and that’s the Ruka route.

And of course, Rin and Ruka do cement their relationship, because it wouldn’t be much of a yuri VN without some yuri. It’s all very PG-rated, hence people wondering why the hell Valve had a problem with it — yuri doesn’t necessarily have to involve anything explicitly sexual. Though there is definitely a physical element to their attraction, the emphasis in Amrilato is on emotion, and on the ability to show one’s emotion through using one’s expressions. This sort of romantic stuff can be easily screwed up and turned to total cheese if it’s not done well. However, Amrilato builds up the relationship between Rin and Ruka to the point that when they finally break through those language and emotional barriers, it feels nice to see. It’s earned. As for the endings — well, you’ll have to play the game to see those, because I won’t spoil them here. If you want a real deep dive, go check out Pete Davison’s post series about Amrilato on MoeGamer.

This is about as close to R-rated as Amrilato gets. I still find it funny that publisher MangaGamer offered this game free to schools because of its educational content. We never had a scene like this in Oregon Trail unless I really missed out on something.

So was I satisfied with The Expression: Amrilato? You can probably guess by now that the answer is yes. It was a nice experience, something new and unexpected, and it worked for me. I still have no interest in learning Esperanto, but I can see Amrilato getting at least a few players hooked on the language, and I think promoting an international language is a commendable goal in any case, so I give SukeraSparo credit for that.

As for the lesbian aspect of the game, it isn’t even played up that much as an issue in the way you might expect. All of Rin’s agonizing is really just over whether Ruka would go for her — the game doesn’t give the impression that either one is even necessarily exclusively into girls; the issue is more about how Rin and Ruka fit together. In that sense, I think this game is the same vein as VA-11 HALL-A: it’s progressive but in quite a natural way. What matters is the purity of the love and the expressions used to convey it.

Or something. I don’t know. I’m not a god damn romantic. But I did like The Expression: Amrilato, for what it’s worth. Now I’ve had enough cute romance for a while. I’ll probably play GTA for a change of pace. 𒀭

Deep reads #3: Just a little broken (Planetarian)

What’s the line between human and machine? If an artificial intelligence were created that seemed so natural and lifelike that we treated it as human, would there effectively be no difference between that artificial life and a natural one? And do these questions even really matter?

If there’s a mandatory reading/playing list of visual novels, Planetarian would have to be on it. First released in Japan on PC in 2004, this kinetic novel has gotten both fan and official translations on several platforms and is now widely considered a classic of the medium, and rightly so. This isn’t my favorite VN, but it is one I enjoy and respect a whole lot, and it takes on the above questions in a unique and interesting way.

Before I begin my look at Planetarian, however, I want to lay out exactly what approach I’m taking with it. I initially tried to write this as a normal review, but then I kept writing until I had a whole damn treatise on the thing. So it’s full of spoilers, both for Planetarian and a certain popular sci-fi film with some surface similarities that I contrast it with, one that took a promising premise and managed to completely shit it up in its last ten minutes (and one that was marketed partly through a harebrained scheme using a fake Tinder profile to catfish SXSW attendees. Okay, it’s Ex Machina.) So if you want to go into either of these raw, here’s your warning.

I do want to persuade people who haven’t experienced Planetarian yet to check it out, though, so here’s a one-sentence no-spoiler review: if you like the idea of a short post-apocalypse sci-fi story with excellent characterization, voice-acting, and music, but no branching decision points or route because it’s a kinetic VN, you should like it. I think the ending of this work is pretty well known by now since Planetarian has been around in various forms for 16 years, but I still feel the need to put a warning up here. It’s only a few hours long anyway, so it’s not a huge time investment.

The basic premise of Planetarian is that the world has gone completely to hell. About thirty years after a nuclear war and its aftermath destroyed almost all of humanity, Earth is only inhabited by still-operating autonomous weapons and a scattering of human survivors doing their best to live off of the ruins of their dead civilization. A constant radioactive downpour simply called “the Rain” makes this new world even more difficult to live in. In the midst of all this misery is our unnamed protagonist, simply called the Junker, a man who makes a living off of salvaging useful scraps from the old world to trade with: parts, food supplies, and the extremely rare and valuable preserved packs of cigarettes and bottles of liquor. Junker is exactly the kind of protagonist you’d expect to find in a post-apocalyptic work like this. He’s tough and battle-hardened, always armed and on the lookout for valuables and potential enemies, both mechanical and human.

At the opening of Planetarian, Junker has come across a “sarcophagus city”, a settlement that has been heavily fortified against attack. Unfortunately, those defenses weren’t quite enough: the city was abandoned by its population long ago, left to become yet another ruin. This is an opportunity for Junker, who thinks he may be able to salvage some useful items here.

There is one other being still operating in this dead city. Her name is Hoshino Yumemi, a robot built in the form of a young woman. Despite the fact that the city had been long since destroyed and emptied of its population, Yumemi still works for exactly one week per year as the receptionist, usher, and hostess of the Flowercrest Department Store’s planetarium, spending the rest of her time in sleep mode charging at a station that’s still working off of a trickle of power somehow still available from a nearby vacant military installation. Since the outbreak of the global war and the exodus from the city, however, the planetarium hasn’t seen any business — not until Junker arrives there looking for shelter.

Junker is shocked to find a young woman alone in this ruin and immediately suspects a trap, but he soon realizes that Yumemi is just a robot who has been operating autonomously all this time. As Yumemi herself explains, she was left in charge of the planetarium while the human staff were out. Since the day they left the city almost thirty years ago, she has carried out her duties to the best of her ability for the one week per year that she’s able to operate. And what luck — she happens to be freshly recharged and active when Junker arrives. Yumemi, seemingly oblivious to Junker’s appearance and all the destruction around her, processes him as a customer, greets him warmly, and tells him that in honor of his status as the 2,500,000th customer the staff has prepared a special projection that she intends to show him. She then offers him a makeshift bouquet made of wires and junk she found lying around, apologizing profusely and explaining that the florist’s shop downstairs had unexpectedly closed for the time being. She also admits that he’s not really the 2,500,000th customer, but she’s rounding up because there hasn’t been much business lately.

Junker naturally does not give a shit about any of this. After trying without success to explain to Yumemi that he’s not a god damn customer, he lays out his supplies and equipment to dry, then drifts off to sleep in one of the planetarium’s seats. When he wakes up, Yumemi is still around performing her duties, and she cheerfully greets him, addressing him as “Mr. Customer” (or okyakusama, a term like “honored guest” that doesn’t quite translate because we don’t have a similar term in common use in English) and doing her best to serve his needs. Of course, Yumemi can’t really serve Junker’s needs. When she offers him a refreshment, he asks whether she has any liquor in sealed bottles, and she tells him there are liquor shops on a lower floor. Tragically, that lower floor is completely flooded and inaccessible, so Junker can’t even have a nice drink to calm him down.

Yumemi continues to insist that she’ll show Junker the projection, and he finally gives in to her demands if only to shut her up. However, there’s a problem: the projector is broken. No big surprise, since the planetarium has been inactive for nearly 30 years, but Yumemi is seriously distressed when the projector doesn’t move or respond at the start of the show. Since she was built to be a sort of greeter/hostess and not a maintenance worker, there’s not much Yumemi can do to fix the giant machine, and so she asks Junker if he can repair “Miss Jena” as Yumemi refers to it.

This leads to the first of two fateful decisions Junker makes. By deciding to help Yumemi out, Junker takes up valuable time and energy that he admits he should be using to get the hell out of the city and resupply. He’s established that the planetarium and attached mall don’t have anything of value to him. Yet he stays and starts working on Jena, an extremely complex piece of equipment with a bunch of small moving parts that hasn’t been maintained for three decades. Meanwhile, Yumemi can only stand by and express her concern. She clearly feels bad about asking a valued customer to repair one of the planetarium’s machines and tries to help Junker by asking him if various tools might be useful, but it’s obvious she wasn’t designed for that sort of thing, so she steps back and lets him work.

After a couple of days of work, Jena is finally repaired, and Yumemi is able to run the special projection she had planned. Junker is still anxious to get the hell out of there, but once the lights dim and Yumemi starts her presentation, he’s drawn in. So much so that when the power fails for good shortly after the projection starts, Junker asks Yumemi to continue her monologue as he closes his eyes and uses his imagination to fill in the visual gaps.

If you’ve read Planetarian already, this may seem like a weird statement, but this scene provided the biggest emotional punch for me as Yumemi talks about the birth and growth of the human race and of its reaching out to the stars through the space program. The same space program that was in progress when the global war began 30 years ago, destroying its base on the Moon, grounding its spaceships, and and eventually killing the great majority of humanity. It’s all the more heartbreaking because, despite the fact that she’s a robot, Yumemi seems genuinely proud of humanity’s growth, just as though she were human herself. But her information is painfully outdated. Junker knows the truth of the matter all too well, but he lets Yumemi finish without saying anything about it.

When the show is over, Junker is ready to leave. But not without Yumemi. This second serious decision puts Junker at yet another disadvantage — Yumemi doesn’t seem to understand how dire the situation is outside the mall and planetarium, and she’s already told Junker that she’s not designed to handle rough environments or to move very quickly. Junker nevertheless doesn’t want to leave her there, and presses the facts on her that the planetarium won’t recover its limited source of power again and that she’ll never see another customer show up. Yumemi still seems optimistic despite Junker’s warnings, so when she offers to walk him to his car, a sort of post-apocalypse combat vehicle, he takes her up on her offer and decides to bring her along with him to a nearby inhabited settlement.

Getting to his vehicle is no easy matter, however, and it’s even more difficult when he’s essentially doing an escort mission. Yumemi trips several times and admits that she hasn’t been very well maintained lately. But she still keeps her spirits up, pointing out popular restaurants and attractions around town and printing coupons from the port in her ear for him to use, apparently not recognizing that that they’ve all been long abandoned and lay in ruins. Eventually, after several breaks to let Yumemi recover and prevent her from overheating, they reach the city wall, close to Junker’s car. A giant tank with a massive gun sits at the entrance of an opening in the wall through which they’ll have to pass, but Junker believes trying it would be suicide — despite the end of the war, the automated weapons deployed back then are still active and will attack anything that moves. So Junker tells Yumemi to hang back in a relatively safe place while he tries to destroy the tank with a grenade launcher.

Junker’s grenade is unfortunately a dud, and the tank turns its gun on him. He manages to escape and mostly disable the machine against all odds in the game’s only action scene, but it’s still barely functional and is about to kill Junker when Yumemi steps between them in a dramatic Tienanmen Square moment.

Yumemi tries to send the tank an electronic signal to get it to stop attacking, but in its final moments it shoots its gun directly at her.

Yumemi is torn apart at the waist, but she’s still able to function for a few minutes, just long enough to show Junker some of her memories recorded in her eyes: of happy guests, adults and children, telling her how much they enjoyed their time at the planetarium, and of the rest of the staff being forced to evacuate the city and saying their painful goodbyes to her. She then reveals that she realized long ago the planetarium was finished, but that she was happy to see one more customer show up. As she finally shuts down, Yumemi opens the port containing her memory card, and Junker takes it and seals it in a waterproof case, resolving to find a new body for her somehow so she can live again.

And that’s Planetarian. Quite a sad story in typical Key style — this studio is well known for creating melancholic visual novels. As miserable as the whole thing might seem, though, the story of Planetarian is not a hopeless one. Yumemi’s body is destroyed in the end, but her mind essentially lives on, waiting for Junker to find a new vessel for it.

What’s more interesting to me than the ending is the relationship created between Junker and Yumemi, a human and a robot. From the beginning it’s no secret that Yumemi is not a human, and a lot of her mannerisms reinforce that. When asked a question she doesn’t know the answer to, for example, she’ll tilt her head a bit and then deliver word-for-word the same response about not being able to make contact with some control center that she’s programmed to message in such cases. Her insistence upon carrying out her regular duties in a workplace that’s clearly been abandoned and left to rot for thirty years also seems kind of inhuman. A human would have left the planetarium behind long ago, just as Yumemi’s coworkers did, but she keeps performing her programmed duties faithfully.

But there are things about Yumemi that also seem strangely human. One of these is her extreme talkativeness. Yumemi simply won’t shut up. Junker is clearly annoyed by this and tries giving her a command to stop talking — a command that she acknowledges for about ten seconds before breaking it and asking him a question, after which he gives up trying.

Yumemi explains that this chattiness is caused by an error in her programming, one that was never fixed because the staff of the planetarium thought she was cuter for it. She refers to herself as “just a little broken” both because of that design flaw and her recent lack of maintenance. Certainly, Yumemi doesn’t act like a perfectly honed android of the kind you might see in some other sci-fi works, but these imperfections made her seem all the more human to me. She also constantly shows genuine concern for Junker despite having just met him, asking if he’s feeling sick and offering to call the mall’s medical center that she doesn’t realize is now abandoned. Indeed, Yumemi seems determined to help Junker out and tend to his needs as the “customer” he is, even when he insists he’s not one.

Considering all this, it’s not a great leap for Junker to start thinking of Yumemi as less of a machine and more of a human, at least in terms of how he treats her. The pair have the kind of chemistry where one complements the other — Junker’s bitter, harsh, practical attitude with Yumemi’s optimistic and cheerful one — and they start to have real conversations by the end of his stay at the planetarium. The first time I read through Planetarian, I thought it was a bit weird that this extremely pragmatic guy would decide to bring a slow, partially broken robot along with him through the streets of the city, where autonomous, heavily armed tanks were still operating. Junker wonders that himself and doesn’t seem to understand exactly why he’s doing it. But there has been a connection created between the two when the final part of the VN begins, to the point that I can believe Junker simply couldn’t allow himself to leave Yumemi alone in the now unpowered mall to shut down — effectively to die, left to be “harvested” for her parts by other junkers as he puts it.

This is where Planetarian totally departs from a lot of other modern sci-fi. When I watched the 2014 film Ex Machina a while back, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Planetarian and how completely different each work was in spirit, despite the fact that they both deal with human/AI interaction. Ex Machina takes place in a near-future Earth that’s still thriving, in which the eccentric genius CEO of a massive search engine company has built a line of realistic androids. Said CEO rigs up a fake contest to select one of his employees, a coder/programmer type named Caleb, to spend a week at his high-tech, high-security mansion in the wilderness. There Caleb gets the chance to run a series of tests by having conversations with Ava, like Yumemi an android in the shape of a young woman. Ava seems to be curious both about the outside world, which she hasn’t seen, and about Caleb himself. She also comes off as having an almost human-seeming sense of humor and a pretty sharp wit. After a few days of testing, Ava tells Caleb that she knows he’s attracted to her, that she’s attracted to him, and that she wants him to help her break out of the CEO’s mansion and escape.

Despite their efforts to conceal these parts of their conversations, the CEO realizes what’s going on, but in a double-twist Caleb reveals that he outsmarted the CEO by secretly fucking with the power system so that he’d be sealed inside his own high-security bunker of a house without being able to get out while Ava and Caleb would run away together. CEO tries killing the plan by ordering Ava to go back to her room, but she and another android get the better of him in a fight and stab him to death. We’ve seen him act like a real asshole to them throughout the film, so sure, this makes sense. However, in a final betrayal, Ava traps Caleb in the house and escapes without him, leaving him to die as well. The end.

Does this remind anyone else of those old creepy Svedka ads? Is it just me?

What message is to be taken from Ex Machina exactly? Caleb admittedly didn’t think through his actions fully, but he was motivated by a desire to help Ava escape because he essentially saw her as human, or at least as a being deserving of human rights. While Caleb did mean to seal the CEO into a virtual tomb in the course of his plan, he also found and watched tapes of said CEO treating the androids like garbage during tests and generally being a dick, and he also knows of his plan to erase Ava’s memory at the end of this testing phase. So his feelings are a bit understandable. However, the relationship Caleb thinks he has with Ava is pure fantasy. She’s been manipulating him this whole time, and far from being grateful for his help, she traps him and effectively murders him at the end of the film for no clear reason that I can understand, other than director/screenwriter Alex Garland wanting to throw a final twist in to shock us.

At first, Ex Machina left me asking “so fucking what?” The actors are good (Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac as Caleb and the CEO, for you Star Wars sequel trilogy fans if there are any left, and Alicia Vikander as Ava) and the look and feel of the movie in general are pretty nice, so I can’t exactly call it total garbage. But the writing. The first 100 minutes of the movie now seem entirely pointless, with its attempts at making me feel bad for the plight of Ava by making her come off as self-aware and sympathetic — such a being would have at least recognized Caleb as her ally and let him live, even if she’d been manipulating him up to that point. But no, turns out she’s nothing of the sort, more of a HAL from 2001 sort of character. Only 2001 took the time to establish HAL as a scary psychopath sort of AI making the course of the story believable, whereas Ex Machina just throws us an ending twist without bothering to set it up in the slightest.

So the message I’m forced to take from Ex Machina — because there clearly is a message in there; everything about the film suggests it’s meant to be taken as Serious Art instead of a basic horror movie — is that we can’t trust those god damn androids because there’s no way they’ll treat us with any care or affection despite what we might think. This is a depressingly pessimistic message. That’s fine with me; I’m a depressingly pessimistic guy myself, so I get that.

But what I can’t forgive is the sheer dishonesty of it. Ex Machina presents a dark future without any real argument to back it up. While many critics and fans have praised Ex Machina, I believe Garland completely screws up its treatment of its central human/AI relationship, which is quite an unbelievable and stilted-feeling one created to express the message, when the message should instead flow naturally from a believable story. Planetarian also depicts a dark future for humanity in its global war and post-apocalyptic setting, but in creating the relationship between Junker and Yumemi it doesn’t try to pull a cynical trick on the reader. Yumemi is exactly what she seems from the first time Junker meets her — an android who likes the company of both her machine and human colleagues. She has fond memories of working with the planetarium staff and helping customers and has a desire to continue her work.

Whether that’s because she’s programmed to do so doesn’t seem to matter anymore, at least not to Junker. By the end, he doesn’t see her as a mere piece of machinery. Yumemi herself, while conscious of the fact that she’s a robot, doesn’t want to be separated from humans. This is the meaning of her saying “please do not divide Heaven in two”, one of the game’s best-known lines — when she asks whether Junker has ever prayed to God, a weird sort of theological question comes up about whether there might be a separate God of Robots. Yumemi says her coworkers told her that robots get to go to their own Heaven when they shut down, but because she doesn’t want machines to be separated from humans, she prays that they can all go to the same Heaven.

This is where I think you can find the optimism in Planetarian. It’s a sad story with a bitter ending, sure. But there is hope in the end, both for Junker and Yumemi, and maybe for both humans and machines beyond them, living in the world together. Yumemi sees both organic humans and other, non-humanoid machines like Jena as her friends and colleagues, and she even says Junker shouldn’t blame the tank for what it did — in the end, it was simply doing its best to carry out its duties faithfully.

This view is very different from the one given by works like Ex Machina, in which humans create technology that ends up destroying them of its own will. In those works, there’s an assumption that any form of advanced AI will necessarily be separate from the natural world. Humans are animals, androids are machines, and there can’t be any meaningful emotional relationship between them. When a well-meaning character like Caleb foolishly believes he’s created one with an android like Ava, she ends up betraying him. She can’t empathize with him, and he was stupid to think he could empathize with her. Planetarian, by contrast, does not make any such assumptions. Humans started the global war that wrecked civilization. They used technology to do it, but the story doesn’t give any indication that the AI employed in the war rebelled against their human creators or did anything other than follow the orders given to them.

I’m not saying a robot apocalypse will never happen. But it seems both disingenuous and lazy to just assume that advanced AI will definitely turn against its creators when you’re putting together a work of fiction, or that they’ll even necessarily see themselves as that different from their creators.

I wrote at the start of this post that Planetarian isn’t my favorite visual novel. While I don’t have any problem with kinetic novels, I prefer VNs that give the player dialogue and action options and branching story paths. And I don’t know if writer Yuichi Suzumoto is responsible for this or if it’s the translation, but the prose occasionally gets really awkward — just see the above screenshot for an example. Thankfully it doesn’t happen that often, but those instances stick out and hurt an otherwise good game.

But I’d still rank this pretty highly among the VNs I’ve played. A good story can end with disaster and total despair, but the way it gets to that ending is important. Planetarian doesn’t take the same straightforward, lazy “technology is bad” route that Ex Machina and many other modern sci-fi works go with. And it’s not afraid to express the hope at the end that maybe things won’t be so miserable one day, and what the hell is wrong with that? Nothing. In real life, people keep hope alive even in the worst of circumstances, so it’s not a sin to give your audience some hope as well, despite what some writers and directors seem to think.

And that’s true even if that hope directly follows a tearjerker scene. I mean, I didn’t cry when Yumemi got blown up. Really, I didn’t. I just had bad allergies that day. You know how that pollen is in the spring.

***

I hope I’ve represented Planetarian well enough here. It also has anime OVA and film adaptations that I haven’t seen, but I’ve heard good things.

I also want to note that I’m not trying to do a “western vs. Japanese take” comparison with this commentary. Reading back through it, all the crap I dumped on Ex Machina might make it seem that way to some people, and everyone knows I’m a degenerate weeb after all, but it’s not the case. I only meant to highlight two approaches sci-fi writers have taken with regard to human/AI relationships and how I think one is more natural and honest than the other. If you want proof of my sincerity, here you go: the Spike Jonze movie Her does thousands of times better at this than Ex Machina, and it involves an actually believable romance between a human and an AI character if that’s what you’re looking for. 𒀭

Why aren’t visual novels more popular in the West?

I couldn’t think of any better title for this post, but this is a question I’ve been thinking about lately. Visual novels are a well-established part of the gaming world in Japan, but here in the States they’re commonly seen most charitably as novelties, or uncharitably as only for weebs like me who are already immersed in anime and anime-flavored games. Why should this be the case, though? The VN format doesn’t have to be a strictly Japanese or eastern-only thing. Indeed, there have been some VNs produced by western developers, though most of the notable ones are produced by people who are clearly fans and students of Japanese visual novel developers and use anime stylings (Katawa ShoujoDoki Doki Literature Club!)

Not that I even have an answer to the question I’m asking. I do have a few hypotheses, though, based completely on my own probably mistaken, misinformed ideas about the industry. Let’s test them out and see whether they make any sense.

More sense than this, hopefully. From the painfully poorly translated Ever17 (2002).

For those who don’t know what a visual novel or VN is (if you read this site, you definitely know — more for those readers who stumble across this post during a Google search) it’s a type of game that relies mainly on written narrative and dialogue to tell its story rather than traditional gameplay. It’s a novel, in other words. But it’s also visual. VNs typically feature character portraits during dialogue and CG screens that show up during special or important events. In addition to nice visuals, a VN should have a soundtrack with backing music to fit and enhance the mood of the scene, and it may even include voice acting. VNs also often require the player to make decisions at certain points, sometimes while in dialogue and sometimes in the middle of an action scene. Some VNs construct several separate storylines, locking the player onto one route or another depending upon their choices.

There’s one question that might jump out at you here: where’s the gameplay? All you’re doing is reading, watching, and listening. And probably making decisions when you arrive at branching dialogue and action options, but can that really be called gameplay in the sense that we normally think of it? And this is perhaps the most important distinction between VNs and other sorts of games: they don’t involve a lot of player interaction beyond making those occasional choices that determine the path your character takes in the plot. Some VNs don’t even include this feature: there’s a subset of VNs called kinetic novels that involve no player input at all beyond sitting back and taking in the story.

planetarian (2004), a kinetic novel.

For this reason, some don’t consider visual novels to truly be games. Adventure/puzzle series with heavy VN elements like Phoenix Wright and Zero Escape have enough gameplay to avoid getting stuck with the VN label, and those titles have found some success in the West. But over here, plain old VNs seem not to have broken out of the ultra-otaku “I only watch my anime subbed” circle. The only exception I can think of is Doki Doki Literature Club!, and I believe that was only because popular Youtube gamer personalities played it for its horror elements. DDLC is best appreciated if you’re already a fan of the sort of dating sim it’s parodying, so I don’t even know how much other people got out of it aside from thinking “shit, that’s creepy.”

Meanwhile, the visual novel format itself has not caught on among developers here, despite how easy it seems to implement either on PC or in mobile form. If there were any widespread demand for VNs here, you might expect some to be produced for people to play/read on their cell phones on the bus or train or while taking way-too-long breaks in the bathroom while at the office. But if any such mobile titles exist, I haven’t seen anyone playing them yet.

So unless I’m just completely out of touch with the rest of society, which is likely, it seems to me that the VN format has about as much of a presence in the mainstream here as it had twenty years ago, which is almost none at all. Perhaps because it exists in a gray-area realm between PC/console games, novels, and anime. And if a product is hard to categorize, it’s probably hard to pitch to a big publisher.

This relatively small customer base may be part of the reason that I’ve seen such wildly varying quality in the localization of VNs. While my Japanese is still very limited, just about anyone can tell when a translation looks sloppy — if it contains grammatical errors, awkward phrasing, and pieces of dialogue that simply don’t make sense, it’s pretty obvious that the job was rushed or otherwise done without much care. I’ve already posted two examples above of professional localizations that have some problems: Ever17 and Our World Is Ended, released 15 years apart. A real shame, considering that the original works are high-quality in just about every other way.

And they’re not the worst examples. I’ve seen a couple of officially localized VNs that look like they were run through a machine translation. It’s interesting to note that fan-translations of VNs are often far better and more professional-looking than these supposedly professional jobs, but those take years to complete if they’re ever completed at all. There’s a graveyard somewhere full of the remains of dead fan localization projects.

That’s not the only obstacle that the visual novel format faces in the West. There’s another, very different but perhaps even harder to surmount: the belief that VNs are all dating sims or porn games.

Okay, this one is, but a lot of them aren’t. From Nekopara Vol. 3 (2017).

This is similar to the stigma anime used to face. Back in the 90s, outside of popular kid-oriented series like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, a lot of people seemed to think of anime as “that weird perverted Japanese cartoon stuff.” Certainly, there were and still are a lot of hentai series out there, but anime has mostly gotten past the misconception that such material represented the whole medium, to the point that Netflix is now producing anime series that are getting watched by wider audiences than you’d normally expect.

The visual novel medium hasn’t quite gotten there yet. The fact that the VN is just that — a medium, one that can be used to tell pretty much any story the creator wants — still seems to be not that widely recognized. To be fair, again, many VNs are dating sims and/or porn games. But look at the four screenshots I’ve posted above: the first three are from all-ages games, and there are many more of those around to play. And even 18+ titles like Nekopara are commonly available in all-ages versions with the sex scenes removed. Don’t misunderstand me — I have absolutely no problem with 18+ VNs — but the mistaken idea that that’s all VNs are probably wouldn’t exist if there weren’t so many of them.

Not that I’m going to stop playing them. From NekoMiko (2019), no relation at all to Nekopara aside from the catgirls in frilly outfits theme.

In the end analysis, though, is this really something to be concerned about? Should we care whether VNs become more popular, or should we instead be happy to hold onto these as niche-interest sorts of works?

I’d say we should care. If the VN format gets more recognition over here, it means we’ll have more VNs ported to the West, and those that are ported will likely have localizations of higher quality than the current standard. Well, I should say they’d hopefully have higher-quality localizations, but who the hell knows, really. At the very least, the publishers would no longer be counting on sales from the hardcore weeb demographic, so there might be more pressure to satisfy a wider audience with a more polished product. I’d also be interested to see more of what our own developers here would come up with. In any case, it’s not like anyone needs a big pitch to a publisher to create one: some of the best known series started as independent VN projects like Fate/stay night.

On the other hand, if VNs become more popular, they’d probably also draw more attacks from the self-appointed content police I’ve written about, and then we may well see our much-anticipated VNs have controversial content removed to satisfy those pricks. So maybe it wouldn’t be such a great thing.

So apparently this time I’ve got no conclusion at all. Instead of a definite answer, I’m left with still more questions. I’m very sorry for wasting your time, reader. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe this was really just my stupidly long-winded way of saying I have a few visual novel reviews and analyses coming up, so you can look forward to those at some point. There’s no better time than now to pick up a VN, after all. 𒀭

A review of Nekopara Complete Edition (PC)

Disclaimer: the game(s) reviewed here contain adult content, but my review is safe for work.  However, this post does feature catgirls in French maid uniforms and one instance of explicit tail-brushing.  On second thought, maybe it isn’t really safe for work.

I have no excuses this time.  I’ve written in the past about a few visual novels, but they were either not pornographic at all (Umineko no Naku Koro ni, Our World Is Ended, Doki Doki Literature Club!) or had sex scenes that contributed to a psychological horror story plot and that didn’t seem intended for the purpose those scenes usually are (Saya no Uta, Saya no Uta again.)  Nekopara, however, is without a doubt an h-game series.  Yes, there are all-ages versions of the games that cut out all the sex scenes, but naturally I got the 18+ DLC that unlocks those scenes again.  I could defend my purchase by telling you I bought Nekopara Complete Edition during a Steam sale when it and the DLC were both heavily discounted, but the fact is that I bought it.  I bought these games about creating a catgirl harem and now I’m writing about them here.  If you needed any more proof that I’ve given up on the possibility of living a normal life, here it is.

Okay, I’m just kidding.  I did actually have to think a bit about whether to write about Nekopara, since I haven’t reviewed a straight up h-game in the six years since I started this blog.  But then I got back on Twitter after some time away and saw a lot of complaining about how immoral, dirty anime and comics and games are destroying society, and if those people are going to keep spewing such nonsense, why should I hold myself back?

She’s not wrong

Nekopara Complete Edition is a package containing four volumes in the Nekopara series of visual novels by developer NEKO WORKs.  More accurately, these games are kinetic novels, or visual novels that don’t involve any player input to move the plot along.  So these are really more like regular novels with character portraits, backgrounds, sound effects, and music than even your standard VN is.  Also, aside from the very short prequel Vol. 0, all of these games have sex scenes unless you only buy the base all-ages versions.  Until recently, Valve didn’t allow pornographic content on its platform, so for the longest time Nekopara was only available there as a series of nice, cute VNs about a guy running a French bakery with catgirl waitresses in which the boning was merely implied.

You get to either implicitly or explicitly bone six of these seven characters

Protagonist Kashou Minaduki is a young pastry chef from a long line of traditional Japanese confectioners who sets off to open his own western-style bakery against the wishes of his parents.  While unpacking his cooking equipment at the beginning of Vol. 1, Kashou hears cat noises coming from his pile of boxes and discovers two of his family’s catgirls, Chocola and Vanilla, hiding inside.  These twin catgirls insisted upon moving in with Kashou and stowed away with the help of their master, Kashou’s younger sister Shigure, who still lives at the Minaduki family home but who will show up later and who figures prominently in every volume of Nekopara.

Sure it’s cute in the game, just don’t try shipping real cats in boxes like this

Together, the twins convince Kashou to let them live with him in his apartment above the bakery and to help him run the place as waitresses and apprentice bakers.  Throughout the course of Vol. 1, the protagonist gets closer to Chocola and Vanilla, who eventually choose to become his “catpanions”, or catgirl girlfriends.  (Speaking of, if you hate puns, and especially if you hate puns based on the word “cat” and Japanese cat sounds, you will truly hate these games.)  Vol. 2 and Vol. 3 each pick up the story from where the previous game left off and involve Kashou developing similar relationships with Coconut, Azuki,1 Cinnamon, and Maple, the other four catgirls in the Minaduki family.

You might need more background on these catgirls to understand why this is happening.  They’re a sort of genetically engineered human with cat features.  Not that different from your typical anime-style catgirl.  But they have a weird legal status in this world.  While catgirls all seem to basically have human intelligence, they also have all the standard feline instincts.  They play with cat toys, love tuna, get fucked up on cat nip, react violently to loud noises, and go into heat (and yeah, of course that last part comes up during the games, especially if you get the 18+ versions.)

An example of highly inappropriate workplace behavior

As a result, catgirls have to be trained to conform with human laws and practices and must pass an exam to prove that they can go out on their own without running around in the streets and causing chaos.  And just like normal pets, catgirls in this world have “masters” that they’re generally expected to obey, though there are a whole lot of conditions involved in those relationships (as any cat owner will tell you, the cat often seems to be more the human’s master than the other way around, and the same is true in Nekopara.)  So while a catgirl in this world isn’t exactly treated as a human, she can earn the right to be considered more or less human if she passes her exam and gets her bell, the mark of a licensed catgirl.

Sometimes the training doesn’t take very well

You might have already guessed that some other reviewers have found the Nekopara games troublesome for this reason, especially since each game involves the protagonist having romantic relationships with all six of his family’s catgirls.  However weird that might sound, though, all these relationships are socially acceptable in the world of Nekopara.  This is despite the fact that catgirls can’t have children with humans, even though they’re almost completely human in their physical makeup and their intellect aside from all the feline instinct stuff.  (Or maybe because?  Sounds like an effective form of nationwide birth control.  In fact, it sounds like the potential cause of a disastrous crash in birth rates, but that never comes up in these games.) They also all take the initiative in their relationships with Kashou, who just seems to be along for the ride most of the time.

Even the harem element isn’t a big deal in the context of the game.  As Vanilla tells Kashou in Vol. 2, catgirls don’t have a problem with polygamy as long as he loves them all equally.  Because catgirls are capable of feeling jealousy, as we learn in Vol. 1 when Vanilla threatens to hide a mix of wasabi and hot sauce in Kashou’s underwear because he very briefly and innocently talked to another woman who approached him while she, Chocola, and Kashou were all out on a date.  God damn, that Vanilla is one scary woman.  Or catgirl, or whatever.

Vanilla is my favorite; I guess I’m a masochist

If all this sounds like a lot of fantastic wish fulfillment to you, I think that’s just the point.  Nekopara feels like it’s meant to be a romantic comedy for people who are into the whole 2D and anime and girls who could never exist in real life thing.  Each game does feature some conflict in which Kashou has to navigate the complicated feelings of the women around him (including Shigure, who has a weird sibling-Oedipus-complex obsession with her brother and who works behind the scenes the entire series to set up Kashou’s relationships with her catgirls.)  But all the conflicts are resolved by the end of Vol. 3, when Kashou has built his catgirl harem/patisserie empire.

I don’t mean any of that as a negative criticism of Nekopara, because there’s a lot of craft and attention to detail in these games.  The art, character portraits, and voice acting are excellent.2  The music is mostly light and fluffy but meshes with the tone of the games perfectly.  And the six catgirl characters aren’t the kind of cardboard cutouts you might expect from a series like this — they all have distinct and more or less believable personalities (though some of them are a little exaggerated.)  The fact that all this talent was used in the service of an escapist fantasy isn’t a waste as I see it.  I’m often up for playing a game with heavy, serious content, but sometimes I just want some pure fantasy, and Nekopara provides that.  The real world can be a miserable grind, and games like these provide some much-needed relief for their fans.  As long as you don’t forget that you ultimately live in that shitty real world and that you’ll have to return to it eventually, there’s nothing wrong with losing yourself in that intoxicating haze for a while.3

Still technically not porn yet

If I have one serious criticism of the Nekopara games, it’s that they’re quite short for what you pay if you get them at full price (about 30 dollars for all the base games together and another 30 for all the 18+ patches.)  While “wait for a Steam sale before you buy” is generally good advice, I really recommend it this time.  I paid half price for the whole package, which felt about right, but that doesn’t change the fact that it usually sells for $60, and that’s for maybe 15-20 hours of content.  Quality content, sure, but quantity still matters.  Those looking for serious dramatic content will probably also be disappointed, because Nekopara doesn’t have much of that.  The relationships and conflicts do get a little more complicated as you move through the three main volumes of Nekopara, though, so if you find Vol. 1 too light, you may like the second and third volumes more.  They still don’t rise above the level of slice-of-life comedy plus a little soap opera-style drama and some stuff about following your dreams (especially in Vol. 3 with the Maple and Cinnamon becoming musicians plotline, which I liked) but it’s worth a note.

It’s also worth mentioning that unlike many of his visual novel protagonist counterparts, Kashou isn’t an average guy with absolutely no skills and nothing interesting about him — he’s an accomplished pastry chef and a successful business owner.  So maybe this game will motivate you to try harder to be successful if you’re unhappy with your lot in life.  So you can, uh… have your own catgirl harem one day?  Okay, maybe not.

Opening a catgirl cafe isn’t out of the question, though. If I were a crazy billionaire I would start a chain and beat the shit out of Starbucks.

This is usually where I sum up the review and assign the game a score.  But this time the score doesn’t really matter.  I’ll give Nekopara Complete Edition a strong 5, but that only applies if you’re into light, fluffy visual novels full of cute girls, sappy romance, and sex scenes (or if you’re not into sex scenes and get the all-ages version; most of the games’ content will still be there for you to play.)  While the writing in these games isn’t anything amazing, it’s good enough to tell the story the games want to tell.  And from all the care and attention put into the games’ character designs, animations, and voice acting, I get the impression that the creators poured a lot of time and love into this project.  And yeah, I’m including the 18+ content in that assessment.  I’ll keep it non-X-rated here, but if you’re curious, the full CG sets are just a Google search away.

Settle down, Cinnamon

Nekopara is obviously not for everyone, and I certainly understand why some people are skeeved out by it, but it worked for me.  In fact, I’d gladly give Complete Edition a 6 — the actual contents of the games on their own deserve that score, but I really don’t like the fact that you have to essentially buy each volume twice to get the full experience with the 18+ DLC.  Feel free to add that extra point on if you can also buy these games at or around half price.  Though the fact that the sex scenes are still censored with those stupid mosaics does bother me, and as far as I know there’s no uncensor patch available. I wish Japan would repeal that dumbass law.

Nekopara never breaks the fourth wall, but this still feels directed at me.

And now that I’ve admitted to being a horny pastry puffer, I’m done with my review.  Next time I’ll probably take on a weightier game, both in terms of themes and having gameplay beyond clicking the mouse, but Nekopara was a nice break for me.  Now it’s back to the miserable grind of the real world. 𒀭

 

1 The catgirls in Nekopara are all named after different sweets or flavors used in baking.  I wasn’t familiar with azuki before playing these games — it’s a sort of bean used to make a sweet paste that’s a common ingredient in Japanese confections.

2 All in Japanese. As far as I know, there are no plans for an English dub.

3 When you approach Nekopara the way it’s meant to be taken, the answer to the question “Why are all these cat-human hybrids female?” is obvious: because the target audience isn’t interested in males.  At least I don’t think they are.  I’m sure there’s a male cat-human-hybrid waiter visual novel out there somewhere if that’s more to your taste.

A review of Our World Is Ended. (PC)

Our World Is Ended is an all-ages Japanese visual novel localized and released early this year on PS4 and Switch and more recently on PC through Steam.  Yes, the period you see in the title above is officially part of the title, though I won’t be including it because it makes writing about the game grammatically awkward.  If that title looks awkward to you even without the weird punctuation, there is a plot reason why the title has an “is” instead of a “has” as you’d normally expect, so I’ll let that go.

This is also a traditional visual novel, which means there’s no real gameplay outside of reading text and dialogue and making choices based on branching dialogue options.  Since most of what I have to say about Our World Is Ended has to do with the plot and characters, then, this review is going to feature some plot and character spoilers. The very short spoiler-free version of my review is that this is a good game that’s aimed at a very particular audience (as far as the western market goes, that means hardcore weebs and basically no one else) so if you’re not among those ranks, you might not care for it at all. You might even hate it, in fact. Most of the mainstream reviewers who bothered to write about Our World Is Ended seem to either dislike or despise it, but more on that later. For now, let’s start the review proper.

Just another day on the job.

Our protagonist Reiji (the guy wearing the helmet above) is a bright-eyed college freshman working as a part-time “Assisting Director” at Judgement 7, a small game development studio.  Reiji is a pretty normal guy.  Extremely normal, in fact.  So normal that the other members of Judgment 7 find it remarkable just how plain his tastes, hobbies, and general demeanor are.  Then again, Judgment 7 is otherwise staffed by people who are as far from normal as possible.  They include:

  • Founder and president Sekai Owari, a genius programmer who is also a massive pervert, albeit a “clean and harmless” one (according to him, anyway)
  • Scenario-writer Iruka No. 2, a man who always wears sunglasses and a fedora and lives in a fantasy world of his own creation, speaking mainly in arcane game lore, bizarre screams, and shouted spell names he makes up on the spot
  • Artist and character designer Natsumi Yuki, a moody goth girl who calls herself the Dark Angel of Chaos and claims she doesn’t need friends
  • BGM composer and sound director Asano Hayase, a tomboyish woman who punches people, drinks a lot of beer, and usually ends up the butt of everyone else’s jokes because of her relatively flat chest, poor cooking skills, and tone-deaf singing voice
  • Asano’s younger sister and Reiji’s fellow part-timer Yuno Hayase, a cheerful, airheaded high school-aged girl whose employment at this company is probably breaking some labor laws
  • And assistant programmer Tatiana Alexandrovna Sharapova, a Russian child prodigy with a doctorate who throws tantrums when she doesn’t get her way and whose employment at this company is definitely breaking some labor laws.

Somehow this lot, which has so far only succeeded at publishing games that people mostly either hate or ignore, has succeeded at creating a virtual reality headset that can convert the wearer’s view of the real world into a virtual world where he can do all kinds of things he wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.  Things like laying new graphics over existing surfaces and putting different sets of clothes on people without their knowledge.  Because president and chief programmer Owari is a pervert, so of course it can do that.

The future is now, and it looks like this.

When the assembled Judgment 7 crew tries out the headsets all together early on in the game at their company headquarters, however, the helmets seemingly malfunction and the whole cast ends up getting trapped in a closed-off looping bizarro world version of the Asakusa district of Tokyo that they can’t escape.  Even more strangely, it’s inhabited not by other humans, but rather by NPCs and monsters from previous games they’ve made.  They finally manage to make it back into the real world, but Owari is determined to learn more about this strange new world, and the team puts the development of their new game on hold to investigate the phenomenon.  Meanwhile, Reiji is mystified by the appearance in both the virtual and real worlds of “Girl A”, a mysterious girl who seems to know something about the new world that Judgment 7 has discovered and who has special powers within that world.

As the team continues to dive into the virtual Asakusa, agents in dark suits and sunglasses begin to show up in both the real and virtual worlds to track and chase after them.  Judgment 7 soon realizes that their new world has somehow merged with Akashic, another VR project run by Riken North, a private facility where Tatiana’s father Yuri is a lead researcher.  It eventually emerges that Riken North and Lab 13, an associated rogue research group, are building Akashic as the first step in a larger plan to create a virtual world that the rich and powerful can use both to live forever in virtual form and to control the real world.  And when the Akashic project gets out of control and unexpectedly ends up threatening Tokyo and its residents with total destruction, the misfit members of Judgment 7 are the only ones who can stop it.

Get all that?  Also: script errors.

The first aspect of Our World Is Ended that really attracted me was the art.  The character portraits and event CGs are really nice, and the characters are very expressive a real plus for a VN, in which you’ll be spending most of your time staring at the same characters for dozens of hours while they talk to each other.  I have to praise the background music as well; every piece is at least serviceable and some of them are pretty memorable.  A couple of tracks remind me of Shinji Hosoe’s work on the Zero Escape series, and a few of the usual VN everyday slice-of-life tracks would make for excellent waiting room music (and that is a compliment just because waiting room music usually blows doesn’t mean it has to.  There’s nothing wrong with some nice easy listening sometimes.  Or am I just getting old?) The voice acting is also fantastic.  Every VA does a great job, especially Eri Kitamura, who has to play Asano both sober and drunk on top of singing purposely off-key karaoke several times (Asano’s bad singing comes up a lot and is even weaponized to fight enemies a few times.)  I also have great respect for Iruka’s VA, whose throat probably went dry after having to generate weird screams from it so many times.  There’s no English dub, though, so if reading subtitles is a dealbreaker, this game isn’t for you.

It’s also worth mentioning that much of Our World Is Ended takes place in a setting modeled after the real-life Asakusa.  The famous Senso-ji Buddhist temple is prominently featured in the game, and the various locales that the crew frequents throughout are also real if the ending credits thanking those businesses are any indication.  Seems like Our World Is Ended is doubling as an Asakusa tourist guide, something like Akiba’s Trip was for Akihabara.  Pretty convenient if you’re planning a trip to Tokyo, isn’t it?  Well, not that playing this would help with your trip that much, but it’s still interesting to know some of the places in this game are based on real locales.

That’s Kaminarimon in the background, one of Tokyo’s landmarks. It shows up in quite a few other games as well.

However, all that’s just the icing on the cake.  The real substance of a visual novel is in the story.  When it comes to other kinds of games, you might be able to forgive an average or even a poorly-written plot and boring stock characters if the gameplay is fun.  But with a VN, if your story is garbage, your game is garbage.  So is Our World Is Ended garbage?

The short answer is no. It’s not the best VN I’ve ever read, and it wouldn’t even make my top ten list, but it is good.  However, I have a few qualifications to attach to my recommendation that I’ll get into below, along with an explanation of why I think the western critical reception of this game has been so poor and why I mostly disagree with their assessments of it.

Did I drink beer while the Sun was out last weekend while finishing this game? The answer is yes.

If you look this game up on Google, you’ll find it has lousy Metacritic ratings, ranging from the 40s to the 50s as of this writing depending upon which version you’re looking at. As I see it, there are a few reasons for these low scores. First, this is a visual novel, and a straight up no-apologies visual novel at that. Almost no frills, bells or whistles, no puzzles or point-and-click exploration sections or drink-mixing minigames to be found here. The closest thing Our World Is Ended has to a gameplay mechanic, “Selection of Soul”, is really just a jazzed-up version of the usual branching dialogue choice in which the choices scroll across the screen, forcing you to make a snap decision.  It’s a novel addition, but it’s not enough for the game to disguise itself as anything other than a VN.  And unfortunately, visual novels still seem to be a hard sell in the West even to the typical “hardcore gamer” set, leaving that good old core weeb audience I mentioned above, which tends to have tastes that run a bit counter to the mainstream. That’s especially true of this game about a small-time Japanese game developer that’s been translated into English.

One of many Selection of Soul sequences in the game. Making a lunch order has never been so stressful

Second, these reviewers seem to have expected something different out of Our World Is Ended from what they got. From reading their reviews, it looks like they expected a capital-S Serious story about the dangers of virtual reality and of advanced technology in general and how their use and abuse might affect everyday life. While Our World Is Ended does touch on those issues, the plot when taken on its own is pretty thin compared to what you can find in stuff like Steins;Gate and the Zero Escape series.  No, the real meat of the game is rather in its diversely strange cast of characters and their relationships with each other and with Reiji in particular. It also doesn’t take itself very seriously, because it’s essentially a dating sim wrapped in a sci-fi drama casing (yes, complete with romantic endings with the ladies* and joke endings with the guys based on Reiji’s dialogue choices.)

Finally, most of these reviewers take issue with the game’s script, specifically with all its sex jokes. This ties in with the above complaint, the idea being that all the lewd stuff drags the game down into the realm of mere fanservice. You might have guessed at this point that I have no problem with the fanservicey aspects of the game, but not just because I’m a fucking weirdo (well, I am, but that’s beside the point here.) Part of it has to do with the game’s unusual structure. Instead of having the typical rising action/climax/denouement setup you might expect, Our World Is Ended is layered like a lasagna.  Only instead of strips of pasta and meat/cheese, the ingredients are “sci-fi apocalypse hacker drama” and “wacky summer sex comedy”.  So as you play, you have some of one, then some of the other Reiji and co. have their lives imperiled in the virtual world of Akashic, and right after getting out of that jam they have a rooftop barbecue/visit a nearby bathhouse/take a vacation at a seaside inn with all the hijinks you’d expect, then they return to Akashic and almost die again in a different manner than they almost died last time, and this pattern continues almost to the very end of the game.  The result is that if you don’t like one of these two ingredients, you won’t like the game, because the two can’t be separated.  You know, just like a lasagna.

Owari hits on an NPC he programmed in virtual Asakusa. Bonus Japanese lesson: the 変態 on Owari’s shirt are the kanji for “hentai”. Dude is such a pervert he wears a shirt that says “PERVERT” on it. Also, please don’t ask why I know this word but barely any of the others.

This might make it sound like the game has a problem with wild tonal shifts, but it really doesn’t, because none of the more lighthearted scenes feel shoehorned in. Although the members of Judgment 7 all have exaggerated quirks, they’re written well enough that they always act consistent with those quirks and in ways that make sense to them, and considering the shit the crew goes through, it makes sense for all of them to go on a vacation or have a party to let loose.  And while some players will certainly be put off by the boob jokes and the ogling at the girls in their swimsuits at the beach and all the typical anime-flavored fanservice, the fact that this game is at least half sex comedy isn’t a bad thing in itself. Not every game has to be completely stone-faced and serious, and not every game has to be PG-rated (though it bears repeating that it’s not R-rated either being an all-ages game on Steam, it doesn’t have anything even approaching a sex scene.)

However, Reiji does get into about five dozen of these kinds of misunderstandings that only exist in anime/manga/visual novel series.

That’s not to say Our World Is Ended is perfect. When this game gets hold of a running joke, it keeps it running until the joke is exhausted and dry heaving on the side of the track. Asano gets a raw deal in this respect, receiving constant jabs about her “saddening” nature and her small bust, one of which she can’t help, and as for the other, I don’t see anything wrong with pounding a few beers and singing karaoke alone. These and a few other jokes get pretty damn worn out before the game ends. The writers also pull the “you think you and/or your friends are being killed by the bad guys, but it was really just a simulation within a simulation and you’re fine” trick a few times, which is annoying because that’s a trick that only works once.  The first time it happens in the game, it’s impactful as hell.  The rest of the times not so much, because you know it’s a trick at that point. And though I maintain that this game doesn’t have a tone problem, some of the plot’s finer points can get lost among all the comedy bits.  That’s less a problem with tone and more a problem with focus, I guess.  It’s not even really much of a problem, honestly, unless you’re looking for something profound and deadly serious, in which case Our World Is Ended is not your game anyway.

Finally, while the game’s translation looks mostly okay, the script has way too many typos. There isn’t a constant stream of them, but there are enough to be noticeable. I don’t know what kind of budget PQube was working with, but surely they could have hired a proofreader or two? There aren’t any Ever17 “Naturally, I knows the hacker”-level screwups, but a few lines come close.

None of that really bothers me too much, though (well, aside from the typos; those still bother me.) Because the real drama in Our World Is Ended doesn’t lie in Lab 13’s plot against Tokyo, but rather in the relationships between the members of Judgment 7 as the constantly changing virtual world forces them to face their insecurities.  Yuno and Asano both face up to their repressed fears stemming from their rough childhood together after their parents died.  Natsumi confronts her fear of losing her remaining friends in Judgment 7 after the death of their former director Reina and accepts that her Dark Angel of Chaos act is just that – an act.  On the way to the true ending, Reiji acknowledges and stands up to his fear that he’ll never measure up to Reina as a game director and that he’ll never be a true member of the team.  Even Reina, despite being a virtual copy of a deceased person, goes through a bit of a character arc, and one that’s not just played as a cheap tearjerker as you might expect.  The world of Akashic provides the challenges necessary for these characters to change and grow.  It also gives them plenty of opportunities to interact with their own game characters in fun ways, even when said game characters are trying to murder them.

I can’t even really explain the context of this scene, I don’t even remember

So sure, Our World Is Ended has a few rough edges, and it doesn’t really do or say anything new, but by the end I didn’t care. The characters were a lot of fun to watch as they dragged the hapless Reiji along into their insane schemes and fought against and then alongside their own game characters to save Tokyo from destruction.  And it does actually have some genuinely moving parts to it, despite initially coming off as a mere fanservice game.  It’s more than that.  I still wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s not into visual novels or anime comedy stylings, and it doesn’t rise to the level of some of the really great VNs I’ve played, but it’s an enjoyable game with a lot of character, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be dismissed out of hand.

I had to really think about what score to give Our World Is Ended, and I settled on a 5 out of 7.  That’s a pretty high 5, though.  Maybe more like a 5½.  Shit, I’m breaking my own stupid rating system now.  Well, whatever.  I liked this game.  That $60 price tag for the console versions is a little steep, though, especially considering the fact that the game is only about 25 to 30 hours long, which is not overly long for a VN of this kind.  It’s more reasonably priced on Steam, and if you see it featured in a sale, I’d say it’s worth springing for.

***

*Here I should address the fact that Tatiana does get a route as well, and she’s also involved in some of the more lightweight comedy of lewd errors parts of Our World Is Ended. Even though she’s a genius programmer, she’s also just a kid, both in terms of her age and maturity level, so this might come off as weird to some players. A few reviewers have even dragged this game over the coals for it, and one in particular stopped playing it for that reason alone (I’m talking about Mike Fahey of Kotaku; his non-review of Our World Is Ended comes up on the first page of the game’s Google results.) I could explain how the game doesn’t actually sexualize Tatiana, or how it even discourages perving on her and figuratively kicks you (i.e. Reiji) in the dick for doing so during the Selection of Soul decision branches, but Pete Davison of MoeGamer has already thoroughly addressed the issue here, so I defer to him.

Backlog review: Doki Doki Literature Club! (PC)

I tried to write a concise review of this game, but I found it impossible to discuss all its aspects I wanted to hit upon without setting out the proper context, so I dumped that review in the bin and started over.  This second take is by far the longest review I’ve ever written.  How long is that?  So long that this review has a preface.  I promise there’s a point to all of it, though.  

Well, I guess you can be the judge of that.

***

Doki Doki Literature Club! is a free English-language visual novel for PC, one that’s been sitting on my hard drive for quite a while now.  I kept telling myself I’d take it on eventually, and so I did over an evening after work, and well into the night.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a meaningful review of this game without getting into spoilers, but I don’t think I can. What I can say without spoiling the game (because the game itself gives the player a warning about this upon running for the first time) is that while Doki Doki Literature Club! looks like your usual cutesy dating sim VN, it deals with some very heavy subjects.  The cheerful theme and the colorful opening screen featuring the protagonist’s schoolmates wearing the world’s shortiest skirts* don’t tell the whole story behind this game.

Just your average visual novel, nothing to see here.

When I first checked it out, I didn’t think much of that fact.  I played a few VNs years ago like Yume Miru Kusuri that touched on similar issues.  But Doki Doki is different.  When the protagonist is pressured into joining his high school’s literature club by his ditzy childhood friend Sayori and meets her clubmates – the painfully reserved Yuri, the ultra-tsundere Natsuki, and the charismatic club president Monika – you might expect the usual choose-your-own-adventure style quest to win one of these girls’ hearts, but that’s not quite what you’ll get.

Massive honking spoilers regarding the game’s plot, characters, and endings follow under the below screenshot. If you haven’t played the game yet and don’t want to read any further, the short, spoiler-free version of my review ends with this: if you’re okay dealing with talk about depression, anxiety, and related issues, and you don’t mind some disturbing images, you should absolutely play Doki Doki Literature Club!  I promise it’s not just another dating sim.  Also, it’s free to download.  Also, it’s not an h-game, so no worries if you’re creeped out by those kinds of scenes, but it’s still not really for kids.

I know how it looks, but I promise it’s not like that.

I didn’t think a PC game could throw me for a loop again after I finished OneShot.  I already had some idea of the reputation Doki Doki Literature Club! (DDLC from now on, because I’m not planning to wear out my ctrl and v keys today) has as a horror game hidden in the shell of a generic dating sim, so I thought I was ready for anything.  But this game exceeded my expectations in that regard.  The way the game starts contrasts so greatly with where the game arrives at the end of the first playthrough that the effect has to be astounding if you weren’t expecting a twist at all.

So what makes DDLC so special?  If you’ve read this far, you’ve either played it already or don’t care about getting spoiled on it, so I’ll spill it here.  DDLC does indeed start out like your average dating sim visual novel set in a Japanese high school.  The player character is an average student who likes anime and video games, and every other character in the game is a cute girl who’s ready to fall madly in love with him despite the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about him.  The only thing that seems to be different about DDLC at first is the poetry minigame that separates each in-game day in which you have to go home and pick twenty words to dump into a poem to share with the club the next day.  Each of your three romantic targets (the short pink-haired Natsuki, the tall dark mysterious Yuri, and the chirpy, spaced-out Sayori – notice Monika isn’t an option; stick a pin in that fact because it’s important) has certain words she likes according to her personality, and your word choice determines which of them you get closer to.  Upon returning to the clubroom the next day, you share your poem with each of your clubmates, who usually shares her own poem in turn.

Wait, why is suicide an option?

Developer Team Salvato could have just left it at that, creating a nice little free romance VN for people to download on Steam and itch.io.  The characters are cute, the art is well done, and the writing is pretty good for your standard dating sim, especially for a free one.  Hell, the writer had to actually compose several poems written by each girl that fit her personality, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.  The only poem I’ve ever written was an obscene scrawl about being drunk and broke and horny that’s only fit for publication on the wall of a bathroom stall.

But no.  Instead of building a normal dating sim on this solid base, the creators chose to take that tried and true format apart and reassemble it into a game about crippling anxiety, suicidal depression, emotional abuse, and existential angst.  But did they pull it off?

I hope that’s not foreshadowing.

It’s not easy to write about the above-listed subjects in a realistic and tasteful way.  It’s even more difficult to write a piece of meta-fiction that weaves all these themes together.  Despite the initial cheery atmosphere of the literature club, each of these girls has some serious emotional baggage she’s dealing with.  Natsuki is raised by a single father who largely neglects her.  Yuri suffers from severe social anxiety to the point that she can barely hold a conversation if it’s not about literature, and it’s implied that she cuts herself.  Sayori hides a case of chronic depression behind an outwardly sunny disposition.  And Monika – well, Monika’s issue isn’t obvious at first, but it’s the one that causes the game to completely run off the rails in the end.

In a normal dating sim VN, the player, represented by the protagonist, pursues the girl he likes the best.  If all goes well (meaning he makes the right decisions when presented with branching dialogue and action paths) he’ll typically get a few increasingly intimate scenes with the girl and end up confessing his love to her or vice versa.  A nice, clean romance.  DDLC makes the player think that’s the path he’s headed down, and then it closes that path off completely, forcing him to take a detour into mind-bending uncanny valley horror land.  This shift in tone is driven partly by the psychological issues the other characters in the game are dealing with, in particular Sayori’s depression.

I don’t have a funny caption for this screenshot.

As the first act of the game goes on, Sayori starts to withdraw from the club’s activities to the point that even the dense as hell protagonist notices there’s something going on with her.  One day after telling him that she’s got depression, Sayori catches the protagonist in an awkward romantic-looking situation with either Yuri or Natsuki, then once she’s alone with him, she confesses her love to him as she breaks down sobbing.  You have the choice of either returning her love or calling her “your dearest friend” (that has to hurt) but either way, Sayori ends up hanging herself the next morning in her room.  When the protagonist stumbles upon her corpse hanging from the ceiling after checking in on her, he starts to lose his mind, a black screen with the word “END” pops up and the player is kicked back to the main menu, where Sayori seems to have been completely written over.

This… this isn’t right, is it?

The natural thing to do in a situation like this is reload your last save.  But guess what?  The game has god damn deleted all your saves.  All you can do at this point is click on the gibberish option at the top of the menu, which starts a new game, only with Sayori curiously absent.  This time around, Monika herself invites the protagonist to join her literature club, and you join Yuri and Natsuki as its newest member.  Sayori isn’t even mentioned, as if she’s been erased from existence.

This second act of DDLC is where things get really weird and broken.  Yuri and Natsuki start to suffer from bizarre graphical glitches, and their mutual rivalry that was on display in the first playthrough heats up to the point of vicious insults and R-rated name-calling.  Monika seems to be the only level-headed member of the club this this time around.  You might expect that she’s taken Sayori’s place as an option for romantic pursuit, but no, she’s still just a side character.  However, Monika starts to do some weird things too, dropping subtle hints that she somehow knows exactly what’s going on.

Monika, you’re in front of the dialogue box.  Why are you in front of the dialogue box.

The player still ostensibly has the option of romancing Yuri or Natsuki, but this time Yuri reveals her true form as a yandere who is obsessed with the protagonist, using her newly discovered yandere powers to drag him away from Natsuki and Monika at every opportunity.  And if you know anything about the yandere archetype, you know that you do not want to be the target of a yandere’s affections.

Please don’t.

However, Monika isn’t having it.  As Yuri and Natsuki fight over the protagonist, Monika tries pulling rank on them to get you to spend the weekend with her to work on the big festival project the club was planning both in this and the first act.  Yuri’s yandere powers overcome Monika’s efforts once again, but not for long – after confessing her love for the protagonist, Yuri inexplicably pulls out a kitchen knife and stabs herself in the heart.  The player is then stuck in the classroom all weekend with Yuri’s corpse, the passage of time marked by the sun setting and rising through the windows.  For some reason, the protagonist doesn’t get a chance to respond to any of this.  You’re still viewing the action through his eyes, but he’s now effectively absent for some reason.

On Monday morning, Natsuki and Monika return to school.  Natsuki acts like anyone else would upon seeing the two day-old corpse of her classmate – she vomits and runs out of the classroom in tears.  Monika, however, just laughs and apologizes to you for having to spend a boring weekend at school thanks to the “broken script”.  She then promises to fix the problem, opens a console at the corner of the screen, and deletes two files named yuri.chr and natsuki.chr.  She then decides to go all the way and deletes the rest of the world outside of the classroom.

The end?

At this point, it’s obvious what’s going on.  Monika is a self-aware game character – she’s known since the beginning of the game that she exists inside a dating sim and that nothing around her is real.  That even includes the protagonist, who is now definitely no longer around, or at least not around enough to say or think anything.  Monika is now talking directly to you, the player.  She confesses that she was the one screwing with the game.  She figured out how to alter the game files to aggravate Natsuki’s and Yuri’s character quirks in an attempt to make them more unlikable.  She even manipulated Sayori into killing herself when she saw her getting too close to the protagonist, and hence to the player.  Monika then expresses her love for you, the player, on the other side of the screen, and says that the two of you are now together forever.  Once again, it’s pointless to open the load menu – all the saves have been deleted, and restarting the game just brings up Monika again, who asks you why everything just went dark for a minute (echoes of OneShot there, though in a very different context.)

This might seem like the end of the game, but the astute player will likely be wondering what happens if Monika’s character file is deleted as well.  That’s the key to getting to the actual ending of the game, in which Monika’s file is destroyed but she still manages to exist long enough to feel bad for what she’s done and to restore the game and all its characters except for her.  This third act (or fourth act, if you want to count Monika’s void as the third act) is very short – basically a lead-in to the ending.  DDLC will end in one of two ways depending upon whether you managed to see every special event in the game before it throws you into the “broken” second act of the game.  In both cases, Sayori has taken Monika’s place as club president, and in the best ending she thanks you, the player, for being there for all the girls when they needed you most before ending the game – this time for good.

Turns out the whole horrific awareness of yourself as a game character thing is inherited by whoever becomes the club president. Sorry, Sayori.

I like the concept of DDLC.  I’m not sure anyone’s created a fake-out dating sim turned horror game before this one, or at least one that’s been written in or translated into English.  There have been visual novels that use the player’s perspective as a plot point to throw the player for a loop, but I haven’t played one that involves the player himself as a character quite like DDLC does.

More importantly, the creators put together DDLC in a clever way, dropping hints in the first act that something isn’t quite right and building upon that feeling in the second act, culminating in Monika’s deletion of the rest of the game world.  Monika has a few strange lines of dialogue in the first act that break the fourth wall (at one point, for example, she says that a joke Natsuki made based on a Japanese language pun using Monika’s name** “doesn’t work in translation”, then everyone looks puzzled for a second before the dialogue continues.) Monika’s poems also make references to her self-awareness as a game character, though these are naturally a lot more obvious during a second playthrough.  In fact, upon a second playthrough you’ll probably notice a lot of weird things that you passed over the first time around, like the fact that the protagonist doesn’t respond to Monika’s “Writing Tip of the Day” segment at the end of each day, nor to any of the weird fourth-wall breaking stuff going on in either the first or the second acts.  And the fact that in every one of her portraits, Monika is the only character who is always looking directly at the player.  This is the sort of thing that you just don’t notice when you’re playing a VN, and the game uses that fact to set the player up for the big twist at the end of the second act.

See, this is an extra-meta-joke because saving your game in DDLC is mostly pointless.

The second act does contain a few jumpscare-esque moments, but they’re not done in the stupid kind of way you might expect.  The best one involves Yuri giving you her third poem, which is a page full of gibberish covered in bloodstains and also a yellow stain that’s probably exactly what you think it is.  When you stop reading the poem, Yuri is standing six inches from the protagonist’s face looking at him in crazy-eyes mode (not the crazy eyes in the screenshot halfway up, but extra-crazy eyes) asking him what he thinks of it.  I’m not posting a screenshot of that because it is actually pretty god damn disturbing and I do not want to look at it again.  The writer and artist both make effective use of that uncanny horror feeling in the second act, especially with Yuri’s increasingly scary yandere side coming out.

There’s only one real fault I can find with DDLC.  The meta-fiction derailment of the story in the second act is clever and surprising, but it also prevents the game from more seriously addressing the emotional problems that the characters face.  I can imagine an alternate version of DDLC in which the protagonist has to try to romance one of his clubmates while considering not only her feelings but also the feelings of the other girls in the game.  DDLC starts down that path in the first act but goes in a different direction after Sayori’s suicide.  That’s not a bad thing in itself, but I feel like there was a missed opportunity here.  On the other hand, the meta-fiction element of the game is a big part of what makes it special, so I can’t complain too much about the path the creators decided to take.  At the very least, Monika’s existential crisis freakout gets solved in the end, though not in an entirely happy way.

Or you can hang out with Monika in the void forever. That’s not a bad option either.

And that’s all I have to say about Doki Doki Literature Club!  As far as plot, characters, crazy meta-fiction elements and attention to detail go, DDLC is extremely impressive, especially for a free visual novel.  You just don’t expect this kind of quality from a free VN you can download off of Steam or itch.io.  I certainly didn’t, which is probably part of why it took me so long to play this game.  It’s a real achievement, and I hope the developer stays in the business.  Maybe they can follow DDLC up with a reverse-twist by creating a VN that everyone expects to be bizarre and meta but that ends up being a completely normal dating sim.  Now that would be interesting. 𒀭

* This is a Futurama reference, which means that I’m not being perverted by pointing out the shortness of the characters’ skirts.  That’s how that works, right?

** Translator’s note: ika means squid.

Saya no Uta revisited: A Valentine’s Day review

Happy Valentine’s Day, all you lovebirds.  To commemorate this wonderful day, I decided to replay a game I covered several years ago – the most romantic game I’ve ever played.  As far as contemporary love stories go, you can throw Twilight in the trash, toss Fifty Shades in the woodchipper, dump all those grocery store romance novels in the landfill, and dissolve all those Hollywood romcoms in a vat of acid, because we have Saya no Uta.

Saya no Uta (translated as The Song of Saya by JAST, publisher of the official localization) is the creation of developer Nitroplus and writer Gen Urobuchi.  If you’ve watched Madoka Magica, you might have a vague idea of what to expect from this visual novel.  My original review of this game was spoiler-free, so if you want to check out Saya no Uta unspoiled, you can find it here.  This new review of Saya is an analysis rather than a glossing-over like the first, and it contains major spoilers about the plot and the endings, so stop reading after the below image if you want to avoid those.  Finally, the usual disclaimer that anyone has to tack on when talking about Saya: this game contains sexually explicit content and some extremely disturbing imagery and scenarios, so if your imagination is especially active or you’re just not interested in that sort of thing, you might want to stop reading and also avoid the game altogether.

Scroll past Saya for major spoilers

My new playthrough of Saya no Uta several years after my first was very different.  Not in terms of its content – Saya is a short VN, about five hours for a 100% run, and only features two branching option paths and three endings.  It was rather different in terms of the response the game got out of me.  If you’ve read this far, you’ve likely already played Saya and know what it’s all about, but for those who haven’t and just don’t care about being spoiled on it, here’s a brief summary: our main character, medical student Fuminori Sakisaka, is nearly killed in an accident that claims the lives of both his parents and leaves him with a seemingly incurable condition that causes him to see all people, animals, and things in the world as mounds of horrible, stinking meat and flesh-beasts.

Fuminori is driven to the brink of suicide by his condition, but he unexpectedly finds hope when a girl appears at his hospital bedside.  This girl, named Saya, claims to be secretly living in the hospital while looking for her missing father, a university professor.  Fuminori clings to Saya, the only other being in the world who looks like a human to him, and promises to find her father if she agrees to live with him in his now-empty house in Tokyo upon his discharge from the hospital.  Saya agrees, and they begin their life together while Fuminori does his best to return to his normal routine, struggling to hide his mental disorder from his friends and fellow med school students Kouji, Oumi, and Yoh, his doctor Ryouko Tanbo, and the rest of the world out of fear that he’ll be permanently institutionalized if they learn the truth.  Meanwhile, Fuminori and Saya go beyond mere roommates and develop a romantic relationship (and a sexual one – this is most of the reason why Saya is an h-game.)

Since my last playthrough of Saya, I’ve tried out a little fiction writing, and despite being a total hack I do have some opinions about what makes for good and bad storytelling.  One of the hallmarks of bad writing, in my opinion, is going for shock value with no purpose or goal beyond offending the sensibilities of the reader.

Saya contains a lot of shocking content.  The most immediately obvious is Fuminori’s relationship with Saya, who is apparently not much more than a kid (of course, she’s really not a kid, or even a human, but we don’t know that until the game starts to drop hints about Saya’s true nature halfway through the story.)  In the course of trying to protect his life with Saya, Fuminori also commits kidnapping, murder, and cannibalism.

Even more horrific are some of the acts that Saya commits, however.  Her true form, or her form as the rest of the world aside from Fuminori sees it, is a monstrous mass of flesh and guts, just the sort of creature that Fuminori sees all other humans as.  When Saya first meets Fuminori in his hospital room, she shows up intending merely to scare him – just the sort of innocent prank a kid might try to play on someone, and she’s surprised when Fuminori sees her as a human being instead of the eldritch abomination she really is.  Throughout the game, as Saya and Fuminori grow more emotionally attached to each other, Saya starts to commit far more atrocious acts.

While Fuminori tries to protect Saya from the outside world, Saya also does her best to protect Fuminori.  Collectively, the pair end up killing one of Fuminori’s former friends and attempting to kill another when they try to investigate his new life.  The third ends up suffering a fate even worse than death at Saya’s hands.  Saya, after conducting a few experiments on the neighbors, discovers that she can rewire human brains to see the world as Fuminori does and even convert humans into creatures like her that Fuminori sees as human, molding and mutating them to compensate for his mental disorder.  The results of these experiments are completely horrific and lead to what I and probably most other people would consider the most disturbing scenes in the game.

Even though all of this content is shocking, though, none of it is gratuitous.  While playing Saya, I never had the sense that Urobuchi was writing a scene merely to turn my stomach.  Every one of the terrible acts Fuminori and Saya commit make sense to them, and every one serves the purpose of plot or character development or both. However, while we can understand why Fuminori and Saya do what they do, we can’t forgive them.  At key points in the story, Saya no Uta shifts the player’s perspective away from Fuminori to his friends and his doctor.

When the game puts us in the minds of Tanbo, Kouji, Yoh, Oumi, and humans other than Fuminori, we see the world as it truly is, and we see Fuminori as the rest of the world sees him – a man who avoids his former friends and snaps at them when they try to approach him, who lives in a house with overgrown grass and weeds in the front yard, whose house stinks to high heaven with the smell of rotten meat, and who happily lives and mates with a flesh-monster that hunts and kills other humans.  Fuminori is the protagonist of Saya no Uta, but there’s no doubt that both he and Saya are the villains of this story.  They pose an extreme threat to everyone living around them, especially Saya, whose abilities to mutate human minds and bodies are constantly growing.  Which is why, when Kouji decides to try to kill Fuminori (either with or without Tanbo’s help – one of the two branching paths in the game) I can completely get behind his decision, even if I feel some sympathy for Fuminori.

This is how you know Saya wasn’t written by an American.

Which is why it’s so strange that the objectively best ending of the game is so god damn depressing.  In one of the three available routes, Dr. Tanbo and Kouji, Fuminori’s former best friend and lover of Oumi, one of Saya’s victims, confront Fuminori and Saya.  Tanbo manages to inflict a fatal wound upon Saya by splashing her with liquid nitrogen, and Fuminori, in a rage, kills Tanbo with an axe and then turns the axe on himself in despair after seeing that Saya is dying.  Kouji survives the ordeal but goes insane, and it’s implied that he later commits suicide.  I know this doesn’t sound like a traditional good ending, but aside from these four, Oumi, Yoh, and a few other of Saya’s human victims, the world is saved from disaster.  (The ending that most people consider the “true ending” involves Saya dying after sprouting a set of wing-like protrusions that multiply into countless seeds that spread throughout the world, turning humans into Saya-like creatures, which was what drove her instinct to consume Fuminori’s, uh, essence – something Saya herself doesn’t seem to realize until this moment.)  Still, it doesn’t feel good watching these events play out, because we’re watching characters we’ve been with the whole game meet their ends.

None of them are completely unsympathetic, either – not even the villains.  Fuminori has completely discarded his humanity by the game’s third act, effectively becoming a predatory creature like Saya who lives on raw animal (and human) flesh, but it’s clear that his mental condition drove him to that point, even if he did eventually make the conscious decision to arrive there.  Even Saya remains pure in some sense, because everything she does is meant to please and help Fuminori.  As we learn near the end of the game, Saya seems not to have even made a conscious decision to come to our planet (or our universe – it’s not clear whether she’s a standard alien or an extra-dimensional being, though I’m leaning towards the latter.)

And that’s why Saya no Uta is a great romance.  The acts that Fuminori and Saya commit in the course of the story are unforgivable and unjustifiable, but none of them are gratuitous in the context of the story, because they’re motivated by the pair’s unnatural love for each other, and Urobuchi writes their love in a way that we can believe and understand.

As bad as the “every character dies” ending is, this one is far worse.

Damn, I did not intend to write that much about Saya no Uta.  But I couldn’t really help it.  This game made me feel things, and that’s not very common considering how cynical and emotionally locked up I am.  Since I’ve heaped a lot of praise on the writing in Saya, it would be unfair not to mention the game’s beautiful art (even though a lot of it’s meant to be ugly) and its atmospheric soundtrack.  Saya is still one of my favorite visual novels, though I absolutely would not recommend it to some, or even most, considering its mix of Lovecraftian horror and sexual content.  Even though it contains a lot of explicit content, however, I don’t consider Saya to really be an h-game.  Yes, it has sex scenes, but even those scenes move the game’s plot and character development – and they’re clearly not meant for that purpose.  At least, it’s hard to imagine the sort of person who would be aroused by anything in Saya.  I’m sure such a person exists in the world, and I hope I never meet them.

I wonder how the American remake of Oldboy is too, I should check it out

One more note about Saya: in 2010, IDW released a three-volume comic book adaptation of the game titled Song of Saya.  It apparently put the story through the bowdlerization machine.  Saya now looks like a woman in her 20s, which is understandable considering the trouble IDW might have gotten into if they’d tried to depict Saya as she is in the original work.  But I’ve heard that the writers made a lot of other changes that were not even remotely necessary and that it just sucks in general.  I have a weird fascination with shitty media and bad adaptations, though, so if I ever come across these Song of Saya comics in a bin somewhere for a few dollars I’ll probably check them out just for the hell of it and let you know what I think.  I haven’t read this thing, so maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day once again, if you’re still in the mood for romance after reading all that.  I’ll be sitting at home working.  Love is nice, but money is better.  I guess I really am a cynic at heart.

 

A review of VA-11 HALL-A (PC, Vita)

Time to mix drinks and change lives

Have you ever wanted to work as a bartender at a cyberpunk bar in the future?  Then you’re in luck.  VA-11 HALL-A, previewed here in its demo version, is a game that came out late last month for PC and Vita.*  It bills itself as “cyberpunk bartender action”, as you can see in the below screenshot.

v1

Not sure about the “action” bit, but the description is otherwise apt, because you play as Jill, a young bartender working at a small out-of-the-way bar called VA-11 HALL-A (pronounced Valhalla) in a slummy neighborhood of the futuristic dystopia Glitch City.  In this future, humans are enhanced with nanomachines and extremely human-looking robots called Lilim mix with the population.  The city’s population has to deal with constant shortages, and protests are dealt with violently by the authorities.  Jill, however, is only concerned with getting to work, paying rent, and keeping the lights on.  She shares her duties with her boss Dana and her co-worker Gillian (above, left and right respectively), each of whom have shady and mysterious pasts.

v6

Jill goes to work every night, tends bar, and has conversations with her customers and with Dana and Gillian.  Some customers only drop by once or twice, while others are regulars, but all of them ask for mixed drinks that Jill has to prepare using the setup on the right side of the screen.  Sometimes the customer will ask for a specific drink, but at other times they’ll just ask for something strong or sweet or bitter or girly and let you interpret the order as you see fit.  Fortunately, the player can refer to a drink guide that contains recipes, but a few orders are actually pretty hard to get right the first time around, and serving customers different drinks can change the conversation or get the customers drunker or less drunk depending upon how Karmotrine (basically the future version of alcohol) they consume.  Jill’s performance at work also affects her paycheck and her ability to pay the bills back at home, where she returns after work to rest with her cat Fore and to read the news, blogs, and messageboards on her cell phone.  Or her iPad, or whatever that thing she’s holding is.

In my playthrough, I fucked up and didn't have enough money in my account to pay the electric bill.

During my playthrough, I fucked up and didn’t have enough money in my account to pay the electric bill.

This drink-mixing mechanic makes VA-11 HALL-A feel a little bit like Papers, Please, the big indie hit from 2013 that put the player in the role of a border agent trying to make ends meet in an oppressive Soviet-style state.  VA-11 HALL-A, however, is a lot less of a traditional “game”, at least in the way a lot of people would define it, and a lot more of a visual novel.  The drink-making parts of the game aren’t timed, and the player can reset and start over if he screws up with no penalties.  The real focus of this game is on the relationships between its characters.  A lot of the people hanging out in Valhalla have personal issues that they’re working through, and some of the characters that show up are pretty memorable and interesting.  Characters that comes to mind right away are Sei, a member of the city’s security force who first visits the bar in her full uniform, complete with intimidating helmet, and Dorothy, a cheery android girl who works as a prostitute and has no qualms about it (or about talking about her work in detail.)  One of the most interesting characters in the story, though, is Jill, who as it turns out is running away from something in her past that catches up with her during the game.

Maybe it's better if you don't get the reference here.

A not-so-subtle reference to a certain famous novel.

VA-11 HALL-A is a good game that I’m happy I bought and played, but there are some caveats in this case, because this isn’t a game for everyone.  You might be thinking this game is inspired by Blade Runner, and you’d be right, since it’s in a dystopian cyberpunk setting full of human-like androids.  But VA-11 HALL-A is also soaked in references to anime/manga/Japanese game culture (is “culture” the right word for it?)  If I weren’t an embarrassing weeb nerd myself, I definitely wouldn’t have understood some of the hidden jokes in the game’s many conversations.  Someone who’s approaching this game without that kind of background will be missing out a bit in that regard.

Even moreso, though, VA-11 HALL-A is an adult game.  There’s nothing remotely pornographic or lewd or anything in the game graphically speaking, but a lot of the conversations revolve around fuckin’.  Especially when Dorothy is around.  And Dorothy’s status as what amounts to a sexbot with a personality, combined with her appearance and the reference in her name, may make some players uncomfortable (like this reviewer for PC Gamer, who was clearly creeped out by the whole thing, though to be fair the game does address all this.)  So if that rubs you the wrong way, you might want to give VA-11 HALL-A a miss.

This is a real line in the game, not making it up

It makes sense in context, I promise

But if VA-11 HALL-A is about anything, it’s about the nature of love and friendship.  That might make this game sound cheesy or cliché, but it really handles the subject well and does so in an interesting setting and with interesting characters.  So even though VA-11 HALL-A felt like it ended way too quickly (one playthrough only took about 10 hours, which is standard length for some genres but short for a VN) I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys VNs or who thinks all the stuff I described above might be interesting.  The soundtrack is also really good and goes a long way towards creating the game’s cyberpunkish but also strangely cozy atmosphere.  And considering the fact that the developer, Sukeban Games, consists of two guys living in Venezuela, one of the most politically unstable countries in the world at the moment, VA-11 HALL-A is actually pretty goddamn impressive.  Let’s hope they make it through the crisis and go on to top their achievements with an even better game.

==

*I was going to start this review with a lot of bitching about how at least I have this game to play while waiting for Zero Time Dilemma, which I was supposed to have last fucking week but someone fucked up and Amazon promised they’d ship the game in an email but they haven’t done anything for the past five days.  But then I thought that sounded too bitter/angry.  Then I wrote about it in this footnote instead.

†This review is kind of interesting to me because it’s a take on the game from a totally different perspective from mine – aside from the whole sex issue, the reviewer just seems to not like visual novels considering her comments about how the game is “boring”, and VA-11 HALL-A is basically a visual novel.

Valhalla I am coming

That famous line from Led Zeppelin’s famous “Immigrant Song” (their best-known, but not only, song they wrote about Vikings) is what I thought when I saw the title of the soon to be released VA-11 Hall-A, a visual novel by the studio Sukeban Games.  Valhalla, which is what I’m calling the game from now on because I don’t feel like copy-pasting VA-11 Hall-A more than once, is a VN set in a cyberpunk dystopian future city where there are nanomachines and probably robots and cyborgs that was certainly inspired by Blade Runner.  In this world, you play as Jill, a bartender working at a hole in the wall sort of place officially called VA-11 and unofficially called Valhalla who has to mix drinks and deal with the characters who come in out of the cold for booze and a conversation.  The gameplay, aside from being mostly or almost entirely a VN, includes a drink-mixing mechanic that’s vaguely reminiscent of a way less complicated form of the border agent work in Papers Please – you have the choice of mixing drinks properly for your customers or of giving them bullshit drinks, and your choice in this matter seems to affect the dialogue.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Your only customer in the demo, which gives you a brief taste of the full game.

Valhalla is being released on June 21, but I played the admittedly very short demo that gave me at least a taste of the sort of gameplay I should expect.  And I’m honestly intrigued.  Not only do I like good visual novels, but this particular VN involves the consumption of alcohol, which I also like.  Moreover, Sukeban is an unabashedly weeaboo studio (no, it’s not Japanese, but Venezuelan, strangely enough) so that’s another natural connection for me to make.  The weeaboo thing can cut both ways – I’m hoping the final product will not be too self-indulgent or memetastic.  But the brief demo suggested that this probably won’t be the case.  Unlike some other western VN projects that crop up and get public attention, Valhalla – at least so far – doesn’t feel like a cheap knock-together of mediocre art and writing.  And the Venezuelan team that put together this demo/game seems to have an excellent grasp on English – either they’re fluent speakers or they hired native English-speakers to edit their work.

In any case, I’m interested in this game.  I need something to play while I study for the bar exam and wait for Zero Time Dilemma to come out.  Expect (well, maybe expect) a review of the full version of Valhalla in the near future.