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This blog is devoted to popularization (and discussion about) western-produced VNs. My main goal is to present notable non-Japanese visual novels that didn’t receive attention in the Fuwa community and, whenever possible, giving voice to people behind them. Doing this, I hope I’ll be able to give these projects and their creators the appreciation they deserve and oppose some negative stereotypes about non-JP VNs that circulate within our community.

I’m also going to talk about failed VN projects and review newly-released titles of various quality, using this opportunity to discuss the most common flaws and problems characteristic for the western VN development scene and realities of the OELVN market. 

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Plk_Lesiak

Dharker Studio is one of the better-known development teams on the EVN scene, active since early 2015, but also one that quickly became rather infamous due to their low-quality, fanservice-filled titles. Games such as Sword of Asumi or Divine Slice of Life gathered a lot of attention, as they were released on then still quite barren EVN market and quickly found their way to Steam, but were also quite harshly rejected by reviewers and poorly received by many VN fans. Later down the line, the company focused on purely erotic titles, with much-telling titles such as Army Gals or Battle Girls – admittedly with slightly more artistic(?) success. While most of those games followed a very standard formula, with faceless self-insert protagonists and number of females to “date”, there are also two notable yuri eroge by Dharker: Negligee, released in late 2016 and Galaxy Girls, published a year after that. Today, as the appreciator of yuri that I am, I’ll take a closer look at those two girls’ love-themed games, both of them quite curious examples of commercial success despite many, many problems they suffered from. As a "bonus", I'll include the Negligee's prequel, Love Stories, in the article – the game that earned the unexpected honour of being the first uncensored, fully explicit eroge accepted by Valve for Steam release. While this game's content is mostly straight hentai, it has one notable yuri subplot and features all the girls from Negligee, being worth a closer look from everyone that enjoyed the first title in the series. So, let's get this thing started!

 

Negligee

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While writing the two dozens of shovelware reviews over the last 6 months I've noticed that ecchi EVNs seem to work better with casual, more or less realistic settings – there are few things more painful than mediocre-at-best writer trying to create a fantasy or sci-fi setting with the use of kitsch, exaggerated characters and all the most overdone cliches, just to give an excuse for persistent close-ups on anime boobs and a few hentai scenes. The game we're talking about now, thankfully, chose a rather simple and straightforward premise and made a pretty decent use of it. As the player, you control the actions of an assistant manager in a lingerie shop (titular Negligee), that is suddenly forced to take over for her boss (who runs away in mysterious circumstances) and find some new employees. Soon, three candidates show up and as they all seem reasonably fit for the job, we have to take our female protagonist (who is, by the way, a quite gorgeously-designed, busty redhead) through a week-long trial with the girls and decide which one of them she should hire. And, as I probably don’t have to explain, the store’s sexy merchandise will find many, many uses throughout the whole experience. And also quite often it will be falling on the floor...

            While, obviously, the premise might have relatively little significance here in comparison to fanservice and h-scenes (although, surprisingly enough, those are mostly bonus content, served to you after finishing the main plot),the game offering a serviceable story, with the possibility to properly present the characters and get the reader at least a tiny bit emotionally involved is something I always appreciate. While some of the mechanics Dharker used here, like the large number of bad endings, make relatively little sense within the formula (I don’t think many people bought this game for unexpected drama-filled, negative conclusions that don’t even feel that connected to the choices you made), the heroines are likable and get just enough character development to make the whole thing fun to read – and nice to look at, as art is admittedly of very nice quality, just as you would hope in a quasi-nukige. In the end, however, it's just a bit too short (it takes only around 4 hours to 100% it) and shallow to prove truly satisfying, especially for the base asking price of $13. Because of this, I don't think I can give it a rating higher than Rabbit Poo, although, if you find it on deep sale, it’s still a reasonably enjoyable piece of yuri smut, definitely worth it for the fans of the genre.

Final Rating: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

Negligee: Love Stories

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Negligee's prequel already claimed a place in PC gaming and VN history, regardless its quality, but in my opinion, it turned out to be a positive surprise not only by heralding the end of Steam's strict anti-porn policies. Love Stories, which contains four short, separate episodes, explores the backstories of the three main heroines from the first game and the paths that led them to working in the titular lingerie store, along with the story of Loren, the Negligee's old manager. It does a very solid job of expanding on the very basic characterisation the cast received before, placing all of them at the center of some decently-written drama. Every episode has a clear theme (like sex addiction for Sophie or failed marriage and cheating for Loren), with choices that can either lead you to the resolution of the conflict and a positive, canon ending (which also awards you a short epilogue) or a negative, "dead end" one. Interestingly enough, hentai scenes are quite often connected to the "bad" choices, with more narratively compelling resolutions being connected to characters rejecting sex or at least being reluctant about it. This makes an impression of a nukige that actually tries to tell a story and cares at least somewhat about the consistency of its narrative a pretty rare occurrence, especially in the low-budget EVN scene.

            Interestingly enough, Love Stories' flaws spawned a substantial amount of criticism towards the game, making it barely stay above "mixed" ranking on Steam. And there are definitely some problems there: the choices often don't affect the story in meaningful ways, sometimes literally being followed by 2-3 unique lines and only making any difference when it goes to the ending you'll get. The episodes are also short, with the whole VN ultimately having a similar completion time as the first Negligee and most likely only feeling compelling to those familiar with the original story and interested in exploring its characters further. Out of context, it will only be a decently-drawn, short nukige, but if you're familiar with the original game and enjoyed it, both titles supplement each other really well and create a rather enjoyable experience. Not one deep beyond what you could reasonably expect from porn VNs, but pretty high up there in its own category – and I see no reason why we shouldn't appreciate that.

Final Rating: Golden Poo! gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

Galaxy Girls

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Galaxy Girls is a game with a somewhat complicated history, but one aiming at simple goals. It’s a remake of the Reine Works’ Blossoms Bloom Brightest, a free Yuri Game Jam title, which Dharker expanded on, and added h-scenes and fanservice, pretty much completely absent in the original. While keeping the general structure of the plot and even much of the dialogue, they added a fourth character (the story follows a small group of women stuck together on an involuntary, one-way space mission and having to cope with their situation), replaced all the artwork and, ultimately, shifted the tone of the whole experience from drama to porn (including some seriously out-of-place fanservice scenes, especially the solo ones in the common route, featuring the protagonist, who acts as the ship’s captain). Even the character designs, while clearly similar to the original ones, feel much less mature and are visibly more “sexy” (it’s hard to miss Kotoha’s sprite magically going from B cup to D+).

            While all these modifications are rather understandable, considering the Dharker’s history and the kind of content their fans might expect, things that weren’t changed are more puzzling. BBB’s story begged for major reworking, with its rather one-dimensional characters, messy plot progression and the main intrigue going nowhere, but all its biggest flaws are completely intact in the remake. Addition of the extra character, Emilia, is also done in a very poor way, as she’s inserted into a story definitely constructed around the original three girls and their interactions, so throughout the common route she barely has any role to play and literally nothing meaningful to say, to the point it’s rather hilarious, while the choices that lead to her route rarely make any sense. A DLC episode, added months after the game’s release, give us some insights into her character and her backstory, but it’s definitely too little, too late to salvage her as a meaningful addition as anything other than fanservice fodder.

            The game, obviously, has a decent amount of hentai – as someone who cares little for anime porn, as usual, I’m not the best person to assess it, but its variety and quality of the art are definitely on a very decent level. Still, the trainwreck that is Galaxy Girls’ story did little to get me excited about the sex and romance in it and that’s never a good sign, even if you want to treat this game as a nukige (and I think it’s less of a porn game than Negligee, considering its much longer story and the hentai once more being mostly at the end of every route). It’s definitely not the worst thing ever, probably not even close to some games covered in this series, but even considering it’s more reasonable when it goes to price/content ratio (especially including DLC episodes, there’s quite a lot of reading and quite a lot of porn in there), I see few reasons to recommend it. Only for those really starved for some hot yuri action (although I would still suggest saving your money and investing into something like a SonoHana game or the recently-released Sisterly Bliss).

Final Rating: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

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And this, for the time being, concludes the topic of Dharker Studio’s yuri games and marks the beginning of a short hiatus of Shovelware Adventures. It, however, doesn’t mean that Dharker is already off the hook – when the series comes back, it will quite likely be their titles, especially the very early ones, published under the AJTilley.com label, being torn apart. These games are especially interesting to me, as they’re all quite important parts of the history of the whole EVN scene, even if rather unfortunate ones and I can’t way to see whether all my negative assumptions and knowledge about them will be proven right. For now, I hope you all enjoyed our little journey through the world of visual novel shovelware (and, maybe, even other parts of my humble blog). Until the next time!

Plk_Lesiak

For the last month, we were going through the impressive catalogue of free VNs by ebi-hime, one of the most celebrated creators within the Western VN scene. As a conclusion to this series, it’s my great pleasure to bring you a short interview with none other than ebi herself. During our conversation, I’ve focused on the dominating themes in ebi’s works and topics directly connected to the freeware titles I was reviewing lately – if you want a more general overview of her inspirations and questions connected to her other work, consider reading the interviews done in the past by The Yuri Nation and Sekai Project. Also, if you’re not familiar with ebi’s free VNs, check out my previous posts about them (Part 1; Part 2) – they should give you the context necessary to understand what we’re talking about in the more context-specific questions. So, here it comes – hope you’ll all enjoy it!

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Plk_Lesiak: Thank you for accepting my invitation! I don't think there are many Western VN fans who wouldn't be familiar with your work, but can you share something about the person behind the ebi-hime label?

ebi-hime: I’m ebi and I like cute things, maids, and magical girl anime... And that’s about it! Honestly, I’m not very interesting.

PL: As you talked about your inspirations and interests in other interviews, I would like to focus on the dominant themes in your games. You're one of the few EVN authors that frequently set their stories in the West. Do you have a favourite setting to write about?

ebi: I think England is probably my favourite setting to write about, because it’s the country I live in and I’m reasonably familiar with it (though I don’t know everything about England, of course). It’s easier to place my characters in a setting I know relatively well, as I don’t have to do as much research, and the end result feels more ‘authentic’.

I also like setting stories in Japan because I got into VNs through reading a lot of Japanese VNs which were (what a surprise!) set in Japan. I also watch a lot of anime, and I went through a period where I exclusively read Japanese crime fiction, so I’m fond of Japanese settings! If I don’t feel like setting my stories in England or Japan, I’ll usually pick a European country I’m somewhat familiar with, like France or Italy.

PL: Much of your work is yuri-themed, including some unusual setups for f/f romance. How did Samuel Taylor Coleridge become a woman?

ebi: I love Romantic poets (especially Coleridge) a lot, and I really, really, really wanted to write a VN featuring him as a character, but dropping a real, historical figure into a fictional story felt kind of weird. Changing him into a cute girl made him feel distant enough from the real person that I could write about him without feeling too awkward.

Turning male historical figures into cute girls is also pretty popular in VNs, so I thought I might as well! Girls are cute! Although I think the real Coleridge you can see in his personal letters/diary entries is cuter than Samantha…

PL: Girls are cute indeed, but especially in Asphyxia, you ended up creating a really “heavy” story with a very cute exterior. Was this contrast something deliberate?

ebi: I wanted a very soft, almost doll-like art style for Asphyxia because I thought it would complement the mannered, flowery writing style. The character designs themselves are quite cute, but I think they’re drawn in a style that’s enough of a departure from a more traditional ‘anime’ style that most people would realise Asphyxia is not a ‘moe’ VN based on the screenshots?

I wasn’t trying to use the art to trick anybody, or make the story seem cuter than it is. I chose the art because I thought it enhanced the story’s gloomy atmosphere.

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Asphyxia

PL: Still, Yuri romance is also pretty commonly associated with something light-hearted and a bit saccharine, like Kiss for the Petals series for example. Were you worried about the reception of your early yuri titles, considering how much they deviated from this formula?

ebi: The first yuri story I ever read was the manga Gunjo, which is very grim and dark and lots of horrible things happen to all the characters, so maybe that’s where I drew some of my initial inspiration from.

Initially, I wasn’t worried about the reception Asphyxia might have because I didn’t intend to release it. I wrote it solely for myself, and I made the prose as pretentious and the content as depressing as I wanted because I figured nobody else would have to suffer through it. Then, I stumbled across SillySelly’s art, and I thought it would be so perfect for Asphyxia I decided to commission her. I still thought about keeping the story solely to myself, but I thought her art was so gorgeous it would be a shame not to release it and share it with people. My reasoning was, even if people hated the writing and the story, they would probably still like the art!

PL: Even beyond Dejection and Asphyxia, many of your protagonists are writers or poets. Do they reflect your personal passion for writing, or is there something else that draws you towards this archetype? Have you done much writing beyond visual novels?

ebi: The characters in Dejection and Asphyxia write poetry because they’re all based on poets. I’m pretty terrible at writing poetry myself, and I don’t like doing it. Moreover, my interest in the Romantic poets mostly stems, not from their actual poetry, but from their lives and their personalities, since they were all very melodramatic (apart from maybe Wordsworth) and they did a lot of ridiculous things.

I’ve written a few original characters who are authors (Blake from Where the Sun Always Shines and Eiji from Six Days of Snow are the best examples) because I like writing, so it’s a hobby I can understand and talk about somewhat credibly. Still, I try not to make all my protagonists writers, or even interested in literature, because I’m afraid it might get boring.

I used to write my own ‘original stories’ in my notebooks when I was about six or seven, and I wrote a lot of fanfiction between the ages of 12-18, so I did a bunch of writing before I got into VNs. Unfortunately, most of my old writing is awful, so I’m not going to share it!

PL: Another prevalent theme in your work seems to be depression and mental illness, with a culmination of sorts in Lynne and its gruesome portrayal of teenager's anxiety. What makes this topic attractive to you as a writer?

ebi: They’re interesting themes to write about, and I imagine a lot of people have experience with these issues, but perhaps don’t always feel comfortable talking about them? I’d like it if some people could read my stories and relate to some of the characters, and maybe feel a little bit less alone with their worries.

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The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns

PL: And one more notable trope – ghosts and afterlife, including lovers, doomed in life, being reunited after death. It seems that most of the romances you write can only ever work out "on the other side", if at all…

ebi: I don’t think I agree with this. I’ve written a lot of sad/depressing stories, but I’ve also written several cheerful stories, too! Strawberry Vinegar and Blackberry Honey have happy endings! I also don’t view my romance stories where people die and reunite as ghosts as particularly ‘tragic’. Emmeline Burns and Windswept Night were both intended to have uplifting, optimistic endings, even if the characters suffer a bit to get there.

I know people can’t really come back from the dead to reunite with their loved ones, but that’s why writing scenes like that in stories is so satisfying. It’s nice giving couples in stories closure even after they’re dead, especially because it’s not possible in reality.

PL: Visual Novels are often a medium of escapism and wish fulfilment, quite akin to the trashy romance novels you sometimes ridicule in your writing. Yours... Rarely so. Do you ever feel like you should spoil your reader's a bit more, giving them more control and a chance for happier endings?

ebi: Well, I don’t know if the first statement about VNs is entirely true. There are lots of really, really good VNs there that aren’t all about escapism and wish fulfilment. The first VN introduced me to the medium was Umineko, which is pretty… not like that. And there are VNs which have fanservice and sex scenes that still tell interesting stories, like the Kara no Shoujo series. I don’t really think the stories I write are all that different from many existing JVNs, with the exception that I set a higher percentage of mine in Europe.

Though some of my characters poke fun at ‘trashy romance stories’, I have no real problems with them myself. Generally, I think people should be free to like whatever fictional media they like. I know there’s a scene in Empty Horizons where Lyon makes fun of Mireille for reading Totally-Not-Twilight-But-It’s-Actually-Twilight, but the scene concludes by saying there’s nothing inherently wrong with wish fulfilment stories if they’re not harming anybody and they make people happy.

Anyway, with a lot of my kinetic stories, I have a very clear idea of what I want to happen in the story and how I want the characters to act. If giving the reader choices gets in the way of the story I want to tell or the message I want to explore then I won’t include any.

Conversely, if experiencing multiple possible outcomes is the ‘point’ of the story, then I’m fine writing that too (like The Way We All Go). Really, it depends on what I think is best for the story I’m writing. Sometimes I think a story benefits from having multiple routes and different endings, and sometimes I don’t. And sometimes I think a story benefits from happy endings, and sometimes I don’t.

PL: One of your VNs I've personally enjoyed greatly, and which surprised me a lot was Lucky Me, Lucky You. Are we going to see other queer stories in a modern setting from you, or was it more of a one-time experiment?

ebi: Oh, I’m glad you liked it! I really enjoyed writing Nanami’s character – she was a lot of fun. Her ‘voice’ is also really different than most of my other main characters, since she’s more abrasive and assertive (but still kind of a sweetheart deep down).

Lately, I’ve been pretty fond of writing historical stories because I feel like I can get away with being more exaggerated and melodramatic with my vocabulary, but I want to write more modern stuff too! It’s fun to experiment with different styles.

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Sweetest Monster

PL: In other interviews, you mentioned that you have many ideas for light-hearted, cute stories. Still, very few of them turned into actual games. Will there be more of those in the future?

ebi: Well, hopefully! I’m sitting on a bunch of scripts in various states of being finished right now, and some of these are very light-hearted and goofy. I’d love to make them all into VNs at some point (especially my very cute magical dog girl story, which is a full 26 episodes long!), but I don’t have enough time or money to develop too many things at once...

PL: A few months ago you wrote on Twitter that you'll most likely stop making freeware games, as they drain too much of your time and resources. If that really happens, should we hope for more frequent commercial releases from you?

ebi: I hope so, but I doubt it. Like I said, I’m sitting on a lot of scripts for unreleased projects in various states of completion. I’d like to release these more quickly, since I’m very fond of some of these stories and want to share them with people, but it’s not always possible. I’m not the only person involved in making my stories, and the production can sometimes get slowed down by various factors beyond my control.

It also doesn’t help that some of the scripts I’ve finished are quite long, have a lot of characters, and I haven’t started looking for artists or composers for these stories yet. I’d really like to release 3 commercial stories a year, but I doubt it will be possible this year. I’ll do my best, though! >_<

PL: Is there anything you would like to share about your current plans and the projects you're working on? Will we learn more about the yuri with bunnies in near future? ;)

ebi: Well, my latest VN, A Winter’s Daydream, will be releasing soon! It’s quite a light-hearted slice of life/comedy story set in Japan, that features an elderly grandmother being magically transformed into a cute girl.

I was inspired to write this story after stumbling across the ‘grandmother x grandson incest’ tag on VNDB. I was surprised this tag existed, and I thought it was funny such a niche fetish featured in enough VNs to warrant a content tag in the first place. After looking through some of these VNs, I saw that the grandmother love interests looked rather young and good-looking for grandmothers, and I thought, ‘what if I wrote a story where a more traditional-looking grandmother transforms into one of these impossibly cute “anime” grandmothers overnight? How would her grandson react to that?!’ Some of my ideas are kind of weird, I guess. :I

In the end, A Winter’s Daydream ended up being a little more serious in tone than I originally intended, though it still has some goofy moments. I’m quite fond of it, and I hope other people enjoy it, too! (Sadly, while the grandmother character is the main heroine of the story, in the sense that she’s the female lead, she’s not a love interest. I hope this doesn’t disappoint anybody haha…)

As for the ‘yuri story with bunnies’ I mentioned on twitter a while back… I actually finished writing the first draft, but I’m not sure when/if I’ll release it. It’s quite a cute, fluffy story (I suppose it’s similar to Strawberry Vinegar in tone), but I have other scripts I’d rather work on before I get around to polishing this.

PL: Thank you for your time!

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And this concludes my ebi-hime series, for the time being. I want to give my utmost thanks to ebi herself, for putting up with the somewhat-prolonged process of preparing this interview and some of my purposefully-annoying questions. It was a pleasure and a privilege to work with her on this and I'm extremely happy that I can share her insights with all of you through this article. Obviously, this is not the last time her VNs are present on my blog - in two weeks, you'll see the first part of my Yuri Game Jam retrospective, which couldn't possibly be complete without mentioning Ebi's work. Also, I'll definitely work on covering more of her commercial titles in the future, both the old and the newly released ones.

So, I hope you've enjoyed this content and will join me again in my adventures through the world of EVNs. Until the next Friday! :)

Plk_Lesiak

While Time Tenshi, which I covered two weeks ago, is definitely the flagship franchise for Silver Cow Studios, the company never settled for only producing new iterations of their breast-expansion/time-travel formula, releasing two other ecchi VNs since their debut in 2015. Those games, while they didn’t abandon the giant boobs and over-the-top storytelling that could be considered Silver Cow’s staple, offered their own twists to the fanservice-filled and trashy, but hentai-free format. The first one, Burokku Girls, appeared just three months after the first Time Tenshi game and… The lack of reasonable development time definitely showed, in a few ways. The second, Battleship Bishojo came out in early 2017, after Time Tenshi 2’s Special Edition and proved that the devs had their formula figured out much better by this point in time. Still, what exactly are these games about, besides exclusively-kyonyuu heroines and are they as good serviceable as Time Tenshi proved to be?

 

Burokku Girls

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Burokku Girls (the first part of the title apparently represents the Japanese pronunciation of the word „block”) is quite possibly the most bizarre VN I’ve seen since Legends of Talia: Arcadia. Although it’s not as devoid of humour as the Winged Cloud’s unfortunate “dark fantasy adventure”, it still manages to mix incredibly trashy fanservice and character designs with a rather grimdark story about a last bastion of light in the world besieged by darkness – a conflict so hopeless that the people of the last town standing are pretty much just waiting for their final battle and inevitable demise. Our generic protagonist enters this world-ending scenario through a full-immersion VN machine, constructed by his father. The virtual reality set goes haywire in an inexplicable way and transports him to a reality built with the titular Blocks – voxel-like elements, which were used in past immemorial to create an artificial paradise for people to live in, but was since invaded by the “Underworlders”, exiles trapped in the dark chasms beneath the “Overworld” and sealed away with the Blocks.

            This fairly elaborate, even if the cliched setup is coupled with a few other decent ideas. The execution of the story, however, is… Less than ideal. The first sin is the writing, which reaches the absolute highs of repetition and absurdity, clashing constantly with the brutal story playing out in the background – the authors’ borderline-unhealthy obsession with boobs and limited vocabulary to describe those get pretty mind-boggling, with awkward phrases such as like “feminine flesh” repeating in every other sentence. The second major issue is the heroines, which are just as uninteresting as their designs are trashy – the only borderline interesting characters were the villains, but they, on the other hand, received very little screen time and development. With typos, some poorly-drawn CGs and no real humour, Burokku Girls ended up being one dreadful VN, pretty much from start to finish – and it really didn’t have to be that way, considering the fairly interesting aesthetic (voxel-based backgrounds) and the general outline of its isekai setting. Sadly, as we’ve seen so many times before, you need more than an idea to produce a decent game after all…

Final Rating: Smelly Poo smelly1_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwas.png

 

Battleship Bishojo

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Possibly taught by their previous experiences, Silver Cow approached their second non-Time Tenshi VN in a very different manner, creating something similarly dumb, but much, much more enjoyable than Burokku Girls. Battleship Bishojo starts with our protagonist, a navy sailor named Daiki, drinking away his last day of leave with a friend and falling into the water. Soon after, he wakes up on a strange ship, sailed by four women with giant boobs (after all, some things never change in the Silver Cow universe – and probably shouldn’t change), quickly realizing he was transported to another world, full of mythical creatures. Having no obvious way of returning home, he teams up with the crew that saved his life in a borderline-insane hunt for rare, legendary specimen.

            While the story only becomes more absurd later on, with elements like giant monster-girls (it seems that giantesses are a primary theme here, along with the usual kyonyuus) or borderline-mentally-challenged rival of the main crew, there are a few things that make it work. The first one is the protagonist, who’s a bit of a smartass, never getting flustered by the women surrounding him and constantly poking fun at the craziness of everything that happens. He also rarely loses his cool in the more intense situations, making for a fun lead character, much less bland than other protagonists in Silver Cow titles. The game also focuses on humour, never trying to take itself seriously or overdoing it with the dark undertones within the story – while it has a bit of a plot and some rare touchy-feely moments, its main purpose is definitely silly fun and it succeeds in delivering exactly that. Also unlike Burokku Girls, it has an actual conclusion, rather than baiting a pointless sequel – and a pretty adequate one at that. So, if you’re looking for an ecchi VN that is simply pleasant to go through, look no further – Battleship Bishojo have you covered with its whole, unapologetically dumb glory!

Final Rating: Golden Poo! gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

 

 

Going through the Silver Cow’s catalogue was quite a wild ride, both similar and different from the other ecchi developers I’ve tackled so far. The absurdity and trashiness of their VNs are coupled with a surprising amount of restraint when it goes to implementing overused harem tropes and fanservice – elements which make many similar titles, such as Sakura games, quite obnoxious after a bit of reading. The lack of h-scenes and toned down romance elements are also very unusual, going pretty much against all the common conceptions of what really sells on Steam. For me personally, all this contributed to a quite satisfying experience, with the sole exception of Burokku Girls – a game simply poorly put together and poorly thought-out, but thankfully being an outlier in this respect. I wonder, however, if there’s even a market for this kind of “softcore” VNs anymore? Time will tell. Personally, I will definitely continue to observe this studio’s work and hopefully, take just as much trashy amusement out of their upcoming titles as I did while making these two posts.

And once again, my special thanks go to Bosskwar, whose videos are the light of my miserable existence of a VN-trash-eater. ^^

Plk_Lesiak

Today, we’ll be continuing our agon… I mean, out adventure through the world of free VNs by ebi-hime. While the earliest games we’ve covered, like Dejection and Is This the Life? were very visibly ebi’s early works, simple on the technical side of things and featuring minimalistic artwork, today we’re jumping straight into very recent projects, all released not earlier than 2017. Mostly staying true to the general climate of heavy, existential topics and endings that are never the typical happy, wish-fulfilment scenarios, these games are once more not far detached from ebi’s commercial projects and while smaller, could easily have a modest price tag attached to them, with few people being able to claim they didn’t get their money’s worth (especially in the cases of Lynne and Six Days of Snow). But what are they exactly about?

 

Where the Sun Always Shines

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Where the Sun Always Shines is another bittersweet story, although in a wholly different climate than Lucky Me, Lucky You. Featuring a 32-years old writer, suffering from a deep depression after losing his wife, and a teenage girl from his neighbourhood with whom he forms an unlikely friendship with, the game explores themes of grief, inspiration and moving on after losing one’s feeling of purpose, but is also maybe the only title on this list that provides a truly positive, hopeful conclusion. Before it gets to that point however, it presents to the reader rather convincing descriptions of writer’s block, anxiety and self-pity of the leading character, along with interesting interaction with Sunny, the aforementioned teenager, who first visits him out of pity, but then forms a bond of sorts over their mutual interest in musical – all that accompanied by very decent artwork. In a way though, it’s maybe the least impactful of the ebi’s stories, being overall solid and enjoyable to read, but lacking any interesting twists or highly emotional moments from the previous games. Definitely a worthwhile VN, but not necessarily a must-read.

Final Rating: Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

While not nearly as famous as Winged Cloud’s Sakura games, Silver Cow Studio’s Time Tenshi is one of the longest-running EVN series, following a single storyline and consistent cast of characters since late 2015. So far, its developers published three, fairly substantial entries in the franchise: Time Tenshi, Time Tenshi 2 (released in mid-2016 and later expanded significantly in the Special Edition version) and Time Tenshi Paradox – an episodic game, with two parts already available and most likely more coming in the near future. All of them, unusually at this day and age, follow a relatively tame, ecchi formula with no actual hentai scenes – a choice Silver Cow seems to be quite dedicated to, despite the general trend of inserting 18+ patches into everything that can even remotely justify the full-on adult content. But, enough of history lessons – how’s the story of busty time travellers and sexy side effects of temporal dislocation holding up in the current, competitive market of anime boob slideshows? Surprisingly well, I’d say! Or at least, to a certain point...

 

Time Tenshi

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Time Tenshi starts with a bang and soon after, follows it up with a few extra ones. The first scene features our male lead, Kenji (the usual faceless, high-schooler protagonist-kun), witnessing his house burning down along with his parents. After being hospitalized for a few months because of the shock, he’s picked up by his only close relative – maternal grandfather, an elusive scientist who was barely present in his family’s life. He invites Kenji to live in his laboratory complex, where he hides… A time machine, obviously! And while this might be quite predictable, there’s another important twist, which will be a leading theme in the Time Tenshi games from this moment forward: time travel has a fairly peculiar side effect when used by women, making their hormones go out of control, their boobs and butts grow enormously (until they return to their time) and turning them… Eager, for a brief times after they come back from the past (that’s the one direction in which the time machine works). And the professor’s assistants happen to be three gorgeous women in overly-revealing uniforms! Who would’ve thought!

            The game is, thus, a real treat for all kyonyuu fans and uses the trashy idea surprisingly well – the absurd notions are inserted into a fairly consistent storyline about the dangers of manipulating time, having a few fun plot twists and some borderline-interesting moments. While it never reaches the levels of serious science-fiction storytelling, it’s also not as brain-dead and superficial as it would be in a typical Sakura game. The two primary heroines are typical cheerful & energetic vs. serious & refined tropes, but their light-hearted bickering and different reactions to aforementioned side effects of time travel are mostly fun to read. I was also quite fond of the protagonist, who’s made to be a rather resilient individual, never taking advantage of the girls despite their vulnerable state many time throughout the story and rejecting unwanted advances from the game’s antagonists (obviously, also a bunch of attractive women). While this means he keeps the girls at a distance throughout the game (which ends up with a cliff-hanger BTW, leading straight into the sequel), his respectful attitude feels a bit refreshing in an ecchi game and leaves space for some genuine romance later on.

            Of course, as you could probably deduce from what I’ve written so far, Time Tenshi is rather tame, even among other non-porn fanservice EVNs. However, it’s relatively well-produced and fun – while I don’t think it could be considered a prime source of fapping material (unless you’re REALLY into giant breast), it’s simply enojyable to read and look at, in exactly the brainless, relaxing manner you’d expect from ecchi stuff. Quite recommended!

Final Rating: Golden Poo! gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

Time Tenshi 2

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Time Tenshi 2 picks up directly where its prequel ended and follows a nearly identical formula. After creating a time paradox in the first game’s ending, the team deals with its slightly-disturbing aftermath and prepare to face new challenges, as a new iteration of their old antagonists show up in the newly-formed timeline. Disrupting slightly the previous bliss of the Time Tenshi squad is a new heroine, a rather abrasive and deceptively-cute former cheerleader named Tessa, who openly comes into conflict with the old cast. While she seems rather unlikeable and her behaviour is slightly confusing at first, she receives probably more backstory and development than any other character in the series, making her quite an interesting addition and creating some fairly-believable drama. While the general plotline quickly reaches purely absurd territories, the character interactions and dialogues are at the same, relatively solid level they showed in the first game.

            One completely new feature, however, is the romance, which was added with the Special Edition release in the form of heroine-related choices, extra scenes with additional backstory and interactions with the protagonist, and romantic epilogues, one for each of the four girls. The romance is tame and cute above anything else, but faithful to the characterization of both the protagonist and the heroines – it might not be what you would expect from an ecchi VN, but is pretty satisfying nonetheless, also because the game really never goes overboard with trashiness and harem tropes, so the build-up to the love story aspect feels surprisingly genuine. There’s even no “obligatory harem ending”, which I applaud, as it would simply fit poorly with the characters – this is kind of basic consistency that very few fanservice games ever try to bother with.

            In the end, it’s more Time Tenshi though, so it might not be for those not willing to cope with obnoxious technobabble, pseudo-sci-fi storytelling and infinite amount of breast-expansion CGs (it also adds quite a lot of size-altering/giantesses to the mix, so I finally have a non-JP VN that I can recommend to my macrophile acquaintances). Still, even though its gimmick is in no way my personal fetish, I’ve enjoyed the let’s plays of it quite a lot and probably wouldn’t have the worst time reading it by myself – among the pure ecchi EVNs available on Steam, it’s definitely among the better ones and on that ground, I can quite genuinely recommend it as a source of mindless, kyonyuu-filled fun.

Final Rating: Golden Poo! gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

Time Tenshi Paradox

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Time Tenshi Paradox continues what pretty much seemed like a concluded story from Time Tenshi 2, in an episodic manner. While the first two games could be considered relatively content-rich, this time the story is spoon-fed to us in a bit over hour-long bits – this is already a bit of a bummer, considering the long distance between releases of every new chapter. Paradox is also quite a mess story-wise, starting a pretty grand new intrigue and further exploring some of the events from the first games (including strangely pointless flashbacks to the characters that are effectively removed from the story at this point), with a pace that doesn’t hold much promise to get anywhere before 2022. And even beyond that, it completely ignores the Special Edition romance endings and while romance wasn’t ever the main focus of the series by any means, this makes the new chapters feel disjointed – pretty much a step backwards from the narrative point of view.

            The weird feeling doesn’t end there though. The new characters, coming from a future with vastly more advanced time travel technology, seem to be resistant to breast-expanding side effects of going to the past, making the game’s primary gimmick strangely underemphasized. While I never expected I’d be missing this kind of contrived, trashy plot element, the “does it even qualify as a Time Tenshi game at this point?” thought was very much alive in my mind through much of the playthrough. While the art, writing and music are at pretty much the same level of quality they always were, the whole game simply feels a bit pointless, without clear direction and any kind of conclusion in sight. While it might be worth it for the most devoted fans of the series (if those are a thing...?), it’s generally very skippable, at least until all of the episodes are out and the story properly concluded.

Final Rating: Rabbit poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

 

Time Tenshi series is not what I expected it to be – while I thought I’d encounter a particularly cheap and trashy mass of ecchi fodder, I’ve actually found something genuinely amusing and decently-put-together. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very much ecchi trash – but ecchi trash that has fun by telling cheesy stories and playing with its cast of characters, rather than just give a paper-thin excuse to constantly show off fanservice CGs and call it a day. This might seem like quite a low standard, but that’s what this series is – looking at the bottom of the barrel and sometimes findings things worthy of the dubious honour of being “the best of the worst”. The cream of the crap. And Time Tenshi, my dear readers, is exactly that.

            In two weeks, we’ll continue our adventure with Silver Cow Studios, taking a closer look at the ecchi games they made outside of the Time Tenshi franchise. And once again, my special thanks go to Bosskwar, whose videos proved an invaluable help in the process of preparing this article. ;)

Plk_Lesiak

While this situation is changing significantly nowadays, as the Western visual novel market is professionalizing both when it goes to development and publishing, in the past EVN scene was primarily a world of extremely short, freeware titles, created by countless enthusiasts as minor passion projects or game jam entries. While these games, often very simple and minimalistic, rarely deliver sufficient material for full reviews, many of them are still worthwhile and artistically pleasing titles that I would like to cover more consistently. For this reason, I’ve conceived this new format – mini-reviews, that will provide the basic outlook of the VNs in question and rate them on a simple, three-point scale:

- Highly Recommended: for short VNs that provide an exceptional, memorable experience despite their limitations

- Recommended: for titles that are enjoyable, but significantly flawed or advisable mostly for people enjoying their specific subgenre/dominant themes they use

- Not Recommended: for titles that in my opinion simply fell flat or were misguided to the point they’re most likely not worth your time – a rating I expect very rarely to use, considering the games and authors I’m going to cover

In the next few months, I hope to deliver a few posts in this formula, while I’ll also be redacting the old Yuri Game Jam/Free Yuri EVN lists according to it. As a starting point, however, I’ll take a look at a developer with maybe the most impressive catalogue of short, free VNs, some of which I’ve already covered in the YGJ series. While The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns and Once on a Windswept Night might be ebi-hime’s best-known freeware titles, since late 2014 she released 8 other free games of varied scale and quality (I am skipping the earliest ones, not listed on her Itch.io page – those were mostly humorous experiments with the VN formula rather than legitimate stories).

Recently, ebi announced abandoning freeware projects for good, as they were draining too much of her time and resources – and while it might be a sad thing to hear, it’s both understandable from the viewpoint of any commercial developer and a good opportunity to look back at her extremely generous contributions to the EVN scene. Today, I’ll cover the first four games from the eight mentioned before, in the chronological order, starting with Dejection: An Ode, released on November 2014 and ending with Round the Mulberry Bush from the mid-2016. In two weeks I will complete this list, starting with Where the Sun Always Shines and ending with the 2018 April Fool’s VN Learning in Love!. I hope you’ll be willing to accompany me on this little journey and enjoy reading my reviews!

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Dejection: An Ode

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Taking its title from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, this VN is a direct predecessor to Asphyxia, taking the same themes of gender-bent romantic era English poets, depression, substance abuse and unrequited love. Samantha, female version of Coleridge is placed here as the protagonist, with an unhealthy obsession about her best friend and fellow poet Lillian (William Wordsworth) and constantly struggling with what we can assume is a bipolar disorder – episodes of extreme agitation and inspiration, followed by extreme depression and inability to work. Her struggle is shown through simple visuals, with just sprites and a few backgrounds, but the dynamic and stylized prose makes it a very enjoyable and convincing read. The abrupt, inconclusive ending felt slightly disappointing, but the story makes it clear that any proper resolution of the plot would be even sadder and harder to accept. While it’s definitely a simple and minimalistic game, visibly from the very early period of ebi’s activity as a developer, it’s still very much a worthwhile read, especially for the fans of her characteristic style of writing and storytelling.

Final rating: Highly Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Winged Cloud’s early hentai VNs appeared at the moment of company’s greatest creativity (obviously, speaking in the relative terms) and during what could be described as a slow improvement in the overall quality of their titles. The two latest ones, however, came as a syndrome of an exact opposite tendency, one which becomes very clear when we look at pretty much any of the Sakura releases after Nova – the whole formula becoming increasingly stale and cynical, and WC’s games turning into little more than low-effort cash grabs, feeding on the loyal fans of the series.

            Still, while they might represent the lowest moment in Winged Clouds' history, did these games at least keep some of the entertainment value you would hope for in a trashy fanservice VN? Spoiler: Not really…

Sakura Agent

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A prime argument for my thesis that if you don’t want to put actual resources into creating an interesting setting, you’ll be better off just sticking to high-school SoL drama – at least then your laziness and corner-cutting won’t be completely obvious. While Sakura Space managed to make the theme of space mercenaries unbearably unexciting and generic, Agent achieved something maybe even harder – making an alien invasion and a secret agency fighting it completely dull and laughable (not to be confused with “funny”), mostly by never showing anything but fanservice and presenting the whole plot through WCs typical, cliched and bland narration.

             Beyond that, the game offers a protagonist with no presence or charisma whatsoever (but who was, I guess, meant to be a badass), no routes, unconvincing heroines, distinct lack of humour and Sakura Maid’s levels of random fanservice (including a hentai scene with a kidnapped heroine in the middle of an enemy base and possibly the dumbest tentacle sex scene in the history of VNs). As a result, Agent is one of the saddest entries in the whole Sakura series, in which WCs attempts to give context to the porn CGs does not add any kind of appeal to them, but rather makes you cringe from how bland and stupid the whole setup is. Also unlike some of the Sakura games that preceded it, like Fantasy, Nova or Dungeon, it simply feels cheap, missing the visual flair and assets necessary to communicate its theme and storyline properly. In the end, it's a highly unfulfilling experience find the pics online, save your time and money.

Final rating: Smelly Poo smelly1_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwas.png

Sakura Magical Girls

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The first example of Winged Cloud reusing a whole theme in something that isn’t a direct sequel (if anyone needs a reminder – Sakura Angels was a magical girl story with no actual angels involved) might suggest the studio running out of ideas, but is definitely a proof of it running out of creative powers. With two main heroines so shallow and similar to each other it’s seriously hard to differentiate between them, and a third one only remarkable by being their vague opposite (and whose darker philosophy is strangely also reflected by being black – though, as bad as it sounds, it’s at least a piece of visual variety previously rather absent from the Sakura franchise and I wouldn’t mind it becoming more common), this game already missed out on the most important part of the ecchi formula – appealing female cast.

            Without it, there was already little Magical Girls could do to stay memorable, but it didn’t make itself any favours by also being short and linear. And while it might only be my impression, even Wanaca’s visual designs are among the poorest in the whole series, with magical girl outfits looking like a random, overly colourful mess (and this is made even worse by the ability to contrast them with relatively good-looking sprites from Sakura Angel). The aforementioned “dark magical girl”, Ayame, might be the closest thing to an actual “positive” here, but in the end, she is also way too over-the-top and one-dimensional to hold any serious appeal beyond hentai scenes. With a bland, "delinquent" protagonist and nonsensical plot added to the mix, it's another thoroughly skippable Sakura game, which only makes the cliffhanger ending, signalizing a possible sequel, laughable. Of all VNs in the series, this is probably the last one I would like to see continued and I wholeheartedly recommend avoiding it at all cost.

Final rating: Smelly Poo smelly1_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwas.png

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There’s no escaping from one simple fact – the latest straight hentai games by Winged Cloud are terrible. And they’re not terrible in the meaning that would apply to pretty much all Sakura games, with their thin plot, pretty much just pretext for fanservice and h-scenes, poor writing, short length etc. They’re simply devoid of any kind of entertainment value that usually accompanies WCs stream of anime boobs – the bare minimum of characterization and humour that make these VNs more appealing than just writing “Wanaca91” in a Google search or browning random anime fanart. And this time, even Winged Cloud’s fans seem to agree with me in that assessment – both games received relatively poor reviews on Steam and VNDB, and most likely had their role in the company’s move towards hiring a new scenario writer and focusing on yuri content. 

            Will the het-porn formula come back in the upcoming Sakura titles? I have no doubts about it, but hopefully in a much, much better style – at least within the WCs scale of being “good”. After all, no miracles will happen within the world of trashiest Western eroge, even when magical girls are involved.

PS This time too, my special thanks go to Bosskwar, whose videos made preparing this post much less painful then it would otherwise be.

Plk_Lesiak

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Zetsubou, a developer and writer involved in many popular EVN titles is someone whose work many fans of the genre might be very familiar with, but not necessarily even knowing about it. While have made a few relatively successful projects of his own, such as Sickness or Tomboys Need Love Too!, many of his commissioned works, such as Razzart’s Love Ribbon gained even more recognition. For this reason, among others, there was relatively little fanfare around the release of his latest project, Sable’s Grimoire, in May this year. However, there are many reasons to consider this project as a particularly notable one – the 350k-words-long, modern-fantasy tale about a young mage entering an academy filled with demi-humans is rather far-detached from the usual EVN formula, both by its scale and its dominant themes. 

             Of course, scale by itself does not have to be a positive, just as unusual story elements don't automatically make a VN interesting to read. Does Zetsubou's largest project to date have other merits beyond its impressive word-count and interesting premise, and does its overall quality justify the 25+ hours time investment that is required to fully read through it? In my opinion, answer to all these questions is: yes.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Before the era of Steam adult patches, Winged Cloud established their brand by creating ecchi VNs, full of partially-exposed anime boobs, panty shots and flirty female characters in highly inappropriate outfits, but nothing that could effectively earn them that appealing “sexual content” tag on VNDB. In late 2015, however, utilizing progressively more widespread techniques of circumventing Steam’s censorship, WC made their move towards becoming an actual eroge developer – and year after that, the devoted themselves completely to creating full-on Sakura nukige that we know and love(?) today. Today, I'll be taking look at those early iterations of Winged Cloud's porn in their whole, glossy-boobs-filled glory.

Sakura Swim Club

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Featuring Japanese voice acting in a game that never had a Japanese version, Winged Cloud’s first venture into the world of fully-fledged eroge is definitely one of the most “weeb” things out there, but this didn’t prevent it from being one of the most successful and well-received Sakura games. It was also, believe it or not, a pretty drastic step backwards when it goes to storytelling, when compared to what we saw in Angels and Fantasy, with a barely-existent, linear plot and little entertainment value not coming directly from porn. It seems that implementing a novelty in the form of hentai scenes took much of the development team’s energy, without any to spare on character development or giving a proper conclusion to the tiny bits of SoL drama that the game introduces. This is especially painful in the case of Swim Club’s heroines – while the protagonist has a typical “being bound by your parent's expectations” issue that is revolved during the story, the girls have elements of painful, potentially interesting backstories introduced and then quickly forgotten for the sake of fanservice and unavoidable harem ending. Who would care about their mother dying of cancer if they can have a threesome with our “average guy” protagonist?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Ithaqua Labs, named ominously after a Great Old One from the Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos, is one of the more unique studios on the EVN scene, not following closely the tropes and aesthetic of the Japanese VNs. While their fantasy and horror games did not really break into the mainstream of the visual novel market, they definitely stand out among the generic romance and ecchi visual novels most often found on Steam. On June 14 this year, the two-man team added another interesting title to their catalogue – Perceptions of the Dead 2, sequel to a collection of 3 short horror stories which was Ithaqua’s earliest VN project, dating back to 2015. Before I go into details of the new release, it’d be a good idea to take a closer look at its prequel (which, by all standards could be considered as a short prologue to the “proper” story told in PotD 2).

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Welcome to another episode of Shovelware Adventures! This time, we'll take a break from our favourite, the Sakura series, to take a look at a much more obscure corner of the OELVN scene. The venture into commercial visual novel development by the German fan translator working under the label Yume Creations effected in some of the strangest VNs available on Steam and beyond. Combining competent art and interesting ideas with trashy ecchi, pieces of absolutely disastrous, bizarre writing and straight up failures in the English language, these projects are all experiences that will defy your expectations – just not necessarily in the ways their authors would want them to.

Aozora Meikyuu

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A nukige without sex scenes, this little VN offers a rather charming heroine, who sadly gets involved in a totally nonsensical plot and various sexual scenarios that are never shown to the player. In the game’s story, our shut-in protagonist is forced to go out on a rare quest to buy groceries and on his way back home is nearly crashed to death by a (nude) girl falling from the sky. What follows, is a series of rather amusing interactions between the main character and the mysterious woman that invaded his life, which sadly can lead only to some literally incomprehensible and abrupt bad endings, or to a single positive one. The latter, admittedly, somewhat won me over by the virtue of being heartwarming, but was also based on some highly-questionable logic, making in turn everything that happened earlier rather hard to understand.

            The bad endings, which make little sense even after discovering the mystery central to the story and the true conclusion of the plot, along with the sexual tension constantly present in the game, building up towards non-existent hentai scenes, most likely suggest some heavily problematic development process. Because of all this, the final product is rather hard to recommend, even though I seriously enjoyed certain elements of it and ideas the author tried to implement – it is, indeed, a particularly unfortunate hunk of rabbit poo, not really offensive in any way, but hardly worth your attention.

Final rating: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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The Sunrider series is one of the most successful OELVN franchises – one which not only spawned two highly-appreciated VN/strategy game hybrid titles, but even made a rare attempt at expanding to the Japanese market (at least successful enough that the games’ developer, Love in Space, apparently works on making their upcoming title, JP-idol themed Shining Song Starnova, into another export product, with Japanese voice acting and other elements rarely seen in western-produced VNs). Both the freeware Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius and it’s commercial sequel, Liberation Day, got much recognition for their space-opera storytelling, solid game mechanics and good production values.

            One thing the mainline Sunrider games definitely lacked, however, was satisfying romance – while the cast followed typical harem tropes, with male protagonist and vast, female-only crew more or less visibly in love with him, the character development for most of the girls was extremely basic and, at least in the first game, player was left with no ability to pursue any of them. To remedy this sorry state of affairs, Sunrider Academy was created – an alternative universe dating sim spin-off, placing the protagonist and the main four heroines of Mask of Arcadius in a typical high-school setting (although without abandoning the sci-fi elements or the Sunrider universe itself). So does this game, published by Sekai Project on April 2015, really remedy mainline Sunrider games’ omissions?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Hello again and welcome to the second part of our journey through the world of Winged Cloud's yuri shovelware!

The release of the Legends of Talia’s was undoubtfully a small disaster for Winged Cloud, not only failing to kickstart the new non-ecchi franchise, but also being quite harshly rejected by WC’s already-existing fanbase. It didn’t, however, end the yurige streak which made the straight Sakura porn, once definitely the dominating format, surprisingly rare in last year and a half (and the het games that actually did show up in that time were all very much underwhelming, even by the series’ standards). Still, whether this “Golden Age of Yuri” translated into us customers receiving anything of quality is, as always when we’re talking about Winged Cloud, a bit more complicated issue. So, what exactly the latest yuri Sakura games have to offer, apart from an unreasonable amount of boob-centric CGs?

Sakura Gamer

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A Sakura game about making a Sakura game, Gamer is one of the first examples of Winged Cloud trying to include what would normally be the basic component of any ecchi VN: actual comedy and humour. This development undoubtedly connected to the hiring of a new writer, Waffle, who replaced the veteran Liberty, whose track record was progressively getting more and more awful. In the case of Gamer, the satire is mostly directed towards WC's own products, resulting in some highly-amusing and accurate episodes of self-ridicule. Although it might be slightly hermetic to an outside reader, with a lot of references to other Sakura titles, it’s probably the first instalment in the whole franchise that on occasions was genuinely funny to me – and still remembering the jokes and references in Sakura Spirit, dryer than the Karakum Desert, this was a very welcome change.

            The plot of the game, if you can call it that, seems more like a semi-random set of interactions written to fit previously-drawn character sprites and CGs, but also features a fairly amusing cast of female characters (the protagonist, Nekohime, is probably my third most favourite Sakura lead after Dungeon’s Yomi and Fantasy’s Raelin) all of which receive traces of actual development and, when it goes to heroines, can be seen as serviceable romance options. Inma’s character designs, while rather absurd, are also among the best ones she’s ever made for Winged Cloud – those buying Sakura titles solely for the CG’s (as much as I’m puzzled by that practice) will definitely have something to look at here. While this might not be, objectively speaking, one of the best WC titles ever, it was one of the most enjoyable ones for me and I can recommend playing it as strongly as it is ever possible with a Sakura game (that is, just watch Bosskwar’s playthrough of it, it will be a lot of fun).

Final rating: Golden Poo!  gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

Sakura Cupid

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Winged Cloud’s 2018 Valentine’s Day surprise is, putting all the possible Gabriel Dropout inspirations aside, a relatively competent VN, once more utilizing the arcane art of comedy to make the Sakura formula slightly less stale and generic this time mostly in the form of some over-the-top CGs and character interactions, that, especially in the opening segments, give the whole game some actual personality. Cupid also stands out by, very surprisingly, throwing the fanservice and hentai scenes at you in a way that is both logical and fits the story, and it's probably the only time I’ve seen this particular feature in the whole series.

            The actual plot and characters, however, are more on the bland side of the spectrum, mostly due to lack of any interesting development – especially Mitsuki, the waitress that out protagonist teases constantly in the café she frequently visits, starts as a pretty amusing, snarky heroine, but quickly turns into an over-the-top deredere, whose only clear quality is her obsessive love for our female lead. The endings also are among the more anti-climactic and dumb ones I’ve seen lately, making the whole VN rather hard to recommend. I have to admit though that the CG presented above and the scene associated are among the funniest things I’ve seen in WC’s games thanks to it and a few other highly-amusing moments I don't actually regret reading through the whole thing.

Final rating: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

Sakura Sadist

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Sakura Sadist is another gloriously contradictory example of Winged Cloud’s simultaneous progress and regress when it goes to quality – an initially nicely written and fairly funny VN that pretty much completely falls apart later into the story and is incapable to capitalize on its best assets. The game, following a female pervert protagonist, starts quite amusingly, with our lead constantly teasing and bickering with her childhood friend, Mari, who serves both as a straight man throughout the story and as one of two love interests (the second one being a certain beautiful, dignified star of the school, who we can instantly identify as the titular [closeted] sadist). The actually competent dialogue and nice chemistry between the main girls made me at first quite optimistic about the game and the possible direction it might go to.

            Sadly, if you thought that anything interesting would be done with the BDSM theme or there would be any kind of twist to the story that you couldn't easily predict after first 15 minutes, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Not only the main premise is realized through a few episodes of pet-play and the second heroine trying to control the protagonist in vaguely BDSM-esque fashion, but it can also be… Skipped completely, by choosing not to be a total creep and in that way reaching Mari’s route, with its 10 minutes of dialogue and 20 minute-long hentai scene (at least I have to admit it might be the most extensive porn segment in all of Sakura games, whatever that’s worth to you). The already short game, ending an hour early in one of its main conclusions is not a thing I see every day, but also not something I ever want to see – just like I don’t want to ever see more of Sakura Sadist.

Final score: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

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So, as we've reached the most recent instalment in the whole Sakura franchise, what the future might hold for these trashiest among trashy Western yurige? I would expect them to keep coming out, more or less, till the end of times – while not all Winged Cloud fans are happy about the switch to mostly f/f smut, the company’s dedication to the theme shows that it’s a viable niche and sells at least well enough to justify constantly spewing new iterations of the formula. I’m also pretty sure that Winged Cloud isn’t going anywhere, considering it’s stable Patreon support that at least partially compensate for possibly dropping Steam sale (obviously, with the effective death of SteamSpy it’s very hard to say what the numbers look like for their latest titles). I’m very sure that before I’m done covering the whole already-available roster of Sakura games, they’ll be new ones coming to keep the Shovelware Adventures alive.

SUCH JOY! SUCH HAPPINESS! :nico:

PS Once more, my special thanks go to Bosskwar, who made this series possible (or at least much more enjoyable to make) through his let's play videos.

Plk_Lesiak

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While Loren: The Amazon Princess, which I reviewed two weeks ago, if fairly well-known among western VN fans and did a lot to establish WinterWolves studio as a respected OELVN developer, the second RPG placed in the fantasy world of Aravorn, Seasons of the Wolf, flew very much below the radar of most gamers and VN fans. Published on Steam in January 2015, this game pushed the series in a slightly different direction, with a smaller cast, more casual story and far fewer romance options, to a very mixed reaction from the players.

            However, Seasons of the Wolf was also the title that made significant improvements to the core gameplay mechanics of the series and refined the whole experience in a way that created a standard for future WinterWolves RPGs to follow and build upon. How then this “less of a dating sim” (citing the developer himself) looks like three years after its initial release and is it worth attention from VN fans, especially those that are more interested in the story, rather than RPG gameplay?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Yuri as a fully-fledged main theme came a bit late to the Sakura Gaming Universe (they’re all connected, I tell you!), but for the last year, it absolutely dominated Winged Cloud’s production, with their last het hentai game, Sakura Magical Girls, released in early 2017. That transition, however, was a long and inconsistent process, which produced both the absolute best among Sakura games (especially Sakura Dungeon with its never-ending stream of good-quality f/f porn and fanservice CGs) and some… Less fortunate projects. Today and two weeks from now I’ll take a closer look at WC’s iterations of Girls’ Love, without ever hiding my intense bias for the genre – one which makes me that more excited when the formula is applied well and that more furious when it’s desecrated by really crappy, uninspired VNs.

 

Sakura Fantasy, chapter 1

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Fantasy, one of WC’s most ambitious, but never-finalized projects, proved above anything else the biggest advantage of yuri-themed ecchi VNs – having a protagonist who is more than just a faceless self-insert, given the minimal amount of character development and as few significant traits as possible, to not disturb the player filling this hollow husk with his own fantasies. Realin is not only an actual character, with a sprite and proper personality (and a convenient, voyeuristic gift of “farsight”, mostly used to peek at people in baths), but even gives out traces of interesting backstory and compelling relationships with the other heroines. The game also, as one of the very few entries in the Sakura series, does some effort to build a setting and a linear story of sorts, predictably based on fairly common fantasy tropes, but nonetheless semi-serious and interesting. The biggest problem is, however, that we’re unlikely to ever know what happened with the crumbling Empire, besieged by magical monsters and the quest to retrieve the Fallen Star – as much as anyone can tell, after the first chapter (which is still rather worth reading by itself, but obviously doesn’t conclude the plot in any way), WC buried this series forever.

Final rating: Golden Poo! gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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After a relative success of freeware VN/strategy hybrid Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius the game’s developer, Love in Space, made an ambitious move – as one of the very few EOLVN companies before or since, they made an attempt to expand to the home of Visual Novels itself. To achieve this, along with the Japanese version of the first game, they’ve released a sequel, Sunrider: Liberation Day. Armed with Japanese voice-acting, Japanese theme song and extra amounts of fanservice, on March 2016 it boldly launched its conquest of Nippon and became one of the most amusing chimaeras in the history of the OELVN scene.

            Setting the slightly-absurd “Japanization” aside, Liberation Day is still a sequel of a well-known and, for the most part, respected game, that did much to promote visual novel formula in the West and to this day remains one of the best VN “space operas”, especially among those officially released outside of Japan. Does it stand the test of time as well as its predecessor?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

An amazingly contradictory example of both ambition and trashiness, this Canadian company managed to create some of the most memorably-bad games available within the Western VN market. While they definitely never showed the kind of contempt for their audience and lack of dignity that emanates from pretty much every new Winged Cloud title or the Steam asset flip/achievement spam VNs (yes, those are a thing – I will get to them one day), their utter failures and misguided elements in their projects are not something you see every day – and, as they belong to commercial products that ask money from their readers, they’re open even for the more cruel kinds of scrutiny. And that’s exactly what I’m going to deliver upon them today.

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A Wild Catgirl Appears

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Yuri Game Jam entries usually are published for free, even though some of them offer quite impressive production values and interesting stories. A Wild Catgirl Appears is a double exception in this regard, as, sadly, it's neither free nor in any way compelling to play through. With extremely basic and mostly nonsensical plot, clunky dialogue and a plethora of technical issues, it's one of the least competent commercial VNs available on Steam (at least among actual games and disregarding the aforementioned asset flips and achievement spams). It might also be the only VN in which I count inclusion of catgirls as a negative, considering how superficial the reason behind their appearance is and how they take the focus from the only somewhat-interesting characters in the game. Even yuri romance couldn’t redeem this title to me, considering it’s generally miserable state – sadly not worth your time, and especially your money.

Final rating: Smelly Poo smelly1_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwas.png

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Winter Wolves is one of the oldest continuously active OELVN studios, which since the mid-2000s became fairly well-known for their straight-up VNs and dating sims, such as Roommates, as well as for fairly unique RPG-VN hybrids. Among the latter, probably the best known is Loren the Amazon Princess. Published in 2012, it kickstarted a whole series of games set in the fantasy world of Aravorn (including even a BL title Heirs and Graces) and gathered mostly positive reactions from the Western VN community. It’s also, to this day, the studio’s best-selling title on Steam, with around 80k owners on the platform.

              Loren… also features a very rarely seen main premise – the player does not take the role of the titular heroine, but of a slave servant, whose role is to assist the Amazon princess in her quest to find her missing mother (and, of course, eventually save the world from a great and unexpected threat). This, along with the very explicit focus on romance, creates a pretty unique mixture, somewhat detached from both the typical RPG power fantasy and even most common fantasy VN tropes. Does it have any merits apart from being slightly different though?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

After the last two/three years of Steam storefront being flooded with shovelware and Valve’s attempts to remedy the over-saturation and drastic drop in quality on their service by algorithmically-generated recommendation and the (rather bare-bones and underutilized) Curator system, we’ve receive a new tool to find games actually interesting to us and shape our Steam experience. The developer and publisher profiles, with the possibility to follow them and be updated about new releases and announcements through Steam messages and/or E-mail is a very simple, but very welcomed addition, that will make it easier for both players and developers to reach their goals – for the latter, easily reaching their fans with information on their new products, for the former, being in touch with their favorite creators’ work without actively looking for such information on social media etc.

I’m personally very happy to see this feature and see it generally as a step in the right direction. It’s also, sadly, a very Valve-like move, coming extremely late and once more putting all the curation effort on the backs of the users, who are basically expected to already be well-informed and sure about their needs, before they can make any kind of sense of what Steam offers them. It also further limits the potential visibility of self-published indie games, more and more destined to obscurity be Steam’s overcrowded New Releases tab and absence of games without an arbitrary number of user reviews from the Discovery Queue.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

On a few occasions I’ve stated that I do now wish to give too much space to bad OELVNs, as it goes directly against the idea behind this blog: showing the real value within the Western VN industry and disproving negative stereotypes held by JP-oriented readers (and people less familiar with the formula altogether). There’s, however, no way to reasonably deny that the OELVN scene is full of games of questionable quality – many of which I, as someone exploring all corners and shady alleys of the VN world, end up playing. And while a large number, maybe even a majority of those games can be excused for their failures, considering they’re purely amateur, freeware projects (such as quickly-put-together game jam entries), many other are commercial products that, by the sheer fact of asking money from their audience, are fully open for scrutiny and even straight up shaming, if they deserve that.

            This new format will be focused on the exactly that kind of games – titles from most notorious, shovelware-spewing developers and all kinds of unfortunate, misguided failures that plague the OELVN industry. Torturing the games and their creators is not my main intention though – I want to both keep a lighthearted tone in my coverage and not forgot the humour, intentional or not, that can be found in bad games. For this reason, the mini-reviews presented will be at best semi-serious and to make that point clear, they’ll be made using a custom, 3-point scoring system:

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Golden Poo: Awarded to games that, while still definitely bad in many aspects, are either amusing with their absurdity or present some kind of trashy charm that make them, in certain contexts, a worthy experience.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Hello there and welcome to the new iteration of my humble blog!

Pride of the West was created, apart from fueling my personal megalomania, for a very specific goal: promoting and demystifying OELVNs within the Fuwa community, fighting the negative stereotypes and ridicule attached to them in minds of the many more JP-centric VN fans. For the last six months, I've spent countless hours exploring the EVN scene and channelling my impressions into the blog (with what I personally see as a very positive and encouraging response).

I was, however, never really satisfied with the brand I've come up with last year and this was one of the problems that became apparent while my project became more fleshed out and grew in size, with attachments such as the Steam Curation and Twitter account. The second issue that became clear over time was the limitations of the Forums blogging tool, which guaranteed certain visibility, but gave me very little control over my own content and was shared between a large number of people, with only that much space for all of them in that little side-tab.

For all these reasons, I've decided to go forward with some (long-coming) changes, the most important ones being establishing the external version of the blog and changing the name of the whole project to (slightly generic, but much less pretentious) EVN Chronicles. I've also moved the Steam Curator page to a new address, sadly being forced to forgo my previous, humble following in the process, but with the hope that the new setup can bring much more with time. So, as I've explained what's happening, I would like you to encourage you to:

--> Check out (and consider following) EVN Chronicles' external site

--> Follow my new Steam Curator page

--> Follow me on Twitter for blog updates and various VN-related news

Apart from setting up the blog, I've worked this week to bring you a new review format - Shovelware Adventures - in which I will go through notorious OELVN shovelware and give it semi-humorous assessments. The first post in this style will appear later today, both on Fuwa and the new site.

For the time being, the Fuwanovel version of the blog will be updated along with the new one, while the external blog will also feature slightly-redacted reposts of the old reviews and posts along with announcements I wouldn't post here to avoid clogging the sidebar (those might appear on the blog's thread in the member's lounge). However, after a week, I will be cutting every new Fuwa post into a teaser version and adding a link to the external blog. Same will happen to the old posts, as they are gradually re-published on the new site.

I hope you'll follow me in this new stage of my VN journey and have a lovely weekend everyone!

Plk_Lesiak

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Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius is one of the best-known and probably most appreciated western visual novels. Developed by Love in Space and published for free by Sekai Project in July 2014, it was downloaded on Steam by around 600 thousand players and spawned a successful franchise, with its commercial sequel, Liberation Day and dating sim spin-off, Sunrider Academy, both reaching impressive sale numbers and mostly positive feedback from the community.

            What’s interesting, Mask of Arcadius is also a hybrid title, possibly more ambitious and refined with its strategy game elements than “pure” visual novel segments. Most likely, it is exactly that part of the game that gave it a much broader appeal than that of typical VNs and made its spectacular success on Steam possible. Does it, however, still have a similar entertainment value for dedicated VN readers, on a much more saturated, diverse market, as it had in 2014?

Read the full review at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

 

Plk_Lesiak

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Warning: This is review is based on the Steam version of the game, without the 18+ content unlocked. The free uncensored patch unlocks two dozens of CG, including straight-up hentai scenes and adds more nudity to the "clothing damage" system. The "clean" version, however, is still very heavy on sexual themes and does not feel "incomplete" when it goes to the story.

Among the dedicated fans of visual novels the infamous Sakura games by Winged Cloud are one of the most despised and ridiculed elements of the Western VN market. But, as much as we might not like it, it’s also a very popular and in many ways seriously influential series, one that played an important role in popularization of visual novels in the West (and most likely did a lot to cement the very poor perception of the genre in  the PC gaming community). After the surprising success of Sakura Spirit in mid-2014, with its viral spread all over the Internet and nearly 500k copies sold on Steam, Sakura franchise spawned a huge number of titles – mostly very lazy, relatively short VNs filled with tons of fanservice, uninspired writing and poorly-executed popcultural references. At the same time, the company behind it became unquestionably successful, with decent sale numbers throughout the years and a thriving base of Patreon supporters. The ecchi formula established by Winged Cloud, throwing nudity and mild sexual themes at the player at every possibility while never going into actual pornography, proved once again that in the VN world “sex sells”, even without actual sex or any other merits that the game could offer (full-on hentai titles came later). 

            There were, however, two times when Sakura series tried to offer a little bit more than that. The first one was Sakura Fantasy, a yuri VN in which obvious effort at crafting a better story and giving slightly more meaning to the sexual content was appreciated by the players – however, what was meant to be an episodic game, forever stopped at the first chapter. Maybe the production costs associated with actually giving a f*** proved too high? At this point, no one truly knows. The second attempt at innovation on Winged Cloud’s part produced probably the most interesting (and definitely highest-rated) game in the series – the yuri-themed VN/dungeon crawler hybrid called Sakura Dungeon, that I will be taking a closer look on today.

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In Sakura games, fanservice is the ultimate goal of everything you do. But why not give the player a reasonably good game on top of it?

So, what the “best Sakura game” is all about? Story-wise, it follows an ancient fox spirit, Yomi, who is freed from a magical prison and attacked by a female knight named Ceri – an adventurer hunting such “monsters” for a living. Ceri is quickly overpowered by Yomi and magically bound to serve her, and together they go on a quest to reclaim the dungeon which the fox spirit once ruled, but which she lost after being betrayed and locked away. Non-human, centuries-old protagonist is already something we don’t really see that often and the game does surprisingly good job at developing Yomi as a patient and in many ways benevolent, but somewhat eccentric being, with vast knowledge and a perspective very different from that of Ceri, who, who is not only unmeasurably younger, but can also be hot-headed and prejudiced. While the game’s writing, in general, is rather bland and rarely in any way original, this main couple is definitely its best part.

            What we get after this initial setup is, however, above anything else, fanservice galore, with occasional yuri themes. Every “monster” in the dungeon you explore has the form of a scantily clad girl, which can become even more exposed if her clothes get torn after a critical hit (this is an actual, meaningful game mechanic, which lowers defence and can also affect members of your party). Also, nearly every boss fight, special encounter or in-town event between dungeon runs awards you with more or less nude CG. With 30 levels of the dungeon, impressive enemy variety and around 20 hours of total gameplay, there's definitely tons of anime boobs and girls-kissing-scenes to be seen. While I’m personally not a huge fan of the artstyle used by Wanaca, Winged Cloud’s main artist, I can’t say that Dungeon’s art is in any way ugly or that I didn’t find a few pieces in that sea of fanservice somewhat appealing – their general quality and variety were quite impressive, even if they usually weren’t “my thing”. Also, there were some bits of actual romance in the story that maybe didn’t get any serious development (sadly, even between Ceri and Yomi when it begged for something more than just hollow fanservice and one scene of cuddling), but definitely weren’t a bad addition.

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While Sakura Dungeon’s writing might often feel bland and generic, its main cast isn’t as shallow or uninteresting as you might expect

As for the dungeon crawling aspect, for me it was definitely a positive surprise. While it’s pretty simple – with traditional hex-based movement and no gear, just levelling and some permanent stat-boosting items – it’s also for the most part pretty well balanced and the levels are decently designed. On the standard difficulty, the game flows very nicely, without unnecessary grind or pointless backtracking, just letting you explore the levels and progress smoothly after you’re done with it. One of the game’s core mechanics, capturing monster girls and incorporating them into your group (up two six at any point, with possibility of switching members when in town) also makes every new level interesting, as it provides you with a challenge of discovering and subduing new types of enemies and fitting them into your team composition. With consistent switches into dialogue and secrets/events hidden on every floor, it makes the core gameplay quite engaging and entertaining. For those interested in more challenge and spending more time on RPG elements on the game, two higher difficulty settings are available – for me however the default one felt pretty much perfect.

            As I’ve already complimented the CG and sprite artwork, the same has to be said about the other visual assets – the dungeon itself looks quite appealing and have a pretty decent variety, switching the main theme multiple times (ex. from a cave, to ancient-Egyptian ruins, Japanese architecture etc.). Same can be said about other backgrounds and things like attack animations – they all are at a very consistent level of quality and, maybe most importantly, gives the game quite a lot of climate. The mood is also supported by a great soundtrack by Zack Parrish, which could very well be used in a much more “serious” RPG game and absolutely wouldn’t feel out of place. All this, at least for me, made Sakura Dungeon a surprisingly relaxing and fun experience, even if I’ve found its desperate attempts on being “sexy” quite laughable (if anything, it was rather cute).

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Dungeon crawling, while might get slightly tedious in later portions of the game, have surprisingly good pacing and atmosphere

Paradoxically, all those positive things I can say about this game lead me to a rather sad conclusion. Winged Cloud is not a team without some talent or interesting ideas but is above all a team without ambition. Sakura Dungeon was the last example of them trying to innovate and present their audience with a different, more compelling product, that isn’t simply a few hours of nonsense dialogue in between blatant, trashy fanservice. Maybe the relatively low sale numbers, below “masterpieces” such as Sakura Agent or Sakura Beach 2 discouraged them from actually trying. It’s possible that their core audience is actually just interested in anime boobs, without the need for any innovation or variety.

            Still, I want to believe that caring about quality is actually worth it and I can respect a product even in the most trashy format, if its authors are interested in making a decent game, rather than just making a few quick bucks through as little effort as possible. Winged Cloud, however, seems to be only interested in the latter and I have little hope on them changing this attitude unless their own fans force them to. Knowing this and with the allegations of nasty business practices by the company’s CEO, I can only cautiously recommend buying Dungeon and suggest avoiding everything else by Winged Cloud, both for your own good and the good of the industry.

 

Final score: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Interesting protagonist

+ Well-balanced RPG mechanics

+ Tons of content and “monster” types

+ Great soundtrack

+ Decent art

Cons:

- Fanservice, fanservice everywhere!

- Often uninspired writing and absurdly forced “sexy” moments

- Grindy on higher difficulty settings

 

VNDB page

Buy Sakura Dungeon on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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Disclaimer: I was provided with a free review copy of this game by the developer. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.

OELVN scene is, for many years now, heavily reliant on crowdfunding, with many small and high-profile projects made possible through Kickstarter and, more and more often, regular contributions of fans on Patreon. While these methods of financing VN development created opportunities that wouldn’t be available to the developers in the past and brought us many memorable titles, they go with their share if risk and problems – weak safeguards guaranteeing the final product delivering on its promises or even being completed at all, being the most crucial one. Crowdfunded projects disappointing their audience, getting stuck in development hell or simply never coming to fruition are just as present as they are in “normal” game development scene, with the consequences falling mostly on the average backers, who took the double role of the consumer and the investor, hoping for nothing more than compelling piece of entertainment in return.

              For this reasons, I very much enjoy seeing crowdfunded projects overcoming extreme difficulties and delivering even when everyone forgot about them or stopped hoping for a positive resolution. Lately, we’ve seen the release and warm reception of AIdol, a game that spent more than half a decade in development and went through a failed Kickstarter campaign and changes in staff, in the and being claimed by Ebi-Hime, originally only the writer for the project, and released under her name. Today, I’ll look at another long-forgotten project, Pistachi Studio’s Ruler by Default, successfully crowdfunded in 2014 and released on Steam on May 4th this year, exactly 3 years after the initial goal.

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The game’s long development left many problems behind – the reworked visuals however made a significant, positive difference from what was presented in the early builds

Ruler by Default’s plot is quite a typical (comedy) isekai motif – an average guy, programmer fresh out of college, is suddenly sucked into a fantasy world and recognized as a new (evil?) Overlord. The title, once held by a God-appointed ruler of the entire realm, lost most of its significance after the disappearance of the previous Overlord and his kingdom was reduced to a tiny domain of a castle and its immediate surroundings, guarded by a handful of still-loyal servants. Having at least a full year till another portal to our world can be opened, our protagonist has to accommodate to his new role and decide whether it will be just a temporary settlement, until he can return home, or something more permanent.

              The initial projects of the game, as presented in the Kickstarter campaign and Steam Greenlight page, showed it as a dating sim with stat management and some elements of political simulation. The final version, however, turned out to be very much a pure visual novel, with only choosable conversations and dialogue choices influencing the plot and the “ruling” part of the game basically out of the picture.  For the first 30 weeks of your stay in the new world, you’re able to interact with one of the 6 heroines (5 of them romanceable, the sixth one having a supporting role and most likely getting a full route later as a DLC) each week – if you finish all events connected to one of them, you’re immediately locked into her route. The game’s past design is mostly visible through some of the still present flavour text, such as stat checks and stat bonuses from certain events that no longer mean anything and will most likely be removed with patches.

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The heroines are definitely the game’s strongest asset – they’re all interesting, well fleshed-out characters, even if the actual routes vary in quality

Whatever Ruler by Default might have lost during its long and complicated development, it very much makes up for with personality and a great female cast. The first characters you meet, immortal elf-like sorceresses Mori and June are not only quirky and intriguing, but also show some of the game’s biggest strengths – great visual design and well-drawn, expressive sprites. All other heroines are similarly distinct and for a game that takes around 10 hours to complete, surprisingly well fleshed-out, with their own secrets and interesting backstories. All the routes also contain a nice mixture of comedy and drama, being lighthearted much of the time, but also producing seriously touching and dark moments – Mori’s route being probably the best one in this respect, completely changing your view of the character and delivering some compelling romance. Other story arcs are not always this consistent and enjoyable in their writing, but also none of them feels underdeveloped or not worth reading.

              The protagonist, on the other hand, is much more generic, without many clear characteristics beyond being a nice guy (and, at least in one route, he acts consistently stupid enough to be rather off-putting). Also unlike the heroines, it’s debatable whether he shows much growth during the story – this might be one more casualty of the missing dating sim mechanics, as in the narrative he often seems like just as much of a dork in the ending sequences as he does in the opening ones and there’s little you can do to lead him in a different direction without receiving a bad ending. This also makes the whole “evil overlord” theme very thin and mostly a comedic factor and personally, while I definitely didn’t expect this to be another Venus Blood, the lack of legitimate “darker” paths was a bit disappointing.

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The removal of the dating sim mechanics didn’t hurt the romance, but definitely affected the political parts of the narrative, barely visible in some routes

Just like the character sprites I was writing about earlier, other visual assets are very solid, not being very high on detail, but well-stylized an appealing to look at. The overall artstyle isn’t far detached from usual anime drawings, but also have enough personality to be memorable. The pleasant music enhances that effect, giving the game a surprisingly strong climate. The only things that slightly spoils it are the persistent technical issues, not major enough to be game-breaking, but very much visible – the constantly bugging-out backlog, combined with the inability to roll back dialogue, was especially irritating. The nowadays rarely-seen 4:3 aspect ration also was something that took me some time to get used to and could be a major problem for some readers.

              Still, those were definitely minor gripes when confronted with the overall enjoyment I’ve had with this VN. I came to me pretty much out of nowhere, from an era long before I was even interested in visual novels and when it goes to storytelling, delivered one of the most compelling experiences I've had recently. While it might be advisable to wait for some minor fixes, and possibly even the addition of June’s route, before you read it, for the modest price of 10$ it’s an absolutely great catch. If you can, support the devs behind this project – against all odds, they managed to provide us with a fun, memorable title and I really hope that they’ll work will ultimately be appreciated.

 

Final score: 3,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Good art and scripting

+ Great cast of characters

+ Highly distinct, compelling romance routes

Cons:

- Bland protagonist

- A LOT of small bugs

 

VNDB page

Buy Ruler by Default on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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Disclaimer: I was provided with a free review copy of this game by the developer. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.

World War 2 and Nazi Germany aren’t completely atypical themes in VN and manga/anime – some beloved and high-profile titles, such as Dies Irae or Hellsing take a very direct inspiration from nazi imagery and legends about NSDAP’s elites’ dealings with the occult. More down-to-Earth war stories are however much rarer in this context – prominent franchises such as Valkyrie Chronicles or Saga of Tanya the Evil not only utilize much less controversial political and military framework of WW1, but also add significant fantasy elements to the mix.

          To apparently remedy this sorry state of affairs, a small OELVN titled Panzer Hearts was recently released on Steam. Developed by HELYEES, this game promises a story of war and romance in an alternate universe WW2. To this it also adds the theme of tank-building, that should probably excite every military geek such as myself. However, as fantastic as this all sounds, can this tiny indie game actually deliver on all that?

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The game’s vision of totalitarian society is believable and well thought-out, but with an around 5-hour long story, it's ultimately too short to explore it to a satisfying degree

The game’s story follows Bastian, a young soldier of the totalitarian, expansionist Empire (vastly resembling Nazi Germany, but with the national-socialist imaginary replaced by Ancient Egyptian themes), who idealistically enlisted for the army and was humiliatingly wounded the first time he saw combat. After heavy recovery and an emotional breakdown, he’s personally enlisted by an influential officer, colonel Kontar Ackermann, to work at a new tank factory, starting a journey that will lead him either to embracing or rejecting the oppressive system he lives in, while falling in love with one of two girls, each of them pretty much representing polar opposite stances on the Empire.

          The focus of the story definitely lays on the political reality of Bastian’s homeland and his personal struggle to understand the reality around him. The losses inflicted upon his family by the war, indoctrination he went through and his naive idealism are all explored in pretty interesting ways and the way they clash with brutal realities of the Empire’s terror and violence are the driving force of the plot. Also, the writing makes clear the moral ambiguity of pretty much all of the possible choices – while the Empire is clearly a brutal, potentially genocidal dictatorship, rejecting it also means betraying all the people that aided Bastian and laid their trust on him after he returned from the front. From this point of view, loyalist ending is maybe the most interesting part of the game, not only resolving the moral conflicts of the story in a convincing manner, but also pointing out to the rewards an authoritarian offers to it’s most loyal and capable servants and the allure of power that it can grant to an individual.

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Tank-building segments could’ve been a very nice touch if they were even slightly more involved and varied

What, however, is very praiseworthy in the general outline, it not always as good when it goes to details and the way some of these ideas are executed. Panzer Hearts on many occasions shows the cracks within the Empire’s perfect facade and various heresies against the dominant ideology, often coming from those publicly most loyal to the system and the first ones to silence anyone questioning it. This subplots, however, are pretty much never explored much beyond the sheer fact of their existence – and some of them begged to have deeper ramification and expose the characters more deeply to the dread of totalitarian violence, rather than just showing the inherent hypocrisy of ideology-driven regimes. Dialogues also disappoint slightly, feeling a bit unnatural and chaotic when they go into ideological discussions and conflicts between the characters – they never seem to reach the depth and impact that the authors obviously wanted them to have.

          However, a really major disappointment for me came from the tank-building “mini-game”, which was marketed as one of the selling point of the game and in reality can barely be even described as a gameplay element. Only a few “assembling” segments are present in Panzer Hearts  and all of them consist of simply dragging the parts vaguely around their appropriate places, without any skill or challenge involved. While they’re well-embedded within the story and relevant for the plot, they just begged for more variety – the German armored vehicles of WW2 are a huge source of interesting designs and trivia and using that potential seems like an obvious choice for a game that seems like it was meant to appeal fans of military history and equipment. Sadly, the game stops at absolute basics, just borrowing a few famous tank models and vaguely describing their capabilities.

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The game’s simple visuals sadly take away some of the impact from the very dark, oppressive setting and storyline

Another issue, for many probably much more important, is the choice system in the game, which is pretty much meaningless past a few paths that lead you to immediate bad endings and the final decision that determines the ending you get. The games give you Telltale-style feedback to most of your actions (including the always-ominous "X will remember what you said about Y"), making you feel like you’re working towards something on every step, but none of it actually changes the plot, which branches out only at the very end of the story – I personally didn’t mind it very much, but those hating having only an illusion of control might be heavily disappointed.

          The possible dealbreaker, however, comes in the form of game’s visuals – while the quality of the art is not dreadful, it definitely has a problem of not really matching the extremely heavy subject matter. I have a feeling that the same story, presented with a more refined and darker aesthetic, could be much more impactful. The artist’s take on Egyptian themes also looks quite interesting and at times appealing, but lacks the polish necessary to really make it convincing. Of course, considering that Panzer Hearts was made by a tiny, more or less amateur team there’s no point in bashing those aspects of the game, but they’re definitely something to consider as a consumer.

          In the end, though, I do recommend giving this VN a chance – it’s a decent attempt at telling a kind of story and building a setting that we don’t really see within the medium, done with obvious knowledge and understanding of the topic is tries to tackle. Because of that, it’s something I would definitely like to see more of in the OELVN scene and if HELYEES decides to create another title in similar style, I’ll be very interesting in seeing it. However flawed, it's a good start, hopefully, one that will lead towards more polished and expansive projects.

 

Final Score: 2,5/5
 

Pros:

- Unique setting

- Serious approach to topics of war and totalitarianism

Cons:

- Mediocre dialogue

- Simple visuals

- Doesn’t capitalize on some of its best ideas
 

VNDB page

Buy Panzer Hearts on Steam or download a free demo

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