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About this blog

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Steam Curator Page

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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. 

Entries in this blog

Plk_Lesiak

Hello and welcome to my seasonal Steam Curator Connect Wrap-up, where I’ll be looking at games sent to me for review through my Steam Curator profile during the last few months – particularly the shorter/simpler among them, for which I couldn’t make dedicated posts. This time, the quality of the VNs I’ve received was a positive surprise, with each title offering something interesting and most of them exceeding my expectations in some ways. The highlights of today’s list are definitely the virtual reality-themed thriller Omnimus and the uniquely-stylized, mildly-erotic queer VN Knife Sisters. However, all of the games I’ll be writing about are arguably worth your attention, so please stay with me while I explore their main perks and issues. As usual, links in each title will lead you straight to the Steam store page, so you can quickly check the games out at their source. Enjoy!

 

Summer Meetings

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The growth of Mikołaj Spychał’s lineup of perfectly-generic romance VNs quite likely isn’t stopping any time soon, and his fourth game, Summer Meetings, is another incremental improvement to the previously-established formula. Much of the fun in his VNs come not from the very standard love stories, or especially from the minimalistic visuals (nearly no CGs and simple sprites), but from the ability to mess up the romance in an impressive number of ways. Dating a few girls at once without them knowing, cheating, randomly kissing the wrong girl at the concert you went to as a group… For people that just want to see the world burn, this might be the best opportunity since School Days (although without that significant bonus of hentai and/or gore).

                At the same time, the core story is solid enough for what it tries to be and the writing feels like a step up from all the author’s previous titles: it has a nice flow to it and the English script feels pretty much devoid of translation issues I’ve noticed in his earlier games. The five heroines are decently fleshed-out and even can surprise you in some ways – like the step-sister's willingness to keep the romance non-committal and even tolerating other girl being the protagonist’s primary focus. The main thing stopping me from fully recommending it is the price: for a VN this simple visually and with 5-6 hours of content, 10 dollars feels like an overkill. If you find it for half of that price, however, it’s a surprisingly fun way of burning one or two evenings.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Omnimus

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Omnimus is probably the biggest positive surprise of today’s list: a cheap visual novel by a low-profile Russian studio that at first looked rather unassuming, but quickly managed to capture my attention with a high-quality intro. After that, it simply never stopped being well-produced and immersive. The opening segment efficiently introduces you to the setting: a near-future Earth on which, after a series of natural disasters and conflicts, the nation-states started decaying, making space for the rise of corporate power. From this broad picture we're immediately transitioning to our protagonist waking up from a coma, apparently paralyzed, only to find out that he’s been “volunteered” for a highly-ambitious virtual reality experiment. He then meets three other test subjects, with whom he’ll get involved in a highly-unpredictable intrigue with strong flavours of capitalist dystopia and transhumanism.

                While short and ultimately pretty simple (the plot is mostly linear and your choices have only a very limited impact on the major events), Omnimus do a few things very well. First, it effectively sustains a sense of tension while you’re navigating the virtual world, without knowing its real purpose or true intentions of the crucial actors involved in the story. Second, it makes the mystery plot rather complex and ambiguous – each reveal both clarifies certain things and makes you question the sincerity of those providing you with the information. Each of the two main forces driving the plot has their own agenda, not necessarily aligning with your best interest and you have to play knowing you’re your own best, and possibly only ally. There’s also a very minimalistic romance subplot for each of the two female characters you meet in the virtual reality – this is the source of one of my only complaints about the game, as getting the romance scenes requires making a perfect sequence of 9, very not-obvious choices, which is a major overkill. Other than that, though, Omnimus is just a very cool experience, which reads, looks and sounds very solid despite costing just 2 dollars. This is exactly the kind of quality and value proposition I like to see in EVNs by small studios, and I strongly encourage all of you to check it out and support the devs behind it.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Knife Sisters

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Knife Sisters is a deeply unique VN experience for a variety of reasons. Its pencil-drawn, monochrome art is very distinct, but also surprisingly detailed and expressive. Its choice system, with the ability to respond immediately, stall to see different dialogue options or just wait out decisions altogether, represents real-life dialogue way better and more in-depth than most of the typical visual novel mechanics. Its approach to romance is unapologetically queer and polygamous, and full of eroticism, but never crosses the line into plain porn. The effecting mix is quite unlike anything I’ve read before, while it also isn’t extravagant or extreme in its context to the point it couldn’t be enjoyed by more or less anyone who isn’t allergic to LGBT+ themes.

                The game focuses on Leo, a non-binary individual whose life is turned upside-down by the arrival of their new roommate, a strange girl known as Dagger. Trying to pull Leo in strange occult rituals and apparent personal vendettas, she opens a horror plot going alongside a much more relaxed story of protagonist’s relationships and hook-ups. All this leaves quite a lot of space for player agency, both with the usual dialogue choices and decisions on what to do/who to meet at many point in the story, while always staying true to the main character’s core personality traits – general lack of interest in long-term relationships and laid-back nature, meaning they’ll always prioritize fun over building deep bonds. It’s not your usual love story, but is very believable and consistent in what it shows, and even wholesome in its own peculiar way, as it rewards being mindful of other people’s feelings and needs, despite the kinky and non-committal nature of what is happening between them and the protagonist.

                While I have some minor gripes with Knife Sisters, like the lack of certain quality-of-life features (the game is made in Unity and not a dedicated VN engine) and lack of control over certain events (for example, you can’t outright avoid many romantic interactions even when you want to), they are mostly irrelevant in comparison to sheer enjoyment factor it offers. It simply looks, sounds and reads to well for those issues to have a major impact and if it sounds like something you might enjoy, I wholeheartedly recommend giving it a chance.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

The Far Rings

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Getting a review copy of a free game is always a bit ironic, but in the case of The Far Rings, I can’t say I regret getting the curation request and the opportunity to share this game with others. This small sci-fi otome, co-authored by the game jam veteran Heiden (responsible for the semi-famous Helena’s Flowers, among other titles) offers a brief, but well-written and well-paced story about war and prejudice, with a totalitarian state in the background. The protagonist, Athena, is a doctor who went on a humanitarian aid mission to a planet invaded without provocation by her homeworld. There, her organisation’s camp is attacked by the local resistance and she is the only one to survive the resulting massacre. The story proper starts with Athena on a small spaceship, carrying both her and a prisoner – alien supposedly responsible for orchestrating the attack – back to her home platen, piloted by a young naval officer acting as the ship’s only crew. Before they can reach their destination, the player can discover the connections between Athena and those accompanying her on her journey, and maybe find an escape from the cycle of conflict and oppression forced upon then by her planet’s progressively more authoritarian and warmongering government.

                The Far Rings, while very short (around two hours of content), does many things well. The quickly-stablished setting and the reveals, both those related to heroes and Athena herself, are genuinely interesting. The protagonist is well fleshed out and her idealism clashes constantly with the attitudes of those around her, shaped by the pressure to conform and the atrocities of war. The aesthetic and sound, while not particularly flashy, are really well-done. Ignoring one naively-positive resolution to the story (I’m pretty sure that shouting at a homicidal warlord could have many results, but him backing down is the least probable one), it’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience, with the authors promising to expand on it further with a definitive version featuring an extra (true) ending. You might want to wait until that kicks in, but even now, for the generous price of nothing, it’s a visual novel absolutely worth trying out.

Final Rating: Recommended

4 Alice: Lorange Journey & Divine D.I.V.A

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It’s arguably pretty futile to write here about games that were delisted since I’ve received my review copies, but in the case the author decides to restore them, I’ve decided to give them some coverage – also because they are something of a unique affair and this applies particularly to the first game in question, 4 Alice. That short story is written from the perspective of an autistic person interacting with other people like her, but whose disorders show different symptoms and levels of severity. It offers a very rare opportunity for to experience the thought process and perception of the world by someone on the autism spectrum without being overly focused on the attempts to educate people – its brief fantasy/horror plot about a group of girls stuck in a magical house could work without the quirks of its cast, but is made more interesting by their internal struggles and unusual behaviour.

                The second story, Divine D.I.V.A, is a bit less interesting – a simple wish-fulfilment story about a team of female mercenaries in the far future. Both games are also brought down by technical limitations: the simultaneous French and English text in both the story and menus is particularly jarring, killing the aesthetic of both titles (which is already very simple – they’re very basic interactive fiction with no character sprites and stock art). English translation is also pretty junky, but the experience of reading these stories made me believe the author had some potential and many things to say. If she polishes her approach to making the stories and returns to Steam, I’ll be quite interested in seeing what she comes up with.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

 

And this would be it for today’s summary – the next one will be coming in February, hopefully with the winter season giving me the opportunity to go through some longer/more ambitious games that are still waiting to be covered on the blog. And there are some amazing-looking titles in my backlog, that I really want to give a proper look and share them with all of you. Until that happens, I hope you’ve all enjoyed today's list – see you in two weeks!

Plk_Lesiak

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There were few EVNs in the last few years that I’ve seen seriously hyped up by other VN fans and brought to my attention through multiple recommendations and positive reviews – particularly beyond titles by a handful of relatively well-known and respected creators such as ebi-hime. The game I’ll be writing about today, Soundless -A Modern Salem in Remote Area-, is one of such exceptions, enthusiastic opinions about which intrigued me to a major degree, even though it ended up being two years before I finally picked it up. And this is not where the curious and unusual things about it end: this freeware visual novel was released in late 2017 by a small circle under the name of Milk+ and is heavily influenced by the denpa subgenre of horror – one reliant on distortion of reality and chains of bizarre events, true meaning of which is usually hidden under multiple layers of mystery. It mimics extremely well the visual style and climate of the early 2000s’ Japanese games, offering a now rarely-seen call-back to parts of visual novel history highly nostalgic to many fans. And thankfully, there’s a lot more to it than just the interesting stylisation and riding on memories of the past…

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Maggot Baits is something of a Holy Grail of dark eroge, highly anticipated guro fans within the Western VN community and often hyped as possibly the greatest achievement of the company that produced it, Clock Up. As one the most gruesome VNs ever produced, and quite likely the most brutal one ever brought to the West, it contains dozens upon dozens of violent sex scenes, all accompanied by intricate CGs, with small variations in them so numerable that they sum to nearly 2500 unique illustrations. All of that placed in a highly-unique, modern-fantasy setting populated by amazingly-crafted characters and tackling interesting philosophical and religious topics. While it’s pretty much the furthest possible thing from what I usually write about on this blog, few games intrigued me as much as this one, particularly after my inconsistent, but extremely interesting experience with Clock Up’s another famous title, euphoria. Everything I’ve heard about Maggot Baits suggested that it was both more extreme and overall better than studio’s other bestseller, and after reading it to completion, I felt the need to share my thoughts about it in detail. Both because it’s a pretty fascinating case of strengths and pitfalls of this breed of eroge, and to warn those interested in it as a piece of storytelling – while in many ways an incredible achievement, this game is extremely hard to recommend for a “normie” reader such as myself. Why is that exactly?

                Before I go into story details, it’s most important to deal with Maggot Baits’ greatest issue – its structure and general storytelling formula. This game is, at its core, a guro nukige and it’s incredibly dedicated to this template. It throws h-scenes at you at very consistent intervals, disregarding whatever might be going on in the story and sacrificing any sense of pacing or tension so it can constantly offer a new piece of violent hentai. Quite often, the scenes are not important for, or even directly connected to what’s happening in the plot, pretty much pausing the whole narrative to insert a new piece of fanservice. In this, it goes even further than euphoria, which did a much better job intertwining its scenes with the story and had a bit more restraint in the most dramatic and meaningful parts of the plot. Maggot Baits even goes to the length of adding a major side-branch in the first chapter of the story, which is nothing but 3-4 hours of futanari porn leading to a bad ending. All of it narratively empty and pretty much derailing your experience if you expect any kind of interesting reveals or a meaningful conclusion within it. I still don’t understand why it was a part of the main story, and especially inserted so early in the game, before you build any connection to the characters involved or can understand the full implications of what is happening in those scenes. 

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Few EVN studios leave me with such mixed feelings as Reine Works – a small team creating otome and yuri VNs at an impressive pace since 2017, known for titles such as Blossoms Bloom Brightest and Reflection ~Dreams and Reality~. While I enjoy the ideas behind much of their work and there’s usually a visible improvement in quality with each new release, the storytelling in their games always proved lacking, leaving me either bored or weirded out in the end. Still, I was invested enough to still support their increasingly ambitious and interesting-looking projects, including minor Kickstarter pledges. This is how I ended up playing Our Lovely Escape – a small VN with choosable protagonist gender and three female romance interests, which appeared on Steam in late September 2019, after many long delays. Marketed in a way that suggested a dark twist to every heroine arc, hidden under a façade of a cute, New Game!-like story about an all-female game studio, it seemed to mix many elements I personally enjoy. What I got, however, is quite likely the worst Raine Work’s game to date and will stay in my mind as one of the most upsetting VNs I’ve read to date.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Hello there, all you good people still following my content-starved blog! There will be no regular review post this week (I’ll be catching up next week with one about Reine Work’s Our Lovely Escape, and hopefully a week after that with one of the long-overdue games sent to me for review), but I’ve wanted to take this opportunity to share the reasons behind the recent slowdown on the site and talk a bit my plans for the future. A warning: this will contain a lot of personal musings that most of you are probably not very interested in. However, I kind of need this opportunity to vent and reset. I’ll add a tl;dr version at the end of this post.

Outside of my, not-extremely-successful attempt to jumpstart a new wave of activity on Fuwanovel, there have been a few other things happening behind the scenes. The major one was my academic project on visual novel fan translations, which led me to submitting a paper for an international fan studies conference in Cracow. Preparing the speech in English (this was the first time I wasn’t speaking in Polish on such an event), running a survey with people involved in fan translation projects… It all took a lot out of me and gave me little time and energy to actually enjoy VNs as such. It also coincided with a minor health issue, which despite its non-threatening nature made it impossible for me to sit straight for nearly two weeks – a truly infuriating thing when you should be working on your computer and are basically running out of time. This was probably a major factor which destroyed my motivation for working on the project, which in turn made it be the most painful and depressing one to date. I, however, still made my short presentation in the presence of prof. Matt Hills, one of the most influential researchers in my obscure field of study, and learned quite a lot from other speakers. Here’s some photographic proof, courtesy of my girlfriend who once more agreed to help me inflate my ego by documenting my speech. 😉

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As you can see, I was asking the Heavens to help me and my listeners to get through those 20+ minutes of my horrible English accent. Not sure to what degree my prayers were heard, but at least there were no fatalities. Oh, and in the lower-left corner, it’s Matt Hills. That was both awesome and terrifying.

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And here’s a rare moment where my conference ID wasn’t hanging backwards! You can see the fear in my eyes – one would think after nearly 10 similar presentations I’d be a little bit calmer, but it’s apparently in my nature to stress out over everything.

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And here’s me taking one of two questions that were still possible to ask after I’ve used all the discussion time for my way-too-long PowerPoint slideshow. And yup, I will insert Flowers whenever that's even remotely appropriate. Suou x Rikka forever. You can't stop me!

While, in general, my project was fruitful and I’m satisfied with my performance, I also ended up so physically and emotionally drained that I’ve ditched the other two days of the conference, just enjoying my time in Cracow. Even after coming back, I had a day of what could be described as a full-on breakdown before I kind of got my shit together. All this, of course, has some very real consequences for the blog: for quite a while, I didn’t have the time and energy to really read VNs. And, obviously, without any new material to cover, I didn’t write anything either. It’s the first time since establishing the Blogger site that I have no “emergency” posts to use or quick ideas to supplement more involved write-ups with, even despite switching to the biweekly schedule. And honestly, I don’t expect to write much in-advance anymore. The “one post every two weeks” frequency is here to stay and I’m going to be flexible about it, switching content and dates when necessary.

The other thing is that I still want to make the blog a little bit more of my personal space. I’ve kept up the regular stream of content both to become a better writer and to prove a few things to myself. I think I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved, and while I’m definitely not discarding the general profile of the blog and the responsibilities I’ve taken upon myself (like covering the games sent to me), I’m going to have fun with it too. Write silly stuff connected to the weeb culture and my peculiar experience with it. I’ve already hinted at this at the beginning of the summer, but I’m even more determined to make it happen now. No hobby I’ve picked up over the years was this intellectually stimulating and satisfying as this one and I want to do all I can to keep it this way– I can't let things go too stale.

And while I’m doing all this weird stuff and overthinking things, I hope you guys will stay and still read my crappy writing. Exploring the creativity and passion of EVN devs is not something I’ll ever get tired of, and I hope we can enjoy their stuff together for years to come. Thank you all for following my work, and until next week!

 

tl;dr I’ve been to a fan studies conference which, together with minor health issues, ate a month and a half of my life. I’ll get back to “serious” posting next week, returning to the bi-weekly schedule. I might sneak in some weird posts about Japanese popculture between “proper” EVN ones. EVNs are love, EVNs are life (still). See you next week for actual content!

Plk_Lesiak

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As it’s probably very clear by this point, I like visual novels. Like, a lot. I also happen to like KFC, which definitely places in my top 3 of fast food chains available here in Poland, occasionally coming very close to claiming that number 1 spot. The only thing stopping me from enjoying its antibiotic-filled, industrial chicken goodness every other day is the lack of convenient locales (in stark contrast to McDonald’s, as the closest one is in a very cosy corner just 10-minutes’ walk away from my place, just beckoning me to claim those coupons for cheap coffee). Thus, there should be nothing preventing me from enjoying a parody/advertisement VN aimed at stroking that unsatisfied urge for greasy, over-salted chicken treats. I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator, released on Steam two weeks ago and developed by a niche studio under the name Psyop, had the potential to not only be a whacky marketing tool for KFC, but also a fun joke VN – with the backing of a giant corporation and a team of not-completely-clueless people working on it, it could've easily exceeded everyone’s expectations. However, it really, really didn’t…

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Whatever you might think about this game, it’s hard to argue with the extreme, masculine charm of its iteration of Colonel Sanders. Quite a… FILF? No… DILF? Ugh, nevermind…

I Love You, Colonel Sanders! was created with a very clear agenda in mind – it’s a device to promote KFC’s new mac and cheese dish and, more broadly, make you think about its blood-vessel-clogging menu for much of your reading experience. In this regard, it seems to be extremely successful on both macro and micro scale. It was the talk of the day on social media and even gaming sites for quite a while, achieving that for what was probably a tiny fraction of the cost of a traditional marketing campaign. It also really made me want to go to KFC, although that feeling was deeply bitter-sweet (bitter-salty?), as nearly none of the menu items featured in the game are a thing in the Eastern-European shithole I live in. We actually have some crappy “California” seasonal menu with pineapple in everything – a major turnoff, if you ask me. But, if I actually was in US, I’d be rising my cholesterol levels with that disgustingly-fatty pasta dish until I got sick of it – thus, I think the advert part works well enough.

                When it goes to the visual novel itself, it’s exactly the wacky collection of memes, caricatural characters and paper-thin plot you would expect it to be. Some say it’s just another pseudo-parody VN making fun of anime tropes, but those are really less prevalent than pure randomness. Also, all those absurd "gags" probably sounded way more fun in the script than they actually are after being brought to life. You start as a genderless student enrolled in a crash-course cooking academy, having to navigate your way through a number of “funny” choices in order to achieve two goals: show your fellow student, Colonel Sanders, that you’re a person worth his affection, and a chef good enough to become his business partner (both parts are connected to different choices and getting the cooking part right is actually a bit tricky). In all of it, there's a pretty clear message about simple cooking being supreme over snobbish culinary experiments, and Colonel Sander’s chicken dishes being exquisite, so I guess it conveys something akin to KFC’s driving philosophy. The ending you get mostly depends on whether you follow these "ideals" in your choices. There’s also a tiny bit of charisma to Sanders himself and the protagonist’s best friend, Miriam, and a few jokes connected to those two were actually amusing. The whole rest of the cast and the “main plot” itself are garbage.

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The exaggerated, wacky characters and abundance of memes would not be a major issue if they were employed in witty, genuinely funny ways – they are not…

There are also other elements in I Love You, Colonel Sanders! that you would expect from this kind of meme game, like random game-overs (you can thankfully go back to the choice just by clicking “try again”) and over-the-top music. The latter might actually be the worst part of the whole experience – it gravitates between utterly generic and seriously obnoxious, with the loud cacophony that kicks in during all more intense moments (like the cook-off sections) being simply unbearable. Interestingly enough, the game also isn’t a dating sim by any definition – while you have to deal with a few timed choices (pretty annoying and unintuitive when it goes to which answers are the correct ones), there are no gameplay mechanics to speak of. From the technical viewpoint, it’s extremely limited even for a visual novel, with no manual save (this is thankfully not so problematic with just how short it is), no backlog and dreadfully bare-bones options menu – basically just sound sliders and two pre-set graphical levels. This probably stems from the fact that it wasn’t made in a dedicated visual novel engine (I assume it was done in Unity), but it’s still an embarrassment for a semi-experienced studio to ignore quality-of-life features to this degree. Options like textbox opacity (hope you like white text on white background), text speed or skip-read options are in every modern VN for a reason, and I find ignoring them unacceptable even in a game this short.

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…I mean, your teacher is a talking Corgi! Sitting on a pedestal! That’s funny, right? Right???

If I can find something good about this VN, it would probably be visuals – most character designs are fun and assets are all-around solid. The variety of expressions on sprites is very satisfactory, and there are even some surprising traces of actual effort, like the alternative clothing made pretty much exclusively for the short ending sequence of the game. The opening animation could be described as pretty awesome and I’d be genuinely impressed if the VN itself was this vibrant. The fact it isn’t, and how messy its script is, makes me think that the production was rushed, without much time for devs to get really creative – which is a shame, but on the other hand, it's hard to argue with the memetic spread of this game and the generally-positive response it got. People were definitely amused by it, and that’s what the whole project was about. We can complain about how uninspired it is or how it lacks substance (unless you count chicken grease, there's a lot of that), but that doesn’t change the fact it was effective.

                And, as the last issue, there’s the immortal question of “what does it mean for VNs”? Unlike with the cases of DDLC or Devgru-p’s Hitler waifu game, I Love You, Colonel Sanders! enforces the image of visual novels as those whacky, shallow anime games not only through its outer appearance, but all of its content. It also, as mentioned before, mixes up what a dating sim and visual novel are, playing into popular assumptions. I’ll still ask all those crying about the damage to VNs image to calm down – I assure you, 99% of those that discount VNs as just waifu games for weebs wouldn’t be interested in them anyway. And, in the long run, the formula being used in all kinds of ways might be better than it being dead beyond our hermetic niche. I just hope that the next game of this kind will be just slightly more competent, showing at least a bit of the technical functionality and storytelling potential of modern VNs. It only takes a bit more effort to achieve that.

 

Final Score: 2/5

 

Pros:

+ Works as an advertisement

+ Good visuals

Cons:

- Mediocre humour

- Story? What Story?

- Music that will make your ears bleed

- Embarrassing lack of quality-of-life features

 

VNDB Page

Play I Love You, Colonel Sanders! for free on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

In my never-ending journey through the world of EVNs, I often happen to stray away from the more mainstream titles or things explicitly sent to me for review, and into the world of extremely niche games published by countless small-time developers, either for one of the many VN-related game jams or for no reason in particular. While most of them end up being unremarkable, many others turn out to be diamonds in the rough, showing really promising elements and fresh ideas, but being brought down somewhat by their small budgets and lack of polish. Rarely, I find really excellent and memorable titles, that are able to overcome their limitations through thanks to their author’s creativity and storytelling prowess – and while they are definitely worth writing about, they’re usually also small enough that they don’t fit into most of the formats I’ve used so far. For this reason, this new series will be dedicated to such games: mostly unknown, short EVNs that I’d love to see receiving more attention. And my first picks are three excellent, freeware games by the secretive developer working under the name Ludeshka: Hierofania, Hierofania 2 and Rhyme or Reason.

            Probably the most unique aspect of Ludeshka’s games is her art, which feels heavily inspired by expressionism. Rough, often slightly deformed shapes and exaggerated or unnatural colours seem to match the emotional aura of the characters and the climate of the scenes she portrays, rather than present them in a realistic manner. Often her illustrations are not something you would call pretty in the conventional sense, but their striking features give her VNs a lot of personality (particularly when combined with the grim storylines of her “flagship” titles, Hierofania 1 and 2) and it’s hard to ignore their artistic merit. The distinct artstyle is closely matched by the surprising and interestingly-structured plotlines – those, however, will be best to deal with one by one. So, please join me in this short overview of Ludeshka’s work, as I explain why it offers a lot more than you might expect at first glance.

Hierofania

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Hierofania is the tale of Crocket, possibly the last trainee in the dying order of Knights of Utrecht. Ten years after their god stopped manifesting and the magic powers he blessed his disciples with disappeared, only a handful of Knights remained, still clinging to their ancient creed. When a mysterious stranger, chased by the clerics of another deity for the crime he claims he didn’t commit, appears at one of Knight’s remaining strongholds and asks for help, Crocket is sent on a mission to prove his innocence – one from which few expect her to came back alive.

            I won’t hide that I find the setup and climate of Hierofania absolutely fascinating: the game is short, with around 3 hours of content, but manages to establish a cohesive setting that brilliantly subverts some common fantasy tropes. Be it Crocket, a naïve disciple of a dead religion who still believes that her faith will one day be rewarded with a miracle. Be it her captain, who gouged his own eyes in a gruesome ritual, one that was once a source of great power granted by his deity, but now simply made him a cripple. Or be it the stranger, who obviously holds some dark secrets, but the severity of which is hard to imagine before they’re revealed by himself in the bad endings… It’s hard to find a major set piece in this story that doesn’t feel captivating and the striking visual design only makes everything more intriguing. The short plot didn't make it possible to explore this world to the fullest, but the whole experience still feels extremely fresh – and that’s something you rarely get reading your 200th+ EVN.

            If I was to complain about something in Hierofania, it’d probably be the choices – they’re quite often cryptic or feature options very similar to each other, so you can’t really predict their consequences and usually have to unlock alternative endings through pure trial-and-error. This is something of a recurring theme in all of Ludeshka’s games and negatively impacted my experience with them, as I simply dislike this kind of confusing story structure. Still, it was a relatively minor issue in all these cases, and in the first Hierofania and Rhyme or Reason, the choices at least weren’t numerous enough for them to become frustrating mazes. So, I still highly suggest giving Hierofania a chance – with all its limitations, it’s an utterly unique story that will inevitably leave you with a strong impression.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 

Hierofania 2

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Herofania 2 might seem like a repeat of certain themes from the first game, starting with a death of a goddess and despair of people deprived of her blessings, but ultimately tells a very different story, only loosely connected to the one from its prequel. It also offers a lot more significant branching, more visual assets (including simple animations) and a better sense of player’s control over what happens in it. It follows the story of Caramela, a young queen of a small fishermen kingdom of Currents. After her lands and her own family were ravaged by a mysterious plague a decade earlier, she ended up receiving the crown while unprepared for ruling and became dependent on her regent Senteltje, a man with a dark reputation and a history of conflict with the deceased queen. With the Kingdom devoid of its patron deity, the Sea Goddess also killed by the mysterious disease and a war raging between its neighbours, Caramela will be forced to finally choose a path for herself and her country.

            The game is an overall improvement over the first Hierofania, both in its production quality and its storytelling, but above all, maintains all positive qualities of its prequel. The characters are immediately memorable and interesting, the story is engrossing and develops in directions that are never banal or easy to predict. Caramela herself is a much more complex character than Crocket, quickly growing beyond the first impression of a spoiled and disinterest noble, content to let others take the burden of ruling. While how much agency she’ll ultimately have is heavily dependent on player’s choices, there’s a surprising variety in how her story can be resolved, without any obvious “good” or “bad” outcomes – in politics things are rarely black and white, and even conclusions such as Caramela forever staying Senteltje’s puppet is not necessarily bad for her or for Currents. One of the more decisively-positive endings can be considered the canon one, as it rewards you with a short epilogue connecting the story directly with the events of the first game, but this feels more like just an excuse to tease the overarching plot, which was meant to be resolved in the third entry in the series. Ultimately, Hierofania 2 is a story that stands very well on its own and lets you take away from it whatever you wish – and this makes it that much more worth reading.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 

Rhyme or Reason

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Rhyme or Reason, released by Ludeshka between Hierofania 1 and 2, was an attempt at creating a more traditional romance VN and diversify from the fantasy drama driving the author’s main project. It’s a short game, with around 2 hours of content, following the story of Rhyme – a protagonist whose face and gender are never shown, but who still manages to show a set of interesting characteristics. They’re an aspiring singer and songwriter, passionate about their work, but also too demotivated by their tedious life and self-doubt to really chase their dreams. What has a chance of changing this sorry state of affairs is an invitation from protagonist’s close online friend, Karen, to stay for a week at her house, in a scenic small city by the ocean. After getting there they immediately meet Nancy, a somewhat-overwhelming aspiring singer, who’s in the middle of a desperate search for a guitarist for her band – the previous one disappeared, just before a major gig. Depending on the way you navigate this situation, it can lead you to 6 different endings, including two romantic conclusions featuring one male and one female character.

            Rhyme or Reason’s story shares some of the positive qualities of Hierofania, despite its vastly different tone: it tells you a lot about the characters through meaningful bits of information, rather than lengthy backstories and keeps you engaged with interesting story developments and fun dialogue. Thanks to all this, it manages to tell a rather satisfying and complete story in a very short time. Admittedly, the unusual artstyle does not work as well with this kind of mundane themes as it does with fantasy, but still feels properly expressive and makes the characters look unique. Overall, the game is not as engrossing as Hierofania and feels a little bit rushed, with maybe a few too many questions left unanswered and the endings very much open-ended. Still, it’s a fun short story that I don’t regret spending my time with and if you like simple romance VNs, I recommend checking it out.

Final Rating: Recommended

 

Sadly, Ludeshka's VN development endeavours slowed down significantly after the release of Hierofania 2 and it's going to be a while before we see another game from her (and especially before Hierofania 3 comes out, as it was explicitly put on hiatus). While there's still hope for the Hierofania trilogy to be concluded one day, all the games I've tackled in this post are self-contained and satisfying stories, worth checking out even if the “true” conclusion to some of the subplots would never arrive. They’re also completely free, which in my book is always a major positive. So, if what I wrote about these VNs piqued your interest even a little bit, be sure to give them a chance – you won’t be disappointed.

Also, as the last note, at some point mobile versions of both Hierofania games were available on Google Play, published by Visual Wordplay. However, just like many ports by that company, they seemed to suffer from serious technical issues. If you want to play Ludeshka’s games, I suggest downloading them for PC from her Itch.io page.

Plk_Lesiak

Check out my interview with Georgina Bensley, the founder of Hanako Games, published recently on Fuwanovel

Welcome back to another one of my seasonal (yup, I get enough things sent my way for that to be a thing now) summary of games given to me for review through the EVN Chronicles Steam Curator page. Once more, I’ll be focusing on the shorter titles, that would most likely be hard to write a full-length review about or had to give up their spots for games I really wanted to cover in detail. This, of course, doesn’t mean there are no really interesting VNs among them. In today's list, the title standing out the most is undoubtedly Jack-In-A-Castle, a whimsical tale about a world populated by living toys and a marionette investigating the disappearance of its king. This extended version of a free NaNoRenO 2019 VN proved to be an unusual and twisted experience that caught me completely by surprise. While the other three games I’ll cover this time didn’t offer similar levels of quality, all of them proved interesting in their own ways – even if they didn’t subvert my expectation quite like they wanted to...

 

Jack-In-A-Castle

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Every once in awhile, I stumble upon small VNs so unusual and creative that they’re hard to categorize. Jack-In-A-Castle is, by its own admission, a rather cute, cartoonish boy’s love story happening in a fantastic world populated by animated toys. However, there are a few caveats to it: the BL label feels somewhat irrelevant considering the androgynous designs of the main characters (particularly the protagonist, Marion) and the relatively tame relationships they develop. Between all those cute living toys and minimalistic love stories they’re involved in, gender barely seems to hold any meaning. At the same time, the cartoonish art can be misleading in its own way – the game features some mature themes and the characters, Marion in particular, can be quite devious and even violent (although such things are mostly presented off-screen).

                The three hero routes all develop in pretty unpredictable directions, leading Marion to resolve the mystery of the missing king and the tenuous regency of his right-hand-man, Jack, in vastly different ways (or not at all). This makes for a surprisingly engaging and fun experience – varied, cleverly written and executed with a lot of attention to detail. The game’s environments change to reflect the plot progression (mainly through the constant spread of mysterious vines infecting the titular castle). What seems like throwaway choices can lead to some drastic consequences, completely subverting your expectations. Everything is presented in a distinctly stylish manner, with the simplicity of character and background designs being outweighed by their expressiveness and the quirky atmosphere they create. The overall impression I’ve got from Jack-In-A-Castle was extremely positive and I highly recommend checking it out – unless you’re hoping for traditional VN romance, it definitely won’t disappoint you.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 

Elf Enchanter: Arousing Anima

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Belgerum is a developer of small hentai games that combine VN-style storytelling and simple, RPG-like battle mechanics. After his surprise hit from 2018 NaNoRen0 contest, Demon King Domination, he capitalised on it with an extended, commercial version that reached decent popularity on Steam. Later he also created a follow-up game, Magebuster, once more featuring a supernatural, villainous protagonist and an antagonistic heroine he has to dominate. His third title, Elf Enchanter, was meant to partially break away from this formula, being a “pure” visual novel and not focusing so much on dark themes. 

                Featuring a support mage that accidentally casts a taming spell on his dark elf companion, making her incapable of opposing his commands, it sounded quite intriguing in theory: I usually find games where you’re given complete power over other people, and can use it for either good or bad, very compelling. Elf Enchanter, however, does very little with this setup: featuring only a few choices and three possible endings, it’s too short and basic to really engage you in its narrative, while the 5 h-scenes (two unavoidable one and one extra per each ending) are average in quality and only one of them stands out with some unusual elements. It’s quite adequate as a $1 nukige (that’s how much it costs on Steam), but ultimately very forgettable – and that’s a shame, as with just a bit more content and complexity, it could’ve been a really cool experience worthy of a much more serious price tag. Maybe another time…

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

 

Kingdom of Lies

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The fact that Visual Novels are somewhat easy to put-together, even without any programming prowess or high-quality assets involved, makes it quite common for extremely low-effort ones, or straight-up troll games in VN form, to reach Steam. Kingdom of Lies looks like one of the latter, a cynical attempt at trolling and getting attention with edgy content, but is actually something a bit different – a confusing, broken and ultimately unplayable mess, that still quite a lot of work and thought went into. It features a really strange story about a maniacal-murderer protagonist, guided by a demon (represented by gradually-decaying rat corpse) into a killing spree in a modern-fantasy setting. It then combines it with some literally-impossible Hotline Miami-style gameplay sections and minigames that will make your head hurt (although the combination of shogi, go and chess on a three-dimensional board and with a possibility to modify rules was pretty hilarious). All of that coupled with MS Paint-grade visuals, tons of anti-SJW memes and high levels of randomness. It’s quite possible that I haven’t seen this much effort going into something so overwhelmingly bad since Sonic Boom and if the game was just a battle bit less broken, I could’ve even suggested checking it out for its hypnotizing trainwreck-like qualities. It also involves a few genuinely cool ideas: for example, the rat corpse/demon you communicate with before every mission is quite disturbing, with the constant decay and disease it seems to spread all around it being well-portrayed despite the simplistic graphics. In reality, though, the experience of playing Kingdom of Lies is just too confusing and frustrating to be worth it.

Final Rating: Not Recommended

 

Caladria Chronicles

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Caladria Chronicles is a debut VN by a small studio called Starlight Visual, one which was meant to launch a whole saga set in the titular modern-fantasy world of Caladria. It’s also, by most measures, a rather spectacular trainwreck: overly ambitious, unfocused and grossly unpolished in its execution. The full voice acting is a mixed bag at best, with some characters being hard to listen to and whole lines misplaced or missing. The narrative lacks clear protagonists, and introduces way too many character and subplots within its 3-hours reading time. The humour is very much hit-and-miss, with two rather unbearable chuuni characters at the center of most of the gags. The anime clichés are everywhere and their presence, along with many explicit references to Japan, are utterly confusing unless you took your time and read the game’s encyclopaedia, explaining many crucial lore details that are never properly communicated in the story. An encyclopaedia which, BTW, is also full of errors and clunky writing.

                Why do I leave this game with a positive recommendation then? Not because I necessarily advice reading it, but because of a huge potential I see in its setting and some of its characters. Caladria is a copycat world – a planet whose people used the help of mystical being known as angels to gain knowledge of Earth’s history, technology and culture. They then proceeded to copy and expand on all of it, boosting their own development in incredible ways. In the process, Caladria lost most of its own identity, with whole nations mimicking Earth’s civilizations and identifying with these artificially-imported, second-hand cultures. With a few forms of magic and a tumulous political situation added to the mix, the setting itself offers great promise, even if the first game only briefly touches on its most interesting aspects. While for now, Caladria Chronicles can be only worth experiencing as an unfortunate curiosity, if its authors manage to learn from their mistakes, they have a good basis to create something really memorable and compelling. Skip on this VN, but keep Starlight Visual on your radar – personally, I’m extremely curious where the Caladria project goes next.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

 

And this would be it for this season’s Steam Curator summary! I hoped to include at least one more game in it, but the real-life responsibilities forced me to move it to the fall update – that one will hopefully be more substantial, including some more notable games and ones that were waiting particularly long to get covered. Still, I hope you all enjoyed this small update and as always, my huge thanks go to the developers that decided to share their work with me. I hope this feedback, even if not always positive, will be of use to them and maybe even inspire (even) better VNs in the future. Until the next time!

Plk_Lesiak

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Perceptions of the Dead 2, released on Steam on June 2018, is a light-horror visual novel by Ithaqua Labs, a team whose titles stand out from the usual output of Western VN studios through their unique, vibrant artstyle and full voice acting. Soon after the game’s initial release, I’ve reviewed its then-available first chapter, Misty Mournings. It was an hour and a half piece of content tying together all the stories and characters from the first, freeware Perception of the Dead, with the main storyline revolving around nulls – mysterious ghost-devouring creatures that pose a mortal threat to both spirits and human mediums. This, however, was meant to be only the beginning of the game’s story, with three more chapters promised in the Kickstarter campaign and scheduled for release over the next year. With the fourth story, House Haunting, now available and Perceptions of the Dead 2 experience complete, I’ve decided to revisit the game and take a closer look at all that additional content. Did it maintain the positive impression I’ve got from the first chapter?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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I’ll be completely honest: I didn’t have a good opinion of NTT Solmare even before approaching the game this review is about. After exploring their sole non-otome visual novel, Moe! Ninja Girls, I was absolutely stunned with the predatory monetisation and poor quality of that title. I was still curious about their otome projects though and decided to check out one featuring the theme I personally enjoy a lot: vampires. Thus, I ended up playing Blood in Roses+, one of the over 20(!) games in the Shall We Date? series and what I found there was an extension of my Moe! Ninja Girl experience, along with some interesting surprises (which doesn’t mean any of them were particularly pleasant).

                First, however, a bit of context is required. NTT Solmare is a Japanese company producing e-books and mobile games primarily for the Western market. Shall We Date? Otome games are their flagship product and can be split into two categories: paid apps, which are mostly Android/iOS, English-localized ports of Idea Factory otome VNs and free apps which are produced by NTT Solmare themselves. Since 2011, they’ve released literally dozens of cheaply-made, but aggressively monetized games, particularly in the free-to-play segment. This is also the category where Blood in Roses+ fits in, being a fully free-to-play mobile VN, in which you can theoretically experience an impressive and constantly-expanding pool of content without paying anything. There’s a catch though… Or a dozen, which are all worth discussing in detail due to the unbelievable abuse of the VN format they represent.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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In our obscure EVN market, there are rarely games or events that could be described as major controversies – even the most unfortunate releases or Kickstarter disasters usually don’t involve enough people and money to gather the attention of the community for a longer period of time or spark a mass backlash. Along with Aeon Dream Studios’ k-pop fan game debacle (a really amazing story of incompetence and borderline-fraud, if you care to follow it), No One But You is possibly the most controversial and polarizing EVN ever released. Appearing on the relatively-barren landscape of early 2015 and promising experience similar to the high-budget Japanese VNs, it sparked a lot of interest and hope for the second coming of Katawa Shoujo – an EVN that would not feel overly niche or amateurish, but actually capture the charm of beloved Japanese titles and rival them in its storytelling.

            The reality, of course, proved much more underwhelming. The unexpected Kickstarter success (the campaign reached over 1200% of the initial, $1200 goal) resulted in a highly upscaled and complex project, developed within just a year by then still-unexperienced Unwonted Studios. Involving a network of over a dozen writers and artists, and a heavily-rushed release (which was never moved from the initial KS campaign claim despite of many major features being added through stretch goals), No One But You was eviscerated by many reviewers, with Fuwanovel notably giving it lowest possible score in two separate articles, and received only a mixed reception from the readers after showing up on Steam on January 2016. In a way, it remains one of the most infamous story-centric EVNs, possibly only beaten by the cheap ecchi titles such as Sakura games in the amount of hate and ridicule it gathered. However, looking at it three years later and with all the fixes and additional content added post-launch, is it really that bad?

Plk_Lesiak

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Winged Cloud, creators of the infamous Sakura series, are visibly past their prime, which shows not only in their diminishing Patreon support and smaller interest in their games in general, but also the lack of marketing effort and innovation. For two and a half year now their VNs are only becoming shorter, simpler and more iterative, making the already not-particularly-impressive projects from the peak of studio’s popularity, such as Sakura Nova or Sakura Fantasy, look like absolute heights of quality and ambition. At the same time, the company seems heavily disinterested in actively promoting their work or opening new niches, even nearly dropping the production of straight eroge for the sake of pushing out more yuri games, feeding of this niche's popularity with Western audience. And few things symbolise this sorry state of affairs quite like the Sakura MMO trilogy, the latest three entries in the mainline Sakura franchise, this time tackling the grossly overused theme of gameworld isekai.

            Coming out between October 2018 and June 2019, with little fanfare (the second and third game pretty much appeared out of nowhere, with no communication from Winged Cloud’s social media accounts before the releases) and to a rather lukewarm reception from players, Sakura MMO games still stand out in some ways from Winged Clouds usual output. Particularly, it was the first time since Sakura Beach that a game in the series received a direct sequel, and the only instance one received two. This, at first glance, makes it look like one of most ambitious projects Winged Cloud ever attempted, but one thing should be said in advance: all three Sakura MMO games are very short (3-4 hours) and heavily overpriced, with each costing $10. For the amount of content you’d usually find in one 10-15 dollars VN, you’re asked to pay 30, while also having to deal with issues that wouldn’t be there if it was all released as a single product or a well-constructed episodic game, like your choices not transferring between parts and somewhat shoddy continuity. But aside from it being a shameless cash-grab, is there something worthwhile within this trashy sub-franchise?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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In the EVN world dominated by clichéd romance stories, titles by InvertMouse, a long-time indie developer from Australia, stand out in a few significant ways. Staying away from most common genre tropes and easily-marketable story elements, the games he creates often focus on topics such as friendship and struggles of everyday life, rather than grand tales of romance and adventure. The three short VNs in the Without Within series are particularly unusual and interesting in this regard, tackling themes of ambition, motivation and talent in life of an artist, in the rare setting of modern-day Australia and South-East Asia – all of this in a highly comedic style, but not without serious messages underlining the, most of the time, silly storyline.

                Another thing that makes these games interesting is their complicated development history. The first Without Within was a very short, freeware title, published in December 2014 as one of InvertMouse’s earliest works. The second, commercial entry followed nearly a year later, showing up on Steam in December 2015 and offering a much more substantial story, but in a very similar production quality and tone. The final game, however, didn’t release until mid-2018 – by this time its creator had a lot of more experience and technical prowess, which makes it a visibly different experience from its prequels. Still, with how short and thematically-consistent the three games are, I’ve decided to tackle them as a single package – the third part ends in a rather open-ended way, but with InvertMouse moving away from VN development, it’s pretty clear that the whole trilogy should be treated as a complete story and there’s little chance for any kind of continuation. So, what is Without Within series about exactly and what makes it worth your attention?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Love in Space, authors of the highly-appreciated Sunrider series, are a very peculiar kind of EVN developer. In their games, they unapologetically cater to weeaboo sensitivities, copying the Japanese storytelling tropes and stylistics pretty much in every aspect of their games. Sunrider: Liberation Day, the second Sunrider titles was the clearest example of this, with its Japanese speech mannerisms (which look at least a bit questionable in English prose), Japanese voice acting and pompous, Japanese opening song – each of them included despite the story being placed in a fictional sci-fi world with no clear connection to Japan, and being directed pretty much exclusively to Western otaku audience. Thankfully, the studio also was able to supplement its second-hand Japanese identity with some interesting ideas, consistently high production quality and, for the most part, compelling stories.

                After the second Sunrider game was completed (and after the backlash from its controversial conclusion was partially mended with an alternate-timeline DLC), Love in Space decided to double down in their turbo-Japanese formula, announcing Shining Song Starnova – a game about a Japanese idol producer trying to turn a team of misfits into major stars of the entertainment business. Funded both through a large Kickstarter campaign and substantial Patreon support, it became the studio’s most ambitious project by far, promising, among other things, seven heroine routes, partial VA by a cast of experienced eroge seiyuu and a high-quality soundtrack appropriate for the game’s music-related main theme. After long development and delays caused by Steam policy changes, SSS was finally released in July 2018, to quite a lot of fanfare, and sparked genuine interest from the VN community. But, was it able to deliver on its ambitious goals?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Hello and welcome to this year’s first EVN Chronicles Steam Curator Clean-up, where I look at the games that were sent to me in the past six months through Steam’s Curator Connect, but were either too small to warrant a full review, or I simply couldn’t cover them in detail due to time constraints. When I first did this kind of posts last year (you can check them out here: Part 1, Part 2), some of the games featured there waited extremely long for being covered. Because of this, I’ve decided that from this point forward, I’ll make this a twice-a-year event, being sure that every VN given to me gets its space on the blog within a reasonable time period. As always, I’m extremely thankful to all the developers that send me their work for assessment and it saddens me whenever my impressions are negative. I hope, however, that the feedback I can offer will be valuable to them, while believe it’s my duty to my readers to warn them against buying a game I find lacking. So, setting the introductory drivel aside, I hope you enjoy this brief overview of these four interesting VNs sent to me during the first half of 2019!

 

Snowed IN

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Snowed IN is an unusual yuri nukige, focusing on pair for soldiers in the distant future, where cybernetic enhancement of the human body has reached incredible levels of sophistication. The protagonist, Sigma, is an experienced spec-ops officer who has modified her body to the point where little of it remains organic. For an infiltration mission against a cell of anti-augmentation radicals, she’s assigned with a fresh, talented recruit – a full “natural” named Linde, whose presence in the military is connected with an affirmative action plan for those not augmented. The two polar-opposite individuals, both through their background and attitudes, have to work together to survive the extremely dangerous assignment – and the mission itself hides even more threats and twists then the initial setup would suggest.

                Sounds intriguing? It surely does, but the fact this is a nukige, and a very short one at that (up to an hour and a half of content), should be taken into account when setting your expectations. The game explores its main themes rather briefly, often switching to sex scenes that are only vaguely justifiable in the context of the tense plot  the writing and main intrigue are solid, but simply too rushed to provide a compelling narrative. There are also some highly-questionable elements to it, especially in the rather distasteful bad ending – that’s definitely one point at which h-content was very unnecessary, even if those scenes are the “main point” of the game. As a piece of yuri smut in an unusual setting, it's definitely not the worst thing around – just don't expect anything more than that.

Final Rating: (Cautiously) Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Welcome to the second and final part of EVN Chronicles’ NaNoRenO 2019 coverage (if you missed the first part, you can find it here), where I’m going through my highly subjective picks from this year’s submissions to the biggest annual visual novel game jam. While I don’t think any of the games listed this time could seriously threaten the position of Mnemonic Devices as my personal “winner” of the event, there are at least two worth giving closer attention to – Monochrome Blues, which is another excellent story tackling the topics of grief and depression (even though it adds a much more questionable sci-fi subplot to the mix) and Cooked With Love, which stood out with excellent sense of humour and compelling mix of comedy and smart SoL content. Of course, every VN featured here gets my genuine recommendation and I think they’re all worth the humble amounts of time they require to fully read through – especially considering that, once more, they’re all absolutely free and clicking the titles on the list will lead you straight to DRM-free downloads on itch.io. So, let’s find out what else NaNoRenO participants have prepared for us!

 

RE:BURN

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OS-simulation games, where you interact with a story through an imitation of a computer interface, have a pretty rich history in NaNoRenO, with Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story being probably the best-known example. While RE:BURN is not the most innovative or intricate iteration of this formula, it tells an intriguing, short story using UI of an e-mail client and an online communicator, and the mechanics of deleting or replying to messages instead of typical dialogue choices. The protagonist, a female student who took up a job as an editor in her college’s scientific journal, is tasked with clearing out old emails from the paper's official account. As the messages slowly synchronise, she starts uncovering more and more strange correspondence and even starts receiving popup messages from someone claiming to be her predecessor at the editorial job, giving her borderline-incomprehensible warnings – and whether she listens to them might have some serious and unpredictable consequences.

                RE:BURN’s intrigue is not particularly deep or memorable, but where the game truly shines is in its inclusion of various writing styles, unique to every character in the story and creating a sense of danger and urgency despite the rather static manner in which you interact with it. I would love to see more interactivity or some Easter eggs hidden within its Windows-like interface, but even as it is now, it’s definitely worth your attention for its brief, 30-40 minute runtime.

Rating: Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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While it’s easiest to find high-quality free EVNs during popular game development events such as NaNoRen0 and Yuri Game Jam, from time to time there are small gems that pop up more or less out of nowhere, created either by hobbyists or as side projects by veteran developers without any particular occasion. One of the most interesting (even if infrequently active) collectives that created this kind of games in the past few years is Apple Cider, a team co-founded by DejiNyucu, a Chilean artist known for her distinct and high-fidelity character art. Over the last 10 years, she was involved in numerous visual novel projects developed under various labels, including my all-time favourite erotic VN, Cute Demon Crashers. This personal fondness of her work made me that more excited when I randomly discovered Apple Cider’s latest release, free yuri VN called DoraKone.

                Released on Steam in December 2018 despite its summer theme, DoraKone is an extremely cute, comedic GxG romance VN. It features four girls that meet and befriend each other over a dragon-themed, Pokemon GO-style augmented reality game Dragon Connection (DraCo for short), all of this in an unusual setting of an unnamed Chilean town. The energetic protagonist, Dulce, is a newbie that starts her adventure with DraCo after buying a new smartphone and quickly encounters three more experienced players: shy and kind Rayen, rash and competitive Brin, and spoiled rich girl Honorée. Depending on your choices and meeting events you pick, Dulce will get closer to one of the heroines, becoming a close friend with her, or even something more, while also either winning or losing the DraCo tournament held in her town. This creates over twelve possible endings, nearly all of them wholly pleasant and lighthearted.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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For more than a decade now the NaNoRenO visual novel jam is the biggest cyclical event organized by the EVN community, every year prompting dozens of hobbyist and aspiring commercial developers to present their work created from scratch within a strict, one-month timetable. Despite being mostly a non-commercial affair, dominated by both complete freeware titles or various demos and prototypes, it delivered many memorable games in the past, many of which are well remembered till this day (Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story and NomnomNami’s Her Tears Were My Light are among the best known and most-appreciated ones, but are only two among dozens of memorable entries worth checking out).

                While with the gradual professionalization (and commercialisation) of the Western visual novel scene, it’s less common to find real gems among the jam’s entries, it’s still a unique opportunity to find interesting, free VNs within various genres and themes. At the same time, NaNoRenO is not a contest that would explicitly choose winners and allows VNs of all sizes and states of completion, so it’s not easy to navigate for an average reader – this year’s edition included the record number of 91 submissions and finding the truly interesting ones can be a challenge. For this reason, I’ve decided to prepare a short series of posts about my personal highlights of the 2019 event – games that I found most impressive and worth recommending. The lists will be obviously influenced by my personal taste and I’ll readily admit that I didn’t read all the entries, focusing on complete projects (i. e. no demos and prototypes) and avoiding some that I was convinced I won’t enjoy, or that were in genres I’m less interested in. I am, however, very much convinced about the merits of the games I’ve decided to feature and I hope you’ll join me on this short journey. Clicking the titles of every entry you’ll be transported straight to its itch.io page, where you’ll be able to download it for free. So, let’s get started!

 

Mnemonic Devices

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My personal favourite of this year’s NaNoRenO is a tale of a person (you can choose the pronoun, although their looks are always rather feminine) who wakes up with amnesia after a car crash, greeted by a man claiming to be their husband. Soon after, they learn that the idyllic marriage with a wealthy lawyer is a sham, and they’re actually a sophisticated android send on a mission to assassinate him. Re-learning their identity and mission, the protagonist stands before a choice: to accept their role as a government-controlled killing machine, or try to rebel, while also possibly exploring their very-much-human emotions towards their husband, or maybe even their handler from the agency, with whom they previously shared a not-fully-professional relationship. 

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Warning: Heavy spoilers for How To Date a Magical Girl and Doki Doki Literature Club! ahead!

Despite the amazing success of Doki Doki Literature Club! (including a commercial one, if you consider the 1300+ Steam reviews on the $10 Fan Pack DLC), there have been surprisingly few attempts to replicate its formula within the EVN scene, especially among the titles that could be considered of professional quality. While the plethora of mods kept the DDLC fanbase occupied, arguably no major Western VN even attempted to create a similar experience, or utilize some of the characteristic gimmicks used by Dan Salvato to a comparable effect. This, of course, can be seen as a positive development, as uninspired copycat games rarely make for compelling experiences, but elements such as drastic genre shifts, clever fourth wall breaking and weaving an interesting meta-narrative into the experience are far from being overdone in VNs, especially within the English-original niche.

                Or at least, this was the case before the release of How To Date a Magical Girl by Cafe Shiba, a game that openly featured a very similar base structure to DDLC – a cute dating sim exterior hiding a brutal horror story, in which nothing is at it seems at first glance. Showing up on Steam in January 2019, it promised 5 romanceable heroines, nearly 40 CGs and over 10 hours of content – rather impressive statistics, especially for a game that originated from a humble, $4000 Kickstarter campaign, and ones that make it hard to dismiss it as a cynical cash-in trying to exploit DDLC's fanbase. In my opinion, however, it managed to fail quite spectacularly, only in small part due to its mimicry of Dan Salvato's game and much more because everything it added to the table was deeply underwhelming. But where exactly did it go wrong?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Beach Bounce was the second title introduced by AJ Tilley, the creator of Dharker Studio, just a few months after his debut with the infamous Sword of Asumi. It stood out from his other work in a slightly paradoxical way while Tilley’s other projects dealt with different breeds of fantasy or experimented with unusual plot elements (ex. Highschool Romance’s gender-bending), Beach Bounce was meant to be a much more standard nukige, placing our average male protagonist in a summer resort with a substantial number of scantily-clad, horny women and no competition in sight (to the point one might think the rest of the male kind was wiped out by some global cataclysm, but the story at least doesn’t mention any such event taking place). The game initially followed an episodic formula, with the first part released in August 2015 and the second one two months later. However, with the termination of AJTilley.com label, under which it was originally published, it disappeared for a while and then re-emerged in a new form, as a full, “Remastered” release by Dharker Studio – this final version of the game went live in late February 2019.

                That’s the simplified version at least, as the confusing network of Dharker’s sister companies created and terminated by AJ Tilley over the years, including Brightly Studios, BurstRay Games and StudioX, among others, is hardly worth deciphering at this point. Still, whatever label is attached to a Beach Bounce game, it’s always Dharker Studio hiding underneath and that’s pretty much the only part of the puzzle that is genuinely worth knowing. Going back to our main topic, while the “Remastered” label might’ve been quite a stretch for a game that never before saw a full release, it doesn’t mean things didn’t change – the overall plot, the characters and their relationships were rewritten in rather significant ways and the complete story now included seven different love interests, with multiple h-scenes for most of them. This meant quite a lot of anime smut in a time when porn VNs weren’t available in such as abundance as they are today, especially on Steam. Thanks to all this, while not necessarily a critically-acclaimed title, Beach Bounce proved successful enough to warrant two sequels, Beauty Bounce and Bunny Bounce, released literally two weeks apart from each other, in February and March 2017. Setting aside the question of what went wrong with those development cycles, I’ll focus today on taking the closer look at the Beach Bounce trilogy and find out whether they deserve the dubious honour of being some of the lowest-rated VNs on VNDB.

Beach Bounce

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Beach Bounce starts with our unassuming protag-kun, Tomoyo, being summoned to a hospital by his ill grandmother, the owner of the titular summer resort. Not being able to perform her managerial duties, she asks Tomoyo to help her staff with handling the everyday affairs on the property – a dream come through for a guy who just dropped out from a law school and was thrown out for it by his apodictic father. To no one’s surprise, all the employees on the resort happened to be beautiful, young women and while at first some of them were rather apprehensive towards the protagonist, seeing him as a loser who only got involved with the company because of his family ties, they’re all soon enough ready to jump into his pants at his every word. And as we’re dealing with 4 primary heroines and three secondary, “wild card” love interests, after the short introduction sex scenes are hiding literally around every corner, and as most of them are tied to choices, there’s quite a lot of unique paths through the game’s minimalistic story.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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I’ve spent a lot, if not the majority of my time writing the blog covering yuri games and while I enjoy the theme in pretty much all of its variants (outside of plain porn, at least), I quite rarely stumble upon an EVN that surprises me with its approach to lesbian romance or does something very unusual when setting up such a story. Thus, I was more than just a little intrigued when I’ve learned about Dharker Studio’s Highschool Romance: Magi Trials, a sequel to a “trap protagonist” romance VN, this time featuring magic and gender-bending of a much more thorough and permanent nature than simple cross-dressing, along with exclusively-female love interests. This yuri-and-not-yuri setup, coupled with cute, cartoonish art and non-pornographic approach to gender-bending, pretty much unique to the Highschool Romance series held a lot of promise – something I was very eager to verify.

                As I’ve mentioned in one of my recent posts on Dharker Studio, while the team has a very shaky record, especially when it goes to its early titles, the original Highschool Romance, released in late 2015, was a bit of a positive outlier, featuring charming art and a simple, but fun romance storytelling. Despite basing the plot on the idea of a male protagonist crossdressing to attend an all-girls school, it played with this theme in a cute and surprisingly non-offensive manner – the main character is not a pervert (or especially a sexual predator), but just a person forced to hide his true identity due to unusual circumstances, and the heroine arcs are, for the most part, very wholesome, with mild fanservice and teacher-student romance being the most “risqué” elements in them. Despite being a bit too short and basic, Highschool Romance made for a pleasant experience that I ultimately appreciated, and the sequel, transporting the same formula and artstyle into a fantasy setting, sounded seriously appealing. However, going through the Magi Trials, released on Steam in November 2016, reminded me that there’s more required than some interesting ideas and nice-looking art assets to make a genuinely good VN…

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Before Dharker Studio became the semi-competent producer of smut we know and (occasionally) love today, its founder, AJ Tilley, made a name for himself through his personal VN publishing brand, AJTilley.com. Throughout 2015 there has been an impressive number of decently-sized games released under that label, the whole endeavour fuelled by a never-ending stream of crowdfunding campaigns, making Tilley one of the most notable creators on the fledgeling EVN scene. At the same time, his activities were spawning increasing controversies, mostly over the appalling quality of some of the games in question and overuse of Kickstarter. In April 2016, after just a year and a half of presence within the EVN scene, the infamy around the label became intense enough that Tilley himself decided to terminate it, removing all of its online presence and transferring all the rights to his company’s “development arm”, Dharker Studio. The "restructured" company then both continued working on the franchises introduced by AJTilley.com and created new ones, including highly successful ecchi VNs such as Negligee or Army Gals, while its creator’s name was conveniently hidden from the public’s eye.

                Despite the horror stories circulating around these “dark beginnings” of Dharker Studio, the games from that period always interested me quite a lot, both because of my usual, morbid curiosity and the significant role they played in the history of EVNs. While it’s easy to argue that titles like Sword of Asumi or Divine Slice of Life did a lot to reinforce the general impression of EVNs being cheap, awkward imitations of their Japanese predecessors, I wanted to find out whether they’re really as bad as people make them out to be. In today’s episode, I’ll cover four of those pre-Dharker projects – outside of the two mentioned above, I’ll be including Highschool Romance and Highschool Possession, which, amusingly enough, have exactly nothing to do with each other, utilizing drastically different artstyles and telling stories that could hardly be further away from each other, at least apart from the obligatory high school setting. The one game I’ll skip, for the time being, is Beach Bounce, initial episodes of which were published during this time, but which was later heavily reworked and fully released as a “proper” Dharker Studio title, Beach Bounce Remastered. After that, it even spawned its own little franchise – this series, with three VNs in total, deserves a separate look and will be the next topic for Shovelware Adventures.

                So, going back to our main issue, are the AJTilley.com VNs really that bad? The answer is: no. Because in reality, if you treat them seriously to any extent, they’re even worse than I've expected – at least outside of one, notable exception.

 

Sword of Asumi

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Imagine a game featuring a female assassin in an alternative-history Japan, where shogunate won the late XIX-century civil war and what in our world was the Meiji restoration followed a different path. The samurai class never lost its dominance, preserving its ethos and prestige till the modern day, while the militaristic government relies on secret police and agents such as our lead, Asumi, to keep people in check. At the same time, a new terrorist group rises, aiming to violently oppose the established order. Sounds pretty cool, right? Only in theory, as the reality of Sword of Asumi is one of the most amazing trainwrecks I’ve seen during my involvement with EVNs, rivalling Winged Cloud’s Legends of Talia with how absurdly stupid and tone-deaf it is.

                The first thing you might notice after launching the game is that Asumi is possibly the dumbest assassin in the world, spewing edgy one-liners and engaging in small talk with her victims instead of focusing on getting the job done. A moment later, when a member of the Edo's (this universe’s Japan) secret police, a Justicar, shows in the house of Asumi’s latest hit and start discussing extremely delicate details of her next assignment in the middle of the murder scene, you know you’re up for a ride. And be sure, the stream of utter stupidity and inexplicable writing fu**ups never truly ends (like Asumi causally approaching other characters in her assassin’s clothes, while being undercover – I can understand that kind of mistake in writing, but when you can literally see it happening on the screen???). The somewhat-decent romance options, both male and female, help things a tiny bit, but can’t change the overall dreadful quality of the experience.

The absurd fanservice (it seems assassins have a strong taste for overly-elaborate, sexy lingerie, especially when preparing for a mission) and the fact how seriously the game treats itself are pretty much the final nails to its coffin. While the likes of Sakura games are after dumb and trashy, they’re self-aware and try to have fun with the formula. In Sword of Asumi, the only fun you can have is the kind fully unintended by its authors: the high from how astonishingly bad and absurd it is. And unless that’s what you’re looking for, there’s really no reason to read it. Sorry Kaori, even you couldn’t save this one...

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Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Welcome to EVN Chronicles’ 2019 Lesbian Visibility Day Special! Last year, to celebrate this lovely occasion, I wrote a short, impromptu rant about yuri, its inherent ambiguity when it goes to the representation of lesbian romance and the major role it plays in the EVN scene. Having little to add to what I said in that post, this year I’ve decided to use this opportunity to give the spotlight to a game that contributes to the LGBT+ themes in Visual Novels in a particularly interesting and compelling manner. During this day, which is meant to show a real and diverse portrait of the lesbian community, it’s only fair to focus on a game that breaks away from the fetishising conventions of Japanese yuri media and offers meaningful commentary on the challenges people belonging to sexual minorities face. And the fact it also includes some very unique and memorable portrayals of f/f romance is the kind of bonus probably none of us would ever mind…

                Of course, one could say this is cheating on my part, as I review yuri games all the time (and probably read more of those than any other kind of VNs) and there’s nothing “special” about me taking look at another one. However, Pillow Fight Games’ Heaven Will Be Mine, which I will talk about today, is a very unique title, completely unlike the cookie-cutter f/f romances that dominate the visual novel scene on both Japanese and EVN side of things (and, by extension, my blog’s output). It’s also, when it goes to visual style and writing, a direct continuation of another excellent, similarly-themed game, titled We Know the Devil. While mostly focusing on HWBM, I’ll use this opportunity to talk about both these games, their peculiar, but the extremely creative and memorable approach to the visual novel format, and the messages they convey. So, I hope you’ll be willing to join me while we take our time and explore those two unusual pieces of yuri content.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Note: To learn more about this series of games, check out my reviews of Loren: The Amazon Princess and Tales of Aravorn: Season of the Wolf

Winter Wolves’ series of RPGs set in the fantasy world of Aravorn, starting with the highly-appreciated Loren: The Amazon Princess, have a long and rich history, with three “mainline” games released over six years and many visual novel and dating sim spin-offs, and a direct sequel to The Amazon Princess, Reigns of War currently in development. Combining expansive, turn-based RPG adventure with compelling VN-style storytelling and multiple romance options (including sex-same ones), they were a particularly ambitious and notable additions to the EVN market – especially in 2012, where the first title appeared and the Western visual novels were still at their infancy, they had few serious competitors within the niche and gathered enough attention to establish Winter Wolves as a major brand within the niche.

              Still, while many VN fans have been charmed by the epic story of Loren, a lot of them also expressed their disappointment towards the different tone and smaller cast of its immediate successor, Season of the Wolf. While I personally found that game much more competent when it goes to RPG mechanics and having a different, but very interesting appeal story-wise – rather than a grand adventure, it was a very personal story of two elves twins living on the fringes of the world of Aravorn and overcoming hardships with a small band of companions – it undeniably underperformed both when it goes to sales and reception by the players. The third game in the series, Cursed Lands, was released in may 2018 and quite visibly aimed to return the series closer to its roots, at least when it goes to scale and climate of the story. With a main intrigue that can decide the fate of whole kingdoms, a set of locales already well-known from Loren and the player leading a team of up to 9 companion (5 of them romanceable), it looked like a project that could recapture the magic of the first game and convince the previously-disappointed fans to give the Aravorn RPGs another try. And considering the developer’s claims about its sales and my impressions, they might’ve actually pulled it off.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Sable’s Grimoire was, in my opinion, one of the most interesting and enjoyable OELVN releases of 2018 – the expansive, story-driven VN with a very unusual approach to the theme of monster girls impressed me both with the sheer amount of content and the stories it told. Featuring various mature themes but essentially devoid of sexual fanservice (if you didn’t read my original review, check it out here – it also includes a lengthy interview with the game’s developer, Zetsubou), it was a rare kind of uncompromising project, which didn’t really cater to the reader’s expectations or insert elements that would help it become commercially successful, but rather followed its creator’s particular vision, to a very compelling and fresh-feeling effect. Even with the basic premise – a human student entering a magic academy dominated by demi-humans – sounding relatively standard, the VN itself was, in many ways, unlike anything I’ve read within the EVN scene.

            Another significant detail about the Sable’s Grimoire, signifying its relatively non-commercial nature, was the promise of free updates from the developer, which would expand significantly on what was already an impressively-sized VN (over 20 hours of content) with additional story routes. First of these was meant to be the story of Tix, a short-tempered, but cheerful pixie, who because of an administrative mistake becomes the protagonist’s roommate – a route originally planned for the main game, but cut out because of the already-prolonged development cycle. In January 2019, 8 months after the game’s initial release, the promised update was finally made available, adding around 4 hours of new content and full heroine arc for Tix. So, how does it compare to the rest of the game and how much does it add to the already awesome value-proposition of Sable’s Grimoire?

 

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

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