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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

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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.

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The consistent setting and a cast of characters shared between the many alternative-universe scenarios are among the game’s few redeeming qualities

Before I get to ripping the game to pieces for its business model, what is Blood in Roses about? At its core, it’s a supernatural romance featuring a human protagonist becoming involved with a group of powerful vampires and other fantasy creatures – nearly all of them in the form of ridiculously-attractive ikemen, of course. Every one of the 25(!) hero routes (there’s a token yuri one too) revolves around the Hotel Libra Sincera, a castle built at the crossroads between the human and magical world, and a core cast of characters, including Alfred and Rupert, the vampire twins in charge of the hotel. There’s also the mystical rose garden present within the Libra Sincera's walls, which the game takes its title from and which usually proves to be of crucial importance for the heroine. Every arc can be considered an alternative-universe scenario, telling a self-contained, conclusive intrigue and romance scenario. While there are some recommended “beginner routes” that works best as introduction to game’s lore, the only thing you probably shouldn’t do is starting with one of the arcs featuring the “hunter” protagonist – the second version of the lead character, added in one of the later updated to the game, original one being the “witch”. Those play a lot on the previously-established lore and will be more fun to experience if you know the “core” stories like Alfred’s and Rupert’s.

                While, in general, the game’s writing is generic and sometimes quite uninspired, most routes have their interesting moments and the ability to see so many version of the story and different perspectives is quite fun, making the game more enjoyable the more you play it. The protagonists (they’re explicitly two versions of the same person from different timelines, but are also different enough in their skillsets and behaviour to be considered separate characters) are also rather fine, with a major caveat that I mostly enjoyed them when choosing “moonlight” dialogue options. This is part of the game’s karma system, determining the ending you get: moonlight choices usually involve the protagonist being more decisive, aggressive and openly affectionate towards the hero, while the opposite “sunlight” route basically means her being a bag of wet noodles (or in other words, a stereotypical otome protagonist). Especially in the case of the witch, who starts her story as a prisoner of the vampire brothers, sunlight choices are rather jarring to observe and often lead to submissive endings that rubbed me the wrong way.  

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The avatar system and all the gameplay mechanics of Shall We Date? games are more roadblocks preventing you from experiencing the story, than actual sources of fun

Thus far, it doesn’t sound so bad, right? What’s the issue then? Well, the first problem is that you read the story in tiny, 1-2 minute bits (scenes), each of them costing a story ticket. You can get up to 6 free story tickets per day (with up to 5 stored at once), but if you want to read faster, you have to buy premium tickets at an insane price of $2 apiece. This already creates an extremely stilted reading experience, exasperated by the Blood in Roses’ clunky UI and very high input lag – the client acts pretty much as a web browser, with all the nasty implications you might be familiar with if you played old browser games in the early 2000s. If you think, however, that you’d be able to just buy $200 worth of story tickets and read a full route in one go, you’re sorely mistaken. The game also forces you to participate in the crude minigame called “Miss Rose Contest”, where you compete with other players to farm two in-game currencies: Tokens and Lady Level. You require both to bypass “Love Challenges”, literal roadblocks that prevent you from reading the story any further until you buy a specific avatar item for Tokens or reach high-enough Lady Level. This is, of course, another way to extort money from you, although bypassing these challenges with cash is so expensive that you should probably forget about doing so unless you’re a Saudi sheikh.

                There’s another layer of scummy to Love Challenges: using premium currency to buy special items in some of the challenges will reward you with premium version of the story, with special dialogue and an extra CG that will save to your library (quite often for a price of a full route or two in a much better game). The Love Challenges are also designed to show up often enough and with so high Token prices required to bypass them, that you’re likely to get stuck for literal days farming currency to just continue reading (no matter how many story tickets you might have). And if you wondered there was some aspect of the VN experience that wasn’t monetized yet, the aforementioned moonlight/sunlight endings also have a trick to them. You cannot go back on your choices without resetting the whole route (each consists of ten chapters, or around 170 scenes total) and losing all the story tickets you used and Lady Level you farmed (it always resets after finishing or switching a route). This means that if you mess up the dialogue too many times and don’t get enough points in either alignment, you’ll end up being stuck with a short, bad “Farewell Ending” – that is, unless you use the premium currency to boost your points. What makes all this even worse than Moe! Ninja Girls is that while that game also represented shocking levels of greed, it at least had the decency of consistently awarding you premium currency through events and rewards for finishing story chapters. Here, you can only rely on your wallet to get you any of the game’s premium features.

                Speaking of events, as you can imagine, those are pretty impossible to complete in without going full pay-to-win – in my first experience, even using up all the very significant starting bonuses (around 70 premium story tickets and other expensive item you get for free in the first two weeks of playing) I could just barely keep myself in the top 1000 ranking and earn some worthwhile rewards. Interestingly enough, after I already invested a lot into said event (they work in 20-day cycles), the game sabotaged me in a way by starting a new character’s launch bonus, giving five times the diamonds for reading chapters in his story, which I had no interest in (and would have to abandon the route I was two-thirds into and actually enjoying). The sudden need for choosing between reading something I had little interest in and shooting myself in the foot gameplay-wise was not something I enjoyed.

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Some of these heroes might look like abusing assholes at first, but ACTUALLY, they are abusive assholes with minor redeeming qualities, which magically make everything they do acceptable...?

Of course, the are minor prices in the events that you can get to just by playing consistently and one of the Blood in Roses’ features I actually like comes into play here too – you can get a lot of minor bonuses, like extra diamonds for events, extra energy for Miss Rose Contest and faster story ticket recovery by watching ads. This is something I consider a much more reasonable option that just asking you to pay up, but it hardly changes the predatory nature of all the game’s core features. In this topic, I should probably quickly go through the avatar system, which lets you equip items you get from mandatory Love Challenge purchases, the events, the "Make a Date” gacha (another thing that is fuelled mostly by the Miss Rose Contest, as every 5-win streak will award you tokens for the gacha machine) and unreasonably-expensive premium gachas. For a non-paying player this is another source of frustration, as while there’s a number of cool items you can buy for Tokens, if you also want to read the story consistently, you’ll pretty much never have any extra ones to buy an item you actually want, rather than the ones you need to progress through the roadblocks. Also, there’s a pretty strict limit on how many avatar items you can own, possible to expand through pricey consumables – another limitation that seems to have little purpose other than making you pay up If you’re not lucky enough to earn those from events or gacha and you run out of space.

                In the end, literally everything in Blood in Roses is an aggressive, meticulously-crafted scheme to extort money from the player. The depth of predatory monetisation is so severe that I have a hard time to consider it a game, or especially a visual novel – it’s a scam disguised as one. It might look and sound decent-enough at first, but quickly shows its ugly face of a cynical money-making machine that puts manipulating the played into spending money over any kind of fun or creative integrity. While the daily routine of interacting with the game might not be wholly-unenjoyable, I find what it truly represents nothing short of disgusting, mostly because it’s not an isolated case, but simply an iteration of NTT Solmare’s utterly corrupt business model. This is mobile gaming at its absolute worst and a gross bastardisation of the visual novel formula – if you care about our niche at all, otome and beyond, please don’t support this company and other ones utilizing similar practices. They don’t deserve it.

 

Final Rating: 1,5/5

 

Pros:

+ The art isn’t bad

+ Most routes have their moments

Cons:

- All-around despicable business model

- Overly simplistic, tacked-on gameplay mechanics

- Clunky UI that makes daily tasks an absolute chore

- Ultimately shallow storytelling

 

VNDB Page

(Please don’t) play Shall We Date? Blood in Roses+ for free on Android or iOS

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 fixed and additional content added post-launch, is it really that bad?

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The opening sequences of No One But You make it look like your typical, cute moege with minor mystery elements, making the whole experience something of a bait-and-switch

The first thing worth addressing when looking at No One But You is its production quality, which is both one of its biggest strengths and possibly suffered the most from the rushed release. The character sprites and CGs are of really good quality, with all the characters (including the protagonist, who thankfully isn’t a faceless mannequin) being nicely designed and pleasant to look at. The designs of the heroines are admittedly so standard that you can immediately recognize the archetypes each girl represents just after looking at her for a few moments, but that doesn’t nullify the sheer appeal of the character art. The character art is also, unlike many EVNs from that era, quite consistent both in style and quality – the CGs might not be very numerous or spectacular, but they are good enough to do their job effectively and do not clash with the other assets, while the sprites are pretty and expressive enough to carry the more casual/SoL scenes. Backgrounds, on the other hand, are anything but consistent: while some are absolutely gorgeous, many more, including frequently used ones like the protagonist’s kitchen, look overly-simplistic and undercooked. This might slide if you don’t pay much attention to details, but it’s still a huge shame it spoils the great first impression character art offers. Also, the illustrations are at times clearly mismatched with the game’s text or the scenes that lead up to them, the most striking example being a CG in Yui’s route, in which a long sequence happening on a rainy evening suddenly transfers to broad daylight, with blinding sun rays all over the place. Such obvious mistakes devalue the art and kill the emotional impact of some of those crucial scenes.

                The soundtrack is another interesting topic, as it consists of an impressive number of 34 instrumental tracks, including character themes and melodies unique to important story sequences. It’s not brilliant by any means, but solid enough to enhance the climate of the game and represents a level of effort few EVN devs are willing to put into this area. There’s also the opening song with Japanese vocals, included in an update some time after the initial release of the game – a decent, but arguably pointless addition, as I imagine most people finished the VN before it was implemented and while they could come back for other content added post-launch, such as afterstories and h-scenes, they had little reason to revisit the beginning of the game. This can also be a general comment on how the launch was handled – pushing the game out in such a bare-bones state and fulfilling most Kickstarter promises months later undoubtedly contributed both to many of its persistent problems and the atrocious initial reception it received. Some major promises, like the English voice acting, manga adaptation and a sequel never even materialized, adding to backers' disappointment, while others were realized in a manner that hardly matched what was promised – this particularly applies to afterstories, presented in the campaign as major extra chapters but which proved to be just brief epilogues.

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The tropy heroines and predictable twists make even the better elements of the story, like the Chinatsu route written by ebi-hime, quite underwhelming

So, what No One But You is actually about? The initial setup is as standard as it goes – a perfectly-generic Japanese high-schooler, Hideaki, moves back to his hometown after many years of living in a bigger city. In the new school he quickly manages to make new (female) friends – a cheerful and strangely clingy student council member Megumi, reclusive beauty Shiro, standoffish redhead Yui and a studious senpai named Chinatsu. He also reluctantly becomes friends with the class clown Ryo and at this point, it looks like nothing will disturb his fun in the new school. Only strange, recurring dreams of drowning suggest an underlying mystery connected to protagonist childhood and the reason his family left the town in the first place. If you thought, however, that this game is a moege with slight drama/mystery elements, you couldn’t be more wrong – in depending on the route it varies between a rather poor attempt at nakige to a full-on utsuge, with over-the-top depressing, edgy plot developments and endings.

                Past the average and trope-filled, but reasonably enjoyable common route, the game is at its absolute worst in Shiro’s and Megumi’s routes, the former featuring some comically-incompetent yakuza going after heroine’s father, and the latter a paedophile-murderer teacher who apparently managed to stay in the profession after brutally killing a student in broad daylight, with multiple witnesses. To say these scenarios make little sense is an understatement – they are utterly absurd from start to finish and at times plain uncomfortable to read due to the protagonist’s questionable behaviour. Or course, the worst of his actions are usually completely unavoidable (like the extremely messed up h-scene near the conclusion of Megumi’s route, but also the over-the-top cruel rejection he gives her in Shiro’s arc) – this easily kills the last bit of immersion the numerous plot holes and absurdities didn’t already murder. Yui’s route is mostly on the opposite side of the spectrum, being quite down-to-Earth and using a relatable theme of bullying, spoiling it slightly through the inclusion of some anime romance clichés (notably forgotten childhood promise), but being ultimately pretty sweet and satisfying. It also offers one of the two genuinely good endings present in the game, where for once no one dies or get traumatized for life (that's, of course, only if you make the right choices, as her worst ending is also notably over-the-top). The second positive conclusion available in No One But You is a major surprise – it shows up in Ryo’s route, which might at first look like a throaway scenario for those players that didn't manage to get any of the girls, but quickly transforms into a slightly vague, but still easily-readable BL scenario. Storytelling-wise, it’s arguably the best part of the game – it involves Ryo’s toxic family relations and the feelings of rejection and depression he hid under the façade of a cheerful class clown. Not a particularly novel idea, but still way more interesting than what rest of the VN had to offer and I applaud the dev's courage to include this kind of romance in an obviously male-targeted title.

                The last storyarc I didn’t address is Chinatsu’s route, notably written by ebi-hime (whose pen name was gracefully misspelt as "ebi-himi" in the credits). It’s a fully-linear scenario that is deeply intertwined with the protagonist’s backstory and is overall very competent. However, the main mystery in it is very easy to read, just with the clues offered in the common route and the storyarc itself suffers from the same problem Shiro’s and Chinatsu’s stories did – the overexposure to tragedy and over-the-top plot developments quickly makes you numb and kills the emotional impact the writer was going for. This is also related to the fact that the route, just like all the other ones, felt heavily rushed – with around 10 hours of content No One But You is hardly short for an EVN, but nowhere near long enough to handle five dramatic, complex storyarcs, or develop its cast of characters properly. In a way, it feels like one of those overly-condensed anime adaptations that cut and modify massive source material to fit it into tight screen time, to the point it loses any semblance of coherence or depth. The one, crucial difference being that Unwonted Studios have no excuse for why they let it happen, apart from chasing the unreasonable deadline they set out for themselves.

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No One But You’s visuals, and its production quality in general are rather good for an EVN of that era, but can only do that much to compensate for often dreadful writing past the common route

One of the common complaints about No One But You is connected to its extremely shameless copying of JVN storytelling tropes and stylistics, to the point that even its language looks a bit like a fan translation of a Japanese game. To some extent, however, I think this criticism was overblown – while the game’s setup is indeed extremely iterative, adherence to tropes is not really a major problem past the common route. Also, some “inconsistencies”, like the use of honorifics, seem pretty deliberate – Japanese mannerisms show up mostly in really fun sequences of characters texting to each other, which emulate the style of writing teens would use in that context. While the game definitely struggles with its identity and writers had a hard time restraining their otaku sensibilities, I think even most reviewers would easily look past this if the core story wasn’t so kitsch and, well, plain stupid much of the time.

                One last thing that I should probably mention are the h-scenes – there’s one for Megumi, Shiro and Yui, but I’ll be completely honest that knowing in what context Megumi's scene happens and seeing one still of it on VNDB, I wanted nothing to do with any of it. All scenes were added to the game after release, along some other promised features such as the afterstories (those, BTW, in many cases added very little to the respective routes or even attached a new layer of stupidity and inconsistency to them, particularly in Shiro’s case), being more of a minor bonus then a selling point. Other illustrations might be less broken than the one I was referring to, but it’s still probably not something you should seriously take into consideration when deciding whether to give this game a try. And staying on this topic, I'm not sure I consider No One But You worth buying as anything more than a curiosity – it has its moments and won’t bore you the way the recently-reviewed Sakura MMO would, but reading most of it is still akin to watching a burning trainwreck, rather than genuine entertainment. If that’s what you’re looking for, or are interested in it because of its unique place in EVN history, feel free to give it a try, but… You’ve been warned.

PS On the final note, No One But You proved extremely difficult for me to rate. Above all, it's extremely inconsistent and its most off-putting elements are mostly confined to just two out of five routes. On the other hand, even at its best it's only decent (I'd probably rate Ryo's route, my favourite in the game, at a 3 or 3,5), while at its worst it comes very close to the absolute rock-bottom of awful storytelling available in plot-oriented VNs. If judged by Megumi's and Shiro's routes alone, it would indeed be a clear 1/5, just as Decay and Tyrael claimed in their Fuwanovel reviews. Thus, on the very limited scale I use here, I had no other choice but to give No One But You a 2/5. At the same time, I want to make clear that its actual entertainment value is slightly above other VNs I've rated this low, especially if you skip the cursed routes or read them just for laughs, fully aware of what you're getting into.

 

Final Score: 2/5

 

Pros:

+ Good character art

+ Decent common route

+ Yui’s and Ryo’s routes

Cons:

- Poor pacing in heroine routes

- Unconvincing, over-the-top plot twists 

- Mostly unsatisfying or illogical endings

- Frequent mistakes both in writing and visual assets

- Cliched as f***

 

VNDB Page

Buy No One But You on Steam

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

Monochrome Blues

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While at first Monochrome Blues looks like a simple story about artist’s block and finding inspiration, it features many twists and surprising elements that leads it into a direction that is pretty much impossible to fully anticipate. Although I have some issues with how the plot developed later on, the overall experience of playing through it and reaching the true ending was excellent, espetially due to its more down-to-Earth and emotional story elements. Maja, the burned-out storybook author starting a new job in a preschool after months of deep depression is interesting and likeable, while the descriptions of her grief, lack of inspiration and struggle with simply keeping up with everyday life are believable and compelling. The five four children she takes care of are similarly charismatic, with their drawing sessions and conversations with Maja being among the clear highlights of the game. With a pleasant artstyle and overall solid writing, it’s a small treat that everyone should seriously enjoy… At least if you can forgive some over-the-top twists, that will seriously challenge your suspension of disbelief.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Cooked with Love

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Cooked with Love is a somewhat ironic VN about a messy college student (you can choose their gender and name) trying to prepare an ad-hoc dinner for their crush, after their wallet, along with the money for their date, mysteriously vanishes. The first part of the game consists mostly of a mini-game, where the protagonist tries to combine the underwhelming selection of ingredients they were able to find in their house (which they share with two other students), without a real clue what they’re doing, as they have no experience in cooking whatsoever. Then, they have to decide whether to go on with the date, or rather cancel it altogether and share the miserable results of their work with their roommate, Brooks. This creates two brief routes, with multiple possible outcomes depending on your “cooking” and dialogue options you choose.

                While relatively short and simple, the game charms with its humour and witty dialogue – the overall silliness of the story is coupled with characters that are exaggerated, but ultimately likeable and relatable in some ways, to a rather compelling effect. I've had quite a lot of fun exploring different, desperate "dishes" you can prepare with ingredients such as old instant noodles and an egg salad stolen from your roommate, and the dialogue they provoke after being presented to protagonist's date. The "right" dish & dialogue combination that will lead you to optimal results are sometimes quite hard to find, but it only takes a bit of patience to crack the "puzzle" by trial and error. The visuals are stylish, making for a really nice overall package – definitely one of the best games in the event and one you shouldn't miss out on.

Rating: Highly Recommended

Robot Daycare

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Robot Daycare is a short (about 1,5h of reading) story primarily about friendship and dealing with loss, but adds a very interesting twist in form of an AI observing the three main characters’ crumbling relationship and learning either the best or the worst of human nature, depending on player’s choices. The AI – a robot created as a college project by the said group of friends shortly after their roommate committed suicide, might witness them either coming to terms with the tragedy they went through and reconcile after a period of denial and shifting blame, or tear each other apart with accusations and hateful outbursts. The former scenario will lead you to a heartwarming and SoL-focus good route, while the latter will quickly devolve into a full-on horror story.

                This seamless fusion of genres is Robot Daycare’s most unusual feature and one of the main things that make it worthwhile, but the general quality of the writing and the game’s visual aesthetic are not bad either (although the art is simple and somewhat cartoonish, and the default resolution of the game is quite low, making it run in a rather tiny window). While I didn’t enjoy some of the overly-optimistic developments in the good route, the drama the game portrayed and its both positive and negative consequences were quite compelling to read through. The same can be said about an AI trying to comprehend human emotion and going haywire is a few different ways because of that – this might not be the best implementation of that idea that I’ve seen, but still one definitely worth experiencing.

Rating: Recommended

A Hero and a Garden

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Npckc is an author that uses simple art and stories to tackle the issues of otherness, prejudice and discrimination. A Hero and a Garden is one of the larger and more interesting attempts on their part, subverting the traditional trope of a knight rescuing a  kidnapped princess from an evil witch. Our protagonist, who tried to be a hero like the ones from the medieval epics, ends up in humiliating captivity, cursed by the witch to help restore the monster village he destroyed during his misguided rescue attempt. While he tends to magic plants growing incredibly potent “berries” (this introduces a simple, clicker gameplay mechanic), he interacts with inhabitants of the village, the princess and eventually the witch herself, learning that nothing is as simple as he thought (while we learn the surprising nuances and tragic elements of his own backstory).

                While the message of tolerance is just as present here as in other npckc’s games, A Hero and a Garden makes an especially interesting commentary on how social expectations and roles we are assigned to by others shapes our lives and perspectives. Its simplicity makes it the kind of game I would love to see presented to children and talked about in classes, but even for an adult reader it’s a nice, casual experience, with enough thought-provoking and creative elements to be worth investing an hour or so into.

Rating: Recommended

 

And this concludes my NaNoRenO posts for this year. Last time, due to RL issues, I didn’t get to cover the event at all and it was a really fun experience to go through all those wildly different, creative games that often stay heavily underappreciated just because of how crowded and relatively niche the jam is. I hope my highlights convinced at least some of you to give these VNs a chance. I’d also like to give shout out to two games that narrowly didn’t make it to the list: Mikomi Kisomi’s Alice in Stardom, which offers a fun, but slightly shallow story about chasing your dreams against all odds and HitOrMissy’s Fetch Quest, which won me over with its humour and fun approach to “fantasy” storytelling, but disappointed with its lack of sound and music.

                So, thank you all for going with me on the journey through this year’s NaNoRenO VNs! I hope I’ll be able to repeat this after the next edition of the jam and be sure to look out for my Yuri Game Jam summary later this year – that event is something I’ll never skip on, as long as my blog is active. Have a great weekend everyone!

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...

Final Rating: Smelly Poosmelly1_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwas.png

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

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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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Indie games have for many years now capitalized on players' nostalgia and included various throwbacks to the early eras of gaming, both aesthetically and gameplay-wise. However, while you can’t take a look at Steam without finding a dozen high-quality, retro platformers with pixelart graphics and "metroidvania" design elements, this trend have very rarely found a meaningful application in the world of VNs. While there are heavily-stylized titles such as the Otusun Club’s The Bell Chimes for Gold series, mimicking the aesthetic of the early Japanese eroge, these are pretty much rare exceptions, especially when it goes to games available in the West. This, however, doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no room for nostalgic throwbacks in the Western VN community. Many of the older dating sims and VNs, like To Heart 2 or Season of Sakura are actually available in English (both thanks to early localization companies such as JAST USA and, more importantly, fan translators) and highly appreciated by the players. And we're not even mentioning the general sentiment for older Japanese media among the more experiences Western otakus.

            Thankfully (?), this potential wasn’t completely overlooked by EVN developers – in the case we're talking about today, it led the tiny team under the name of Ascension Dream to coming up with Pantsu Hunter – Back to the 90s, a semi-humoristic romance VN/adventure game with beautifully-stylized, retro visuals and a period-appropriate storyline. Drawing a decent amount of attention and going through a successful Kickstarter campaign (me being one of its backers), the game finally arrived on Steam in January 2019, receiving a heavily mixed reception. So, what went wrong with a project this straightforward-looking and how it managed to disappoint despite its impressive artwork?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

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EVN releases often come apparently out of nowhere, with games either flying under the radar during their entire development process or simply being forgotten due to delays and inconsistent promotional efforts on the part of their authors. This lack of proper buildup can easily spell a commercial disaster for such titles, especially considering today’s overcrowded indie market and the Steam storefront so full of shovelware that browsing recent releases stopped having any functional meaning. Thankfully, at least some of these games can still break out of total obscurity thanks to their particular merits, or even having the help of someone with a particularly big megaphone (which, in the realities of the VN market, means one of the very few established publishers interested in Japanese-styled games).

             One of the recent titles that apparently got away with its extremely-prolonged development and a long period of obscurity is Serment – Contract with a Devil. This lighthearted, yuri themed dungeon crawler by Nkt Studio was released on Steam by Sekai Project in early February 2019, nearly three years since the reveal of the first demo and after significant changes to the game, including a drastic visual makeover. Thanks to its beautiful promotional art, appealing premise and the developers quickly responding to players’ feedback, it managed to gather a decent amount of attention and positive response. But what exactly this “dungeon crawler/visual novel hybrid” has to offer?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

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Studio Élan, a company founded by Josh Kaplan, one of the authors of the highly-appreciated yuri VN Highway Blossoms (check out my review of it here), gathered an unusually large and enthusiastic following since its formation in early 2018. Engaging high-profile artists for their projects, utilizing Kaplan’s renown within the VN community and brilliantly spreading its message through social media, the relatively small team managed to become of the most high-profile actors on the EVN scene before releasing even a single title (not counting demos and prologues, which, of course, also had a large role of building the studio’s profile). With follower counts and Patreon support that could make many veterans of the scene jealous, the company spent the last year working on two interesting and well-marketed projects, both of them gorgeously-looking yuri VNs, while seemingly only getting more and more attention.

                Considering the hype building up at insane rates, it was that much more crucial for Studio Élan’s debut title, Heart of the Woods, to deliver a compelling and memorable experience. While few people could doubt its stunning aesthetic – the demo and plenty of promotional material made that part perfectly clear – it was still a question whether it could create characters and story able to at least rival those of Highway Blossoms, to which the new game would be inevitably compared. Thankfully, I can quite confidently say that the full release, which showed up on Steam mid-February 2019, was pretty much everything fans could hope for – and maybe even more than that.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Welcome again to my short series on the My Little Pony fan visual novels! In the last part (if you missed it, check it out here!), we’ve looked at six games of vastly variable quality, climate and state of completion, and this trend will definitely continue today. Also, this post will include a (un)healthy portion of fandom cringe, although mostly connected to embarrassing fan fiction tropes, common in the creative output of many online communities, rather than the sheer fact the stories are about ponies. On the other hand, today's list features one of the very few, if not the only MLP VN project that could be seriously interesting to people that are not avid fans of the show – the still-in-development Starswirl Academy, with its impressive (humanized) reimagining of the Friendship is Magic setting and characters. So, let's get this party started! *the Party Cannon rolls in*

 

Starswirl Academy (demo)

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Most people agree that, apart from the randomness of internet memes, some of the main sources of Friendship is Magic’s success are its memorable leading characters – the six ponies that fuel the show with their memorable visual designs and vivid personalities. The people from Rosin Entertainment made a pretty obvious conclusion that this general characterisation, if transferred into a humanized, semi-realistic setting, would make a great basis for a moege, and started turning that idea into a reality. Thus, Starswirl Academy was born – an MLP fan game that, while still borrowing a lot from its source material, for an unassuming reader could easily pass as a normal, lighthearted romance VN. And, most importantly, quite a lovely and enjoyable one at that.

            Unlike many other “human versions” of MLP, including the official Equestria Girls, Rosin’s project is a total reimagining of Friendship is Magic's fictional world, including details like normal, human names for all of the characters and a modern-day, boarding school setting that makes logical sense. Game’s reinterpretations of the Mane 6 are cute and well-designed (with Twilight as an Asian over-achiever and protagonist’s childhood friend is my personal favourite), both catching the appeal points of their original versions and adjusting them to the context of a "normal" romance story. The dialogue is genuinely fun and while the game seems to focus exclusively on SoL content, it does so in a way that made me seriously excited for the full release. Even the protagonist (named Tom Stone – those familiar with the show should easily catch the reference), while rather average, it not a faceless hunk of meat, with especially his teasing of Tai (the already mentioned, humanized version of Twilight) being extremely fun to read.

            Of course, this wouldn’t be an MLP VN without its own development problems, although the team behind this game made a wise decision to not give any kind of timeline or dump frequent updates, but rather working on it at their own pace, with an explicitly stated “when it’s done” approach. For this reason, it’s rather hard to predict anything, although a 2019 release does not seem completely out of question – and if it happens, it quite likely be the one My Little Pony visual novel that I’ll be able to recommend even to those that normally would want nothing to do with the whole franchise. If they don't also hate moege, that is…

Final rating: Highly Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

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

One of the interesting differences between yuri in Japanese and Western VNs is that while in Japan it’s mostly limited to a very specific niches, with either nukige or fluffy high-school romance dominating the genre (meaningful exceptions can literally be counted on two hands), among EVNs the theme is prevalent enough to frequently find its place in all kinds of stories. Eldritch Academy, a low-budget project by a single developer using the label Jackkel Dragon and the topic of today’s review, is among dozens of examples of this trend, mixing tame yuri romance with horror and chuunige elements while it uses many tropes typical for Japanese media, they're all set in a configuration you would be unlikely to actually find in any of them.

                Released in early January 2019, the game promised a fairly impressive amount of content (over 10 hours of reading) and a tense thriller story, starring a group of high school students put against a supernatural threat none of them even suspect to exist. Directly referencing magical girl stories and various other types of otaku media, while also being set in a Japanese all-ages school, it’s definitely one of those distinctly “weeb” projects, but one that avoids pointless fanservice or forced sexual content and dedicates itself to telling a compelling story, with mystery and romance subplots being of more or less equal significance. Does it manage, however, with it’s obviously limited resources, to make this concept actually enjoyable to read?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

While probably few people following my VN-related writing know that, for quite a long time I had a peculiar relationship with the brony fandom. Being brought into the community by my RL friend, a popular fan-artist working under the pseudonym Pony-Berserker, I’ve written a few dozens of My Little Pony comic scripts and, more importantly, based my master’s thesis on researching the fandom – more specifically, exploring the bizarre world of MLP fan erotica. While my current involvement with Bronies is minor at best, I’ve decided to commemorate both my previous and current hobbies by reviewing the humble catalogue of My Little Pony visual novels – in this post, and the one two weeks from now, I will go through pretty much all VN-style fan games made by bronies that are currently available in English, which is just around a dozen titles, including large demos and trials. So, if you have the courage, please join me in this bizarre adventure through the world of shipping, bad fanfiction and, maybe, some genuinely interesting, imaginative VN project within the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic universe!

 

Welcome to Ponyville (demo)

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The MLP visual novel scene seems to be a hell of demos, dropped projects and never-ending development limbos. Some of the most notable games in this niche suffered from perpetual delays or straight-up died halfway through the production cycle, and Welcome to Ponyville might be the best-known among the latter. After releasing a substantial demo in mid-2012, the team behind quickly started becoming more and more silent, and after two years with no meaningful updates, the chances of the project being finished were clearly gone. The already available first episode, however, is still quite an interesting piece of content that is arguably worth experiencing on its own. Telling the story of a pony arriving to Ponyville to settle within the town (you can choose the protagonist’s gender and the breed of pony they represent), it showcases some of the most notable achievements of the brony fandom: art that very closely resembles that of the show, both in style and quality, and full voice acting that faithfully mimics the original voice cast of Friendship is Magic.

            The 1,5h-long demo is mostly composed of casual, amusing SoL scenes in which the protagonist organizes his stay in Ponyville and takes odd jobs, while meeting the Mane 6 (brony term for the 6 main characters of the show: Twilight Sparkle, Rarity, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Applejack and Fluttershy), along with various other inhabitants of the town. At the same time, the game introduces Silent Hill-like, disturbing dream sequences, suggesting there’s something sinister hiding underneath the fluffy surface… While we’ll never know in which direction this project would go exactly and I would normally not recommend wasting time on approaching unfinished games, Welcome to Ponyville shows the creativity of the MLP fandom at its finest and give a taste of what we could’ve got if more of its energy went into projects of this kind.

Final Rating: Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Warning: Major spoilers for the original Doki Doki Literature Club ahead!

The viral success of Doki Doki Literature Club in late 2017 sent shockwaves throughout the visual novel world, sparking some highly polarized reactions. While many hardcore VN fans dismissed the game as shallow and expressed irritation towards the over-the-top praise it received, Team Salvato’s project had a lot going for it and quickly gathered an enormous fanbase. Excellent use of visual and sound gimmicks and brilliant subversion of the basic visual novel/dating sim gameplay conventions made it an extremely effective, creepy horror game. While in no way an in-depth critique of the genre and having very little replayability because of its reliance on gimmicky plot twists, I still see it as a masterfully-crafted and enjoyable experience, having relatively few contenders on the EVN scene when it goes to memorability and attention to detail. While it might be hard to see past the overwhelming meme culture and misconceptions around it, on its own, DDLC defends itself perfectly well and I consider it a solid 4/5 title – not a masterpiece, but something I would be willing to recommend to pretty much anyone with interest in VNs as a genre.

            A part of DDLC that many people casually ignore is the moege-like first act, which is, in my opinion, a great piece of lighthearted, SoL-focused storytelling. While it was on purpose fluffy and generic, Salvato’s writing, designs of the heroines, the ingenious “poem writing” route selection mechanic and the romance progression were actually very enjoyable and engaging – after all, the first twist would never be even close as effective if the game wasn’t able to immerse you in its faux dating sim climate. I’ve myself many times expressed the thought that I’d be very interested in playing a “normal”, lighthearted version of DDLC, especially because how gratifying it would be to see happy endings for the heroines, with whom I've developed a bit of emotional connection, after how harsh the main game treated them. And it was after sharing this thought that someone pointed me towards DDLC Purist Mod, an ambitious fan project based on exactly that premise – transforming Salvato’s game into a proper romance story and giving a chance for happiness for all the girls of the Literature Club, including its tragic villainess, Monika.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

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While Japanese VNs are the prime source of inspiration for most EVN developers, some Western games, such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead series, also have a significant influence on the Western VN scene. This inspiration is pretty obvious when we look at the stylistic choices and main themes of Perseverance: Part 1, a debut title by the Polish studio Tap It Games, released on Steam in late July 2018. As you can imagine, this episodic release involves surviving an outbreak of a mysterious disease which turns people into cannibalistic monsters, with personal drama and conflict between the major characters a least as important as the apocalyptic events happening in the background. And while the short first act, which I’ll be writing about today, leaves us at the precipice of disaster,  focusing mostly on presenting the backstory of the protagonist and establishing the setting, it does so in a promising manner which will most likely left you wanting for more – even though, just as the adventure games by the now-defunct Telltale, it has its distinct share of problems.

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The first episode ends rather abruptly and leaves us with very little knowledge about the outbreak and the conspiracy behind it – it feels like the first, tiny bit of a rather grand story

Perseverance follows the story of Jack – a painfully average and unfulfilled guy, living in a secluded, small town somewhere in the US interior (a place pretty much only kept alive by being in close proximity of a large military base), struggling with lack of purpose and trying to cope with his failing marriage. After leaving college to take care of his severely-ill father, he ends up without education and stable job, while his attractive wife, who also shortened her medical studies to join him in his hometown, works as a nurse at the local hospital. Together, they raise a young teenage daughter and the game opens with a rather vicious argument between Jack and his wife, centred around his ambition to teach their child how to hunt. After saying a few words too many, he leaves for his late father’s forest cabin to think things through, while, in his absence, the intrigue that might lead to humanity’s downfall unfolds in the usually-sleepy town.

            One lesson that Tap It Games definitely took from The Walking Dead is that compelling characters can, or maybe even should be deeply flawed and a survival story benefits from showing their shortcoming and exploring how they can overcome those in the moment of truth. Jack and his family are at times borderline unlikeable, but above all else feel like ordinary people, struggling with the challenges of everyday life and in no way prepared for the disaster coming for them. Most of Part 1 is dedicated to establishing them as characters and making the player invested in their story. From my perspective it worked pretty well, as both the main cast and the supporting characters (very few at this point) were interesting enough for me to want to learn more about them and, at least to some extent, care about what might happen to them. My only complaint in that respect is that devs overdid it with foreshadowing and minor “spoilers” in Jack’s narration – I would very much prefer to be left in the dark about some future developments within the story, like fate of certain crucial characters or the scale of the outbreak, but you can easily deduce much of it from the opening monologue and Part 1’s ending.

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Many of the game’s choices feel “off”, making little sense unless you enjoy playing your VNs as an over-the-top asshole

One other problem I had with the game at this point is connected to the choices – most of them only seemed to serve a purpose of choosing whether Jack is a somewhat decent human being, or a complete asshole, with options in the latter category often feeling forced and insulting to common sense. Should you apologize to your wife after hurting her feelings in a horrible way, or is it a better idea to persist with emotional abuse? Is it better to calm her down while she’s hurt and most likely in shock, or to shout at her with anger? What makes these choices really bad is that they’re not about choosing between selfishness and altruism, or between the others and your personal safety, like it would be the case in The Walking Dead – it’s just about being a horrible human being for the sake of it and unless that’s your personal kink in regards to choice-based games, there’s no added value in that. The choices, also, don’t seem to have any real impact on the story at this point. While they might, in rare cases, lead you to an abrupt game over scene, they generally don’t affect anything beyond the immediate dialogue lines and it’s unclear at this point to what extent they might influence the storyline further down the line. If I was to guess, I’d say not that much, considering how near-impossible it is to create a genuine branching story in an episodic game, especially with the, most likely, very limited resources the devs of Perseverance have available. I personally don’t mind an illusion of choice, if it helps your immersion in the story, but it’s still something to keep in mind and downscale your expectations appropriately.

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A riddle – what do you use to cut a rope? Thankfully, it’s not one that you can fail – the choices, apart from one or two dead ends, don’t seem to matter at this point

The visuals are definitely one of the strongest aspects of the game, with a distinct artstyle that feels inspired by Western comic books more than anime (and by that virtue once again resembling Telltale adventure games more than the typical, Japanese-style VNs). While it’s not super-heavy on details, the sprites are distinct in their designs and expressive, while the backgrounds and CGs are simply nice to look at and feel very consistent with the overall aesthetic. The sound and music are minimalistic and support the general, eerie vibe of the story without standing out much. What stands out, unfortunately, is the technical aspect of the game. Perseverance was made in unity rather than a dedicated VN engine and lacks some typical quality-of-life features, like the skip option, possibility to roll back the text, easily switch auto-mode on and off, or even convenient access to the backlog. For someone like me, used to EVNs made in Ren’Py, these omissions were quite painful at times and made replaying the game to check out alternative choices a chore.

            In the end though, what mattered the most – the story and production quality of the game – did deliver and from this point of view, I’d consider reading Perseverance: Part 1 a positive experience. It’s a really solid first act, which might develop into something truly exceptional if Tap It Games directs it well. I just hope that the future episodes will be at least a little bit longer – reading a story in hour-long bits every few months is never a great formula and if the Part 2 doesn’t offer a more substantial piece of storytelling, it might damn the whole project into obscurity. That is, if the future episodes ever happen – the radio silence from the studio is worrying and I would not recommend buying this as long as we don’t know whether it will receive at least some continuation. Without that, Part 1 is only an extensive demo – a good one, but not really something worth investing your time in, if we’re never getting a full story. Time will tell.

 

Final Score: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Solid, well-stylized visuals

+ Interesting, realistically flawed characters

Cons:

- Unconvincing and inconsequential choices

- Clunky interface

- Very short

 

VNDB Page

Buy Perseverance, Part 1 on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

Welcome back to EVN Chronicles, your prime source of romantic fluff reviews and recommendations! Today, I present you a post that will either capitalize on the post-Valentine's Day atmosphere by providing you even more positive feels, or help mend your lonely heart with quality love stories! Romance, as we all know, is one of the driving elements of visual novels in general, and maybe especially within the niche that is particularly close to my heart – and that is, of course, yuri. Recently, I've spent quite a lot of time going through and writing about Yuri Game Jam VNs and with that coverage finished, for the time being, it's an excellent day to look beyond this particular event to satisfy our freeware yuri needs.

          The Western visual novel scene is, if you take a closer look, surprisingly full of f/f romantic stories and freeware titles containing such themes show up pretty regularly, both thanks to other game jams, such as NaNoRen0 and various “random” releases, mostly by hobbyist developers. Today, I’ll go through some of the most notable, free EVNs with yuri elements – both those purely focused on girls’ love and those that include it as a significant part of the experience, but not its primary theme. As usual with this kind of lists, I’ll focus on short, casual VNs most fitting the mini-review format – some games that would fit the theme, like Christine Love’s Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, it Just ain’t Your Story, deserve a more detailed review and they will receive just that… SoonTM.

 

Butterfly Soup

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Brianna Lei's story about a group of lesbian teenagers has gathered a significant amount of mainstream attention thank to its unique subject matter (focusing on minority queer women and their experience), but it’s definitely more than just a piece of social commentary. It offers a well-written, charming story that tackles its main themes with a lot of subtlety and attention to detail. It also doesn't overstate the sexuality of its characters, saying more about the universal challenges of growing up than just minority issues. And while it definitely attempts to create a more realistic representation of homosexual relationships, straying away from the typical, idealized yuri romance, it's a fun and light-hearted read that should be appropriate for anyone not allergic to close-to-reality LGBT stories.

Final Score: Highly Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogpost.com

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