Ds-sans is a British VN developer whose work I've been following since the times I started writing my blog, first being charmed by his free romance game Sounds of Her Love, (check out my review of it here). Released on Steam March 2017, this very tame and heartwarming, small love story was extremely by-the-numbers and rather cliched, but stood out through its solid execution and likeable heroine. Later, I’ve checked out this author’s first VN, Lost Impressions, which also proved enjoyable despite being something of a mess visually and including edgy story elements typical for many beginner VN writers – a rather standard amateur project, but showing traces of genuine talent.
As you can imagine, I was quite interested in reading ds-sans’ first commercial VN, Chemically Bonded, announced and successfully crowdfunded in late 2017. It promised to continue the wholesome, romantic climate of Sounds of Her Love, but with a more in-depth, branching story and better production values – pretty much a product catered exactly to someone like me, who enjoys fluffy slice-of-life content in VNs over pretty much everything else. After a full year of delays, the game finally came out on November 2019, proving to be… Very much a mixed bag. But, what could go wrong with a concept this straightforward and such a promising background?
The game is full to the brim with trivial internal monologues from the protagonist, narrating mundane events and expressing the same exact sentiments towards the heroines over and over again
Chemically Bonded is a story of an unassuming Japanese high-schooler, whose boring routine is turned upside down when he’s invited by Kiyoko, the best student in his school, to join the science club. With her being the only other member, the protagonist is pretty much guilt-tripped into accompanying her in the various “club activities”, and by this is thrown right into the center of a conflict between Kiyoko and Naomi, the captain of the track team and quite likely the most popular girl in her year. The two heroines, formerly friends, fell apart in a dramatic manner, and our lead takes upon himself to bring them back together. Here we encounter the first of the game’s major issues: the (nameable) protagonist is the blankest of blank slates, with less background information and personality than the average male lead in a Sakura game. He apparently also doesn’t have anything going on in his life apart from dealing with Kiyoko and Naomi, as we never observe him interacting with his family or other people in school in a meaningful manner. This really detracts from the experience, as even the Sounds of Her Love protagonist, still arguably a self-insert, had a decently-defined family that played into the story and provoked fun dialogue, making him feel like an actual person. His characterisation also made it somewhat clear why he connected so well with the heroine – here, there’s pretty much nothing meaningful that can be said about the lead and it’s hard to tell why the girls are even into him.
There’s one more, deeply problematic thing about the protagonist, which is also the biggest issue the whole game suffers from – his monologues. While visual novels strive on dialogue and meaningful interactions between the key characters, Chemically Bonded’s idea of core VN content is overly-colourful narration of trivial, everyday occurrences, and constant repetition of a few uninspired statements about the heroines’ emotional state and the protagonist’s intention to help them. It’s very hard to truly communicate just how broken the game’s writing is in the first two acts (first 3-4 hours of the game) and how much it damages the pacing of the story. Moments that push the plot forward are drowned in countless lined about dust particles dancing in the sun or descriptions of how deeply heartbroken either Kiyoko or Naomi is. It also borderline-ignores the visual input of the game’s assets, often describing things that are in plain sight or obvious from the scene’s context. The situation improves significantly after the breakthrough is achieved in the conflict between the girls and they start interacting with each other a lot more, but the experience of getting to that point is generally not that great.
Naomi’s tsundere persona wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t this exaggerated and inconsistent – even with all the explanations for her behaviour, she’s just not relatable or endearing
Another thing that starts broken and gets (slightly) better over time is the tsundere heroine, Naomi – in the opening segments, she’s juggling at least three different personas in a completely incoherent manner, switching between abusive, boastful and flustered modes in a way that is neither believable nor amusing to watch. The game makes a point of her initial behaviour being fake, but this doesn’t help it feel any more fluid or cleverly-written, and even the overall very talented Amber Barile, who voices the character, couldn’t make the confusing, stuttered dialogue sound right. This also changes after the second act, when Naomi mostly drops the pretences and only playfully re-enacts elements of her “tsun” persona, but it’s a bit too little, too late to make her arc truly satisfying. Kiyoko, on the other hand, is a fine heroine – the science theme in her story is paper-thin, rarely going beyond chemistry puns, but her cheerful personality and her relationship with the protagonist are fairly believable. As someone heartbroken and isolated from her former friends, I can see her falling for someone who treated her without judgment and offered his support. At the same time Naomi, essentially a school celebrity, have very few reasons to show her “dere” side so quickly (it’s there nearly from the beginning), especially if we consider that the game’s plot plays out literally within a few weeks. If I have any problem with Kiyoko, it would sadly be her VA – at the beginning, she sounds more like a small child than a high-schooler, and even later her tone and mannerisms hardly match the sharp, energetic personality the game is trying to communicate. Voices of the secondary characters (all dialogue in the game is voiced), by the way, are just fine – nothing more and nothing less.
If you’re waiting for me to stop complaining, we’re nearly there, but… I have to say a few things about secondary characters and cameos. While the Sounds of Her Love heroine Ceri showing up is pretty fun (also because she’s simply an endearing and well-designed character), other supporting characters which received sprites (three in total, random schoolmates/teenagers Ken & Sae and a teacher, Mr Kabeer) didn’t seem to serve a real function in the story. They were sometimes used for humour, but most of the jokes didn’t land well enough to by themselves justify their presence – all three feel more like artefacts of the development process that planned for their inclusion early on and then failed to find a proper role for them to play. In a way, this is also the feeling the whole Naomi route gives out – because of how the game was conceptualized her romance arc was necessary to make, but I haven’t seen in it an actual idea on how to execute it in an effective and cohesive manner. The supposed feelings between her and the protagonist show up practically out of nowhere and most scenes with her are narratively empty, adding nothing to the story. In result, it simply doesn’t work as a romance plot, in contrast to the reasonably satisfying Kiyoko’s arc, which is maybe still a bit rushed, but goes through all the steps necessary to get you emotionally invested in the relationship. Starting with Naomi’s scenario was both a curse and a blessing for me, as it initially soured me towards the whole game, but also let me skip a lot of repeated narration while reading Kiyoko’s arc and fully enjoy its genuinely good moments, which are basically the best narrative elements of Chemically Bonded. Naomi is also much more tolerable as a secondary character and honestly, she should’ve stayed as such, with Kiyoko’s story getting more development.
The one thing Chemically Bonded definitely got right is the visual quality and aesthetic – if only the story was this consistent...
Reminding me slightly of PixelFade’s Crystalline, the thing that works the most in Chemically Bonded is its visual quality – being something of ds-sans' speciality, the level of detail and visual cohesion of all the assets are pretty great. The heroine sprites have a very good degree of variation, with clothes and hairstyles changing depending on the situation, along with a proper set of facial expressions. It’s clear a lot of effort went into this aspect of the VN and helps to offset the very limited number of dedicated CGs, mostly present in the introductory scenes and crucial romantic moments. I still think a few of the more casual scenes could've gained a lot from some additional illustrations, but the quality of what’s already there is hard to argue with. Many immersive details, like a believable smartphone interface showing up for texting and calls, are also present in the game, even though I feel they weren’t used to their full potential. For example, it’s a shame that text messages the characters exchange aren’t more involved, as it would be a great method to expand on their relationships without using the expensive, voiced dialogue – these, however, are nitpicks rather than serious complaints. The game’s original soundtrack is overall very good, although at times misused: while I fully enjoyed the ambient themes in more relaxed parts of the game, when the heavier moments kicked in the music tended to go overly-dramatic, to the point of distracting me a bit.
What are my final thoughts on Chemically Bonded then? When I started reading it, I was genuinely afraid it will prove to be a complete waste of time, but Kiyoko’s arc ultimately proved satisfying and I’m willing to recommend the game just so you can experience it. Naomi’s romance is better left ignored and because that means skipping quite a lot of content, it’s probably a good idea to wait for a significant discount before buying this VN. At the same time, I’m pretty sure that ds-sans himself is very much aware of the problems CB suffered from and he’ll be able to correct his mistakes in his future project – despite this one definitely being a disappointment, I’m very curious what he’ll come up with next.
Final Rating: 2,5/5
+ High-quality, stylistically consistent visuals
+ Good soundtrack
+ Kiyoko’s arc
- Poorly-written and bloated narration
- Weak pacing in the first half of the story
- Weak and inconsistent characterisation of Naomi