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

Sequels to obscure, low budget EVNs are always a slightly awkward topic to tackle. They are inevitably tied to games which few people are familiar with and which can be, at least in some aspects, of subpar quality simply due to their indie nature. This makes giving a meaningful rating and recommendation for potential readers tricky – at the very least, any kind of conclusion about them will be served with a good number of caveats, related to the interplay between titles in the particular series and the value proposition they represent both together and on their own. The latest title to create such a conundrum for me is Eldritch University by Jackkel Dragon.

                Released on Steam in June 2020, this game is a sequel to early 2019’s Eldritch Academy, a supernatural horror VN combined with a fair dosage of high-school yuri romance. While amusing in its romantic arcs, the prequel had several issues: unlikeable protagonist, repetitive routes, below-average visual and, in my opinion, an unreasonably high price for the level of quality it represented. University, while borrowing the setting and tying itself loosely to the core intrigue of that game, represents a major improvement in most aspects – a better-looking, more focused experience with a price tag way more representative of its entertainment value. Is it, however, good enough to make the whole series worth it, or to be a viable read as a standalone experience? Well, it depends on what you want from it…

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The troubled relationship between the protagonist and her girlfriend is the most interesting part of the game – and the most satisfying, when you finally see them succeed

Eldritch University follows the story of Kasumi, a college freshman that was recently reconnected with Misaki, the girlfriend she was separated from three years earlier. A secondary character from Eldritch Academy, Kasumi was the person who unwittingly unleashed the supernatural threat that game's story revolved around and nearly got killed in the process. Still bearing some emotional scars from the incident, she was mostly able to regain her easy-going attitude and is happy to work on rebuilding her relationship with Misaki. However, when the wound she sustained back then starts giving off strange symptoms, and creepy stories of apparitions begin popping out around the campus and the surrounding town, it becomes clear that the horror is far from being over.

                I won’t try to hide it: if there’s one thing I deeply enjoyed about Eldritch University it is the love story between Kasumi and Misaki and the way it is tied with the overarching supernatural intrigue. Initially, Kasumi herself is a bit of a bubbly airhead, while Misaki is more timid, but also kind and friendly. As, in the prequel, we briefly observe the couple in their high school days, they are outgoing and over-the-top affectionate to each other. However, the circumstances of their separation (forced by Misaki’s conservative mother) and the time they spend apart change that significantly. Misaki’s is weighed down by the social stigma and rejection she suffered due to being a lesbian, while Kasumi struggles to adapt to her changed behaviour and the doubt on whether the connection they once had can be fully rebuilt. In both of the non-dead-end endings, this dynamic gets resolved in a satisfying and heart-warming fashion, while never overdoing the drama and keeping the emotional and psychological profiles of both girls very believable. Coupled with a romantic, non-explicit sex scene, this makes Eldritch University a real treat for yuri fans such as myself – I was genuinely surprised and impressed with how impactful it was.

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The game’s supernatural story feels somewhat rushed and underdeveloped, but also avoids repetition and filler content that plagued Eldritch Academy

The horror intrigue is less developed and is probably the only aspect of the game which I would consider weaker than it was in Academy, which focused a lot on stress and desperation of fighting against a supernatural threat. It ties directly to the events of the first game and creates a few genuinely tense scenes, but its main value is, once more, in the well-executed interplay with the love story. The character most important for the horror arc, Kasumi’s friend Hinata, plays into her insecurities and confusion about Misaki’s behaviour – this leads to a few interesting choices influencing the main couple’s relationship. On the other hand, the are also blind choices with unpredictable consequences in horror scenes and the pacing of the whole mystery plot feels rushed. With frequent time skips and rapid story developments, the sense of looming danger and despair, for which the game was definitely aiming, is only half-there. Also, surprisingly little was added to the series' overall lore and worldbuilding – it neither showed anything truly new about its supernatural elements nor opened interesting story threads for possible continuation.

                Then we get to the issue of secondary characters, who can be hardly described as anything more than plot devices. Two girls helping the protagonist and Misaki, Yuri and Shizuka, are a tie-in from the author’s book, Shireishi, but without the extra context someone who read that would probably have, they’re simply exposition props. Other minor characters barely show any personality either – Kasumi’s other friend, Hiroshi, is probably the only meaningful one among them. And at last, there’s the issue of actual relevance of knowing Eldritch Academy, as the really important parts lay not in the main plot of that game, but in the unlockable bonus content – short episodes showing the circumstances of Kasumi and Misaki getting separated and the way they adapted to their new situation. They add weight to the drama of University, but hardly justify investing time (8-10 hours) and money ($12) in the prequel. Honestly, I would just prefer to see a recap of Eldritch Academy and the scenes expanding on Kasumi’s and Misaki’s stories in University, as a skippable prologue – it would make it much easier to recommend it not only to people familiar with the first game (or interested in reading it), but also those that want to jump straight into the sequel.

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Outside of Kasumi’s two friends, Hinata and Hiroshi, the secondary characters in the game are more plot devices than anything else – and even these two receive relatively little development

The visuals are a clear improvement over Academy, but are still pretty basic. While the sprite designs look more clean and expressive than they did in the prequel, the low amount of detail and simple shading are still very much visible. CGs look solid most of the time, but are ultimately on the same level as the sprites and occasionally even struggle with perspective. The end effect is hardly an eye candy, but very serviceable. The same can be said about music, which… Exists. It’s a very generic set of background tunes, but never gets in the way or fails to match the climate of the scene, which is good enough in my mind.

                So, what’s my conclusion on Eldritch University? It’s a game that struggles a bit with its identity, stylising itself as a horror story but hardly committing to this theme. However, for yuri fans that enjoy a more grounded approach to LGBT+ issues, it has enough to offer to easily justify the $6 price tag (for 3-4 hours of content). Also, for people that enjoyed Eldritch Academy or specifically look for the combination of supernatural thriller and GxG romance, it should prove satisfying. For anyone else, it might be a much harder sell… But if anything I wrote here sounded interesting to you, I still suggest giving it a chance – if not for the full price, then at least grabbing it on sale. And if this dev’s work continues improving in this manner, their next game might be very easy to recommend, even to a broader audience.

 

Final Rating: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Excellent romantic subplot

+ Likeable and well-developed main cast

Cons:

– Average-at-best visuals

– Rushed/underdeveloped supernatural horror storyline

– Underdeveloped secondary characters

 

VNDB Page

Buy Eldritch University on Steam or Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

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Note: I was provided with a review copy of the game by the developer.

To talk about the latest slice-of-life VN by ebi-hime, nothing & nowhere, we have to start in a less-than-obvious place. Nearly two years ago I made an overview ebi’s freeware games and one of the most memorable and unique of them was Lynne: a heavily stylized, pixelart horror game about a teenager crumbling under pressure from her toxic and demanding familycrumbling under the pressure from her dysfunctional family and societal expectations she's unable to truly meet. Full of suffocating atmosphere and visceral dream sequences, it is to this day one of the most effective horror experiences I’ve seen in the medium and one that ends on an abrupt, but appropriately disturbing note. Nothing & nowhere, while representing a completely different climate and stylistic, is basically an alternative timeline spin-off of that game, offering something probably every person that read Lynne wished for – some form of respite and hope for the future to the game’s tortured protagonist.

                Interestingly enough, after being released in mid-May 2020, nothing & nowhere was not marketed directly as a sequel or spin-off of Lynne. Even the Steam page only mentioned the connection at the very end of game’s description, suggesting it’s above all a standalone story, despite sharing the central character with its horror predecessor. In my experience, however, it was exactly that link, and the extra context being familiar with Lynne provided me with, that made the new game a truly worthwhile. More than that, I’m willing to argue it's likely be the same for most potential readers, for a few crucial reasons.

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The mystery behind the main character’s appearance near Cora’s village is not particularly compelling (and nearly turned void if you read Lynne), but the real appeal of the story is her path to overcoming the persistent issues that made her escape her previous life

The core story of nothing & nowhere is a very slow-paced, nostalgic slice-of-life story, similar in feel and scope to one of the other recent titles by ebi, Rituals in the Dark. Through third-person narration, it presents the story of Cora, an eccentric writer living in a small village in rural England, and a mysterious girl she finds one morning on a local beach, exhausted and drenched from the cold, autumn rain. Assuming the Girl (that’s the only way she’s referred to for most of the game’s story) run from home, she decides to give her shelter, opening the story of their unusual and slightly strenuous cohabitation. The main axis of the story is about the Girl and her path to overcoming the depression and anxiety that drove her into running away from her previous life – however, her specific circumstances and motivation are not the only, and not the most interesting mystery. That honour undeniably goes to Cora – an extravagant and successful young woman, living a reclusive life in an old-fashioned cottage in the middle of nowhere. Always perfect in her appearance and borderline-boastful about her achievements, she gives few hints on what drove her to this lonely way of life. Even while her relationship with the Girl grows deeper, she reveals very little about her past and wittingly diverts any attempts at prying into it.

                Here, however, we’re already landing on the biggest issue I have with the game – the reveals, when they happen, are not as impactful as I hoped for and the path that leads to them have too few memorable moments. The dynamic between Cora and the Girl is pretty amusing, with Cora using her rhetorical skills and life experience to not only solve the “mystery” of the Girl’s presence in the remote village, but also steer her in a direction of overcoming her deep-seeded problems. Her patient and considerate attitude, hidden under a layer of teasing and caricatural self-confidence, is heartwarming and makes a great basis for a believable story of healing and finding a new path in life. However, especially combined with the Girl’s depressive passivity, it does not create many impactful scenes or spark genuinely interesting tension between the two women. This results in an experience most appropriate for people with a really high tolerance for relaxed slice-of-life content, with no real twists of shifts in pacing involved.

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While the context of Lynne adds a lot of meaning to nothing & nowhere’s story, it also exposes its biggest weakness – lack of tension and few emotionally impactful moments

Here we come to the aforementioned connection with Lynne and its significance. The main reason I think it’s important, is because it gives a much deeper look into the Girl’s backstory and the suffering she went through, making her recovery way more meaningful and satisfying to see. Also, the epilogue is filled to brim with references that will mean relatively little to people not familiar with the previous game. At the same time, I can’t shake off the feeling that deeper crossover from Lynne’s storytelling devices and unsettling climate would make nothing & nowhere a more compelling experience. Referencing more directly the girl’s traumatic nightmares and intense suffering we saw in that game would make the process of overcoming them and Cora’s involvement a lot more engaging to follow. I respect the fact that was not the kind of story ebi wanted to tell and that’s at least one of the reasons she didn’t tie this game to Lynne so explicitly, but it makes me particularly worried about its viability as a standalone experience. Without the appeal of an alternative take on an already-known story, there’s not that much here to hook the average reader with – even romance, the most obvious magnet for a broader audience, is relegated to brief backstory section for Cora.

                On the other hand, what might draw people in, outside of the story details, is the art, high in quality and utilizing a distinct, non-anime artstyle. As usual with this kind of stylistic, I needed a bit of an adjustment period after approaching the VN and I’m still not sure how I feel about the eerie, doll-like look of Cora’s sprite. However, the general impression from the game’s visuals was definitely positive. The backgrounds were nicely detailed and all assets felt very consistent in style and level of detail. The CGs were few, less than 10 in total, but the minimalistic story hardly demanded more custom illustrations to fully get the message across… Although just the fact I can’t think of another scene I would like to see illustrated, other than maybe the last sequence of the epilogue, reinforces my point about the (relative) lack of memorable moments.

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The non-anime art in nothing & nowhere has a peculiar, doll-like feel to it, but all the assets are unquestionably high-quality and very consistent in style

The last thing that has to be mentioned is the music – very relaxed and rather minimalistic, which puts it perfectly in-synch with the overall tone of the story. Generally, the cohesion between all layers of the experience in nothing & nowhere – story, art, GIU and music – was extremely high, which is something I deeply appreciate. I still, however, wished that the substance of it all was a bit more dynamic and hard-hitting. I’m tempted to say that the soul-crushing experience such as Lynne deserved a just as deeply uplifting sequel, but even disregarding that point, I simply feel this story idea demanded execution either longer and more in-depth, or more vivid and dramatic. Some will surely disagree with me, but this is the only honest assessment I can give. At the same time though, if you enjoyed Lynne or if you’re willing to read it before buying this game, it should be very much worth experiencing – and with the prequel being free and this game costing just $5, there are few reasons to not give them a try.

 

Final Rating: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ High-quality, stylistically consistent visuals

+ Pleasant music

+ Satisfying, uplifting alternative scenario for fans of Lynne

Cons:

– Pretty forgettable as a standalone story

– Very slow-paced and minimalistic storytelling

 

VNDB Page

Buy nothing & nowhere on Steam or Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

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Hello and welcome to the second part of my NaNoRenO 2020 coverage, where I’ll be going through the most noteworthy games submitted to the most recent edition of the biggest EVN game jam. While in the first part I focused on otome and other GxB romantic VNs, this time I’ll tackle the niche that, in my opinion, contained some of the best projects in the whole event – horror. Once more, I’ll be focusing on complete projects, rather than many demos and prototypes that get submitted to NaNoRenO – and thanks to the extended deadline devs worked with this year, that’s still a lot of interesting content.

                One game from the previous post, Dream Dilemma, also fits into this week’s theme besides featuring GxB romance – however, it was a rather unremarkable, simplistic game and most of those I’ll be writing about today are anything but that. So, please join me in this quick overview of NaNoRenO 2020 horror VNs – and as always, whenever one of them catches your attention, clicking its title in the list will get you straight to its Itch.io games. Of course, all the titles I’m covering are completely free to play. Let’s have some scary (and slightly messed up) fun!

Divilethion

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Divilethion is far from your typical scary VN, tilting more to the side of grotesque horror-comedy, with visuals and writing style that contrast heavily with the grim essence of its story – and do so in a brilliant, at times hilarious way. The game follows Lynn, a young high priest in an isolated village “protected” by a monstrous god named Divilethion. While the entity is the only guarantee of survival for the community surrounded by monster-infested swamps and regularly plagues by disasters, the price for its “miracles” is steep – every time, a villager has to be sacrificed and his heart fed to Devilethion. Lynn, cynical and disturbingly diligent about his duties, is soon put to the greatest test yet by the apparently bored deity, asked to sacrifice one thing he might not be willing to give up…

                As serious as this story setup might sound, what sets its tone as primarily a dark comedy is Lynn’s warped perception of the reality around him and the grotesque enthusiasm Divilethion requires from his worshippers. This combined with an unrelenting writing style, never shying away from harsh language and disturbing story developments, creates a striking experience that will likely keep you engaged all the way through, to either a relatively-positive or deeply unsettling conclusion. While overall the game is relatively short, it’s just so full of personality and meaningful story developments it’s hard to not be satisfied with it. I deeply recommend checking it out – very few hour-long VNs left me with such a strong impression.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

My Bunny

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My Bunny is well-stylized horror VN about a troubled girl accompanied by a sinister imaginary-friend character in the form of an anthropomorphic bunny. Isolated and bullied in school, with hints on traumatic past on top of it, the protagonist is fighting desperately to improve her life against all odds, while her every failure results in the stronger presence of the bunny, always whispering depreciating and violent thoughts. A chance meeting with a local graffiti artists finally offers her some respite and hope for the future, but a tragedy so long in the making is not easily averted…

                A solid premise and presentation of My Bunny is sadly at least partially wasted due to a rushed and poorly written ending – while I understand what the devs were going for, the behaviour of certain characters and options offered to the player at the end of the game are underwhelming. The bunny himself is also strangely underutilized, not influencing the plot as much as you would expect and rarely receiving genuinely interesting dialogue. Ultimately, while not bad, My Bunny is another one of those NaNoRenO VNs that leave you pondering its lost potential at least as much as its actual story – which is a shame, but maybe shows the possibility for its authors to produce something truly memorable in the future.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Eislyn’s Apocalypse

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Eislyn’s Apocalypse is arguably the most narratively-involved and complex games in this year’s NaNoRenO, and my personal highlight of the event. While similar stories of a secret conflict between cosmic beings over the future of humanity, along with the quasi-Lovecraftian stylistics have been done in VNs countless times, this one is noteworthy for its uncompromising approach to horror – confronting the reader with disturbing, genuinely apocalyptic scenarios, unavoidable outside of the unlockable true ending. Each of the four bad routes shows something crucial about the game’s world and characters, giving context and emotional buildup for a deeply satisfying “real” conclusion. This structure by itself, of course, is also not new, but it’s a while since I’ve seen it done in a game jam project in such a deliberate and effective way.

                What is it exactly about, though? The VN follows a few protagonists, often switching perspectives, although the central character is always Adrianne – a strange young girl with an inexplicable connection to the monsters lurking the dark corners of the once-idyllic city of Memora. While the whole intrigue starts with an investigation to a series of murders, performed by a private detective recruited by concerned citizens, it escalates rapidly in every route, reaching often truly epic proportions. All the major characters, whether supernatural or average people, will be involved in an ancient battle between good and evil – and one in which the balance of power is definitely skewed in favour of the evil, while its corrupting influence makes the distinction between friend or foe less than clear. Outside of very average visuals and a pretty limited set of CGs, there’s little to complain about here – characters are compelling, the world-building fascinating and the plot emotionally involving with constantly-rising stakes. I won't write anything more to avoid spoilers, but if you wanted to read just one VN from this year’s NaNoRenO, this one would be a good choice.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

#Influenced

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Once more touching on the recurrent NaNoRenO theme of great ideas with half-assed execution, #Influenced is a short horror story about an aspiring social media influencer frustrated with her lack of progress. After meeting with a trending Instagram model that recently moved to her area, the protagonist is given the contact to the girl's mysterious manager – one that can deliver near-miraculous results, but every time asks his client to sacrifice something... Honestly, I find this topic extremely compelling, as not only those looking for fame and money on the web, but even small creators such as myself are often exposed to similar pressures – the drive to find recognition and reach an audience, with techniques most effective in this regard not always being in line with personal integrity and self-respect. I still remember the grossed out feeling when the owner of a site I wrote an article for showed me a search-engine-optimized version of my work, and that's hardly the biggest compromise one can make to get traction as an internet personality or creator...

                However, there are few things in #influenced that prevented the cathartic feeling I was hoping to get from it. The first is the protagonist herself, as I think she is unnecessarily shallow and envious of other people's success. It would be a lot more interesting to see someone more sympathetic and hard-working fall into the same traps, as the social media sphere in its current, oversaturated state is not exactly fair or easy to break through even with good ideas and genuine effort. The second and most damning issue is the pacing – then the game starts being truly unsettling and tense, it doesn't build up the atmosphere and properly represent protagonist's descent into madness, but simply rushes to the conclusion in a rather unsatisfying fashion. That part left me deeply disappointed, as even the slightly preachy feel of the story didn't prevent it from becoming genuinely interesting at certain points. So, while I don't necessarily discourage giving this one a chance, set your expectation appropriately low if you decide to read it.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Epistle in a Bottle

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No NaNoRenO since Digital: A Love Story can be complete without an OS-simulation-style VN, and Epistle in a Bottle fills this obligation in a pretty standard, retro-stylized fashion. The protagonist is an office worker handling communication in what seems to be the early 90s. Handling company email and distributing information between his co-workers, he starts his day doing mundane tasks, until a strange, unsigned message launches a chain of increasingly disturbing events.

                While this game does not always do a great job when it goes to building a narrative, I can't help but appreciate the feel it has and the way it approaches the user interface – you switch between your computer, the telephone and physical messages that end on your desk in a pretty immersive way. As you control the main line of communication between your company's boss and various parts of the office, you have a central role in both the mundane workflow the game starts with and the emergencies that soon follow. Eventually, things get way too over-the-top and the game sadly lacks genuine ways of influencing the plot, which kind of goes against its highly-interactive storytelling formula and various ways in which it could accommodate player choice. Still, for me, it was a fun little experience and if the aforementioned interface gimmicks are something up you alley, it should be the same for you.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Honourable Mentions:

Spellbroken

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Spellbroken is more a supernatural thriller than a straight-up horror story, but it’s something that should be satisfying to fans of the genre due to its themes and effective writing. The game is set in a modern fantasy world where the society was deeply transformed by the appearance of witches – women born with powerful magic abilities, often hard to control and extremely destructive. The protagonist is a handler – a member of a militarized formation dedicated to subduing witches. Working under the Church, the de-facto ruling organisation of her city-state, she’s convinced that she’s performing grim, but necessary work for the good of her people. However, her next mission into the wilderness will shake that conviction in several different ways…

                Like this developer’s first project, Package Chat, Spellbroken is above all an excellent piece of mature writing, full of uncompromisingly-crafted characters and minimalistic, but effective worldbuilding. Without excess exposition, it manages to construct a complex and original fantasy setting, along with some compelling axes of conflict for the main story and a few arguably brilliant twists. The crude personalities and motivations of Collie’s handler companions sometimes balance dangerously on the line of becoming caricatures, but for the most part, they’re refreshing in their naturalism. The art, while simple, is nicely stylized and enhances the isolating, desolate feeling of the “Wild”, where the vast majority of the story happens. On top of all this, Spellbroken offers some yuri romantic elements, which were a bonus for me, but they were also pretty minor and I recommend checking it out to everyone regardless whether or not they care about w/w romance plots – it’s just that good of a (short) story.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Limbokin

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The last game on today's list is also not "true" horror, but something the visuals and narrative choices of which should appeal to many fans of the genre. Limbokin is an interesting short VN telling a story of a boy who dies with a lingering regret and ends up in purgatory. There, with help of another “limbokin”, as the inhabitants of this realm refer to themselves, he sets to connect to the living world for the last time and reconcile with his beloved older sister, an argument with whom let to him his untimely death.

           While utilizing horror-like, creepy imagery and a somewhat disturbing premise, Limbokin is above all a bittersweet slice of life tale, including some really wholesome and uplifting moments. Despite having just an hour of content (with three paths/endings), the game explores in an interesting way the relationship between the protagonist and his sister – an older teenager struggling with her identity and first serious love. On top of that, it briefly touches on the backstories of other inhabitants of the purgatory and offers a particularly amusing twist for Rafa, the girl that acts as protagonist’s guide in the world of the dead. The end effect is quite unorthodox and compelling – with the strong presence of LGBT+ themes, it reminds of the more original, high-quality Yuri Game Jam VNs. And if that sounds like something that you might enjoy, you should definitely check this one out.

Final Rating: Recommended

 

And this is it when it goes to horror VNs in this year's NaNoRenO – there are a few ones which I purposefully skipped on listing, mostly due to them being too simplistic or low quality, although there are two I still owe a shoutout. The first one is Sleepy Agent's Unfamiliar Work, which kind of overwhelmed me with its abstract visuals and confusing storytelling, to the point I'm not sure what to make of it – still, it's definitely very different and I encourage anyone curious about it to try it out and maker their own mind. The second one, the Saya no Uta fan game by Arcane City, I didn't touch, as I simply haven't read the original game yet and thus wouldn't be able to assess it properly. I'm still pretty convinced though that the three games I did cover and strongly recommend in this post are among the very best projects in this year's NaNoRenO. Also, in the cases of Divilethion and Spellbroken, they come from authors with highly developed styles, who I'm pretty sure will deliver more of such excellent stories in the future – apart from checking out their current work, I strongly suggest following their future endeavours.

                For the time being, I'll be taking a short break from NaNoRenO coverage, while I tackle the latest slice-of-life VN by ebi-hime: nothing & nowhere. However, you can expect at least one more post in a few weeks, where I'll be focusing on non-otome romantic stories. I hope you've enjoyed this overview so far – for me, NaNoRenO is a celebration of the creativity within the EVN scene and it's hard to overstate its value, both as a training ground and promotional space for devs, and a gathering place for the fans of the genre. Sharing the message about the exceptional games that show in it every year and engaging with their authors is deeply satisfying to me and even if a fraction of that enjoyment passes onto you guys, it makes all this work worth it. Thank you for reading and, hopefully, see you next time around!

Plk_Lesiak

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NaNoRenO, the Ren’Py visual novel jam, is for many years now the biggest community event for EVNs, always bringing dozens of upstart developers, amateurs and veterans of the visual novel scene to share their work, ranging from demos and prototypes to complete (and often substantial) games. Since I’ve started the blog I’m always looking forwards to the opportunity to go through the projects submitted to the jam and present to you my personal highlights – games that are worth checking out not only from the perspective of a VN-obsessed weirdo such as myself, but also the average reader.

                What set this year’s NaNoRenO apart from the usual routine were, quite predictably, the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic. However, while one could expect them to interfere with the development cycles and result in fewer games, the organizers’ decision to extend the traditional one-month deadline by two weeks resulted in more projects than usual getting submitted (105 to last year’s 89 and 2018’s 73). This included dozens of complete games that I was interested in, clearly signalizing a need to change the formula in which I shared my impressions – listing them in one place, even when after relatively rigorous filtering, would be both unwieldy for the readers and tedious to work on. Thus, I’ve decided to split my coverage by genres, starting with the niche that proved very compelling this time around – otome and other GxB romance VNs. So, please join me while I go through six games in this formula that showed up in NaNoRenO 2020 – and if you find any of them interesting, clicking the titles will bring you straight to their Itch.io pages. As always, all NaNoRenO releases are fully free-to-play, so the only thing they’ll demand is a few hours of your time. Let’s get this started!

 

Criminally Overdue

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Criminally Overdue is the newest project by Elowan, the author of Alloys over Flowers, one of my personal favourites from last year’s NaNoRenO. This time, instead of being a period drama, the game tells an unusual story in a modern setting: the protagonist is a librarian who after hours helps police in tracking down and arresting drug dealers – a part of a personal vendetta of sorts for the death of her mother, who passed away from an overdose after years of addiction. During one of her investigations, she targets a local university student, which leads her to listening in on the girl’s conversation with a teacher who accidentally learned about her involvement with drugs. Hearing the girl’s motivation for drug dealing and teacher’s attempt to steer her on a better path causes the protagonist to doubt her actions, something she didn’t feel for years and as the teacher in question becomes a frequent patron in her library, she has to reevaluate her choices and think about a path forward – either overcoming her obsession with drug dealers or doubling down on the crusade against them.

                Criminally Overdue stands out with its conflicted, bitter protagonist and moral quandaries connected to her fight with drug dealers, and although I can’t say I find it as compelling as Alloys over Flowers, particularly the path where the heroine steps away from her unhealthy “hobby” has a lot going for it. The game’s love interest, the young university teacher I’ve mentioned earlier, is a believable catalyst for the protagonist’s change and a pretty cool character in his own right – caring and eloquent, but also somewhat shy and occasionally awkward. The scenario where their romance blooms is genuinely cute and heartwarming. I just wished the alternative conclusion was at least a bit less of a bad end – Elowan’s previous game made a good job of making alternative endings interesting, while here I kind of wished for the whole experience to be kinetic and focus even more on the protagonist's transformation and her troubled path to romance. At least for the “right” path, though, this VN is definitely worth checking out, also because it looks and sounds very solid for a game jam project.

Final Rating: Recommended

Enamored Risks

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Enamored Risks by Crystal Game Works, the studio of NaNoRenO and Yuri Game Jam veteran Mikomi Kisomi, is one of the most traditional otome games I’m writing about today. Despite being very by-the-numbers, however, it’s possibly my favourite VN so far from this developer and the easiest one on this list to recommend. It follows the story of a nursing student living a dull life filled by schoolwork and constantly being pestered about her academic performance by her controlling parents. One day, she gets fascinated by a blog exploring urban ruins and abandoned buildings in her city and soon after discovers that one of her university friends is involved in it. This kicks off a story of friendship and romance with three possible love interests, two male and one female one, all of them with their own themes/problems to overcome and really good chemistry with the protagonist.

                Trying to explain the appeal of Enamored Risks is a bit tricky, as describing its story details will ultimately sound mundane, with the theme of urban exploration being the only unusual element. What truly makes it work is the solid design of the love interests and the writing (which is, to be brutally honest, significantly above what I’ve seen in other game jam projects by Mikomi). By the end of it, I was deeply fond of each of the main characters and the romantic conclusions of each route were appropriately satisfying. My only criticism is connected to the CG art, which wasn’t always by the same artist as the excellent character sprites and whenever that happened, the contrast in quality was impossible to miss. Still, it could hardly ruin the overall impression – sometimes simply getting the basics right to this degree is enough for a compelling experience. And with 3-4 hours of content, it’s an excellent way to fill one or two evenings – if you’re a fan of otome, yuri (the GxG route is arguably the best one in the game) or romance stories in general, you’ll likely enjoy this one a lot.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Dream Dilemma!

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Dream Dilemma is less of a romance game and more of a short horror story, although the main pairing between the female protagonist and her “destined” soulmate, who shows up in her dreams since her childhood, is central to the plot. Sadly, what is a rather excellent concept is brought down rather significantly by rushed execution. The protagonist’s recurring dream, always featuring the same person who seems to age alongside her and interact with her (although without the ability to speak with each other or otherwise exchange complex information), is disturbed by the appearance of a nefarious being that introduces himself as Phebetor. Our lead, being on the demon’s mercy, has to solve his three riddles to avoid death (or, possibly worse than that, endless torment), and learn the truth about the boy that accompanied her in her sleep nearly every night.

                The promising setup, mixing some very modern VN horror tricks with themes from Greek mythology is not completely wasted here, but simply does not receive the buildup and genuine tension it needed to be truly effective. Especially the connection between the protagonist and the boy she sees in her dreams just screamed for more elaboration and romantic tension, which would make their eventual meeting in the real world more meaningful to the reader. Still, the framework of the story is rather solid and with how short the game is, it doesn’t cost much to check it out and reach all the possible endings – just don’t expect anything more than a quick distraction.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

The Punniest Pun Messter

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The Punniest Pun Messter is the most amateurish of the games on this list, with very simple visuals and absurd writing, but it’s not necessarily without its charm… And not without quite a lot of content, as it offers a script of over 80k words and three fully-fledged routes. This story of a female protagonist who’s been cursed by the mysterious “Jester” to constantly spew puns, and her similarly quirky high school friends, do not shy away from some painfully dry humour and old internet memes. However, it also involves wild plot twists and general silliness that you might associate with amateur projects made purely for fun – and if you approach it with an appropriate attitude, a lot of that enjoyment will be preserved in the reading experience.

                Obviously, the production quality is not the selling point here and while the crude sprites and simple photographic backgrounds could be seen part of the semi-parodistic formula, the choice of stock music is arguably abysmal and I highly recommend bringing your own soundtrack if you want to read this one. Also, to be completely clear, despite its meme’y nature, the game is highly inoffensive and generally kind-spirited. It’s also not completely random or self-indulgent – there is a genuine story in there, buried under the mountain of dad-jokes and purposefully-awkward references to internet folklore. While I won’t recommend everyone to check it out, if you’re looking for some silly entertainment, it’s not as bad of a choice as the crooked character designs could suggest and I imagine that in the future, if they have such ambition, this VN's author could create something genuinely interesting.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Red-Handed Robin

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Including Red-Handed Robin on this list goes against my usual policy of only covering finished projects, as for the time being only the first half of it is available, but it’s a game that is already shaping up quite well and a full version of which I’m heavily anticipating. This story of Robin, a con-woman involved in the murder of a wealthy jeweller (with a passion for imprisoning and murdering his lovers) is plenty-twisted, but also does a pretty great job of referencing and subverting classic themes from detective stories. While trying to flee the country on a luxury train, along with the aforementioned jeweller’s servant (who helped her escape captivity and kill him), Robin meets her childhood friend – a former servant in her house that vanished suddenly, but now is revealed to be a police investigator. This provokes a battle of wits – and affection – that will decide whether, and in what way, Robin might get away with her crimes and how she will reconcile with the troubled history of her family.

                While I can’t say for sure how compelling the resolution of the story is going to be, particularly with the first chapter being rather short and apparently containing most of the choices important for the plot’s resolution, the setup that is already here is genuinely brilliant. The fun dialogue and moral ambiguity of the central characters, combined with the complex relationships they share have tons of potential and even if this won’t be used to the fullest, it’s very likely to offer a fun and satisfying experience. While I don’t necessarily recommend to read this game in its incomplete state, I will suggest checking it out as soon as the complete story is released – particularly because it looks and sounds just as good as it reads.

Final Rating: Recommended

Dear Devere

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Katy133’s Dear Devere is not a traditional VN, but more of an epistolary novel, telling a supernatural love story through letters exchanged between a lonely young woman and a mysterious Mr Devere, all in a small town in the WW2-era Britain. While it’s a short game, and maybe a tiny bit rushed when it goes to romance, it offers some very nice artistic qualities. Most letters are elaborately (and beautifully) illustrated, making the game’s mode of storytelling surprisingly compelling in its visuals. Also, the letters between the protagonist and Devere are fully voice acted, giving the experience additional personality and relaxed pacing (the latter being, in a way, quite appropriate for a story told through correspondence). Another interesting touch is the perspective from which we learn the story – that of a police detective investigating the protagonist’s fate.

                If I had to summarize Dear Devere with one word, it would be “charming” – it’s a lovely little experience that is more about style and composition than it is about the plot, but isn’t truly devoid of substance either. With how short it is, there are really few reasons to not give it a try and appreciate all the amusing details and unique illustrations it includes – and if you also get charmed by its slightly mystical romance, all the better.

Final Rating: Recommended

Since When Did I Have a Combat Butler?!

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SWDIHaCB?! is a project unusually ambitious for a game jam and while it has a fair share of problems which make me hesitant to truly recommend reading it, it’s also not without interesting elements. The main one worth mentioning is the voice acting – the game is fully voiced, which with over 16k words in its script (and very little silent narration) means a lot of spoken dialogue. The voicework itself, while quite obviously amateur, is far from being the worst I’ve heard in an EVN – maybe not good enough for me to consider it a clear net-positive for the experience, but I’m pretty picky in this regard and there’s also a non-voiced version available. The plot itself, as unpolished and confusing it can be at times, has some pretty imaginative elements – ultimately, there was a bit more depth than I expected beneath the silly premise of a magical combat butler suddenly appearing in the average high school girl’s life.

                When it goes to execution of the story and the production quality, things become slightly harder to defend, pretty much placing the whole game in the same category as The Punniest Pun Messter – an amusing mess. The main sin of SWDIHaCB?!'s authors was trying to do way too many things at once, with none of the many characters and story threads getting enough development and the romance lacking buildup. The CG art has a very peculiar style, very different from the simple, but decent sprites, effectively murdering the impact of the few romantic moments that actually show up in the VN. Combined with the non-professional VA, all this creates a feel of a game in which nothing really works as well as it should – and while it’s not truly bad, I only suggest checking it out to those looking for a particularly silly/whimsical experience.  

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

 

So, that’s it for today’s summary – I hope you enjoyed it and will consider giving some (or all) of these games a chance. While only a few projects in this year’s event truly impressed or surprised me, there are many which are simply very solid and enjoyable, making them deeply attractive offerings as freeware games. Enamored Risks proved to be the highlight among otome ones just through the virtue of keeping things simple and executing the standard romance formula is a very consistent and effective fashion. Someone who reviews pieces of media by the hundreds, like I do, often feels the need to demand innovation and fresh takes on the classic story templates, but simply creating relatable characters and heartwarming romance will never lose its value, and Mikomi’s team really succeeded in this regard. If you’re looking for something different, games like Dear Devere and Red-Handed Robin offer interesting spins on either the mode of storytelling or the usual tropes of VNs.

                As always, there’s a lot of enjoyment to find among NaNoRenO entries – and when it comes to my coverage of it, it’s just the beginning. I hope you’ll be willing to join me in two weeks for the second part of my highlights, this time themed around horror. Thank you for your time!

Plk_Lesiak

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Anyone observing the EVN scene should know well that yuri, besides being my personal obsession, is one of the most vibrant niches for non-JP visual novels, with many studios and creators dedicated to this theme and a very active fanbase. This seems to be particularly clear nowadays, as even companies like Winged Cloud, the infamous producers of low-effort VN smut, capitalized majorly on the trend, producing mostly GxG games for the past few years. On the other side of the spectrum, Studio Elan recently pushed the standard of quality for EVNs in general with their modern fairy tale, Heart of the Woods. As a result, yuri fans have a lot to choose from, both when it goes to quality work and amusing trash.

                The game I’ll be writing about today, Aikawa Collective’s Mizuchi 白蛇心傳, definitely aimed for the “quality” side of the spectrum and seemed like something that could rival Studio Elan’s hit with its climate and visual spectacle. This yuri-themed retelling of the famous Chinese folk tale, the Legend of the White Serpent, looked spectacular in its promotional material and easily reached its Kickstarter goal of $8500 in September 2018. While the development cycle for it proved long, going 9 months beyond its initial target of August 2019, it never lost its place as a promising and highly-anticipated yuri EVN. Releasing on Steam and Itch.io in mid-April 2020, it gathered overwhelmingly positive feedback – but, did it truly live up to the hype?

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Don’t worry, for those like me not blessed with proper knowledge of Japanese, these scenes get explained later on, but not knowing what is said is actually pretty important for the game’s mystery and climate-building

Mizuchi is a story of a young, poor peasant girl from the game’s equivalent of medieval China (her default name is Linh, but it can be changed). After years of living a harsh, but simple live as youngest daughter of the family, she’s unexpectedly proposed to by her childhood friend, who just came back from serving in a war. Just a few days later, after discovering something unexpected about her fiancée, she’s falsely accused of adultery and as a “trial” thrown into a pit of snakes. Left for certain death, she’s miraculously saved by an entity she assumes to be the serpent god revered by her community and wakes up in an unfamiliar house, whose only other inhabitant seems to be the said deity, now using a monstrous, half-serpent, half-human form. Terrified and confused, she has to navigate this new situation, made even more complex by the arrival of Jinhai – a strange, but kind female monk with a deep-running and turbulent relationship with the serpent goddess.

                While Mizuchi incorporates many fantastical elements, particularly with the serpent goddess, Ai, being a major focus, at its core it’s a slice-of-life VN, spending most of its time on the backstories and personal development of the three main characters. This is often done with slow-paced, casual interactions and depictions of daily life in the estate, near-perfectly isolated from the outside world. For those expecting a more dynamic story, or even a primarily romantic one, this might be a disappointment, as you’ll find in it at least just as many discussions about cooking and the local variety of mushroom as you might scenes that contribute to the romance or plot progression. This casual-feeling routine is only occasionally broken up by more dramatic events or tension, with the main axis of conflict being what Jinhai perceives as Linh’s imprisonment or forced servitude to Ai. Things change significantly in the final act of each route, with a lot more stress on supernatural phenomena and higher stakes, but this part might be slightly hard to get to for anyone not tolerant to slow pacing and very subtle character development.

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The amount of ultra-casual moments and “pointless” trivia sometimes threaten to devolve into genuine boredom, particularly in some of the scenes in Jinhai’s route

The reason I nearly never had a problem with the game’s relaxed approach to storytelling is that the setting and characters it builds are excellent enough to justify it. Linh starts overwhelmed and hurt, limited in her understanding of the world and striving to come back to her familiar home despite the struggle and possible danger that awaits her there. Her journey is mostly one of understanding her full potential and the injustice of the position she held in her village, which she previously considered as natural and inescapable. She’s believable in her reactions and the game delves pretty deep into emotional mechanisms of trauma, with which she has to deal with over time. All this definitely has a touch of female empowerment in it, as Linh has to break free of the constraints and common sense thinking of her extremely patriarchal and conservative community, with Ai offering her broader perspective on the world and promising new opportunities. Thankfully, it’s done well enough to never feel like pandering and is not exactly detached from the historical realities of medieval China the game takes inspiration from.

                Ai’s and Jinhai’s arcs are harder to talk about without spoilers, but the goddess in particular make for a really interesting character. As a powerful, shape-shifting spirit often moving between the worlds of nature and that of people, she has an attitude that combines a form of misanthropy with curiosity about humans and appreciation of specific individuals. Her arc is mostly themed around fully understanding humans and being able to grasp the love and devotion they often show to each other – a wish clearly signified by her adopted name. Jinhai is arguably a lesser character, as she’s defined mostly by her relationship with Ai and the responsibility she feels to keep her in check. The development she receives is definitely not as deep as that of the other two main characters and her route, by extension, is less captivating – which doesn't mean she isn't plenty likeable and doesn't have her own inner conflicts to resolve.

                I previously mentioned that Mizuchi’s romance arcs are not its central focus and I’m willing to stand by this claim, although I have some conflicted feelings in this regard. The game does some really excellent things when it goes to showing intimacy between the characters when the romance finally blossoms, with a set of mature, but not explicit scenes for both routes (inexplicably delegated to a patch on Steam, while they definitely should be a part of the core package and can hardly be considered "adult-only"). The road to those scenes is, however, kind of cliched and pale in comparison with how interesting the backstories of the characters and the core intrigue are. The positive part is that each route adds something to the understanding of the overall story and lore of the game’s world. Still, the non-romantic “harem” ending felt most satisfying to me, which is really weird for a yuri fanatic such as myself. My only explanation is that seeing all the characters staying together and overcoming traumas of their pasts simply feels like the best possible outcome, so this friendship scenario ends up being more satisfying than romance that naturally pushes someone out of the equation.

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The game does a good job of including some nudity and intimacy without explicit visuals – all mild and tasteful enough that the inclusion of Steam content patch for much of it feels pretty uncalled for

Now, for genuine complaints, I have very few, but my biggest one is probably the choice structure. It relies on an invisible affection system, with some choices contributing to it in a less-than-intuitive manner. This means that reaching some of the 5 endings, particularly the true ending for each heroine, can be really frustrating without a guide – while the number of choices is not massive, the sequence you need for those is really specific. Also, the execution of some of the endings was somewhat lacklustre, as they not always managed to explain well-enough what was going on and maintain reasonable pacing. Also, it’s clear that even among the “true endings” Ai’s felt a lot more robust and satisfying, showing where most of the team’s focus actually went.

                Visually, Mizuchi is absolutely beautiful, although it definitely prioritizes quality over quantity. Because the action of the VN is limited to less than a dozen locales, all the illustrations are really high-quality and do a great job of projecting the far-eastern-legend feel of the story. Sprites do not have much variety when it goes to poses and clothes, but once more make up for it with being highly-detailed and gorgeous – and to be fair, the sheer amount of forms Ai shapeshifts into required quite a lot of work to portray properly, in practice creating a significantly higher character count. CGs are relatively few and the high quality of other art kind of prevents them from having as much impact as they would in an average EVN, but that latter part is something I wish I could complain about more often. The music is fairly tranquil in its feel, matching the overall climate of the story – it was very pleasant and never got in the way of reading, which is just what I want from a VN soundtrack.

                In summary, Mizuchi is a game with a slightly niche appeal, due to its heavy focus on slice-of-life content and one that occasionally doesn’t seem to rise to its authors’ ambitions (particularly with the impact of the romance subplots). Despite all that, though, I found it to be a rather excellent experience, with charming characters and story that should satisfy not only yuri fans – while it doesn’t shy away from delving into the GxG love stories, its most important parts are much more universal. Its climate and unique approach to the far-eastern setting are something that should appeal to a broad audience and I recommend every VN fan that wasn’t scared off by my earlier criticism to give Mizuchi a chance. Also, as Aikawa’s debut, it’s a very promising achievement – hopefully, they won’t stop there.

 

Final Rating: 4/5

 

Pros:

+ Beautiful visuals

+ Well-constructed, unusual fantasy setting

+ Likeable heroines

+ Good psychological depth of the main characters

Cons:

– Uneven pacing and occasionally dull slice-of-life content

– Unintuitive choice system

– Romance subplots lack impact

 

VNDB Page

Buy Mizuchi on Steam or Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

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Epic Works is a pretty unique phenomenon in the EVN scene: an African studio, developing games openly inspired by the Type-Moon visual novels and other classic chuunige. Their first release, Episicava, was something of a glorious trainwreck, launching with multiple technical problems and borderline-unbearable, edgy storytelling replicating most of the worst tropes of the chuuni game subgenre. The follow-ups included an unholy abomination of a nukige known as Analistica Academy, and a clunky and inconsistently written, but occasionally appealing RPG VN The Adventurer’s Tale. None of them proved genuinely impressive, but each showed some forms of progress, particularly in the visual department, which by the time of The Adventurer’s Tale’s release got both appealing and consistent in style and quality.

                As unhealthy curiosity is one of the driving forces behind my blogging endeavours, I couldn’t stop myself from being attracted by the studio’s second Kickstarter campaign, aimed at creating another chuunige-style VN in the Episicava universe (although with no direct connection to the latter’s main plot). Despite my disappointment with their debut titles, I was very interested whether this new project, Rainbow Dreams, would represent an improvement for the studio and correct the massive issues with tone and writing quality those earlier games suffered from. And despite apparent development issues and heavy delays, resulting in a January 2020 Steam release, I’m happy to say that while not all problems were remedied to an appropriate degree, when it comes to the sheer entertainment factor, Rainbow Dreams is a major step in the right direction.

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As usual, the Epic Works newest protagonist is not exactly balanced, but at least his attitude is a lot more bearable than that of his predecessors

The story of Rainbow Dreams is the most straightforward power and romantic fantasy imaginable: an immensely talented, but troubled teen, Luka, is suddenly approached by a girl claiming to be the god of his universe. Nearly as soon as they meet, she reveals that the protagonist is her soulmate and fellow god, created by an accident millennia ago, and that she left the heavens to become his partner. And while you can’t go much higher when it goes to power levels and convenience for the main character, there’s also a problem: while the goddess, Myra, is benevolent and don’t waste time showing her power by changing the protagonist’s life for the better, the most powerful of her servants, Lara, hate the mortal races and will do anything to eliminate him and keep her influence over the goddess. To prevent that from happening, Luka will have to open his heart, learn to use his newfound powers and understand the link that binds his and Myra’s souls together.

                The fact the story is straightforward doesn’t mean that its execution was done without hiccups, mostly drawing from the fact the game was too short for some of its ideas to be fully fleshed out. This means that some of the secondary story elements and characters show up and they aren’t utilized in a meaningful way or don’t get explored beyond the bare minimum. The most striking example is the witch that shows for literally one scene, subtly aiding the protagonist and leaving him with a vague warning that doesn’t match anything happening later in the story. These problems make the universe of Rainbow Dreams feel a lot less robust than that of Epicisava and underline the general impression that the game was downscaled from the team's original ambitions. There’s also the issue of “meaningful choices” promised in the Kickstarter campaign, which also very likely got scrapped during the development process: the three choices that made it to the game are so pointless that it would seriously be better off being a kinetic novel.

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As many lines in this game will show you, the quality control it received was not exactly “fine(/i)”

Characters are a mixed bag: while the main couple has some things going for them, the supporting cast differentiates between paper-thin and obnoxious, with pretty much two exceptions. The protagonist, Luka, represents a similar misanthropic, overconfident asshole archetype as the Episicava's MC, but thankfully toned down to bearable levels: as jaded and arrogant as he might be, he cares a lot about those close to him and avoids pointless violence. He also warms up to Myra pretty quickly, masking his feelings with a nasty attitude, but never truly ignoring her feelings and taking things around him with proper consideration. Myra herself poses for a spoiled, naïve princess that left her divine realm on a reckless adventure, but shows a lot more depth when the perspective switches to her, or when the stakes get high. Both of these could become truly compelling characters if the game took more time developing them and its writing was more consistent, but they’re serviceable nonetheless and their bickering makes for some fun slice-of-life moments. Whether the cartoonishly-vile villain, Lara, works for you is probably up to personal taste, but I found her at least properly menacing – an insane demigod terrorizing the mortal races by manipulating the goddess is a pretty compelling idea, even if the “mad” part is showed in the game a lot more than brilliant scheming. Also, most of her screentime is connected with another decent character – demon Cardea, who combines an aloof, carefree Façade with a lot of wit and battle prowess gathered over her centuries-long life.

                Those that are familiar with Epic Works games will probably know that they’re not free of some weird, questionable elements and in this respect, I have a few, probably most important warnings for those interested in buying Rainbow Dreams. While the game suffers from an unpolished script, with fairly frequent typos and often awkward English, some storytelling choices also made me scratch my head. Maybe the most glaring one is Trica, Luka’s best friend who half-jokingly flirts with him in every interaction, spewing heavy-handed gay "jokes" and receiving similarly uncomfortable (that is, borderline-bigoted) responses. Whether you’re sensitive to such stuff might decide whether you’re going to have an enjoyable time with this VN in general. Thankfully, the actual romance subplot between Luka and Myra is much more balanced, with a decent amount of agency and respect on both sides. This also extends to the game’s two sex scenes, which are pretty vanilla and strongly connected to the romance progression, rather than showing up as random fanservice (also unlike Episicava, where at least one scene was a pretty awful insert, pointlessly disrespecting one of that game’s strongest female characters).

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The game’s fighting sequences aren’t necessarily thrilling, but they also never overstate their welcome or show up without a proper reason

Rainbow Dream’s biggest strength, however, lies in its visuals – the general artstyle is gorgeous and while most of the story is showed through sprites, the CGs that are present have enough variants and look good enough to create a relatively dynamic experience. The weakest part of it all is probably the fighting scenes, which mostly rely on a small set of frequently-reused illustrations, but they aren’t an as big part of the experience as they’re in an average chuunige, and the flow of the battles (as it is presented through text) is pretty unique each time. The music is pretty upbeat most of the time, matching the relatively lighthearted tone of the story, although it can get intense in the dramatic moments – none of it is particularly memorable, but it does its job.

                In summary, Rainbow Dreams is a serviceable VN – it does not rise to excellence in any department and has a good number of issues big and small, but also manages to be just enjoyable enough to justify its existence. With 5-6 hours of content and already mentioned lack of polish, one could argue whether it’s worth the $10 price tag, but I’d have no issues to recommend giving it a chance when it goes on sale. And despite not being that impressed with it, I’d still be happy to see it get some recognition and encourage Epic Works to continue working on their VN formula and their skills as developers – more diversity is never a bad thing and the chuunige niche in EVNs is distinctly underdeveloped. Whether the relative lack of interest for their latest releases prevents that, only time will tell…

 

Final Rating: 2,5/5

 

Pros:

+ High-quality visuals

+ Fun, straightforward main plot

Cons:

– Unpolished script

– Underdeveloped/forgotten story threads

– Weird/questionable moments

– Choices are not just meaningless, but pointless

 

VNDB Page

Buy Rainbow Dreams on Steam or Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

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Human beings are contradictory creatures, whose behaviour is rarely as consistent as we would like to see and whose motivations are often complex, to the point they’re not fully understood even by the specific person themselves. This fact is often minimized in fiction, which instinctively strives for clear narratives and characters that are ultimately possible to fully understand and assess according to some kind of moral standards. At the same time, there’s undeniable value in exploring the ambiguity of the human condition and ebi-hime is one of the EVN authors that do it with a borderline-painful consistency, often creating harsh or melancholic plots and populating her stories with deeply flawed, realistic-feeling characters. And her latest release, The End of an Actress, definitely do not break this trend.

                Released on Steam in late February 2020, this new title by ebi is loosely based on the last years of Marie Antoinette’s life, where she was imprisoned by the revolutionaries and eventually executed for her perceived crimes against the French people. It transfers these core events and many features of the queen’s biography into a fictional setting, closely resembling 18th-century France, but without any pretences for full historical accuracy. However, instead of a grant political tale, what plays out on this stage is a very intimate drama involving the deposed queen, Liliane, and Marcus, a revolutionary who led the assault on her palace and unwittingly became her jailor. In isolation and hopelessness, the relationship between the two will be redefined in a few possible directions, fluctuating between naïve fascination, hate and, possibly, mutual understanding and affection, making for a rather captivating literary experience and one of my new favourites in ebi’s catalogue. But what makes it this special?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

Hello and welcome to EVN Chronicles' seasonal Steam Curator Wrap-up, where I cover the VNs sent to me for review through Steam's Curator Connect functionality. Lately, I’ve come to a sad realisation that I’m unlikely to keep up with all the games I’m receiving, with the appropriate tab in my Steam library growing more and more intimidating over time. However, I’ll be still working to give a chance to as many of them as possible, and assess them for all of you.

                This time around, I've been able to check out five titles, the main highlight being the newest VN by the Indonesian studio Kidalang, Legend of Everything, with its deeply unique spin on the isekai formula. This is, however, not where the interesting stuff ends, as the climatic Revenant March and wonderfully-stylized Tell a Demon also proved to be strong contenders, making this one of the most compelling lists I've worked on in this series. So, please join me in this brief overview and if any of the games catch your interest, you can go straight to their Steam pages by clicking their titles. Enjoy!

 

Legend of Everything

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Legend of Everything is definitely the most unusual visual novel in today’s post, particularly because of its subject matter. At first glance, it might look like a simple spin on the isekai formula, with an inhabitant of a fantasy-themed, video game world being the protagonist and interacting with a particularly chaotic person transported there from our reality. However, pretty soon it transforms into a giant thought experiment, and basically a lecture on the simulation hypothesis – the idea that our universe is actually a simulation created by some advanced intelligence. This notion might seem absurd at first glance, but is made less so the more you learn about modern physics theory and strangely arbitral rules that govern various phenomena it describes. While never fully abandoning the formula of comedic fantasy adventure, Legend of Everything thoroughly explores this idea and conveys tons of legitimate science knowledge, basically becoming the most moe course on modern science you're likely to can find, presented in a highly accessible, but genuinely educational way. If you’re at least marginally interested in this kind of topics, the game should be quite enjoyable to you.

                What’s less impressive, in my opinion, is the visual side of the experience, dependent on subpar-quality 3D sprites and environments. It’s particularly disappointing in contrast with the rather-stylish art in this studio's previous titles, An Octave Higher and One Small Fire at a Time. However, I was pretty quickly able to look past it thanks to how enjoyable the writing was, consistently combining well-constructed science discussions with quirky characters and humour, and even some epic and heartfelt moments worthy of a “proper” fantasy story. Saying anything more would inevitably involve spoilers, so I’ll simply recommend everyone to check this game out – it offers a lot more than you’d expect at first glance.

Final rating: Highly Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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When it goes to the Western market for Japanese eroge, VenusBlood FRONTIER is one of the most interesting marketing phenomena in the recent past. Belonging to a series that is most known for its corruption theme and related sexual content, it was rather brilliantly rebranded with a focus on its in-depth gameplay mechanics and the morality system which allows players to shape the fate of its fantasy world in various drastic ways. It is also a game I was highly anticipating because of its rare premise – the ability to play as an anti-hero protagonist who can either become a ruthless oppressor, or a benevolent tyrant protecting the world from destruction and terror. All this coupled with a set of goddess heroines that can be either corrupted into obedient tools, or allied with for the goal of protecting the innocent people trapped in the apocalyptic conflict, and destroying those responsible for starting it.

              The international version of FRONTIER is also a bit more than just a Western release of a classic SRPG – it is, by most measures, the definitive version of the game, with significant improvements and new content added thanks to the localisation project's Kickstarter funding. Its goal was very clearly to attract both English-speaking and Japanese players, which at the same time it makes it even more of a notable treat for the non-JP audience. High-budget games of this type very rarely appear outside of Japan, and even less often reach Steam, but the Western release involving significant improvements rather than just cuts and localisation-related glitches is borderline unheard of. 

              This doesn’t mean that the road onto the biggest PC distribution platform was without hurdles: the final version, released in late January 2020, had to make some concessions when it goes to suggestive content and language, deviating from the initial “all ages” version the studio created. However, the full 18+ version is, in the old-school fashion, available for Steam players through a free patch, and what's worth pointing out, even that version gives a convenient option for opting out of all explicit content. Just by selecting the “skip extra scenes” option in the settings you can avoid h-scenes completely, making the whole game pretty approachable to players that would rather skip the porn and focus on the core story. And in my experience, even the most “compromised” Steam version is a complete-feeling and satisfying experience. But, what exactly it has on offer and can Ninetail really hope for it to get the attention of more "normie" crowds?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Note: I was provided a review copy of Rituals in the Dark by Marantana, author of the game's German translation.

Rituals in the Dark, published on Steam November last year, is the latest yuri release by ebi-hime, one of the most highly-regarded EVN developers. Those familiar with ebi’s work probably know that her history with yuri is as long as it is unique. Most of her games add unusual spins to the formula, or at the very least showcase her distinct writing style, very introspective and painfully realistic in its portrayal of human nature. This makes even the more conventional of her w/w love stories, such as Blackberry Honey (check out my review of it here) stand out through their pacing and often uncompromisingly painful plotlines. All this is usually coupled with strong attention to quality and general writing prowess, making her EVNs some of the best on the market when it goes to literary qualities.

                This newest project shares many staple elements of ebi’s style. Mixing long sections of NVL-style narration and retrospection with more typical segments of character interactions, it creates a slow-paced experience, focused a lot on the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. At the same time, it might be one of the first cases where, in my experience, some parts of ebi's formula felt a bit bothersome, particularly because what kind of people the major characters turned out to be. It’s also the shortest and most minimalistic commercial game ebi has released since 2017's Sweetest Monster, in a way bridging the gap between her larger projects and the freeware games she was creating in the past. So, what are Ritual in the Dark’s main problems and do they fully spoil the compelling experience you’d expect from a VN by ebi?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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You probably saw many cataclysms in stories you’ve read or watched in the past. Disasters that were natural, technological or magical in nature, limited in scale or apocalyptic, resulting in short-lived crises or civilisation-ending. From Muv-Luv through Swan Song to I Walk Among Zombies, plot-oriented visual novels never shied away from presenting these kinds of scenarios, and along with literature, they’re uniquely positioned to explore deeper consequences they could have for both individuals and whole societies. 

                Fallstreak, a free game released on Steam on October 2018 as a debut title of a small studio under the name Centicerise Productions, is one less-common EVNs tackling this topic. It does so by focusing heavily on a group of people affected by such a catastrophic event – mostly average folk, crippled physically and emotionally by the mysterious Fire of Collapse that ravaged their isolated country without a warning or identifiable source. It’s also, generally speaking, a wonderfully-produced piece of VN that I’m wary of recommending to people due to its surprisingly extreme content and open-ended story, quite clearly meant as an introduction to its world and a prologue to future games utilizing the same setting. So, what are the main reasons to check it out, or to skip on visiting the fantasy realm of Socotrine at least until Fallstreak’s continuation shows up?

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The amount of stories-within-a-story and subplots that are never elaborated upon makes Fallstreak feel more like a prologue leading to a proper story than a standalone experience

Fallstreak’s Steam page claims that the game’s protagonist is Adelise Cotard, the daughter of Socotrine’s ruler and a little girl with a mind of an adult. Atypically mature due to the time she spends in the Golden Dream, a lucid dreamworld full of knowledge which she enters nearly every night, Ade is indeed the character through which we initially experience the story. These introductory chapters, rather relaxed and light-hearted, mostly follow her and her group of friends through some everyday situations – a normal life in which only physical scars some of them bear and occasional reminiscence hint at the dramatic past. However, she’s neither sole focus nor the only protagonist of the game. In its second half, when we start learning about other characters’ backstories and the details of Fire of Collapse though flashbacks, she’s not only pushed to the background but mostly absent, with crucial events taking place before she was even born. At this point, the game switches perspectives on a regular basis, focusing mostly on various members of the Lirit family, whose children are Adelise’s classmates in a private school for those orphaned or otherwise affected by the cataclysm.

                In the meantime, we’re also introduced to a ton of information about Socotrine itself, a land isolated from the outside world by the apparently impassable, magical mist. Its impoverished, but stable history was shaken up by the arrival of a refugee convoy from beyond the barrier, around 20 years before the game’s main events. Bringing with them advanced technology and knowledge of the outside world, refugees affected drastically both the land’s political balance and the way of life of its people. Eventually, the convoy’s “Lost Children” revolted against the ruling aristocracy of Socotrine and brought in an era of prosperity. At the same time, the game opens many questions about their origins, actions after traversing the mist and their connection to the Fire of Collapse which nearly destroyed the whole realm. Adelise’s personal story is also apparently related to much of this, with the Golden Dream, her father’s dethronement of the Lost Children’s leader and her mother’s death all signalized as mysteries crucial to understanding Socotrine’s predicaments, although without many hints on how they’re actually significant.

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Fallstreak’s story turns bleak without much warning and introduces scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in the darkest of horror stories – it’s not a VN for those faint of heart

If this sounds like a lot to fit into a relatively short, 80k-word VN, it definitely is. I also skipped a number of lore details and subplots that could be considered spoilers, and as you can imagine, very few of those receive any kind of answer or satisfying conclusion. The game does not shy away from extensive infodumps and introducing character after character, many of them either signalizing stories that might be told in the future or being little more than exposition props. It also includes allegorical stories told by various characters, which further draw the readers attention away from its actual plot-points and protagonists. At times the memorable, high-quality visual design and solid characterisation are main things preventing it from devolving into an incomprehensible mess. The unique characters and the sheer beauty of all visual assets make it easier to get immersed in the world and look past the absolute overload of story threads the game bombards you with, without ever tying most of them together.

                While the pacing is definitely an issue in Fallstreak, the most problematic part might still be its tone: it often jumps from rather relaxing slice-of-life moments to unsettling mysteries, and then to over-the-top tragedy and absolutely grotesque violence. The aforementioned backstory of the Lirits is full of gut-wrenching moments, drastic enough to disturb even a relatively experienced and desensitized reader like me. I’m not sure all of them belonged in this story – some very much balanced on the border of absurdity and if they had a real narrative function beyond the sheer shock factor, it’s not clear at this point. It’s not a massive problem if you can handle that kind of content, but it definitely makes Fallstreak not an experience for everyone, especially because the intensity of these segments was not properly signalized by previous events and very much caught me by surprise.

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The visual design of Fallstreak is impeccable and helps a lot in fleshing out its characters and world, making them surprisingly memorable

If what I wrote so far paints a pretty bleak picture, it’s because Fallstreak’s problems could’ve been fatal if not for how just this polished and well-put-together it is. The prose and dialogue, despite the heavy exposition and anachronistic jokes that I’m not sure make sense in the setting, are very solid. Elements such as character’s speech patterns and personality quirks save them from being forgettable in the overcrowded storyline. And in the end, it’s the beautiful visuals and music that really make it stand out. The characters look distinct and expressive, while backgrounds and CGs are hard to take your eyes off. The assets are also pretty abundant for a free VN, with just enough environments, sprite variants and full illustrations to consistently keep things fresh. The original soundtrack is very climatic, with mostly sombre piano tunes underlining the sad reality of the game’s world. It all comes together in a way that I’m not sure I’ve seen in another free VN.

                So, ultimately, what do I make out of Fallstreak? It’s definitely not a bad game and the main problems it suffers from came rather from the developers being overly ambitious than a lack of effort. They definitely tried to fit too much into one package and didn’t follow up properly with new chapters. If I read it right and it is a starting point for a commercial franchise, we should already be seeing much more concrete signals about its continuation than the sporadic teasers present on the developer's social media. It’s not an abandoned project, considering I was directly approached by the studio behind it not a long time ago and the latest updates on the continuation are fairly recent, but whether you should read it depends mostly on whether you’re ok with reading a story that is essentially unfinished (and is going stay like that for a while), and whether you're willing to deal with its grimdark elements. For me, it was definitely worth the time I’ve spent reading it and as a free VN, that time is all it will ever ask from you.

 

Final Score: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Beautiful visuals

+ Climatic soundtrack

+ Memorable main characters

Cons:

– Frequent infodumps and clunky exposition

– Gets over-the-top with the brutality of the backstories

– Feels more like a prologue than a full story

 

VNDB Page

Play Fallstreak for free on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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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?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Today I wanted to talk a bit about an interesting project, and one that provided me with a unique opportunity to, for the first time, act as a proof-reader and do minor editing for a sizeable VN. Because of this personal involvement, this won’t be a full-on review, but more of a loose rant, highlighting both the worthwhile aspects of the game and my somewhat-peculiar experience with it. The VN in question, Bewitched is indeed a rather interesting one, as all games by Graven Visual Novels are – just as they are weighted down by extremely awkward translations from Russian and inherent flaws of their author’s prose. This time, however, the developer made their first attempt to work on properly polishing the game’s English script with the help of a few volunteers (including my gloriously dyslectic person). This move was quite likely inspired by the discussions I had with them regarding their previous projects and the problems with their English versions. If my involvement in the EVN scene ever made a tangible difference, this is the most concrete example of it, and I hope you’ll be willing to join me as I briefly explore what that difference actually is…

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

The Yuri Game Jam is a yearly event celebrating my favourite romantic setup in visual novels in all configurations imaginable. Each edition attracts both newcomer and experienced developers, flocking to share their work of various sizes and various states of completion, and while it's not a purely VN-oriented event, in practice it was always dominated by those. From the early days of my interest in VNs as a medium, it held a very special place in my heart, spawning both celebrated classics, such as The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns, and dozens of overlooked, but lovely games I’ve mentioned in my past coverage and retrospectives.

                At the same time, like most Itch.io events, Yuri Game Jam is fairly crowded and full of demos and prototypes that can be interesting only to the most dedicated yuri fanatics – for this reason, I once more took upon myself to search out complete VNs submitted to the event and assess them for all of you, making it easy to find out which games are truly worth your attention. As always, I’ll be skipping the in-development titles in my coverage, mostly because the unfinished projects can very easily stay that way forever in the world of indie VNs. And if a game I’m writing about catches your attention, you can go straight to its Itch.io page by clicking its title – all Yuri Game Jam entries are free to download.

                Yuri Game Jam 2019 was the smallest YGJ edition to date, with even fewer entries than the first event in 2015 and less than two-thirds of last year’s submissions, a drop from 60 games to just 39. It’s also pretty objectively the weakest one yet, with very few titles standing out and the overall production quality of the games being particularly low. Same applies to the length of the visual novel entries, as none of them was much longer than an hour. This is a sad thing to see, but also made my work a bit easier his year, with 9 complete projects to go through, all of them pretty short and straightforward. The highlights of the event were several sci-fi dramas, with Remeniscience Overwrite interestingly touching on topics of memory and communicational barriers, and Package Chat surprising me with its fresh ideas and uncompromising narration. My pick for the best game of the event, however, have to unquestionably go to Crescendo’s Café Bouvardie, which combined lovely art direction with a unique setting and greatly-written characters, turning out to be the most feature-complete and satisfying experience this time around. I still encourage you to read through the whole list though, as depending on your preferences, there might be more games worth your attention – so, let’s get started!

 

Spring Leaves No Flowers

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Npckc is an author of cute, small VNs about being different, and the prejudice and discrimination that comes with standing out from the “normal” society. Spring Leaves No Flowers is the third game of a trilogy focused on Haru, a young transgender woman living in Japan and her two friends, Manani and Erika. The first two entries in the series, One Night, Hot Springs and The Last day of Spring, mostly explored the exclusion and misunderstanding transgender people experience in everyday situations, by the example of a visit to hot springs. The third one switches things a bit, focusing on Manami and her struggle to understand her own feelings, after she discovered that she might also be different in the way she experiences relationships and her attraction to other people...

                Those that are familiar with this author’s work, will know exactly what to expect – Spring Leaves No Flowers is minimalistic, to the point and offers a believable glimpse at experiences connected to its subject matter, which this time is being asexual and/or aromantic. It avoids pandering or being overly moralistic, but simply shows typical situations members of sexual minorities find themselves in and different ways of coping with them – both negative and positive ones. If you’re looking to learn a bit about these issues, or they’re already part of your experience and you’re seeking a relatable story in a different cultural context, you should be satisfied with what you find here.

Final Rating: Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

 

Summer Meetings

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

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

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final Score: 2/5

 

Pros:

+ Works as an advertisement

+ Good visuals

Cons:

- Mediocre humour

- Story? What Story?

- Music that will make your ears bleed

- Embarrassing lack of quality-of-life features

 

VNDB Page

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

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Hierofania

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

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

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

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 

Hierofania 2

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

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

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 

Rhyme or Reason

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

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

Final Rating: Recommended

 

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

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

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

 

Jack-In-A-Castle

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

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

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 

Elf Enchanter: Arousing Anima

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

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

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

 

Kingdom of Lies

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

Final Rating: Not Recommended

 

Caladria Chronicles

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

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

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

 

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

Plk_Lesiak

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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