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About this blog

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

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The first Perception of the Dead is simply the prologue for the „real” story, but does a good job of introducing the main characters and establishing the setting

Perceptions of the Dead, in the "remastered" version released in late October 2017, contains three horror stories set in the modern-day US, plots of which are brought together in the sequel. While they have a slight Lovecraftian vibe to them, they are nowhere near as grim and suffocating as their inspiration – they’re mostly lighthearted, playing with the tropes of the genre in interesting and amusing ways, but not trying to be genuinely scary. The PotD episodes introduce two protagonists of the franchise – a streamer named Jill, who gets involved with paranormal phenomena by accident while making a Halloween trip to a haunted hospital and Tyrone, a powerful medium who works as a paranormal investigator (along with a substantial cast of supporting characters). While the first of the stories, The Phantom Icecream Truck, is rather clunky and underwhelming, it was also the earliest project by the studio, evidently still looking for their own style in both visual and storytelling. The other two, Jill Count and Perceptions of the Dead, are much more interesting though and tell stories that lead directly into the second game.

          All episodes of PotD share some characteristics that are also very much present in the sequel – distinct, colourful artstyle and good-quality, full voice acting. Both do a lot to make the characters feel alive and likeable – even someone like Jill, who has a slight “bratty social media starlet” vibe to her and could easily be off-putting, feels both believable and fun to follow thanks to her voice actresses’ work and good visual design. The art is sometimes simplified (or even slightly distorted, when it goes to anatomy and various environmental details) but is vibrant and gives the characters a lot of personality in that slightly exaggerated, cartoonish way. For the most part, I absolutely adored the aesthetic of the game and the atmosphere it created, especially after prolonged exposure to cheap ecchi EVNs and their depressingly generic anime art.

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The game’s artstyle and character designs are its most distinctive features, building a rather unique atmosphere

The story itself might be, however, slightly more problematic, at least from a certain perspective. While Perceptions of the Dead established the setting and its basic rules, with ghosts, mediums and supernatural threats that will become center of attention in the sequel, even when looking at both games combined, they’re a rather short experience (up to 5 hours of reading) that is only starting to gain momentum and unravel the bigger intrigue signalized in the plot. While the sequel is meant to contain two stories, only the first one of which is already out, it’s hard to believe that the upcoming one would be able, on its own, to give us the backstories of the characters and push the story forward as much as we would want it to – and there are some really interesting pieces of lore that just scream to be explored more, while we also still know very little about crucial characters, such as Ripley, an ancient ghost that got interested in Tyrone’s power as a medium and Marcus, Tyrone’s longtime friend who also possesses significant abilities of unclear nature. PotD 2’s story, so far, starting with Tyrone missing and Jill, looking for help with her own hunting problem, teaming with Ripley and Marcus to look for him, mostly created more questions and expanded the intrigue without resolving anything. At least I can’t deny it left me wanting much more – hopefully, Ithaqua has plans to keep the franchise alive beyond another 2-3 hours long story bit, it would be a real shame for it to end without reaching its full potential.

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The consistently strong voice acting adds even more life and personality to the whole cast, including most of the supporting characters

The other complaint I have to share is how linear the whole experience is – both in the case of PotD and PotD 2, the choices are both few and mostly meaningless (apart from literally one optional scene and a single, abrupt dead end). While the gimmick of Jill’s audience giving her direction by comments or voting while she’s streaming was fun and immersive, it doesn’t change the fact that in reality the game gives no agency to the player. The story is also full of popcultural references that give the characters even more genuine feel (especially between Jill and Marcus who are both popcultural geeks), but I can imagine them growing old pretty fast or falling flat if you don’t know the referenced material. Music is rather minimalistic, doing the bare minimum of ambience-building necessary in this kind of story. In the end, though, I see Perception of the Dead 2 as a very positive experience – not really as a horror, but as a casual adventure story with a fun cast and unusual premise. Definitely worth checking out, especially for the modest asking price of less than 10 dollars.
 

Final Score: 3,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Great, unique artstyle

+ Great voice acting

+ Interesting lead characters with a lot of personality

Cons:

- Short

- Linear with mostly meaningless choices

 

VNDB page

Buy Perceptions of the Dead 2 on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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

Aozora Meikyuu

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

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

Final rating: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Sakura Gamer

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

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

Final rating: Golden Poo!  gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

Sakura Cupid

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

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

Final rating: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

Sakura Sadist

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

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

Final score: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

------------------------------

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

SUCH JOY! SUCH HAPPINESS! :nico:

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

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

 

Sakura Fantasy, chapter 1

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

Final rating: Golden Poo! gold_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwal.png

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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A Wild Catgirl Appears

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

Final rating: Smelly Poo smelly1_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwas.png

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

--> Follow my new Steam Curator page

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

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

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

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

Plk_Lesiak

smoa_by_szafalesiaka-dc2npr6.jpg

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

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

Read the full review at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

 

Plk_Lesiak

sd_by_szafalesiaka-dbzdhh2.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final score: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Interesting protagonist

+ Well-balanced RPG mechanics

+ Tons of content and “monster” types

+ Great soundtrack

+ Decent art

Cons:

- Fanservice, fanservice everywhere!

- Often uninspired writing and absurdly forced “sexy” moments

- Grindy on higher difficulty settings

 

VNDB page

Buy Sakura Dungeon on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final score: 3,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Good art and scripting

+ Great cast of characters

+ Highly distinct, compelling romance routes

Cons:

- Bland protagonist

- A LOT of small bugs

 

VNDB page

Buy Ruler by Default on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final Score: 2,5/5
 

Pros:

- Unique setting

- Serious approach to topics of war and totalitarianism

Cons:

- Mediocre dialogue

- Simple visuals

- Doesn’t capitalize on some of its best ideas
 

VNDB page

Buy Panzer Hearts on Steam or download a free demo

Plk_Lesiak

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Visual novels with the possibility to choose protagonist’s gender are fairly rare and the usual focus on storytelling and romance makes it especially harder to pull off properly. Creating games such as Loren: The Amazon Princess, with a possibility to choose between two fully-fleshed characters, one male and one female, with their own personalities and set of romance options takes a lot of work and only fits certain kinds of stories. On the other hand, VNs in which that choice only changes minor details in the dialogue and overall have to struggle to make the narrative convincing – especially in the female version, which more often than not will be an afterthought created by slightly modifying the default scenario.

            Razzart Visual, the author behind highly-regarded yuri VNs Love Ribbon and Starlight Vega, is also the person behind much less critically-acclaimed ecchi games, which featured female love interests and the ability to choose protagonist’s gender, making them in a way both classical romance VNs and yurige. On May 4th a third game in this formula, Wolf Tails, was released on Steam, featuring romance scenario with a rarely-seen kemonomimi variant, that is wolfgirls, and a new artstyle. How does it compare to Razz’s previous projects and does it succeed in being both a traditional eroge and a yuri?

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The gender-specific cut-ins and dialogue fragments are actually well done, although it’s still easy to notice which variant of the story was the original one

The previous ecchi titles by Razz, Catch Canvas and Happy Camper did a fairly atypical thing, adding a possibility to play as a female while maintaining a very standard, Wing Cloud-esque structure of fanservice VN. As a fan of yuri, I rather enjoy that option in Catch Canvas, as it not only was fairly well implemented (with references to the protagonist being a woman in places where you would logically expect them) but also slightly changed the tone of what was originally a rather pervy game. Happy Campers, however, failed to deliver even to that extent – while the option to play as a female was theoretically there, its effect on the story was pretty much non-existent. What’s even worse, some scenes and situations were in obvious ways written with a male MC in mind, shattering the already paper-thin yurige fantasy.

            Wolf Tails goes a step further than those previous games – apart from the gender-specific dialogue lines and some elaboration on f/f romance, it adds CGs in which the protagonist is partially visible. It’s still hard to consider it a fully-fledged yuri, as the fact of the male protagonist being the default option and the other one being added by modifying it afterwards is pretty clear and the game is sometimes struggling to do so in a logical manner. Playing with a female lead is, however, a fully viable way of experiencing the story, especially if you consistently choose the same gender and are not aware of the workarounds that made the yuri version possible.

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The romance and slice-of-life moments of the game are solid, but also generic to the point they wouldn’t be out of place in a Sakura game

Wolf Tails is also more of an actual romance story than Catch Canvas and Happy Campers. The moment a near-frozen-to-death wolfgirl appear in your remote mountain cabin, disturbing your consciously-chosen solitude, the game start developing a fairly serious and touching storyline. Even though it’s very short, taking up to 5 hours to 100% and not more than 2,5 hour for a single playthrough, it doesn't feel incomplete or particularly rushed. The heroines – nice, well-mannered Mirari and fierce (tsundere) Fuyu – could probably receive a bit more development, but the writing manages to make them appealing enough and their backstories and endings (the branching is minor enough that it’s hard to really talk about separate “routes”) have quite a lot of emotional impact.

            The downside of the short storyline is that because of how relatively shallow and simple it has to be, beyond the interesting visual designs and the brief feeling of novelty from the wolfgirls it comes out as very generic (with the corny concluding moments only strengthening that effect). My experiences with Razz’s previous work probably made this problem even deeper – knowing well the style of Zestubou, the writer she consistently works with, I knew pretty exactly what to expect, including the wording and scenarios in the erotic scenes. For most readers, it shouldn’t be a huge problem though, as the game more or less delivers on its main promises – being a cute, fun romance story with a decent portion of “sexy” elements (including the fully-fledged 18+ CGs unlockable through a free patch).

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Although for the first time under the Razzart label the art was not drawn by Razz herself, the visual quality of the game is as solid as ever

What definitely helps the sexiness and cuteness becoming actual upsides of the game is the fairly unique and gorgeous art by Naso4. Being a bit of an opposite of Razz’s style, with sharp outlines and a bit extravagant designs, it was something that took me a few moments to get used to, but the actual quality of sprites of CGs was impossible to dispute. As is all of Razz’s game, the rest of production qualities was also high, with very pretty backgrounds and aesthetically-pleasing, functional UI. My personal plight of not noticing the music in most OELVNs, however, wasn’t broken here and, as usual, I will interpret it as the soundtrack being serviceable enough to neither stand out nor get in the way of experiencing the story.

            So, in the end, is Wolf Tails worth your time? In my opinion, it’s definitely a well-made, enjoyable little romance VN and I definitely don’t regret my time with it. If you’re into love stories and/or are looking for slightly different visual style and themes than in most romance OELVNs, it should definitely deliver. With how short it is, however, it might be debatable if it will be worth the full asking price of 10$ to everyone – if you’re not sure whether you’ll truly enjoy it, wait for it to go on sale. That way you really shouldn’t ever regret picking it up.

 

Final score: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ High-quality art

+ Not overbearing fanservice and erotic scenes

Cons:

- Very short

- Cliched story

 

VNDB page

Buy Wolf Tails on Steam or Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

In March I've brought you two interviews with notable yuri and otome OELVN developers, talking with Nami and Reine Works' founder, Jackie M. Today, however, we're venturing into the world of very, very traditional romance (with equally high levels of cuteness), as my guest is ds-sans, the author of a lovely freeware VN Sounds of Her Love (be sure to check my review of that game) and the upcoming commercial title Chemically Bonded. I encourage you to join us as we discuss the place of all-ages romance in the VN scene, the role of voice acting in OELVNs and more.

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Plk_Lesiak: Welcome and thank you for accepting my invitation! While many people in the VN community might recognize your nick, they probably don’t know much beyond that. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?

ds-sans: I wouldn't really say that I'm that interesting. I'm currently an undergraduate student at university in the UK studying geography, with an interest in anime and related media in my spare time. (Although, that's died down in recent years.) If I were to describe my current background, it'd be fairly cliché, just like the stories of my VNs. I started developing VNs in 2015, while I was 16, but really showed an interest in January 2014. I didn't make it that far though and only really came back to it to prove that I could do something if I tried.

PL: Sooo... Where did the "ds-sans" label come from?

ds: In all honesty, I don't think the name really means anything. From what I remember, I think I honestly scrambled a few letters together from a car's registration plate, but this was a good 4 years ago. To clarify though, it has nothing to do with Japanese honorifics at least. I'd only started getting into anime a few months prior and still had no clue as to their usage.

The story itself isn't that special, but the name stuck and at this point, I feel that it's too late to change it.

PL: You create rather tame, cute romances in a market that seem to reward ecchi and h-content over anything else. Why this formula?

ds: Pure romance novels have always been very diverse in the EVN industry, in my opinion. From what I've personally seen, many of the tamer romance titles are either a lot more Western in style or are low-scale non-commercial in nature and target a different audience. As far as I'm aware, there are relatively few commercial B x G titles with no 18+ content which take significant influence from Japanese VNs.

Reading Clannad was really influential in my decision to focus on cute romance stories as I wanted to emphasize emotional connections between people over physical. If I were to add scenes like that into the stories, they'd need to supplement that motive as opposed to attracting more sales or getting people off. Katawa Shoujo is a good example of a VN which does h-scenes in this way. It's the formula which my inspiration is driven from, but it's not as if I'm not open to expanding into different genres for different audiences in the future.

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Lost Impressions

PL: Your first VN, Lost Impressions, used some pretty heavy themes and drastic plot developments. What inspired that project and what do you think about it today?

ds: Lost Impressions is definitely the 'black sheep' of my VNs, but I feel that's because it was the first. At that point, I didn't really have much of an idea as to what I was doing and a lot of the inspiration came from the early animes I was watching. A fusion between the cutesy romance shows and series such as Higurashi and Mirai Nikki. I just wanted to get something out there.

I can't say whether I hate it or love it, really, it just sticks there in my past as an obscure title. There are definitely parts of it I think could be better conveyed, looking back. It's something I'd like to do one day. 36,000 words wasn't nearly enough for what I was trying to convey, especially when it's split between three routes. The development process too is just as confusing as the plot itself. Most of the resources that were original to the game were sourced through work/art trades or volunteer work. A lot of that depended on just sticking with what was done, which is why there's about 5 different art styles. Still, I'd never say that I regret making it.

PL: You consistently use Japan as the setting for your VNs. Why set a western-made game – and a one with English voice acting on top of that – in Japan?

ds: One of the main reasons I take Japan as the setting for the stories comes down to the freeware nature of my first two VNs. Finding backgrounds for the games which would fit into a global range of scenarios was a challenging task at the time, with many having Japanese itself somewhere visible in the image. It's not something I minded, since at the time it aligned with my anime interests, but now that I'm starting out in the commercial market, getting custom assets is a lot easier. Even though everything in Chemically Bonded is unique, I still felt that setting the story in Japan would be appropriate to get the interest of my target audience. Writing stories set there accurately is the biggest problem about it though, which is why with Sounds of Her Love I took the approach of setting the story in an international school to avoid cultural discrepancies.

With the voice acting, it really comes down to my reasoning behind having it in the games in the first place.

PL: Staying on that topic then, you're one of the relatively few OELVN developers who seem to consistently rely on voice acting. What's your rationale behind including VA in your projects?

ds: Hiring voice actors is honestly one of the most ignored gems of making a visual novel, at least for projects with an emphasis on the story. Having an idea of how a character might sound or react in your head is one thing, but guaranteeing that each reader will think the same is another. It's one thing to add a s-s-stutter to the dialogue, but hearing the nervousness and embarrassment in a VAs voice really sells the emotions and feelings of a character and adds to the situation.

It's also easier to add personality to the characters too. In Chemically Bonded, Kiyoko is a lot more upbeat and cute whereas Naomi is blunt and insulting. Writing the lines for that is easy enough, but connecting a voice to them that suits the characters I feel allows readers to really grasp their personalities quicker than with just plain text. With voice acting, selling the scene is a lot easier and really helps to convey the story to the reader. You also get to work with really great people too, which is always wonderful to be able to do as it not just builds a community of players around the VN but a community of different people working on the project (in a way, a temporary studio of freelancers?).

I don't think Sounds of Her Love or Chemically Bonded would have done as well as they might without the use of voice acting in them.

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Chemically Bonded

PL: How would you describe your experience with implementing VA in a larger project such as Chemically Bonded? Have you struggled with any aspect of it?

ds: There haven't really been any major problems in having VA in Chemically Bonded so far. You have to account for the rate of people's work and your own ability to describe clearly how each character should sound. Most of the struggles just come from implementing that many lines into the game, especially when there's an increased focus on the conversation between the characters. Ensuring that each line is clear too is another minor thing. It's not something that usually happens, but it's always something you have to consider when having VA in a project. So far, working with the voice actresses in the project has been a wonderful experience.

PL: Sounds of Her Love, your second freeware game, had pretty high production quality and gathered quite a lot of attention. Did you make it with the switch to commercial VN projects in mind?

ds: Sounds of Her Love was really intended to be my last project at the time of starting development. After releasing Lost Impressions, I felt the need to produce something of a higher quality before really giving up on producing VNs. I never really intended to go commercial until after SoHL was released, since I didn't expect it to get that much attention.

The budget for the entire project was around $300, allowing me some leeway with hiring artists with the style I was after (the sprite artist for SoHL now working with us on Chemically Bonded as both the sprite and CG artist). The real reason I decided upon producing a commercial VN was after working for DEVGRU-P on their game Stay Stay DPRK and using the funds from their payment to invest into a Kickstarter campaign.

PL: Speaking of DEVGRU-P, they act as a publisher for both SoHL and Chemically Bonded and you seem to have a close relationship with them – in the era where self-publishing on Steam and other platforms is an easily accessible option for VN creators, do you think there's any major benefit to such cooperation?

ds: Publishing is probably one of the harder aspects of developing a commercial title. I wouldn't call our relationship that 'close', since I've really have had complete independence in creating and managing my projects, but it really is 'ideal' for a developer-publisher relationship. They're really great to work with and have picked up a few other EVN groups which I believe them to help out considerably more with certain aspects.

The only real downside to having a publisher are some limitations with managing the sales and figures of the title. I have considered self-publishing, but right now having the support of a larger entity is a real benefit and I would recommend it for people starting out with commercial game development. I can't speak for all publishers, but working with a group with an ability to provide support and additional marketing truly helps.

PL: Coming back to Chemically Bonded. Even though you reached the first stretch goal, your Kickstarter was a pretty close call, being funded less than 48 hours before deadline – did it teach you anything about crowdfunding and would you do anything differently when attempting another campaign?

ds: Social media and the importance of reaching out and spreading awareness was definitely something I took out of running Chemically Bonded's Kickstarter campaign. The work doesn't end after you launch, a lot of effort had to be put into marketing the campaign, you can't just rely on the hope that people will come across it through Kickstarter itself. Twitter was one of our biggest platforms for spreading awareness, but it reached a point where it stopped being useful in gathering interest. Contacting game/anime/VN journalism outlets was a key help in getting us past the funding goal.

One real regret is not releasing a demo for the project to go alongside the campaign. At that point, there weren't enough assets to really create one and even then I was against the idea, but having gone through most of the latter half of the campaign with the assumption that it'd fail to meet the goal, I changed my mind about the idea. I think it'd definitely help when crowdfunding another title.

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Sounds of Her Love

PL: For those who know your style of storytelling from SoHL, should they expect a very similar experience from your new game or is there something that might surprise them?

ds: People can hope to expect something similar in execution, but with Chemically Bonded a lot of the key parts have been done differently, which should hopefully surprise people and prove to be more enjoyable than what SoHL was. Looking back on it, there were plenty of issues with the story and the way it was written. I wanted to address these within Chemically Bonded as I didn't feel that they'd work out in a longer VN whereas they seemed to work given SoHL's short nature. Having two love interests too really changes the way the story has to be written, at least to include both girls into the main story without keeping their routes entirely separate.

Chemically Bonded is a lot more grounded in reality, I've tried to make the events that happen a lot more likely than what occurred in SoHL and Lost Impressions. There are no car accidents or tragic backstories, the romance isn't cliched as hell and the characters are a lot deeper than my previous works. The choices are a more vague too, rather than being predictable, so the routes and endings achieved should hopefully reflect the reader's instincts. I could go into a lot more detail, but to summarise I'd say people can expect a rather captivating romantic story like SoHL had, but will give people a chance to connect with more fledged characters and themes. That and the production quality is a lot better now we have the funding to do it, so, all in all, I think people who liked SoHL will appreciate Chemically Bonded much more. The story doesn't just end after a confession either, so I think people will appreciate that too.

PL: Assuming that Chemically Bonded meets your expectations when it goes to sales and general reception, do you have any specific plans for future VN projects?

ds: If it does, I'd like to continue making VNs at some point. I don't have any specific plans yet, and I feel like I'd need the time to really recoup interest in developing another project. I've always had on and off ideas for future VNs throughout developing all three, but when it comes down to creating something new I usually come up with a fresh idea and discard the old.

For a while, I promised a full sequel to Sounds of Her Love, and I did create plans for it, but I don't feel the need to rush into it after Chemically Bonded releases. I'd hope to branch out into different story genres, but even then I'd find it hard to escape producing romantic stories since that's what I've really become accustomed to at this point. Who knows? I might try developing two at once and see how that goes, or I might leave it at Chemically Bonded. I know for a fact that I won't be producing a sequel to it though. At the moment I stick to what I like to work on, which I think is what people should really follow when making any kind of creative project, not what the market expects.

PL: Thank you for your time!

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I hope you all enjoyed the interview - it was definitely the most detail-heavy one so far and I've had some great time working on it. As always, all feedback will be highly appreciated. What more would you want to know about the devs I invite here? Are there any specific ones whose thoughts on certain topics you would like to hear? Let me know what you think and, once again, have a great weekend!

Plk_Lesiak

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Check out my interview with the developer of this game, ds-sans!

Is there any merit to creating a tame, single-heroine romance VN in a market that seems to be flooded with cuteness and romance, often in much more "advanced" forms? Do a romance VN need to invent something fresh and original to be successful? Is it even possible to be innovative in the world of cute love stories with the kind of saturation the genre offers?

          Sounds of Her Love, a small freeware title published over a year ago by DEVGRU-P and created by ds-sans, an indie developer then pretty much unknown to the VN community, made me think about all these issues in a fairly substantial manner. And the answer it suggested to me, both due to my personal enjoyment and the warm reception it received from other readers, was: when making a romance story in the visual novel format, you don't have to create anything particularly new, as long as you do the basics really, really well. SoHL, in my opinion, managed to do exactly that.

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The heroine’s genuine cuteness, enhanced by good VA work, is the game’s biggest asset – and for the most part, it’s used really well

The story of the game is as standard as it goes - our (nameable) protagonist starts attending an international school in Japan and on his first day witnesses a girl dropping her library card. This event swiftly introduces our sole heroine and the only voiced character – Ceridwen (Ceri for short), a shy and asocial Welsh girl, whose slightly dramatic backstory and developing relationship with the MC will be the main focus of the 5-hour long story. Both the visual design and voice acting on Ceri are the highlights of the game – it's clear that much, or maybe even majority of the tiny budget was devoted to making her an appealing romance interest and the effect is indeed pretty lovely. The rather transparent protagonist (although he's not completely bland and engages in some amusing interactions with his family) also works well in this case – he's simply an avatar of the player, while the focus of the story clearly falls on the heroine.

          The minimalism of the story also translate to the choices it offers to the player – most of them are very logical and offers predictable consequences. The game rewards being proactive, but tactful, in a very common-sense fashion leading you to three possible endings, including the "canon", romantic one – and I have to say, I'm more of a fan of this approach then cryptic, overly convoluted decisions typical for so many VNs. Even if you reach the good conclusion by not being a complete idiot, the romance is in the MoeNovel's KonoSora levels of "clean" – one thing that could be said in defense of this approach is that it fits Ceri's character - with how timid and insecure she is throughout the story, we can believe that a kiss after protagonist's confession was out of question. The romantic ending leads to a small epilogue game ~We'll always be together~, released on the anniversary of SoHS's premiere – 30 more minutes of cute interactions between the main couple, in the very same aesthetic as those from the main game.

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Some CGs are slightly below what the game makes you expect, but the general quality of art assets compensate reasonably for their limited number and variety

Ceri is not the only character with a voice, but also the only one with a sprite – like I've said, the fact that most of the effort on the part of the developer was focused on this one character is absolutely obvious. However, it definitely wasn't a bad choice, considering the obviously limited resources ds-sans' disposal – the variety of expressions on her is quite good and while CGs and other assets are not always on par with the said sprite, their quality is consistent enough to be satisfying. The stock background music might be nothing to write home about, but as in many no-budget indie projects, works pretty well in filling the acoustic void in moments when there's no VA present.

          In the end though, who is Sounds of Her Love targeted towards and is it worth your time? This, I think, very much depends on your taste on what you're looking for at that particular moment. It is a most basic love story, that can bore those tired of romance clichés or not fond of the formula in the first place. On the other hand, it's incredibly cute and nicely written and makes for a good, relaxing read that really can make you feel warm and fuzzy for one or two evenings. I've personally had a greatly enjoyable time with it – if I was to rate it solely on the fun I've had, the final score would be even higher. It's also a completely free product and checking it out will not cost you anything. Just be sure you're not expecting any twists or surprises when approaching it – there really are none.

 

Final score: 2,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Lovely main heroine with good voice acting

+ Solid writing

+ Decent art

Cons:

- Short

- Clichéd as hell

- Predictable plot

- Super-tame romance

 

VNDB page

Play Sounds of Her Love for free on Steam or Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

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I usually try to avoid reviewing really bad OELVNs, unless they’re especially interesting or notable despite its failure – after all, in any semi-amateur game development scene, the bad and horribly iterative titles will be far more numerous than those actually worthy of your attention. Writing about the former, especially when my goal is to promote OELVNs as a niche worth exploring, is simply a waste of time and possibly even counter-productive. However, just like Carpe Diem: Reboot, today’s game is a great opportunity to look at some problems and tropes very characteristic of the Western VN scene, in a game that actually had the production values and traces of genuine effort that should at least make it an average, reasonably enjoyable product. And the sin that made it ultimately fail was not silly writing that plagued Carpe Diem, but something even worse – boredom.

            Sweet Volley High, developed by New West Games and released on Steam in October 2016, was marketed as a “yuri/otome Visual Novel”, featuring a female protagonist and both female and male romance options. While some might already feel unease about such use of the terms "yuri" and "otome", both of which usually denotes a bit more than just romantic configurations available, it hints at a much deeper problems – game’s utter lack of personality and very poor use of the themes it tries to tackle. Supposedly trying to appeal to a broad audience, it in reality wasn’t able to replicate the appeal of neither yuri nor otome games, just as it didn’t manage to create a satisfying alternative to those formulas. But, why exactly that is the case?

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The game’s art is inconsistent, but is far from being Sweet Volley High's worse element and occasionally the CGs can be quite pleasing to the eye

The game’s biggest problem is most likely it’s protagonist, Aya. This time, however, it’s not about her negative, annoying or unrealistic traits and more about lack of any interesting characteristics whatsoever. An apparently average, even boring lead is not a rare occurrence in the world of VNs. There is one catch there though – normally, there’s either some kind of secret that changes our perception of the MC drastically or something happens that forces them to rise above mediocrity and become a compelling character. Here the protagonist is simply dull, even in her better moments and also has a quality that for me personally was off-putting – she utterly lacks any charm or femininity that makes yuri VNs different from most of what's available on the market and interesting to read. Her dialogue and thoughts simply screamed “a guy wrote that”, killing the last possible piece of appeal she might’ve had.

            This problem is deepened by the atrocious pacing of the pretty long common route, during which Aya discovers her passion for volleyball and, for the first time in her life, starts to work towards a goal. The romance options are mostly connected to her high school’s volleyball team (apart from the male route, which features an aspiring soccer player), but it’s hard to emphasize how obvious and uninspired all the plot-points and character introductions feel at this part of the game – surviving the 3-4 hours of reading, until the first choices appear and the romance arcs start to develop, can be a real challenge. There’s a thin line between casual, slow-paced storytelling and showing things that are absolutely mundane and inconsequential and from the first, long episode of Aya looking out of the window during class and explaining how average and bored she is, Sweet Volley High is definitely on that second end of the spectrum.

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Maybe nothing drags Sweet Volleyball High down more than the fact how bland and uninteresting the protagonist is – a sad exception among the western yuri VNs

There’s one interesting surprise waiting for those more patient readers though, and that’s the structure of the romance routes. Firstly, when you would expect some of the romance arcs reaching a conclusion soon and giving you a happy ending, the game introduces plot twists and additional layers of drama, that expands the story significantly and giving it additional depth. This works especially well in the Nanami route, which also feels like the most developed and interesting part of the game. The really unusual elements show up in two smaller character routes, both of which only have a bad ending – one leading to your love interest cheating on you, the second one ending with a rejection. While this undoubtfully enraged many readers, it’s probably the biggest positive I can find about this game – these “dead end” routes represent a form of realism and respect for the characters that is rarely seen in romance VNs. The failures of the relationships in them do not "come out of nowhere", but are strongly connected to the established traits and life situations of those involved – they're both possible to predict and in a way quite refreshing (even if the actual execution, especially with Eri’s mini-arc, leaves a lot to be desired).

            When it goes to art, the game is fairly inconsistent – there are some very pretty CGs and the sprites don’t look that bad, but they seriously lack variety and some assets are fairly laughable – including some of the hentai illustrations, which are supposed to be one of the game’s selling points. Maybe the worst of it all is probably the user interface – it might seem petty to focus on something this “minor”, but in a title where you spend most of your time reading, an aesthetic UI is very important. How it looks in Sweet Volley High, apart from a pretty nasty colour pallet, simply screams generic and uninspired, showing the general lack of attention to detail and ambition on the part of the devs.

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The one good romance arc is definitely worth mentioning, but it can’t nullify the absolute agony of reading through the common route

There’s also one thing that could be counted among the game’s redeeming qualities, but which really even worsened it for me personally – partial voice acting. While I’m already not a fan of that technique (really, either voice your game fully or let my imagination do its job, rather than randomly switch between silent and voiced moments), the way it was done here is even more distracting that it had to be – apart from fully voiced lines, there are voice cues that appear repeatedly in otherwise silent parts of the dialogue – after a few times of hearing “Aya!” at the beginning of an unvoiced sentence I was just tempted to mute voice acting altogether. The only reason I didn’t do it is that whenever full VA is present, it’s actually very decent, definitely above an average quality level for OELVNs.

            In the end, though, the relatively positive elements simply couldn’t change the ultimate problems of the game – its poor pacing, uninteresting lead and utterly unappealing common route, that makes it impossible to really get immersed or care about the characters. What also might be worth mentioning, the game takes place in Japan, but there’s not a single plot element that would really benefit from that fact – it's like if Sweet Volley High actively tried to be the most generic “weeb” title out there, making sure to avoid any originality or inclusion of dev’s own cultural background. Because of all that, it proved to be a thoroughly unsatisfying title and I strongly recommend avoiding it at all cost.  

 

Final score: 1,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Good voice acting

+ Bold storytelling in some of the routes – not every romance will have a happy end

Cons:

- Horribly boring common route

- Unlikable, boring protagonist

- Annoying voice cues

- Poor visual design

 

VNDB page

(Do not) buy Sweet Volley High on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

Hello there! It's not Friday, so it has to be an unusual post and it definitely is one...

It will be a bit chaotic too - only now, late in the evening, after taking a day off and pursuing the only lesbian romance route in Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf for most of it, I've realized that today is Lesbian Visibility Day. For me, both as a fan of yuri and as an appreciator of OELVNs it probably should be one important holiday - definitely worthy of a few moments/words of reflection.

Visibility as something inherently positive is a curious idea. It's based on a very important and reasonable assumption, that to make something a public issue and fight for social change, you have to make people aware of that phenonenon's existence, scale and the consequences it might have for those most affected by it. To fight for the acceptance of gay people and systemic change that will give them equality before the law (and, hopefully, equality of opportunities), you cannot accept the conservative argument that sets sexual orientation as a purely "private" matter - the long-lived stance that wants people to visibly adhere to social "norm" and not "bother" others with the fact they're different. Most often, if you want your rights to be respected as a member of a minority group, you have to be loud, you have to be bold to the point of possibly being obnoxious and offensive to some people. You have to fight tooth-and-nail to make sure you won't be trampled by the majority's concepts of what's "normal" and "proper". In many Western countries, for lesbians that fight is to a large extent already "won" - the majority of people see them as a legitimate group worth respecting. Not everywhere though and it's not clear to what degree these gains are permanent. 

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Hopefully?

But is all visibility a good thing? Paraphrasing painfully accurate thought by @Fiddle, we don't really praise Adolf Hitler for bringing attention to Jewish issues in Mein Kampf. Yuri, is, obviously, not nazism. It's not in any inherent way a negative phenomenon for the lesbian cause. But it's also not automatically an ally of any progressive agenda. Japanese media is full of depictions of lesbian romance, which reaches a society that ignores LGBT issues in a way more persistent than pretty much any other highly developed country. For me, it's not especially surprising - just like the saturation of Pornhub with lesbian porn probably doesn't lead to people watching it going to their local Pride parade, fetishized, male-oriented yuri themes in anime and VNs do not have to translate into any kind of educated attitude towards RL queer women. And Japanese yuri, at least until recently, didn't really have an ambition of grounding its narrative into any kind of reality of homosexual romance. SonoHana series is the perfect example of completely isolated, imaginary "yuritopia" (to borrow a handy term from Yurirei), where a huge number of young females live in a world where males exists only in passing references, pretty much everyone's gay by default and there's no prejudice or social stigma connected to that fact - which, of course, make possible a gigantic number of voyeuristic porn scenes. Is it a bad thing by itself? Not really. Does it make people more aware of the situation of sexual minorities as a social issue? Hell no.

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Admittedly, some Japanese depictions of yuri romance are probably too lovely and heartwarming to say anything bad about them...

Obviously, there's a lot of issues with representation of women in anime and VNs and I don't want to write a book here. I want to make a slightly different point and this goes to yuri romance in English VNs. This is also not a black and white picture - many EOLVNs directly copy the Japanese formula or give slight twists to it, while still keeping the "lesbian porn for guys" premise. However, for every Negligee and Sakura Fantasy our VN scene produces maybe even a couple of projects that are genuine expressions and/or appreciations of lesbian identity and realities of lesbian relationships. Throughout the various editions of Yuri Game Jam, NaNoRenO and in many commercial titles, I've seen lovely, touching, thought-provoking depictions of f/f romance that gave me huge pleasure as a reader, but also made me empathise with people different than me. Christine Love's work I think holds a special place here, with powerful and persuasive depictions of discrimination and her courage in exploring themes that commercial games rarely dare to go anywhere close to, from Analogue to Ladykiller in a Bind. Lately, Brianna Mei's Butterfly Soup gained similar notoriety, also through a genuine message and creative passion involved. But even small, cute and silly games such as those by Nami can have a genuinely positive role to play, confronting people with diversity in an approachable and lovely way.

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One other thing that OELVNs regularly prove to me is that some small, indie games can have more soul in them than many giant, high-budget productions...

I, in all of this, have a pretty questionable position of a straight guy that finds lesbian romance lovely and, to a certain extent, hot. The more genuine the romance depicted is, the more I'm probably a bit of a creepy voyeur getting a high out of something that for other people is part of their identity. But no matter how we see that problem, this genuineness depicted above is something I absolutely love many yuri OELVNs for and a thing to be shared and appreciated. And that's my message for this day.

Thank you for reading! :)

Plk_Lesiak

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Note: This game was already reviewed on Fuwa by Valmore, I encourage you to check out his review as well

Those that follow this blog for a while might have noticed that I like to complain about the lack of identity that many western VNs show – as a medium used pretty much exclusively by fans of original Japanese visual novels, they far too often borrow from those when it goes to setting and replicate various tiring anime clichés, copying elements that often really have no interest being in a game created by someone living in the USA or Europe and (more often than not) having a very superficial knowledge of Japanese culture and reality of life in Japan. A Little Lily Princess, developed by Hanabira and published by Hanako Games in May 2016, is a game that I like bringing up as an example of a western VN that was able to differentiate itself from the crowd and create unique experience exactly because of ability to separate itself from its “weeb” roots, by creating a setting and a story far detached from typical anime tropes.

            Paradoxically, the classic English novel A Little Princess, that this game adapted into the VN/dating sim format, is not a title unknown to anime fans, thanks to the highly-rated series from the 1980’s, Little Princess Sara (it even inspired a few less known projects, such as Strain: Strategic Armored Infantry). Hanabira’s version tries to differentiate itself mostly by giving a yuri spin to the story – as I will try to show later, calling it a yuri romance is rather misleading and says little about the true appeal of this VN.

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 The games arstyle and writing does a very good job of creating an appropriate climate of Victorian London, making it stand out from typical VN settings

Following a story of Sara Crewe, a young girl sent by her father, wealthy colonial official in India, to a boarding school in London in late XIX-century and then struck with a tragedy that completely changes her life, A Little Lily Princess does a great job at creating a believable representation of its setting and uncovering the social divisions and injustices that were the core issues touched on in Burnett's novel. The school's internal hierarchy, dependent mostly on social standing and wealth of the girl's families is a major theme not only in Sara's story but also in pretty much every other character arc. The unusual artstyle, language used by the characters and music all give the game a unique climate, making it pretty far detached from a typical VN experience (even if mechanically it's a quite standard VN with dating sim elements).

            This feeling of reading something fresh and different is further supported by very usual dynamic present in many of the game's routes – while some of them are more or less explicitly romantic and involves girls in age similar to Sara, other include (among other things) her becoming sort of a mother figure for a much younger child or creating a close bond of friendship with her Maid. Yuri romance elements are definitely present in the game, but they are not really in any way the true focus of the story or its strongest element – also when they're actually present, they're definitely on the cute and tame side of things, very much appropriate for how young Sara and her schoolmates are. This creates an interesting contrast with the game's dating sim mechanics and the way it advertised itself – it rarely conforms to your expectations, especially if you don't know the source material.

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Maybe the biggest virtue of this game as an adaptation is exploring the characters that had only minor roles in the original, giving them their own, complex personalities and motivations

The stylization itself and the interesting structure of the game aren't all though – its true strength lies in the characters, especially Sara and her personal story. Her dialogues, thoughts and overall behaviour make a very convincing impression of a somewhat spoiled, but ultimately very kind-hearted and sensitive girl that the player quickly learns to adore – this makes the hardships she goes through often painful to see, but keeps you emotionally involved all the way through the story. This is ultimately the real focus of the game and definitely its biggest asset, as all the character routes and stories connected to them pretty much supplement Sara's rises and falls (the core story also always plays the same way, apart from some parts of the ending, no matter what relationship you chose to pursue). It's not that the rest of the cast, especially the “heroines”, don't have interesting characteristics and backstories of their own. Some of them are developed in very interesting ways, that surpasses their characterization in the original novel - that goes especially to Lavinia, who in the source material was simply a bully and Sara's main antagonist among the girls, but here became more much more ambivalent and complex character. They all simply feel like secondary, maybe even optional additions to the main story-arc.

            If I had to say something negative about A Little Lily Princess, it would mostly be about the "dating sim" resource-management mechanic, which require you to decide how Sara will spend her time every day and provide you with resource points, which you later spent to progress the character routes. It’s rather tedious and doesn’t add any real challenge to the game, apart from that coming from frustrating RNG – the only good thing about it is that it’s very thematic, adding to the climate of the game, especially after the first plot twist. Other than that though, this is simply an excellently made and unique game – not a masterpiece, but an all-around impressive experience and a must-read for every OELVN fan, even if they’re not into yuri – that part, while a bonus for those liking the theme, is probably the least important element here.

 

Final score: 4/5

 

Pros:

+ Unique, well-developed setting

+ Emotionally engaging, touching story

+ Interesting art and overall good production values

Cons:

- Romance sometimes feels forced and underdeveloped

- Shallow, RNG-dependent dating sim mechanics

- Can be extremely sad and painful to read

 

VNDB page

Buy A Little Lily Princess on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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Ebi-Hime is one of the very few OELVN developers who managed to establish themselves as reliable and respected creators even among the JP-centric visual novel fans. Having released over 20 titles since 2013, both freeware and commercial, she is probably best-known for her yuri titles, such as Asphyxia and The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns, and impressive horror stories, such as Sweetest Monster and The Way We All Go. Most of her work stands out through unusual, western settings, deep connection to English culture and literature and art that diverge in various ways from generic, anime-style illustrations you can find in most western VNs. Blackberry Honey, Ebi-Hime’s latest commercial VN, is both a very typical title for her – with its yuri themes, Victorian England setting and unusual stylization – and an unusual one, as it the first project of her's to include explicit sexual content, through an optional 18+ patch. So, how did this first venture into the world of eroge turned out for the OELVN scene’s star creator?

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The game has its share of interesting and surprising moments, but the overall pacing is painfully slow and predictable, even for a romance

Blackberry Honey follows the story of Lorina Waugh, a young, poor maid that starts working in a rural residence of Bly, after being sent off in disgrace from her previous job, in unclear circumstances. Being mistreated by some of the older maids in the estate and Lady Constance, the young daughter of the owners, she struggles desperately to hold to her position, so she can financially support her mother and sisters. After being hurt while performing a pointless chore for Constance, she stumbles upon the Bly’s unusual, foreign-looking parlour maid, Taohua, sparking a relationship that will completely change her life.

           As the game is a kinetic novel, the story is completely linear and follows a fairly predictable romance formula. It’s definitely not lighthearted, being very thorough in pointing out the social injustices of XIX-century England (and disturbing details of Lorina’s especially miserable circumstances), but being even more depressing than I’ve expected is probably the only way in which it managed to surprise me. Pointless cruelty, represented the most by Constance (and to a lesser extent, by Pauline and Isobel, older maids that bullies Lorina), is constantly present and creates some heavily uncomfortable developments, putting the protagonist in absolutely hopeless situations, only sometimes mitigated by Taohua’s interventions. The positive support characters, such as other maids sympathetic towards Lorina give the whole story a more realistic feeling, but are completely ineffectual for the main storyline – all this makes much of the story pretty tiring to read.

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The fairly small support cast is well developed and fairly interesting, but most often adds very little to the main story

All this is made even more problematic by the game’s pacing – the mundane, everyday hardships of Lorina’s life definitely dominate the story and while some of it was definitely necessary to establish her character and express her situation well enough, the actual plot progression is extremely slow – it feels like 5-6 hours of good story was diluted over 10+ hours of reading, with really interesting moments few and far between. Ebi’s very high-quality writing is maybe the sole factor that makes the slower portions of the game bearable – as always, it offers enjoyable prose and most often ads to the character development (for example, showing some reasons behind Constance’s cruel behavior), too often however without any real purpose or connection with the main intrigue. Also, when the game introduces some intriguing developments or gives some kind of spin to the secondary characters, more often than not it leads absolutely nowhere (the most egregious example of that I can’t mention to avoid spoilers).

           The lead couple salvages the situation to some extent, mostly thanks to Taohua and the mystery behind her origins and peculiar position within Bly. Her backstory, revealed very late in the game, was definitely my favourite portion of the whole VN and something I was waiting for since her introduction. Lorina, while having some admirable features, can’t be really called a compelling protagonist because of her constant powerlessness and sometimes maybe even unreasonable unwillingness to stand up against her abusers. Her forced passivity translates to some extent into romance scenario, in which Taohua, being both older and having much higher social standing, is definitely the dominating figure. That also, before the pretty sweet ending, added to the feeling of discomfort and frustration that rarely fully left me while reading Blackberry Honey.

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While the protagonist’s hentai-like design feels out of place, the game’s peculiar artstyle is generally enjoyable

The game’s visuals are fairly unusual in style, especially when talking about sprites and CGs – it is however very consistent in quality and all elements of it, from backgrounds to UI design, compliment the general atmosphere of the story pretty well. The hentai-like design of the protagonist, with absurdly large breasts, is slightly unsettling at first, but definitely, something you can get used to, while the relative lack of variety of poses and expression of the characters is noticeable, but not severe enough to ruin the overall effect. The erotic segments, which the game advertises itself with, were also among the more enjoyable straight-up yuri h-scenes I’ve seen, never taking unreasonable amounts of time or becoming overly explicit. Some porn tropes were, of course, present – I didn’t know that XIX-century maids, especially young virgins, shaved their pubic hair – but as I’m not the intended audience for such content, I’ve at least had fewer problems with it than usual. The scenes also seem pretty safe to skip, without breaking the flow of the game, which I always consider a plus – the 18+ patch really is optional. Music as usual didn’t manage to catch my attention most of the time, but when it did, it felt both pretty lovely and appropriate for the setting.

            I can’t hide the fact that in the hindsight, Blackberry Honey was definitely a disappointment for me, even though it never actually crossed the line to being a bad game. The after-credits note by Ebi gives some hints of the sources of my main complains – the game was first though out as short nukige, more or less devoid of any real plot and over time grew into a fully-fledged VN idea. It was also re-written a few times, with elements being added out of order and the story changing in major ways – it’s not surprising, in these circumstances, that the end product lacked focus and had serious issues with pacing. Still, while my review might feel overly negative in tone, I don’t think Blackberry Honey is not worth your time – it’s simply a very slow game, that is best approached with an abundance of free time and willingness to wait for the more intriguing parts to show up. And especially if you enjoy yuri sexual content, it will ultimately prove rewarding.

 

Final score: 3/5
 

Pros:

+ Well-implemented, western setting

+ Interesting artstyle

+ High-quality prose

Cons:

- Extremely slow pacing

- Stories of side characters go nowhere
 

VNDP page

Buy Blackberry Honey on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

Some time ago I've offered you a short list of stand-out Yuri Game Jam VNs - titles that went beyond what you normally can expect from the free game jam entries, presenting compelling stories and surprising aesthetic values. While that list included some of the most-appreciated western yurige, such as well-known Ebi-Hime titles, among hundreds of YGJ and NaNoRenO entries produced over the years you can find many more worthwhile VNs with f/f romance themes that never received similar recognition. Today, I'm presenting you a list of another 5 free OELVNs with yuri elements, along with some honourable mentions for games that I'm less comfortable recommending to everyone reading this post, but are still worth appreciating for some of their achievements. Every title will be listed with an appropriate link to download them on Itch.io - I hope you'll find them to your liking!

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Butterfly Soup

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

Her Tears Were My Light

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Nami's allegoric love story about Space and Time is a simple, short game, that nonetheless managed to gather an impressive amount of praise from the readers, apparent, among other things, through its impressively high VNDB rating (7.54 average, 6.91 Bayesian). With beautiful visuals and high-quality writing, it's a really touching and surprisingly unpretentious read, appropriate not just for yuri fans, but rather everyone not afraid to shed a few tears.

Disaster Log C

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Sofdelux's Disaster Log C is not in any way a traditional love story, but apart from some slight LGBT+ themes and wacky visuals it offers a highly amusing, unusual story about two drastically different and initially antagonistic individuals trying to survive through a cataclysm that threatens to destroy their world. Interesting characters and Nami's strong writing makes it a thoroughly enjoyable read, if you can get past the game's obvious eccentricities.

Taarradhin

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Taarradhin is a fairly well-known NaNoRenO VN that only partially relies on yuri themes, but manages to stand out thanks to an appealing aesthetic, India-inspired stylization and a simple, but well-executed plot. It follows the story of Netqia, a young and naive daughter of a powerful noble in a country struck by catastrophic drought, who's unexpectedly presented with a gift of two beautiful slaves. While, just like other games on this list, Taarradhin is fairly short, it manages to create a setting unusual for VNs on a few different levels, a pretty well fleshed-out cast of characters and an interesting intrigue, that lets you connect to the main cast through multiple playthroughs and rewards you with a compelling "true" conclusion at the end of the road.

Romance Detective 1 & 2

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Quintessential work by Nami, the Romance Detective duology showcases both her characteristic artstyle and the casual, mostly-comedic storytelling typical for her VNs. While the second game was never truly finished, missing some art assets, the whole series is complete story-wise and offers a lot of fun for those looking for a light, cheerful read - although the sequel has its share of more sober, touching moments and should be compelling also for those looking for some actual romance and drama.

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The honorable mentions go to the second Sofdelux title, Mermaid Splash, for a great aesthetic and atmosphere, despite rather predictable writing, Nami's Tunnel Vision for another minimalistic, heartwarming story that charms the player with its visual style, Toki Production's Princesses's Maid for a great protagonist and amusing romance, and finally npckc's Magical Witch Bell and Her Non-Magical Friends for great writing and the simple, but effective stylization. If you enjoy cute, cheerful stories, all these games are also worth your attention. And regardless of whether you decide to check them out, I hope you found this week's recommendations interesting.

As always, all feedback will be deeply appreciated. Have a great week everyone! :)

Plk_Lesiak

Two weeks ago I've brought you an interview with Reine Works' Jackie M., where we talked about realities of OELVN publishing and the specificity of women-oriented western VNs. Today, I have an immense pleasure of bringing the spotlight onto one of my favourite western VN creators. Nami is an indie game developer and author of highly appreciated yuri titles, such as Her Tears Were My Light and Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet. If you observe VN contests such as Yuri Game Jam or NaNoRenO, or you read my post about the best YGJ VNs, you should probably be at least somewhat familiar with her work – and if you’re not, I hope reading this short interview will convince you to change that ASAP. 😉 Enjoy!

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Plk_Lesiak: Hello and thank you for agreeing to this interview! Many people interested in the OELVN scene might know your Itch.io handle NomnomNami or at least recognize the style you use in your projects, but probably not much more. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Nami: When I’m not making my own games I’m usually screaming about Disgaea, but most of my time lately goes into working for Lab Zero on their big crowdfunded RPG, Indivisible. Right now my life is work, work, work, so I’m afraid I don't have much interesting stuff to say about it.

PL: Usually, developers that try their strength in the visual novel format have a strong connection to otaku culture and borrow various ideas and elements of style from Japanese media. How is it in your case?

N: I've been a huge fan of Japanese anime/manga/games since I was like 10, and I’ve loved a lot of games that use a visual novel style format so it seemed really natural to me. I think my subconscious goal is to write things that feel like a Disgaea cutscene - I just really love Disgaea!

PL: Disgaea is, above all, a strategy game series. Are there any visual novels that you think influenced your work? Do you read any Japanese or Western VNs nowadays?

N: While these aren't pure VNs, I really enjoyed the original Ace Attorney trilogy, Hotel Dusk, and 999. Nowadays I don't play games that often, but I browse Itch.io a lot and try to check out what other people make for NaNoRenO and Yuri Jam!

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Her Tears Were My Light

PL: As you state yourself on your Patreon page, you make games about "girls who like other girls". What inspired you to focus on this theme?

N: There's definitely a lack of quality w/w media out there – and I happen to really enjoy drawing/writing cute girls who love each other a whole lot! So, mostly I’m just making stories that are fun for me to make, but there have been a lot of people really excited to play games like mine, so I feel like I want to provide for them too. I guess in the end it's just what I’m most passionate about.

PL: Who do you think forms the main audience for your games? Japanese yuri titles are, in the end, mostly targeted towards men and there's a fair share of OELVN titles copying that format. Is there a specific kind of player you have in mind when making your games?

N: I don't really have the data to back this up but it feels like a lot of young queer people are playing them – which is great, because if they're looking for characters with similar experiences to theirs then they'll probably find one [laughter]. A bunch of the let's plays I’ve noticed are done by men, but I’m not sure if that's an accurate scope of the playerbase – maybe it only means there's generally more male-identifying LP-ers out there looking for indie games to dive into. My target audience is really just anyone who likes cute stuff.

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Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet

PL: Your games offer a lot of diversity when it comes to relationships portrayed in them and bend the gender stereotypes in various ways. What's your reasoning for including those elements and did you ever got negative feedback because of them?

N: I don't really get negative comments luckily, but I do get people who don't understand certain characters and either call them weird or ignore what the game says about them to keep their own "safe", or, I guess, "understandable" version of the character. I try to make things clear in the script without drawing so much attention to it that people feel like: "ok we get it already!". My designs tend to be feminine-leaning androgynous, so some of my boys (notably Pastille) get mistaken for girls, and non-binary characters are assumed to be female as well. It's really clear in my mind as to who identifies as what, so I actually used to get really surprised when people couldn't tell at a glance. Anyway, it's more interesting to have a wide variety of gender representation! That's why I'm trying to write characters that are less common to see.

PL: One thing that definitely makes your work stand out is your unique artstyle – did you have much experience as an artist before creating your first games?

N: I’ve always been an artist before anything else – I did fan art and comics when I was a kid, then as a teenager I got a tablet so I went into digital art and flash animations, and now I work in games. I’m glad to hear my style stands out though, it's been developing for a long time now (I'm currently 25).

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Romance Detective

PL: Most of your games seem to be solo projects, appropriately small in scale. Are there any bigger ones that you're involved in or plan to start in the future?

N: Last year I actually formed a studio with my friend DarkChibiShadow called Sofdelux – we've only released 2 games so far but I’d say Mermaid Splash was pretty big! I tend to prefer smaller projects just because they can get done more quickly and then I get to move on to the next thing, but being able to work with DCS lets me finish a big idea before I run out of energy. As I mentioned before, I’m also working on Indivisible – although only as one of the artists, not really as a creative force at all.

PL: I've already read that you're working on another part of the Treat RPG-maker game saga, do you have any other plans for 2018 that you could share at this point?

N: 2018 plans, huh... There's definitely another Sofdelux release coming. I have a lot of half-finished projects sitting around I'd like to get to, it's just a matter of time and energy. Though I'm sure some game jam will come up and I'll have a small enough idea for it and the inspiration to just go ahead and drop everything to make it. That's how I seem to work best! I'm bad at making a schedule but I hope I can release at least two more games this year!

PL: All your games are for available for free – for people that aren't already familiar with your work, where can they find your projects and if they like what they find, what are the ways in which they can support you?

N: I have a Patreon, Twitter, and a Tumblr where I post art! Patreon and pay-what-you-want through Itch.io are probably the best ways to support me, but spreading the word about my games is really nice too. I think most people find me through watching let's plays, so I really appreciate anyone who shares my stuff. Even if it's just to a couple friends <3.

PL: Thank you for your time!

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I hope you all enjoyed the interview! As always, if you have any thoughts about the kind of questions or even guests you would like to see in this segment in the future, please leave them in the comments below. All feedback and possible criticism will be appreciated. :)

Also, don’t forget to follow the links in the article and check out Nami’s work – it’s all free-to-play, unless you choose to pay for it by your own volition. 😉

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