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About this blog

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External Blog

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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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

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

Yozora Rhapsody

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Featuring, among many other things, gross overuse of Japanese honorifics so beloved by the Western readers and some utterly confusing grammatical errors, Yume Creations’ second title definitely tried to improve on the already established formula, but sadly didn’t succeed. This casual story of a family trip to an exotic island, which evolves into a rather lighthearted supernatural drama later on, probably does a better job than Aozora Meikyuu when it goes following a coherent plot and including some wholesome erotic material (husband and wife sex scenes that are nice to look at, but pretty horrendous when it goes to actual writing). It is, however, still way too lacking in polish and competent storytelling to really become a compelling experience. Also, it even manages to be seriously overpriced for the 2+ hours of content it offers. The pinked-haired wife character, just like the Aozora Meikyuu’s heroine, might be the main redeeming quality here, but that will make the whole VN worthwhile only for the most dedicated waifu hunters. All others should feel justified to skip on this one or grab it only with some kind of deep discount.

Final rating: Rabbit Poo rabbit_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwb4.png

Games&Girls

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Have you ever dreamed about getting really intimate with your favourite gaming console, or the PC you’ve worked on for years and shared so many special moments with? If yes, Games&Girls have all your gross, objectophile fantasies covered, with a plot involving a shut-in protagonist, who spends his all money on a limited-edition PS4, only for the overpriced piece of hardware transform into a sexy woman overnight. What comes next is the tale of living with a battery-charged, sentient sex-doll that puts most Sakura games to shame when it goes to trashiness and dry writing. Chapter 2 of this episodic release adds a Nintendo DS to the mix – one that our hero buys fill the void left by his previous system not being able to run games anymore, and which, very predictably, turns into a loli (and a particularly obnoxious one at that).

            The anguish of the protagonist, being forced to sexually satisfy his now-living electronic devices instead of playing games on them is only comparable to the pain of reading the cringe-worthy dialogue and edgy internal monologues of the lead character. Avoid at all cost.

Final rating: Smelly Poo smelly1_by_szafalesiaka-dcbhwas.png

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Yume Creations is one of those fringe emanations of the VN market that are not only limited the EVN scene – it’s enough to look at the horror known as Creature Romances, brought lately to the West by Sekai Project, too see that disturbingly bad visual novels can be made anywhere and some indie companies will produce such small nightmares no matter what. When it goes to YC themselves, there seem to be more VNs coming from them, including an incest-themed one with a younger sister as the main heroine. This will, most likely, not end well…

Plk_Lesiak

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Although a significant portion of VNs produced in the West is published for free on platforms such as Steam or Itch.io, most of them are very short and simple projects, often made by starting-out developers or as quickly put-together entries for contents such as Yuri Game Jam. Still, from time to time, it’s possible to find a VNs on a completely different scale also available as free-to-play releases – AIRIS, created by Ebullience Games for NaNoRenO OELVN event and published on April 2017, is definitely among the most expansive games of this kind, with proper route structure and impressive story variation, that will require you many hours to fully experience.

            While at first glance this otome might look like a generic fantasy romance, it offers a few fairly unique ideas (which I will not spoil in the review) – and those go far beyond its loudly advertised inclusivity, expressed through various LGBT+ themes. While not straying far from the typical formula of the genre, AIRIS indeed offers both a fully-fledged yuri romance route and another one focused on a non-binary character. More importantly though, it takes the somewhat overused trope of MMORPG and gives it an amusing spin – one which created some really interesting storytelling opportunities, even if their execution often left something to be desired.

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

Note: While I didn't plan on tackling Japanese-produced OELVNs on this blog, this title is a perfect representation of mobile game market's business practices implemented in a VN and for this reason was worth a closer look. More than by itself, it's interesting as a negative example of scammy policies that aren't in any way endemic to JP developers and are sadly used by many different companies with various backgrounds.
I don’t think many people have any doubts about how horrible the mobile game market is nowadays, both when it goes to quality and dominating business models. Generic, borderline plagiaristic games, ridden with pay-to-win mechanics and exploitative microtransaction systems are a sad standard in most genres popular on smartphones and tablets, swarming the AppStore and Google Play in a way that makes it nearly impossible to find actual quality products just by browsing these storefronts.
            Considering the absurdly-high revenue that many mobile games bring their developers, often through relatively small investments, it shouldn’t be surprising that the plague of exploitative business models dominating the Android and iOS market would find its way into the world of visual novels. Still, how can you make an ultimately single-player, story-driven formula “pay-to-win”? Moe! Ninja Girls, a mobile OELVN produced for the western markets by a Japanese company NTT Solmare inc. shows that it’s absolutely possible to turn a text adventure with anime drawings into one of the most predatory, scammy games available on mobile.
Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com
Plk_Lesiak

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

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!
Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com
Plk_Lesiak

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

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

Analogue: A Hate Story is not a title that necessarily has to be „discovered” or that wasn’t properly appreciated in the time when it came out – among all the VNs developed in the West, it might as well be the one most highly regarded and popular within “proper” visual novel fandom, at least before the recent appearance of Doki Doki Literature Club. Still, it’s a very important game for me personally and for the idea behind this blog, for two reasons. First, Analogue was the first visual novel I’ve ever played and a piece of media that affected me emotionally and intellectually like few other before it or since. It was not only stuck in my head for a long time, as a vivid and emotionally striking memory, but maybe even left a lasting mark on my way of thinking and my moral stances. Second, it’s a perfect example of the power of VNs as a formula that even a single person, or a tiny team can use to create something remarkable and touching, given enough effort and talent. Before I go into details of the game, I have to mention a very good review by Meru that was already featured on Fuwa frontpage – I agree with most points there and encourage you to check it out, but beware, it’s somewhat spoiler-ish. As the game relies heavily on its plot twists, I myself will try to reveal as little of the story as possible.
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:

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

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.

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.

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).

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

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?

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.

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.

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

In my previous review I was writing about a NaNoRenO OELVN-contest entry that definitely bit slightly more than it could chew – a large scale project that, due to its short development cycle, came out rushed and deeply flawed, not reaching the full potential its premise and characters offered if handled properly. Today, however, I’m dealing with a game that is very much a counter-argument to my thesis on what can and cannot be done within NaNoRenO’s tight timeframe – a visual novel made for that same event, mostly by a single person, but which turned out to be a fulfilling and shockingly intricate experience, often considered as one of the best western-made visual novels to date.
            CUPID, created by Fervent Studio and released for free in March 2016 is a surprising success story that at the first glance had no right to happen. This gothic romance/horror story, while it has a female protagonist, is pretty far detached from any established subgenre on the VN market. However, its mature, dark themes and extremely competent execution makes it potencially attractive for many types of readers, as long as they’re not easily discouraged by highly unsettling and potentially depressing content. It also introduces a few spins on the typical visual novel formula and unusual storytelling techniques that make it stand out from most Western and Japanese titles, creating a unique, memorable experience on a market dominated by rather generic, trope-driven products.

CUPID’s artstyle quickly sets it apart from most of generic, anime-style OELVNs, but its originality doesn’t end there
CUPID doesn’t wait long with establishing its tone and main themes – the short prologue welcomes the player with a rather agonizing introduction to the protagonist – an abused, mentally broken girl, who is driven by guilt into a horrible act of self-harm, gouging out one of her eyes (thankfully, that scene is only suggested, not actually shown). From this very moment it’s clear that the themes of mental illness and sexual abuse will be a crucial part of the game – I actually find that decision on the part of the developer very appropriate, as everyone uncomfortable with such topics or not prepared for seeing more of the tragedies the game centers around will simply drop it before risking being further unsettled.
            The prologue also presents one of the most original aspects of the game – the choice system, in which you don’t directly control the protagonists actions or thought, but instead act as a voice in her head, which she attributes to her long-dead mother – a symptom of mental instability, that depending on the path you take, will try to sooth protagonist’s pain and uncertainty, or push her even further towards madness and violence. I’ve found this system very compelling from storytelling perspective, but also felt that it adds a lot of weight to player agency and makes the cruel, abusive choices even more painful than they would normally be – if you push the protagonist towards another tragedy, the game even calls you out in a way, pointing out your cruelty and the fact you’re toying with her for your own fun or out of curiosity.

The game’s “indirect” choice system is one of its most interesting ideas and paradoxically add a lot of weight to the decisions you make
When it goes to characters and story, the game nearly fully concentrates on a very small cast, in a setting of XVIII-century France. This creates a very focused, well-paced and fulfilling experience, despite CUPID's fairly short playtime (completing the game in 100% won’t take you more than 10 hours). The characters include the protagonists, Rosa, Catherine, a child-prodigy pianist and Rosa’s best friend, who saved her from life on the streets and marquis Guilleme, Catherine’s patron. The story spans over nearly two decades but is told without strict chronological order, jumping between the tragedy that is the main axis of the plot and its immediate repercussions on the one hand, and various earlier situations on the other (those give context to the main plot-points and slowly reveal the meaning behind the overarching mystery).
            Just like the game’s title suggests, much of it all centers around the themes of love and sex, but this mostly concerns the relation between the Marquis and Catherine and above all, serves as the fuel for both drama and horror elements – it’s not a romance VN in classic understanding of the term. This is also reflected in the endings, only one of which can be to some extent described as romantic (and which is very much a non-canon, bonus route). As you can expect from the first moments of playing CUPID, there’s no real “happy” conclusion to its story and the endings vary between bitter-sweet and utterly horrific – it’s really not a VN for those overly sensitive and I myself struggled a bit after reaching the worst end.

CUPID’s sexual content can be somewhat graphic, but more often than not it serves the horror, rather than romance and at no point it can be considered porn
All this is complemented by very good visual and sound design. The graphical style is far-detached from the typical anime-inspired formula and rather unique, but maybe impresses most with its consistent quality and variety – a large number of CGs and interesting visual tricks in horror scenes are not something you would normally expect from this kind of free game. The sound effects and music are rather minimalistic, but do a great job of enhancing the climate and also fit well into the historical, European setting.
            In the end, CUPID proved to be a really excellent experience, one in which I have a hard time finding actual faults. Its literary values, storytelling and production qualities are all top-notch, especially by the standards of the OELVN market. The fact it’s a free game, made in a fairly short time span is absolutely mind-blowing. If you haven’t played it yet, I highly recommend it – as a fairly short horror VN it has few worthy competitors and for low the price of nothing, it’s simply a sin not to check it out.
 
Final score: 4,5/5
 
Pros:
+ Original and well implemented aesthetic
+ Very effective, unsettling atmosphere
+ Unique and well-executed choice system
Cons:
- Very dark, disturbing story – not for everyone
 
VNDB page
Download CUPID for free on Steam or Itch.io
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

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! 
Sakura Cupid

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
Sakura Sadist

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
------------------------------
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!
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

Warning: Heavy spoilers ahead! If you want to play this VN yourself, stop reading now. I don’t really recommend playing it though…
As much as I’m a fan of independent VNs and appreciate the possibilities that crowdfunding opened for the western visual novel market, it’s not completely rare for these projects to end with spectacular disappointment, for various reasons. Carpe Diem: Reboot is an especially interesting example of a visual novel that ultimately failed to live up to the expectations, but not because of lack of effort or poor production values, but through the sheer “virtue” of horrible writing. As I’ll be treating this as a case study of how to screw up a good concept and waste a lot of work, unlike my normal reviews, I’ll be revealing many major plot-points, including some details of the games’ endings. As Reboot mostly relies on its plot twists and mystery elements to keep the player interested, if you want to play it yourself, ignore this review or read it after you’ve completed the game.
             While the title we’re talking about was released on Steam in September 2017, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, its history starts a bit earlier, with a free VN from late 2015 simply titled Carpe Diem. This very short, but nicely written visual novel served both as a prologue of sorts and an advertisement for the crowdfunding effort which later spawned Reboot. In it, a simple story about two friends (lovers?), Jung and Ai, deciding how to use a rare opportunity to spend a full afternoon together, ended with a twist – the girl was actually a computer program, an object of delusional love of a shut-in trying to escape from his real life. The Steam achievement for reaching the end of the game, “What are you doing with your life?”, served as a somewhat ironic punchline, making clear the main themes the author tried to tackle. Good dialogues and decent execution of Carpe Diem, while in no way breath-taking, definitely showed promise and made many people (including me, although I've discovered it after the Kickstarter campaign was already over) somewhat enthusiastic about its continuation. So, what went wrong?
Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com
Plk_Lesiak

Mobile phones and tablets, especially Android devices, are strangely underutilized as a platform for VN publishing, with few high-profile titles being ported to them (especially when it goes to English versions) and underwhelming selection of dedicated mobile releases. Also, existing Android versions of famous visual novels, such as Narcissu, suffer from technical issues that you wouldn’t expect from what is ultimately a very simple application, based on text and still images. Occasional Ace Attorney spin-off or an original iOS title such as Fragment’s Note doesn’t change much in this general picture.
            This apparent disinterest of JP VN producers in the mobile market (not counting the literal dozens of mass-produced, free-to-play otome romances) makes the western-produced VNs dominate Google Play store, and while most of them might be tiny, amateurish-looking games, there are also a few notable titles that could deserve some attention even from an experienced reader. One of the most popular and interesting among those is Stellaren, a simplistic, but surprisingly enjoyable sci-fi VN, at first released in episodic form throughout 2015. This review will be based on a complete, paid version of the game, that became available in March 2017. 
Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com
Plk_Lesiak

Disclaimer: I’m supporting Razz, author of this game, on Patreon and consider myself a fan of much of her work – this might obviously influence the scoring and tone of my review, although I stand by the opinions presented here wholeheartedly.
Yuri/shoujo-ai, as much as some of us might enjoy the theme, is still a fairly small niche among Japanese VNs – one that undoubtedly spawned some great titles and has a loyal fanbase, but is nowhere near being a dominant formula in the genre. It’s enough to look at VNDB statistics on romance elements and protagonist’s gender to see how relatively few quality JP titles yuri fans have available to them (especially if they have to rely on the titles translated to English or/and are looking for more than just erotic content).
            On the other hand, among western VN producers and audiences, F/F romance seems to gather a much broader appeal, with many highly-regarded titles focusing exclusively on yuri themes and some of the most appreciated developers, such as ebi-hime, devoting much of their work to them. Starlight Vega, developed by Razzart Visuals and published on Steam in March 2016, is definitely not among those most popular or critically-acclaimed western yuri VNs. Still, I think it’s in many ways a notable game worthy of a closer look – most importantly because it shows that visual novels created outside of Japan, even when they stay faithful to the general format of the genre, can have their own identity and style.
Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com
Plk_Lesiak

As we all know from experience, the formula of visual novel offers various possibilities when it goes to storytelling techniques, making especially the high-budget, Japanese games in the genre much more than just interactive, illustrated books. Still, for most VNs text is unquestionably the core method of delivering the story. This is true especially for the western-developed ones, which rarely can afford high-quality voice acting or animated segments which could occasionally replace written dialogues and descriptions. Even CGs, in a project with a very limited budget and manpower, often end up being few and far between. All this makes the literary quality absolutely crucial for the success of such projects. But, great writing is not something you would expect to find in a free game on Steam, is it?
            While Doki Doki Literature Club proved that a free-to-play, western-made VNs can from time to time surpass everyone’s expectations, in many ways it wasn’t the first project of its kind. One Thousand Lies, developed by Keinart Lobre and released for free in March 2016, both on Steam and mobile platforms, is another example of an interesting and well-developed non-JP visual novel that doesn't charge even a cent for the possibility of reading it. In my opinion, it’s also one of the more intriguing and creatively written western VNs to date, that can offer a lot of depth and artistic qualities to any reader patient enough to uncover them. Still, it never gathered attention and recognition similar to that of DDLC.
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

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

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.

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.

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.

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
Hello Ladies & Gentlemen!
The western visual novel market, unlike the high-budget JP scene, thrives mostly through amateur passion projects and products of small, indie development teams. While this causes most of the Western VNs to be of relatively poor quality, it also promotes creativity and good stylization over huge word-counts and high production values, which are simply unattainable with highly limited budgets and manpower. This philosophy is further supported by various events oriented towards indie developers, such as NaNoRenO and Yuri Game jam – and while most games produced there might be extremely simple and rather forgettable, there are important exceptions to this rule. And, what’s probably worth mentioning, the rare, memorable games coming from these contests are still just as free as all the other ones.
Today, I’m presenting you a list of top 5 Yuri Game Jam VNs – although short and often minimalistic, these games will provide you with enjoyable and creative f/f romance stories, without asking for anything more than a few hours of your time (you can download each game for free through the links in the titles).
 
The Sad story of Emmeline Burns

The Victorian drama by Ebi-Hime is the best know and probably most-appreciated Yuri Game Jam entry - and not without good reasons. While short and, as a kinetic novel, following a purely linear formula, this tragic story offers excellent writing, emotionally impactful storytelling and a great aesthetic, all way above the level you would normally see in a contest like this. It also doesn't rely on shock value or leave the reader with a depressing conclusion - with all the titular sadness still in place, it's a hopeful, touching story of love cut short by fate and a great reading experience - one which might have yuri romance as its main theme, but offers much more than just that.
 
Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet

While extremely sweet when it goes to artstyle and even the main theme (candy), Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet by Nami is a wonderful short story about prejudice and friendship, that delivers much more than its cutesy exterior might suggest. With well-written dialogues, charming atmosphere and cast of quirky characters it’s a great casual experience – in many ways a polar opposite of The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns, but equally worth reading. Also, with romance being implied rather than in any way explicit, it can appeal to anyone looking for a funny, warm story, rather than just fans of the genre. 
 
Once on a windswept night

Once on a Windswept Night is most likely the most ambitious Yuri Game Jam VN, with an intricate meta-narrative and multiple mysteries for the player to uncover. With two touching romance stories, multiple hours of content and very solid writing, it delivers much more than you would normally expect from a free game. The visual side of things suffered slightly from the relatively short development cycle, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a very creative and in many ways unique experience and, for a game jam entry, an impressive artistic achievement, in many ways on par with Ebi-Hime's commercial projects.
 
First Kiss at Spooky Soiree

While not as interesting and brilliantly-written as Syrup…, this tiny VN has a lot of the same charming artstyle and heart-warming mood as the previous Yuri Game Jam game by Nami. Even if it’s too short to offer a comprehensive story of any kind, it works great as an amusing distraction between “serious” readings, with some great lines and creatively-designed characters. Closer to what you would typically expect from a game jam entry, it’s still a pleasant, worthwhile experience.
 
To Libertad

This story of a runaway slave and a warrior who saves her life and leads her to a safe haven of Libertad is a pretty standard, but well-written fantasy tale with mild f/f romance added on top of it. The author’s focus on the main characters’ journey and fight for survival, and the bond that forms between them during that struggle effected in something rather universal, that should prove appealing not only for fans of yuri VNs or love stories, but anyone looking for a solid, short adventure tale.
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Once again, I hope you’ve found this list interesting and if you want to see more recommendations for short VNs, that are too small to offer material for full reviews, but are still worth looking into, please let me know by liking this post or sharing your thoughts in the comment section below (as YouTube'y as this might sound, I'll be really thankful for feedback).
Have a great week everyone!
Plk_Lesiak

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free review copy of this game by the developer. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.
Be sure to check my interview with Jackie M., founder of Reine Works, the studio behind The Tail Makes the Fox
What better way to link my otome-themed weeks and the upcoming yuri event, than with a game that has an equal share of male and female romance options – especially if its one made by a studio most known for their Yuri Game Jam contributions? The Seven Districts of Sin: The Tail Makes the Fox - episode 1, developed by Reine Works and published in October 2017, came to my attention in an unusual way – a review copy of it was, to my genuine surprise, sent to my freshly-created Steam curator page. Adding to my confusion, while the game’s release date suggested it was out for a few months already, it had no VNDB ratings or Steam reviews whatsoever.
            While contacting the game’s developer clarified a few things (like the large gap between the initial Itch.io release and the game actually hitting Steam in early February 2018), a few weeks later its generally overlooked status seemed to change only a little. So, is this comedy otome not worth people’s attention? Or rather a testimony to growing problems of the western VN market? Even though the first episode of The Tail Makes the Fox is far from being perfect, I will strongly argue for that second interpretation.

The humour is the game’s main selling point and works for the most part, but it also prevents the characters from growing beyond fairly simple caricatures
The game follows the story of Lilim, a female fox spirit working as an auditor for the central government of Hell. While merely being a low-level bureaucrat, she had major delusions of grandeur, considering herself a powerful demon (a gumiho) and desperately looking for approval from the whimsical, abusive Lucifer (who, of course, only considers her a disposable pawn). At the beginning of the game, she’s sent to one of the Hell’s seven districts to uncover any secrets or conspiracies the local governor might withhold from the Devil – there she meets the somewhat-hostile administrator and her small staff (all of them being romance options – two male and two female ones) and can follow four different character routes.
            You might have noticed the caricatural characterization of the protagonist – this applies to each and every member of the cast, some being hyperbolized versions of common archetypes (Gaki and Saleos) and others slightly more atypical, but equally over-the-top. While their traits are pretty effective when it goes to fuelling the comedy, with how short the first episode of the story is, all of them end up feeling rather shallow and underdeveloped. And this problem is even more noticeable thanks to the strange pacing of the game – it has a proper introduction, in which we learn the basic information about the characters and the setting, but very quickly moves to wrapping up the intrigue and giving us a temporary conclusion, without proper build-up and deepening the plot. In most routes even the plot’s main premise, with Lilim being a spy trying to uncover governor’s dirt, don’t go anywhere, eliminating the only source of suspense and mystery. With the cliff-hangers at the end of every path (after all, it’s just the first episode) and only minor progress in the romance arcs, at this point, it’s hard to call the story satisfying, even if it creates some promise for the future.

The game’s visual quality, for an OELVN made by a small team, actually leaves little to be desired, especially in the character design department
Possibly the main thing saving the characters, and maybe the whole story from being slightly boring and stale is the surprisingly high-quality voice acting. Everyone, other than the protagonist, is fully voiced and while there are some inconsistencies and poorly-acted lines, for the most time it works excellently, adding a lot of personality to the cast – especially in the case of Saleos, who could feel rather bland if not the stellar work by his voice actor. I’m usually sceptical about the added value of voiceover in OELVNs, considering their small budget and weaker availability of talented VAs than in Japan, but here it definitely works, compensating for some of the flaws in game's writing and structure of the story. It also makes the comedy, on which the game relies much of the time, more effective than it would be with plain text.
            The rest of production values is also on a pretty high level, with character designs and chibi-CGs standing out positively and the rest of the assets being on a consistent level, without really giving much to criticize. The music consists of a set of very standard ambient tunes, but serves its purpose well without even getting tiresome. If I had to complain about anything, the most likely candidate would be the protagonist’s sprite, which for me felt poorly-designed when compared with the rest of the cast and lack of alternative poses or clothing for the characters. Their facial expressions were for the most time very good and scripting, apart from the rare situations in which it seemed to simply glitch-out, was quite good.

While the voice acting might be slightly inconsistent at times, it’s good enough to give a lot of personality to characters that otherwise could turn out rather bland
In the end, The Tail Makes the Fox remains very hard to rate. Its humour can be quite amusing, but also quite often misses the mark. Its story starts intriguing and has moments of genuinely good writing, especially in the more serious moments, but for the most part, don’t develop its most interesting ideas enough and offers underwhelming routes. On the other hand, it’s definitely a well-produced and ambitious project that might still expand and improve significantly with future episodes. For now, I give it a cautious recommendation – as it is now, offering 4-5 hours of decently-enjoyable content, it’s just barely worth the 10$ asking price. I just hope that the devs will be able to capitalize on this start and turn this title into something truly memorable. And I definitely hope it won't be buried under the tons of VN shovelware that swarms the Steam market and makes the serious OELVN projects harder and harder to promote – with all its faults, this game definitely deserves better.
 
Final score: 2,5/5
 
Pros:
+ Good character design and art quality
+ Decent humour
+ Good-quality voice acting
Cons:
- The story feels rushed
- Shallow, caricatural characters
- Could’ve done a lot more with its premise
 
VNDB page
Buy The Tail Makes the Fox on Steam
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