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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

Welcome to the second part of my Yuri Game Jam 2018 summary! Just like the last week's article (if you haven't read part 1, check it out now!), this post will offer you a short overview of visual novels that entered the event this year, this time with the focus being solely on fully-released titles. While in the previous post there were very few surprises (with mostly the two titles I actually expected to deliver quality experiences standing out from the crowd), this time there were a few unexpected latecomers to the event and games that genuinely surpassed my expectations – Scrambled: Syd City being probably the most notable one, and quite possibly the best VN in YGJ this year. It will also make a small trip outside of the VN sphere, but what that is exactly about, you'll see at the end of the article... Enjoy!

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A Game About Ants

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This story about two colonies of anthropomorphized ants and two simply workers that brought those together despite the distrust and differences between them is one of the most charming and compelling stories in this year’s YGJ. Thanks to its relatively longer script (it takes around 2 hours to fully read through), A Game About Ants manages to not only convey an amusing “love beyond prejudice” main plot, but also set it in a pretty elaborate "political" context of a clash between the aforementioned ant nests (heavily inspired by actual species of ants, with their specific appearances, habits and social hierarchies). The end result is a really intriguing and visually pleasant experience, also featuring probably the most sensual scene of antennae “kiss” you’ll ever see in a visual novel... And, quite likely, anywhere else. Do you really want to miss out on that?

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

One’s Lonesome, Two’s Company

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Team ANPIM, veterans of YGJ, managed to deliver one of the more traditional and touching love stories in this year’s event – a kinetic novel about a high school girl who finds herself in borderline life-threatening trouble and is saved by an unassuming kouhai from her school, only to fall in love with her despite their different backgrounds and personalities. It’s a simple, cheesy piece of yuri romance (around 2 hours long, with only a handful of CGs and photographic backgrounds), but drawn and written well enough to give all the cute and fuzzy feelings you’d hope to get from this kind of game. The lead couple is simply adorable and the conclusion was good enough to nearly get a few tears out of me, and while I’m a sucker for this kind of fluff, I believe it’s as good of a recommendation as I could even make – give it a try!

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Magic Mirror Hall

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Magic Mirror Hall is another tiny, but beautifully stylized and interesting VN, telling the story of Alex, a magic shop owner ending up at the center of their dear friend’s relationship problem – one that manifests themselves through supernatural events (or two be specific, dangerous and uncontrollable outbursts of wild magic), but is rooted in the lack of communication and understanding between the girls. Depending on protagonist’s choices and advice they give, they might help resolve the issue, or risk it turning into a genuine tragedy – and for Alex personally, struggling to keep their business afloat and find meaning in the job they inherited from their grandmother, there might be even more at stake.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Like Sisters

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Another Yuri Game Jam VN that feels much more like a teaser or an exercise in using game creation software than a standalone title of any sort, Like Sisters provides an interesting setup (a young writer coming to the US to visit an old friend of hers after hearing that she struggles with depression) and a promising pair of lead characters, and… Does literally nothing with them. While this could have been a start of a fun story and the writing is arguably quite decent, the 15-minute experience is just as empty as its CG gallery – but I’d definitely not mind seeing a “proper” release from this author in the future. 

Final Rating: Not recommended

Scrambled: Syd City

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Team Rumblebee, responsible for stylistically-unique and enjoyable YGJ VN Loan Wolf, this time decided to give its own spin to the theme of superheroes. Just like their first game, it features a struggling protagonist (C-List superhero with invisibility powers, who chose an unfortunate nickname “Scrambled”) and two romanceable heroines (an ex-hero turned small-time villain, and a veteran hero on a path of revenge against the former). Unusual character designs, solid writing and high attention to detail (with fun gimmicks heavily-stylized nametags for all the “super” personas), all make for a very satisfying experience. Also having probably most content from all this year’s entries (2-3 hours of reading), Scrambled could be easily justified as a commercial product, and as a free game, it's pretty much a must-read for anyone who enjoys yuri and EVNs with actual personality, that don’t just stop at copying Japanese aesthetic and storytelling tropes.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

 

Honourable Mentions

While visual novels were the main focus of my coverage, it wouldn’t feel right to ignore some of the titles in other categories, similarly focused on telling interesting stories and created by experienced authors, who should be familiar to many EVN fans out there. Because of this, I've decided to give the spotlight to a pair of RPG Maker games that weren't tagged as visual novels, but should still be interesting to anyone interested in yuri VNs, or quality GxG content in general.

Dreaming Treat

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Dreaming Treat by NomnomNami is the fifth in her series of RPG-maker games about a lonely wolf trying to find a place for herself in a world that holds little more than contempt for her kind. It once more does a very good job of combining the themes of discrimination, love beyond prejudice with Nami’s lovely artstyle and writing, making for a satisfying experience (and evolving into what most likely is the only truly heart-warming polyamorous story I’ve seen to date). Also, don’t get fooled by the JRPG formula – this game is focused purely on storytelling, with map movement and interactions serving no other purpose than presenting the plot and immersing you in its world. And it’s a kind of story that most VN fans should find enjoyable.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

lilac & her light

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Npckc is an author known for creating small, rather cute games in VN and RPG-maker formats, that tackle minority issues in relatable, subtle ways. Lilac, while very similar to those earlier project, might actually be the weakest of them all, simply missing on opportunities to tell a slightly deeper story – the premise, with a girl that literally lost her colour and is turning everything she touches grey is excellent and her first confrontation with a witch, who makes a surprise visit to her house and ends her isolation is very promising. After this, however, not very much happens and while the resolution is not unsatisfying, it never tells us anything about the source of the protagonist’s depression or the future that might await her. While I always liked the minimalistic style of npckc’s stories, here there’s simply too little of everything and while the experience of playing lilac & her light is still a positive one, it’s nowhere near as memorable as this author's earlier work. For the more dedicated YGJ fans.

Final Rating: Recommended

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And this concludes by YGJ coverage for this year! To be honest, at the beginning this edition of the event looked pretty bleak when it goes to VNs – most of the really interesting entries arrived late, often literally making major updates past deadline. The end effect, however, was a highly amusing set of free games, including some really memorable titles, that didn't stand out negatively in comparison to previous iterations of the Jam. While it might be a while before we see something as brilliant as The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns or Once on a Windswept Night again, some of the games on this list came pretty close – and from my perspective, that's already pretty damn awesome.

Plk_Lesiak

Yuri Game Jam, having few limitations on what can enter the event outside of including some form of yuri or LGBT themes, was always a good arena for various devs to show off demos or prototypes and gain visibility or feedback for their projects. At the same time, it consistently attracted many complete projects, often surprisingly solid when it goes to their quality and the amount of content they offered. This year this was no different, with over 20 full games entering the event, including 11 original VNs, ranging from extremely short and basic, to a few-hours-long and artistically impressive ones. In the last month, after the end-of-October YGJ deadline has been reached, I was going through all these titles and today I'm offering you a full overview of what a VN fan might find in this year's event's roster. Or, well, at least the first half of it...

          In my coverage, I will, for the most part, ignore all the in-development titles – the production cycles of indie games are always a bit unpredictable and I’m highly distrustful whether some of the demos we can find in YGJ will turn into actual, finished products in foreseeable future. Instead, I’ll be focusing on the fully-released visual novels in the event and providing a short overview of each of them, along with a simple rating on a scale of “not recommended/recommended/highly recommended”. I will also, obviously, skip on the games from other genres that took part in the Jam (although if you value story-driven yurige, I encourage you to still give them a chance). So, I hope you’ll join me on the journey through this interesting collection of queer, freeware VNs and uncover all the surprises this year’s edition of YGJ holds for us. As always, all the games mentioned below are completely free to play, so if you click the Itch.io links in their titles, you can try them out right away with no charge. Let's get to it!

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Valentine Disaster

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We’ll start things off with what could be described as another quintessential YGJ VN – a piece of cute, visually pleasant and utterly heartwarming GxG romance with some minor, cool spins to it. In this case, the story of tomboyish Selene trying to bake a perfect Valentines Day's gift for her girlfriend after they had a falling out, is spiced up by brief point-and-click gameplay elements, requiring you to buy and select the right ingredients for the dessert of your choosing. If you follow the subtle clues the game provide you with along the way, you can easily find the best combination or home-made delicacies and bought presents to quickly salvage the threatened holiday. But if you mess up, there will be consequences… A very brief (up to an hour for 100% completion), but fun and lovely-looking experience.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Visual novels with the possibility to choose the protagonist’s gender are fairly rare, and genre's focus on storytelling and romance makes such a gimmick especially hard to pull off properly. Creating games like Loren: The Amazon Princess, with an option to choose between two full-fledged leads, one male and one female, each with their own personality and a set of romance options, takes a lot of work and only fits certain kinds of stories. On the other hand, VNs in which gender choice only changes minor details in the dialogue and the overall storyline struggle to make the narrative convincing – especially in the female version, which more often than not comes as an afterthought, created by slightly modifying the default, male scenario.

            Razzart Visual, the author behind highly-regarded yuri VNs Love Ribbon and Starlight Vega, is also the person responsible for two much less critically-acclaimed ecchi games, both of which featured female love interests and the ability to choose protagonist’s gender, making them in a way both classical romance VNs and yuriges. On May 4th 2018, Razzart's 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 working both as a traditional eroge, and as a yuri game?

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

For the last few months, I’ve published reviews and top lists, presenting worthwhile or interesting OELVNs that usually have little presence on Fuwa and don’t get discussed as much as they deserve. From the very beginning, however, my goal was to focus not only on the games themselves, but also the people behind them – the independent creators and small studios that make the core of the Western VN market. Today, I present you with the first “Developer Spotlight” post, where I’ll be talking to Jackie M., the founder of Reine Works, authors of multiple yuri and otome VNs and the studio behind the recently-published otome title Seven Districts of Sin: The Tail The Makes the Fox, about the game’s somewhat-turbulent release and the realities of today’s OELVN market. Be sure to check out my review of the game first, where I also touch on its unusual appearance on Steam.

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Plk Lesiak: Hello and thank you for agreeing to this interview! Let’s start with your latest VN. It’s pretty rare for me to be the first person to rate a game on VNDB, especially four months after its release. What happened to The Tail Makes the Fox that it went so much below the radar of the VN community?

Jackie M.: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there are nearly as many users on VNDB who rate otome games, as compared to anything that could be construed as aimed at men. I took a quick look at some other developers' titles out of curiosity, and it seems that female-aimed titles in general tend to have very few votes. Funnily enough, I can confirm that we do get sales referrals from VNDB. We've had a few of them.

PL: For a few months, your VN was only available on Itch.io, a platform usually associated with free games. Regardless of other plans, what was your experience of trying to sell your title there?

JM: Itch.io isn't really a storefront where a developer can make a profit unless the game in question is very low budget, nor should they particularly expect to, what with the smaller userbase. From when pre-orders opened before release till today, itch.io sales have only amounted to roughly 1/4 of the game's development cost.

That said, we do like it, because it isn't subject to a lot of the restrictions that similar shops are, and transferring earned funds out is also much quicker than anywhere else that I'm aware of. We just wouldn't recommend that anyone only ever sell their games there.

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Blossoms Bloom Brightest

PL:  Steam, to which your game made it only recently, is a pretty inclusive platform nowadays. Why the 4-month gap between The Tail Makes the Fox showing up on Itch.io and its Steam release?

JM: I could do a huge write-up on this, but to keep things short, we didn't previously have a publishing deal for Steam beforehand. Such agreements do take some time to sort out.

In fact, we never actually heard back from the first publisher that we contacted, even though they said they'd review the game and get back to us, all the way back in October. We waited for them for a while and then reviewed our other options and decided to contact another publisher, rather than wait any longer for them.

PL: What’s your experience with Steam as a marketplace for VN? Even within the OELVN niche, it feels pretty saturated lately.

JM: If you're asking for my general opinion on releases by anyone/everyone, then yes, I agree. In February alone, I noticed that around 5? Other new otome games popped up within days of The Tail Makes the Fox releasing.

Since this is only our first full commercial title on Steam, I unfortunately can't comment on general sales trends. We've been told by other developers that all game sales have decreased dramatically from when there was Greenlight, though.

PL: Let’s talk about the game itself. One of the ways in which it stands out from most OELVNs is the voice acting. Few western studios decide to risk such an investment – what was your rationale behind including full voiceover and how much it affected the development process when compared to your “silent” titles?

JM: Honestly, we're a small studio, and we like to make games we personally enjoy. Voice acting is just one of those things for us. It's that extra something that brings stories to life. In the past, we'd experimented with partial voicing (to mixed reception), and we knew we definitely wanted to try full voicing at least once, too.

As for how it affected development – it made it longer overall in an annoying way [laughter]. I do a lot of the development footwork myself, so I was also the one who had to cut the hours-worth of voice reels into individual clips, master them, and then edit them if necessary. I didn't get much sleep in the weeks leading up to release. There was also the trouble of having to recast one role literal days before release.

I don't think I'd recommend it to the faint of heart. And if/when we do it again, it'll only be for short titles.

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The Seven Districts of Sin: The Tail Makes the Fox

PL: Still, one thing that was clear from your posts about the continuation of The Tail Makes the Fox is that it will be significantly larger in scale. Will it follow the same formula, when it goes to voice-acting and the variety of art assets?

JM: For the most part, yes. We actually had the artwork for Episode 1 finished well before release, so we don't expect that to be an issue this time, either. As I've mentioned elsewhere, however, we're considering releasing an unvoiced edition first to ensure that we can get everything done in time.

PL: Have you ever considered cancelling the further episodes, considering the rather slow momentum of the first game?

JM: No. If I may be so blunt, that would be a dick move on our part. It seems to happen a lot with OELVN developers, I've noticed, but we don't plan to end up in that group. Heck, we've had Episode 2 in development since November.

PL: About the general ideas behind your work. While otomege are a huge part of the OELVN market, they are also pretty distinct from their Japanese sources, ex. in how they present female characters. What are your thoughts on JP otome VNs and you would name any of them as inspiration for your own projects?

JM: Yes, definitely. I personally enjoy JP otome games a lot. As long as the translation isn't Engrish, I'll buy it, even if the premise isn't my cup of tea. They aren't exactly the kinds of games you go into expecting strong female leads or anything, but I do generally find their ways of storytelling very interesting.

We actually didn't have a specific inspiration for The Tail Makes the Fox. Gaki, one of the characters in the game, is the embodiment of Ashe’s (the game's writer) and my hatred for the "flirt" archetype of love interest in Japanese otome games, though. We shoved all that hatred into him and decided to... Majorly play up those traits, as anyone who's played the game or demo will have noticed.

Reflections ~Dreams and Reality~ and The Wilting Amaranth are both based on Western fairy tales, and Blossoms Bloom Brightest is loosely based on a more Star Trek-like idea I had for a larger title. Our upcoming larger otome title, Mizari Loves Company, is sort of meant to be a Western take on JP-style otome games, but it's not actually based on anything specific. It actually started as a parody idea, similar to The Tail Makes the Fox.

PL: On your Itch.io profile, you write that you create games “aimed at women of all orientations” – yuri games, and otome with a high number of yuri routes are pretty commonly enjoyed by men. Do you know what kind of audience your games usually reach?

JM: If you mean our general audience, then it's pretty even in terms of gender, based on the information available to us. The games with male love interests always have more sales from women than men, though.

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Reflections ~Dream and Reality~

PL: Do you think there’re any fundamental differences between Japanese yuri romances, targeted towards a male audience and the games you make for the Yuri Game Jam or yuri routes in your otome titles?

JM: For sure. The big one seems to be that Japanese yuri titles are very focused on the girls being young and overly pure and such (ex., SonoHana and even Kindred Spirits to an extent), as well as the popular titles almost strictly using moe-style artwork. This also applies to yuri-themed manga and anime, in my experience, so it seems to be a very cultural thing, perhaps similar to how JP otome game protagonists are often very submissive.

As a Western WLW myself, I can honestly say that those sorts of yuri titles don't appeal to me. I'd like to see actual adults with adult relationships interact, all depicted in a more mature bishoujo style. Even better if they're formatted similar to otome and bishoujo games, with proper character routes. Perfect if they're set anywhere that isn't a school.

So, yeah, we're just trying to make games that appeal to our own sensibilities as Westerners. I personally think that's a pretty huge difference in itself.

Relevant tangent: Funnily enough, though, I've been accused of both being a man and pandering to dudes because we generally don't write our female characters as chaste or innocent.

PL: Can you say which titles these comments were connected to? Your games seem very tame in comparison to ecchi OELVNs popular on the western market, or even some Yuri Game Jam entries.

JM: The comments I mentioned were all referencing Blossoms Bloom Brightest and yes, the game itself is very tame and contains no sexual content or nudity. And it's always men who make these assumptions. I'm not really sure what that says about men's views of real life WLW, but there you go.

PL: Thank you for your time!

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I hope you've enjoyed the review! Please feel encouraged to check out Reine Works' page on Itch.io and consider supporting the Kickstarter campaign for their major otome project, Mizari Loves Company. Also, all feedback on the interview itself or the kind of questions you would like to see in the future will be hugely 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!

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

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

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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 cute love stories, 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 much in the world of cute romance tales, 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.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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

The multi-route mystery VN is not a format easy to pull off properly and for that reason not many EVN developers even attempt to tackle it. It requires creating a number of paths and characters, all interesting on their own and complementary to each other, while also keeping the overall quality high enough to motivate the reader to go through all of it in order to piece together the overarching story. This is both a challenge from the writing perspective and requires a fairly substantial amount of content to communicate the mystery effectively usually, more than an average Western visual novel can provide with the humble resources at its creators' disposal. 

            Still, all this makes exploring the few examples of such games done right by Western devs that more interesting. SoulSet, developed by NoBreadStudio and released on Steam in late 2016 is a particularly “orthodox” implementation of the formula, with every route and ending (including bad ones) adding to your understanding of the story and culminating in an unlockable “true route”, which resolves the crucial mysteries and tie all the previous paths together. It’s also, as I will try to argue, a damn fine game that positively stands out in the EVN market, in a few ways.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Mystery/romance might not be a rare formula for VNs in general but seems especially popular among western developers - this probably shouldn't be surprising, as it's very compatible with shorter, linear stories that indie devs usually aim for. Just like One Thousand Lies, which I've reviewed last month, Sepia Tears is a free game available on Steam and mobile devices that offers a fairly deep, complicated intrigue, relying on its mystery elements to keep the player emotionally and intellectually involved. It's also one of the better known free VNs produced in the West, thanks to its release date - in early 2013, when it first came out, quality visual novels made outside of Japan were still few and far between, while the official market for localized JP titles was pretty much only starting to develop. The game found its way to a content-starved western VN community and was pretty highly appreciated. Does it stand the test of time though?

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The heroine, Myra and all the mysteries surrounding her are where the game truly shines - even her dialogue feels better-written than in the other subplots

While from the first moments Sepia Tears emanates a kind of "amateurish" vibe through its simplistic UI and visuals, it's not really a bad impression - from the technical point of view it's completely functional and while graphics might seem very simple, they have a consistent style to them and aren't completely unappealing. It also immediately catches your attention with a cryptic dream sequence, introducing the main heroine, Myra and signalizing the mystery that will be at the centre of the whole plot - protagonists repressed memories of the girl and the meaning behind her sudden reappearance. The interactions between her and the MC, the unexplained events connected to them and the clues we get at various points of the plot are definitely the most enjoyable parts of the experience - they keep you interested and eager to learn more, while also letting you solve some parts of the intrigue on your own. The heroine herself is also one of the best-done elements of the game - while it's clear she's purposefully misleading the protagonists and keeping something crucial from him, it's also apparent that she cares about him deeply in some ways and struggles with her own demons.

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The supporting cast isn't unlikeable or uninteresting, but often suffers from the poorly thought-out dialogue, which simply turns out confusing and unnatural

While all this might sound interesting and fun-to-read, you should better hope that the mystery elements of the game get you hooked on, as sadly, everything else in it doesn't always offer the same quality. Subplots with protagonists little sister and his high school friends suffer from problems typical for the mystery formula and even beyond that, they're often written in a bizarre, confusing style. While cryptic, strange dialogues with Myra are a crucial part of her characterizations and well-explained in final parts of the story, the overly vague, awkward conversations with MCs family and friends have no logical justification, other than being a vehicle for keeping the player in the dark about certain parts of the intrigue. What's worse, the "mysteries" not connected to main romance don't really add much to the story, just like the more casual slice-of-life moments, many of which are simply dull and only distract you from the actually interesting parts of the game. As the story is fully linear - the are some choices present, but for the most part, they only change minor pieces of dialogue - there's really not much to look forward to in most of the "casual" moments of the story. Thankfully, sometimes they can be amusing and they're never long enough to really kill the pacing of the whole VN - and if you do survive until the end of the story, it rewards you with a very powerful, emotional ending and an epilogue explaining some of the strange events from the perspective of Myra and giving you a clear overview of her motivations and way of thinking.

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The game’s visuals are very simple, but fairly consistent in style and their limitations never get in the way of the story

In the end, for me Sepia Tears was a very satisfying experience, just because of how I enjoyed the mystery and romance components of it. With all its limitations and flaws, it was able to deliver a pretty unconventional and impactful love story which stuck with me for a long time. Even some of the CGs and intermission screens I've found in the game were surprisingly appealing, making it at least stand out with its style, even if it couldn't match the quality of more professional projects of this kind. With all the criticism I gave it, I still can't help but wholeheartedly recommend SP to any romance VN fan out there - while it could've been even better with some tweaks to the writing, as a short, free game it's still very much worth your time and attention.

 

Final score: 3,5/5

 

Pros:
+ Interesting, well-crafted main mystery
+ Intriguing heroine
+ Satisfying, romantic concussion
Cons:
- Often awkward, overly cryptic dialogue
- Slow pacing, with many unnecessary filler scenes
- Very simple visual assets

 

VNDB page

Play Sepia Tears for free on Steam and Google Play

Plk_Lesiak

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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 can be considered "complete" 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 is 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 outside of pleasant visuals. A bit later, the company expanded into the world of actual eroge, adding hentai scenes to their brand of trashy, shallow VNs with paper-thin plots and stylisation. 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.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

Plk_Lesiak

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Zetsubou, a developer and writer involved in many popular EVN titles is someone whose work many fans of the genre might be very familiar with, but not necessarily even knowing about it. While have made a few relatively successful projects of his own, such as Sickness or Tomboys Need Love Too!, many of his commissioned works, such as Razzart’s Love Ribbon gained even more recognition. For this reason, among others, there was relatively little fanfare around the release of his latest project, Sable’s Grimoire, in May this year. However, there are many reasons to consider this project as a particularly notable one – the 350k-words-long, modern-fantasy tale about a young mage entering an academy filled with demi-humans is rather far-detached from the usual EVN formula, both by its scale and its dominant themes. 

             Of course, scale by itself does not have to be a positive, just as unusual story elements don't automatically make a VN interesting to read. Does Zetsubou's largest project to date have other merits beyond its impressive word-count and interesting premise, and does its overall quality justify the 25+ hours time investment that is required to fully read through it? In my opinion, answer to all these questions is: yes.

Read the full article at evnchronicles.blogspot.com

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 at least just as much a reality as they are in the “normal” game development scene. However, in these cases, the consequences are falling mostly on the average backer, who took the double role of the consumer and the investor, hoping for nothing more than a compelling piece of entertainment in return.

           For this reasons, I very much enjoy seeing crowdfunded projects overcoming extreme difficulties and delivering even when everyone pretty much 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, went through both a failed Kickstarter campaign and changes in staff, eventually 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.

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

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

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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

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

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

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