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