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About this blog

Twitter (for news and announcements)

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This blog is devoted to popularization (and discussion about) western-produced VNs. My main goal is to present notable non-Japanese visual novels that didn’t receive attention in the Fuwa community and, whenever possible, giving voice to people behind them. Doing this, I hope I’ll be able to give these projects and their creators the appreciation they deserve and oppose some negative stereotypes about non-JP VNs that circulate within our community.

I’m also going to talk about failed VN projects and review newly-released titles of various quality, using this opportunity to discuss the most common flaws and problems characteristic for the western VN development scene and realities of the OELVN market. 

Entries in this blog

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final score: 4/5

 

Pros:

+ Unique, well-developed setting

+ Emotionally engaging, touching story

+ Interesting art and overall good production values

Cons:

- Romance sometimes feels forced and underdeveloped

- Shallow, RNG-dependent dating sim mechanics

- Can be extremely sad and painful to read

 

Buy A Little Lily Princess on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Final score: 3/5
 

Pros:

+ Well-implemented, western setting

+ Interesting artstyle

+ High-quality prose

Cons:

- Extremely slow pacing

- Stories of side characters go nowhere
 

Buy Blackberry Honey on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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

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Butterfly Soup

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

Her Tears Were My Light

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

Disaster Log C

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

Taarradhin

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

Romance Detective 1 & 2

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

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

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

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Her Tears Were My Light

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

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

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

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

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Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet

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

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

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

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

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Romance Detective

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

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

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

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

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

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

PL: Thank you for your time!

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

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

Plk_Lesiak

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Incest is not a rare theme in visual novels – many titles, even very serious ones, have romance routes involving protagonist’s sibling in various different configurations, while nukige are full of taboo sex in every conceivable form, including that between family members. Still, it's a topic that is very rarely done in a deep, compelling way, usually leading to a cliché conclusion like “we’re not blood-related after all, we can be together” or simply ignoring the deep social stigma connected to it and delivering an unconvincing happy ending. Even pieces of Japanese media that tried to get away from these tropes, like Oreimo, authors of which wanted to lead brother/sister romance to its logical conclusion, were cut short by the producers wary of negative reactions such story development could gather.

            Love Ribbon, a yuri visual novel developed by Razzart Visual and published on Steam in January 2017 is a rare exception to the trend I’ve described above – it not only offers a rather unusual sister/sister romance scenario, but also gives its full focus to the theme of incestuous love affair and explores it in interesting and rather realistic ways. It’s also an example of an OELVN that offers very explicit erotic content, but implements it as an optional feature that fits rather well with the story content, but isn’t in any way essential for experiencing it and doesn't affect the "SFW" version of the game in negative ways.

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The girls are both close to pure archetypes, but their backstories and interactions make the whole scenario rather believable and compelling

When looking at a game advertising itself through incest romance and offering h-content, it’s not that hard to expect it will be just a vessel for taboo porn – Love Ribbon's pacing and story set-up quickly dispels this notion though. The lead characters, Iris and Zoey, are high-schoolers who were raised not knowing of each other’s existence, in very different backgrounds and financial situations. By initiative of their father, they are meant to start attending the same school and living together in a rented house. From the very beginning, their personalities clash in a borderline-violent way – timid and well-mannered Iris being unable to cope with Zoey’s hostile and undisciplined behaviour, but still doing her best to get closer to her, initially leading to even more antagonistic reactions. Soon after, however, a sexual tension starts building up between them, leading to a surprisingly compelling story, involving not only the theme of forbidden love but also discovering one's sexuality (on Iris’ part) and exploring the shame and social stigma connected to incestuous relationships. The game never forgets the costs associated with protagonist’s choices and challenges it could create, while also being able to deliver a satisfying, warm ending (mostly thanks to the extended epilogue, added sometime after the game’s release). It’s most likely the best use of the theme I’ve seen in VNs so far, without cheap plot devices nullifying the problem or naive optimism.

            Of course, it doesn't mean that the story is in any way perfect – the main characters, while good enough to carry the plot, are somewhat standard archetypes and rarely ever surprise you with their actions – they’re believable, thanks to their backstories and good visual design, but don’t offer much depth. The scale of the game also limited the ways in which they could be developed – thankfully, the fact they’re the sole focus on the story helps a bit, as we don’t waste time on any unnecessary subplots, but just observe their developing relationship and the ever-intensifying drama connected to their circumstances. While the whole VN takes around 6-7 hours to finish, it’s well paced and keeps you emotionally engaged all the time – it only lacks the complexity of bigger titles, for example offering only very minor, ultimately insignificant choices, apart from the final one which determines the ending.

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Just like in Starlight Vega, Razz’s art is one of the strongest parts of the game, giving it a pretty unique style

Love Ribbon’s story is complemented by high-quality visual assets – especially Razz’s sprites and CGs are both pretty and quite distinct from generic anime style we often see in low-budget VNs. While not very heavy on details, they’re definitely pleasing to the eye – one might criticize the lack of sprites for supporting characters, but they’re also so rarely present in the story it’s not really that noticeable. Music, while very much standard and not in any way memorable, was definitely inoffensive and flowed well with the story content. 

            What some could probably find offensive though, on a few fronts, is the h-content. The standard Steam version of the game has its fair share of erotic moments, without explicit images, but often coupled with pretty graphic descriptions. All these scenes serve as fairly crucial parts of the plot though and it’s hard to question their inclusion – for example a scene where Iris looks up lesbian porn on the internet and then masturbates to it might seem like an opportunity for cheap fanservice, but serves both as an important part in her character development (as she tries to understand her attraction towards Zoey) and a crucial plot device (in a way I won’t mention to avoid spoilers). From this point of view, it was probably one of the better-implemented pieces of sexual content I’ve seen in VNs - still, some could be uncomfortable with the tone of these scenes even in the "clean" version of the game, it's definitely not all fluffy and innocent.

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The game can be experienced both with and without h-content – the “SFW” version still have the right pacing and a few compelling erotic moments, never making you feel like you’re missing something important

The unlockable, partially-animated h-scenes (there’s two, pretty lengthy ones) are a bit more complicated issue – I might not be the best person to assess them properly, as I simply don’t enjoy hentai, but I can say they left me with mixed feelings, even beyond that produced by my usual biases. They appeared at rather appropriate moments,  didn’t feel forced and I also can’t say anything bad about their visual execution or the text accompanying it (although, it contained often surprisingly pornographic wording). Still, as the nature of Iris and Zoey's relationship and the sexual tension between them was already communicated well enough in "SFW" version, these hentai segments didn’t seem to serve any purpose other than fapping material – and as I wasn’t interested in that, I actually only felt nostalgic for softcore scenes from Starlight Vega. For me, that approach is definitely more “hot” and fun to read, giving my imagination something to do rather than bombarding me with Pornhub-style close-ups. Yuri hentai enthusiasts should be satisfied with this content though and what’s most important, it’s completely skippable – the story’s pacing or comprehension doesn’t suffer in any serious way when these scenes are cut out and as I’ve mentioned earlier, the vanilla version still has its share of milder, but still satisfying sexual content.

            In the end though, Love Ribbon is a surprisingly compelling and enjoyable VN, obviously directed towards people already interested in yuri and not being easily put-off by taboo topics, but offering much more than just a bait in the form of a controversial subject matter. For those who like the taboo-breaking aspect of it (to some extent I’m definitely one of those), it will be a real treat but should be worth looking into for anyone that finds “forbidden love” stories appealing – the h-content being just a bonus for those really interested.

 

Final score: 4/5

 

Pros:

+ Serious, mature approach to the theme of incest

+ Good visual assets

+ Well-done 17+ erotic segments

+ Fully-optional h-content

Cons:

- Rather short

- Mostly meaningless choices


Buy Love Ribbon on Steam

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

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Notice: 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 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

 

Buy The Tail Makes the Fox on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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Wait… A nukige review? On this anti-porn blog? Well, I should probably start with saying a few things about my view on porn in VNs, to avoid potential misunderstandings – this will be a bit of an essay, so be sure you don’t mind a (small) wall of text not completely related to the game itself. My actual stance on pornography in games is very… Ambivalent. I deal with porn extensively in my university studies and I’m on principle anti-censorship. I’m also very disillusioned with porn and personally don’t really enjoy hentai animation – and while I try being open-minded, I yet have to encounter a piece of Japanese 18+ media that would seriously undermine this stance.

            What do I mean exactly by “disillusioned”? Porn, including that in the cartoon form, is oriented purely towards the sexual pleasure of viewer – the uncomfortable, voyeuristic sexual positions, extreme close-ups, unrealistic variety and length of the scenes have little to do both with how actual people have sex and with any kind of meaningful storytelling. The theme of sex and even explicit sex scenes, when used well, can add to realism and depth of a story, but porn as a formula is essentially hollow, apart from its purely “pragmatic” functions. Expecting it to be anything more, in my opinion, is delusional, both because it goes against its most basic principles and because people that actually want more from it are in minority and porn creators most often don’t see them as a viable audience. Hentai adds to this already problematic mixture a significant amount of cultural and genre tropes I personally can’t stand – including fetishizing virginity, the abundance of loli characters etc.

            Why do I even bother approaching a porn VN then? Well, Cute Demon Crashers, a free game created for the 2015 NaNoRen0 contest, is not a typical hentai VN – more than that, it’s more or less an anti-nukige, promising a focus on consent and intimacy that’s lacking in many Japanese erotic games (and, obviously, many western ones as well). It also reverses the typical setup, with a female protagonist and predominantly male romance options. But, does it really succeed in delivering something significantly different?

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The gentle, respectful attitudes of the characters and the focus on consent should be refreshing for anyone tired of typical porn tropes

Calling Cute Demon Crashers a nukige is obviously a bit provocative, as the game is essentially a polar opposite of typical Japanese pornography and seems oriented exactly towards countering many tropes and techniques of showing sex that are typical for hentai. Story-wise though, it’s pretty much as basic as any porn game out there – the protagonist, a female college school student and a virgin, is spending the spring break alone at her house. While she thinking about her lack of romantic life and her friends being busy with their relationships, four demons – three incubi and a succubus – suddenly appear before her. After a short freak-out, she talks to them and they give her a proposition – before they have to go back to their dimension, in two days, she gets to know them better and if she wants, experience her first time with one of them.

            From the first interactions, the game stresses heavily the ideas of consent and mutual comfort – the sex scenes themselves are also very flexible, not only through the impressive number of options in them but also through the ability to stop them at any stage, what all your potential partners accept with understanding and care. The difference from typical erotic VNs feels pretty much astonishing and while the authors definitely wanted to appeal to women above all else, I think the way Cute Demon Crashers captures the intimacy and trust between the characters should be attractive to all kinds of readers.

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Game’s cuteness goes far beyond the title – most interactions with the incubi/succubi are adorable and enhanced by well-made chibi CGs

The games art does much to support this aura of intimacy and subtle eroticism. While the sex scenes are somewhat explicit, they feel natural in their flow and are gorgeously illustrated – paradoxically, one of my favourite elements were the simpler drawings, without full colouring, which gave extremely cute and lovely vibe to moments like the cuddling present at the end of every erotic segment. The character designs themselves and sprites during the story bits, along with backgrounds and chibi-CGs also look very detailed and pretty, not really leaving much to complain about.

            On top of all that, the sex scenes themselves are quite unique and significantly different from each other, depending on the character you chose and are consistently well-written. For the pretty obvious reason, Mirari’s yuri scene was my favourite and is probably the most enjoyable love scene I’ve ever seen in VNs – all of them though have interesting gimmicks and capitalize very well on the limited character development from the slice-of-life interactions between the protagonist and the demons. Obviously, even with the most daring choices, the eroticism is tame, staying faithful to the notion of the main character having little romantic experience and being insecure about sex. I can imagine it being too timid for some, especially if you’re looking for straight-up fapping material.

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The CG art in love scenes is nothing short of gorgeous, switching between highly-detailed, coloured drawings and simpler, but still very pleasant-looking lineart

Now, do I see any faults in this game? To be honest, it’s pretty hard for me to find any. It is a very short erotic VN and it's hard to judge it on anything else then what it tried to achieve – and I absolutely adored what it had to offer, even though purely erotic titles are something that I rarely approach and that I'm even more rarely satisfied with. This game managed to capture my heart not simply as a turn-on (although I think it can work in such way if you can do with more subtle stimuli), but as a lovely, well-crafted VN experience. As a free game it’s somewhat of a hidden gem and in my opinion deserves much more appreciation than it received so far – if you haven’t already, I strongly recommend you to try it out.

            And as the last side-note, there seems to be a BL sequel to Cute Demon Crashers in the works. If it keeps similar quality, it should be something fans of that particular niche should really look forward to.

 

Final score: 4/5

 

Pros:

+ Subtle, lovely approach to sexual themes

+ Great art assets

+ Adorable, varied cast of characters

Cons:

- Super-short

- Not much in there story-wise

 

Download Cute Demon Crashers for free on Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

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The western otome scene offers a decent amount of hidden gems – small, often obscure titles, that nonetheless offer impressive artistic qualities and/or interesting, unique ideas. For me it also never stops being surprising how many of those games are published for free, sometimes even without any Patreon support or other regular forms of monetization on the part of their creators. Magical Otoge Ciel and Magical Otoge Anholly, developed by Batensan and published for free on Itch.io in 2015 and 2016, are among many high-quality, free otome VNs produced by the booming indie scene in recent years. Still, their author was able to establish a fairly interesting, distinct style both when it goes to art and the storytelling, very consistent between instalments and likely to be continued this year with the upcoming Magical Otoge Iris (with major hints at other, future projects). As both games are fairly short and simple, I will review them together – the very similar writing, art assets and even shared elements such as UI structure and parts of the soundtrack make it justifiable to treat them basically as episodes of a single game. But what are they really about?

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Magical Otoge Ciel could be a really memorable experience if the main heroes were just slightly more interesting – it shines the most in Ivin’s bonus route

Magical Otoge games, while only very loosely connected with each other when it goes to actual storylines, share a single, low-fantasy setting and offer similar, comedic formula with very casual storytelling and cute, light-hearted romance. While they’re not completely devoid of drama, they focus on entertaining the reader with witty dialogues and amusing interactions between the (female) protagonists and their (male) companions. The first game especially follows a rather predictable otome formula, with Ciel, a princess frustrated with her isolation from the world and inability to travel and explore it, escaping her kingdom accompanied by her personal knight and his brother. On her adventure, she falls in love in one of the three possible heroes and receives an (unavoidable) happy ending. With little tension and uncertainty in the story, what makes it work are the amusing clashes between the overly-optimistic and slightly airheaded princess and her dead-serious bodyguards. Things are maybe most interesting though in the bonus route, focused on Ivin – a wildcard character, whose unclear intentions, mysterious past and sarcastic attitude make the dialogues even more amusing and add some additional intrigue to the overall story.

            All this is supported by somewhat minimalistic, but aesthetically pleasing art assets. With all art drawn by Batensan herself, the games have a very consistent and pleasant-looking style, but also suffer from lack of variety, especially when it goes to backgrounds and CGs – every route in Ciel usually only have 2 unique drawings, which is absolutely understandable in a free game, but makes it harder for the story paths to feel unique and makes the game struggle to give appropriate impact to some scenes. Something similar could be said about music, which is nice to listen to and fits the games' climate very well but, especially when repeating in the second instalment, can get slightly tiresome.

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The second game does a better job at creating an interesting, varied cast of characters, while also maintaining the series' main strength - the light-hearted, well-written humour

While you might have already noticed that I had a bit of a problem with first Magical Otoge game playing it too safe, without any high stakes and only little bits of convincing drama, the second one came close to fixing that. Anholly tells a story of a young woman cursed with rampant ice magic – everything around her slowly transforms into a frozen wasteland and she ends up being the only inhabitant of her village after her parents pass away and everyone else leaves the unbearable conditions. People not identifying her as the source of the curse most likely saved her from being killed, why the kindness of her childhood friend, regularly delivering her supplies is the only thing preventing her from a lonely death.

            This is, admittedly, a fantastic setup for slightly more grim and deep story and while the author never abandoned her comedic style (with 4th wall-breaking jokes and puns all over the place), for the most part, it worked great. Also, this time strictly linear structure of the plot helped the quality of the writing and the pacing of the game, which wasn’t always consistent in Ciel. In Anholly, the storytelling has a clear focus and the developing relationship between the protagonist and the game's main hero (who shares a similarly tragic background) is both fun and intriguing, even with the hopeless situation they both ended up in.

            It all leads to a predictably dark, emotional ending... Or rather, what would be a very melancholic, but compelling conclusion, was partially dismantled by the Batensan’s attempts to make it light-hearted against all odds (and probably even against the internal logic of the setting). Really, sometimes VN writers should just let sad things be sad – in some cases, a compelling story really needs that.

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Both games have their touching and sad moments, but their general atmosphere is very positive – possibly to a fault, as some plot-points would be more impactful if the author let them be appropriately melancholic

To complete my obligatory complaining, I will also mention that the humour in Ciel did not always fit my taste, with modern-age metaphors and references that really had no place in the setting. It might be superficial to criticize that in an already 4th-wall-breaking game, but I always see that kind of "jokes" as symptoms of sloppy writing more than anything else – and admittedly, the second game is much more consistent in this regard.

            In general, though, both titles ultimately proved really heart-warming and fun to read. If you’re looking for a casual and relaxing experience, I can recommend them pretty much without hesitation – while in theory the games are oriented towards a female audience, the cute romantic setups and the main themes they touch upon are very much universal. Especially as free products, they're definitely worth a try. Although, if you really don’t like otome or prefer fast-paced storytelling, they might still bore you out of your mind.

 

Final score: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Interesting artstyle

+ Pleasant, light-hearted storytelling

+ Genuinely funny

Cons:

- Could use a bit more tension/higher stakes

- Lack of visual variety

 

Download Magical Otoge Ciel and Magical Otoge Anholly for free

Plk_Lesiak

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In my previous review I was writing about a NaNoRenO OELVN-contest entry that definitely bit slightly more than it could chew – a large scale project that, due to its short development cycle, came out rushed and deeply flawed, not reaching the full potential its premise and characters offered if handled properly. Today, however, I’m dealing with a game that is very much a counter-argument to my thesis on what can and cannot be done within NaNoRenO’s tight timeframe – a visual novel made for that same event, mostly by a single person, but which turned out to be a fulfilling and shockingly intricate experience, often considered as one of the best western-made visual novels to date.

            CUPID, created by Fervent Studio and released for free in March 2016 is a surprising success story that at the first glance had no right to happen. This gothic romance/horror story, while it has a female protagonist, is pretty far detached from any established subgenre on the VN market. However, its mature, dark themes and extremely competent execution makes it potencially attractive for many types of readers, as long as they’re not easily discouraged by highly unsettling and potentially depressing content. It also introduces a few spins on the typical visual novel formula and unusual storytelling techniques that make it stand out from most Western and Japanese titles, creating a unique, memorable experience on a market dominated by rather generic, trope-driven products.

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CUPID’s artstyle quickly sets it apart from most of generic, anime-style OELVNs, but its originality doesn’t end there

CUPID doesn’t wait long with establishing its tone and main themes – the short prologue welcomes the player with a rather agonizing introduction to the protagonist – an abused, mentally broken girl, who is driven by guilt into a horrible act of self-harm, gouging out one of her eyes (thankfully, that scene is only suggested, not actually shown). From this very moment it’s clear that the themes of mental illness and sexual abuse will be a crucial part of the game – I actually find that decision on the part of the developer very appropriate, as everyone uncomfortable with such topics or not prepared for seeing more of the tragedies the game centers around will simply drop it before risking being further unsettled.

            The prologue also presents one of the most original aspects of the game – the choice system, in which you don’t directly control the protagonists actions or thought, but instead act as a voice in her head, which she attributes to her long-dead mother – a symptom of mental instability, that depending on the path you take, will try to sooth protagonist’s pain and uncertainty, or push her even further towards madness and violence. I’ve found this system very compelling from storytelling perspective, but also felt that it adds a lot of weight to player agency and makes the cruel, abusive choices even more painful than they would normally be – if you push the protagonist towards another tragedy, the game even calls you out in a way, pointing out your cruelty and the fact you’re toying with her for your own fun or out of curiosity.

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The game’s “indirect” choice system is one of its most interesting ideas and paradoxically add a lot of weight to the decisions you make

When it goes to characters and story, the game nearly fully concentrates on a very small cast, in a setting of XVIII-century France. This creates a very focused, well-paced and fulfilling experience, despite CUPID's fairly short playtime (completing the game in 100% won’t take you more than 10 hours). The characters include the protagonists, Rosa, Catherine, a child-prodigy pianist and Rosa’s best friend, who saved her from life on the streets and marquis Guilleme, Catherine’s patron. The story spans over nearly two decades but is told without strict chronological order, jumping between the tragedy that is the main axis of the plot and its immediate repercussions on the one hand, and various earlier situations on the other (those give context to the main plot-points and slowly reveal the meaning behind the overarching mystery).

            Just like the game’s title suggests, much of it all centers around the themes of love and sex, but this mostly concerns the relation between the Marquis and Catherine and above all, serves as the fuel for both drama and horror elements – it’s not a romance VN in classic understanding of the term. This is also reflected in the endings, only one of which can be to some extent described as romantic (and which is very much a non-canon, bonus route). As you can expect from the first moments of playing CUPID, there’s no real “happy” conclusion to its story and the endings vary between bitter-sweet and utterly horrific – it’s really not a VN for those overly sensitive and I myself struggled a bit after reaching the worst end.

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CUPID’s sexual content can be somewhat graphic, but more often than not it serves the horror, rather than romance and at no point it can be considered porn

All this is complemented by very good visual and sound design. The graphical style is far-detached from the typical anime-inspired formula and rather unique, but maybe impresses most with its consistent quality and variety – a large number of CGs and interesting visual tricks in horror scenes are not something you would normally expect from this kind of free game. The sound effects and music are rather minimalistic, but do a great job of enhancing the climate and also fit well into the historical, European setting.

            In the end, CUPID proved to be a really excellent experience, one in which I have a hard time finding actual faults. Its literary values, storytelling and production qualities are all top-notch, especially by the standards of the OELVN market. The fact it’s a free game, made in a fairly short time span is absolutely mind-blowing. If you haven’t played it yet, I highly recommend it – as a fairly short horror VN it has few worthy competitors and for low the price of nothing, it’s simply a sin not to check it out.

 

Final score: 4,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Original and well implemented aesthetic

+ Very effective, unsettling atmosphere

+ Unique and well-executed choice system

Cons:

- Very dark, disturbing story – not for everyone

 

Download CUPID for free on Steam or Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

Hello Ladies and Gentlemen!

Just like during the Steam Winter Sale, I offer you a short list of interesting, worthwhile offers on Western-made VNs that popped up for the occasion of Chinese New Year. The Steam market is still a pretty strange place - since forever, some of the best OELVNs available there are absolutely free (honourable mentions in this regard go to Cinderella Phenomenon, Lucid9, One Thousand Lies and CUPID). Thankfully, there's also a lot of interesting, commercial titles that are worth your attention. Be sure to check the previous post, if you didn't buy the games listed there - most of them now have similar, or even deeper discounts. Now, to the new stuff! The order in which the games are listed is more or less random, and consider all of these games equally endorsed by me, unless I say otherwise in their descriptions. ;)

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Cursed Sight (-30%, $4.19)

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Invert Mouse was once a regular poster in the developer blog section of our forums - while he seemingly gave up on communicating with our little community, it shouldn't prevent us from appreciating his fairly unique, story-driven VNs. Cursed Sight is one of his earlier works, offering a fantasy setting stylized after ancient China and a story avoiding typical romance cliches, but rather trying to present interesting drama and ask some slight philosophical questions. While it's fairly unorthodox and might not be to everyone's taste, it's definitely worth trying out, especially for the current, modest price.

 

The Last Birdling (-25%, $6.74)

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Continuing with Invert Mouse's work, his latest VN is an emotional story about friendship beyond prejudice and once more will offer you some pretty heavy, non-romantic drama that is far-detached from usual tropes of the genre. With production qualities somewhat higher than in IM's past titles, it's an interesting proposition for those looking for an enjoyable, slightly out-of-the-box experience.

 

Sweetest Monster (-30%, $4.19)

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Ebi-Hime's horror kinetic novel is a very different piece of work than her yuri titles but offers one of the strongest additions to its genre among western-produced VNs. Viewed from the perspective of a middle-aged man going through a marital crisis, Sweetest Monster's themes and story structure will offer you a distinct, engrossing experience you won't easily forget - and all this coupled with really impressive production qualities.

 

The Way We All Go (-75%, $1.49)

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The Way We All Go is one of Ebi-Hime's earliest titles and a relatively forgotten one, but the somewhat-simplistic visuals shouldn't fool you. It's a dark, complex story, with impressive route variety, a huge number of endings and solid writing - much longer and more intricate than the usual OELVN of that era and way beyond most things you can buy for such a small price. Just be sure you're ready to see some death and violence if you want to try this one out.

 

Hate Plus (-33%, $6.69)

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I'm sure you did buy Analogue: A Hate Story the last time I told you to, so why not look at its sequel? Hate Plus follows essentially the same investigation/database exploration formula, this time showing us the events that led to the Mugunghwa "year zero" disaster - the incident which threw the colony ship off-course and started an age of technological and societal regress we can observe in Analogue. With more fleshed-out route system, immersive UI and the same great-quality writing, it's another top-rate western VN and a must read for those interested in our fledgeling weeb-game market.

 

Love Ribbon (-30%, $6.99)

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Full-sister incest love story might sound like an excuse for trashy porn, but Love Ribbon takes this concept and does something you don't really see very often - make a serious, emotionally striking forbidden love drama, written in such a way that you can pretty easily imagine it happening in real life, with the same problems and outcomes as those shown in the game. While it has its share of unlockable h-scenes, Love Ribbon's core content makes it one of the most interesting and compelling examples of the genre even outside of just the OELVN scene and something I vigorously recommend to all yuri fans out there - also, the all-ages version should be a worthwhile read for anyone without clear aversion to shoujo-ai or incest themes.

 

Sunrider: Liberation Day (-75%, $6.24)

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While for me personally the sequel to Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius felt in many ways like a step backwards when compared to the original, it's a quite interesting and enjoyable VN/turn-based strategy hybrid. Love in Space's ambition of conquering the Japanese market might have effected in a slightly bizarre, misguided attempt at "Japanisation", with full-JP voice acting and some caricaturally-implemented eroge tropes, but Liberation Day still captures quite a lot of the space-opera charm and well-developed gameplay that the series relies on. I would also like to mention that the first Sunrider is still one of the best free OELVNs out there, while during this sale you can also buy its rather amusing dating sim spin-off, Sunrider Academy, for close to nothing, 90% off the regular price.

 

Crimson Gray (-50%, $4.99)

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Decent VNs centered around a yandere heroine are not something easy to find, no matter if we look at the Japanese or Western market. Crimson Gray takes that somewhat-ridiculed and often trashy theme and turns it into a solid, well-paced psychological horror. While in many ways minimalistic, it's a very focused and effective game - one that knows exactly what it wants to achieve and delivers in a way that should satisfy most fans of the genre.

 

Brilliant Shadows - Part One of the Book of Magic (-30%, $4.89)

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One of the more unique and visually striking OELVNs on Steam offers many of the traits I most enjoy in non-JP visual novels - unorthodox story, unique setting, a strong female protagonist and yuri themes that go beyond fluffy romance or cheap fanservice. Non-Japanese voice acting, while not perfect, is quite solid here and the game as a whole shows a lot of imagination and character, being a worthy read for anyone looking for the less-usual approaches to the visual novel formula.

 

Solstice (-60%, $7.99)

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After the highly-appreciated Cinders, MoaCube's second title further establishes that Studio's highly-distinct approach to the VN formula. With its extremely detailed, non-anime artstyle and intrigue slightly more akin to the classic western adventure game than typical visual novel storytelling, Solstice will definitely not be to everyone's liking. It's possible to argue though that the visual fireworks alone make it something worth experiencing, especially for the relatively modest price of $8.

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I hope you've found this list interesting (and possibly even helpful)! Making these let me realize how small the commercial OELVN market still is. While there is a substantial number of western VNs showing up every year, the most interesting ones even now tend to be freeware titles created by hobbyists, and the products that actually ask us to pay money for them are more often than not very average or impressive in some respects, but deeply flawed - those games might still be interesting to some but are quite hard to blindly recommend. There's a lot of talent and interesting ideas in the scene, but it takes quite a lot of time and dedication to dig through all the mediocre stuff (and the tons of utter shovelware infesting Steam) and find those few, truly valuable titles. Still, as long as I have time and strength for it, I will try to fish out worthwhile OELVNs for your (and my own) enjoyment. ;)

Have a great week everyone!

Plk_Lesiak

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

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

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Diversity of the cast and possible romance options is definitely one of the game’s selling points – thankfully, all of the characters are solid and there’s no obvious agenda present in the storytelling (no, the bear is not romanceable)

AIRIS starts like a run-of-the-mill fantasy VN, focused on Aliya, a female swordsman and adventurer, and a few of her companions. Quickly though, the very literal use of RPG tropes and language, along with various game-like events within the story suggests an underlying mystery behind this at first generic-looking setting. This intrigue, which proves a bit more complex and unorthodox than you might expect at the beginning, is the game’s biggest strength – it leads into many interesting moments of drama, heavy moral dilemmas and affects some of the romance scenarios in a very unusual way, especially in Everea’s route.

            To fully understand the story, it’s pretty much necessary to play through all three main character routes, each one providing a very distinct perspective on the main mystery and uncovering motivations of the people involved. Every path is connected to an unavoidable romance arc, but with the impressive variety of endings, it can lead both to fulfilling epilogue and to tragedy (or even to a straight-up cataclysm for the world where the action takes place). It also doesn’t follow a simple good/neutral/bad ending structure, with most of the available conclusions being bitter-sweet or morally ambivalent in one way or another. Many of them are rather surprising, but stay true to the overall mood and message of the story, showing that there might be no clear “good” option when caught between powers beyond one’s control.

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The game's protagonist, Aliya, is definitely one of the highlights of AIRIS – while stubborn and impulsive, she’s definitely a proactive, strong female lead with a lot of character

While the main ideas behind the story and the overall characteristics of the main cast are well-thought out and enjoyable, the game’s background of being a NaNoRenO entry, developed within one month as the rules of the contest demanded, weights on it quite heavily – the scale of the project was clearly not appropriate for such time schedule and this visibly affected the quality of the writing. One thing that you quickly notice after launching the game is awkward wording, often poorly fitting the presented situations and characters. Seeing mercenaries in a medieval fantasy world talking repeatedly about “consuming too much alcohol” is at least enough to make you roll your eyes, if not completely take you out of the experience. The overused RPG talk, even if partially justified by certain plot points, also comes out as unnatural and confusing.

            Also, while the game is already fairly long (6-7 hours for a single playthrough, more than 20 hours of content in total) and occasionally struggles with pacing issues, some interesting ideas put in there stayed visibly underdeveloped. The prime example is Lyall, the non-binary romance option, whose identity is never really explored in the story, affecting mostly their visual design and pronouns used to address them. As much as one could argue that naturalizing their presence was author’s intention, it mostly feels like a missed opportunity or a hollow “diversity checklist” gesture. The short development time and the overly-complicated script seems to also affect how romance is present in the story – in Lyall’s and Everea’s routes it shows up fairly late and without proper build-up, making it look like if developers were struggling to fit it properly into the narrative.

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Introducing a non-binary character by itself looks like an interesting idea, however, Lyall’s identity is not explored in the game in any meaningful ways

The aspect that suffered the most from limited time and resources developers had available was definitely the AIRIS’ visual design. While character sprites are fairly aesthetic and complemented by good-quality backgrounds, their expressions and variety leave a bit to be desired. CGs on the other hand, very few (9 in the whole game) and of mediocre quality, are seriously underwhelming and take a bit of impact from crucial romance-related scenes, for which they’re mostly used. While music is rather pleasant and fits the climate of the game, in general, production qualities feel inadequate for a VN of this size.

            Still, for the most part, AIRIS is an enjoyable experience and, as a free game, something definitely worth trying out. With all it’s failures it also shows a lot of creativity and talent within its development team and makes me pretty enthusiastic about their first commercial project, The Masquerade Killer.  While I’m not sure if I can recommend playing through all of it, if you really enjoy otome games or if you take a guide and play only through the routes you find most interesting, you should have a very good time with this freebie – and a taste of what’s probably coming to us with Ebullience's new projects, this time in much more polished, well-balanced form.

 

Final verdict: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Three highly distinct story routes

+ Interesting use of the main premise and creative endings

+ Pleasant-looking sprites and backgrounds

Cons:

- Few, mediocre quality CGs

- Poor sprite variation and scripting

- Occasionally sloppy writing

- Pacing issues on some routes

 

Play AIRIS for free on Steam or Google Play

Plk_Lesiak

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Disclaimer: This was the first purely GxB otome game I’ve ever played and my experience was most likely very different from that of a fan of the genre. While I stand by my conclusions, they’re definitely written from an unusual perspective.

Locked Heart is a game I’ve encountered pretty much by chance, while randomly browsing VNs available on Google Play. As a nice-looking, free title it quickly found its way into my wishlist, but belonging to a genre I usually don’t play (and apparently following a very standard otome formula), it was never very high on my to-read list. Only another coincidence, leaving me stranded in a café for multiple hours with nothing but my tablet to accompany me, compelled me to run it and discover that I’ve stumbled upon something rather exceptional – definitely when it goes to Android games, but maybe even in a broader sense.

            Developed by Dicesuki, a small studio which later created the highly-regarded Cinderella Phenomenon, and published for Android in July 2016, Locked Heart quickly became one of the highest-rated mobile VNs out there, gathering an impressive 4.9/5 score among Google Play users and a decent VNDB rating. Of course, standing out positively on a marketplace full of horrible shovelware and shameless cash-grabs might not be a huge achievement by itself – in the case of this small otome however, this enthusiastic response from the readers seems to indicate a bit more than just contrast from the absolute trash that dominates mobile platforms.

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The heavily-stylized introduction sequence and gorgeously designed UI quickly show off game’s aesthetic quality – something really stands out among the OELVNs available on mobile devices

What’s clear from the first moments after launching the game is it’s great aesthetic – the main menu screen, the UI and opening cutscene are all full of colours and gorgeously designed. While I often prefer simplicity over flashy, ornamental designs in VNs, here I couldn’t find any disharmony or exaggeration in the artstyle – it has an elaborate, feminine feel to it, but should be attractive to pretty much any reader that sees it. Other assets, such as sprites, backgrounds and CGs are of similar quality – the one paradox might be that because of how solid the general aesthetic is, the quite numerous CGs don’t stand out from what you’re normally seeing on the screen, making them a slightly less impactful than you would normally expect. Still, this is a kind of complain I would be happy to give more often.

            Locked Heart’s story is definitely somewhat standard, but it’s the kind of simplicity that I also rather appreciate – taking common themes and simply realizing them in a masterful fashion, rather than creating pointless contrivance and forced plot twists. In this case, a young, orphaned woman leaves her home village to pursue career as a cook and gets lost in the woods. Wondering hopelessly, she encounters a mansion belonging to a noble house d’Lockes, which was said to be cursed several years in the past and disappeared without a trace. In there, she finds the family, among it three young men, turned into toys – trapped in the cursed manor, she must find a way to lift the spell and in the process, obviously, falls in love.

            As cliched as this sounds, the details of the story and the bachelors themselves makes it quite enjoyable – while the main “twist” is very much predictable, the stories and secrets of the heroes are interesting and written a in convincing way. While they all appear as clear archetypes at first, it’s easy to realize there’s some actual depth to all three of them – this makes the interactions with them and the (admittedly very timid) romance enjoyable to read. The protagonist, Aura, might be slightly less fleshed-out, but still presents enough of girlish silliness and stubbornness, combined with life experience derived from her tragic childhood, to be a compelling character. That’s actually one of the tropes in western otome games that I very much enjoy – protagonists in them are usually much more than just empty silhouettes that the player can insert him/herself into.

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Obviously, every guy in an otome has to be not just handsome, but beautiful. Here, the two heirs and their butler could probably start a k-pop group without even changing their haircuts

What I might complain about a bit is the structure of the story. After a tiny “common route”, which decides (in a somewhat unpredictable way) with whom of the three teddy bears/bachelors you’ll be locked in a romance route, the choices only matter by occasionally unlocking hidden CGs or, if you find the “perfect” combination, leading you to the alternative “best ending” with that specific character. In effect, there’s pretty much nothing you can do wrong – literally every path will lead you to a positive, romantic conclusion. This makes a lot of choices, many of which doesn’t lead to any interesting scenes or pieces of dialogue, very much meaningless, apart from being part of the cryptic, frustrating puzzle of finding that “one true path”. This irritating trope actually plagued another western otome I’ve played in the past, Michaela Laws’s Seduce Me, and I can’t say I was ever motivated to unlock those “true” endings.

            I also have to mention that the initial premise, with all the characters being toys and sufferings connected to that curse, is pretty quickly forgone. This is definitely related to the overall length of the game (single playthrough should take you just a little bit over two hours), but leaves you with a feeling of lost potential – the teddy bears just turns into beautiful princes a bit too fast. This is also a problem with supporting female characters, which seem quite interesting, but we just don’t see much of them during the story. Overall though, Locked Heart is a really sweet experience, perfect to fill a lonely evening or kill time during a few long bus-rides. While there are many bigger, more memorable titles of this kind available on PCs and consoles, as a mobile game, and a free one at that, it’s definitely worth your time (although, for those interested, a PC version is also available).

 

Final Verdict: 3,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Three distinct, well-written routes

+ Interesting premise

+ Very good visuals

Cons:

- Pretty short, even when combining all the routes

- Could’ve done more with its main ideas

- Overly specific requirements for the “true endings”

 

Download Locked Heart for free for PCs or on Google Play

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 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

 

Play Sepia Tears for free on Steam and Google Play

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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Note: While I didn't plan on tackling Japanese-produced OELVNs on this blog, this title is a perfect representation of mobile game market's business practices implemented in a VN and for this reason was worth a closer look. More than by itself, it's interesting as a negative example of scammy policies that aren't in any way endemic to JP developers and are sadly used by many different companies with various backgrounds.

I don’t think many people have any doubts about how horrible the mobile game market is nowadays, both when it goes to quality and dominating business models. Generic, borderline plagiaristic games, ridden with pay-to-win mechanics and exploitative microtransaction systems are a sad standard in most genres popular on phones and tablets, swarming the AppStore and Google Play in a way that makes it nearly impossible to find actual quality products just by browsing these storefronts.

            Considering the absurdly-high revenue that many mobile games bring their developers, often through relatively small investments, it shouldn’t be surprising that the plague of exploitative mobile market model would find its way into the world of visual novels. Still, how can you make an ultimately single-player, story-driven formula “pay-to-win”? Moe! Ninja Girls, a mobile OELVN produced for the western markets by a Japanese company NTT Solmare inc. shows that it’s absolutely possible to turn a text adventure with anime drawings into one of the most predatory, scammy games on iOS and Android.

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Want to read 1/3 of a story season in one evening? No problem, that will be just 30$ worth of “story tickets”!

So, how can you extort money from players with something as simple as a VN? The most obvious answer, if we can learn anything from other mobile releases, is by locking content behind long waiting times, skippable only by paying real-world money. This is Moe! Ninja Girls’ primary tactic – the game provides you with a free “story ticket” every 4 hours (up to 5 stored at once, so you can’t just wait for them to accumulate for more than a day), every one of them letting you access one, usually very short, part of a story chapter. Every season of the story (game have 10 so far and authors are regularly releasing new ones) is composed of 11 chapter, each divided into 7-10 parts. As you can easily calculate, reading through a full season of the game without paying, considering you’ll be as efficient as possible with using free tickets, takes around 18 days, for maybe 2-3 hours of actual content. Daily login and event rewards might make the whole process slightly faster, but if you want to keep reading the story at any reasonable pace, you would have to invest literally hundreds of dollars into this game.

            This is however only the beginning – after all, a patient person could potentially suffer through all this waiting without actually paying any money. For those resilient ones, additional mechanics were implemented. The first of those is an extremely simplistic and fully pay-to-win “ninja battle” combat system, completely dependent on passive stats, provided you by ninja gear – obviously, better variants of which are available pretty much exclusively for RL money. If you would like to skip this tacked-on, pointless feature, sad day for you – it provides you with two kinds of in-game currency necessary to progress the story. Obviously, those occasional checkpoints can be bypassed. Can you guess how? With real life money. The situation is similar when it goes to in-game events, that can provide you with powerful rewards if you climb high enough in the ranking. However points in them are mostly dependent on fights and story progression, so as the game gives you the story and combat tokens at a fixed rate, the only way to beat the competition is by investing real life money.

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Some of the art in the game in the game is admittedly quite pretty, even if generic in style. Visuals and (mild) fanservice are definitely the main selling points here

Is there any aspect of VN that wasn’t monetized here yet? Oh yes, romance! In every season, you have two possible love interests – every choice in the game will give you affection points with one of them, often in a cryptic, hard-to-predict ways. If you reach high enough affection with one of the girls you can unlock a special season-epilogue chapter connected to her. Don’t worry though, if you messed up with your choices, you can always boost you affection meter with real money! How sweet of the dev team to give us that option. I should also mention higher-quality CGs, that can be unlocked by buying premium gear. To be honest, the diligence of the developers in making every possible element of their game into a money-making scheme is absolutely stunning.

            But, is there actually any content hidden beneath this scam? To some extent, yes. While the plot is a pretty standard high-school comedy with ninja themes, it has its amusing moments and rare pieces of good writing. The protagonist, definitely inspired to some extent by Yuuji from the Grisaia series, also produces some interesting scenarios and funny interactions with his quasi-harem. Mostly though the game just relies on flashy visuals (with generic, but well-executed style) and significant amounts of all-ages fanservice to keep the reader entertained. It’s not horrible, but just as shallow and bland as you would expect.

            This game might seem a boring topic to write about, as soon as you get through the initial shock of its unrelenting greed and trashiness. However, there’s another, probably even more disturbing part of this story – Solmare produced close to 50 (!!!) otome romance VNs using the exact same business model. You can find all of them on the Google Play, along with dozens of similarly exploitative, shitty titles by other companies. It’s a part of a plague that we should expose and criticise at every opportunity – while it might now go away anytime soon, I would at least like to see that the scumbag policies of mobile game companies don’t go overlooked and unchallenged. The only proper conclusion I can give is to avoid this game at all costs and whenever possible, warn others against touching it and all other shameless scams disguised as VNs, that swarm the mobile storefronts.

 

Final Score: 1,5/5

 

Pros:

+ Decent art

+ Story has its funny/amusing moments

Cons:

- Horrible, exploitative business model

- Nonsense plot full of tropes and clichés

- Stock characters without any real depth

- Pointless, pay-to-win “ninja battle” minigame

 

Please, don’t ever download Moe! Ninja Girls on Google Play

Plk_Lesiak

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Warning: Heavy spoilers ahead! If you want to play this VN yourself, stop reading now. I don’t really recommend playing it though…

As much as I’m a fan of independent VNs and appreciate the possibilities that crowdfunding opened for the western visual novel market, it’s not completely rare for these projects to end with spectacular disappointment, for various reasons. Carpe Diem: Reboot is especially interesting example of a visual novel that ultimately failed to live up to the expectations, but not because of lack of effort or poor production values, but through the sheer “virtue” of horrible writing. As I’ll be treating this as a case study of how to screw up a good concept and waste a lot of work, unlike my normal reviews, I’ll be revealing many major plotpoints, including some details of the games’ endings. As Reboot mostly relies on its plot twists and mystery elements to keep the player interested, if you want to play it yourself, ignore this review or read it after you’ve completed the game.

             While the title we’re talking about was released on Steam in September 2017, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, its history starts a bit earlier, with a free VN from late 2015 simply titled Carpe Diem. This very short, but nicely written visual novel served both as a prologue of sorts and an advertisement for the crowdfunding effort which later spawned Reboot. In it, a simple story about two friends (lovers?), Jung and Ai, deciding how to use a rare opportunity to spend a full afternoon together, ended with a twist – the girl was actually a computer program, an object of delusional love of a shut-in trying to escape from his real life. The Steam achievement for reaching the end of the game, “What are you doing with your life?”, served as a somewhat ironic punchline, making clear the main themes the author tried to tackle. Good dialogues and decent execution of Carpe Diem, while in no way breath-taking, definitely showed promise and made many people (including me, although I've discovered it after the Kickstarter campaign was already over) somewhat enthusiastic about its continuation. So, what went wrong?

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The prologue game, while very minimalistic, showed enough promise to interest people and mobilize support for the Kickstarter campaign – at the very least, it was a brilliant piece of marketing

Reboot picks up exactly where the first game ended, that is at the scene of Ai revealing that she’s no real. We’re soon introduced to the initial portion of drama – she’s a sentient A.I., created by a shut-in programmer, who uses her to earn money by forcing her to take on freelance programming jobs (as she can do them at an insane speed, he’s already got quite rich off her back). Jung, Ai’s creator and our protagonist, quickly proves to be one of the most apathetic and irritating characters I’ve ever seen in VNs – a supposed genius, who absolutely lacks any initiative and during the whole story pretty much follows other characters around and occasionally provides bland exposition. The reasons behind his awful attitude and passiveness are somewhat explained by the end of the story, but doesn’t change the fact he’s an atrocious lead character, never showing any of his supposed skills and virtues. Ai, on the other hand, acts with light-heartedness and cheerfulness of a child, losing the sarcastic edge that made dialogues in the prequel amusing. However, there’s a definite bond between the two, made problematic by one fact – Ai is “dying”, her programming slowly deteriorating and limiting her activity to smaller and smaller periods of time.

            As a starting point, it’s not an awful piece of storytelling – already we can tell that something’s off in Jung’s behaviour and what’s happening doesn’t really add up (what’s the problem with Ai? Why there’s no backup of her program? Why can’t it be fixed?). The resolution of this part of the story however breaks any possibility to treat this VN seriously. Ai, knowing she has little time left, promises to bring Jung one last present for his birthday. She sets up a workplace in a corner of the room, buys two robotic arms and various stuff over the internet and creates… A human body for herself. Not a mechanical body. Not an android. A fully functional, human body, only “with a CPU instead of a brain because the brain is hardest to replicate".

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The first plot twist, while surprising, is so ridiculous that it’s hard to maintain any suspension of disbelief. From there, it mostly gets worse…

Well, let’s take a deep breath, because that’s not where the fun ends. At some point in the first chapter of the game we learn that Jung likes certain bakery, where he regularly meets a female employee – as it’s a voiced character, we already know she’ll be important. After the first plot twist, he goes there again, taking with him his near-human A.I. companion and thanks to Ai’s straightforwardness and urge to make friends, gets to know the cashier, whose name is Yume. Soon after they learn that Yume is actually one of the best programmers in the world (of course!), and Ai’s rival on freelance programming website she used to make money. Not long after that, Jung somewhat suddenly announces that he was a part of some Illuminati-style secret society and also is a murderer (although no one cares or even mentions it later), and Ai’s programming is based on some kind of “weaponized software”, created by the evil-splinter-group leader he had to kill. So, soon the government will be after him and Ai, as her existence is considered a threat. Admittedly, there are some cute, enjoyable slice-of-life moments between the "story development", but they only make the stupidity of the plot that much more obvious and irritating, as every major event immediately takes you out of the experience. 

            However, all this insane gibberish soon leads us to a final decision, which can produce two possible outcomes. In the first one, the protagonist sends Ai and Yume away, to protect them from their pursuers and covers all the tracks behind them. This scenario is concluded with a scene of him standing on a cliff, which suggests that he might have ultimately committed suicide to make sure no one ever finds Ai, but leaves the the details to our imagination. This is however a non-canon, “good” ending. The “true ending” involves Jung trying to confess to Yume, saying that they should sell-off Ai to the government and be together, being harshly rejected as a spineless coward he is, going crazy and murdering Ai (although she later “reboots”, foreshadowing a possible sequel). While I’m not on principle against sad/depressing endings, this establishes Jung as pretty much the most pathetic character in the history of visual novels and makes the whole experience, as over-the-top silly as it already was, ultimately distasteful and pointless. The authors definitely went for shock value, but only with a partial success, considering how disconnecting and irritating most major plot-points in the story already were. What could’ve been an interesting story about the nature of life and the things that makes someone truly human (these questions are seriously present in the story), ended up as a kitsch mess, memorable mostly by the virtue of its writing mistakes and ability to make the reader miserable.

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The production qualities of the game are beyond what you would expect from this kind of indie project, but they couldn’t possibly save it from being a general disappointment.

What makes this truly sad is the contrast between the storyline and the general production quality of the game. While visually it’s mostly just decent, with everything being pleasing to the eye but not in any way exceptional, there’s one thing that definitely makes it stand out from most western VNs – it has high-quality, full voice acting. Actresses voicing Ai and Yume for the most part do a great job, while the supporting cast, usually being the place where these kind of productions fall in quality dramatically, is all very much acceptable. Even the casual dialogues, the personalities of the girls and the pacing of the story aren’t awful – they’re simply quite insignificant when confronted with sheer stupidity and pretentiousness of the overarching storyline.

            Carpe Diem: Reboot is a story of wasted potential – of easily avoidable mistakes, that more or less killed a project which had everything necessary to succeed in a rather spectacular way. Even as it is now, it’s easy to realize the authors’ dedication, hard work put into the game and traces of genuine talent, which with help of a few beta readers or better thought-through development process could produce a memorable, interesting game. What we got in reality is a spectacular flop, which should be taken as a warning by anyone interested in creating original VNs, and probably any kind of story-driven game. And unless you’re really interested in finding out for your own “if it’s really that bad”, I don’t recommend playing it – there might be a way to find humour in its flaws, but it will ultimately be a waste of your time.

 

Final Score: 2/5

 

Pros:

+ Interesting premise

+ Decent art

+ Good voice acting

 

Cons:

- Ridiculous, over-the-top writing

- Repugnant, useless protagonist

- Pointlessly disturbing “true ending”

 

Buy Carpe Diem: Reboot on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

Hello Ladies & Gentlemen!

As much as most of us might be completely broke after Christmas, there's still 5 days before the giant seasonal Steam Sale comes to an end and at least until late spring, this is the best opportunity to grab some quality Western VNs on the platform for very little money. Because of this, today I present you with a completely subjective list of 12 OELVNs that you should probably buy while they're unreasonably cheap - you definitely won't regret having them on your 2018 to-read list. The games will be sorted by discounts, rather than quality, but all of them are solid titles definitely worth your attention. :) Just for the note, every game here was listed with the US pricing, the cost might be slightly different in other regions.

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Highway Blossoms (-75%, $2,49)

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One of the highest-rated western Yuri visual novels is a heartwarming and emotionally engaging road tale, that might grasp even those that are not fans of the f/f romance, thanks to an interesting setting rarely seen in VNs and consistent storytelling. For yuri fans, it's still one of the best games of this kind available in English - while waiting for another chapter of Flowers or other big JP release coming to the West, there's maybe no better title to fill the void.

Ace Academy (-75%, $4,99)

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PixelFade's first project is one of the very few successful attempts at adapting the typical romance VN formula in the West, with an expansive plot, high production values and full voice-acting. While definitely retaining an "indie" feel and having some clunky elements (like the super-simplistic mecha "combat" mechanics), thanks to a fairly spectacular Kickstarter success Ace Academy was able to become one of the most impressive non-JP VNs to date. It's not an eroge, so it might disappoint fans of H-scenes, but offers a good story and well-crafted characters that should be satisfying to most readers. It also features one of the most adorable little-sister characters in history, which for me counts as a huge positive, even if she's not romanceable. :P

Asphyxia (-75%, $1,49)

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My list might feel heavy on yuri, but this simply reflects how important the genre is for western VN scene, being a much bigger part of the market when compared with Japan. Ebi-hime's most appreciated commercial title is an unusual, allegorical tale with a lot of references to classic literature, XIX century English authors and A LOT of heavy themes, including unrequited love, substance abuse and depression. While a rather heavy read, requiring some patience and attentive reading, it's one of the most unique VNs produced in the West and one that fully embraces its cultural heritage, rather than unnecessarily borrowing tropes and setting from JP scene.

Cinders (-75%, $4,99)

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Otome is another genre that definitely receives more attention from western VN producers than in the Japanese market (among other reasons, because there's a lot more woman involved in the western scene proportionally to Japan). This retelling of a classic fairy tale might not give it as strong of a spin as Cinderella Phenomenon, but offers a striking visual style and an expansive, well written story - even if otome is not your thing, for a mere few dollars you're asked to pay for this game it's something definitely worth your attention.

Strawberry Vinegar (-75%, $2,49)

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If you don't feel like reading through depressing dramas of Asphyxia or The Sad Story of Emmeline Burnes, ebi-hime got you covered with this incredibly sweet, heartwarming experience. This tale of an unwelcome, supernatural guest and a lot of delicious food might look diabetes-inducing, but with its unique artstyle and relaxed storytelling should definitely leave you in a good mood - especially if you enjoy yuri themes.

Starlight Vega (-60%, $5,99)

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Starlight Vega might be one of the more obscure VNs on this list, but just as I've shown in my review, it's not without some fresh ideas and undoubtedly delivers on the aspects of visual quality and yuri romance. This rather relaxed, fantasy tale in modern setting avoids many most common VN tropes, offering a pretty distinct, fun experience, although with the heavy focus on the relationships might be less attractive for those not interested in f/f romantic stories.

Long Live The Queen (-50%, $4,49)

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This sweet-looking VN/dating sim hybrid might seem innocent, but under that cutesy surface, there's hidden a grimdark political simulation, with a very complex story, many branching paths and dozens of ways to meet early demise as the future queen of the realm, surrounded by enemies and layers upon layers of intrigue. A must play for everyone that looks for a VN-hybrid with actual challenge and stakes in it - exploring different options and trying to reach satisfying ending will give you many, many hours of engaging fun.

Magical Diary: Horse Hall (-50%, $7,49)

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This Harry Potter-inspired tale of a novice student in a magic academy is another rather unique dating sim/VN hybrid made in the West. While its simple, cutesy artstyle might suggest something light and straightforward, there's a surprising amount of depth, story variation and interesting mechanics in this game, including a wide selection of unusual romance options. While mostly cheerful, it will surprise you more than once with fresh ideas and fairly bold storytelling.

Royal Trap: The Confines of the Crown (-50%, $9,99)

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This otome game by Hanako might follow a somewhat standard formula but introduces a very strong, proactive female lead and a deep political intrigue at the centre of the plot, offering much more than just a sappy romance story. With multiple routes, both romantic and friendship-oriented, it's one of the more expansive and complex western VNs available on the market and should prove interesting to readers of various tastes, not just typical fans of the genre.

A Little Lily Princess (-50%, $7,49)

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A Little Princess should be a title not only known by enthusiasts of classic English literature but also devoted anime fans, thanks to the highly-regarded show Princess Sara and a few other adaptations. This VN version of the story, developed by Hanabira, stands out not only through its well-done aesthetic, matching well the setting of Victorian-era London, but also by a mild yuri spin. Thankfully, it never goes overboard with the romance, maintaining the charm and heartwarming message of the original story, while also giving additional depth to some of the characters not really explored in the book or earlier adaptations. The end effect is a great, emotionally engaging tale not only for yuri fans.

VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action (-34%, $9,89)

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VA-11 Hall-A might be pretty far-detached from the typical VN formula, but its striking artstyle, strong storytelling and a cast of memorable character won it pretty much universal acclaim from both game critics and players and should provide a satisfying experience for any VN enthusiast. While it might be one of the more expensive games on this list, it's also one that shouldn't disappoint even the most demanding readers.

Analogue: A Hate Story (-33%, $6,69)

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Christine Love's sci-fi mystery VN is definitely worth its full asking price, but when it's on sale, you have even fewer excuses not to buy and play it. Well developed intrigue, immersive visual design and memorable characters make it one of the best Western VNs ever made, still having few serious competitors 5 years after its release. If you don't fixate on its clear ideological message, it offers an amazing tale of oppression, hate and vengeance that can hardly be read without leaving a lasting impression.

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I hope you've enjoyed my recommendations and I wish you a Happy New Year, full of both non-JP and JP VN-reading pleasures, among many, many other happy moments. ^^

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 makes western-produced VNs dominate Google Play store, and while most of them might be horribly-looking free-to-play otome romances, 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 June 2015.

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It’s easy to get discouraged by Stellaren’s clunky UI and hard-to-control starfighter minigame, but the story hidden under that rough exterior can surprise you.

The first impressions Stellaren gives you are definitely not that great – the main menu and the chapter selection screen that comes right afterwards are confusing and hard to navigate. From the technical point of view the game is very simplistic, letting you play its story in any order and only tracking certain decisions, that affects specific romantic endings (those become available as soon as you accumulating enough "story points" with a specific character, without the need to read through all the chapters). This structure means that story is fundamentally linear, with bad choices effecting in game-over screens and all the other ones only affecting to which characters you grow closer. The side-scrolling starfighter mini-game, which is a recurring element and major “selling point” of this VN also doesn't impress – with touch controls it’s barely possible to operate it precisely and even when you get a grasp of it, it’s not that satisfying (although it’s admittedly well-embedded into the narrative and never shows without a connection to important events within the story).

            Playing the free version of the game might further reinforce this poor impression, with ads interrupting your reading experience and no possibility to skip or lower difficulty on the combat segments (which, if failed, will prevent you from progressing the story). The $5 “pro” version, on the other hand, both lets you skip the combat when you have problems with it or want to focus solely on reading and starts you with additional money to upgrade your ship, which makes most fights much more manageable – after getting the paid version I didn’t really feel the need to skip them, as they flowed with the main theme of the game and its story quite well.

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While the combat mechanics aren’t that great, the starfighter segments are intertwined with the story in a way that makes them immersive and motivates you to play through them regardless.

Talking about the story, it’s definitely where the game shows intriguing qualities and quickly surpasses your expectations. The protagonist, M., starts as a simple mechanic, living on a poor colony and getting along by conning NGC (Earth-based government) pilots into buying faulty equipment. First minutes of the game already establishes an interesting dynamic, with corrupt and hated central government that treats colonists as second-class citizens and doesn’t hesitate to brutalize them for minor offences. Soon after, M. accidentally ends up trapped on an NGC ship and becomes involved in a conflict that can bring the end of the human race as such. As standard as this synopsis might sound, it’s both a solid base for a space opera and something that the author manages to develop in interesting ways, that quite often subvert your expectations. With no clear “good guys” in the overarching conflict, constantly high-stakes and personal bonds that the protagonist builds during the story, Stellaren have an emotional impact I’ve never expected from a simple mobile game like this.

Its ambivalence and tendency for plot twists are maybe best represented by X., a (female, obviously) rebel captain and basically a warlord, who acts as the antagonist of the first few chapters of the story. Though she is extremely cruel towards her enemies, whimsical and doesn’t hesitate to lead her subordinates to certain death when necessary, she’s also the closest thing to a leader her faction has and seems to care deeply about its fate. Later, she also proves extremely pragmatic, ignoring the previous hostilities with the protagonist when facing a common enemy. Similar things can be said about the protagonist, who might prove to be suspiciously talented and heroic later in the story, but suffers through numerous defeats and huge personal sacrifices, making him somewhat realistic and relatable. No one here is simply a villain or simply a hero - every character has it's flaws and problems and even the worst of them can show positive traits in the right context. And while the overall story might still no be extremely deep, doesn’t avoid certain harem tropes and would most likely show numerous plotholes if analyzed carefully, it manages to keep the reader emotionally invested and constantly provides enough suspense to not leave any space for overthinking it.

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The visual side of Stellaren is of mostly decent quality, but can be very inconsistent – the bigger screen you use, the more noticeable it becomes.

Maybe the biggest shortcoming of Stellaren is its visual quality, with generic-looking sprites that often hardly match the sci-fi theme, stock backgrounds (both drawn and photographic) and only a few, often-reused CGs of starships and space battles. When I played the game on a 10-inch tablet these low production values were at times very visible, making it clear that the game was more likely designed for phones, on which many unappealing details would be much harder to notice. Still, it was never bad enough to completely take me out of experience or distract me from the story – and the story content itself rarely disappointed. Music similarly was more or less neutral – I’ve played without sound most of the time, so it didn’t get tiring, but with as little variety as it offered it probably would become stale quite fast (especially considering that the full game has at least 5-6 hours of content).

            Stellaren is definitely a deeply flawed game, but as a VN it manages to overcome its technical limitations and deliver a fresh, intriguing story that is in my opinion definitely worth the modest asking price and the time required to read through it. For the more patient readers, the free version is also an option, as while definitely less convenient, it’s still a feature-full product. For me, it was also a pleasant reminder that an interesting story can be hidden even under a very rough exterior of a no-budget indie game when a talented writer is involved. The game ends on a cliffhanger of sorts and has a somewhat decent continuation, called Stellared: Acrux, but it works fine as a standalone product – the sequel actually ends in a much more abrupt way and it's unclear whether if the series will ever receive a proper conclusion, so I advise you to ignore Acrux, unless you really liked the original and want to see more.

 

Final verdict: 3/5

 

Pros:

+ Interesting story premise and setting

+ Well paced, engaging storyline

+ Decently written, interesting characters

 

Cons:

- Very basic visuals and sound

- Clunky UI and mediocre space combat mechanics

- Wasn't able to avoid some silly tropes and writing mistakes

 

Download it for free or buy the pro version on Google Play.

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 general format of the genre, can have their own identity and style.

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A western VN set anywhere else than Japan and with non-Japanese characters? Impossible!

What might catch your attention early when approaching Starlight Vega is the setting – it happens in an unspecified western country, with characters and scenery appropriate for this context and nothing Japanese in sight. Much of the action happens in places like the old manor inherited by protagonist’s family or the woods surrounding it, producing a believable climate of (most likely) European province and giving unique feel to the story. When people argue that western VNs are simply inferior imitations of the Japanese originals, it’s often hard to argue with it – especially when non-JP developers copy the absurdly overused high-school drama format and set everything in Japan, no matter how unnecessary it is for the story or how silly it might feel when coupled with originally-English writing (or even worse, English-only voice acting). Starlight Vega definitely looks for its own identity and for the most part succeeds to differentiate itself from the crowd.

            Without a Japanese high-school as a starting point, we’ve already escaped many of the VN tropes and clichés that could plague this story – and SV does a good job of using this potential to do something a bit different with its plot-line. It starts with the protagonist, Aria, moving into a new home – aforementioned mansion once belonging to her grandfather – using this occasion to invite her best friend Melody for a sleepover. Quickly, strange events start happening, leading the girls to a discovery that suddenly confronts them with a reality of magic, supernatural creatures and various deadly threats, also biding Aria’s fate to a demon she accidentally freed from a crystal. The plot is somewhat relaxed when it goes to pacing, but offers high stakes and decent amounts of drama – much of it is focused on romance, but even in more-relaxed moments it doesn’t forget the life-or-death intrigue happening in the background.

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At first glance, the game might look like "demon-porn" and does a questionable job of dispelling that notion with how it advertises itself – still, it’s nowhere close to being porn by any reasonable definition.

Speaking of romance, this aspect of the game is definitely its selling point and comes out as a positive, even if its not without problems. The three heroines are very different from each other and offers unique perspectives on the overarching storyline (athough there are some inconsistencies and confusing differences between the routes that weren't properly explained in the game). I’ve really enjoyed the emotional dynamic between them and the protagonist and the sexual tension building up in Lyria and Scherza routes. Aria herself is maybe the weakest point here, being rather indecisive and oblivious to clear signals of interest, especially in Melody route (“My best friend can’t possibly love me, even though she confessed to me three time already, right?”) – although this is a very common tactic for prolonging the drama and can be excused to some extent, while in general Aria isn't without some personality and agency. Every romance arc have at least one sex scene, which is mostly delivered through text, accompanied only by partially-nude CGs. The end effect for me felt quite tasteful and enjoyable without ever going into obvious pornography.

            The CGs and the artstyle in general also need to be mentioned in some details, as it’s another way in which this VN differentiates itself from many similar projects. The drawings are often not extremely detailed, but uses softer lines and pastel colours in a way that creates a look distinct from most anime-style visual novels and which for me felt very appealing. Sprites are pretty simple, but good-looking (maybe with a single exception of Aria’s mother and her dead eyes), while CGs vary between pretty and absolutely gorgeous. This style also works very well with the rather-mild eroticism of the story – even at it's most graphic moments, it doesn't feel like hentai. Music, from the catchy menu screen tune to the background music throughout the story matches the overall climate of the game and didn’t make me turn it off at any point, which is much more than I can say about many other indie VNs I’ve read.

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Romance in VNs often feels rushed and contrived - in Starlight Vega all heroines were at least given backstories and motivations that explain their interest in Aria.

The praise I’ve given to SV so far might seem a bit far-fetched, but I think it’s well-deserved and reflects the immense enjoyment the game gave me – obviously, there are also important flaws in it. Some parts of the writing, especially at the beginning of the story, are pretty inconsistent, doing a mediocre job at establishing the characters and making them likeable. Same goes to some endings, like Lyria’s epilogue, which puts the protagonist in some unnecessarily awkward situations, and especially the tacked-on, barely coherent "secret" harem route, which honestly should simply not exist. The yuri romance itself suffers from the same problem that's present in many Japanese titles, that is making all the characters gay by default and never elaborating in any meaningful way on their attraction towards woman (what might be somewhat understandable with “demons” from another world, but much less with an apparently average high-schooler such as Aria).

            For me, all these are rather minor gripes though, for the title which is above all a very sweet yuri romance with an imaginative story and interesting setting. It’s rather short and lacks voice acting, so it definitely cannot compete directly with high-budget titles like Flowers series or Kindred Spirits on the Roof. In it’s own category though, it’s one of the best indie yuri VNs I've read and a memorable experience, that is definitely worth investing the 7-8 hour necessary to read through the three main routes. It also regularly goes on sale on Steam, so if you’re patient, you can grab it for very little money and receive a decent amount of quality content.

 

Final verdict: 3.5/5

 

Pros:

+ Interesting setting and a fairly unique story premise

+ Well-done yuri romance and (non-pornographic) erotic segments

+ Good looking, distinct artstyle

 

Cons:

- Inconsistent storytelling between routes

- Pointless, tacked-on harem route

 

Buy Starlight Vega on Steam

Plk_Lesiak

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As we all know from experience, the formula of visual novel offers various possibilities when it goes to storytelling techniques, making especially the high-budget, Japanese games in the genre much more than just interactive, illustrated books. Still, for most VNs text is unquestionably the core method of delivering the story. This is true especially for the western-developed ones, which rarely can afford high-quality voice acting or animated segments which could occasionally replace written dialogues and descriptions. Even CGs, in a project with very limited budget and manpower, often end up being few and far between. All this makes the literary quality absolutely crucial for the success of such projects. But, great writing is not something you would expect to find in a free game on Steam, is it?

            While Doki Doki Literature Club proved that a free-to-play, western made VNs can from time to time surpass everyone’s expectations, in many ways it wasn’t the first project of its kind. One Thousand Lies, developed by Keinart Lobre and released for free in march 2016, both on Steam and mobile platforms, is another example of an interesting and well-developed non-JP visual novel that doesn't charge even a cent for the possibility of reading it. In my opinion, it’s also one of the more intriguing and creatively written western VNs to date, that can offer a lot of depth and artistic qualities to any reader patient enough to uncover them. Still, it never gathered attention and recognition similar to that of DDLC.

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The games doesn’t shy away from metaphors, symbolism and poetic segments – it’s most likely it’s bigger strength, but some mind find it overbearing

Why do I mention patience at the very beginning of my review though? OTL is a mystery/romance VN, with emphasis being definitely on the “mystery” part. The story, if we ignore the rather cryptic prologue scene, might at first seem like a casual slice-of-life. It follows Ciaran, an apparently average male high-schooler with a somewhat nasty attitude and his small group of close friends, in an setting of a small Spanish town. Yet, it quickly introduces a sequence of strange, inexplicable events, that make you question the logic of the plot and clearly suggest a deeper meaning behind it all. Unrealistic, over-the-top comedy segments, occasional references to philosophy and psychological theory, poetic fairy tales written by the protagonist (beautifully crafted, but at first unclear in their meaning), all further encourage the feeling that we’re missing something crucial, necessary to connect the dots. Like in many stories of this kind, the author insists on keeping his audience in the dark until the very last moments, where with a new revelation everything comes together, giving sense to all past occurrences and previously incomprehensible actions of the characters. The downsides of this approach are pretty obvious - even Steam reviews clearly shows, that for less dedicated readers this form of storytelling might be too confusing and even boring, especially because there's little that player can do to solve the mystery by him/herself.

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The names and appearance of the characters are never without hidden meaning – although uncovering some layers of the story might be a little too complicated, even for a careful and dedicated reader

With OTL being a kinetic novel, it's hard to deny that its style of storytelling can be especially taxing on the player, who has no influence over the action on screen and can only passively observe and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together – most likely without much effect, as the most important parts are intentionally kept hidden from him. Still, while the ultimate meaning of the story reveals itself very late, the core content offered in the meantime is by itself very much worth reading. Well-written dialogues, surprising, absurd humour and interesting characters, all with their own quirks and mysteries to uncover, can make even the most casual moments of OTL quite engaging and fun to read. Darker themes, mostly connected to the protagonist’s mental health (which is, in reality, much more important than the theme of lies and deception, suggested by the title), shows up gradually and constantly poses new questions and adds new layers of meaning to the plot. A patient reader is also rewarded with an ending in my opinion worthy of all the build-up leading to it – bitter-sweet to some extent, but compelling and hopeful enough to leave you satisfied (and maybe even quite moved – it definitely made my eyes go teary for a few moments).

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The game’s visuals might be limited, as it often is with one-person passion projects, but still manage to be rather consistent and pleasing to the eye

All this is supported by the somewhat simple, but appealing visual assets. The most memorable part of the graphical layer is definitely the gorgeous, masterfully designed character sprites, which gives the game much of its personality. Those are supported by good-looking CGs (although there’s very few of those – 7 in the whole game) and basic photographic backgrounds, edited well-enough to not stand out in a negative way. Similar things can be said about music, which never stood out to me very much, but complimented the rest of the content very well – while I definitely think literary qualities are OTL’s greatest strength, other aspects are also all-around solid. One thing that also has to be mentioned is that the game seemed to be originally developed in Spanish. This makes the English version I’ve played that more impressive – it never felt like a translation from a probably superior original, but exactly the high-quality product it was meant to be.

           In summary, I strongly encourage every VN fan to give One Thousand Lies a try. It’s definitely not a perfect game and the storytelling formula it uses (obscuring crucial information from the reader and then using it as a deus ex machina) was criticised many times in the past and in connection to countless pieces of media. It also presents one of the less appealing protagonists I’ve encountered in visual novels – an assessment that hold for the most parts even after we learn the reasons behind his behaviour. All that being said, it definitely manages to stand out from the crowd with impressive literary qualities and memorable story, while tackling important and rarely discussed topics in an intriguing and convincing way. Saying more would spoil it, but if you give this game a proper chance, it will definitely be worth your time (it takes around 7-8 hours to fully read through) – and being free to play, that time is all it will ever ask from you.

 

Final verdict: 4/5

 

Pros:

+ Fairly unique, multi-layered story

+ Well though-out characters that can and will surprise you

+ Interesting, well written philosophical and poetic segments

 

Cons:

- Can be confusing and intentionally misleads the reader – doesn’t let you solve the mystery for yourself

- Some segments of the story can drag on for too long

- Over-the-top, random humour might take you out of the experience

 

Download One Thousand Lies for free on Steam or Google Play

Plk_Lesiak

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

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The game does an amazing job of creating a unique climate and placing its UI and storytelling techniques within the setting – even explaining why you only use preset dialogue lines for communication.

So, what is Analogue about and why I find it so special? The game focuses on an unnamed protagonist, sent on a salvage mission to a derelict colony ship, which was lost in space many centuries earlier. On the ship, apparently devoid of any life, the player encounters two AIs and attempt to uncover the mystery behind the crew’s disappearance – mostly following a story of the Pale Bride, a terminally ill girl that was locked in a stasis pod by her parents, in hope that the future technology might bring a cure for her condition, only to be awakened in a time of dramatic social and technological regress. Everything is presented through minimalistic, but thematically fitting user interface – you spend most of your time going through computer terminals and databases, interacting from time to time with the AIs in charge of the ship, but mostly reading through various logs and messages. While this might not sounds like the most exciting concept, it really fits the main premise of the story and let you immerse yourself in the role of an astronaut studying a space-travel disaster-site.

            Still, what truly makes this apparently-dull formula engaging, especially in the first playthrough, is the quality of the writing and the emotional impact of the stories told. The game’s author, Christine Love, is primarily a writer and the level of her craftsmanship shows in pretty much every piece of text available in the game. While it isn’t especially long (shouldn't take more than 6-7 hours to fully read through), Analogue manages to create a great main intrigue and a pretty significant cast of memorable characters, both in the historic records of the ship's databases and in the form of two AIs that the player interacts with. While the setting itself, extremely oppressive and patriarchal, might feel like a bit of a stretch – we are only told that it’s an effect of unknown disaster which led the whole ship out of its course and into endless drifting on a remote star system, not why its social order evolved in this direction – it works very well as a plot vehicle.

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The "conformist" A.I., *Mute, while foul-mouthed and unsympathetic, is not simply a representation of patriarchy or a stock villain – she’s a deeply flawed, but interesting character, providing many meaningful insights and interactions.

Here there’s a need for a bit of an elaboration – the game isn’t shy about it’s ideological stance and the intent of being not only a story, but a piece of social commentary. Pale Bride’s story is one of a dramatic clash between modern values and lifestyle, and extremely patriarchal, feudal society styled after medieval/early modernity Korea. The values and common sense ideas of that era are presented through *Mute, a security AI which might use female form, but in her opinions and commentary shows the deeply rooted misogyny and oppressive nature of the ship’s regressed society. Still, just as most characters in the story, she isn’t simply a villain – she’s a product of a specific social order and not only can show sympathy and devotion to other people, but reacts in humane way when confronted with information that defies her expectations. While some people try to reject Analogue as a propaganda piece, it doesn't show a black-and-white picture, but points out the tragedies connected to this kind of oppressive social order and the situation of those that don’t fit into its norms. It’s a feminist game through and through, but not an ideological pamphlet – it’s not made to hamfist certain ideas into your had, but to make you think and empathize with those put in similar situations as some of the character’s in the story. And it wouldn't be effective at that if it didn't strive, and succeed, at being an impressive piece of literary fiction, that feels genuine and inspired in its storytelling.

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The game manages to create a lot of emotional tension and occasionally shock the player – when the main mysteries are revealed,  it’s very hard to stay unaffected.

Of course, Analogue is far from being a perfect game. The database structure can be somewhat bothersome, often not giving any clear indications what you have to do to unlock additional logs and progress through the game (in my first playthrough, 3 years ago, I was stuck like that 2-3 times, frantically browsing the messages and looking for what interaction with the AI I’ve missed). There’s also one timed puzzle-sequence, which for me felt extremely confusing and more or less unapproachable without a guide. Endings are very much a mixed bad, the primary ones (1&2) being in my opinion extremely impactful, while other ones often leave you without much to think about. Also as I’ve already mentioned, the visuals are fairly basic and music also rather serves as a background for your data-sorting activities than stands out in any way. One could say that Analogue prioritizes plain text over any other kind of storytelling technique available to VNs and to some extent I would have to agree.   

            Still, in my opinion it’s a remarkable and in many aspects unique experience, that every VN fan out there should try for him/herself. It will always stay as a “10” in my VNDB listings not because it is a “perfect game” (probably not even close to it), but because of the huge and lasting impressions it left me with – the kind of experience that makes it hard to sleep even after “refreshing” the game years later, but which you definitely don’t regret having.

 

Final verdict: 4,5/5


Pros:

+ A really engaging, impactful main story

+ Unique, well-crafted setting

+ Immersive UI and storytelling

 

Cons:

- (For some readers) A strong, easily identifiable ideological message

- Main database is sometimes hard to navigate and progress through

- Confusing timed sequence that catches you by surprise

- Limited replayability – only two marginally different story routes


Buy Analogue: A Hate Story on Steam

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