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About this blog

Steam Curator Page

This blog is devoted to popularization and discussion about western-produced VNs. My main goal will be 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.

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 our VN development scene.

Entries in this blog

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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