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About this blog

Twitter (for news and announcements)

Steam Curator Page

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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World War 2 and Nazi Germany aren’t completely atypical themes in VN and manga/anime – some beloved and high-profile titles, such as Dies Irae or Hellsing take a very direct inspiration from nazi imagery and legends about NSDAP’s elites’ dealings with the occult. More down-to-Earth war stories are however much rarer in this context – prominent franchises such as Valkyrie Chronicles or Saga of Tanya the Evil not only utilize much less controversial political and military framework of WW1, but also add significant fantasy elements to the mix.

          To apparently remedy this sorry state of affairs, a small OELVN titled Panzer Hearts was recently released on Steam. Developed by HELYEES, this game promises a story of war and romance in an alternate universe WW2. To this it also adds the theme of tank-building, that should probably excite every military geek such as myself. However, as fantastic as this all sounds, can this tiny indie game actually deliver on all that?

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The game’s vision of totalitarian society is believable and well thought-out, but with an around 5-hour long story, it's ultimately too short to explore it to a satisfying degree

The game’s story follows Bastian, a young soldier of the totalitarian, expansionist Empire (vastly resembling Nazi Germany, but with the national-socialist imaginary replaced by Ancient Egyptian themes), who idealistically enlisted for the army and was humiliatingly wounded the first time he saw combat. After heavy recovery and an emotional breakdown, he’s personally enlisted by an influential officer, colonel Kontar Ackermann, to work at a new tank factory, starting a journey that will lead him either to embracing or rejecting the oppressive system he lives in, while falling in love with one of two girls, each of them pretty much representing polar opposite stances on the Empire.

          The focus of the story definitely lays on the political reality of Bastian’s homeland and his personal struggle to understand the reality around him. The losses inflicted upon his family by the war, indoctrination he went through and his naive idealism are all explored in pretty interesting ways and the way they clash with brutal realities of the Empire’s terror and violence are the driving force of the plot. Also, the writing makes clear the moral ambiguity of pretty much all of the possible choices – while the Empire is clearly a brutal, potentially genocidal dictatorship, rejecting it also means betraying all the people that aided Bastian and laid their trust on him after he returned from the front. From this point of view, loyalist ending is maybe the most interesting part of the game, not only resolving the moral conflicts of the story in a convincing manner, but also pointing out to the rewards an authoritarian offers to it’s most loyal and capable servants and the allure of power that it can grant to an individual.

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Tank-building segments could’ve been a very nice touch if they were even slightly more involved and varied

What, however, is very praiseworthy in the general outline, it not always as good when it goes to details and the way some of these ideas are executed. Panzer Hearts on many occasions shows the cracks within the Empire’s perfect facade and various heresies against the dominant ideology, often coming from those publicly most loyal to the system and the first ones to silence anyone questioning it. This subplots, however, are pretty much never explored much beyond the sheer fact of their existence – and some of them begged to have deeper ramification and expose the characters more deeply to the dread of totalitarian violence, rather than just showing the inherent hypocrisy of ideology-driven regimes. Dialogues also disappoint slightly, feeling a bit unnatural and chaotic when they go into ideological discussions and conflicts between the characters – they never seem to reach the depth and impact that the authors obviously wanted them to have.

          However, a really major disappointment for me came from the tank-building “mini-game”, which was marketed as one of the selling point of the game and in reality can barely be even described as a gameplay element. Only a few “assembling” segments are present in Panzer Hearts  and all of them consist of simply dragging the parts vaguely around their appropriate places, without any skill or challenge involved. While they’re well-embedded within the story and relevant for the plot, they just begged for more variety – the German armored vehicles of WW2 are a huge source of interesting designs and trivia and using that potential seems like an obvious choice for a game that seems like it was meant to appeal fans of military history and equipment. Sadly, the game stops at absolute basics, just borrowing a few famous tank models and vaguely describing their capabilities.

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The game’s simple visuals sadly take away some of the impact from the very dark, oppressive setting and storyline

Another issue, for many probably much more important, is the choice system in the game, which is pretty much meaningless past a few paths that lead you to immediate bad endings and the final decision that determines the ending you get. The games give you Telltale-style feedback to most of your actions (including the always-ominous "X will remember what you said about Y"), making you feel like you’re working towards something on every step, but none of it actually changes the plot, which branches out only at the very end of the story – I personally didn’t mind it very much, but those hating having only an illusion of control might be heavily disappointed.

          The possible dealbreaker, however, comes in the form of game’s visuals – while the quality of the art is not dreadful, it definitely has a problem of not really matching the extremely heavy subject matter. I have a feeling that the same story, presented with a more refined and darker aesthetic, could be much more impactful. The artist’s take on Egyptian themes also looks quite interesting and at times appealing, but lacks the polish necessary to really make it convincing. Of course, considering that Panzer Hearts was made by a tiny, more or less amateur team there’s no point in bashing those aspects of the game, but they’re definitely something to consider as a consumer.

          In the end, though, I do recommend giving this VN a chance – it’s a decent attempt at telling a kind of story and building a setting that we don’t really see within the medium, done with obvious knowledge and understanding of the topic is tries to tackle. Because of that, it’s something I would definitely like to see more of in the OELVN scene and if HELYEES decides to create another title in similar style, I’ll be very interesting in seeing it. However flawed, it's a good start, hopefully, one that will lead towards more polished and expansive projects.

 

Final Score: 2,5/5
 

Pros:

- Unique setting

- Serious approach to topics of war and totalitarianism

Cons:

- Mediocre dialogue

- Simple visuals

- Doesn’t capitalize on some of its best ideas
 

VNDB page

Buy Panzer Hearts on Steam or download a free demo

Plk_Lesiak

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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

 

VNDB page

Download CUPID for free on Steam or 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

 

VNDB pages: Magical Otoge Ciel; Magical Otoge Anholly

Download Magical Otoge Ciel and Magical Otoge Anholly for free

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

 

VNDB page

Download Cute Demon Crashers for free on Itch.io

Plk_Lesiak

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.

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

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

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

Ebi-Hime is one of the very few OELVN developers who managed to establish themselves as 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?

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 the 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.

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.

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
 
VNDP page
Buy Blackberry Honey on Steam
Plk_Lesiak

I usually try to avoid reviewing really bad OELVNs, unless they’re especially interesting or notable despite its failure – after all, in any semi-amateur game development scene, the bad and horribly iterative titles will be far more numerous than those actually worthy of your attention. Writing about the former, especially when my goal is to promote OELVNs as a niche worth exploring, is simply a waste of time and possibly even counter-productive. However, just like Carpe Diem: Reboot, today’s game is a great opportunity to look at some problems and tropes very characteristic of the Western VN scene, in a game that actually had the production values and traces of genuine effort that should at least make it an average, reasonably enjoyable product. And the sin that made it ultimately fail was not silly writing that plagued Carpe Diem, but something even worse – boredom.
            Sweet Volley High, developed by New West Games and released on Steam in October 2016, was marketed as a “yuri/otome Visual Novel”, featuring a female protagonist and both female and male romance options. While some might already feel unease about such use of the terms "yuri" and "otome", both of which usually denotes a bit more than just romantic configurations available, it hints at a much deeper problems – game’s utter lack of personality and very poor use of the themes it tries to tackle. Supposedly trying to appeal to a broad audience, it in reality wasn’t able to replicate the appeal of neither yuri nor otome games, just as it didn’t manage to create a satisfying alternative to those formulas. But, why exactly that is the case?

The game’s art is inconsistent, but is far from being Sweet Volley High's worse element and occasionally the CGs can be quite pleasing to the eye
The game’s biggest problem is most likely it’s protagonist, Aya. This time, however, it’s not about her negative, annoying or unrealistic traits and more about lack of any interesting characteristics whatsoever. An apparently average, even boring lead is not a rare occurrence in the world of VNs. There is one catch there though – normally, there’s either some kind of secret that changes our perception of the MC drastically or something happens that forces them to rise above mediocrity and become a compelling character. Here the protagonist is simply dull, even in her better moments and also has a quality that for me personally was off-putting – she utterly lacks any charm or femininity that makes yuri VNs different from most of what's available on the market and interesting to read. Her dialogue and thoughts simply screamed “a guy wrote that”, killing the last possible piece of appeal she might’ve had.
            This problem is deepened by the atrocious pacing of the pretty long common route, during which Aya discovers her passion for volleyball and, for the first time in her life, starts to work towards a goal. The romance options are mostly connected to her high school’s volleyball team (apart from the male route, which features an aspiring soccer player), but it’s hard to emphasize how obvious and uninspired all the plot-points and character introductions feel at this part of the game – surviving the 3-4 hours of reading, until the first choices appear and the romance arcs start to develop, can be a real challenge. There’s a thin line between casual, slow-paced storytelling and showing things that are absolutely mundane and inconsequential and from the first, long episode of Aya looking out of the window during class and explaining how average and bored she is, Sweet Volley High is definitely on that second end of the spectrum.

Maybe nothing drags Sweet Volleyball High down more than the fact how bland and uninteresting the protagonist is – a sad exception among the western yuri VNs
There’s one interesting surprise waiting for those more patient readers though, and that’s the structure of the romance routes. Firstly, when you would expect some of the romance arcs reaching a conclusion soon and giving you a happy ending, the game introduces plot twists and additional layers of drama, that expands the story significantly and giving it additional depth. This works especially well in the Nanami route, which also feels like the most developed and interesting part of the game. The really unusual elements show up in two smaller character routes, both of which only have a bad ending – one leading to your love interest cheating on you, the second one ending with a rejection. While this undoubtfully enraged many readers, it’s probably the biggest positive I can find about this game – these “dead end” routes represent a form of realism and respect for the characters that is rarely seen in romance VNs. The failures of the relationships in them do not "come out of nowhere", but are strongly connected to the established traits and life situations of those involved – they're both possible to predict and in a way quite refreshing (even if the actual execution, especially with Eri’s mini-arc, leaves a lot to be desired).
            When it goes to art, the game is fairly inconsistent – there are some very pretty CGs and the sprites don’t look that bad, but they seriously lack variety and some assets are fairly laughable – including some of the hentai illustrations, which are supposed to be one of the game’s selling points. Maybe the worst of it all is probably the user interface – it might seem petty to focus on something this “minor”, but in a title where you spend most of your time reading, an aesthetic UI is very important. How it looks in Sweet Volley High, apart from a pretty nasty colour pallet, simply screams generic and uninspired, showing the general lack of attention to detail and ambition on the part of the devs.

The one good romance arc is definitely worth mentioning, but it can’t nullify the absolute agony of reading through the common route
There’s also one thing that could be counted among the game’s redeeming qualities, but which really even worsened it for me personally – partial voice acting. While I’m already not a fan of that technique (really, either voice your game fully or let my imagination do its job, rather than randomly switch between silent and voiced moments), the way it was done here is even more distracting that it had to be – apart from fully voiced lines, there are voice cues that appear repeatedly in otherwise silent parts of the dialogue – after a few times of hearing “Aya!” at the beginning of an unvoiced sentence I was just tempted to mute voice acting altogether. The only reason I didn’t do it is that whenever full VA is present, it’s actually very decent, definitely above an average quality level for OELVNs.
            In the end, though, the relatively positive elements simply couldn’t change the ultimate problems of the game – its poor pacing, uninteresting lead and utterly unappealing common route, that makes it impossible to really get immersed or care about the characters. What also might be worth mentioning, the game takes place in Japan, but there’s not a single plot element that would really benefit from that fact – it's like if Sweet Volley High actively tried to be the most generic “weeb” title out there, making sure to avoid any originality or inclusion of dev’s own cultural background. Because of all that, it proved to be a thoroughly unsatisfying title and I strongly recommend avoiding it at all cost.  
 
Final score: 1,5/5
 
Pros:
+ Good voice acting
+ Bold storytelling in some of the routes – not every romance will have a happy end
Cons:
- Horribly boring common route
- Unlikable, boring protagonist
- Annoying voice cues
- Poor visual design
 
VNDB page
(Do not) buy Sweet Volley High on Steam
Plk_Lesiak

Visual novels with the possibility to choose protagonist’s gender are fairly rare and the usual focus on storytelling and romance makes it especially harder to pull off properly. Creating games such as Loren: The Amazon Princess, with a possibility to choose between two fully-fleshed characters, one male and one female, with their own personalities and set of romance options takes a lot of work and only fits certain kinds of stories. On the other hand, VNs in which that choice only changes minor details in the dialogue and overall have to struggle to make the narrative convincing – especially in the female version, which more often than not will be an afterthought created by slightly modifying the default scenario.
            Razzart Visual, the author behind highly-regarded yuri VNs Love Ribbon and Starlight Vega, is also the person behind much less critically-acclaimed ecchi games, which featured female love interests and the ability to choose protagonist’s gender, making them in a way both classical romance VNs and yurige. On May 4th a third game in this formula, Wolf Tails, was released on Steam, featuring romance scenario with a rarely-seen kemonomimi variant, that is wolfgirls, and a new artstyle. How does it compare to Razz’s previous projects and does it succeed in being both a traditional eroge and a yuri?

The gender-specific cut-ins and dialogue fragments are actually well done, although it’s still easy to notice which variant of the story was the original one
The previous ecchi titles by Razz, Catch Canvas and Happy Camper did a fairly atypical thing, adding a possibility to play as a female while maintaining a very standard, Wing Cloud-esque structure of fanservice VN. As a fan of yuri, I rather enjoy that option in Catch Canvas, as it not only was fairly well implemented (with references to the protagonist being a woman in places where you would logically expect them) but also slightly changed the tone of what was originally a rather pervy game. Happy Campers, however, failed to deliver even to that extent – while the option to play as a female was theoretically there, its effect on the story was pretty much non-existent. What’s even worse, some scenes and situations were in obvious ways written with a male MC in mind, shattering the already paper-thin yurige fantasy.
            Wolf Tails goes a step further than those previous games – apart from the gender-specific dialogue lines and some elaboration on f/f romance, it adds CGs in which the protagonist is partially visible. It’s still hard to consider it a fully-fledged yuri, as the fact of the male protagonist being the default option and the other one being added by modifying it afterwards is pretty clear and the game is sometimes struggling to do so in a logical manner. Playing with a female lead is, however, a fully viable way of experiencing the story, especially if you consistently choose the same gender and are not aware of the workarounds that made the yuri version possible.

The romance and slice-of-life moments of the game are solid, but also generic to the point they wouldn’t be out of place in a Sakura game
Wolf Tails is also more of an actual romance story than Catch Canvas and Happy Campers. The moment a near-frozen-to-death wolfgirl appear in your remote mountain cabin, disturbing your consciously-chosen solitude, the game start developing a fairly serious and touching storyline. Even though it’s very short, taking up to 5 hours to 100% and not more than 2,5 hour for a single playthrough, it doesn't feel incomplete or particularly rushed. The heroines – nice, well-mannered Mirari and fierce (tsundere) Fuyu – could probably receive a bit more development, but the writing manages to make them appealing enough and their backstories and endings (the branching is minor enough that it’s hard to really talk about separate “routes”) have quite a lot of emotional impact.
            The downside of the short storyline is that because of how relatively shallow and simple it has to be, beyond the interesting visual designs and the brief feeling of novelty from the wolfgirls it comes out as very generic (with the corny concluding moments only strengthening that effect). My experiences with Razz’s previous work probably made this problem even deeper – knowing well the style of Zestubou, the writer she consistently works with, I knew pretty exactly what to expect, including the wording and scenarios in the erotic scenes. For most readers, it shouldn’t be a huge problem though, as the game more or less delivers on its main promises – being a cute, fun romance story with a decent portion of “sexy” elements (including the fully-fledged 18+ CGs unlockable through a free patch).

Although for the first time under the Razzart label the art was not drawn by Razz herself, the visual quality of the game is as solid as ever
What definitely helps the sexiness and cuteness becoming actual upsides of the game is the fairly unique and gorgeous art by Naso4. Being a bit of an opposite of Razz’s style, with sharp outlines and a bit extravagant designs, it was something that took me a few moments to get used to, but the actual quality of sprites of CGs was impossible to dispute. As is all of Razz’s game, the rest of production qualities was also high, with very pretty backgrounds and aesthetically-pleasing, functional UI. My personal plight of not noticing the music in most OELVNs, however, wasn’t broken here and, as usual, I will interpret it as the soundtrack being serviceable enough to neither stand out nor get in the way of experiencing the story.
            So, in the end, is Wolf Tails worth your time? In my opinion, it’s definitely a well-made, enjoyable little romance VN and I definitely don’t regret my time with it. If you’re into love stories and/or are looking for slightly different visual style and themes than in most romance OELVNs, it should definitely deliver. With how short it is, however, it might be debatable if it will be worth the full asking price of 10$ to everyone – if you’re not sure whether you’ll truly enjoy it, wait for it to go on sale. That way you really shouldn’t ever regret picking it up.
 
Final score: 3/5
 
Pros:
+ High-quality art
+ Not overbearing fanservice and erotic scenes
Cons:
- Very short
- Cliched story
 
VNDB page
Buy Wolf Tails on Steam or Itch.io
Plk_Lesiak

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.

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 a 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 make it quite enjoyable – while the main “twist” is very much predictable, the stories and secrets of the heroes are interesting and written in a 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.

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 don’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”
 
VNDB page
Download Locked Heart for free for PCs or on Google Play
Plk_Lesiak

Note: While I didn't plan on tackling Japanese-produced OELVNs on this blog, this title is a perfect representation of mobile game market's business practices implemented in a VN and for this reason was worth a closer look. More than by itself, it's interesting as a negative example of scammy policies that aren't in any way endemic to JP developers and are sadly used by many different companies with various backgrounds.
I don’t think many people have any doubts about how horrible the mobile game market is nowadays, both when it goes to quality and dominating business models. Generic, borderline plagiaristic games, ridden with pay-to-win mechanics and exploitative microtransaction systems are a sad standard in most genres popular on 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.

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.

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 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, most of the time 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
 
VNDB page
Please, don’t ever download Moe! Ninja Girls on Google Play
Plk_Lesiak

Mobile phones and tablets, especially Android devices, are strangely underutilized as a platform for VN publishing, with few high-profile titles being ported to them (especially when it goes to English versions) and underwhelming selection of dedicated mobile releases. Also, existing Android versions of famous visual novels, such as Narcissu, suffer from technical issues that you wouldn’t expect from what is ultimately a very simple application, based on text and still images. Occasional Ace Attorney spin-off or an original iOS title such as Fragment’s Note doesn’t change much in this general picture.
            This apparent disinterest of JP VN producers in the mobile market 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.

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.

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.

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
 
VNDB page
Download Stellaren for free or buy the pro version on Google Play.
Plk_Lesiak

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

The game 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 the 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 a 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.

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).

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 holds 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 thought-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
 
VNDB page
Download One Thousand Lies for free on Steam or Google Play
Plk_Lesiak
In March I've brought you two interviews with notable yuri and otome OELVN developers, talking with Nami and Reine Works' founder, Jackie M. Today, however, we're venturing into the world of very, very traditional romance (with equally high levels of cuteness), as my guest is ds-sans, the author of a lovely freeware VN Sounds of Her Love (be sure to check my review of that game) and the upcoming commercial title Chemically Bonded. I encourage you to join us as we discuss the place of all-ages romance in the VN scene, the role of voice acting in OELVNs and more.
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Plk_Lesiak: Welcome and thank you for accepting my invitation! While many people in the VN community might recognize your nick, they probably don’t know much beyond that. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
ds-sans: I wouldn't really say that I'm that interesting. I'm currently an undergraduate student at university in the UK studying geography, with an interest in anime and related media in my spare time. (Although, that's died down in recent years.) If I were to describe my current background, it'd be fairly cliché, just like the stories of my VNs. I started developing VNs in 2015, while I was 16, but really showed an interest in January 2014. I didn't make it that far though and only really came back to it to prove that I could do something if I tried.
PL: Sooo... Where did the "ds-sans" label come from?
ds: In all honesty, I don't think the name really means anything. From what I remember, I think I honestly scrambled a few letters together from a car's registration plate, but this was a good 4 years ago. To clarify though, it has nothing to do with Japanese honorifics at least. I'd only started getting into anime a few months prior and still had no clue as to their usage.
The story itself isn't that special, but the name stuck and at this point, I feel that it's too late to change it.
PL: You create rather tame, cute romances in a market that seem to reward ecchi and h-content over anything else. Why this formula?
ds: Pure romance novels have always been very diverse in the EVN industry, in my opinion. From what I've personally seen, many of the tamer romance titles are either a lot more Western in style or are low-scale non-commercial in nature and target a different audience. As far as I'm aware, there are relatively few commercial B x G titles with no 18+ content which take significant influence from Japanese VNs.
Reading Clannad was really influential in my decision to focus on cute romance stories as I wanted to emphasize emotional connections between people over physical. If I were to add scenes like that into the stories, they'd need to supplement that motive as opposed to attracting more sales or getting people off. Katawa Shoujo is a good example of a VN which does h-scenes in this way. It's the formula which my inspiration is driven from, but it's not as if I'm not open to expanding into different genres for different audiences in the future.

Lost Impressions
PL: Your first VN, Lost Impressions, used some pretty heavy themes and drastic plot developments. What inspired that project and what do you think about it today?
ds: Lost Impressions is definitely the 'black sheep' of my VNs, but I feel that's because it was the first. At that point, I didn't really have much of an idea as to what I was doing and a lot of the inspiration came from the early animes I was watching. A fusion between the cutesy romance shows and series such as Higurashi and Mirai Nikki. I just wanted to get something out there.
I can't say whether I hate it or love it, really, it just sticks there in my past as an obscure title. There are definitely parts of it I think could be better conveyed, looking back. It's something I'd like to do one day. 36,000 words wasn't nearly enough for what I was trying to convey, especially when it's split between three routes. The development process too is just as confusing as the plot itself. Most of the resources that were original to the game were sourced through work/art trades or volunteer work. A lot of that depended on just sticking with what was done, which is why there's about 5 different art styles. Still, I'd never say that I regret making it.
PL: You consistently use Japan as the setting for your VNs. Why set a western-made game – and a one with English voice acting on top of that – in Japan?
ds: One of the main reasons I take Japan as the setting for the stories comes down to the freeware nature of my first two VNs. Finding backgrounds for the games which would fit into a global range of scenarios was a challenging task at the time, with many having Japanese itself somewhere visible in the image. It's not something I minded, since at the time it aligned with my anime interests, but now that I'm starting out in the commercial market, getting custom assets is a lot easier. Even though everything in Chemically Bonded is unique, I still felt that setting the story in Japan would be appropriate to get the interest of my target audience. Writing stories set there accurately is the biggest problem about it though, which is why with Sounds of Her Love I took the approach of setting the story in an international school to avoid cultural discrepancies.
With the voice acting, it really comes down to my reasoning behind having it in the games in the first place.
PL: Staying on that topic then, you're one of the relatively few OELVN developers who seem to consistently rely on voice acting. What's your rationale behind including VA in your projects?
ds: Hiring voice actors is honestly one of the most ignored gems of making a visual novel, at least for projects with an emphasis on the story. Having an idea of how a character might sound or react in your head is one thing, but guaranteeing that each reader will think the same is another. It's one thing to add a s-s-stutter to the dialogue, but hearing the nervousness and embarrassment in a VAs voice really sells the emotions and feelings of a character and adds to the situation.
It's also easier to add personality to the characters too. In Chemically Bonded, Kiyoko is a lot more upbeat and cute whereas Naomi is blunt and insulting. Writing the lines for that is easy enough, but connecting a voice to them that suits the characters I feel allows readers to really grasp their personalities quicker than with just plain text. With voice acting, selling the scene is a lot easier and really helps to convey the story to the reader. You also get to work with really great people too, which is always wonderful to be able to do as it not just builds a community of players around the VN but a community of different people working on the project (in a way, a temporary studio of freelancers?).
I don't think Sounds of Her Love or Chemically Bonded would have done as well as they might without the use of voice acting in them.

Chemically Bonded
PL: How would you describe your experience with implementing VA in a larger project such as Chemically Bonded? Have you struggled with any aspect of it?
ds: There haven't really been any major problems in having VA in Chemically Bonded so far. You have to account for the rate of people's work and your own ability to describe clearly how each character should sound. Most of the struggles just come from implementing that many lines into the game, especially when there's an increased focus on the conversation between the characters. Ensuring that each line is clear too is another minor thing. It's not something that usually happens, but it's always something you have to consider when having VA in a project. So far, working with the voice actresses in the project has been a wonderful experience.
PL: Sounds of Her Love, your second freeware game, had pretty high production quality and gathered quite a lot of attention. Did you make it with the switch to commercial VN projects in mind?
ds: Sounds of Her Love was really intended to be my last project at the time of starting development. After releasing Lost Impressions, I felt the need to produce something of a higher quality before really giving up on producing VNs. I never really intended to go commercial until after SoHL was released, since I didn't expect it to get that much attention.
The budget for the entire project was around $300, allowing me some leeway with hiring artists with the style I was after (the sprite artist for SoHL now working with us on Chemically Bonded as both the sprite and CG artist). The real reason I decided upon producing a commercial VN was after working for DEVGRU-P on their game Stay Stay DPRK and using the funds from their payment to invest into a Kickstarter campaign.
PL: Speaking of DEVGRU-P, they act as a publisher for both SoHL and Chemically Bonded and you seem to have a close relationship with them – in the era where self-publishing on Steam and other platforms is an easily accessible option for VN creators, do you think there's any major benefit to such cooperation?
ds: Publishing is probably one of the harder aspects of developing a commercial title. I wouldn't call our relationship that 'close', since I've really have had complete independence in creating and managing my projects, but it really is 'ideal' for a developer-publisher relationship. They're really great to work with and have picked up a few other EVN groups which I believe them to help out considerably more with certain aspects.
The only real downside to having a publisher are some limitations with managing the sales and figures of the title. I have considered self-publishing, but right now having the support of a larger entity is a real benefit and I would recommend it for people starting out with commercial game development. I can't speak for all publishers, but working with a group with an ability to provide support and additional marketing truly helps.
PL: Coming back to Chemically Bonded. Even though you reached the first stretch goal, your Kickstarter was a pretty close call, being funded less than 48 hours before deadline – did it teach you anything about crowdfunding and would you do anything differently when attempting another campaign?
ds: Social media and the importance of reaching out and spreading awareness was definitely something I took out of running Chemically Bonded's Kickstarter campaign. The work doesn't end after you launch, a lot of effort had to be put into marketing the campaign, you can't just rely on the hope that people will come across it through Kickstarter itself. Twitter was one of our biggest platforms for spreading awareness, but it reached a point where it stopped being useful in gathering interest. Contacting game/anime/VN journalism outlets was a key help in getting us past the funding goal.
One real regret is not releasing a demo for the project to go alongside the campaign. At that point, there weren't enough assets to really create one and even then I was against the idea, but having gone through most of the latter half of the campaign with the assumption that it'd fail to meet the goal, I changed my mind about the idea. I think it'd definitely help when crowdfunding another title.

Sounds of Her Love
PL: For those who know your style of storytelling from SoHL, should they expect a very similar experience from your new game or is there something that might surprise them?
ds: People can hope to expect something similar in execution, but with Chemically Bonded a lot of the key parts have been done differently, which should hopefully surprise people and prove to be more enjoyable than what SoHL was. Looking back on it, there were plenty of issues with the story and the way it was written. I wanted to address these within Chemically Bonded as I didn't feel that they'd work out in a longer VN whereas they seemed to work given SoHL's short nature. Having two love interests too really changes the way the story has to be written, at least to include both girls into the main story without keeping their routes entirely separate.
Chemically Bonded is a lot more grounded in reality, I've tried to make the events that happen a lot more likely than what occurred in SoHL and Lost Impressions. There are no car accidents or tragic backstories, the romance isn't cliched as hell and the characters are a lot deeper than my previous works. The choices are a more vague too, rather than being predictable, so the routes and endings achieved should hopefully reflect the reader's instincts. I could go into a lot more detail, but to summarise I'd say people can expect a rather captivating romantic story like SoHL had, but will give people a chance to connect with more fledged characters and themes. That and the production quality is a lot better now we have the funding to do it, so, all in all, I think people who liked SoHL will appreciate Chemically Bonded much more. The story doesn't just end after a confession either, so I think people will appreciate that too.
PL: Assuming that Chemically Bonded meets your expectations when it goes to sales and general reception, do you have any specific plans for future VN projects?
ds: If it does, I'd like to continue making VNs at some point. I don't have any specific plans yet, and I feel like I'd need the time to really recoup interest in developing another project. I've always had on and off ideas for future VNs throughout developing all three, but when it comes down to creating something new I usually come up with a fresh idea and discard the old.
For a while, I promised a full sequel to Sounds of Her Love, and I did create plans for it, but I don't feel the need to rush into it after Chemically Bonded releases. I'd hope to branch out into different story genres, but even then I'd find it hard to escape producing romantic stories since that's what I've really become accustomed to at this point. Who knows? I might try developing two at once and see how that goes, or I might leave it at Chemically Bonded. I know for a fact that I won't be producing a sequel to it though. At the moment I stick to what I like to work on, which I think is what people should really follow when making any kind of creative project, not what the market expects.
PL: Thank you for your time!
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I hope you all enjoyed the interview - it was definitely the most detail-heavy one so far and I've had some great time working on it. As always, all feedback will be highly appreciated. What more would you want to know about the devs I invite here? Are there any specific ones whose thoughts on certain topics you would like to hear? Let me know what you think and, once again, have a great weekend!
Plk_Lesiak
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

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

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

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

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

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
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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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
 
VNDB page
Buy Love Ribbon on Steam
Plk_Lesiak

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.

 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.

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
 
VNDB page
Buy A Little Lily Princess on Steam
Plk_Lesiak

Check out my interview with the developer of this game, ds-sans!
Is there any merit to creating a tame, single-heroine romance VN in a market that seems to be flooded with cuteness and romance, often in much more "advanced" forms? Do a romance VN need to invent something fresh and original to be successful? Is it even possible to be innovative in the world of cute love stories with the kind of saturation the genre offers?
          Sounds of Her Love, a small freeware title published over a year ago by DEVGRU-P and created by ds-sans, an indie developer then pretty much unknown to the VN community, made me think about all these issues in a fairly substantial manner. And the answer it suggested to me, both due to my personal enjoyment and the warm reception it received from other readers, was: when making a romance story in the visual novel format, you don't have to create anything particularly new, as long as you do the basics really, really well. SoHL, in my opinion, managed to do exactly that.

The heroine’s genuine cuteness, enhanced by good VA work, is the game’s biggest asset – and for the most part, it’s used really well
The story of the game is as standard as it goes - our (nameable) protagonist starts attending an international school in Japan and on his first day witnesses a girl dropping her library card. This event swiftly introduces our sole heroine and the only voiced character – Ceridwen (Ceri for short), a shy and asocial Welsh girl, whose slightly dramatic backstory and developing relationship with the MC will be the main focus of the 5-hour long story. Both the visual design and voice acting on Ceri are the highlights of the game – it's clear that much, or maybe even majority of the tiny budget was devoted to making her an appealing romance interest and the effect is indeed pretty lovely. The rather transparent protagonist (although he's not completely bland and engages in some amusing interactions with his family) also works well in this case – he's simply an avatar of the player, while the focus of the story clearly falls on the heroine.
          The minimalism of the story also translate to the choices it offers to the player – most of them are very logical and offers predictable consequences. The game rewards being proactive, but tactful, in a very common-sense fashion leading you to three possible endings, including the "canon", romantic one – and I have to say, I'm more of a fan of this approach then cryptic, overly convoluted decisions typical for so many VNs. Even if you reach the good conclusion by not being a complete idiot, the romance is in the MoeNovel's KonoSora levels of "clean" – one thing that could be said in defense of this approach is that it fits Ceri's character - with how timid and insecure she is throughout the story, we can believe that a kiss after protagonist's confession was out of question. The romantic ending leads to a small epilogue game ~We'll always be together~, released on the anniversary of SoHS's premiere – 30 more minutes of cute interactions between the main couple, in the very same aesthetic as those from the main game.

Some CGs are slightly below what the game makes you expect, but the general quality of art assets compensate reasonably for their limited number and variety
Ceri is not the only character with a voice, but also the only one with a sprite – like I've said, the fact that most of the effort on the part of the developer was focused on this one character is absolutely obvious. However, it definitely wasn't a bad choice, considering the obviously limited resources ds-sans' disposal – the variety of expressions on her is quite good and while CGs and other assets are not always on par with the said sprite, their quality is consistent enough to be satisfying. The stock background music might be nothing to write home about, but as in many no-budget indie projects, works pretty well in filling the acoustic void in moments when there's no VA present.
          In the end though, who is Sounds of Her Love targeted towards and is it worth your time? This, I think, very much depends on your taste on what you're looking for at that particular moment. It is a most basic love story, that can bore those tired of romance clichés or not fond of the formula in the first place. On the other hand, it's incredibly cute and nicely written and makes for a good, relaxing read that really can make you feel warm and fuzzy for one or two evenings. I've personally had a greatly enjoyable time with it – if I was to rate it solely on the fun I've had, the final score would be even higher. It's also a completely free product and checking it out will not cost you anything. Just be sure you're not expecting any twists or surprises when approaching it – there really are none.
 
Final score: 2,5/5
 
Pros:
+ Lovely main heroine with good voice acting
+ Solid writing
+ Decent art
Cons:
- Short
- Clichéd as hell
- Predictable plot
- Super-tame romance
 
VNDB page
Play Sounds of Her Love for free on Steam or Itch.io
Plk_Lesiak

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.

The 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.

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.

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
 
VNDB page
Play AIRIS for free on Steam or Google Play
Plk_Lesiak

Mystery/romance might not be a rare formula for VNs in general but seems especially popular among western developers - this probably shouldn't be surprising, as it's very compatible with shorter, linear stories that indie devs usually aim for. Just like One Thousand Lies, which I've reviewed last month, Sepia Tears is a free game available on Steam and mobile devices that offers a fairly deep, complicated intrigue, relying on its mystery elements to keep the player emotionally and intellectually involved. It's also one of the better known free VNs produced in the West, thanks to its release date - in early 2013, when it first came out, quality visual novels made outside of Japan were still few and far between, while the official market for localized JP titles was pretty much only starting to develop. The game found its way to a content-starved western VN community and was pretty highly appreciated. Does it stand the test of time though?
 
The heroine, Myra and all the mysteries surrounding her are where the game truly shines - even her dialogue feels better-written than in the other subplots
While from the first moments Sepia Tears emanates a kind of "amateurish" vibe through its simplistic UI and visuals, it's not really a bad impression - from the technical point of view it's completely functional and while graphics might seem very simple, they have a consistent style to them and aren't completely unappealing. It also immediately catches your attention with a cryptic dream sequence, introducing the main heroine, Myra and signalizing the mystery that will be at the centre of the whole plot - protagonists repressed memories of the girl and the meaning behind her sudden reappearance. The interactions between her and the MC, the unexplained events connected to them and the clues we get at various points of the plot are definitely the most enjoyable parts of the experience - they keep you interested and eager to learn more, while also letting you solve some parts of the intrigue on your own. The heroine herself is also one of the best-done elements of the game - while it's clear she's purposefully misleading the protagonists and keeping something crucial from him, it's also apparent that she cares about him deeply in some ways and struggles with her own demons.
 
The supporting cast isn't unlikeable or uninteresting, but often suffers from the poorly thought-out dialogue, which simply turns out confusing and unnatural
While all this might sound interesting and fun-to-read, you should better hope that the mystery elements of the game get you hooked on, as sadly, everything else in it doesn't always offer the same quality. Subplots with protagonists little sister and his high school friends suffer from problems typical for the mystery formula and even beyond that, they're often written in a bizarre, confusing style. While cryptic, strange dialogues with Myra are a crucial part of her characterizations and well-explained in final parts of the story, the overly vague, awkward conversations with MCs family and friends have no logical justification, other than being a vehicle for keeping the player in the dark about certain parts of the intrigue. What's worse, the "mysteries" not connected to main romance don't really add much to the story, just like the more casual slice-of-life moments, many of which are simply dull and only distract you from the actually interesting parts of the game. As the story is fully linear - the are some choices present, but for the most part, they only change minor pieces of dialogue - there's really not much to look forward to in most of the "casual" moments of the story. Thankfully, sometimes they can be amusing and they're never long enough to really kill the pacing of the whole VN - and if you do survive until the end of the story, it rewards you with a very powerful, emotional ending and an epilogue explaining some of the strange events from the perspective of Myra and giving you a clear overview of her motivations and way of thinking.

The game’s visuals are very simple, but fairly consistent in style and their limitations never get in the way of the story
In the end, for me Sepia Tears was a very satisfying experience, just because of how I enjoyed the mystery and romance components of it. With all its limitations and flaws, it was able to deliver a pretty unconventional and impactful love story which stuck with me for a long time. Even some of the CGs and intermission screens I've found in the game were surprisingly appealing, making it at least stand out with its style, even if it couldn't match the quality of more professional projects of this kind. With all the criticism I gave it, I still can't help but wholeheartedly recommend SP to any romance VN fan out there - while it could've been even better with some tweaks to the writing, as a short, free game it's still very much worth your time and attention.
 
Final score: 3,5/5
 
Pros:
+ Interesting, well-crafted main mystery
+ Intriguing heroine
+ Satisfying, romantic concussion
Cons:
- Often awkward, overly cryptic dialogue
- Slow pacing, with many unnecessary filler scenes
- Very simple visual assets
 
VNDB page
Play Sepia Tears for free on Steam and Google Play
Plk_Lesiak

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?

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".

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 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 make 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.

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 this 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”
 
VNDB page
Buy Carpe Diem: Reboot on Steam
Plk_Lesiak

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

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 a 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.

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 it's not without problems. The three heroines are very different from each other and offer unique perspectives on the overarching storyline (although 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 times 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 has 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.

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 of 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 fairly 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 its 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
 
VNDB page
Buy Starlight Vega on Steam
Plk_Lesiak

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

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 sound 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 historical 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.

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 its 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 a 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 head, but to make you think and empathize with those put in similar situations as some of the characters 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.

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
 
VNDB page
Buy Analogue: A Hate Story on Steam
Plk_Lesiak
Hello there! It's not Friday, so it has to be an unusual post and it definitely is one...
It will be a bit chaotic too - only now, late in the evening, after taking a day off and pursuing the only lesbian romance route in Tales of Aravorn: Seasons of the Wolf for most of it, I've realized that today is Lesbian Visibility Day. For me, both as a fan of yuri and as an appreciator of OELVNs it probably should be one important holiday - definitely worthy of a few moments/words of reflection.
Visibility as something inherently positive is a curious idea. It's based on a very important and reasonable assumption, that to make something a public issue and fight for social change, you have to make people aware of that phenonenon's existence, scale and the consequences it might have for those most affected by it. To fight for the acceptance of gay people and systemic change that will give them equality before the law (and, hopefully, equality of opportunities), you cannot accept the conservative argument that sets sexual orientation as a purely "private" matter - the long-lived stance that wants people to visibly adhere to social "norm" and not "bother" others with the fact they're different. Most often, if you want your rights to be respected as a member of a minority group, you have to be loud, you have to be bold to the point of possibly being obnoxious and offensive to some people. You have to fight tooth-and-nail to make sure you won't be trampled by the majority's concepts of what's "normal" and "proper". In many Western countries, for lesbians that fight is to a large extent already "won" - the majority of people see them as a legitimate group worth respecting. Not everywhere though and it's not clear to what degree these gains are permanent. 

Hopefully?
But is all visibility a good thing? Paraphrasing painfully accurate thought by @Fiddle, we don't really praise Adolf Hitler for bringing attention to Jewish issues in Mein Kampf. Yuri, is, obviously, not nazism. It's not in any inherent way a negative phenomenon for the lesbian cause. But it's also not automatically an ally of any progressive agenda. Japanese media is full of depictions of lesbian romance, which reaches a society that ignores LGBT issues in a way more persistent than pretty much any other highly developed country. For me, it's not especially surprising - just like the saturation of Pornhub with lesbian porn probably doesn't lead to people watching it going to their local Pride parade, fetishized, male-oriented yuri themes in anime and VNs do not have to translate into any kind of educated attitude towards RL queer women. And Japanese yuri, at least until recently, didn't really have an ambition of grounding its narrative into any kind of reality of homosexual romance. SonoHana series is the perfect example of completely isolated, imaginary "yuritopia" (to borrow a handy term from Yurirei), where a huge number of young females live in a world where males exists only in passing references, pretty much everyone's gay by default and there's no prejudice or social stigma connected to that fact - which, of course, make possible a gigantic number of voyeuristic porn scenes. Is it a bad thing by itself? Not really. Does it make people more aware of the situation of sexual minorities as a social issue? Hell no.

Admittedly, some Japanese depictions of yuri romance are probably too lovely and heartwarming to say anything bad about them...
Obviously, there's a lot of issues with representation of women in anime and VNs and I don't want to write a book here. I want to make a slightly different point and this goes to yuri romance in English VNs. This is also not a black and white picture - many EOLVNs directly copy the Japanese formula or give slight twists to it, while still keeping the "lesbian porn for guys" premise. However, for every Negligee and Sakura Fantasy our VN scene produces maybe even a couple of projects that are genuine expressions and/or appreciations of lesbian identity and realities of lesbian relationships. Throughout the various editions of Yuri Game Jam, NaNoRenO and in many commercial titles, I've seen lovely, touching, thought-provoking depictions of f/f romance that gave me huge pleasure as a reader, but also made me empathise with people different than me. Christine Love's work I think holds a special place here, with powerful and persuasive depictions of discrimination and her courage in exploring themes that commercial games rarely dare to go anywhere close to, from Analogue to Ladykiller in a Bind. Lately, Brianna Mei's Butterfly Soup gained similar notoriety, also through a genuine message and creative passion involved. But even small, cute and silly games such as those by Nami can have a genuinely positive role to play, confronting people with diversity in an approachable and lovely way.

One other thing that OELVNs regularly prove to me is that some small, indie games can have more soul in them than many giant, high-budget productions...
I, in all of this, have a pretty questionable position of a straight guy that finds lesbian romance lovely and, to a certain extent, hot. The more genuine the romance depicted is, the more I'm probably a bit of a creepy voyeur getting a high out of something that for other people is part of their identity. But no matter how we see that problem, this genuineness depicted above is something I absolutely love many yuri OELVNs for and a thing to be shared and appreciated. And that's my message for this day.
Thank you for reading!
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!

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.

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).

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. 😉
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