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About this blog

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

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

Entries in this blog

Plk_Lesiak

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Disclaimer: I’m supporting Razz, author of this game, on Patreon and consider myself a fan of much of her work – this might obviously influence the scoring and tone of my review, although I stand by the opinions presented here wholeheartedly.

Yuri/shoujo-ai, as much as some of us might enjoy the theme, is still a fairly small niche among Japanese VNs – one that undoubtedly spawned some great titles and has a loyal fanbase, but is nowhere near being a dominant formula in the genre. It’s enough to look at VNDB statistics on romance elements and protagonist’s gender to see how relatively few quality JP titles yuri fans have available to them (especially if they have to rely on the titles translated to English or/and are looking for more than just erotic content).

            On the other hand, among western VN producers and audiences, F/F romance seems to gather a much broader appeal, with many highly-regarded titles focusing exclusively on yuri themes and some of the most appreciated developers, such as ebi-hime, devoting much of their work to them. Starlight Vega, developed by Razzart Visuals and published on Steam in March 2016, is definitely not among those most popular or critically-acclaimed western yuri VNs. Still, I think it’s in many ways a notable game worthy of a closer look – most importantly because it shows that visual novels created outside of Japan, even when they stay faithful to the general format of the genre, can have their own identity and style.

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

What might catch your attention early when approaching Starlight Vega is the setting – it happens in an unspecified western country, with characters and scenery appropriate for this context and nothing Japanese in sight. Much of the action happens in places like the old manor inherited by protagonist’s family or the woods surrounding it, producing a believable climate of (most likely) European province and giving 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.

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

Speaking of romance, this aspect of the game is definitely its selling point and comes out as a positive, even if 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.

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

The praise I’ve given to SV so far might seem a bit far-fetched, but I think it’s well-deserved and reflects the immense enjoyment the game gave me – obviously, there are also important flaws in it. Some parts of the writing, especially at the beginning of the story, are pretty inconsistent, doing a mediocre job 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

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As we all know from experience, the formula of visual novel offers various possibilities when it goes to storytelling techniques, making especially the high-budget, Japanese games in the genre much more than just interactive, illustrated books. Still, for most VNs text is unquestionably the core method of delivering the story. This is true especially for the western-developed ones, which rarely can afford high-quality voice acting or animated segments which could occasionally replace written dialogues and descriptions. Even CGs, in a project with 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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

           In summary, I strongly encourage every VN fan to give One Thousand Lies a try. It’s definitely not a perfect game and the storytelling formula it uses (obscuring crucial information from the reader and then using it as a deus ex machina) was criticised many times in the past and in connection to countless pieces of media. It also presents one of the less appealing protagonists I’ve encountered in visual novels – an assessment that 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

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

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

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

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

Here there’s a need for a bit of an elaboration – the game isn’t shy about 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.

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

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

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

 

Final verdict: 4,5/5


Pros:

+ A really engaging, impactful main story

+ Unique, well-crafted setting

+ Immersive UI and storytelling

Cons:

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

- Main database is sometimes hard to navigate and progress through

- Confusing timed sequence that catches you by surprise

- Limited replayability – only two marginally different story routes

 

VNDB page

Buy Analogue: A Hate Story on Steam

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