Well, this blog is... quite unused lately, but I had to come back to talk about this game. The one that effectively reignited my enthusiasm for VNs that was waning a bit for some months. The one that made me sit and only think about reading it for all weekend when I was reading best boy's route. Yes, the long-awaited psychedelic artsy and moody historical game, the latest BL game by Mangagamer Hashihime of the Old Book Town. From the introduction, you can see it was totally worth my time, but was the entirety of the game such good? Details below. And before anyone asks, Hashihime is a water yokai.
Me, writing about my thought on this game in an epic manner
This piece by the little developers ADELTA tells us the story of Tamamori, an incredibly lazy and somewhat self-centered aspiring writer, and his two childhood friends, the quiet bookworm that sometimes is a bit too focused on reading Minakami and the completely ruthless and sharp-tongued clean freak Kawase, living in the district of Jinbouchou in 1922, after moving from the countryside to attend the Tokyo Imperial University, a feat that only our poor protagonist failed to do. So he starts to work in a mysterious used bookstore and meet all kinds of weird people, except some of them are all but his delusions as he have the habit to daydream quite a lot. But when things start to get real weird and supernatural and his friends start dying, Tamamori suddenly goes back in time, only three days to be more precise, but it's enough of a chance to undo his friends' deaths. But will someone actually believe his story?
The beginning is incredibly strong, doing a great job transporting us to Japan's Taishou Era with a lot of attention to detail. There's a ton of cultural references, most of them highlighted so you can click on them for a glossary explanation to pop up with on-screen on the go (although you can make them highlight only on the first time the word appears or disable it entirely). The world it's trying to build is our own, but it feels actually charming and make you curious about the era rather than a storm of unknown terms and explanations that makes you wonder why the characters are explaning something they should know. It flows really naturally, just the characters talking about what was "in" in their time. The main references, especially in the first few routes, are japanese authors of the era and, while my experience wasn't diminished at all for not having read a single one of those books, I do wonder how I would perceive the story itself, or catch even more subtle references, actually knowing the multiple times quoted Dogra Magra by Yumeno Kyusaku, or some less quoted works by Kuroiwa Ruikou or Ozaki Kouyou.
The story is mainly a mystery, so your peaceful historical slice of life will turn into an irrational scenario when you're least expecting, and the mood shifts went all well. You and Tamamori will progress through the story in confusion more often than not, but keeping in check everything you learned until now can offer some fun theory crafting along the way and very satisfying "I knew it!" moments when some answers finally reveals themselves. That worked most on small details for me though, since some twist are very hard to see them coming. The time travel plot is used mostly effectively too, draining poor Tamamori's mental health with each failed loop. That also allowed for several bad ending scenarios to take place even with each route having a single ending, leaving you constantly in the edge of your seat because you never what, how or when things will go south.
We have these cutouts instead of regular sprites, but they have quite some variations in clothing and expression
There are a lot of good themes explored in this game, but the strongest ones all revolves around our three childhood friends (the group is actually composed by four people, but the fourth one is meh at best). Only after the story takes a weird turn that Tamamori notices but since they moved to the capital they all started growing apart somewhat, and it all may have started way back in the countryside. Their relationship, and most relationship between the main cast, stem from negative emotions such as loneliness, guilty, obsession, pity or even hatred, so Tamamori's journey through time for trust, love and to mend their friendship is one of my favorite aspects of the story, and the hardships he faces along the way were heartbreaking and emotional, turning him into a very memorable protagonist, even if he starts the game as one big good-for-nothing (and he is well aware of that).
Let's remember though that the game sells itself as psychedelic so this journey will be full of CGs in weird and vibrant coloring, very magical parts, talking animals, delusion sequences, a lot of insanity overall and some explanations that makes very little sense the first time you read them. While not excessive to turn someone off entirely for being too bizarre, it can make people unsatisfied as some plot points only have weirdly metaphorical explanations... while others I still have to think about where to look at in the game to understand their answers. It's definitely food for thought though, one that can definitely make people who likes rereading things excited as there's several clues and foreshadowing all over the place that are only possible to catch a second time around.
The story structure is a very simple one. The game have an enforced playing order and the only choices you have are to get into the routes. First time around you only have chapter 1 (as the game calls it, but it's Minakami's route) unlocked, and it'll look like this is a kinetic novel. After clearing it, the choice to the chapter 2 reveals itself, and after clearing it the choice to chapter 3 appears and so on. There are 5 chapters in total, all of them branching off the "main path", in a "bus stop" like fashion with Minakami's ending as the last stop if you didn't let off before. Each chapter focus on a different hero, and that's where the enforced order makes it annoying. Only 2 heroes interested me at first, and I ultimately only enjoyed 3 routes, but I can't even suggest to others to skip one chapter entirely because it's right in the middle of the game and you need it to unlock the next one. I can see why lock Minakami's route as the first one, as the others works best if you have some knowledge about the supernatural lore, but chapter 2, 3 and 4 could probably be read in any other or even skipped without losing all that much.
I think the VN itself says Minakami keeps his eyes open only a few millimeters to read xD
On the characters and routes themselves. Minakami is our first boy and, in my opinion, the best route of the game. Yeah, right off the bat to hook you on. According to the scenario writer herself, each route have a literary genre as base and Minakami's is "romance". And indeed, it was one sweet ride to save him. It's the longest route, but you'll find out very soon why this route will make you cry a lot. I can also add there's one good mini arc about a transgender side character here where the fact she is transgender is actually pointed out for once.
Chapter 2 is for Tamamori's second friend Kawase. His theme is "mystery". And indeed, this guy is full of them. His abrasive personality, that is downright cruel on occasion, may make people not like him much, but he ended up being my best boy, help. >.< Some of his banter with Tamamori is really funny and the few glimpses of positive emotions he lets through his evil mask are genuine, or even cute if you're a fan of gap moe effect (like me). His route is very nice and its narrative complements quite well Minakami's route, and the support cast here is a really interesting bunch, so I think there's something to enjoy even if you're not the biggest fan of his character. Oh well, he never goes full
well nor even a half nor a quarter deredere (romance is Minakami's theme after all), but his rudeness is a spice that's part of his charm ;p
Chapter 3's hero is Hanazawa, Tamamori's third childhood friend, one that's 3 years older than him and one that our protagonist doesn't see in 8 years. Yeah, he's the meh guy I mentioned earlier. AND the route you could skip I used as example of why the enforced order is a bad idea. His theme is "adventure", but it's more a character theme than a route theme. His route is so short and thus underwhelming, adding literally nothing to the story nor exploring the character. So I don't even have much to say. The ending will meme you hard though, I warn you.
Chapter 4 is for Hikawa Kijuurou aka Professor, the used bookstore faithful costumer and a massive dork. I'm not even fan of the blindly obsessed types, but man is it impossible to hate this guy. His dumb reactions, cute giggles when he "scores" very little with Tamamori like learning his name or his knees failing at the audacious idea of becoming friends with his crush will either leaves you laughing or going aaawww as the guy is a social failure but a very moe one at that. His theme is "sci-fi". The route does takes a weird turn by the end, even by the game standards www, that can considered a bit of a "cheat", but it was pretty nice overall, raising some interesting questions that are often ignored in time travel stories.
And then there's chapter 5. Oh boy, chapter 5. Theme is "bizarre thriller" and bizarre is, indeed, the right word for it. It takes a completely different approach to the plot as a whole, moving the story in the totally opposite direction with different themes, lessons and motivations. Unfortunately it's less like Fate Stay Night's Heaven's Feel and more like a glorified bad ending. And the game even forces you to go for it last so you can end it all in a low note, instead of the sweet endings of most of the other routes. It's quite a short route too, far too short to explain most of it, but its main twist have such massive destructive power you'll either just brush it off as "just one of many routes, I will focus on the better ones instead", have the whole VN completely ruined or find it a really smart, shocking and amazing ending, depending how you take it. I can't say more without spoiling, so I'll just say I'm with the brush it off camp, and I would have rated the game higher if not for this one route.
Professor reading the next section of this review.
Sex scenes are your average VN stuff, just to show their relationship is going to another stage, but are safe to skip without losing much. In fact, I think the all-ages version that supposedly would be released on Steam would be real good for this one VN. It would make recommending it to mystery/historical fiction lovers easier www. And frankly, it would get rid of 2 h-scenes that are really awful context-wise (one is a rape scene and the other is... concerning). Although I must say you'll miss some funny banter that happens during the normal h-scenes if you skip them, like one of the heroes chanting sutras to get rid of his everlasting boner and Tamamori not moving and then demanding another hero to say "please" before simply hoping into a different position. Each hero get one scene, usually in the end of their routes. And if you really must know, Tamamori is always the bottom, but 2 heroes did volunteer to be on the receiving end, but our MC simply didn't agree. Oh man, why. Worth to mention too that the Mangagamer version is fully uncensored, so you can see Tamamori's impressive average size. To be fair, he is a rather short guy (5'3"/160 cm tall), but without looking like a shota, bless, we need more non-shota short boys in VNs.
Art is simple but have that "doujin charm" that I love (it's hard to explain what that means wwwwww). This VN have quite an impressive number of CGs, 159 in total not including variations. Characters are mostly really really normal, with normal hair colors and haircuts, it was almost refreshing! Every mob character made just to populate backgrounds is a shadow though, but there's some eeriness to it. Speaking of backgrounds, the game have both gloomy, cool colored ones and bright, vibrant colored ones, that kinda goes well with all the mood shifts the VN goes through. The music also helps to set the mood, be it calm, tense or one of relief, and the jazzy tracks in particular were quite pleasant to listen to. You can also play back the opening/ending songs in the main menu, but sadly only those. Voice acting is well done, there's no big names in the cast or anything, but they conveyed pretty well the characters' personality and emotions.
I did have other minor grips with the system in general, like noticing the area where you could click in the system buttons are a loooot smaller than their actual size, some random line breaks in the middle of the text box for no reason mainly on Kawase's route and a handful of lines that advanced by itself, but nothing that renders the game unplayable.
I refuse to provide context for this CG
In conclusion, Hashihime is one hell of an addition to the small pool of localized BL VNs, a truly unique experience, and a great bizarre and artsy plotge in general (are there other games in this category www? maybe Inganock??? both have a lot of literary references too hmmm). The 3 good routes are very high quality for me, but sadly it gets dragged down by 2 subpar routes when you rate the game as a whole. The last route is highly divisive but you'll definitely have something to appreciate in this adventure, be it the ending route itself or anything else despite the ending route. Well, Minakami would probably like all routes regardless. According to Kawase, "that guy enjoys anything as long as it's written. He would even enjoy reading the diary of a tuberculosis patient" (exact words).