This is the first of hopefully many little eroge reviews I decided to write, mostly for older and more obscure games since these are the games I find most interesting and like to talk about.
You can use these reviews to find something for you to read (I will try to avoid spoiler as much as possible) but since I know that most people probably aren't interested in actually playing these games and might only be interested in reading about them, I will also add a spoiler section at the end of each review where I talk about the themes and endings of the games in depth and tell you about my personal feelings and impressions that can't be talked about without giving away the meat of the story.
Hajimari no Kisetsu ~Izakaya Fuyu Monogatari~ (do not look at the tags or the screenshots on its entry because they are all spoilers) is the second visual novel by R.A.N.Software, a little eroge company which was active in 1997 till 2000 and you probably never have heard of.
It's written by someone who never has written any other eroge again (at least not under this pseudonym) and drawn by people who either vanished like the writer or continued to work on eroge but never used the same art style again.
All in all, Hajimari no Kisetsu seems like a pretty unique game, so why don't we take the time to look at this strange little eroge in detail?
Our nameable protagonist is in his last year of his university life. His girlfriend Kaori already graduated and works now as an office lady for a very big company. Because of her work he doesn't see her as often anymore and when she finds the time to meet with him for a few hours, they don't know what to talk about since their lives are so different now.
The protagonist remembers the happy memories he had with her, especially when they went skiing a year ago and to rekindle their love he wants to go with her to the same ski resort again.
Protagonist meets Kaori for the first time in a flashback
Eroge are escapism. We all know it. What annoys me, especially with eroge in the last few years, is how safe-spacey they became. If you play a feel-good game, you know you will get feel-good scenes ... and nothing else. Erogamer became fragile and eroge companies know that. Drama in most charage is cheap, light and will be resolved in just a few scenes. We don't want to upset the player, he might even think that being in a relationship is not just fun and happy times! Or worse, he might get the impression that his waifu has other things on her mind than him, maybe even has her own life! And if a writer tries to break out of this limitation, it often seems like trolling and the readers are rightfully angry at the game; having a bittersweet resolution at the end of a route that consisted only of sugar and rainbows is neither appropriate nor meaningful; it's just mean-spirited.
But this is also true for different genres; NTR heroines are most of the time unredeemable sluts and you have to wonder why the protagonist married her in the first place. It seems logical that an NTR game consists of only NTR scenes, but without the right buildup and good characterization, it can never be more than simple fetish fuel.
And I really have to wonder why Nakige and Utsuge are oftentimes so painfully obvious labeled as such; how can you be emotionally invested when you already know how it ends?
Well, the answer to this is probably that people want to get their emotional thrills in a safe environment. Being invested in a relationship with problems is only nice, if you know that the relationship can be saved at the end. If you are invested in this situation and the situation ends badly for the characters involved, you will feel bad yourself and that is not the feeling you wanted to have when you decided to read this story.
This leads to a dilemma; do you want to be safe but never really that emotional attached or do you want to experience something surprising and truly thrilling but with the risk that you might get extremely disappointed and depressed by the outcome?
The innkeeper knows that the only solution to problems is drowning them in alcohol.
Hajimari no Kisetsu is certainly not a safe space. Right from the beginning, you notice that something is wrong. Kaori isn't satisfied with the restaurant you choose for your meeting with her, even though it's the same restaurant where you meet her for the first time. She isn't too thrilled about the idea of drinking beer and would instead rather take a glass of wine. And she also doesn't show much interest in your ordinary life and prefers to talk about her new designer handbag. Where did she even get this thing from? Looks expensive... mhm...
Chances are you have experienced this kind of human interaction in your own real life, too. This steady process of people changing and slowly drifting apart. It's irritating, but you can't do anything against it. When the protagonist tries to invoke nostalgia in her, hoping that she shows signs that the old Kaori is still somewhere in her, she reacts coldly. A career woman like her has no interest in the past.
Someone here seems a little out of place...
Hajimari's greatest achievement is that the game portraits its characters so humanly. Kaori is not a bad woman for having different goals in life than the protagonist. It's also not necessary a bad thing that she changed over time. It's a human thing to do. Maybe it's even the protagonist who stays a child and simply can't keep up with her? ... but also, is it so wrong to not change and being happy with who you are?
This winter, our protagonist will find the answers to these questions. He will find out what he wants to do with his life and, even more importantly, what kind of human being he wants to be.
I like the protagonist of this story. He speaks in Kansai-ben which makes the game a little bit harder to read, but really helps to bring the point across that he has more in common with a country bumpkin than a well-spoken member of the high society even though he is by no means stupid. He is not very strong or confident, but also not useless or weak-minded. He is just a normal guy, who wants to do the right thing, but is seldom in the position to actually act on it. In fact, even though he always wants to do something, he rarely is able to actual do anything. Not because the game does not give the player the choice to do, but because it's simply impossible for him.
This is not a story, where the protagonist solves every problem the heroine has. This is a story, where the protagonist gives the heroine the strength by being on her side, so she can overcome the problems herself. And to be honest, there are really far too few eroge like this.
One of my favorite endings is actually a bad end you can get rather quickly by simply saying "I don't want that, I go home." The protagonist proves his worth by standing up to himself, and even though the bad ending credits roll, the usual bad end BGM is replaced by a more hopeful tune, emphasizing that the protagonist grew up a little and might have a better future in front of him now. Because somehow, this is more important than bedding your waifu.
A side-character has to rescue the protagonist who wanted to rescue a woman...
Speaking of endings, there are 24 "bad ends" and 4 "good ends". They are all interesting and one of the reasons (the other being spoilers) you shouldn't use a guide (there doesn't exist one anyway) to go straight to one of the good ends. Sadly, there are many choices that are badly designed because there is no indication that some of them are a hard route fork (like "going to the first floor" or "second floor"). But there are also some quite interesting choices which help forming the story in a meaningful way. For example, there is a choice during your already achieved happy end where you can choose between uncovering the secrets of your heroine's past or decide not to do it. You will get your happy end either way, but your choice does make difference in how you approach your eventual relationship with her.
When you get a bad end, there is some hint for you telling you what you should have done differently, but it's really not important since in most cases it comes simply down to changing the decision of your last choice.
I found everything the game has to offer easily on my own except for one good end which is a little bit non-obvious but makes sense in hindsight. I even had to use the Waybackmachine and read some random Japanese comment on a random Japanese website to get the necessary hint to unlock it. I will not spoil it here, so you can feel the same despair I felt.
Choose wisely how to approach her, if at all. Emotional women are dangerous.
Hajimari no Kisetsu is not a long game and every route can easily be finished in one reading session. The game tells short, romantic stories. They are a little bit cliché'd, but very nice and well-intentioned. There are scenes that make you feel good and some that make you feel depressed, but there is always a nice balance between the two extremes. And it's well earned. Even if you forget some of the details of the story a few months after you read it, you probably wont forget some of the scenes. At least for me that was the case. I did not regret spending my time with this game.
Sound and Art:
Let's talk about some technical aspects. This game was released in 1998 and sadly it shows.
The biggest misstep is to not have any voices. Especially the kind of seiyuu work of the late 90s would have been perfect for this kind of game. There are many dramatic scenes which would be even better with some passionate dubbing.
The soundtrack is very nice. Every character has its own theme, themes have several variations and the melodies are pleasant to listen to. You can choose between CD-Audio and MIDI, but the MIDI version, depending on your MIDI configuration of course, is not much worse. Seems to me the CD-Tracks are simple MIDI recordings. That could have been better.
The game has no backlog and no "already read" skip function which is really a problem when you try to find all the different endings. You might think that you are on a known path because you skipped over slight text variations when in fact it's the beginning of a new route.
The game has an old school omake room, where you can check CGs, endings and music by talking with the characters.
Hentai scenes are short, tastefully written and quite romantic.
Aside from the nice story, the art is the best feature of this eroge. Your mileage may vary, but to me it captures perfectly the whimsical, romantic and melancholic mood of the winter days. Sadly the artists never worked on another game, or at least not with this art style.
Speaking of the staff, the writer also was never read again. What a shame.
This makes this game even more unique though. Heh.
Don't get the impression that this game is a masterpiece. It's not. It's just a nice little gem. It's not mind-blowing, but certainly thought-provoking. Not flashy, but pleasant ... except when it isn't.
If you are alone on a cold, rainy evening and want to read something appropriate you can immerse yourself in for a short time, this is a good recommendation. This will not be the best thing you've ever read, but it will become a bittersweet memory you'll remember fondly.
Now onto the spoiler discussion. Read this only if you've played the game or you don't care and just want to know what it's about:
The thing you want to know the most is probably: Is Kaori cheating on you? The answer is: pretty much yes. I say "pretty much" because, you see, in her route, she is not. To get into her route, you must not go to the hotel with her which is the place where you normally see her cheating on you. By not going there and not seeing this happening with your own eyes, the game simply chooses to not let this actually happen in Kaori's route at all, even suggesting that she never had any intentions to do this. I was really disappointed with this cheap trick.
Kaori is obviously my favorite character, but sadly her route really was the worst of all, simply because the writer chose to not explore the complicated relationship with the protagonist she has in all the other routes any further and instead decided to give the reader a simple happy end. The ending is actually not bad, it's nice to see how she changed, how she learned to embrace the simple but beautiful things in life and stopped being a career woman... but it's not really earned. Maybe earned for the player, who had to watch her cheat on the main character in the other routes, but not earned in this particular time line.
The new Kaori likes beer more than wine.
Her best scene was actually in the innkeeper's route. During the happy ending, when the protagonist is already in a happy relationship with the innkeeper, she visits him, apologizes for being a bitch and asks him to make a new start with her. It's a beautiful, bittersweetly sad scene. There is no hate, no grudge, only regret, on both sides. The protagonist never badmouths Kaori by the way, even if his friends might do it, he never starts to hate her, he is just sad and disappointed. This is why this visual novel feels so much more mature than most other eroge. I wish the Kaori route would have been spawned from this scene, it would have been so much more meaningful.
Kaori is also the reason for most of the awesome scenes in the other routes. Going on a date with your new waifu and meeting your ex-girlfriend with the guy she cheated on you is thrillingly awkward and makes for perfect human drama. The novel captures perfectly the anxiety you feel in this situation. There is also a scene where your new waifu wants to go to a restaurant you visited with Kaori before and while your waifu has fun and doesn't know what's up with you, you feel depressed and uneasy and just want to leave as soon as possible because the memories are killing you. Beautiful.
I would have accepted her proposal, if I had the choice, to be honest...
I liked the other routes too. We have the innkeeper route, a route for her little sister and one for her friend.
The innkeeper was once the concubine of the father of Kaori's boss, but after he didn't want her anymore, he pushed her aside and she opened her little inn. Her friend is still a hostess and has problems with some yakuza clients of her. Her sister helps at the inn, but actually wants to study abroad. All the routes deal with financial problems which our protagonist, who, disappointed with life after seeing Kaori cheating on him literally next door, decided to stay for a few days at the inn where he made memories with Kaori one year earlier, can not help with, but he bonds with the women which helps them to turn their life around, even just slightly. Sometimes the correct choice is to not do anything and trust the person (meddling leads to a bad end), which I found to be a refreshing take on relationships.
In my review, I mentioned a choice during one of the good ends. When you get together with the hostess and she chooses to start a new life with you, you have the choice to look at some pictures, evidence of her former life. I choose to not to look and the protagonists burned the pictures without looking at them. Somehow this really left a strong impression with me, particularly because you had the chance to look and could still get your happy end, but you didn't. It wasn't something the writer decided but you. Just a small thing but it makes a story so much more engaging. And perfectly reflects the theme of the novel; coming of age, in its truest sense.
Thanks for reading. If you have questions, suggestions or something else on your mind, feel free to comment.
The next time, I will talk about the sickest eroge I have ever read and explain why it's not as sick as you expected but far more sick than you thought.