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
+ Unique, well-developed setting
+ Emotionally engaging, touching story
+ Interesting art and overall good production values
- Romance sometimes feels forced and underdeveloped
- Shallow, RNG-dependent dating sim mechanics
- Can be extremely sad and painful to read