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
+ Well-implemented, western setting
+ Interesting artstyle
+ High-quality prose
- Extremely slow pacing
- Stories of side characters go nowhere