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Curio Dealer

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Clephas

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This is the latest VN by AXL, and it is also the latest in its 'swords fantasy' (there is very little magic in these games) series (I say series, but they are just a line of similarly-designed games).  The previous games in this series include Princess Frontier, Hyakka Ryouran Elixir, Racial Merge, and Ou no Mimi ni wa Todokanai.  This is also AXL's fifteenth game, making it one of the most prolific companies (ignoring subsidiaries) still active. 

Like all the games in this series, it is based in a world whose tech level is medieval with bits and pieces of higher levels of technological development here and there.  This one falls in an area similar to Ou no Mimi, rather than Princess Frontier or Hyakka Ryouran, meaning it has a somewhat more violent turn almost from the beginning.  The protagonist is an antique dealer (thus the game's name) named Rowan who, due to the loss of his parents during an adventure at the highest levels of the tower, has had to deal with an aversion to the tower that is at the center of the town that serves as the center of the game's story.  This changes when a young girl bearing a greatsword named Linaria comes into the picture, and he finds himself guiding a young group of adventurers through the lower levels of the tower.

Rowan is not only an antique dealer but an exceptionally talented dagger-user and toolmaker.  He is also the only individual in the town that can repair the various machines that come down from the tower.  If I were to pick his class, I'd consider him to be a cross between an engineer and a rogue, with excellent crowd-control techniques and stuns.  Like a lot of mature protagonists, there is a disconnect between his emotions and rational behavior, and as a result, he will often take the logical path, even when it conflicts with what his heart wants, thus leading to him being a bit dense about emotions in general. 

The tower is much like a lot of roguelike rpg towers (though this game isn't an rpg) where people climb the tower to gather treasure, fighting monsters and robot-like Guardians as they do so.  The power gems taken from the Guardians can be used in various devices made from parts taken from the tower, and this is the source of most of the setting's higher technology.  The tower itself is self-repairing and self-defending, deploying seemingly endless numbers of Guardians and monsters.  No one knows how high it goes.

The three heroines are the young princess Karin, the protagonist's adoptive sister Mira, and the newbie adventurer girl Linaria.  Karin is a sort-of tsundere who very obviously is in love with Rowan from the beginning.  Her father is the second King of the country (that consists of the tower, the town, and the land around it), but she only realized she was a princess at a relatively late age due to the closeness of the royal family to the people.  Mira is a responsible girl who takes care of most of the chores and the account books at Rowan's shop... and has an unnatural attachment to the spiky ball and chain she uses as a weapon (the first time you see her flushing after squashing an enemy says everything).  Linaria is the daughter of a deceased adventurer who came to find out why her father abandoned his family in order to seek fame and wealth in the tower.  Though she resents adventurers as a profession, she is too kind-hearted to actually take it out on anyone.

Common Route

The common route mostly accounts the trials and tribulations of Rowan and company as they rise through the lower levels of the tower to be acknowledged as full-fledged adventurers (novices are called 'virgins' until they reach town on the Twentieth Floor).  If you like AXL games' style of character interaction, you'll like the slice-of-life elements, and the battles are actually tactically interesting (something that is unusual for AXL).  There are a few emotional moments dealing with Rowan's past, but the common route mostly serves to familiarize you with the characters. 

Normal Ending

This is an ending you get if you fail to pick one of the three main heroines.  It is basically a joke ending where the results of his actions in the common route come home to roost, lol.

Karin

Karin's path starts out with a lot of light ichaicha and a somewhat annoying get-together sequence.  However, at roughly the halfway point, it suddenly turns dark and violent... and outright bloody.  The violence in this path startled me a bit, as it is out of character for AXL (AXL generally restricts violence to one or two scenes in a given path, and never on this kind of scale).  However, the story was interesting, and I left the path feeling satisfied.  The actual progression from lighter atmosphere to darker one is common on AXL's games, and anyone who has played one will probably recognize the pattern...  That didn't bother me, though, since it was interesting in and of itself.

Linaria

I recommend that anyone that plays this game play this path last.  The reason is is that this is the only path that deals with the tower itself and climbing to the top as its subject matter.  It is also the only path where certain major issues involving the protagonist are completely and finally resolved in a direct manner.  This is perhaps not surprising, seeing as Linaria was being presented as the 'main heroine' almost from the beginning.  However, it is a situation where anyone who plays this path will be a bit displeased with the other two if they played it first.  The path itself is a lot less bloody than Karin's (to be blunt, Karin's path is the only one that gets bloody and serious to that degree), but it is still a good path, with a more emotional focus than Karin's.

Mira

Mira is my favorite of the three heroines, so I left her for last this time.  She is the protagonist's adoptive little sister, and she falls under the archetype of the 'imouto who scolds her beloved oniichan but adores him'.  Mira is a serious girl who cares deeply about the antique shop they are running, and as a result, most of her path deals with the economic issues of the city and the tower.  It was when I finished this path that I came to the conclusion that Mira's path is the 'merchant' path, Karin's is the 'nation' path, and Linaria's is the 'adventurer' path. 

Mira's path is full of secrets and conspiracies, and it has some really good moments for Verbena (who is incidentally my favorite character in this game).  It is also frequently humorous in ways the other two paths didn't manage, which was a plus for me.

Some thoughts

A few thoughts/complaints about this game.  I honestly liked this game a great deal... but it seriously needed a grand route to put the themes of the other paths into a single one.  The issues in each path weren't going to go away just because they weren't dealt with in those individual paths, and it bugs the hell out of me that there was no single path that brought them all to a resolution.

I also think Verbena should have had a path other than the normal ending.  Sure, she is a slut, a heavy drinker, and takes pleasure in unleashing her spiky weapons (ranging from morning stars to kusarikama)... but her personality is just awesome.  Seeing that kind of character go all deredere is one of my favorite AXL events (AXL does really good 'haraguro' heroines).

Conclusion

If you liked any of the other 'swords fantasy' AXL games, you'll like this one.  It has all the elements that make those games great, such as the protagonist being equally or more important than the heroines, decent action without being focused on the action, and a mix of light humor and serious story that keeps slice of life from getting out of hand.  I'll be the first to admit that AXL doesn't change its art style or character archetypes, but that never seems to effect whether their games are good or not.

 

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