Before Dharker Studio became the semi-competent producer of smut we know and (occasionally) love today, its founder, AJ Tilley, made a name for himself through his personal VN publishing brand, AJTilley.com. Throughout 2015 there has been an impressive number of decently-sized games released under that label, the whole endeavour fuelled by a never-ending stream of crowdfunding campaigns, making Tilley one of the most notable creators on the fledgeling EVN scene. At the same time, his activities were spawning increasing controversies, mostly over the appalling quality of some of the games in question and overuse of Kickstarter. In April 2016, after just a year and a half of presence within the EVN scene, the infamy around the label became intense enough that Tilley himself decided to terminate it, removing all of its online presence and transferring all the rights to his company’s “development arm”, Dharker Studio. The "restructured" company then both continued working on the franchises introduced by AJTilley.com and created new ones, including highly successful ecchi VNs such as Negligee or Army Gals, while its creator’s name was conveniently hidden from the public’s eye.
Despite the horror stories circulating around these “dark beginnings” of Dharker Studio, the games from that period always interested me quite a lot, both because of my usual, morbid curiosity and the significant role they played in the history of EVNs. While it’s easy to argue that titles like Sword of Asumi or Divine Slice of Life did a lot to reinforce the general impression of EVNs being cheap, awkward imitations of their Japanese predecessors, I wanted to find out whether they’re really as bad as people make them out to be. In today’s episode, I’ll cover four of those pre-Dharker projects – outside of the two mentioned above, I’ll be including Highschool Romance and Highschool Possession, which, amusingly enough, have exactly nothing to do with each other, utilizing drastically different artstyles and telling stories that could hardly be further away from each other, at least apart from the obligatory high school setting. The one game I’ll skip, for the time being, is Beach Bounce, initial episodes of which were published during this time, but which was later heavily reworked and fully released as a “proper” Dharker Studio title, Beach Bounce Remastered. After that, it even spawned its own little franchise – this series, with three VNs in total, deserves a separate look and will be the next topic for Shovelware Adventures.
So, going back to our main issue, are the AJTilley.com VNs really that bad? The answer is: no. Because in reality, if you treat them seriously to any extent, they’re even worse than I've expected – at least outside of one, notable exception.
Imagine a game featuring a female assassin in an alternative-history Japan, where shogunate won the late XIX-century civil war and what in our world was the Meiji restoration followed a different path. The samurai class never lost its dominance, preserving its ethos and prestige till the modern day, while the militaristic government relies on secret police and agents such as our lead, Asumi, to keep people in check. At the same time, a new terrorist group rises, aiming to violently oppose the established order. Sounds pretty cool, right? Only in theory, as the reality of Sword of Asumi is one of the most amazing trainwrecks I’ve seen during my involvement with EVNs, rivalling Winged Cloud’s Legends of Talia with how absurdly stupid and tone-deaf it is.
The first thing you might notice after launching the game is that Asumi is possibly the dumbest assassin in the world, spewing edgy one-liners and engaging in small talk with her victims instead of focusing on getting the job done. A moment later, when a member of the Edo's (this universe’s Japan) secret police, a Justicar, shows in the house of Asumi’s latest hit and start discussing extremely delicate details of her next assignment in the middle of the murder scene, you know you’re up for a ride. And be sure, the stream of utter stupidity and inexplicable writing fu**ups never truly ends (like Asumi causally approaching other characters in her assassin’s clothes, while being undercover – I can understand that kind of mistake in writing, but when you can literally see it happening on the screen???). The somewhat-decent romance options, both male and female, help things a tiny bit, but can’t change the overall dreadful quality of the experience.
The absurd fanservice (it seems assassins have a strong taste for overly-elaborate, sexy lingerie, especially when preparing for a mission) and the fact how seriously the game treats itself are pretty much the final nails to its coffin. While the likes of Sakura games are after dumb and trashy, they’re self-aware and try to have fun with the formula. In Sword of Asumi, the only fun you can have is the kind fully unintended by its authors: the high from how astonishingly bad and absurd it is. And unless that’s what you’re looking for, there’s really no reason to read it. Sorry Kaori, even you couldn’t save this one...
Final Rating: Smelly Poo