Welcome back to another one of my seasonal (yup, I get enough things sent my way for that to be a thing now) summary of games given to me for review through the EVN Chronicles Steam Curator page. Once more, I’ll be focusing on the shorter titles, that would most likely be hard to write a full-length review about or had to give up their spots for games I really wanted to cover in detail. This, of course, doesn’t mean there are no really interesting VNs among them. In today's list, the title standing out the most is undoubtedly Jack-In-A-Castle, a whimsical tale about a world populated by living toys and a marionette investigating the disappearance of its king. This extended version of a free NaNoRenO 2019 VN proved to be an unusual and twisted experience that caught me completely by surprise. While the other three games I’ll cover this time didn’t offer similar levels of quality, all of them proved interesting in their own ways – even if they didn’t subvert my expectation quite like they wanted to...
Every once in awhile, I stumble upon small VNs so unusual and creative that they’re hard to categorize. Jack-In-A-Castle is, by its own admission, a rather cute, cartoonish boy’s love story happening in a fantastic world populated by animated toys. However, there are a few caveats to it: the BL label feels somewhat irrelevant considering the androgynous designs of the main characters (particularly the protagonist, Marion) and the relatively tame relationships they develop. Between all those cute living toys and minimalistic love stories they’re involved in, gender barely seems to hold any meaning. At the same time, the cartoonish art can be misleading in its own way – the game features some mature themes and the characters, Marion in particular, can be quite devious and even violent (although such things are mostly presented off-screen).
The three hero routes all develop in pretty unpredictable directions, leading Marion to resolve the mystery of the missing king and the tenuous regency of his right-hand-man, Jack, in vastly different ways (or not at all). This makes for a surprisingly engaging and fun experience – varied, cleverly written and executed with a lot of attention to detail. The game’s environments change to reflect the plot progression (mainly through the constant spread of mysterious vines infecting the titular castle). What seems like throwaway choices can lead to some drastic consequences, completely subverting your expectations. Everything is presented in a distinctly stylish manner, with the simplicity of character and background designs being outweighed by their expressiveness and the quirky atmosphere they create. The overall impression I’ve got from Jack-In-A-Castle was extremely positive and I highly recommend checking it out – unless you’re hoping for traditional VN romance, it definitely won’t disappoint you.
Final Rating: Highly Recommended
Belgerum is a developer of small hentai games that combine VN-style storytelling and simple, RPG-like battle mechanics. After his surprise hit from 2018 NaNoRen0 contest, Demon King Domination, he capitalised on it with an extended, commercial version that reached decent popularity on Steam. Later he also created a follow-up game, Magebuster, once more featuring a supernatural, villainous protagonist and an antagonistic heroine he has to dominate. His third title, Elf Enchanter, was meant to partially break away from this formula, being a “pure” visual novel and not focusing so much on dark themes.
Featuring a support mage that accidentally casts a taming spell on his dark elf companion, making her incapable of opposing his commands, it sounded quite intriguing in theory: I usually find games where you’re given complete power over other people, and can use it for either good or bad, very compelling. Elf Enchanter, however, does very little with this setup: featuring only a few choices and three possible endings, it’s too short and basic to really engage you in its narrative, while the 5 h-scenes (two unavoidable one and one extra per each ending) are average in quality and only one of them stands out with some unusual elements. It’s quite adequate as a $1 nukige (that’s how much it costs on Steam), but ultimately very forgettable – and that’s a shame, as with just a bit more content and complexity, it could’ve been a really cool experience worthy of a much more serious price tag. Maybe another time…
Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended
The fact that Visual Novels are somewhat easy to put-together, even without any programming prowess or high-quality assets involved, makes it quite common for extremely low-effort ones, or straight-up troll games in VN form, to reach Steam. Kingdom of Lies looks like one of the latter, a cynical attempt at trolling and getting attention with edgy content, but is actually something a bit different – a confusing, broken and ultimately unplayable mess, that still quite a lot of work and thought went into. It features a really strange story about a maniacal-murderer protagonist, guided by a demon (represented by gradually-decaying rat corpse) into a killing spree in a modern-fantasy setting. It then combines it with some literally-impossible Hotline Miami-style gameplay sections and minigames that will make your head hurt (although the combination of shogi, go and chess on a three-dimensional board and with a possibility to modify rules was pretty hilarious). All of that coupled with MS Paint-grade visuals, tons of anti-SJW memes and high levels of randomness. It’s quite possible that I haven’t seen this much effort going into something so overwhelmingly bad since Sonic Boom and if the game was just a battle bit less broken, I could’ve even suggested checking it out for its hypnotizing trainwreck-like qualities. It also involves a few genuinely cool ideas: for example, the rat corpse/demon you communicate with before every mission is quite disturbing, with the constant decay and disease it seems to spread all around it being well-portrayed despite the simplistic graphics. In reality, though, the experience of playing Kingdom of Lies is just too confusing and frustrating to be worth it.
Final Rating: Not Recommended
Caladria Chronicles is a debut VN by a small studio called Starlight Visual, one which was meant to launch a whole saga set in the titular modern-fantasy world of Caladria. It’s also, by most measures, a rather spectacular trainwreck: overly ambitious, unfocused and grossly unpolished in its execution. The full voice acting is a mixed bag at best, with some characters being hard to listen to and whole lines misplaced or missing. The narrative lacks clear protagonists, and introduces way too many character and subplots within its 3-hours reading time. The humour is very much hit-and-miss, with two rather unbearable chuuni characters at the center of most of the gags. The anime clichés are everywhere and their presence, along with many explicit references to Japan, are utterly confusing unless you took your time and read the game’s encyclopaedia, explaining many crucial lore details that are never properly communicated in the story. An encyclopaedia which, BTW, is also full of errors and clunky writing.
Why do I leave this game with a positive recommendation then? Not because I necessarily advice reading it, but because of a huge potential I see in its setting and some of its characters. Caladria is a copycat world – a planet whose people used the help of mystical being known as angels to gain knowledge of Earth’s history, technology and culture. They then proceeded to copy and expand on all of it, boosting their own development in incredible ways. In the process, Caladria lost most of its own identity, with whole nations mimicking Earth’s civilizations and identifying with these artificially-imported, second-hand cultures. With a few forms of magic and a tumulous political situation added to the mix, the setting itself offers great promise, even if the first game only briefly touches on its most interesting aspects. While for now, Caladria Chronicles can be only worth experiencing as an unfortunate curiosity, if its authors manage to learn from their mistakes, they have a good basis to create something really memorable and compelling. Skip on this VN, but keep Starlight Visual on your radar – personally, I’m extremely curious where the Caladria project goes next.
Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended
And this would be it for this season’s Steam Curator summary! I hoped to include at least one more game in it, but the real-life responsibilities forced me to move it to the fall update – that one will hopefully be more substantial, including some more notable games and ones that were waiting particularly long to get covered. Still, I hope you all enjoyed this small update and as always, my huge thanks go to the developers that decided to share their work with me. I hope this feedback, even if not always positive, will be of use to them and maybe even inspire (even) better VNs in the future. Until the next time!