Anyone observing the EVN scene should know well that yuri, besides being my personal obsession, is one of the most vibrant niches for non-JP visual novels, with many studios and creators dedicated to this theme and a very active fanbase. This seems to be particularly clear nowadays, as even companies like Winged Cloud, the infamous producers of low-effort VN smut, capitalized majorly on the trend, producing mostly GxG games for the past few years. On the other side of the spectrum, Studio Elan recently pushed the standard of quality for EVNs in general with their modern fairy tale, Heart of the Woods. As a result, yuri fans have a lot to choose from, both when it goes to quality work and amusing trash.
The game I’ll be writing about today, Aikawa Collective’s Mizuchi 白蛇心傳, definitely aimed for the “quality” side of the spectrum and seemed like something that could rival Studio Elan’s hit with its climate and visual spectacle. This yuri-themed retelling of the famous Chinese folk tale, the Legend of the White Serpent, looked spectacular in its promotional material and easily reached its Kickstarter goal of $8500 in September 2018. While the development cycle for it proved long, going 9 months beyond its initial target of August 2019, it never lost its place as a promising and highly-anticipated yuri EVN. Releasing on Steam and Itch.io in mid-April 2020, it gathered overwhelmingly positive feedback – but, did it truly live up to the hype?
Don’t worry, for those like me not blessed with proper knowledge of Japanese, these scenes get explained later on, but not knowing what is said is actually pretty important for the game’s mystery and climate-building
Mizuchi is a story of a young, poor peasant girl from the game’s equivalent of medieval China (her default name is Linh, but it can be changed). After years of living a harsh, but simple live as youngest daughter of the family, she’s unexpectedly proposed to by her childhood friend, who just came back from serving in a war. Just a few days later, after discovering something unexpected about her fiancée, she’s falsely accused of adultery and as a “trial” thrown into a pit of snakes. Left for certain death, she’s miraculously saved by an entity she assumes to be the serpent god revered by her community and wakes up in an unfamiliar house, whose only other inhabitant seems to be the said deity, now using a monstrous, half-serpent, half-human form. Terrified and confused, she has to navigate this new situation, made even more complex by the arrival of Jinhai – a strange, but kind female monk with a deep-running and turbulent relationship with the serpent goddess.
While Mizuchi incorporates many fantastical elements, particularly with the serpent goddess, Ai, being a major focus, at its core it’s a slice-of-life VN, spending most of its time on the backstories and personal development of the three main characters. This is often done with slow-paced, casual interactions and depictions of daily life in the estate, near-perfectly isolated from the outside world. For those expecting a more dynamic story, or even a primarily romantic one, this might be a disappointment, as you’ll find in it at least just as many discussions about cooking and the local variety of mushroom as you might scenes that contribute to the romance or plot progression. This casual-feeling routine is only occasionally broken up by more dramatic events or tension, with the main axis of conflict being what Jinhai perceives as Linh’s imprisonment or forced servitude to Ai. Things change significantly in the final act of each route, with a lot more stress on supernatural phenomena and higher stakes, but this part might be slightly hard to get to for anyone not tolerant to slow pacing and very subtle character development.
The amount of ultra-casual moments and “pointless” trivia sometimes threaten to devolve into genuine boredom, particularly in some of the scenes in Jinhai’s route
The reason I nearly never had a problem with the game’s relaxed approach to storytelling is that the setting and characters it builds are excellent enough to justify it. Linh starts overwhelmed and hurt, limited in her understanding of the world and striving to come back to her familiar home despite the struggle and possible danger that awaits her there. Her journey is mostly one of understanding her full potential and the injustice of the position she held in her village, which she previously considered as natural and inescapable. She’s believable in her reactions and the game delves pretty deep into emotional mechanisms of trauma, with which she has to deal with over time. All this definitely has a touch of female empowerment in it, as Linh has to break free of the constraints and common sense thinking of her extremely patriarchal and conservative community, with Ai offering her broader perspective on the world and promising new opportunities. Thankfully, it’s done well enough to never feel like pandering and is not exactly detached from the historical realities of medieval China the game takes inspiration from.
Ai’s and Jinhai’s arcs are harder to talk about without spoilers, but the goddess in particular make for a really interesting character. As a powerful, shape-shifting spirit often moving between the worlds of nature and that of people, she has an attitude that combines a form of misanthropy with curiosity about humans and appreciation of specific individuals. Her arc is mostly themed around fully understanding humans and being able to grasp the love and devotion they often show to each other – a wish clearly signified by her adopted name. Jinhai is arguably a lesser character, as she’s defined mostly by her relationship with Ai and the responsibility she feels to keep her in check. The development she receives is definitely not as deep as that of the other two main characters and her route, by extension, is less captivating – which doesn't mean she isn't plenty likeable and doesn't have her own inner conflicts to resolve.
I previously mentioned that Mizuchi’s romance arcs are not its central focus and I’m willing to stand by this claim, although I have some conflicted feelings in this regard. The game does some really excellent things when it goes to showing intimacy between the characters when the romance finally blossoms, with a set of mature, but not explicit scenes for both routes (inexplicably delegated to a patch on Steam, while they definitely should be a part of the core package and can hardly be considered "adult-only"). The road to those scenes is, however, kind of cliched and pale in comparison with how interesting the backstories of the characters and the core intrigue are. The positive part is that each route adds something to the understanding of the overall story and lore of the game’s world. Still, the non-romantic “harem” ending felt most satisfying to me, which is really weird for a yuri fanatic such as myself. My only explanation is that seeing all the characters staying together and overcoming traumas of their pasts simply feels like the best possible outcome, so this friendship scenario ends up being more satisfying than romance that naturally pushes someone out of the equation.
The game does a good job of including some nudity and intimacy without explicit visuals – all mild and tasteful enough that the inclusion of Steam content patch for much of it feels pretty uncalled for
Now, for genuine complaints, I have very few, but my biggest one is probably the choice structure. It relies on an invisible affection system, with some choices contributing to it in a less-than-intuitive manner. This means that reaching some of the 5 endings, particularly the true ending for each heroine, can be really frustrating without a guide – while the number of choices is not massive, the sequence you need for those is really specific. Also, the execution of some of the endings was somewhat lacklustre, as they not always managed to explain well-enough what was going on and maintain reasonable pacing. Also, it’s clear that even among the “true endings” Ai’s felt a lot more robust and satisfying, showing where most of the team’s focus actually went.
Visually, Mizuchi is absolutely beautiful, although it definitely prioritizes quality over quantity. Because the action of the VN is limited to less than a dozen locales, all the illustrations are really high-quality and do a great job of projecting the far-eastern-legend feel of the story. Sprites do not have much variety when it goes to poses and clothes, but once more make up for it with being highly-detailed and gorgeous – and to be fair, the sheer amount of forms Ai shapeshifts into required quite a lot of work to portray properly, in practice creating a significantly higher character count. CGs are relatively few and the high quality of other art kind of prevents them from having as much impact as they would in an average EVN, but that latter part is something I wish I could complain about more often. The music is fairly tranquil in its feel, matching the overall climate of the story – it was very pleasant and never got in the way of reading, which is just what I want from a VN soundtrack.
In summary, Mizuchi is a game with a slightly niche appeal, due to its heavy focus on slice-of-life content and one that occasionally doesn’t seem to rise to its authors’ ambitions (particularly with the impact of the romance subplots). Despite all that, though, I found it to be a rather excellent experience, with charming characters and story that should satisfy not only yuri fans – while it doesn’t shy away from delving into the GxG love stories, its most important parts are much more universal. Its climate and unique approach to the far-eastern setting are something that should appeal to a broad audience and I recommend every VN fan that wasn’t scared off by my earlier criticism to give Mizuchi a chance. Also, as Aikawa’s debut, it’s a very promising achievement – hopefully, they won’t stop there.
Final Rating: 4/5
+ Beautiful visuals
+ Well-constructed, unusual fantasy setting
+ Likeable heroines
+ Good psychological depth of the main characters
– Uneven pacing and occasionally dull slice-of-life content
– Unintuitive choice system
– Romance subplots lack impact