This game, is to some extent, a redemption of my hopes for Ensemble. I say this from the beginning because I will inevitably be critical in a familiar way about some parts. However, this game was far closer to Ensemble at its best than we've seen in the last six years.
The story is set in an academic city in a school that has a weird setup where individuals who want to get involved with student government join the Knighthood, with Chevaliers and apprentices serving in roles from librarian to student council president all under the same title/role. The protagonist, a ninja (yes, a ninja) essentially transfers into the school because of evidence that a hacker/political activist/mischief-maker called the Bat is using it as their base of operations.
Essentially, the role of the ninja in this setting is as a sort of secret police that exist to stabilize the nation's politics, quietly manipulating things so the worst of the worst get knocked out of power without disrupting things and taking down terrorists and other problems before they surface. The protagonist is a young member of this organization (which is deliberately nameless) and has several successful missions under his belt. His personality is serious and loyal to his mission, while having a surprisingly strong sense of decency and justice without letting it get in the way of what is required of him. He is fairly capable, but, by his own description, he is at best near the middle or somewhat above it in the organization's ninjas. He is unfamiliar with women in general due to having grown up basically doing nothing but training to become a ninja (honestly, this part of the setting makes the least amount of sense, since classic ninja settings have the ninja deliberately making their personnel familiar with sex to use it as a tool or prevent it from being used against them).
To be honest, this setting made me rofl a bit, since it almost felt like a 'pirates vs ninja' kind of setup, and he does, indeed, face off against a few of the knights during the progress of the story.
One thing that struck me is the improvement in the action scenes from other Ensemble games. While they are still more generalist than some would like, they are far more detailed than is the norm in non-chuunige, and the CGs are actually halfway decent. The protagonist shows off his abilities only occasionally during the story (mostly because combat isn't his job), but when he does, it is sufficiently impressive to satisfy.
Story-wise, this game actually has a story *pauses for screams of shock* which is something most Ensemble games of late have lacked (maybe they finally figured out that while fluff sells at first, it doesn't make for repeat customers... nah, this is a Japanese company we are talking about). The common route serves as a more than adequate introduction to the heroines, and choices are kept to an absolute minimum - one - which was pleasant (to be blunt, excessive meaningless choices do nothing but disrupt the storytelling).
The heroines are: the overly serious but compassionate knight Kagura; the mischievous but pragmatically idealistic Knight Captain Mai; the unsociable but kind-hearted and capable coder Yui; and the overly enthusiastic but troubled (deep under the surface) wannabe ninja and classmate Kanon.
Choosing Kagura for my first heroine was a no-brainer for me. I'm a sucker for serious warrior heroines from old families, and she fits the bill nicely. I will say that I disliked one part of how they handled this part... despite the fact that she has restrictive and controlling parents, there is no actual conflict with said parents in the path. That said, the actual drama that is present is better than decent, and Kagura is a great deredere heroine once she falls for Jin.
In this path, Jin takes up a number of roles other than lover toward Kagura. He is a sparring partner, a friend, and a protector (despite her being capable, he is moreso, lol) which struck me as unusual for an Ensemble game, where it has become the norm to kill any talents the protagonist might have in the heroine paths.
If I have one serious complaint about this path, and it goes for all the paths in this game, is that Ensemble still used the 'we are going to have a fandisc where we tease at adding content but don't actually add anything but H' system for the endings. While there is a significant climax to the story in this path, there is a distinct lack of after story beyond the usual 'a few days later' copout.
Since Mai shares VAs with Maia from Hapymaher, it is literally impossible for me not to pick her early on. Okajima Tae (under various names) has voiced a surprisingly large portion of the best supporting female characters out there, along with a number of truly awesome heroines. She has a particular flair for mischievous but deeply perceptive characters, which fits in perfectly with Mai's characterization.
Mai's path is similar to Kagura's, albeit it is more wrapped up in the internal politics of the Knighthood than in the personal issues of the heroine herself. The role the protagonist plays in this path differs, in that Mai serves in the 'older sister wife' type role, pampering him in a way that his mother doesn't (though she dotes on him too, lol). He does aid her in similar ways (both with behind the scenes activities and by helping her perfect her swordsmanship), but his role is more blatantly supportive in this path.
The ending of this path is, again, a decent climax with not nearly enough after story. This path in particular could have done with a 'five years after' epilogue, because of the nature of the decisions Mai made toward the end of the path and the resolution of both Jin and herself in regards to those decisions.
Yui is a fairly straightforward archetype. Her character is the overly serious and socially inept nerd with sister issues. She is kind-hearted and finds it difficult to turn away those who come to her asking for help, but few people get past her tendency to present herself as being a somewhat thorny individual.
Yui's path is the first path in the VN that actually focused on the Bat, which is perhaps another area I should have complained about, but since the Bat isn't that interesting in concept as an antagonist, I mostly wasn't bothered by it in the previous paths. Unlike in Mai and Kagura's path, where there were serious combat scenes present, this path is more about the slow revelation of one aspect of what is going on behind the scenes through solving Yui's issues.
Jin's role in this path is very much that of the older partner in a romantic relationship, but it is also a surprisingly equal relationship, perhaps because Jin doesn't need to worry as much about hiding his abilities from Yui as he did from Kagura or Mai.
This path does have a good climax, but again, it lacks an after story to close things off.
Kanon is our wannabe ninja girl... a foreigner (as usual, Northern Europe with no country name given, lol) who got hooked on ninja anime (the hero type) and by accident discovers Jin is a ninja (though not his full identity, which he conceals throughout all the paths). She is a bright and cheerful girl with a strong sense of justice and a compassionate heart... though she is more than a little bit of an innocent.
Her path is, like the other paths, full of various incidents and drama with a huge amount of ichaicha on the side. It was a decent path, but she isn't my type, so I can't say I was emotionally invested this time around. There are some good - but very short - fights in this path, but they are mostly one-sided affairs. Like the three previous paths, this one lacks a good after story.
Secret is the name I given to the overall 'incident ending' that you can access after finishing all three paths. In this ending (basically, it can be interpreted that any of the girls is your heroine), you finally get to discover the antagonist's identity... and it is one that might surprise you. There is also a really good battle scene to treat you to, and the reasons for the antagonist's actions is a bit of a surprise...
This is, by far, the best Ensemble game made since Ojousama wa Gokigen Naname. It doesn't make it to kamige level and it shares the ending problem that most of the more recent Ensemble games have had, but it has a decent story, good characters, and enough drama to be memorable. While I'm probably not going to place this on an all-time favorites list, it is one of my favorites for this year so far.