This is a condensed version of the full review which can be found on my Main Blog Here.
Shaped By Inevitable Bonds
Being bound by the red string of fate is a common trope in Japanese romance stories and at first glance you might assume that Akai Ito would follow these conventions given its emphasis on yuri. However, nothing could be further from the truth as the game takes this romantic convention and repurposes it to further a disempowerment horror story. Fate takes on a shade of grey with the feeling of love being tinged by the march of supernatural forces who care nothing for this newly formed bond. Akai Ito is very much a visual novel from a bygone era and this makes it a strange oddity in the modern day especially with how few games in the medium get HD remasters. Its strong core identity has only grown in potency as its peers have fallen into obscurity and a lack of the cliches of the current age makes for a novel experience. Even its strange collection of design choices are not enough to sour the overall package. With all that said how well does this mix of yuri and horror stand up against the more varied modern medium? Let’s follow the treads of fate and discover what this relic has to offer.
Returning To A Forgotten Home – Narrative and Themes
As a narrative core romance and horror make for odd bedfellows and it this exact dissonance Akai Ito uses to great effect. It utilises a supernatural mystery as the binding element between these two halves and puts each to good use as the source of the tense horror of being in the shoes of a weak protagonist and for rich variety of yuri relationships. Sometimes this is pushed too far and stretches the player’s patience with just how powerless the protagonist is even in situations where it does not make narrative sense.
Returning to a family home you barely remember is a strange experience with memories slowly coming back as you explore the place where you once spent so much time. Such is the backbone of Akai Ito’s supernatural mystery, a forgotten past in a distant home which many people who would rather the protagonist, Kei, forget for good. No secret can remain hidden for long when curiosity guides the one it concerns and this acts as the diving force for both Kei and the player leading to a feeling of exploration and forward momentum. Each new discovery hints at the next and passes on the sense of intrigue in such a way that the player never feels too sure they know how this is going to end. There is a well divided structure to the distribution of key revelations between the routes so none of them horde all the good twists and they are provided to the heroine with which they have a connection, so they can be delivered believably. What this means in practice is utilising them as a source of conflict against and between Kei and the route heroine creating dynamic situations in which secrets flow out naturally. In doing it this way the supernatural mystery can sit next to the other narrative elements without overwhelming them with major plot points centred around it.
Alongside the mystery sits the game’s emphasis on a tense disempowerment brand of horror. Kei is no superpowered fighter nor does she become so over the course of the story. Instead she is a fairly average human in terms of physical capabilities and this makes the threats against her life all the more palpable. The player instinctually know the consequences of any harm that comes her way since they too feel the fragility of human life with each attack being a possible broken limb at best or instant death at worse. Tapping into this primal fear of our own weak bodies and the spectre of death in every possible slip up is the game’s greatest achievement and it injects a visceral sense of tension into the supernatural threat facing Kei. It feels as if even the slightest nudge could cause this story to come to an abrupt and bloody end. The only issue with this approach is that Kei’s weakness can sometimes be pushed too far and she feels like a passenger in her own story with her love interests doing all the heavy lifting to the point of eclipsing the person who is meant to be the main character. While this never makes itself know enough to break the player’s suspense, it can still be distracting to see how little our main character does at times in their own story.
Tied Together By Fate – Characters
On one side of the character divide with have our protagonist Kei who as mentioned above is a deliberately underpowered character for the threats they are facing, but beyond that they are also immensely relatable. Their vulnerability makes the actions they take to face the threat against their life take on a greater weight and helps sell the human nature of their heroism. Kei is not someone who is helping out of the goodness of her heart and instead she acts to protect and support those she cares about, normally the route heroine. The childish and selfish streak in her does a good job of making feel like she is someone her age, on the cusp of maturity but still with a lot of the emotional baggage of a teenager. For a player point of view character, this mixture of strengths and weakness is perfect for keeping interest constant and having a relatable point of reference among all the supernatural forces since we have all been in that cusp of adulthood during our lives so we too know how confusing it can be. She also works well as a mirror for the heroines since she has the innocence that they do not and is able to see through the masks they wear and show them their true feeling even as they try to reject her. These bonds are reciprocal as Kei learns and matures in a way close to the route’s heroine by taking on a small amount of their traits so she can be more like them.
Sitting opposite Kei is the rest of the cast, both heroines and antagonists, as they all share a similar clear focus to their aims even if Kei is not immediately aware of what they are or what they involve. These competing desires lead to them rubbing each other the wrong way and results in interesting, telling and varied interactions that do a lot to further the mysteries at the heart of the game. The conflicts are not limited to fighting against the antagonists and many stem from the heroines’ differing values as they struggle to contain their hostility or unease towards each other, all the while tiptoeing around Kei. Such a wide pool of character relationships helps support the game’s multiple route structure as it can put an emphasis on a certain set of struggles to make them the focus, keep them fresh and encourages a thorough dive into each route to gain a complete picture of these characters. The mystique surrounding the antagonists is maintained by never revealing enough through these interactions to give away what drives them or what they have planned, but still provide enough for the player to form their own theories. As a whole they are an astonishingly well thought through cast that fit their roles and the tone of the game well.
Otherworldly Beauty – Visuals, Audio and Technical
Presentation is one of the key elements used to sell this HD remaster and, while the original version never released in English, there has been a clear effort to make sure it lives up to these expectations. This new layer of polish breaths life into an early 2000’s title with crisp visuals and increased fidelity which helps enhance the game’s tone by giving it a grounded aesthetic. The charm of this older style of anime character and CG designs is not lost in the transfer into HD and now it stands out even more alongside a field of moe centric visual novels, making it a refreshing blast from the past. However, the visuals have not been stretched to fit into a widescreen resolution and instead light patterned sidebars have been added to fill out what would have been black bars around the image. These are relatively unobtrusive and to be expected since this is a remaster rather than a remake and they never intrude into the experience in the way simple black bars would have. On the audio front the sound effects and music maintain the excellent atmosphere of the original and they are clear to the listener with no distortions. Each track is used to great effect and they all lean into the mystery and romantic tones that define Akai Ito which leads to some impressively emotive moments.
Despite the general high quality of Akai Ito, there is one area bringing down the whole experience and this is the uneven nature of the translation and its implementation. The overall quality of the translation is decent, but there are certain places were it stumbles and these happen often enough to be distracting. One of the most noticeable places to observe this is in the menus where some text is translated very literally to the point of requiring you to stop and think about what the button you are hovering over actually means. Within the game itself there will be moments where the phrasing of certain sentences will be unnatural or flow poorly and you’ll wonder if you misread it which brings you out of the events on screen. Then there are the issues with how text is implemented into the game, it is a regular feature for a single section of text to be broken into several textboxes with one ending suddenly and shifting directly into the next in a way that makes it clear that the original text occupied a single textbox. This can lead to the text lacking the impact it might have otherwise had if it was delivered as a single blow rather than being split up. All these points are disappointing given the otherwise high bar of the game’s quality and are worth keeping in mind when considering your purchase.
On the surface mixing yuri and horror might seem to be a recipe for disaster but Akai Ito showcases a strong case from how taking two disparate genre together can lead to exciting new games. Smoothly blending the suspense of its supernatural mystery with the horror of our own fragile mortal bodies and the enriching and varied nature of love is the main draw of this visual novel. Backing this up is a solid cast of multifaceted heroines and villains alongside a protagonist who displays a strong humanity in her actions. This strength continues in its visual and auditory presentation which has benefited highly from the HD treatment. The only places the game stumbles are in its uneven translation and frustrating lock system, but neither of these do enough to ruin an otherwise well put together title.
Verdict – An outstanding disempowerment horror experience that utilises its yuri component with grace and which stands out despite its age and a few questionable design choices.
+ A good balance of supernatural mystery and tension keeps the narrative engaging.
+ The yuri relationships are presented believably and never overshadow the story’s direction.