Sorcery Jokers: It surprised Clephas, will it surprise you?
First, I'll give you a quick run-down on this game... it is a game by 3rd Eye, a company known mostly for producing chuunige that are more moe-influenced than is the norm. This game is actually more of a mystery/chuuni/action/conspiracy type than a 'pure' chuunige. The world in which it is based is a future where, ten years before the story began, magic appeared on the scene. Large numbers of people became capable of using magic, and a new branch of science was built up solely for the purpose of utilizing magic as new energy source. The result of this is a society that is somewhat divided between the magical 'haves' and 'have-nots', though that isn't the focus of the story, despite what you might otherwise anticipate.
Senri is your classic 'bad-ass antihero protagonist'. He is clever, intelligent, and overall highly capable, with a razor-sharp mind and battle instincts that would put a Navy Seal to shame and make Golgo 13 look incompetent. His cold-blooded pursuit of his own interests, which are very opaque through most of the VN, is his primary defining feature... Oh, and he lies... a lot. He makes the protagonist of Sharin no Kuni seem honest.
Haruto is a somewhat less beloved type of protagonist in chuunige... basically a 'justice freak' combined with being 'a young man driven against his will by the tides of fate'. He is a natural optimist and a believer in fairness above all. Unfortunately, he also has that bad habit a lot of similar chuunige protagonists have... of sticking his nose into situations he doesn't really need to get involved in. He grows a great deal during the course of the VN (as is typical of this type, if the writers don't suck), and by the end his viewpoint on the world has... been sharpened a great deal by experience. He is more likeable than a lot of similar protagonists, but it still isn't a type I prefer.
Fiona, at first glance, seems to be your classic clutzy/innocent nun-type heroine. She works as a nun at a run-down church in the city's... less reputable area and is well-loved by the delinquents who frequent the church. However, she, like most of the characters in this game, is hiding a lot of secrets... She is one of Senri's two heroines.
An innocent, pure-hearted girl who is seen mostly as a ghost throughout the first part of the game. She has a really unique way of speaking, born partially from Senri's half-hearted efforts at education (mostly through handing her magazines and letting her watch AVs). To be honest, in the reading of this VN, interpreting her weird speech patterns was a bit difficult at first (she cuts apart words and puts them together in weird ways). She is the second of Senri's two heroines.
Asahi is... a bit weird. Her personality itself is quite straightforward and honest, and she hates lies and general dishonesty with a passion. However, she is also compassionate to a fault and unwavering in the pursuit of her goals. Unfortunately - at least so it seems at first - there are a few loose screws rolling around in that head of hers. Even more so than Haruto, she is an eternal an unrepentant optimist and probably the single most trustworthy individual in the entire VN.
Riku is, throughout the VN, perhaps the least expressive individual other than Senri himself. She almost never displays her emotions on her face, and she has an almost unnatural tendency to think objectively about anything and everything, including herself. That the writer managed to grant her so much depth without making her a protagonist was an impressive feat in and of itself... and one of the reasons why her interactions with Haruto and Asahi are so amusing. She really is almost as detached as she seems most of the time, which is one of the reasons it hits so hard when she does become emotional.
Sorcery Jokers is definitely VN of the Month material. I'll say that right off the bat. The depth of the story and characters is incomparable with previous games by this company, and while it falls slightly short of a kamige, it is nonetheless something worth taking note of. Normally, I can't stand dual protagonists, as many have heard me mention. I hated Subahibi for that, amongst a number of other sins, and one of the biggest reasons it took me so long to play I/O was because I don't like going into VNs with multiple protags.
Fortunately, I managed to get past that, simply because the differing approaches to the story were the only thing that made it possible to grasp something even approaching the whole of the story as it happened. A single perspective wouldn't have done a bit of good as an approach to this VN's story, simply because there are too many things happening at too many different points for a single perspective to handle.
The VN's structure is basically that of a kinetic novel, with the illusion of choice through a flow chart (for the first chapter, at least) where you pick and choose which events you want to see next (though you have to see them all anyway). To be honest, I could have done without the flow chart entirely... flow charts in general are an irritation more than a help, especially if they are made a central part of progressing the story. That said, as the actual switching around mostly ends after the first chapter, it isn't really a big deal (though it does make me wonder why they had a flow chart at all).
The story's mystery and conspiracy elements feel a lot like peeling an onion, as there are layers within layers within layers. What you thought was the root of things turns out to be just another layer, more than once. As things come together near the end, the knowledge you've gained through the character perspectives deepens the experience nicely, making this one of the few part-mystery VNs I've played in recent years that I didn't immediately have 'read' relatively early on.
That isn't to say there aren't points where the VN stumbles. Haruto, because of his role as the 'kid chuunige protag', is the game's Achilles Heel, as all protagonists of the type with his kind of temperament tend to be. However, his growth is enough to offset the cookie-cutter aspects of his character enough that I approved of his role... in the end. Asahi also threatens to tilt the balance of the VN into the realm of the silly a lot early on, simply because of her 'weirdness'. However, because that silliness is a vital ingredient in her growth as a character, it can't really said to be a true weakness, though it can be irritating at times.
The endings are all branches off of the true end, one for each heroine (Noa or Fiona with Senri, and Asahi or Riku with Haruto). I had no problems with the epilogues for Noa or Fiona... but I thought that Haruto had devolved a lot in his heroine epilogues, which kind of brought me back to why I didn't like him in the first place.
Overall, I felt that this VN is one of the more solid chuunige made in the last few years, especially in the sense of 'balance'. Silverio Vendetta, while it is a lot more exhilarating, also had the difficulty of disproportionately focusing the writer's attention on Vendetta, which weakened the other two paths greatly. Bansenjin suffers from reusing an uninspiring cast and being relatively boring throughout most of its length. In terms of a constant sense of tension and in terms of pacing of events, this VN definitely is the winner of Chuunige VN of the Year so far, though it isn't chuuni-crack in the sense that Silverio was. I'm actually quite proud of the fact that this company has evolved so much since its somewhat... unimpressive beginnings (Bloody Rondo), and I'm glad I stuck with the company. It is always nice to be surprised pleasantly by a VN.