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  1. Wow. I am kind of surprised it made the list. At least it is some visual novel representation on the list.
  2. This is a condensed version of the full review which can be found on my Main Blog Here. Genre – Otome, Mystery, Drama. Play Time – 35 hours. Developer – Otomate and Design Factory. Steam VNDB Reinvigorating The Cliché Using amnesia as plot device is a common tactic by many creators who want to put the protagonist on the same level as the player, but its use rarely goes beyond being an excuse for exposition. Enter Amnesia: Memories, as you might have been able to guess from its name this is a story about a protagonist with amnesia. However, unlike many other titles this one uses the amnesia as a key point to build around and create tension between the player and the unknown. This is a game about uncertainty, be it in relationships or unknown motivations, and overcoming it to build a future together with the one you love. It is also a perfect example of the pros and cons of a complete self-insert protagonist and how it can be used to effectively sell a tone and immerse the player. Overall it is a very interesting example of its genre and as we move forward you too will come to appreciate how it achieves its success. Can You Every Truly Know Another? - Narrative and Theme When it comes to narrative complexity Amnesia: Memories is on the simpler side with a focus on a few well worn themes and ideas. It is how these elements are put together which raises it above many of its kin. The methods it uses to achieve its success are focused around putting the player in an unknown social situation and asking them who they can trust. Back this up with a solid selection of romance options and the result is quite impressive given how similar it is to its peers on a base level. The vast majority of the tension present throughout the story originates for the question of who to trust. By placing the protagonist in the same position of ignorance as the player through their amnesia the player cannot look to the protagonist's interactions for guidance which enhances the sense of isolation. Feeling out which of the male leads you can trust and tentatively getting to know them forms the bulk of the experience. The acts of opening yourself up to these people through the protagonist is a strangely cathartic experience and adds an intimacy to character moments knowing that they had to earn your trust. Later in a route the tension provided by the unknown is refocused solely on the hero who is the object of the romance and in some cases even ratchets it up further by revealing a hidden side to a person you thought that you knew. Through the game’s willingness to play into our fear of the unknown and shift the source of that uncertainty when needed it can achieve an engaging current to push the player to continue to play. Having a strong sense of romantic storytelling is key to the success of any otome and Amnesia is no exception. Each hero is distinct from one another both in terms of personality and the content of their routes and this allows the player choose from a wide variety of experiences to meet their tastes. This mixing of choice and blind uncertainty heightens the romantic tension between the player and their selected hero and feeds into their investment in the struggles of that character. By playing on this feeling, the narrative of the route can hold the player's interest though the slow revelation of the hero’s flaws and their intimacy with the protagonist. While the actual content of the routes is not necessarily the most original for an otome, it uses the above techniques to obscure this with a sincere presentation of the story which does its utmost to sell the emotions of each scene. The one major issue with this approach is the fact that there are times in the story when it can come across as nothing more than a hot guy buffet for the player to choose from, rather than a selection of believable people for you to invest yourself into. This is mostly a side effect of the blind choices presenting options whose only immediately perceivable consequence is the affection of a specific hero and leads to it feeling a little shallow at times. However, the problem is only really noticeable after a few play throughs when you have a feel for the game’s tricks, before that point you are too focused on the tension of the unknown to notice it. Full And Empty People - Characters Discussing the characters of Amnesia: Memories presents an interesting problem as it is a narrative defined by the presence of a none-character as much as it is by the heroes. This gaping void takes the form of the protagonist and their complete lack of personality creates a unique set of problems and opportunities. Of course the main cast are still the stars of the show with an excellent variety of personalities which clash and complement the overall narrative choices of the game. Having a self-insert protagonist who only speaks through the dialogue choices made by the player is hardly a special feature of Amnesia with the dozens of other game which uses this narrative device, especially in the mobile gacha space. Instead what makes it stand out is the way in which it commits to this protagonist for the purposes of immersion and building atmosphere. Rather than being content to simply let the player project themselves onto the protagonist, Amnesia takes things a step further by placing the protagonist, and thus the player, in a position of vulnerability through her amnesia and the contrasting information provided by a cast of unknown people who claim to know her. By bringing the player and protagonist closer together it makes it easier to blur the line between the two and allow the player to experience similar emotions to the protagonist through their emotional investment into her. The inclusion of a self-insert protagonist comes with a few noticeable downsides. First of all there is the issue of how to fill the down time where the protagonist is on their own or where the narrative needs to express some idea or feeling and cannot use another main character to do so. The answer to this problem for Amnesia and many other games using similar protagonists is to have a companion character who acts as the voice of the narrative and set the mood or delivers exposition. In this case the role is assumed by Orion, a character whom only the protagonist can see and plays a critical role in the plot as the instigator of the amnesia issue. While he is relatively inoffensive for the most part, there are times when it becomes too obvious that he is the voice of the developer trying to push you into a certain state of mind and in these moments he can come across as an irritation. The second issue with this choice of protagonist is the lack of proper back and forth between her and the male leads. This results in sections where the hero talks at the protagonist rather than having an interaction with them as a consequence of her silent status and developer not wanting to overuse choices in order to keep them feeling special. Thankfully these moments are uncommon, but when they do happen they can bring you out of the experience by making you more aware of the limitations of this narrative design choice instead of focusing on the emotional weight of what is being said. A Dream Across Every Inch - Visual, Audio and Technical Amnesia’s presentation and technical aspects are somewhat of a mix bag with the game playing it safe in many areas while still having a flair of its own. The overall package is of a high quality due to this title being from a larger studio and established design of their games shows itself throughout. However, this comes at the cost of being unable to distinguish itself from its peers and failing to keep up the quality set by the narrative. One area which does not disappoint is the art direction with striking colours and patterns across every surface and character. The four suits of playing cards is the motif which the game uses for its visual design with each of the main hero being associated with one of them and assigned an appropriate colour to match. Presenting the characters and environments through this stylised imagery creates a striking contrast between each hero and keeps the artwork feeling stimulating over the course of the entire game. Alongside these elements Amnesia chooses to have each background make use of contrast and vague outlines leading to an almost dreamlike feeling to the events playing out in them. The CG similarly play up this strong visual identity, but here it is used to create intimacy and focus on the emotion or idea the image is attempting to invoke by carefully emphasising the key element with distinctive designs and colours. Together the package understand how to play to the strengths of the medium and makes sure each aspect can shine in the appropriate manner. In terms of features and technical polish Amnesia is the base level you would expect from a visual novel with a few interesting additions. This is to say that it has the standard list of features, such as a gallery and a skip function. On top of this is has an in-game tracker for the affection, trust and suspicion of your chosen hero which is useful when it comes to figuring out what choices raise each value. There is one strange feature in this package and that is a set of mini-games only available on the main menu. These are incredibly detached from the rest of the game's content to the point where you would question why they even exist, but I suppose they are there for those who want a distraction from the main game. Regardless, those playing Amnesia will not find it wanting on the systems level and most likely will not notice any potential improvement which could have been made. Verdict – Amnesia: Memories is a game as much distinguished as harmed by its commitment to creating tension and immersing the player in the role of the protagonist. Pros and Cons - Pros- + The male leads give a good variety to narrative and the types of relationships on offer to the player. + A satisfying final route which raps up all the hanging plot threads in a nice bow and feels suitably final. + One of the strongest uses of a self-insert to sell the bond between player and protagonist and create a palpable tension through the unknown. + The art style adds a dream like quality to the game and helps sell the atmosphere and the romantic fantasy. Cons- - Having a self-insert protagonist can hurts character interactions and leads to some stilted scenes. - At times it can be a blatant buffet of hot men for the player to choose from to the point of being off-putting. - A mediocre soundtrack and lack of interesting technical features hold the game back from being a more well rounded package.
  3. This is a condensed version of the full article which can be found on my Main Blog Here. When Everything Goes Wrong A good story is often defined by its ending and a bad one can be redeemed by it. Visual novels are no exception to this rule and must contend with this opportunity multiple times over the course of the game. The most common form of endings used in visual novels are the Good and True Endings, but there are also some games which use Bad Endings. This kind of ending is one in which the protagonist fails in some fashion based on the players choices and it is generally treated as a short optional side path to expand the players experiences. Handling a Bad Ending properly can be a difficult task as they are inherently negative by nature and can make the player feel as if they are being unfairly punished. Bad Endings can be broadly split into two types, the Tragic End, where events end poorly for everyone involved, and the Dead End, where the protagonist simply dies. There is obviously a degree of overlap between the two types and this will be explored more as we address them separately. Their are other mediums which have the player character die based on the players choices like with Dead Ends, most notably choose your own adventure books, but none which place the emphasis on them which visual novels do with Tragic Ends. This strange evolution is what this article will be exploring as it details the aspects and usage of the Bad Ending and why it fits some games but not others. Tragic Ends Of the two types of Bad Endings the Tragic End is by far the most common simply because it can fit into any genre and does not require any form of character death. This allows it to sit alongside a more grounded or personal drama oriented story. Death can still be a part of a Tragic End but it is rarely the defining element and as a result it can explore the outcomes of a failure in an expansive manner not present in Dead Ends. One important feature of a Tragic End is how it expands the narrative in some fashion, be this hinting at a future revelation or showing another side of a character which might otherwise have been hidden. This offer the visual novel a chance to allow the player to explore the narrative and feel rewarded with the sense of discovery and the idea that they have had a glimpse behind the curtain. On the flip side the Tragic End can serve the same tension providing purpose as a Dead End and be something the player wants to avoid so they can have a happy ending for the characters they are invested in, which keeps them on their toes. Player engagement is one of the most important aspects for a game and the use of Tragic Ends provides it with ease, but to really explore how they achieve this we will need to look a few examples of good implementations of them. Let’s start with a simple example in the form of Himawari. This game utilises a series of Tragic Ends during its opening section which can be reached by making incorrect choices. These fall under the peek behind the curtain type of Tragic End as Himawari initially presents itself as a simple slice of life story with an eccentric cast and these peeks act as subtle confirmation to the player that all is not as it seems. Strange character behaviour and unexplained events define these endings and each one is given a unique piece of the puzzle to tantalise the player with. Himawari also understands when to stop using Tragic Ends. Once the big twist is revealed in the second section and the curtain is pulled back there is no longer any need to peek behind it and so Tragic Ends stop appearing after this point. In many ways it is the poster child of how to utilise Tragic Ends in the most basic manner and how powerful that effect can be for keeping the player engaged when nothing appears to be happening on the surface without forcing this content down their throat. Virtue’s Last Reward handles its Tragic Ends in a very different way, it makes them a mandatory part of the games structure. Almost all endings before the True Ending are some form of Tragic End and serve the purpose of pushing the narrative forward in various ways while also providing the idea of being trapped in a more meta narrative sense. This all fits into the death game style of story which Virtue’s Last Reward tells. The game could have got away with simple Dead Ends if building tension was what it needed from its endings. However, instead Tragic Ends were used to help build out the world and mysteries while the life and death drama plays out to its sad conclusion. By using so many negative endings the game creates a maze like quality to its narrative which encourages the player to try and find the way out for both themselves and the characters they have grown attached to. It is this blending of motivation and mystery building which makes Virtue’s Last Reward an excellent example of how Tragic Ends can be used to clever effect. Dead Ends In contrast to the complex possibilities offered by the Tragic End, the Dead End results simply in the swift death of the player character or another key character. Dead Ends are often short in length and are the closest visual novels come to having a simple game over screen, but unlike them Dead Ends have a degree of narrative flexibility. The most common use of the Dead End is to build tension within a visual novel by offering a fail state. This works to sell the lethality of a situation though showing it rather than simply implying it, which allows the story to keep a sense of suspense throughout its length rather than the player becoming accustomed to the threat of death. It is surprising how a sudden death from a simple choice can wake the player up and make them think more carefully about what they are doing in order to avoid a similar fate again. Fate Stay Night is the poster child for the standard use of Dead Ends to create tension. It is visual novel centred around life and death magical battles so it offers many opportunities to provide the player with a choice which could lead to their death in combat. The constant presence of death helps sell the battle royale as dangerous and its participants as superpowered warriors who are not to be taken lightly. Without the Dead Ends the length of Fate Stay Night would have led to the player no longer finding the battles tense since they had seen similar fights before, but the constant threat of a Dead End makes every choice something they have to carefully consider. There are so many Dead Ends in the game that it keeps track of which ones you have achieved turning it into a collection element with a small reward for getting all of them. If there is one problem with how Fate Stay Night handles Dead Ends it is that sometime it can be hard to determine why you got a specific ending even with the hint system in place and this can lead to frustration for the player. Lack of Popularity If Bad Endings are as useful and expansive, as has been shown here, why do so few visual novels use them? The simple answer is the game’s genre determines whether the negative features of Bad Endings are necessary for them. For example, one of the most common genres of visual novel is romance / slice of life and it generally steers clear of anything serious and instead want its tone to be light and upbeat in nature which is highly incompatible with Bad Endings. On top of this those genres which are more compatible with the negative tone of Bad Endings might choose not to use them because of the potential to upset the game’s pacing by diverting the player onto a side path which they might not want to see. Those visual novels which do use Bad Endings do so since it fits the type of narrative they are trying to tell. Conclusion There are a wealth of possibilities when it comes to the forms Bad Endings can take and their use within a visual novel’s narrative. The Tragic End offers a chance to explore a side of the world and characters that might not be possible otherwise and Dead Ends give tension and stakes to events. Of course you want to know if you should include a type of Bad Ending in your visual novel and the answer to that is based on if it suits the story you are trying to tell. Do you need the tension and mystery they add and are willing to pay the cost of potential pacing issues and player confusion when they make a wrong choice? If you answered yes then it might fit into your story, but be careful since the trade off may effect you in ways you do not expect like the confusion over the cause of a Dead End as in Fate Stay Night. Overall, the Bad Ending and its mutations are a strange feature of visual novels and it will be interesting to see how they develop in future.
  4. Thank you for the complement, I am glad you like my reviews. As for scoring system, I am of the same opinion as you but I use them because I feel it is what people expect. However, I have never been happy with that approach and I will definitely be experimenting with removing the score in future reviews.
  5. This is a condensed version of the full review which can be found on my Main Blog Here. Genre – Sci-fi, Mecha, LGBTQ+. Play Time – 8 hours. Developer - Pillow Fight Games. Steam VNDB Finding Heaven There is a certain beauty to the simple impulse to say, “Wow that is so cool”. It is a short phrase filled with an innocent emotion many of us lose as we get older and the realities of life turn everything into a grey soup. An adult is meant to be mature and sensible so expressions of wonder at something are frowned upon. After all “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, being different is hard and finding a place to belong is the eternal quest. Heaven Will Be Mine is an exploration of this space through the medium of cool mechas and three protagonists who are each seeking someone who understands them and a place to be themselves. As you will soon see it has a deep understand of its subject matter and the skills to speak to the player through their mind as well as their heart. The Tale of Some ‘Bad’ Girls - Narrative, Themes and Metaphor The story of Heaven Will Be Mine is through a unique mix of intimate interactions and clever implications and metaphors. It brings three distinctly different protagonists to the table to enable its rich narrative and places them on contrasting side of a conflict they have an increasingly personal investment in. Their conversations and the factions they side with form the backbone upon which the metaphor driven events and the story's themes are built. Presenting the player with a choice of three possible protagonists the moment they start the game is a bold decision. We know nothing about each of them outside of the brief description provided nor what the consequences of our choice will be. However, this ultimately works in the game’s favour as it sets the tone for the types of choices the player will be presented with and the individual centric nature of the narrative. The result of having three different playable protagonists and asking the player to play through each one separately is that it allows for each path to focus on their own thematic angle. It also provides a more even experience inside each protagonist’s route in order to keep the messages and ideas clearer while also presenting a sense of variety in the long term. If there is one thing this game loves above all else it is figurative prose and in particular metaphor. This covers everything from the elegant writing style to the awe inspiring visuals. When a metaphor is used it is not made of a single element but from combining parts to create the desired effect. This commitment to ensuring the quality of the metaphors helps to fuel the player’s immersion by surrounding them with metaphor and giving them the room to soak it in. Through this engagement with the player the themes and messages on display can be subtlety conveyed to them in an organic and gradual fashion which prevents the game from coming across as preachy. The downside to this figurative prose driven narrative style is its sheer variety and indirectness can confuse the reader as much as it informs them. Heaven Will Be Mine does not do much to alleviate this problem and instead expects its audience to keep up with the ideas and themes being thrown subtly their way. As a result it is possible for someone to completely bounce off the game and fail to understand it or leave with the impression that it is nonsense. So it is worth keeping this in mind if you struggle with more opaque writing then this story might not be for you. Those Who Seek A Place To Belong - Characters It is obvious from the moment you start playing Heaven Will Be Mine just how important the characters are to the themes of the story. If metaphors are the fine threads which make the narrative shine then the characters are the loom on which the story is weaved before our eyes. The three protagonists from whose perspectives we view the story are the rebellious Saturn, the kind Pluto and the thorny Luna-Terra. Each one brings a contrasting personality to the table and the resultant banter mixed with their near constant flirting brings humanity to the depths of space. Their interactions form the majority of the what the player experiences within the game so this aspect needed to be strong and it delivers this in spades while blending in and around the metaphor rich scenes. One key element the protagonists recognise quickly is despite their often clashing personalities they all do not belong and their differences are not valued within Earth’s gravity. This leads them to slowly take solace in each other as they flirt and explore their feelings towards others, towards themselves and towards the people they work for. It is a mixing pot of emotions which drives forward these protagonists towards the ending the player chooses for them. Glittering Stars And Cosmic Abysses - Visual, Audio and Technical When it comes to the presentation of this layered narrative and its complex characters Heaven Will Be Mine delivers on multiple levels. Haunting visuals are complemented by a soundtrack which expresses loneliness and companionship in the depths of space. This is a game which understand well the trapping of the genres it draws from and how to use them in an appealing and powerful manner. Saying a lot with a little is the strongest aspect of this visual novel’s presentation. There is no wasted space in any moment of the playtime. From the use of the protagonists’ cockpit views to express what kind of person they are as well as their facial expressions to the use of showing directed parts of an image to slowly build up the scene while playing into the metaphors present in the occupying text. The economising of content is definitely a result of the budgetary restrictions which are visible in the overall small pool of art assets. However, it is from this necessity that innovation is born and Heaven Will be Mine understands how to utilise what it has to great effect in a manner which allows it to outshine games with a much higher costs. This also enhances the role of metaphor in the game and makes it lean into its unique style all the more. If there is one visual element which best encapsulates the distinctive style of Heaven Will Be Mine it is the self-ships. These are the vessels through which our characters act out the major events of the story and serves as another powerful image of their selves. Their designs of an evocative mix of other worldly cosmic forces and human vulnerability and each one perfectly reflects the pilot while still being consistent with the overall aesthetic of the game. The game’s Evangelion influences also peek through here with the self-ships having an aesthetic and purpose reminiscent of the Evas while still being distinct from them. Abstract imagery invokes what concrete picture cannot and this is the core strength of not only the self-ship designs but also the art direct as a whole. The game could have simply used a more standard mecha design and it would have functioned within the narrative but lacked the impact and presence of the self-ships. Placing a focus on the self-ship design was ultimately rewarded the game with an excellent supporting pillar for the overall experience. There is one area in which Heaven Will Be Mine struggles and this is the lack of quality of life features. These includes an absence of standard elements such as a skip function and a gallery. Not having these features can be felt more acutely on the repeated playthroughs the game expects you to do since you cannot pass over text you have already which can make them a chore. The omission of a gallery is a disappointment as it would have been nice to be able to examine the beautiful art at my own pace rather than how it is shown in game. None of the absent features are a deal breaker as they game itself excels in most other aspects, but it is something to keep in mind if these features are important to your viewing pleasure. Verdict – 9/10 – Heaven Will Be Mine is one of the few visual novels which truly understands the power of metaphor and themes and employs it with such finesse that its every moment is a pleasure to play. Pros + Hits hard with an art style and soundtrack which use vagueness and imagery to invoke emotion and imply the metaphor in each scene. + A cast which is one of the most flawed and empathetic sets of characters in fiction with even side characters getting the emphasis they deserve. + The game understands the trappings of the sci-fi and mecha genre and knows how to play to their strengths with exceptional ease. + A strong commitment to its thematics which echoes throughout the entire game and keeps them present in the players mind. Cons - The only ending which make sense for each character is their faction one and the others feel somewhat forced for the sake of having choices. - Its heavy use of figurative prose could make the game too vague for some people. - Lacking some features such as a skip function or a gallery.
  6. This is a condensed version of the full article which can be found on my Main Blog Here. In The Beginning If there is one structural element which is used by most visual novels it is the Common Route. This linear opening section contains the choices which decide the route you will be sent on as well as providing world and character building setup so that the routes can focus on their specific hero/heroine. They are so ubiquitous with visual novels that even those who are not familiar with medium still associate them with the Common Route. Why has such a distinctive structural ingredient become so ingrained into the mind of visual novel developers? Other games which emphasise choice do not share this aspect and instead opt to use different structures, such as the actions and consequences approach of Telltale games or the Mass Effect series. Visual novels alone champion the Common Route. This article will dive into the technical implementation of the Common Route and find out both why it is so widely used as well as its strengths and weaknesses. The Backbone of a Visual Novel - The Pros and Cons When it comes to implementing a common route into a visual novel there are many advantages but also trade offs to doing so. This section will cover some of the most prominent examples from each end of the argument and why you might consider having one in your game. The strengths of the Common Route revolve around its function as the foundational pillar from which all other routes and elements can build on. The most prominent strength is the fact that the Common Route often does the heavy lifting when it comes to establishing the world and characters of the story. This means that the main routes do not have to get bogged down with exposition and can focus purely on their specific characters, themes and plots. The Common Route ensures a level of understanding on the part of the player which the writer can rely upon as a basis for what they can subsequently create. This prevents pacing problems in the main routes where the majority of important and memorable events happen and makes sure that the player is left with a positive impression rather than becoming bored with in-universe explanations. In a similar vein, the Common Route allows for the establishing of a malleable status quo and sets the tone for the rest of the game. This is important as the routes which diverge off the Common Route are likely to have distinctly different themes and plots which might contradict one another if placed side by side. By building a flexible foundation in the Common Route a visual novel can avoid possible contradictions through allowing for a variety of outcomes to be reasonable extrapolations from that base situation. Working to complement this is how it establishes the tone of the game. While this might be subverted later on, it sets expectations which can be built off and provides a sense of consistency for the game as a whole. On a more practical level the Common Route is a useful tool to control the scope of a visual novel. There is obviously the contraction into a single section of the world building and character set up as mentioned before, but on top of that it is an easy area to insert in events from other routes which were cut for pacing reasons and need a new location to play out. In addition, it is a section which the player will repeatedly traverse through meaning it allows for a padding of the play time if you need to control how fast the player consumes the game. Broadly speaking the weaknesses of the Common Route come down to the bad writing habits it can cause in some writers if they are not careful with its implementation. We often see this in the poor pacing which can be found in many Common Routes. The desire to put all the exposition and character set up in the Common Route can lead to an over-saturation of this content leading to a bloated and slow feeling pace and as a result it can struggle to hold the players attention. The Common Route should never outstay its welcome, it is not the star of the show just the warm up act. As such knowing what length of Common Route is appropriate for your visual novel is a key skill for the game’s overall pacing. The Foundation of Many Faces - Types of Common Route In order to accommodate the needs of the countless different visual novel in existence, the Common Route has been adapted to suit their differing purposes. In this section, some of the most common types of Common Route will be covered to see why each one is used. The most standard of all Common Routes is the straight line. However, even this simple structure has some important variations to it in the form of whether it has early or late branching routes. This decision changes the dynamic of the player's interaction with game. Common Routes which start branching earlier generally have a faster pacing and a shorter length as the routes rapidly take centre stage. This type is generally chosen when the visual novel either wants to quickly split the plot into distinct sections with heavily divergent events or wants to focus in on specific characters rather than there interactions with one another. Tsukihime is a strong example of the first category, it has an opening Common Route which introduces the characters in a basic fashion before splitting into the Near Side and Far Side routes which focus on different aspects of the plot and the world. The second category is best exemplified by Katawa Shoujo which does not dwell on its Common Route and instead diving into the routes quickly so that the focus in placed solely on the characters and their struggles. These examples of early branching Common Routes reveal the strength of using one, the ability to emphasise a particular aspect of the narrative by shifting the focus into it rather than dwelling on the Common Route itself. For visual novels with a focus on plot or characters as its core appeal having an early branching Common Route allows them to keep the momentum up while playing into their strengths. The last type of Common Route which will be covered here is the Ladder Structure. Of the Common Route types this is by far the least used by developers and this is due to the fact it requires them give up a lot of the non-linear aspect of visual novels in exchange for its strengths. In a game with a Ladder Structure the Common Route takes on the role of containing the main plot which would normally be contained in the routes and forms the majority of the play time. Character routes generally diverge off the Common Route at set intervals such as near the end of chapters (hence it forms a kind of ladder), though they are generally optional and only expand on the Common Route rather than containing key plot points. The only exception to this is the final route which comes straight off the end of the Common Route and is almost an extension of it to conclude the story. The most iconic example of the Ladder Structure is Steins Gate which follows the above formula to a fault with each heroine getting a small route but with the focus clearly being on the Common Route and its push towards a narrative conclusion. This works for Steins Gate because of its thriller writing style which keeps the pace up throughout its duration and the side routes act as a sort of breather from the main plot and it results in a more even experience than a standard route based game. The Ladder Structure works best for visual novels which want to emphasise their more linear stories but still want to have some routes to keep the reader engaged through choices. It trades the benefits of a more non-linear structure for a tighter narrative experience. Why are common routes so common? When looking at visual novels as a whole, this is a natural question to ask given the frequency of Common Routes. The obvious answer is to point to the benefits which have been listed above as the primary motivating factor for their inclusion and this is in part true since Common Routes provide what visual novels need in terms of structure. However, there is another factor at play, expectations. Common Routes have become such a ubiquitous part of the medium that the audience expects one in every visual novel, whether the game needs it or not. This is especially true for romance based visual novels where the player's choice of heroine/hero is so important that not having a Common Route might anger some players since it betrays their expectations. That is not to say that there are no visual novels without Common Routes, we can find plenty of examples from the simultaneous story sections of games like Wonderful Everyday and Zero Time Dilemma to the recent trend for episodic games like Phantom Trigger and 9 nine. Instead this perception of the necessity is just a limit on the creativity of visual novels and one which needs to be broken if we are to see more interesting and experimental games in the medium. The Best Fit For All? Common Routes are at the heart of visual novel design as a pillar of support for the non-linear aspects brought about by the presence of routes and it provides these games a flexible anchor they can build around. The exact structure and use of a Common Route has mutated into different forms over time to fit the needs of each story, but at their heart they focus on marrying the linear and non-linear. Despite how useful they can be, you should never become too attached to them and instead ask if they are what best fits the story you want to tell. Be inventive with your Common Routes and maybe you will create a new type Common Route which revolutionise the world of visual novels. After all there is nothing common about a good Common Route.
  7. Let's hope that is true. More variety is definitely a good thing.
  8. These all seem... fine? A lot of Moeges because that is what sells and nothing beyond that genre. I'll probably play some of it out of interest.
  9. This is a condensed version of the full review which can be found on my Main Blog Here. Genre – Science Fantasy. Playtime – 6 Hours. Developer – ALICE IN DISSONANCE. Publisher – Phoenixx. VNDB Before The Storm LIGHTKRAVETE marks ALICE IN DISSONANCE’S first new fault title in seven years and this gap has lead to a substantial change in their overall style. Gone are the static character portraits, now each character has their own live 2d style model which moves as they speak and react. A dynamic camera now changes to focus on key characters or background elements and gives each scene more life. However, do all these bells and whistles come at the cost of what made the fault series so special? Let’s find out. A World of Wonder - Narrative and Structure - There is something special about the world of fault. Its blend of fantasy and sci-fi concepts always made for an engaging read in their previous games and this trend continues in LIGHTKRAVETE. Unlike in previous fault games there is no overarching villain to push the narrative forward, since this is a prequel, and as result the world building has to do more of the heavy lifting. The story starts by presenting the kingdom of before the events of the first game which provides it with a sense of place that had previously been lacking and sets the stage for the story. Once this has been established the narrative moves onto the meat of the world building, the technical mystery. Without spoiling the exact nature of it this mystery, it is an exploration of the limitations and practicality of utilising magical technology for a new purpose not previously achieved. This section of the story is by far the strongest as it has the player piece together the solution along with Khaji, our protagonist, by having the two gain a full picture of the puzzle at the same rate and when the solution is revealed it is extremely satisfying. The only issue with the emphasis LIGHTKRAVETE places on world building is its overuse of in-universe terminology to the point of being actively distracting. One such example of this is the in-universe word for bear which is beare. This might at first glance seem like a petty nitpick, does a single letter difference really matter? The answer is in the frequency and the way these instances impede the players enjoyment by forcing them to stop and reread the sentence to understand it. This collectively adds up to distract for the excellent core narrative and, since most in-universe terminology is used were standard English would have been clearer, the writers could have easily avoided this problem by reducing their usage of these terms. A story cannot exist on world building alone and so LIGHTKRAVETE has a character focused narrative to complement the world building and give it context. It is through Khaji’s struggles that this aspect manifests and we slowly get to see the development of his character in tandem with the growing mystery. His overall character arc is one of the most cathartic experiences in a recent visual novel release as he grows before our eyes from someone who is cowardly and unsure into a person who achieves his dreams. While it is not the most original arc, it is used by many for a reason and here its strength is obvious. A Cast Of Many Qualities - The Characters - The cast of LIGHTKRAVETE is one of the areas in which the game stumbles slightly as character development and interactions are not evenly spread among them leading to some characters feeling underdeveloped or unnecessary. This flaw can be explained by splitting the cast into three groups, the main characters, the minor characters and the old fault characters. Having a memorable main cast is key to any visual novel and LIGHTKRAVETE succeeds at this for the most part. Khaji Oberg has the excellent character arc need for a protagonist and being in his head space throughout the story gives the player a mix of outsider and insider perspectives on the workings of the fault world. This high bar of quality defines all the important characters of the story and it is clear that the writer knew that this was where they wanted to focus their efforts and the fruits of their success are obvious. It is when we reach the minor characters that the cracks begin to show themselves. This secondary cast are noticeable less fleshed out and seem to exist just to deliver exposition. The lack of emphasis on these less important characters is understandable given the short playtime of the game but it is a disappointment none the less. The larger issue is the one scene each of these character has where they explain their backstory and without exception they are tragic in some fashion. This is not so bad in theory, but these backstories are all delivered almost back to back over a small section of the story and the result is a parade of misery which comes across a slightly silly. If they had been spaced out over a larger time frame then this issue would have been less noticeable and each story would have been given the space to breathe. The Spark of Life - Visuals and Audio - If there is one area where ALICE IN DISSONANCE are at their strongest it is in the visual design and the quality of their narrative presentation. Each character portrait has been given a complicated live 2d style allowing for a stronger suite of dynamic expressions and the addition of motion to formerly static scenes. This works well for the talking heavy nature of the fault series with its focus on ideas and world building and adds emotion and spice to the character’s discussions. Complementing this change is the addition of a dynamic camera which focuses on aspects of the scene to increase the emphasis on certain characters and places while lending a sense of life to the world. Together these elements support the already strong narrative by lending weight or levity when needed to keep the player engaged with Khaji’s story. However, this approach is not without issues and even if they are not deal breakers, they are still worth discussing. The first is the mouth movements while the character is speaking. If the game had voice acting then this would not be an issue at all, but since it doesn’t the silent mouth moving as the text is displayed makes the otherwise emotive portraits come across as lifeless dolls. The other problem is that some of the poses which characters take cause parts of their body to noticeable clip through each other. It is not a frequent occurrence but when it does happen it is distracting from what are otherwise effective narrative moments. Verdict – 8/10 – LIGHTKRAVTE is an astonishing work of character and world building which demonstrates why ALICE IN DISSONANCE are masters of their craft. Pros and Cons - Pros: +The fault universe continues to have some of the best world building around. +Khaji’s character arc has an excellent catharsis to it. +Visuals and animations are astounding. +The technical mystery in the second half is extremely compelling. Cons: -Overuses in universe terminology leading to unnecessary confusion. -Some character poses and movements do not look quite right. -Old fault characters feel out of place. -There are pacing issues in the first half.
  10. This looks interesting... I can't help but feel that this just has the Silent Hill name slapped on it to sell it since it looks like it has nothing to do with those games' plot or style. However, I'm still sort of looking forward to it. Having Ryuukishi07 as the scenario writer is a good start. I only hope it doesn't suffer the same fate as Prey.
  11. Oh, this is a pleasant surprise. I quite enjoyed Even if Tempest so I'm definitely up for a fandisc. It does make me wonder what they can even do for this game outside of the standard set of after stories?
  12. This is a condensed version of the full article which can be found on my Main Blog HERE. Secrets Of The Dead My relationship with Yuzusoft’s work has been a mixed one. The quality of the artwork and the likeable characters draw me to their games, but I often find myself burned out on them due their often unnecessary length and inability to handle their core premises with any depth or consideration. Despite these feelings, I continue to come back to their games so I can only assume the good outweighs the bad. Fortunately, Cafe Stella managed to hold my attention from the duration of its narrative and reminded me why I still play their games. It also reminded me that Yuzusoft’s writing often leaves a lot to be desired. In this analysis I will cover my thoughts on Cafe Stella in more detail than I could in my review due to their spoiler based nature. Please read the original review here to gauge my overall thoughts before continuing onward. The Many Paths To Love - Route Analysis -Common Route - Overall I would say that the common route is a strong example of how the genre should strive to open its narratives. An immediate inciting incident which wastes no time in setting up the premise (Kousei’s death and revival), the gradual introduction of our heroines and then the establishing of the location in which our routes will take place (the setting up of Cafe Stella with everyone’s help). These events all complement each other to form a memorable whole. It is just a shame that the common route keeps going even after it has finished setting up for the main routes. This extension mostly takes the form of a sub-story where the cast helps to cheer up a father by holding a surprise birthday party with his daughter. While this little narrative is sweet, it is completely vestigial and kills the pacing by focusing on a minor character who does nothing for the characterisation of the main cast. It feels as if the writers were trying to pad out the runtime of the game. -Akizuki Kanna - If there is a single word which describes this route perfectly it is inconsistent. This is mostly due to its close connection to the supernatural element of Cafe Stella and, as I noted in my review, the writers do not know how to properly handle this aspect. The opening section is the strongest with the focus on building the relationship between Kanna and Kousei and the reality of Kanna’s transient nature hanging over the whole thing (since she is already dead). Having the two accept that despite the limited time they might have together it is still worth loving one another is a powerful sentiment and when she fades away as the two ride the Ferris wheel the catharsis of the moment is palpable. Unfortunately, it is after this point that the writers cannot seem to decide where to go next with the narrative. Obviously Kanna was never actually going to ‘die’ given the overall positive tone of the game, but to reach the point of her rebirth the game takes a sequence of odd turns. Firstly, the initial solution to the problem of Kanna’s death is presented to Kousei on silver platter without him having to do anything or find the motivation to seek it out. This makes it come across as rushed and undeserved. Secondly, this initial solution (time travel using the butterflies) turns out to be a red herring with Kousei forced to say goodbye to Kanna for a second time in a very similar scene to that first one on the Ferris wheel. This section creates feeling that the writers are just repeating themselves. Finally, when Kousei returns to the present it turns out that Kanna has been given a new body by the power of the butterflies with no drawbacks and this makes you question why the time travel sequence even exists at all if the goodbye scene is just going to be immediately invalidated. Overall, this section makes me think that the writers did not have a plan and just wrote whatever they thought of in the moment as this portion comes across as a mess. -Hiuchidani Mei - I have surprisingly little to say about this route. It sits firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of quality and does nothing special nor terrible. There are only two real point of note. The first is having Mei being the one who has to ‘man up’ and declare their love rather than the protagonist is a nice change of pace. Placing the heroine in the proactive role is a good way to switch the dynamic up and it is executed here with a suitable degree of finesse. The second is the Insect Devouring Eye which acts as the supernatural element of this route. Unlike in Kanna’s route, this is not mishandled and is a relatively inoffensive addition which adds little to proceedings but also doesn’t detract from them either. However, it is a prime example of Yuzusoft simply not knowing what to do with their gimmicks as they do nothing with it for most of the narrative only to have it resolved quickly at the end, almost as if they would rather not have to deal with it at all. -Shiki Natsume - Shiki’s route is one of the strongest ones in the game. This is mostly because of her distinctive character mixing well with Kousei and the fact it does not focus on the supernatural element. The themes of finding a purpose in life and the value of your dreams are at the heart of this route and since both Shiki and Kousei are manifestations of the same character failing as they cannot reach either, they complement and reflect each other to make for a stronger message. Helping this dynamic along is their strong banter which sells their growing relationship in an amusing and heart-warming manner. As they become each other’s strength and find the direction to a life worth living, you cannot help but cheer for them with every shaky step they take forward. -Shioyama Suzune - Despite being the shortest route in the game and for a sub-heroine, Suzune’s route is by far my favourite and she is definitely my favourite character. There is something refreshing about an older adult character who does not lord that age difference over the main characters and is instead cool with meeting them on their level and rolling with their pace. Her passion for baking is infectious as she puts her utmost into her work so she can have pride in it, but at the same time the narrative uses this quality as her weakness. She has to learn the value of compromising while being inventive within limitations rather than having everything being perfect. In addition, the almost complete lack of the supernatural element allows the narrative to squarely focus on what the writers do best, characters and their interactions. The shorter run time also aids this approach as there is no space for excess fluff and ensures that the narrative adheres to its core direction. Helping this along is the sweet romance between Suzune and Kousei which endears them to the reader even when it has to share the limited space with the main thrust of the route. Suzune’s realisation that she has fallen in love with a younger guy is one of the highlights of the route. All these elements come together to form the purest example of why I still like Yuzusoft’s work and convinces me that their style is better suited to short form routes rather than the long ones they generally focus on. The Butterfly Effect – Overarching Thoughts -Yuzusoft and their gimmicks - As I mentioned in my review, Yuzusoft tries to spice up their slice of life visual novels by introducing a gimmick element. For Cafe Stella this was the Shinigami and butterflies and it was one of the less problematic examples of this practice. The introduction of new gimmicks in each Yuzusoft game is understandable as it is an easy way to differentiate them from one another and avoid the feeling that their games are all the same. However, there is a price to be paid for the loose way in which they use these elements and this is that they often rub against the light nature of the game’s genre. In Cafe Stella there are a lot of small examples of this such as with the previously mentioned issues regard the use of God, but previous games have suffered from it in different ways like Riddle Joker's complete unwillingness to deal with the realities of spying even when the protagonist is caught doing exactly that very thing. This desire by Yuzusoft to have their narrative cake and eat it brings the reader out of experience more than they seem to realise. Maybe this problem could be avoided if they chose lighter topics for their gimmicks rather than things like death and spying, but it seems that they want their gimmicks to have some spice to them even if it comes at a cost. -Pure blushing virgin maidens- There is a habit among those who create visual novels in the slice of life / romance genre to make all their heroines virgins, likely due to the cultural value placed on ideas of purity. However, Yuzusoft takes it much further than most with almost all their heroines suffering from a condition I like to call Pure Blushing Virgin Maiden Syndrome. This generally manifests in a heroine’s route and this heroine will occasionally lose all their defining characteristics and start to blush while behaving in an innocent and pure manner even if they were previously established to be flirty and mildly perverted or assertive. They will give over all control to the protagonist and let them lead even if it makes no sense for them to do so. The problematic misogyny this invokes is a result of an attempt to pander to their target male audience as well as a failure to understand how to build even power dynamics between a couple. It is also reflected in other odd choices such as the aforementioned issue of Shiki owing her life to Kousei in her route. All of these missteps harm the strength of the characterisation on display by undermining their established traits and breaks their believability. The only thing this achieves is leaving an unnecessary bad taste in my mouth and is a stain which could easily to removed without offending the target audience as it is the variety of their heroines which is one of Yuzusoft’s strengths. -Fear of interpersonal conflict - As a company Yuzusoft have a strange fear of interpersonal conflict, particularly within the main cast. The characters never have anything more than minor disagreements and generally exist in harmony with each other even when it makes no sense for them to agree on the subject. This no doubt stems from their choice to work within the slice of life genre and results in them being afraid of breaking the warm and comfy atmosphere by introducing conflict. However, this does not mean they do not understand the need for interpersonal conflict and it is this contradiction which plagues their games. What this manifests as are false conflicts which initial seem as if they are going to pit characters against one another but are later revealed to be a misunderstanding or harmless trick. They use this to have interpersonal conflict without it having any consequences. A sanitised form without any possible negative elements. The most notable example from Cafe Stella is the initial conflict surrounding Suzune where her former boss is presented as undermining her attempts to get a new job after she left when they had a disagreement. They even go so far as to have the very mention of her name in the shop she used to work by a taboo which causes the staff to go silent. However, later in an almost throwaway line Suzune reveals that it was all a misunderstanding and there was never any conflict at all. There are similar examples to this throughout Yuzusoft’s work such as the false climax in one of the routes of Noble Works and demonstrates this as a common issue in their work. Conclusion Cafe Stella, and by extension all of Yuzusoft’s work, is flawed but engaging example of the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. While there has been a fair degree of criticism here, there is undeniably something endearing about the mood and characters of Cafe Stella which is difficult to find elsewhere. The flaws outlined here could be solved with a little bit of conscious effort on Yuzusoft’s part and elevate their work to greater heights within the genre. Whatever the future holds for Yuzusoft, their next work will be something fans of the genre are sure to enjoy.
  13. While I have not personality backed anything, I know somebody who backed their Wonderful Everyday Kickstarter because they loved the game so much and wanted the physical goods on offer. Any time I bring it up you can see the light go out in their eyes and a bitterness spread across their face. They have resigned themselves to have to wait for years now. It is a sobering reminder about the risks of backing a Kickstater.
  14. This is a condensed version of the full review which can be found on my Main Blog HERE. Genre – Slice of Life, Romance. Playtime – 40 hours. Developer – Yuzusoft. Publisher – NekoNyan and Hikari Field. VNDB A Second Chance Dying is never pleasant, especially when you have lingering regrets. Takamine Kousei’s death is as sudden as his life was unremarkable and in his final moment he wishes his life could have been more. However, this is not the end for Kousei as he finds himself back at the start of the day he died but this time instead of meeting his demise he meets a Shinigami and a talking cat. They inform him that he is responsible for the time jump and God is not happy. The Shinigami offers him a way out of this conundrum, assist her with her work by opening a cafe. So begins Kousei’s tale of love and lost souls. Yuzusoft are well known for their slice of life visual novels and Café Stella and the Reapers' Butterflies does not deviate far from their comfort zone, for better and for worse. With a total of four heroines and one sub-heroine and a run time in the region of forty hours, there is no shortage of story on offer for fans of the slice of life genre. However, does the quality match the quantity? Let’s dive in and find out. Of Love and Butterflies – Narrative and Themes - When it comes to visual novels of the slice of life / romance genre there is often a lack of an overarching plot in favour of smaller personal stories and Café Stella is no exception. Each route focuses solely on the issues of the heroine with only the loose threads of the supernatural and Kousei’s damaged soul joining them. This is overall not a bad thing, but you should set your expectations when buying the game. The routes themselves have an excellent variety to their stories and do a good job at selling the romantic build up between each heroine and Kousei. However, there is a formula which each route follows and it becomes readily apparent once you have played a few of them. While this does not ruin them, since they do not have any important plot point which could be spoiled by the structure of the narrative, there is an undeniable repetitiveness which can make the individual events of different routes blur together. This is symptomatic of the broader formulaic nature of Yuzusoft’s work with similar narratives being played out in multiple games. As such Café Stella can bring feelings of deja vu for those who have played other games by the studio, whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend on how much you like their style. However, there is an elephant in the room throughout the entire game, the supernatural. Each Yuzusoft game generally has a gimmick to spice up the slice of life formula. In the past this has been things like spies in Riddle Joker and witches in Sabbat of the Witch. For Café Stella it is the Shinigami and the butterflies that are the souls of the dead. These gimmicks always sit awkwardly alongside the romance and slice of life elements, never being properly utilised or existing as consequence free set dressing. Such elements can actively harm the experience as in the case of Riddle Joker’s unwillingness to deal with the realities of spying in any fashion, but for the most part they are just distractions that add little to the core experience. Maidens Bound to the Dead – Character Overview - A likeable cast is a critical aspect of the slice of life / romance genre. If there is not a fight over who is best girl then there is a problem with your characters. This is one of the areas in which Café Stella excels when compared to its peers. The characters’ likeable personalities and strong chemistry is one of the standout features and is the main reason the game is worth playing. The heroines have a good variety to their personalities with little overlap between them meaning that they standout in distinctly memorable ways. Kanna is a mischievous yet kind Shinigami, Shiki is a sharp tongued classic tsundere, Nozomi is the no nonsense childhood friend and Mei is a cheerful and slightly childish junior. It is a testament to the quality of the character writing when my favourite heroine is the sub-heroine Suzune, the perfectionist baker, which is rare since they are often not given a chance to shine with most resources being focused to the main heroines. Secondary characters receive a similar treatment with each being given the space they need to shine without them ever getting in the way of the main characters. This even treatment of the characters and their dynamics allows for all of them to be active players even outside of their own routes or conflicts and creates a rich feeling cast who are a pleasure to watch doing even the most mundane tasks. Undeniable Quality – Visuals and Audio - One area in which Yuzusoft have consistently excelled it is in their visual design and its quality. Each heroine has a surprisingly large assortment of expressions and poses along with different outfits to the point at which you will constantly see something new from them. In a similar vein the variety of CGs and super deformed cut-ins makes the important moments of humour and emotion stand out, but at the same time they are not overused so each remains special. The bright colours and attention to detail throughout the visual design demonstrates a clear understanding by Yuzusoft of the visual identity of their work and of the genre. This results in a distinct presentation which clearly sets expectations of what experience is in store for the player. One final aspect worth touching on is the extensive quality of life features present in Café Stella. These range from a route flowchart, the ability to suspend and resume anywhere, full controller and keyboard remapping, the function to favourite any voice line and many more. The sheer expansiveness of these features always surprises me whenever I play a Yuzusoft game and they are the example other visual novel developers should strive to match. Verdict - 8/10 – With its engaging characters and well put together routes, this is one of the better examples of its genre and of Yuzusoft’s work. Pros and Cons - Pros: + Excellent visuals and audio as you would expect of a Yuzusoft game. + A genuinely likeable cast of characters. + The focus on the cafe makes for a nice change from the standard school setting. + A level of technical polish few other companies can match. Cons: - A supernatural element which feels as if the writers have no idea what to do with it. - Has a formulaic structure to its routes which can lead to them feeling repetitive. - The protagonist has an inconsistent personality. - If you have played other Yuzusoft games then this may feel familiar.
  15. Thank you for the welcome! I agree that better graphics doesn't equal a better game. Visual Novels were the medium which helped me realize that truth and I haven't looked back since. Also if I ever need more VN recommendations I'll know where to look.
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