Developer: Otomate/Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: October 20, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
Otome-styled visual novels and myself have somewhat of a checkered history. I am not opposed to visual novels centered around romance but I simply have had difficulty finding ones that click with me. In the matter of fairness, it is seldom that we even see them localized in the first place beyond multiple ports of Hakuoki or the far more eccentric Hatoful Boyfriend. But, something about the exclusive English release of visual novel Code: Realize - Guardians of Rebirth caught my eye.
Maybe it was because I could hook up with an effeminate version of Victor Frankenstein, or its odd take on Steampunk piqued my curiosity. Regardless of my off-kilter reasoning to play it, I had a feeling that my toxic outlook on many otome visual novels could be changed -- and I was correct.
Code: Realize has a pretty bizarre premise. The main heroine, named Cardia by default, lives in isolation while awaiting the return of her father in an abandoned mansion. The most apparent factor for her isolation is the deadly poison that courses through her body and quickly destroys most things by a mere touch from her. For this reason, and several more ambiguous ones, she is most explicitly told by her "loving" father that she can never be loved because she is a monster.
Rather than allowing her to rest in isolation, however, the royal knights of Queen Victoria invade her home under orders to capture her. After some rough treatment, and them learning a quick lesson about her deadly poison, Cardia ends up with little choice in the matter but to go with the soldiers. Well, that is until the notorious thief, Lupin Arsene, gets in the way. Though deviating from his original objective, the thief with a seeming heart of gold decides to steal her away from her would-be captors, and, less originally, with the mindset of taking her heart as well (though, he claims it to be literal).
The setting itself poses lot of questions. Cardia's poison, for example, bears many stipulations to have it make any sort of internal logic work for it. To Code: Realize's credit, its world is actually pretty fleshed out and explains most of its distinct lore, even if you have to stick to it to see it happen. Though, unfortunately, certain story elements are essentially hand waved by means of "magic" despite its steampunk mentality. As an Otome, however, most of the storytelling emphasis comes across through its characters... as effeminate and pretty as its main cast may be.
No point in dancing around it, as an otome the basic mindset that comes with most of these games is that the main heroine will likely hook up with one of the male protagonists through each of their story routes. What is interesting about the unusually attractive men of Code: Realize is that they are all pretty much based off of classic novel or literary characters: such as Victor Frankenstein, Lupin Arsene, Saint Germain, Impey Barbicane, and even Van Helsing help round out the main male leads. They may not be terribly faithful to their literary works but as a character template they help make the story go through some wildly different directions and it can be fun to see their certain novel parallels, tons of creative liberties aside.
Admittedly, in the early goings it does not feel like Code: Realize really knows what it wants to be. The pacing is all over the place with a plodding slice of life feel, even with the alluded darker undertones. The game really hits its stride when you are locked into character routes, however. Character motivations differ wildly per route as well as the sequence of events that follow them. With maybe the exception of the locked Lupin routes (which unlocks after you complete the other four story paths), that feels like a "true end" of sorts, there is next to no similarities in their stories even in tone. Which, for how lengthy each story path is, it is quite intriguing how much it justifies multiple playthroughs because of the likely case by case nature with which story will resonate with someone the most.
Honestly, probably my favorite narrative route of the game plays around expectations the most -- this being Saint-German's narrative branch. Throughout the storytelling you know the least about him than any other character (and they make that very clear). It is upon this precept that the storytelling plays with a much more shocking, and decidedly more antagonistic, relationship with the heroine right from the start. Without going into explicit spoiler territory, let's just say that Saint Germain willing to get his hands dirty (and push the T rating along with it), regardless of who it is. And, for how dark the pervading tone is, I found the narrative payout for it to be quite gripping.
Heck, most character stories are handled pretty well, some pacing issues and occasionally hokey melodrama aside. For example, a character that I found incredibly unlikable at first, Impey, managed to win me over time with his surprisingly endearing story. That said, I do chalk a lot of that up to Cardia for setting him straight and not leaving Impey to be irredeemably obnoxious.
Speaking of that, the most pleasant surprise of the storytelling is not the distinguished men around her, but how surprisingly capable Cardia herself ends up being. It is very easy for most otome stories to fall under the trope of having the male leads resolve all conflict and the heroine herself be a blank, damsel-like figure. But, an understated strength is how Cardia herself does not take most situations lying down. Though her initial characterization is rather tepid, primarily because of narrative circumstance, she ends up showing that she has a lot of spunk as the story progresses. Many of the narrative choices, for instance, are focused around her having a cool head or taking initiative in a bad scenario (and knocking some fools out), which is honestly quite refreshing.
Another easily overlooked strength is how it is all presented. No, I don't need to tell you the character portraits are really well-drawn (which they are) or Japanese dub has some noteworthy voices. What I actually want to talk about is how Code: Realize honestly has the best, and most convenient, approach to subsequent playthroughs that I have seen in any visual novel. After beating the game once you can literally pick the character route and chapter you want -- which both in tandem is pretty much unheard of in visual novels.
To emphasize, most visual novels generally become fast-forwarding/guide-following tedium on extra playthroughs and that does not really exist in Code: Realize at all. Not just that though, you can even rewind the story scenes without messing with quick saves, and I can not stress how seemingly minor features like this should become the norm in visual novels with distinct story variations.
Few games this year have made my opinion fluctuate as dramatically as Code: Realize - Guardians Of Rebirth. The early goings are an unattractive beast mainly due to its pacing issues and indecisive nature. But, when it reveals more of itself in the distinct (and lengthy) character routes, it goes from plodding to gripping with its macabre in one moment to heartwarming another world and characters. Code: Realize may not be free from some narrative baggage but keen fans of otome visual novels will be able to see the beauty that lies beneath it with some patience.
+ Great character art
+ Highly involved storytelling with wildly differing narrative routes
+ Incredibly useful interface options making subsequent playthroughs rather painless
+ Surprisingly capable main heroine
- Pacing is quite plodding at times
- Some forced narrative contrivances diminish storytelling
- Impey is usually quite obnoxious
Overall Score: 8 (out of 10)
Code: Realize - Guardians Of Rebirth is a messy beast in the early goings but those who are patient enough to see past it will notice beauty that lies beneath its fleshed out world and characters.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.