Developer: Otomate/Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys Games
Release Date: November 3, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
I have become increasingly fascinated with playing otome visual novels as of late. A lot of the blame for that is due to the game Code: Realize:Guardians of Rebirth, which I found to be a pretty pleasant surprise. So, upon seeing that new otome Norn9: Var Commons was made by the same developer (and on the Vita handheld) as Code: Realize so shortly after piqued my curiosity.
But, surpassing that, otomes can be a pretty refreshing contrast to most standard visual novels. If oddly sincere pigeon dating sims or romances at a themepark made by Keiji Infafune are any indicator, they are also willing to take risks with how their stories are told as well. Fortunately, Norn9 seems to be trying out some unique ideas too even if, well, you'll ultimately be seeing a lot of effeminate anime men, like most otomes.
Still, Norn9 starts in a pretty unconventional way. Opposed to focusing on the main cast of heroines and their would-be love interests right away, it actually starts from the perspective of a young boy named Sorata. Sorata himself being what he assumed to be a normal boy from the modern era who unwittingly time-travels back to the 1920's Taisho Era of Japan. Utterly baffled by his current predicament, with likely no way to get home anytime soon, Sorata decides to eventually accompany a kindly "weird girl" (which is revealed somewhat early as Koharu) on a ship, or rather an airship, that may very well be the key to get him back home.
The story sort of clumsily stumbles about until it ultimately decides to focus on the daily lives of the inhabitants on the airship. Both the airship and most of the inhabitants themselves, of course, being far from normal... probably because most of them are espers. Also not normal is how the main story is actually told through the perspective of three completely different heroines, each with their unique narrative routes, leading to nine in total.
Because the prospect of nine different story routes sounded sort of daunting to me, I decided to follow the game's "recommended" route order. There are three locked routes but the first character paths the title recommends are to play the pink-haired heroine "Koharu" and pursue either the sadist Kakeru or the hermit Senri. After completing both story routes I was quickly led to wonder if I would like the game at all after completing them, because of how little I cared for either of them.
Now, I don“t mind either Kakeru or Koharu separately as characters (Senri perhaps less so...), but their story route teetered on badly written fanfiction territory. The character relationships and eventual character "development" within them felt very unearned and clearly important narrative devices were brushed aside for a cavity-inducing romance. Honestly, I was close to wrapping up the review right there after being burned by two of the stories (Kind of ironic considering Koharu's esper ability is actually fire...). But, despite my weary first impressions, I decided to give the title one more chance -- and I'm glad I did.
You see, there is a huge disparity in terms of quality between different narrative routes in Norn9 as I eventually learned. I don't even mean in just tone or a general taste thing, like the radically different character routes in Code: Realize had presented. I honestly think there is a big qualitative gap between many of the nine stories in Norn9 and it is clear to me that the lead women Mikoto and Nanami had the the better stories of the bunch.
The one to open my eyes to this realization the most is the tale between Mikoto and her childhood friend Sakuya. Now, let's be real -- childhood friend romances are far from original in Japanese anime storytelling. That said, what made Mikoto's route more interesting to me is that Mikoto herself is not only much smarter (and more capable) than -- let's say -- Koharu, but her relationship between her childhood friend actually starts pretty distant. They aren't on bad terms per say, far from it, however the talk between them is far more business than not. Intentionally so. As the story reveals more of itself it presents some pretty interesting moral conundrums and earns its romance over time. Though, it doesn't entirely fix its abrupt broader narrative issues (and some overly preachy themes) as with most routes, unfortunately.
The stories that create the biggest narrative conundrums are generally tied to blue-haired heroine Nanami's. The main reason for this is because of her inherent power is, well, erasing people's memories. This alone allows the story to have some rather twisted narrative implications depending on the route. That, and well, Nanami herself did not have the most pleasant upbringing, let's say. Without going into spoiler territory, Nanami definitely had my favorite stories of the bunch and I frankly wish more of Norn9 reflected it.
Walls of text and hit & miss romances aside, Norn9 is a pleasant-looking visual novel overall. The character art is quite well-drawn and has clean gameplay interface tools as well for possible thorough playthroughs. The script, and occasionally iffy localization, are noticeably less consistent (as well as the soundtrack), but the Japanese only voice delivery is very solid in spite of it.
With the division of its nine different character routes, Norn9: Var Commons has a pretty apparent divide in its overall visual novel quality. It can feel like a dice roll between getting a story route that feels genuinely worthwhile and heartwarming to significant shift in others paths that border on cringe-worthy fan-fiction level romances. Despite their many differences, I can not help but feel like most would be better served playing Otomate's own recent Code: Realize for a possible otome visual novel fix before considering Norn9. There is good in Norn9 but it is more difficult to uncover than it should be.
+ 3 different heroine perspectives bring a pretty distinct take on how the storytelling is told
+ Well-drawn character art
+ Endearing character development moments depending on the story route
- Huge disparity in the quality of narrative routes, some of which are outright bad (most of Koharu“s in particular)
- Broader overarching story does often get tossed aside
Overall Score: 6 (out of 10)
Some moments Norn9 has the makings a genuinely good visual novel but its wildly inconsistent quality between stories can easily wear out many but fairly tolerant otome fans with its nine different character routes.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable Vita code provided by the publisher.