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Found 139 results

  1. barrel

    Review: Muv-Luv

    Developer: Age Publisher: PQube Platform: PS Vita and PC Release Date: June 12, 2018 ESRB: M for Mature The Muv-Luv series may be one of the more surprising success stories on Kickstarter. Gathering over one million dollars in Kickstarter donations for an official localization is more than enough proof that the two-decade-old visual novel series certainly has a passionate fandom behind it. Yet, those that did already have a preexisting attachment to Muv-Luv had to wait until 2016 for the official PQube PC release. This year, Sony's PlayStation Vita has seemingly been resuscitated for the same reason, but before getting to the highly acclaimed finale that is Muv-Luv Alternative (which will be reviewed separately), series newcomers are best served by playing the original and separate retail release that is simply called Muv-Luv for reasoning that may not pop into one's brain right away. The first game, commonly referred to as "Muv-Luv Extra", has a setup that frankly feels like it was ripped out of a time capsule contributed by nearly every early 2000's era romantic comedy anime. You have your high school setting backdrop full of romantic interests like the childhood friend, Sumika, to the incredibly rich yet socially awkward, Meiya, that attempt to vie for the affection of the completely oblivious main guy. Muv-Luv Extra absolutely thrives on its often lighthearted enthusiasm above all else. The humor is frequently slapstick and is complemented by very expressive anime character portraits that are honestly much more lively than most visual novels nowadays, which is impressive. It will easily go from the typical mouth flaps and blinking eyes of many visual novels, exaggerated camera panning, to random chibi expressions at the drop of a hat to emphasize the punchline to nearly every joke. Even when not all of the jokes hit their mark (some, uh... out of touch heteronormative perspectives/perverted gags from the obnoxious main dude included), there is a genuine energy to it that makes it entertaining to go through it regardless. That said, Muv-Luv Extra is pretty simple for visual novel standards. Narrative choices are rarely more complex than picking whose bento you want to eat for lunch and staying committed to one of the five wooable heroines to reach their potential ending. Even then, though, there is a clear discrepancy in importance (and likability) with Meiya and Sumika versus nearly everyone else, despite me being a fan of Kei's deadpan humor. Most characters also do not necessarily have much depth to them beyond their apparent anime character tropes making it difficult to justify going beyond seeing the ends of the primary two heroines. It is almost hard to believe that one can really do much with this simple cast of characters for more than one game despite them being likable enough in Muv-Luv Extra. Well, as it turns out, all you need to freshen up the experience is a dramatically different setting in which mankind is on the brink of extinction due to an alien race called the "BETA" in an alternate sci-fi Japan. This is where Muv-Luv Unlimited comes into play which is a separate game despite featuring many familiar faces. And, believe it or not, it is actually a direct sequel to Muv-Luv Extra as well. The reasoning to this, of course, is a spoiler but is partially made clear to the player immediately upon starting up Muv-Luv Unlimited's tale. Muv-Luv Unlimited is the starting point of why the Muv-Luv series was so subversive back in 2003 and gives people a taste of why the series is so beloved. Players immediately question everything they thought they knew in Muv-Luv Extra from the entirely new world to characters. It is compelling to see much more in-depth world-building like the eerie alternate timeline of World War II, the inner-workings of its many sci-fi elements, to higher-brow story concepts for a cast that once cared about little more than high school romance. The biggest problem, however, is that the storytelling itself is very incomplete. There is a lot meandering day to day (under the guise of team building) which was fine in Muv-Luv Extra but feels tonally dissonant with the apocalyptic pretense of Muv-Luv Unlimited. In addition to this are many clearly important story devices that are kept an incredibly tight lip on and frankly will not be answered for players until Muv-Luv Alternative. To rub the most salt on the wound in regards to pacing are, undoubtedly, the many fanservice scenes that stem from its original erotic game roots despite being the "All-Ages" version. Maybe it is just me but when five billion humans have been killed by the BETA I have a difficult time finding an anime beach scene appropriate in the slightest for these lead military cadets training to combat them. The original Muv-Luv is a tricky visual novel to judge. By themselves, both Muv-Luv Extra and Muv-Luv Unlimited are decent enough visual novels, but neither are nuanced enough to be all that remarkable. Muv-Luv Extra being a perky romantic comedy full of charm while Muv-Luv Unlimited is a subversive take on the once familiar cast of characters and sets the stage for a far more intriguing sci-fi setup. Unfortunately, both titles are rife with rough edges regarding pacing, anime tropes, and lack of story resolution. As parts of a grander tale, however, both games do just enough to trigger one's curiosity and, hopefully, such patience is rewarded whenever one gets around to playing the highly regarded trilogy finale of Muv-Luv Alternative. Pros + Very expressive character portraits that feel more active than a lot of modern visual novels + Intriguing setting shift between the two games that presents familiar faces in a dramatically different context + A bizarre, antiquated anime charm with memorable characters Cons - Many rather cliche story beats throughout - Recycled music between both games is disappointing - Really out of place fanservice scenes with Muv-Luv Unlimited in particular despite attempting to be much more serious - A lot of storytelling is clearly left open for the would-be finale Muv-Luv Alternative Overall Score: 6.5 (out of 10) Decent Muv-Luv gives players a taste of why the visual novel series is so iconic but without the resolution of Muv-Luv Alternative to wrap the experience up makes the original release feel more disjointed than it should be Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.
  2. barrel

    Review: Collar X Malice

    Developer: Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: PS Vita Release Date: July 28, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature With the likes of distorted camera footage showcasing ruthless murders in the name of "justice," the PS Vita's newest visual novel Collar x Malice quickly sets the tone of its tense setting. One would be hard-pressed to find any trace of Idea Factory's romantic otome underpinnings until at least an hour in, if that. At least until a group of pretty males that were former officers join the fray to help you solve various murder mysteries. But even that does not bring much comfort considering just how cold they all are at the outset. At the start of the game, it's bad news all around. An extremist terrorist group named Adonis has been publicly announcing systemic "X-Day" killings to judge various "sinners" that the law has apparently failed to reach. After months of failing to apprehend these suspects, the Japanese government has grown so desperate that they decide to quarantine Shinjuku entirely to help contain the terrorists' influence. Trust in law enforcement is at an all-time low and public unrest at an all-time high. Just when things could not seem to get any worse, Ichika Hoshino -- the main heroine, and a fresh and upcoming officer -- gets kidnapped. The next moment she wakes up, she learns she is saddled with a deadly collar around her neck. Though she is temporarily saved by a group of mysterious former police officers rather quickly, she is told by the leader of Adonis, via her collar, that she needs to uncover the truth behind the "X-Day incidents" alongside these men or she will be poisoned to death at the end of the year. And so, that becomes the player's primary objective Collar X Malice is a visual novel structured around five different character routes (the last of which is locked until one completes the four others) with each tale standing well enough on their own. What is intriguing in how it is told is each story route has an entirely different focus and the many pieces to the overarching storytelling only really make sense upon finishing all of them due to their complex subplots. Though, one will have to be able to overlook a hokey story element or two to see it through (like how the Japanese government apparently thought it was a good idea to issue guns to all citizens during the Shinjuku quarantine?). Collar X Malice is largely about investigating murder mysteries and conspiracies with a dash of romance interspaced between it all. Flowery otome fanservice is present, but generally speaking, it is the furthest thought from the primary cast early in. Each of the male leads has rather distinct personal objectives that give them plenty of reason to act cold to the main heroine (the same also applies in inverse). Because of this pretense, the trust that is gained between what is initially a business-only relationship feels much more organic than one would expect. My favorite of these character developments is the incredibly brash former officer of the cyber crimes division, Takeru. Though he is more than a bit haughty (aggressively so usually), his route is far more personal focused than most others in the entire game (except for maybe the eyepatch-wearing Mineo perhaps). For as prideful as Takeru may be, his side of the storytelling does a wonderful job of making him feel down to earth during the course of it. Also, he has some hilariously sassy quips at times, so that's a plus for me too. Some routes are certainly better than others, however. The one that personally took me the longest to shoulder on through, purely for thematic reasoning, was that of the Special Protections officer, Kei. Now, I like Kei enough as a character but I found his character route to be rather obnoxious. It encroached upon a trope that I dislike in otome games especially, which is the fixation of protecting the main heroine. Admittedly, the context behind Okazaki's seemingly selfless motivations unravels to have much darker implications over time. Still, one will hear some variation of the phrase "I will protect you" a nauseating amount of times. Of course, reminiscent of Code Realize: Guardians of Rebirth in this small regard, both characters and their narrative arc focus are extremely subject to taste and, occasional narrative grips aside, are told well overall in spite of excessively long banter at times. That said, there is actually more that goes on in Collar X Malice than thumbing through walls of story text and earning the hearts and minds of one's eventual male suitors as a game. Without a doubt, most of the progression stems from picking correct dialogue choices to properly reach a tale's conclusion and hoping they don't die in doing so. There are also instances of basic point & click-styled detective work and, surprisingly, an occasional gun-based quick-time-event to shoot down a prospective criminal. Speaking of which, there is an alarming amount of bad endings. Most bad endings usually not-so-subtlety apply the expression "curiosity killed the cat", but there are a few bad ends that are surprisingly meaningful to the overarching story despite not technically being required to see. For as much as the player is likely to stumble to their doom before reaching their desired conclusion(s), Collar X Malice is usually quite slick in how it is presented. The beautifully drawn character art is but one clear perk of it (unless one is uncomfortable with the occasional otome-styled fanservice scene. I'm not). The Japanese-only voice-acting is also really impressive, making each main character have a distinct presence throughout, though the main heroine herself is unfortunately unvoiced. Idea Factory proves yet again they have the visual novel interface thing down pat, for the most part. Godsends to the subgenre like fast-forwarding until reaching unread text, instant story scene rewinding, and various save options are all there and then some. However, the biggest replay tool of all, that being the chapter select, is not available until reaching a character's "true end". This is very important to keep in mind as I personally almost locked myself into a bad ending right before the finale of the last character route and was really close to a redundant VN fast-forwarding nightmare to fix it. While Collar x Malice is pretty good at implying that you are on the right path "for the most part" I'd recommend other's veer on the side of safety and follow a dialogue choice guide when they can just to get those true ends out of the way first. This is especially true since character routes themselves are only triggered through rigid and specific dialogue choices early in. Of Idea Factory's many otome visual novel offerings, Collar x Malice comes across as their most well-rounded. A fascinating, crime-based storytelling setup and a nuanced lead cast of characters make it easy to be drawn into its world, though various pacing mishaps and an inconsistent overarching storytelling emphasis placed upon certain leads do hold the game back from its full potential. But, all in all, Collar x Malice stands tall on its own and has the heart of a genuinely good visual novel, and it becomes quite rewarding to uncover the larger truth buried beneath its lengthy adventure. Pros + Intriguing storytelling with a heavy emphasis on murder mystery and crime-solving + Gorgeous character art and often slick visual novel interface + Healthy mix of very serious storytelling and lighthearted moments throughout + Takeru is the best boy Cons - Triggering specific story routes or right dialogue choices can feel redundant at times - Varying significance of overarching storytelling between routes can make some character's tales feel longer than others - Localization hiccups Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good A gripping premise and cast of characters make it quite easy to forget Collar x Malice's occasional foibles in how it is told as a visual novel. Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  3. I've finally finished Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony (DRV3) on my PS4 today and boy, do I want to talk about it with some other random people on the internet. That being said, I'd rather keep it relatively civil and try to avoid unnecessary spoilers in the description, so you can see the actual discussion after the drop. That being said, I'm gonna do things a little different. Instead of just rambling on about the game, there's a few topics I wanna hit, not totally a review, but maybe just how I felt it stacked up to not only the other games, but the franchise and world building accomplished by the other five pieces of the Danganronpa story. For those of you that are unaware what I'm speaking of, I'll break it down like this: I wanna talk about every facet of Danganronpa in this discussion, leaving no stone uncovered when it comes to conversation and really digging down into the nitty gritty. That being said, this discussion will have spoilers for Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc, Super Danganronpa: Goodbye Despair, Ultra Despair Girls, and both the Danganronpa 3 anime, Future and Despair Arcs (Hope Arc Included, but I'll lump that in Future Arc) as well as the newly released Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony. I actually did something like this a while back for Zero Escape: Zero Time Dilemma on Reddit, but I figured why not spread some love here this time? Be sure to hit that spoiler button and join in the discussion! Lots of Word Vomit below! DISCUSS!
  4. Back into the murder and mystery! Let's see what nonsense we can uncover tonight in #DanganronpaV3 on #Twitch https://www.twitch.tv/royzoga123
  5. Developer: Spike Chunsoft Publisher: NIS America Platform: PS4, PS Vita, and PC Release Date: September 26, 2017 ESRB: M for Mature Note: This review is based on the PS Vita version of the game Through its hyperactive blend of eccentric 'ultimate' high schoolers, murder mysteries, courtroom confrontations, and narrative mayhem the Danganronpa series has established a dominant visual novel presence. Densely pack all of that to the brim with personality and it is perhaps less surprising that many passionate fans have latched onto Spike Chunsoft's iconic property. Still, it is crazy to think that Danganronpa's perpetual battle of hope vs despair has not only raged across multiple games, spin-offs, and on different gaming hardware since its original PSP debut back in 2010 but even entirely different mediums such as anime and light novels. With so much material riding on what is believed to be the final installment, does Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony satisfy hope, despair, or really neither in between for its perceived audience? No matter what one's stance actually is, Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony ultimately aim towards final truths that are likely to shock all those involved. As par for the series' course, the infamous Killing Game has returned once again. Sixteen students are trapped within the confines of a mysterious school and have very little recollection of their pasts. All they really know is that they each have the title of an "Ultimate Delinquent"('Ultimates' generally being individuals with exception talent towards a specific skill) and are quickly get thrown into battle royale-themed Killing Game via the monochromatic robotic bear named Monokuma if they want to escape. Well... somewhat quickly, in principle. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony has rather inconsistent pacing as an actual visual novel to the point where the game itself self-deprecatingly points out just how slow the intro portions are, and it does not absolve it of such crimes. It is the longest game in the entire series and the narrative's pacing does not necessarily justify it at times with the agonizing drip feed of important plot details. It certainly picks up later on, especially in the last couple of chapters, but -- in an incredibly morbid way -- players will find themselves looking forward to the next murder setup more frequently than anything else. Thankfully, Killing Harmony more than delivers on that front. As Danganronpa fans know, the rules are that one cannot simply kill someone else to win the Killing Game. To win, Ultimates need to kill someone else without being caught. And so, this is where the class trials come into play. After a murder occurs, it is up to the would-be survivors to conduct an investigation of the crime scene, and after gathering what evidence they can (...in a limited amount of time), they are then thrown into an Ace Attorney-styled courtroom case to try and pin down the culprit. The reason being that if they don't reach a correct majority vote by the end of the class trial they will all die while the killer gets to return home free (though, in the inverse, if they do nail down the correct culprit then only the killer is punished while everyone survives to see another day.) The murder mysteries themselves in Killing Harmony are easily the best of the entire series, with perhaps some one or two noteworthy arguments from Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair. As a whole, murder cases feel far more nefarious, calculated, as well as just plain crazy in execution than that of the prior two main games, and it become that much more fascinating to uncover the underlying truth of all of them. This is absolutely vital since class trials themselves consistently last more than a couple hours, so they certainly need to be engaging. Unfortunately, as with previous titles, the mini games within these segments are more or less the worst aspect of the entire series. Some of the new mini games are neat conceptually, like being able to utilize perjury instead of just firing "truth bullets" to prove counterpoints, but most mini games are not that fun despite the context around them. Audible sighs were made every time I had to do a certain mini game that involved slowly 'driving' to the correct answers of different questions... There is more than just the despair of suspecting one's friends of murder in various class trials, however minor these extra features are to grander scope of the adventure. Similar to the likes of various point & click/adventure game titles, and the original Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc too, players can roam around the campus in a first person perspective to reach different locations for one reason or another or talk to the different students. Like prior entries, there are also intentional lulls in the storytelling, so it is fitting that players spend their free time attempting to build friendships... to, well, make it all the more cruel in their probable eventual death, or betrayal, after you attempt to do so. Which bears mentioning that although the overall cast does have some standouts (Danganronpa 2's Nagito still remains as my uncontested favorite), they don't feel quite as charismatic as they should be since the localization as well the general writing quality comes across as noticeably less sharp than that of earlier games. Much of the game waits excruciating long to talk about main plot details, so it feels fitting to deliberately wait on discussing Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony's actual narrative instead of just pacing as well. It's easily the biggest expectation fans will have going in and what I will say to them (without direct spoilers, of course) is that the overall story -- especially with how it ties into prior titles -- is likely to be extremely divisive. There is no real middle ground in reaction towards the conclusion and is very much a love it or hate it bargain in the truest sense. Even now I am left sorting through a whole lot of mixed thoughts, regardless of how exciting and extravagantly presented the many twists and turns are throughout V3, including the end. But I suppose for as familiar as much of the gameplay remains in the third entry, for better and for worse the long-awaited conclusion absolutely delivers on some insane narrative twists that many fans should not expect. With one foot firmly planted towards feeling familiar and the other towards completely shattering expectations Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony truly relishes in its chaotic order. It reprises its strengths in delivering exciting murder mysteries, an off-the-rails narrative with many crazy twists, and a completely strange cast of characters while also retaining old issues like awkward pacing and obnoxious mini games. As a finale, however, it spares no expense towards a resolution that will likely to be incredibly divisive regardless of whatever expectations one had going into it. Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony deliberately aims to leave fans brimming with either hope or despair, and I find myself conflicted by both opposing forces in ultimately feeling just as appreciative in its intent as I do betrayed now that it is all over. Pros + Narrative goes through some truly insane narrative twists and turns + Incredibly nefarious murder mysteries that are often fascinating to uncover the truth of + Neat post-game modes unlocked after beating the game + 'Love it' or 'hate it' conclusion Cons - Noticeably weaker overall writing and localization compared to the previous titles - Glacial narrative pacing at times - Most minigames during class trials are still quite the chore to partake in - Hate it or love it conclusion Overall Score: 7.5 (out of 10) Good Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony presents a stark contrast in showcasing more of the same, but often better, with its gameplay while the narrative conclusion itself firmly dividing what fans think they know and love. It is a bold conclusion that is extremely surprising in its execution and unsurprising in how likely divided it is to leave already existing fans of prior entries Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS Vita code provided by the publisher.
  6. First Murder, First Trial! Tune in for some kills and thrills in #DanganronpaV3 right here on my #Twitch stream! https://www.twitch.tv/streams/26370279088/channel/70899168
  7. New Ultimates, Same Killing Game! Let's start the new #DanganronpaV3 on #PS4 right here on my #Twitch stream! https://www.twitch.tv/royzoga123
  8. barrel

    Review: Clannad

    Developer: Key Publisher: Sekai Project Platform: PC Release Date: November 23, 2015 ESRB: N/A (Teen recommended) Clannad is something of a classic amongst visual novels. This presides even outside of Japan with the help of the well-received anime adaptation of Key's original 2004 PC game under the same name. With its memorable characters, incredibly poignant themes, and forever changing one's outlook on a certain Japanese food with the song "Dango Daikazoku," it has certainly earned its passionate fanbase across the world. However, publisher Sekai Project decided to put such fandom to the test for English speakers by proposing an official localization of the PC visual novel through the use of Kickstarter in early 2015. Thankfully for all those involved, the Kickstarter was more than successful and was followed up with a finalized release at the very end of that same year. Was the official translation of this classic visual novel worth the wait or does it not quite get the passing grade? Starting the visual novel of Clannad after being many years removed from my first exposure with the anime adaptation was quite surreal. Verbatim quotes, characters I thought I had long forgot, and plenty more all came back hitting my memory in quick succession. The anime was so faithful, in fact, that it almost made me feel like the early goings of the visual novel were sorta redundant. Which, well, it is more of my fault for having watched watched the anime than anything else, but something that bears mentioning if you have that frame of reference. Still, Clannad is a massive visual novel and it is telling that nearly fifty episodes of the anime primarily only covered one narrative route within it (albeit, easily the biggest one.). The starting story will likely not seem particularly special with its high school setting and the lead who feels pretty detached from his school life. It also certainly has some crazy high school antics that one can easily shrug off as "Oh, anime." But, what makes Clannad special is how it carries its characters and interactions between them, going from genuinely humorous one moment to downright blindsiding players with its very heavy-hitting emotional themes in other instances. One intriguing aspect is that despite giving you the ability to name the faceless, and voiceless, male lead (named by default "Tomoya"), he is very much his own individual. He's a delinquent, very mischievous (to his "best friend" Sunohara specifically), and has plenty of his own internal baggage that he doesn't make apparent (uncovered more so within certain narrative routes). That said, he grows and matures a lot in very different ways despite not being entirely respectable at times. Even as a grown adult I was surprised at how much I could relate Tomoya. Not because of his high school life but because Tomoya's character very much looks beyond it into adulthood, which is especially apparent in the "After Story" arc. However, a good chunk of the narrative, and most character routes, takes place during Tomoya's high school life. As a visual novel, its story branches based on the decisions you make from seemingly mundane actions early in. Whether you ditch class or not, pay heed to random events, or even simply listen to what people have to say all help shape Tomoya as a character. These choices can also lead to potential romances with the various heroines (and a couple that also don't) or delve into entire subplots that are surprisingly not covered in the anime adaptation at all (granted, for one of them I could see why... considering it is not great). Like most visual novels, there will certainly be a division which fans deem to be the best ones. Generally speaking, it becomes clear that the longer routes (and those that lead to romances) tend be easily be the most thoughtfully written of the 10+ routes. Outside of what is essentially the poster child heroine of Clannad, Nagisa, whom easily has the most substantial story arc for a multitude of reasons, my personal favorite routes were those of the heroines Kotomi and "Tomoyo" (not a typo, her name is actually that similar to the default lead "Tomoya"). Tomoyo being very assertive and strong(physically as well)-willed woman and is a sharp contrast to the apathetic lead, while Kotomi is a bit more air-headed with the comedic timing of a sloth, despite being something of a genius. Regardless of their apparent anime-styled quirks they both very much have their own human moments. Though all routes are fairly different (except for maybe a certain set of twins), they each generally play on the game's central theme in various ways, which is "family". While that may cause one to falsely believe Clannad is focused on warm-fuzzy feelings , despite how light-hearted and humorous it may be at times, the narrative is more than willing to hit players with very poignant narrative gut-punches in many forms. Probably the reason why Clannad's storytelling works as well as it does is because it is quite good at balancing comedic situations and deeply serious, relatable character moments. It is clear to me that Clannad is known as a classic for a reason, regardless of how much certain aspects of it have aged. Admittedly, there are parts to the visual novel that are quite disjointed and do not work quite as well. Some of that is simply age, like the rigid interface or the occasionally awkward presentation (What is with everyone's faces and eyes?!), but the more important are with its inherent design. Clannad hides its most substantial extended story route, Nagisa's "After Story", behind various prerequisites that are obtained by fully completing most routes. Though there is an in-universe justification for it, it just comes off as rather clumsy (because the supernatural parts are usually the weakest parts of the narrative), in addition to making it take significantly much longer to complete for an already huge visual novel. It also brings to light that certain routes are easily worth less of your time compared to others. The other issue is with its localization. Perhaps I have been spoiled by other game localizations lately, but a lot of the actual in-game text reads more unnatural than it should in Clannad. It does not ruin the game by any means, but for a visual novel with such personality and distinct characters it reads more flat than it should at times. It may be more than ten years detached from its original Japanese debut, but Clannad remains memorable among many visual novels for a reason. Be it the great characters within it, or the narrative that easily bounces between entertaining to surprisingly poignant, Clannad becomes a roller coaster of emotions for those who can sit through it. Still, it is a huge visual novel, and in some ways to its own detriment with its necessity towards very thorough play and inconsistent quality for the lesser narrative routes. However, in its best moments Clannad more than upholds its classic reputation and becomes a must-play for many visual novel fans. Pros: + Heavy-hitting storytelling themes for its better routes that very much hold up even now * Great, and surprisingly relatable characters + Genuinely funny moments + Massive visual novel with a couple of interesting routes that are not covered by the anime adaptation at all Cons: - Noticeable gap in quality for some story elements and character paths - Rigid interface and unnecessarily prolonged requirements to unlock the "After Story" route -So-so localization Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great For as much as it may have aged, and bears some fairly apparent shortcomings, Clannad still manages to stand above most visual novels with its powerful storytelling and character moments alone Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PC code provided by the publisher.
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    Review: Norn9: Var Commons

    Developer: Otomate/Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: Vita 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. Pros: + 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 Cons: - 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) Decent 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.
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    Clannad 4

    From the album: Clannad

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    Clannad 3

    From the album: Clannad

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    Clannad 2

    From the album: Clannad

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    Clannad 1

    From the album: Clannad

  14. Developer: Otomate/Idea Factory Publisher: Aksys Games Platform: Vita 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. Pros: + Great character art + Highly involved storytelling with wildly differing narrative routes + Incredibly useful interface options making subsequent playthroughs rather painless + Surprisingly capable main heroine Cons: - Pacing is quite plodding at times - Some forced narrative contrivances diminish storytelling - Impey is usually quite obnoxious Overall Score: 8 (out of 10) Great 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.
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