Bai Qu Review

Bai Qu (VNDB|Steam), also known as 百曲 or Hundreds of Melodies, tells the story of one tragic and magical summer in the life of Chinese college student Wei Qiuwu. While visiting his father in the hospital, Qiuwu befriends another patient there—a young girl named Li Jiayun with a talent for music. He soon finds himself tagging along on adventures around the city of Nanjing with Jiayun, her energetic friend He Jia, and a variety of other eccentric characters. But as the summer draws to a close, Jiayun’s deteriorating health begins to cast a shadow over the newly formed group of friends.

I had been looking forward to this visual novel ever since reading developer Magenta Factory’s previous shorter release, Shan Gui, which mostly stuck with me because of its relaxing atmosphere. So I was happy to see that from the very beginning of Bai Qu, some excellent music and ambient sound choices added to the same kind of immersive experience. The game is also full of realistic and detailed background art that really brings the various locations Qiuwu visits to life. Both VNs really made me want to visit China and see some of the breathtaking landscapes that inspired the artists for myself!

Bai Qu also includes some beautiful CG art, especially at the most intense moments of the story. Its gallery contains a total of 102 unique CGs, which is especially impressive for an indie VN. However, I was a bit put off by the suggestive framing of some of those CGs, as well as by the impractical outfits on some sprites. Readers who enjoy a bit of that kind of fanservice in their VNs might have no problem with it, but there are a lot of panty shots and extremely tight shirts that I think would be more at home in a raunchy eroge than in this contemplative tale about friendship and illness, and I found that my distaste for that artistic choice sometimes took away from the story’s emotional resonance.

Another thing that might bother some readers is the English translation, which could definitely have used another editing pass. It’s not unreadable by any means, but the grammar and diction often sounded a bit odd and unnatural to me. And while somewhat strangely worded sentences might not take away too much from some other genres, I think that this is an especially big problem for Bai Qu considering how much of the narrative is slice of life. The everyday dynamics of the different characters’ relationships are a lot less fun to observe when everyone talks in similarly stilted ways instead of having a variety of unique voices. But I imagine that it’s a lot better in the original Chinese, so I would recommend this VN more whole-heartedly to anyone who’s able to read the untranslated version.

Overall, while I had some issues with Bai Qu, I’m still glad I read it. The stunning art in many scenes largely overshadowed the art I found needlessly provocative in others, and I almost always felt immersed enough in the atmosphere of the story to forgive some awkwardness in the dialogue. I urge anyone who thinks they might enjoy Bai Qu to give it a chance, especially considering that conflicts over the distribution rights of Shan Gui have caused a lot of trouble for Magenta Factory. I hope that more people will support them so that they can overcome the setbacks they’ve had to deal with, and make their future projects even better.

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Why I Rarely Write Negative Reviews

A few days ago, I came across this article posted on the website VNs Now!: “The Ten Worst VNs of 2018.” And I found reading it to be a very frustrating experience, because I disagreed with so much of it—not only because it mocked some visual novels I personally enjoyed, but because its overall tone was antithetical to my beliefs about how best to interpret and criticize art. Realizing that made me reflect and examine those beliefs of mine quite a bit, and I decided to write my own post in response, exploring what I thought was wrong with that article, and how it differs from the kind of criticism that I think VN reviewers like me should be striving toward.

I want to make it clear that I don’t have anything personal against JP3, the founder of VNs Now! and author of the top ten list. And I’m also not trying to say that there’s anything wrong with criticizing VNs or other media you don’t like. Criticism of art can be very productive, important, and entertaining. But I think this particular kind of criticism can do a lot more harm than good to developers and readers of VNs alike. Throughout this post, I’ll try to explain what I mean by that. Also, I’ll break up the wall of text with some positivity, by showing screenshots from a few VNs that I might list among the best of 2018.

Lake of Voices by GB Patch Games

With a few exceptions, I tend to shy away from being overly negative about the VNs I review on this blog. VNs are already very niche, and there are still a lot of people in the world who either haven’t heard of them, or haven’t given them a fair chance. Steam reviews and other online discussions about even the best VNs are full of people complaining that they’re “not real games,” or assuming that all VNs have to offer is porn, and using one or both of those ideas as an excuse to dismiss them entirely. If those of us who care about VNs want more people to recognize them as a legitimate art form, I think we should spend a lot more time promoting the ones we love and a lot less time publicly mocking the ones we hate.

The VNs Now! article’s introduction includes a disclaimer that the list avoids “easy targets” like machine translations and shallow fanservice, in favour of focusing on VNs with “a bad story.” But in my opinion, the “easy targets” JP3 alludes to—VNs that often give the impression of not even trying to be particularly good or interesting, because they’ve found a formula that makes money and they’re sticking to it—are the ones that deserve criticism much more than the ones on the list do. The developers of VNs Now!’s “Ten Worst VNs of 2018” had creative visions they genuinely tried to bring to life. There may be some flaws in their finished products, and they may benefit from some constructive criticism. But labelling them worst of the year, and claiming they have “bad stories” as if that’s something that can be objectively measured, strikes me as mean-spirited and potentially damaging to the budding English visual novel industry.

Don’t Forget Our Esports Dream by TEAM.ELEVEN:ELEVEN

One of my major problems with the article is that several of the VNs included are low-budget projects by indie developers, and I think the tone JP3 takes when discussing their work is too harsh. For example, Red Embrace, which he dismisses as “every single bad fanfiction that has ever existed rolled into a single game,” is available on steam for only $5. And while I’m not sure of its specific budget, a few years ago developers Argent Games completed a kickstarter for a different VN with only $1 943—and that’s before paying kickstarter’s fees and fulfilling rewards. Their latest kickstarter, for Red Embrace’s sequel, received $15 600, which shows a lot of progress from their first one, but still isn’t nearly enough money that I can imagine anyone is quitting their day jobs. Similarly, Her Lie I Tried To Believe, described in the VNs Now! article as “like something a moody teenager would write while processing their first breakup,” was the first full release by developers Hangover Cat Purrroductions and is available for free. And unlike Argent, Hangover Cat has not yet found success with attempts to crowdfund different projects, both of which failed to meet their modest goals and clearly demonstrate that this small studio isn’t working with big budgets either. I just don’t think it’s right to be so hard on inexpensive, independent projects like this, especially in such a niche genre.

And from discussions I’ve seen in English VN communities, it seems to me that these kinds of developers—who work hard at other jobs during the day, and then come home and work on their creative projects at night—are the norm and not the exception. VNs like Red Embrace and Her Lie I Tried To Believe aren’t made by big corporations; they’re made by determined and passionate groups of friends who are doing their best in what little free time they have, with what little money they can save up or earn from small crowdfunding campaigns. Criticizing them the same way you would a major studio release isn’t fair, and criticizing them with such an overall negative and dismissive tone is unkind and helpful. Those of us who want to see developers like this improve should be encouraging them instead of tearing them down.

A Winter’s Daydream by ebi-hime

I also want to get into a bit more detail about one entry on the list—Heaven Will Be Mine—because I think it will provide a good example of how misleading the kind of overly negative criticism in this article can be. First of all, I take issue with JP3’s presentation of this screenshot:

He sardonically captions it “And yes, that is official art from the game. I shit you not,” implying that its rudimentary nature is a flaw. But I think it’s pretty clear, especially in context, that it’s an intentional artistic choice. The game’s art temporarily adopts the style of a child’s crayon drawings as the narration states, “The simplest, childish thought grasps Pluto, bubbles up within her, and she says it before she can stop herself.” It represents the characters embracing childishness, simplicity, and innocence. Showing it with no commentary except an implication that it’s simply bad art seems like a major misrepresentation to me.

JP3 also asserts that this self-described “queer science fiction mecha visual novel” has no message except “girls are hot,” and that it fails to be the subversion of the mecha genre that he was hoping for. And I think that this demonstrates another one of the big problems I have with the article: that its harsh and judgmental tone leaves no room for considering that its author might not be the target audience of every VN, or that other people’s opinions of a work’s quality might be different from his. There are a lot of LGBTQ people in the world who like seeing ourselves represented in media, and sometimes that representation can be the only subversion of a genre we need. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the world needs to praise stories they didn’t enjoy just because they’re diverse and progressive, but it is something a reviewer can consider when they’re debating whether or not to recommend something. It’s a major reason that some people might find more personal value in a certain story than others, and I think our job as reviewers is not only to tell people whether we liked something or not, but to let our readers know whether they might like something, even if we didn’t. I’m using the example of LGBTQ representation here because that’s something that’s important to me, but the same sentiment could be applied to any elements of a narrative that might appeal more to some people than others, such as different genres. I almost always lean towards encouraging readers to try something for themselves, because I know that a lot of people with a lot of different preferences might really love things that just aren’t to my taste. And personally, I thought Heaven Will Be Mine had a message encouraging readers to break out of narrow societal expectations and be open about being themselves, which just goes to show how much two people’s opinions on the same work can differ.

One Night Hot Springs by npckc

None of this is to say that my opinions on Heaven Will Be Mine are in any way necessarily better than JP3’s, or that it’s wrong to criticize it. Even though I personally enjoyed Heaven Will Be Mine, I can understand why some people might not. But I think that this kind of criticism, that takes such an aggressive and vitriolic tone, and exaggerates and distorts and disregards the possibility of alternative viewpoints, is much less productive than criticism that’s more open-minded and forgiving and aware of its own subjectivity. And I think that in the case of such a niche and often stereotyped genre as visual novels, it can be seriously harmful. For one thing, it runs the risk of reinforcing the viewpoints of people who are prejudiced against VNs. And when it’s applied to low budget releases by indie developers, it can deprive them of potential readers who might have liked their work if they had given it a chance, but who might now avoid it because they heard it was bad enough to be on someone’s list of the worst of 2018.

I think people like both JP3 and me, who review visual novels or otherwise talk about them publicly, should make sure that we aren’t doing anything to make it any harder for aspiring VN developers to succeed than it already is. That doesn’t mean we should never write a negative review, but I think we need to be a little more careful about our tone than reviewers of more established and respected genres do. We should try to make suggestions for improvement, and we should emphasize that our judgements of a VN’s quality are based on our own subjective opinions, and that other people with different tastes might find value in things we don’t. And if we do read a VN that we honestly think is trash and we can’t come up with anything nice to say about it? Maybe we should just laugh about it with our friends in private and move on to review something else. I’m trying to be a more positive person in 2019, and I’d like to see a lot of others doing the same.

BP and J Discuss: Verdant Skies

Jane: Welcome to the second episode of BP&J Discuss, a series of collaborative reviews with my friend Bishounen-P!

Bishounen-P: Today we’ve decided to review something a little unorthodox for us, as we usually review visual novels, but we felt like those who enjoy VNs might like this game!

J: Verdant Skies is one of the many Harvest-Moon-inspired farming games out there, in which building potentially romantic relationships with the people who live near your farm can be just as much of a focus as actually making money farming. This one sets itself apart from the other games like that with a sci-fi setting—your farm is part of a small but growing human colony on another planet—as well as with some really refreshing diversity among the characters you can pursue. But before we start debating which one is best girl, let’s talk about the gameplay.

BP: One thing I really appreciated about this game is that the scale was much smaller than other games of its type. I thought I wouldn’t have liked that, because I usually want to play a farming game for dozens of hours, but as I’ve aged and have less and less time to spend on games, it was nice to be able to fully complete this game in around 20 hours. I also felt like the gameplay was decently well-rounded, as there’s much more to do than just farm all the time.

J: The space in which you can grow crops is pretty limited, which really motivates you to spend time walking around, gathering resources, and finding ways to make a profit that aren’t just building a giant, automated farm. Townspeople will also request collections of specific items, and early in the game they’ll give you quests that further incentivize exploration and experimentation. However, one area in which the game could improve would be in offering more of those quests, as right now they run out fairly quickly.

BP: I was looking into the forums on Steam about this issue, and it seems like the developer was relying on the thorough mod tools they released alongside the game. Their responses to a lot of things were along the lines of “Well, we were hoping people would be interesting in modding the game to add this or that…” And while adding tools to make modding easier for modders is a fantastic idea, leaving out content and hoping people will flesh it out through mods seems like a mistake on their part. However, I still got great enjoyment out of the game, particularly thanks to the fleshed out cast.

J: I was excited every time something I did triggered an event that introduced a new migrant from Earth to the colony. Each of the characters has a different personality and a different job to do, and they tend to have some really fun dialogue when you meet them wandering around town. And despite the cast being fairly small, there’s representation of a wide range of identities—for instance, the first two characters you meet are Rosie, a blind Latina mechanic, and my personal favourite, Jade, a black trans woman who serves as the colony’s administrator.

BP: While the Harvest Moon/Story of Seasons games require the player to commit to only one character, Stardew Valley introduced the concept of dating multiple characters at the same time. It was, however, done behind the partners’ backs, and there was no exploration into the idea of polyamory. In Verdant Skies, that isn’t the case. There are both monogamous characters and polyamorous characters. I discovered this by first accepting a confession from Jade, who said that she was okay with me dating others but she would not reciprocate. Later on, I was confessed to by Wyatt, who acknowledged I was dating someone and said he wasn’t interested in polyamory no matter what. I really enjoyed building up romantic relationships with the poly characters, and the friendships with the monogamous ones.

https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/426806409946988545/533378897002364948/unknown.png

J: As sad as I was to find out there were some adorable characters, like Nessa, who wouldn’t date me when I was already involved with Jade (I started dating her first too because she’s the best), I really appreciate that Verdant Skies portrays so much diversity in terms of relationship preferences. They could have easily just made it a harem fantasy in which everyone wants the protagonist no matter what, but instead some characters want to be monogamous, while others want to see other people too, or don’t but don’t mind if you do. It really makes them feel like real, diverse people.

J: That being said, a bit of that realism falls by the wayside when you’ve completely filled all a character’s “hearts” and get the option to marry them—as long as you break up with anyone else you might be dating first. I understand that writing and programming events relating to marriage and children could have become extremely complicated if the developers tried to account for the possibility of players marrying and/or having children with multiple different characters, but it was a bit of let-down when even characters like Yuki and Kenji, who until that point seemed very happy with open relationships, ended up serving me monogamy ultimatums.

BP: I was personally uninterested with going into a polyamorous marriage, so before I even got my chosen romantic partner (Anthony) to his full hearts, I felt it was my duty to go around town breaking up with everyone. One by one. They had unique break-up scenes, and each one hurt more than the last. Breaking up with Jade hurt the most, but I take solace in the fact that Jane married her in her file.

https://cdn.discordapp.com/attachments/426806409946988545/535015139615965184/unknown.png

J: Another thing that we both found a little disappointing is that despite all the other good representation, the token non-binary character is the incredibly boring Zaheen. We hate them.

BP: You’re able to change characters’ names for whatever reason, so I changed Zaheen’s name to Loser.

J: Zaheen is every quality you wouldn’t want in a party guest rolled into one. Zaheen talks about nothing except religion, yoga, and saving the environment—a sentiment that rings a bit hollow when you’re in a video game in which the trees you cut down literally grow back a few days later.

J: But if our only issue with the personalities of the game’s love interests is that we had a good time making fun of one we found amusingly unlikeable, I think that just goes to show how great the rest of the characters are.

BP: In a world of farming games full of entirely cis, white characters with maybe one token non-white character, I was glad to see all different types of people represented in Verdant Skies. Despite these minor issues we have, they all felt like real people that I was actually interested in forming relationships with. Other developers should take a look at this game for a fantastic example of a quality cast.

J: I would definitely recommend Verdant Skies to anyone who wants a casual, relaxing game with a bit of romance. I hope to see more from Howling Moon Software in the future!

Short Reviews of Short GxG Visual Novels

My latest recommendations for visual novels that take a few hours or less to read. Each of the VNs featured in this installment has a female protagonist with at least one female love interest—and there’s also a sneak peek at one upcoming release!

DoraKone [itch.io|VNDB]
This Pokémon-Go-inspired VN, originally a stretch goal of the kickstarter for Caramel Mokaccino, is an absolute joy to read. It packs a lot of character development for its three disparate love interests—haughty Honorée, timid Rayen, and tenacious Brin—into their short routes, and maintains a bright and cheerful atmosphere as protagonist Dulce and whichever one of them she pursues prepare for a local mobile gaming tournament. I especially appreciated that Rayen’s route depicted her struggles to overcome anxiety, and I also liked seeing Dulce and all three other women becoming a motley group of friends and hanging out at the ice cream parlour. You can see that developers Apple Cider put a lot of care into even the smallest details of this VN, like a battery percentage on the phone GUI that seems to show how many of the CGs you’ve unlocked. If this wonderful little story is what they come up with just for bonus content, I can’t wait for the full release of Caramel Mokaccino.

The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea [itch.io|VNDB]
This otome game follows a young woman—nameable but called Maddie by default—who takes a summer job on a cruise ship that turns out to be a lot more than she bargained for. Her best friend and roommate Bridgette is one of the love interests, alongside another co-worker named Karl and a mysterious musician named Connor. Maddie’s gruelling customer service job is depicted in such realistic and vivid detail that I found those mundane work scenes to be the most well-written part—but those who’d rather not be reminded of the unpleasantness of minimum wage employment need not wait long before the story’s supernatural elements start to creep in. I also really appreciated the really snarky dialogue options, like having the chance to reply to a man saying, “Pretty girls like you should always have a reason to smile,” with, “So if I was ugly, you’d be okay with me being miserable?” And the adorable Bridgette makes a lovely companion for dealing with normal and paranormal issues alike.

A Beautiful Ride to Carlisle [itch.io|VNDB]
A Beautiful Ride to Carlisle is a short and sweet story about two young women, one of whom is blind, getting to know each other on a train ride. What little narration it has is written in third-person and past-tense, which is really interesting to see in a visual novel, since so many of them are in first-person present-tense instead. That contrast from the norms of the medium, combined with the fairly formal way the characters tend to speak, gives the whole story an atmosphere that reminds me more of classic literature than other digital narratives. It also has a lovely soft art style that fits that tone very well, and plenty of little variations on the positioning of the sprites even though they spend most of their time sitting down on a train. I hope to see more releases from new developer Little Viktoria soon.

Heart of the Woods (Chapter 1) [itch.io (demo)|Steam|VNDB]
and Taranormal [itch.io|VNDB]
Finally, I’m excited to talk about what I’ve seen of the upcoming Heart of the Woods! Studio Élan—the founder of which also worked on another VN I’ve reviewed, Highway Blossoms— kindly invited me to a closed beta of the first chapter, and it definitely made me even more excited than I already was for the full release on February 15th.

Heart of the Woods follows two friends on a one-month trip to an isolated small town where they plan to film several episodes of an online ghost-hunting show. Maddie, the cinematographer and protagonist of the story, has already decided that she’ll be leaving the show after this trip, which is putting some strain on her relationship with its star, Tara. The opening scene establishes this premise through Maddie dealing with conflicting thoughts on the train to the town of Eysenfeld, while Tara sleeps seemingly peacefully, and a well-implemented screen shake effect (which can be disabled alongside many other accessibility settings in the menu) really makes you feel like you’re on the bumpy train ride with them. Nice details and effects like that abound throughout even the small amount of the story I had access to—such as Maddie panning the camera around during scenes in which they interview the locals, or Tara’s sprite sometimes switching to a “finger guns” pose that highlights her flashy and confident personality. Chapter one of course left me with a lot of questions about Maddie and Tara’s host, Morgan, and the tree spirit she claims they should investigate in the woods; I can’t wait to start getting some answers when the full VN is out!

I also took a look at a short bonus game for Heart of the Woods, Taranormal, which spotlights some art by fans of Studio Élan in the setting of an episode of Maddie and Tara’s show. There isn’t really a plot, so it’s definitely not something that would stand on its own, but it’s worth checking out if you’re interested in Heart of the Woods, as it gives a brief glimpse into what Maddie and Tara’s relationship was like in happier times. I also appreciated that while the developers could have easily just reused the sprites from Heart of the Woods for this, instead it has new cute chibis that fit with this game’s more comic tone. Maybe it will help tide over a few people who are as hyped about Heart of the Woods as I am!

I hope these short reviews help you find something you’ll enjoy! Thanks for reading, and thanks to all these developers for writing some nice representation of gay and bisexual women.

The Miskatonic Review

It’s almost the new year, and I’m back with a new review on a new website. My sincerest thanks to anyone who followed me here during the tumblr exodus. Today, I’ll be taking about a short horror-comedy from first-time developers Rapscallion Games. The Miskatonic (VNDB|Steam) draws heavily on the works of H.P. Lovecraft to create a semi-apocalyptic future where the world is full of mystifying mutants and crazy cults. Amidst all of this chaos, an optimistic young witch named Charlotte manages to land a job as a security guard at the center of occult knowledge in America. With the help of friends like a cannibal who openly wants to eat her and a young girl with such a horrifying face that the human brain automatically replaces it with a dark void, Charlotte gradually uncovers the true goals of the Miskatonic University. While technical issues might put a damper on this one for some readers, I found that other positive qualities outweighed them and made for a fun and gruesome experience. This review will be spoiler-free.

Charlotte’s boss is another one of the many odd creatures you’ll encounter in The Miskatonic.

In my opinion, the biggest strengths of The Miskatonic are its art and atmosphere. Charlotte spends a lot of her time patrolling the halls of the university seeking out any useful information, and during those segments you control her movement in point-and-click fashion, selecting the bizarre characters you pass in order to overhear snippets of their conversations. The many options and details in these parts, such as a discussion with a beautiful sea creature about the tourism industry in Innsmouth, really made me feel immersed in the world of the game. And each of the students and faculty members you can speak with has a completely unique character design, ranging from the strange but cute to the outright monstrous. Many of the main characters even have multiple poses, such as sitting on couches or hanging down from the ceiling, which make the sprites even more varied and entertaining to look at.

A typical conversation between friends at Miskatonic University.

However, I’m not sure how much of my favourite part of The Miskatonic is really the culmination of the developers’ creative vision. When doing some research on the background of the game, I counted 79 kickstarter backers whose choice of tier allowed them to design a character who would appear in the game. While this is a common reward in video game crowdfunding campaigns, it’s usually much more limited—one campaign I supported, for instance, gave only 8 backers that opportunity. With such a large number of people contributing their own characters, I don’t know if I can really credit Rapscallion Games for the character design I liked so much. And I also can’t help but wonder whether the intriguing investigation segments were really something the developers wanted from the beginning, or whether they were simply a necessary way to deal with the influx of characters they needed to include. This isn’t a criticism of The Miskatonic itself, as whatever happened behind the scenes clearly worked out to produce an enjoyable game, but it does make me slightly unsure of whether I can expect to see more of the elements I liked here in the developers’ future projects or not.

Two of the Miskatonic’s students discuss the pros and cons of their choice of university.

The Miskatonic also suffers from a lot of the same kind of technical issues that I’ve seen in many other VNs by inexperienced developers. For one thing, it lacks a function for skipping dialogue you’ve already read, which is something I always find irritating. Fortunately, the game’s story is linear, so this oversight isn’t as much of a problem as it would be in a multiple route VN, but it’s still a hassle if you accidentally click on a character you’ve already talked to and need to button mash through the repeated dialogue. You’ll also have to do that button mashing with your mouse rather than anything else that tends to advance text in other VNs, such as enter (which toggles fullscreen instead) and space (which does nothing). There’s no way to adjust the speed at which the text appears on screen either. While I enjoyed the story of The Miskatonic enough to put up with this collection of minor grievances, I can see it really turning off some readers who are used to a smoother and more customizable visual novel experience.

I was also a bit distracted by this weird inconsistency in Charlotte’s sprite positioning, which
made it seem like her height changed.

Still, I would urge anyone who’s interested in the narrative and aesthetic of The Miskatonic to give it a try. Its main characters are just as wonderfully absurd in personality as in looks, and I had a really good time getting to know them as they went up against the forces of otherworldly gods, mystical cults, and—worst of all—academics. The story also ends with a fun sequel hook that I would love to see the developers expand on in the future—albeit hopefully with an experienced programmer on their payroll. Overall, The Miskatonic is rough around the edges, but I would still recommend it to readers who enjoy dark comedy and eldritch horrors.

Upcoming Visual Novel: The Light at the End of the Ocean

I’ve been hard at work for a long time on this project, and I’m really excited to have some of the art done now so that I can finally show off some progress! Introducing the upcoming visual novel The Light at the End of the Ocean.

A young woman wakes up in a lighthouse with a head injury and no memory of the shipwreck that brought her there—or anything else, for that matter. A stone-faced, stoic Lighthouse Keeper assures her that help will arrive soon, but seems unwilling or unable to help her figure out whom or where she is. Help the Lighthouse Keeper’s Guest uncover the mysteries of the island and its inhabitants in this point-and-click visual novel about unlikely friendship and loss of identity.

Staff So Far

Writing and programming by Jane Titor (that’s me!)

Character art by Dahlia Wilder

Background art by Pia Alit

Item art by Red Chan

GUI by Namastaii, with modifications by me and BunnyAdvocate

Main Characters

In-Progress Screenshots

The backgrounds aren’t done yet and will be in full colour in the final release. Other things might change too! 

Since this blog is more focused on my reviews of other VNs, I’ll probably be posting most updates on twitter rather than here, so please follow me there if you’re interested. I also have a work in progress thread on LemmaSoft, and I’ll eventually be publishing on itch.io. Thanks for reading!

Nowhere Girl Review

Today, I’m really excited to bring you a review of Trainwreck Studios’ new supernatural romance visual novel Nowhere Girl! Way back when I was first getting started with this blog, I wrote a review of Trainwreck’s first VN, Animal Lover, an otome about rescuing cute boys from a curse that turns them into animals. Nowhere Girl has an equally bizarre premise, with a female love interest this time—one who’s magically chained to you until you fall in love with her, and who’s also a ghost. And in case that’s not awesome enough, Nowhere Girl pulls you in with a beautiful opening animation, followed by an
encounter with a narrator who has a personality and wants to read you poetry.
After those first five minutes, I was totally hooked. But if you’re not as sure
as I was about whether Nowhere Girl is your thing, the rest of this review will go into some more detail about why I liked it, as well as some minor things I didn’t like as much, while avoiding spoilers as much as possible.

Nowhere Girl really shines with its characterization of Pseudo, the ghostly main heroine. I especially appreciated her character design. I find that pretty often in media, if the reader is supposed to sympathize with a ghost character, the ghost will just look like an attractive human who’s slightly translucent. But while Pseudo is still cute, she has bright blue skin, and the whole lower half of her body is just a big ghostly tail. It makes her look a lot more interesting, distinctive, and not-quite-human than most other supernatural love interests I’ve seen in VNs. She also has several varying poses, making scenes of dialogue with her especially dynamic and fun to read. If the goal of Nowhere Girl is to make you fall in love with Pseudo alongside the protagonist, I think it will work on a lot of readers.

However, as much as I enjoyed Nowhere Girl, it is a little rough around the edges. For one thing, I suspect that letting players choose the protagonist’s gender might have been an afterthought, as they tend to read as male even if you select the female option. One example that stood out to me is that the main set-up for the plot involves getting extremely drunk with a random dude you just met in a bar. I don’t know many women who would even consider taking that kind of risk, no matter how bad a day they’re having.
There were also a few other points in the story when I felt like some more
variation based on protagonist gender would have helped—nothing huge, but once the idea got into my head, I just kept noticing little things that could have done with a bit of a change. But of course, for those of you who prefer to
choose a male protagonist, none of that will be an issue at all.

There were a couple other aspects of the story that I didn’t like at first, but as I
read on, I started to appreciate them more. At the beginning of the narrative,
the protagonist is harbouring a secret crush on their friend and co-worker
Holly, and their internal conflict about their feelings for her is one of the
major problems that stands in the way of attempting a relationship with Pseudo—aside from the whole ghost thing, of course. And at first, I felt like the writing could have done more to really establish what’s so special about Holly and why the protagonist likes her so much, since I didn’t think that she was particularly interesting or that they even seemed to have much in common. But I eventually started to understand that the protagonist’s connection with Holly really was supposed to be as strained and artificial as I thought it was. They were clinging onto the fantasy of what a relationship with her would be like, when they really needed to step back and realize how far removed their ideas were from reality in order to move on. There were also some early scenes in which I found Pseudo really annoying, such as when she’s forced to follow the protagonist to work, and keeps distracting them and making them seem crazy to onlookers by making comments only they can hear. But while reading those scenes was really frustrating, it also effectively made me empathize with how the protagonist was feeling. So while some aspects of the writing of Nowhere Girl might not appeal to all readers at first, they’re successful in achieving what I imagine the writer intended, and they just might grow on you.

Finally, I won’t say too much because I want people to be able to read this review without spoilers, but I was pleasantly surprised with the direction Nowhere Girl took towards the end. There was some deeper worldbuilding in it than I expected, and I would love to see Trainwreck Studios explore this setting again in another project. If you’d like to check it out, Nowhere Girl is currently available at a discount or in a bundle with Animal Lover on itch.io, and it will also be released on steam soon. Thanks for reading!

(Update: the aforementioned sale is now over, but you can still buy Nowhere Girl on itch.io or steam.)

Short Reviews of Short Visual Novels: Halloween Edition!

With less than two weeks left until Halloween, I’m sure I’m not the only who’s in the mood to curl up with a pumpkin latte and something scary to read.
Fortunately for everyone else who feels that way, I’ve been in that mood for
several weeks already, so I’ve already read several spooky—or at least
supernatural-themed—visual novels I can recommend! This special Halloween edition of my short reviews of short visual novels series features ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and pretty much any other creepy creature you can imagine.

Vicarwissen [VNDB|itch.io]

This entry in 2016’s Yuri Game Jam tells the story of two paranormal investigators who find themselves trapped in a creepy museum on the night that legends say the werewolf-like Vicarwissen creatures meet for a horrific banquet. I knew I would like Vicarwissen as soon as I launched it and saw the main menu, which perfectly sets the tone for the story with the image of a cellphone displaying a silly snapchat of the heroines next to a textbook about the Vicarwissen myth. The game maintains a fun balance of cute and creepy throughout, and its point-and-click elements add a lot of flavour. I would have liked a little more detail about the backstory that various objects hint at, but maybe that’s something the creators could expand on in a prequel instead! I had a lot of fun with this one, so I’d certainly love to read anything else they come up with.

First Kiss at a Spooky Soirée [VNDB|itch.io]

If you want something Halloween-themed but aren’t actually into horror, look no further than First Kiss at a Spooky Soirée, from the consistently cute catalogue of NomNomNami. In this one, you play as an adorable witch named Marzipan who’s determined to get her first kiss at a party full of other magical creatures—some of whom are pretty different from what you might expect. I was especially impressed with this game’s unique CG gallery that appears like polaroids on the main menu screen. I just wish that the routes had been a little bit longer so that I could spend more time with this cast of supernatural sweethearts! Also, this was an entry in the same yuri jam as Vicarwissen, and so was one of my all-time favourite short VNs, Once on a Windswept Night—2016 was clearly good year for supernatural lesbian VNs.

Bishoujo Mangekyou: A Girl’s Cursed Legend [VNDB|fan translation patch]

This Japanese VN’s fan translation patch came out just in time for the Halloween season! In the first entry of the Bishoujo Mangekyou series, a creepy teacher attempts to prey on a high school student, only for their roles to be reversed when it turns out she’s a vampire who wants to use him for a constant supply of blood. Sexual content is definitely the main focus of this one, but it has some really fun and unique h-scenes unlike anything I’ve seen in other VNs—one of my personal favourites involves the protagonist playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on piano in spite of an increasing amount of distraction. And there’s still an interesting story that explores power dynamics in relationships tying it all together, plus some absolutely gorgeous art and a bit of animation. The patch does have the occasional awkward phrase or minor technical issue, but I think Euphemic Translation still did a competent job for their first release, and I’m looking forward to seeing their future efforts.

Speed Dating for Ghosts [VNDB|itch.io|Steam]

Speed Dating for Ghosts is exactly what it sounds like: a game in which you play a ghost who attends a speed dating event in hopes of meeting another ghost to go out with. Its strange, surreal world is populated with a variety of unique characters—I found all of them so intriguing that it was hard to pick which one I wanted to date first. Unfortunately, Speed Dating suffers from a lack of standard features that I’ve come to expect from other visual novels. Partway into my first playthrough I wanted to save the game, only to discover that hitting escape immediately quits to the main menu, and that there was no skip function to help me get back to where I was. But if you don’t mind those little problems, there are nine bizarre and wonderful ghosts waiting for you, each ready to take you on the date of a lifetime . . . so to speak.

Carmilla [VNDB|itch.io]

Finally, my last spooky VN recommendation involves more vampires, in a digital edition of one of the earliest vampire stories in English literature. The visual novel version of Carmilla adds an informative in-game encyclopedia, expressive sprites in anachronistic outfits, and a bit of metatextual commentary to the text of Le Fanu’s classic novella, making for a fun combination of past and present storytelling techniques. It also includes some well-done effects that accentuate the impact of the story’s creepier parts. Since developers Visual Gothic adapted the story with only minor changes, it’s
a lot heavier on narration than the majority of visual novels, and I wonder if
it could have improved it a bit to cut down on that a little more and take full
advantage of the medium by letting the visuals speak for themselves. But of
course, the original story is a classic for a reason, and I would recommend
this adaptation to anyone who enjoys their horror with a bit of a slower pace.

Finally, I can’t write a real review of it because of how biased I am, but if your taste is skewed more towards silly monsters than the scary variant, you might also enjoy the demo of DemiDato! I’m one of the co-writers for this project and I can’t wait to give you the chance to meet its full cast of zany characters sometime soon. And whether you try that or another one of the VNs on this list, I hope you have a happy Halloween!

BP&J Discuss: Nurse Love Addiction

Jane: Today I’m trying out a new review format. My friend Bishounen-P—whom you may know as the developer of Strawberry Daiquiri—and I both read Nurse Love Addiction recently, and we found that it gave us a lot to discuss. So we’ll be presenting both of our thoughts about it to you in this collaborative review.

Nurse Love Addiction tells the story of Asuka, a slacker who ends up going to nursing school in lieu of any other life goals after finding a note she wrote as a child saying she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up. Her sister, Nao, enrolls in the same program, and Asuka soon finds herself torn between feelings for Nao, their teacher, and two mysterious students in their class.

Bishounen-P: Before we get into the details of it, I’d like to just say that I absolutely adore the art in this game. It’s definitely the first thing that drew me into the game, so I’ll be adding a lot of screenshots from it as well.

If you’re interested in playing NLA, I’d personally recommend going Kaede -> Sakuya -> Itsuki -> Nao, but you can also switch the last two and still be OK. It’s up to you.

J: It’s unfortunately difficult to talk much about NLA without spoilers, but we both enjoyed reading it, and you might like it too if you’re a fan of Kogado Studio’s other VNs like Symphonic Rain.

BP: It’s definitely one of the most unique yuri VNs I’ve ever played, and had a unique twist on the typical incest route. If you’re looking for more interesting yuri VNs, I’d personally recommend Fatal Twelve. For a classic but beautiful incest story (that isn’t yuri) I’d recommend Kana ~Imouto~.

Before we get into the spoilers, however, I’ll go ahead and say right off that bat that I absolutely recommend NLA. It’s a fun ride, and also scratches that yuri sweetness itch when you want it to.

Beyond this point, there will be major spoilers for all of Nurse Love Addiction.

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Interview with d Marie Licea

Recently, I had a chance to talk with d Marie Licea, developer of Us Lovely Corpses, about the creative process behind this fascinating “surreal-horror-romance” visual novel. Us Lovely Corpses is a VN I considered reviewing for this blog when I read it, but I struggled to write a review that would be interesting and accessible—explaining the parts that most impressed and resonated with me would mean spoiling it completely. But I encourage anyone who can handle some disturbing content in service of a great story and heartfelt message to try it out. This interview will start with some more general questions, and it includes a warning farther down before any spoilers for Us Lovely Corpses appear.

Question: Did you always plan for the story of Us Lovely Corpses to be a visual novel, or did you consider other mediums as well?

Answer: In its earliest stages, Us Lovely Corpses was actually planned as a comic! I came up with the original idea somewhere around 2014-2015—it was going to be about 10 pages, and would just cover the scene that ended up being the game’s finale. Alex and Marisol (who weren’t named yet) were very different—they were much younger, Alex wasn’t really “a witch,” and Marisol was originally a boy!

I sat on the idea a while, and the longer I did so the more I wanted to explore the history of these characters, which made for a longer and more unwieldy comic. Then in 2015, when I started learning about visual novels, it hit me that the concept could work really well in that format, especially when the “exploration” element came in.

Q: Were there any particular visual novels that influenced you?

A: Yes! The reason why I started getting into visual novels specifically in 2015 was that because that was the year We Know The Devil came out!

We Know The Devil totally shifted my viewpoint as to what a visual novel could be—no diss to dating sims, but before WKTD, I, like most people, just saw VNs as dating sims and occasionally something like the When They Cry series.

WKTD totally changed that for me—a short, incredibly contained story that also managed to be about so, so much, in a surreal, horror-inspired atmosphere . . . it really blew me away! Not only was it the game that got me into visual novels, but you can definitely see a lot of its influence on Us Lovely Corpses.

Besides WKTD, there was also Her Tears Were My Light, a fairly minimalist love story that used the “rewind” function in Ren’Py as part of the story. Utilizing mechanics as part of the narrative was a really cool idea to me that also ended up in ULC. (side note: I met and hired Alex Huang to do the music for Us Lovely Corpses because I loved the soundtrack for HTWML so much!)

Finally, I was really into the original Gyakuten Saiban (Ace Attorney) trilogy when I was younger, and the evidence gathering segments were a big part of
those games. I originally envisioned the “rose clipping” segments of ULC like those parts, where you’d have to select each rose before cutting it, but sadly that was a little too complex for me at the time, and I eventually decided to go for something more simple in order to complete the game. But that initial idea was a big part of what made me try Us Lovely Corpses as a game, so it ended up still being a big influence in the end!

Q: Besides technical things like those mechanics and the exploration element, do you find that you have a different style of writing in visual novels as opposed to the stories you’ve done in other formats, like twine and comics?

A: I’m not sure if this is always the case for visual novels, but I find I have to
format my writing differently when writing for VNs—specifically, in length of
sentences and paragraphs. I’ve found my writing worked a lot better in Us Lovely Corpses the more I broke everything up into smaller fragments—larger ones or paragraphs didn’t work as well, which can be a problem for me because my writing can tend to get a bit wordy!

This has to do a lot with the pacing of visual novels and how the player/reader is a big part of that. Control over pacing is a big part of why visual novels appeal to me, but you also have to think differently to get the best result.

Technical stuff aside, I found that, at least for ULC, my actual writing style remained pretty much the same. I think this has the benefit of making the writing in Us Lovely Corpses seem unique, but has the disadvantage of posing a problem for a certain something I didn’t see coming at all: Let’s Players!

A few people have made videos of their playthroughs of Us Lovely Corpses, which is incredibly exciting, but when I watch them, I can’t help but feel bad for them because they always read everything out loud . . . which means, with my somewhat wordy style, they have to do a LOT of talking!

I haven’t actually gotten complaints about this or anything, but I still hope people who make videos of their playthroughs of ULC keep some water nearby!

Note: the next part of the interview contains spoilers for Us Lovely Corpses, as well as discussion of mental illness.

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