If you happen to stumble across Quill Game Studio’s debut visual novel release A Summer with the Shiba Inu (steam|itch.io) without any prior knowledge, you might not be sure what to make of it. It looks like it has some cute and funny dogs—is it a light-hearted and relaxing game about the lives of adorable animals? But then again, romantic comedy VNs with weird gimmicks are pretty popular—maybe it’s a big joke about dating the dogs? Hang on—does that description say something about the dogs fighting? Is it more of a violent action story? What’s going on here? Well, the answer is that A Summer with the Shiba Inu defies categorization, combining some elements of all of those genres into a unique science fiction mystery. If I had to compare it to any other VN, I would have to say that it’s much more similar to Hatoful Boyfriend than anything else—not only for its sweet, animal-focused exterior, but also for the darker and more disturbing parts of the story hiding underneath. This spoiler-free review will highlight a few of the reasons that I think most visual novel fans will enjoy it.
The aspect of Shiba Inu that fascinated me most was the strange and surreal world it takes place in. It’s a world where sentient dogs—the dominant (and perhaps only) life forms on the Earth—compete for places in a strict social hierarchy through some kind of virtual reality battle royale, and the game thrusts you right into all of that without much in the way of exposition. I had a ton of questions about what was going on when I started, but the story’s structure does a great job of pointing you toward the answers to those questions gradually, with minimal info-dumping. As protagonist Syd interacts with other characters such as her childhood friend Max and mysterious potential new ally Quei-Li, details of the dialogue will help you pick up on what happened in Syd’s past, what’s motivating her on her quest to reunite with her brother, and what trials may await her in the dystopian metropolis of Shiba Island. And this intriguing dialogue isn’t all serious either—it’s guaranteed to regularly catch you off guard with some really funny and inventive dog puns.
I also really appreciated Shiba Inu’s level of polish and detail, especially in the visuals. Each of the dogs has a cute unique character design, and their faces manage to be quite expressive while still mostly resembling realistic dogs. The backgrounds are lovely as well, and the GUI has a lot of fun little elements like a little spinning dog face in the corner of the textbox when you can advance to the next line. There are even dog barking sound effects in lieu of voice acting—which get pretty amusing if you’re skipping through text you’ve already read and hearing a whole chorus of barks. All of this attention to detail leads to an atmosphere that totally immerses the reader in a dog-filled world.
The one time that I did get a bit frustrated reading Shiba Inu was once I had finished reading the majority of the story and just needed to figure out which combinations of choices would unlock a couple more ending variants. Since the intricacies of what’s going on at all times in Shiba Inu are complicated, I had a hard time discerning which choices were the important ones in terms of Syd’s relationships with the other characters, and figuring out exactly how all the moving pieces of the story affect each other. I spent a fair bit of time skipping through the game repeatedly and agonizing over the options while the locked steam achievements sat there taunting me. But I also think that’s an element of the game that might make it even more fun for some people who appreciate the challenge of solving a bit of a mystery. It certainly makes sense that this unconventional narrative, full of mystery and intrigue, wouldn’t want make it too easy to access all of its secrets.
Finally, I just want to emphasize that Quill Game Studios had never released any other games before A Summer with the Shiba Inu. And its credits only list six major creative contributors to the game, including main writer and programmer Quilly. I’m impressed that such a small studio could produce a highly polished and unique game like this on their first effort, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they do next. Whether you’re captivated by the concept of a strange society of sentient dogs, or you just want to support good indie game developers, I highly recommend picking up A Summer with the Shiba Inu on itch.io or steam. I’d rate it a canine out of ten!