Short Reviews: Isolation Edition

This special edition of my short reviews series highlights a few visual novels and other narrative games whose developers recently gave them big discounts—in some cases, even making them available for free— in order to make them more accessible to people who are losing their jobs and staying at home all day because of the pandemic. The situation has been pretty hard for me, as I know it is for so many people all over the world as well, so I’m very grateful to the artists who are sharing their work to make things a bit easier. Some of these titles have returned to full price since I started working on the post, but I still wanted to recommend them and show my appreciation of the developers. If you’re one of the very fortunate people who still have disposable income during this crisis, supporting people like Sake Visual, Laundry Bear Games, Jaime Scribbles, Heather Flowers, and Boop Studios would be a great way to spend it.

Jisei Series
These episodic VNs follow a nameless protagonist with psychic powers who gets caught up in a series of murder investigations. I read the first one, Jisei, a while back, and picked up the sequels Kansei and Yousei when they were pay-what-you-can a couple weeks ago. The series overall has high production values, with voice acting for all characters other than the mysterious hero, flashy opening videos with original music, and different cute outfits for the characters on different days. There’s also a bit of point-and-click gameplay involved in solving each episode’s mystery. I felt that some of the side characters were a bit one-dimensional, but that issue is probably somewhat inevitable in mysteries, since you want to introduce a lot of suspects but might not have time to really develop them all. (I’m a fan of the Ace Attorney approach to solving that problem: leaning into it and making them all as completely ridiculous as possible.) But the main characters who appear in each episode—Aki, Naoki, and Li Mei, three fellow psychics who take the protagonist under the wing—are all a lot of fun. Writer Ayu Sakata has clearly put a lot of thought into how each piece of Jisei fits into a larger narrative, and I hope to be able to read more of the story in the future. I would especially be interested in a prequel about Aki and Naoki’s intriguing backstory.

A Mortician’s Tale
A Mortician’s Tale is a short point-and-click game about working at a funeral home. A lot of the story is told fairy indirectly through reading emails—a style that I’m obviously a big fan of, since I wrote something like that myself last year! You’ll also be preparing for and attending several different funerals, learning about the embalming and cremation processes, and getting glimpses into a variety of different people’s ways of dealing with death. Some of the gameplay started to feel a bit monotonous toward the end, as you’re always just following instructions and unable to experiment or make mistakes. However, it fulfills its function of simulating the basics of a mortician’s job, and I can see how it could have been antithetical to the tone and message of the game if it was possible to mess around too much. Some players might find some elements of this one disturbing, especially when you have to interact with corpses, but it’s by no means anything too gruesome. Overall, it’s a nice little story about what people who work in funeral homes can do to help those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. I hope to see more from my fellow Canadian developers, Laundry Bear Games, in the future.

As We Know It
As We Know It is an otome game set in an underground bunker in a post-apocalyptic future. The customizable protagonist has recently moved there from the treacherous surface of the Earth, and at the same time as getting closer to one of four potential love interests (two men and two women), she can also start to question whether she agrees with the way that the community is run. The structure of the game can start to feel a bit repetitive, as you spend a lot of it making choices about what to do with your spare time at the end of the work day; I would have much preferred to be able to plan out at least a week in advance with more simulation-style mechanics, instead of being given the same three options repeatedly every day. But you definitely won’t get bored with the results of those choices, as there are plenty of interesting scenes, starring a wide variety of characters, to discover. One aspect I really appreciated was that you start the game living with your mother, who also has her own subplot going on. It’s pretty unique to see a protagonist’s parent playing an active role in romance VNs like that. Another fun little detail is the titles of books you can check out from the library, which mostly seem to be amusing parodies of the titles of other VNs—I think might have even spotted one of my own! With so much different content to unlock, this one is a great way to pass a lot of time stuck indoors.

Extreme Meatpunks Forever
The tagline of this visual novel/action game hybrid is “gay disaster mech pilots killing fascists,” and I don’t know if I could possibly describe it better than that. Playing Extreme Meatpunks Forever is a unique experience in many ways. A lot of the dialogue is written with a kind of manic tumblr post energy that you might like if you’re a fan of stuff like Genderwrecked or Pizza Game (the latter of which I recommend this creative review of), forming an interesting contrast with the much more traditionally literary narration. The aesthetic combines ASCII art backgrounds with brightly coloured sprite art, and each of the game’s six “episodes” includes at least one sequence of frantic and baffling mech combat. It took me several episodes to start barely approaching something resembling getting the hang of it—but I wouldn’t be surprised if “oh shit what do I do uh am I winning I can’t tell” was exactly the feeling the developers were trying to elicit. It certainly fits with the tone of the story. You do have the option to skip combat after failing once, but no matter how much I sucked at it, I found myself getting more determined the more I played. Maybe it was the rough but lovable cast of characters that got me immersed enough to want to keep trying. It’s a game that takes place in a dark and violent future, but it manages to somehow feel empowering at the same time. I’m really looking forward to the sequel.

Talk To Me
My last recommendation for today is a story about a young man named Ordell who’s lonely and depressed after losing his mother. He’s determined to get out there and try dating and making friends, but as his relationships with the new people he meets progress, it becomes more and more clear that both he and they have a lot of trauma and mental health problems that they’re not all dealing with very well. The pacing feels a bit fast in some parts—it gets into the serious stuff fairly quickly, and I feel like it could have been a bit more effective if I’d had more time to get to know and sympathize with the characters first. There were also a few things I personally would have liked it to handle a bit differently, but that’s bound to happen to some extent when any story tries to tackle so many issues. It still does a pretty good job overall at exploring the messy relationships that people who are struggling to recover from a variety of problems can have, as well as some ways they might be able to help each other. If you like a good drama, and the content warnings listed on the game’s page don’t sound like too much for you, then you’ll probably enjoy reading about Ordell and his journey toward healthy and meaningful connections.

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