Short Reviews: Charity Bundle Edition 3

It makes me happy that it seems to have become a tradition over the past few years for indie game developers of all kinds on itch.io to band together and put together charity bundles for good causes. In 2020, I wrote a short post highlighting a few of the games in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality as well as another Black Lives Matter Support Bundle, and a year later I checked out a total of 10 games from the Indie Bundle for Palestinian Aid in Short Reviews Charity Bundle Edition 2 and Charity Bundle Edition 2.5. Recently, another massive bundle was organized in support of the people of Ukraine, and I was proud to be able to add my own game, The Light at the End of the Ocean. As always, the other developers who contributed to the cause are almost too numerous to count, but I’d like to provide my impressions on a few of the other visual novels included. I also ended up checking out three horror games followed by two science fiction, so this post will be especially interesting to anyone else who appreciates those genres! If you bought the bundle, you already own all of these games, so consider checking them out and supporting the developers in their other endeavours. Thanks for reading!

Amelie
This claustrophobic story about the first meeting of two long-distance friends in an oppressive old-fashioned manor does a great job with slowly escalating horror and gradual hints toward the true nature of what’s going on. I especially loved the beautiful piano soundtrack’s contribution to the atmosphere. My one minor complaint about this one is that when you swap between the story’s three protagonists, dialogue you’ve already read often gets repeated without the skip function recognizing it as previously read text and letting you skip it—but it’s a short enough story that it’s not a huge issue, and each character’s narration provides enough recontextualization that you might appreciate rereading the dialogue anyway. Make sure you explore your options to find all the possible endings of this twisted tale!

LiveScream
LiveScream is a cute horror comedy that casts the player as a streamer investigating a potentially haunted house for the entertainment of their viewers. Mechanics that track your audience’s level of interest as well as your own rising fear create a struggle to search for answers while keeping your stats balanced enough to avoid a negative ending. I had a hard time finding all the secrets of the ghostly locations at first, but exploring your options across multiple playthroughs as well as clicking on some objects more than once will gradually reveal more and more about the haunted house’s past. One of the best parts of this one is the constant reactions from the viewers in chat, whose fan club name for themselves can be customized along with the protagonist’s name and pronouns. It made me want to explore the comedic potential of this format for a story sometime in my own work too!

Pumpkin Eater
And the final horror game of this post is one that’s truly gruesome and disturbing! Pumpkin Eater explores the deterioration of a family as a delusional mother refuses to accept her son’s death, forcing her husband and daughter to play along with her increasingly horrifying attempts to keep him alive. The rough watercolour aesthetic of this one supports the horror perfectly, with some slight sprite variants adding a lot of emotional expression. There are even some educational bonus features in which the developers cite their sources on such dark subjects as the decomposition of dead bodies, showing that they put a lot of work into the realism of their narrative. I felt that slightly slower pacing, perhaps establishing the characters’ normal lives a bit more before everything falls apart, might have made it all even more effective—but if you want a short and creepy experience, Pumpkin Eater is still a great bet.

Dates & Wires
Now let’s move on to the short sci-fi section of this short reviews entry! Dates & Wires is a spinoff of a cyberpunk webcomic called Drugs & Wires, but one that stands alone well alongside presumably including a lot of details for fans of the comic to appreciate. The cast of characters you can get to know over the course of one big night out on a vacation really come to life through their little connections to each other, as well as through the freedom you have to interact with them however much or little you’re interested in and in whatever order strikes your fancy. My personal favourite was struggling musician Dan, but I also enjoyed the ending with the mysterious bartender! I’m definitely interested in checking out the webcomic sometime to get more than just a glimpse into the unique world of Stradania.

</reality>
This one has been on my wishlist for a while, so I’m especially glad this bundle gave me the opportunity to check it out. In the inventively titled </reality>, an avid MMO player named Lilya is given an exclusive invitation to test the latest advancements in virtual reality technology—leading to a mystery about the true nature of mysterious tech developer Jacob Lessard’s fantasy world, as well as broader philosophical questions about reality itself. One detail I really appreciated about this one is that choice menus let you mouse over each option to see more detail about characters’ thought processes regarding their potential paths forward. It really immerses you in the decision-making that shapes the story, and gives you a better idea of where your choices might lead. The story gradually takes a turn into more of a lore-filled epic than the character-focused narrative I expected, but it remains a fun and unique take on the concept of virtual worlds and the possibility of transcending physical reality. I’d be interested to see the developers explore more of this setting in their future projects—after the work in progress of theirs that I’m already looking forward to, Stardander School for Witches!

And that’s only five of the hundreds of games that were included in the bundle. Don’t forget to check out some of the other ones too if you purchased it, and either way, consider supporting the developers of these visual novels as well. Their efforts helped the bundle raise an incredible amount of money for a good cause, and I hope to see more creative projects from all of them in the future!

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