Thursday, July 27, 2017

A Date In Italy

Author: NamiOki
Availability: Free, Online/Browser-Based
Format:Visual Novel (Well, more like Visual Short Story...)
Genre: FanWork
Rating: Everyone


My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 2.5
Art: 3
Gameplay: 2.5
Romance: 2

Summary


In A Date In Italy, you are “a young SINGLE FEMALE student studying abroad in Italy”. You're sitting in a park when a young man suddenly shows up and insists on showing you around. What do you say, Bella Mia?

Review


The Writing


The writing in this is kept very simple. There isn't much in the way of tension or plot or what-have-you; in fact, since the game is so short, we don't actually get to learn much about Italy or, for that matter Feliciano. However, Feliciano's sunny personality definitely shines through in every line he utters, and the choices in the dialog are distinct enough to create a strong sense of personality for your own character, as well. Whether you like Feliciano's personality is, of course, a matter of taste.

Like Hetalia Dating Sim: Canada, this game is based on the manga/anime Axis Powers Hetalia. While I'm only casually acquainted with the series, this version of Feliciano felt right, based on what I know. He's out-going, friendly, and energetic, and if you think it's cheating to have a main character who's already been created for you, then let me tell you first-hand that staying true to someone else's creation has its own set of challenges.

I also think NamiOki was smart in downplaying the game's connection to Hetalia. To someone unfamiliar with the original, this is just a normal story about a normal girl who meets an enthusiastic young man that really loves his country: nothing odd or remarkable to see here. For a Hetalia fan, though, Feliciano's comments and “patriotism” suddenly take on a new meaning. I like that balance.

The Art


The three backdrops are all photographs. I briefly wondered if this was the better choice for a story about being shown around another country, but if so, I think the blur filters ruin it. On the plus side, Feliciano himself is quite well drawn, with a good range of very expressive sprites. Together with the writing, they help give the sense of someone who's bold and hot-blooded. I also think it was an interesting choice to have location-appropriate background noise instead of any music: it helped put more emphasis on the setting itself.

The Gameplay


The game is as simple as the writing. It's fairly easy to tell which answers lead to the bad end, and I'm pretty sure there are only two endings: win or lose. The shortness of it means there's no real sense of exploration or discovery; but then, it also means there's less to object to. So, in the end, it gets a middle-of-the road score.

TL;DR:


A Date in Italy is short, cute fluff that manages to throw a bone to fans of Axis Powers Hetalia without requiring you to be one. The writing has almost no plot, but still does a great job of bringing character across, which I think is more important in these kinds of games. The artwork more or less matches the writing by having expressively-drawn character sprites against a bland background. I'd say it's worth playing if you have nothing else to do.


Well, that's just my opinion. What do you think? Is this game molto bene, or just a terrible tragedia?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Date Almost Anything Sim

Author: Huegor
Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel
Genre: Waste of Time
Rating: Teen

Found at Itch.io

My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 1
Art: 2
Gameplay: 1
Romance: 0

Review


I'm going to forgo my usual template and just come right out with one question: What is so offensively awful about wanting to play a dating sim, that someone out there feels compelled to release a Hate Letter about it?

This “game” is a waste of time. It even gloats that it is a waste of time, and it chides you for wasting your time playing games instead of achieving important things in life. Well, I have news for this author and anyone else with the same mentality: Playing a dating sim is not the same thing as wasting your entire life. Sometimes people come home from a long day at either work or school and want to veg out, either with a movie, book, or—yes, even a dating sim. It's natural; it's healthy. Do you know what happens to people who constantly work with no rest? They burn out. They're the people who die at age forty with a pile of wealth and no friends. They're the people who spend all their hard-earned cash on therapists because they can't be satisfied with all they've achieved in life. You should never be vilified for just wanting some entertainment.

Not only is it important to take a break, no matter what your routine or goals in life, but it's especially important to experience something positive, like a funny story or a smile from a loved one. Date Almost Anything Sim presented itself as something positive, both intentionally and possibly unintentionally. Intentionally, it presented itself as a dating sim, which usually allows players to experience a work of fiction with a happy ending (or at least a satisfying catharsis, in the case of tragedies). Personally, I expected a surreal comedy based on the idea of literally dating anything, from mermaids to muffins. Comedy causes laughter, which improves health and raises life expectancy. Furthermore, experiencing something creative can help improve your own mind, which is why literature, art, and music are vitally important to any school's curriculum. When I see something that is outside of my usual experiences, by however much, my mind expands and I become enriched as a person, able to consider more possibilities and adapt quicker to new ideas.

Fiction is valid. Fiction is important. It doesn't matter if that fiction is a horror novel, a cartoon about ponies, or a computer dating sim. Whenever an author shares their work with you, they are sharing their knowledge and experiences, however indirectly. When Hans Christian Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid, he shared not just a fantasy story, but the pain of unrequited love and a warning about throwing everything away on someone who may not even return your feelings. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped the Abolitionist movement by forcing many to see Black people as characters instead of props for the first time. Mad Max: Fury Road caused a backlash in the MRA because it supposedly lured male audience members in with cars and explosions only to subject them to feminist ideas. Are you seeing the pattern, here? Sharing a work of fiction is as much an exchange of ideas as debating with someone face to face, even if the idea is that there is no order to the universe (look up Dada, for example).

So, yes, I was hoping to spend a little time, out of my busy life, playing a dating sim. Is this a waste of my time? Only if the author, like here, deliberately makes it so. Even then, I won't call this a waste, since it directly led to me putting into words something that I've long believed and that I think others should know, especially anyone out there who needs to feel validated about their hobby. This means that Date Almost Anything Sim has failed on every front:
  1.  The writing is stupid, and one should never use emoticons in dialog for these games since, A) nobody is hearing the words semi-colon, letter u, semi-colon, and B) Facial expressions are what the art is for.
  2. The artwork is lazy, using photographed backgrounds and outright fading to black for some segments.
  3. The game is boring, giving me flashbacks to my first job, and the Options and About sections of the menu are poorly coded.
  4. The author wanted to waste my time and then make me feel bad about it. See the above essay. I rest my case.




Thursday, July 13, 2017

Magical Makeover

Author: S. Woodson
Availability: Free, Download/Online
Format: Twine
Genre: Humor/Fantasy
Rating: Teen

My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 4
Art: N/A
Gameplay: 2.5
Romance: N/A

Summary


In Magical Makeover, you have managed to get an invitation to Princess Philantha's Grand Equinox Ball! (Specifically, you've managed to get Dame Demetria's invitation to the ball. But never mind.) Once you're inside the palace, you plan to search for the legendary, wish-granting golden cassowary! Only, just having the invitation isn't enough: Princess Philantha only permits the prettiest people to be present at her party, which means it's time for a makeover! What could go wrong?

Review

The Writing


It occurs to me that this is the second game I've reviewed where the protagonist is a lesbian, and in both cases, the games were text-only and her love-life was irretrievably in the toilet. Huh. This has no bearing on the rating, mind you; I just find it kind of odd, and if it happens again, I'll have to check TV Tropes to see if “love-lorn lesbian text adventure” is a thing.

Getting back on topic: the writing for this is both good and hilarious. The game is partly a send-up of the classic dress-up/hygiene flash games on the internet. Our protagonist is not especially pretty, and she knows she's not pretty, and people are all too glad to tell her she's not pretty. But, when her rather suspicious beauty-products turn her into freaky and unusual shapes, somehow this gets considered beautiful. Of course, the beauty treatments are only a means to an end, both in-game and in a meta sense: after your arrival at the party, the story branches off into narratives that have little to do with either beauty or the eyes of beholders, and everything to do with looking for the golden cassowary. In other words, “Come for the satire, stay for the adventure.”

The Gameplay


I think I would have liked this game better if it had more choices in the second half. As it is, only the makeover segment itself feels remotely like a game, with the scenes at the party playing out like a very long epilogue. The choice of beauty-products is what determines which story you get to read at the end. Your choice of clothes has no effect on it, though it does give you some flavor text on the bus and at the party, which I enjoy seeing.

TL;DR:


Magical Makeover is an entertaining interactive story that flips off beauty-obsession without making that its only point. While the first half feels more like a game, the latter half puts more emphasis on “story” than “interactive”. Still, the writing itself is often fun enough to hold this piece's head above water.


That's just my opinion, though. Do you think that this game is simply glamorous, or is it the weirdest thing you've ever seen? Tell us in the comments!

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Blind Date

Author: Unknown
Availability: Free, Online/Browser-Based
Genre: ...Romance, I guess?
Rating: Everyone


My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 2
Art: 2
Gameplay: 1
Romance: Pft...HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!

Summary

The premise of Blind Date is very simple: choose a guy, choose a dress, then sit on the beach and stare at things for a while.  Ah, love!

Review

The Writing


It's a little hard to rate the writing in this, since there really isn't much aside from the instructions.  At least the spelling is correct.  Hmm, I suppose I could point out the comma splice...  No.  You know what?  I can do better than this!  Here we go:

New Summary

Our story follows a mute heroine afflicted with deep psychosis.  The domineering voice in her head commands her to “spin the wheel of love”, which she envisions as a slot machine.  In this hallucination, the “wheel” controls her destiny, and yet she controls the wheel.  But, subconsciously, she must feel it is a dangerous thing, for she also sees an angel with an arrow trained on it, ready to shoot the machine at a moment's notice.

After settling on one of the only three guys she knows, two words reverberate through her mind: “Select Dress”.  She imagines a closet floating in the void, containing three outfits.  Again, the hosts of heaven stand ready to fire upon it, grinning madly, waiting...but for what?

At last, having chosen the forms of herself and her imaginary date, the woman, still seated comfortably on her living room sofa, has a vision of a beach with a moon-lit sky.  In this fantasy, there is no symbol of divinity to watch over her, for she herself has become divinity, able to command the moon and tides and to summon the dawn at will!  Only by impressing her intended with such power can she convince her own mind that she is worthy of a simple gesture of affection: a kiss.

Review

The Writing

I was truly not expecting such a dark concept when I clicked on this, nor such an avant-garde method of story-telling.  There is no dialog except for the nameless woman's hallucinatory voice, which thus forces us into the perspective of this poor, isolated woman for whom the voice has become everything.  This piece is also bold enough to address the often tense relationship between religion and romantic desire, represented here by a smiling, innocent cherub who constantly keeps a weapon aimed at the symbols of this woman's progress towards finding a mate.  It's brilliant, though perhaps a bit depressing for my tastes.

The Art

The art style is flat and slightly cartoonish, belying the very dark subject matter while heightening the sense of unreality.  The woman's large head in the “real world” segments emphasizes the imaginary nature of her romance quest, and the five-second loops of cheery music in each level invite the player to join her in madness.

The Gameplay

The gameplay is deceptively simple though it gets difficult towards the end.  I lost many times before I realized I was supposed to click on one little star in the sky.  Even after supposedly “winning” the game, though, your efforts can still be ranked as a “bad date”, thus demonstrating how emotional imbalances can color our impressions of seemingly positive events.

TL;DR:

Blind Date is a daring look at mental I cannot finish this sentence.  Blind Date a short, cheesy, point-and-click flash game, as inoffensive as it is pointless.  Worse games exist, and you'd better believe that better games exist.  I'd say it's one for the “I have nothing else to do” pile.

If you want a game that's actually a dark look inside someone's mind, I recommend Reverie.

I also recommend checking out the website for NAMI, which is an organization meant to help real people with actual mental problems.

In the meantime:  Comments!  Opinions!  Suggestions of stuff I should be reviewing!  Y'all know how it works, people. :)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Crossroads

Author: Seraphinite
Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel
Genre: Supernatural
Rating: Teen

Found at seraphinite.itch.io

My Scores (Out of 5):

Writing: 3
Art: 4
Gameplay: 3
Romance:  2.5  (“Simple fare, but not bad.”)

Summary

In The Crossroads, you are Tiana/Insert-Name-Here.  When your life starts crumbling around you, you suddenly get an opportunity to make a little money by house-sitting a mansion in the middle of nowhere.  Apparently, the mansion's ownership is in dispute, and this fact seems to have the mansion's only two staff members – the gardener and the steward – on edge.  But, what does any of it have to do with you or your presence here?”

Review

The Writing

One thing that sticks out about the writing is its use of sensory details.  While the prose in What's Your Name? tries to do the art's job for it by describing visuals, the writing in The Crossroads complements its art by describing things like taste, smell, or feel: things that the art can't really convey.  The result is a fuller, more rounded experience.

The story itself is simple and straight-forward: while the nature of the house and servants is concealed from the main character until the end, I wouldn't call its revelation a twist.  There are also no clear stakes until that revelation, and even then, whether those stakes seem high or low just depends on how you feel about the men's situation.  It's about as low-tension as Nacira, and whether this makes it calm and relaxing or dull and boring depends entirely on the player and their mood.

My only real complaint about the writing is that even though the guys have clearly defined and differing personalities, some sections of dialog are obviously copied and pasted from one character to the other.  This is most glaring at the end, when the PC's chosen suitor gives her the exposition.  Even their actions, before and after, are mirrored with no variation.  While I wouldn't describe either of them as being out of character in those moments, it still feels unfair to have them suddenly become interchangeable; a little flourish or two to remind us of their personalities would have made it better, and having the events unfold completely differently for each would have been best, I think.

The Art

It's wonderful to see hand-drawn backgrounds again, and both the backgrounds and the characters are beautifully done.  The art style here is more naturalistic, which is also pleasantly surprising.  I don't dislike the more anime/manga style that most of these games have, mind you; but after so many of them, it's good to be reminded that other art styles exist.

The music and sound effects were nice, but there were many points where all the sounds just ended, leaving dead air. It was a bit off-putting.  Also, the game uses an instrumental version the song “Donna Nobis Pacem” (literally “Give Us Peace”) quite a bit.  The first time I heard it, it seemed thematically appropriate for the conversation being had; by the fifth time I heard it, I realized it was just “pretty harp music” for the game's score.  Ah, well.

The Gameplay

The Crossroads lets you customize your character's appearance a bit, with choices of skin tone, eye color, hair color, and freckles.  These choices show up in the CGs as well as your sprite, although the art gallery only displays the default version.

There is some shaping of the PC's personality, too, throughout the game.  Most of the choices seem to be about establishing your character's inner thoughts, which in turn affect how certain conversations unfold and how the suitors describe you.  While there are some obvious decisions on who to spend time with and whether to leave, I suspect the subtler ones are only for flavor and have little or no impact on the ending: you can be praised just as much for being optimistic as for being blunt and straight-forward.  Overall, this game seems to be more about the journey than the destination.

TL;DR:

The Crossroads is a nice little story with a very relaxed feel to it.  The art is lovely, though it doesn't indulge in any grand vistas, and the gameplay is satisfying with a lot of room for customizing the experience.  The experience is sweet, cozy, and doesn't overstay its welcome.

As usual, this is only my opinion: you may think this game is worth being cooped up in a house all day, or you might want to leave it and never look back.  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Nacira

Author: Klepon Production
Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel
Genre: Literature, Humor
Rating: PG 

Found at vnnacira.weebly.com/

My Scores (Out of 5):

Writing: 2.5
Art: 3
Gameplay: 2
Romance: 2 (“Cute.”)

Summary

Nacira is loosely based on the characters from the Indonesian version of the epic Mahabharata.  You are Nacira Basita, a girl from a remote village who has come to the capital as a substitute dancer for the king's crowning ceremony.  While staying at the palace, you find a box left by your predecessor, with a letter saying that it belongs to the one she loves.  It must be for one of the five princes...but which one?

Review

The Writing

First of all, let me throw some confetti for this game being set in a location that hasn't already been done to death: Indonesia!  I've complained before about the only four countries in these games being America, Japan, Fantasyland, and Ambiguousland.  Seeing more of the world represented makes me ridiculously happy!  Also, I never really knew anything about the Mahabharata, or Indonesian culture at all, and this game made me become curious about both.  Kudos!

That being said, It's obvious that English is not the author's first language, although it's also pretty clear that the writer really tried.  A number of proof-readers are credited, but the final result leaves me wondering if they knew any English either.  Still, the effort is appreciated, and at least I was able to understand the story.

The story itself is a cute, low-tension setup: You've made a friendly bet with Prince Arjuna to find out who is the owner of the box.  This involves asking the brothers about their relationships with the woman who left it behind.  It's interesting without being very intense, and I would have recommended it for all ages if there wasn't an instance of very strong language.

The brothers themselves are nicely varied in their personalities, and their interactions with Nacira are very entertaining.  Character is something that's very easy to screw up, and yet it's perhaps the single most important element in any romance-based work of fiction.  Even though the low-stakes plot could have easily made this story boring, the characters involved lifted it back up to being interesting.

The Art

I found the music interesting, since I've never before heard a score that involved bells so heavily.  This entire game just has a certain look and feel that sets it apart and seems to celebrate its setting. The sprites are well drawn, with the some of the characters looking more Asian and some looking more White; although, there are only two sprites for extras (one male, one female), which gives the impression that the city is populated by clones.  The backgrounds were okay, although I was a little disappointed when a supposed “majestic view of the city” only displayed as a blue sky.  Also, rather than making the CGs the prettiest part of the game (as most games I've played seem to do), Nacira has these parts drawn in a more humorous, cartoony style.

The Gameplay

The gameplay is perhaps Nacira's weakest point.  While there are choices, there is no real branching, since choosing to defy the plot will result in the protagonist eventually changing her mind and going back to the script.  Also, since the plot was framed as a mystery, I expected to be able to choose who to guess the box belonged to, but that's actually not the case.  In fact, it took me a while to understand how the game actually works: you don't actually try to figure out who owns the box.  Instead, you ask about the boy you're most interested in.  At the end, that's who Nacira guesses and, even if she's not right, that's whose ending you get.  It's frustrating and, I think, very unsporting.  Still, at least once you understand all this, it's pretty easy to get the ending you desire.

TL;DR

Nacira is a short, sweet game that shows players part of a culture not often seen in any western media.  The English is poor, but the story is entertaining enough to make up for it.  The main characters are decent-looking.  The gameplay lies about being a mystery, but at least it's easy once you know the actual rules.  Overall, I'd recommend giving this game a try.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ishara

Author: Happy Backwards
Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel (with turn-based combat)
Genre: Nautical, Fantasy
Rating: Teen

Found at happybackwards.com

My Scores (Out of 5):

Writing: 3.5
Art: 3.5
Gameplay: 3.5
Romance: 2.5 (“Meh, I suppose it's all right.”)

Summary

In Ishara, you are...Ishara.  Your family promised you a boat in exchange for severing all ties with them, but when you got enslaved and disappeared for five years, they figured you were dead and so reclaimed it.  Now, they plan to use it as your sister's dowry.  You, however, have other plans.

Review

The Writing

If I may start with the bad news, first: the English in this is awful!  “Guard” is constantly misspelled as “Garde”, tenses shift between present and past at the drop of a hat, and there's a shipload of grammar errors and missing words!  It was also difficult to get used to the sudden changes in POV: one minute we're in Ishara's head, the next, we're in Cendre's.  Since the narration is always in first person, it took me a minute to realize someone else was talking. (Thankfully, the character sprites help sort this out).

On the plus side, the story itself is good and very entertaining.  Talon's dialog is hilarious, yet she never comes across as a mere “comic relief”, being just as awesome and intimidating as Ishara, if not more so.  The back-story is heart-breaking, and the overall tale makes for a great discussion about standing by while  people in power do terrible things: do you keep your head down, buying a bit of temporary and unsure safety, or do you take a stand, causing the entire system to lock its aim onto you?  It's a question that will probably be important until the end of time.

The Art

The art is decent, and I like the music.  The main-menu has a nice water-color look to it.  I find it interesting that Ishara and her sister have both red hair and dark skin (with Grandmama's being even darker).  Since this is a fantasy world, it makes sense that racial traits could and would be mixed-and-matched (unless I've misunderstood and they're simply either biracial or deeply tanned).  Anyway, it's a welcome bit of variety, and I'm whipping out the “non-white protagonist” tag for it.

The Gameplay

For the most part, Ishara a very linear story.  There are very few choice points, one of which determines which story you follow, and one or two (depending on route) which determine how it ends.  There are also a couple bugs where the narration doesn't quite match up to what happened: If you choose to leave Cendre behind, for example, the story still describes her boarding the ship with you.  Considering how few branch points there are, this really should have been corrected.

The combat mechanism livens things up quite a bit.  This is the first visual novel I've ever played that includes such a thing, and I found myself getting kind of addicted.  Unlike most turn-based rpgs I've seen, not every party member gets a turn: rather, each team gets a turn.  This means you have to choose between attacking the enemy or healing a wounded party-member.  Also, since the stun effect only lasts for one turn, this makes the fight even more challenging.  I think the part of the combat that I like best is the AP system: each character has a certain amount of Action Points, and each of their skills cost a certain amount of points to use.  These points slowly regenerate over time, which means that you can have one character wailing on the enemy while another saves up for a group-wide effect.  It invites strategizing, rather than thoughtless spamming of an attack button.  Still, I was miffed that victory had no permanent results, instead only giving bonus AP in the next battle; perhaps I've been spoiled.

TL;DR

Ishara is a great story wrapped in awful grammar, and I don't just mean the pirate-speak.  The art and music are nice.  The gameplay is mostly linear, but has some very challenging combat scenes sprinkled throughout.  Overall, I give it a resounding “Yarrr!”

As usual, mateys, this be one lass's thoughts on the matter. Ye might thank the stars for this game, or ye might want to have it keel-hauled.  Hoist yer colors in the comment section! Yarr!

...I should never do that again.