Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel
My Scores: (Writing: 2.5, Art: 3.5, Gameplay: 2.5)
Found at http://lemmasoft.renai.us/forums/
In <3 , you are a computer named Ime. Your owner has abandoned you, and so you find yourself working at a facility that traps computer viruses. The latest threat going around is the <3 virus, which causes AIs to fall in love!
For some reason, I was expecting a completely different story when I downloaded this. Ah, well. Suffice to say, the <3 virus is basically just a McGuffin that gives you an excuse to get close to people.
I had a hard time getting into the story, personally. The characters and situations felt a bit under-developed; not flat, mind you, but like we weren't given all the necessary data about them, which made it harder to care. There were too many loose ends and unanswered questions. Why was Ime abandoned? What's going on with Vaquita's owner? Who broke in and why? WHY SMASH THE MONITORS?
I'm also not clear on the exact nature of these computer people. The concept seems to be similar to Chobits, where a "personal computer" is basically an android, with laptops and hand-helds corresponding to tinier androids. The computers in <3 , however, seem to be much more human than machine, and I don't just mean in the romantic "Robots can feel!" sense. These "computers" go out for dinner and eat fast food. They get tired, sleep in beds, and have issues with privacy and "funny business", just like humans. Why? Why do they behave like organic life-forms, instead of charging up, running as long as they have access to electricity, and just powering down in a corner when they run out of juice? This is not answered. For the record, robot-girl Ping from MegaTokyo eats food, but this is explained in the strip: It's a necessary function for a Dating Game accessory to have (since dating usually involves eating), and she is able to internally process sugar into electricity. <3 doesn't address the issue at all, unless I missed something crucial; so I'm left with the impression that Ime is just an ordinary girl with amnesia and a CD slot.
The art is anime/manga style. It has some strong points, but the score ends up being pulled down by one stupid detail: female anatomy. The women in this game look like they have oranges glued under their necks, near their armpits. It's jarring. You may scoff, but I find it very distracting, and thus it sinks the art score like a rock.
While quite a few games have a gay/lesbian option, this is the first one I identify as being both GxB and GxG. There are four people you can end the game with, and it's an even split between the boys and the girls. Granted, one girl's ending is platonic, but this is balanced out by one guy's path being so short that it almost feels like a non-standard Game Over.
That guy's path really annoyed me. It was so short, that I barely learned anything about him at all. His ending has Ime comment about him "finally wanting something for himself", but at that point, he hadn't really done anything to establish his character, let alone mark him as being selfless. It was only on other characters' paths that I got to see a glimpse of what the author was talking about. This goes back to what I was saying about the writing; the story doesn't give us all the information we need about the characters.
Also, the game didn't really feel very cohesive to me. There were little inconsistencies, like the fact that one character dies when you don't revisit them, even though visiting them just shows them being saved by someone else. Oh, and this supposedly non-dangerous computer virus will kill you if you don't choose a character's path. All in all, it just didn't line up quite right.
To make a long post short, I was disappointed with <3 . It left too much unexplained; I had a hard time getting into the story and characters, and the boobs on the women seriously need to drop down a few inches (middle of the rib-cage should be about right). Also, while the game's name is fairly clever, its similarity to an incomplete HTML tag caused me to lose half of my saved draft of this post, and that makes me angry. (Edit: Much thanks to my friend Anna for telling me how to get the < / > symbols up.)
Of course, that's just me. You might decide that you like, love it, and/or want some more of it; or maybe you hate this game and think that I wasn't harsh enough on it. Feel free to point this out in the comments!