Availability: Free, Download
My Scores: (Writing: 4.5, Art: 4, Gameplay: 4) out of 5
Found at http://www.unbrokenhours.com/
In Heartstring Bugs, you are Elly/Insert-Name-Here. It's your second year of high-school, and you suddenly find yourself the protector of a baby computer virus who has come to Earth to do a report. This virus, named Vi, has hacked your DNA so that you can now see colors representing people's emotions and attractiveness. Needless to say, high-school just got a lot more interesting.
There's an old saying which goes “God is in the detail.” While many other games have a high-school as the setting, this one stands out for making that setting come to life. This isn't just another dating sim with uniforms and classroom backdrops; in Heartstring Bugs, you'll find yourself dealing with everything from grades, to parents, to parties, to bullies, to people obsessed with sparkly vampires. The various random events further heighten the experience, making it feel like days in the life of a high-schooler. It all feels so real, aliens and rock-stars notwithstanding.
What's more, the characters themselves are rich and full of dimension. They're more than just your standard high-school types, such as jock, nerd, or cheerleader: each character, whether a datable boy or just one of Elly's friends, has one or two quirks that go against all expectation, and a personality that really brings that character to life. I found myself becoming emotionally invested in every path I followed, including the girls' friendship storylines, and feeling for every character. What's more, these characters don't just fade into the background until you pick one to focus on: their personalities shine through every time they appear on the set, and if you know what to look for, you can spot cryptic allusions to the secrets and drama of their storylines.
I must also salute the makers for choosing to set this piece in Canada. As I've mentioned before, certain cultures seem to dominate the playing-field when it comes to settings for visual novels and dating sims. Maybe this is finally changing. Anyway, this game does as good a job of immersing us in Canada as it does of immersing us in high-school, with Thanksgiving in October, provincial exams, and a newcomer being unused to the cold. As far as I can tell, they forgot to mention poutine and hilariously high taxes; but then, you can't have everything.
The art in this game is quite good, and some of the CGs are absolutely scrumptious. The music is also nice, and I like the fact that every character has their own leitmotif. Even more, I like the fact that this game takes a common artistic convention and turns it into the story's premise: not only do you see pink bubbles around someone pretty and black lines behind someone nervous, but the protagonist herself sees them, too.
There is one annoying issue, though: before playing this game, you have to make sure your graphics drivers are completely updated. Otherwise, you may experience some frustrating graphics glitches that can make the game very hard to play. It's a major nuisance, but at least the author addresses this issue on the game's website, and once it's fixed, it shouldn't bother you again.
The gameplay method of choosing a week's worth of activities in order to change stats and stress brings to mind Princess Maker (and other games based thereon). Since Heartsting Bugs covers three years, it's certainly a lot shorter than, say, Prince Maker: Braveness. Allowing for failed activities, this three-year span seems to be enough to get your stats where they need to be, with the third year being mostly superfluous (much like in real high-school!).
I like how when shopping, different clothes are available at different seasons. Not only does it kind of mirror the way fashion changes in real life, but it adds an extra element of challenge, since in this game, what you wear matters. I also love the outfit system: certain items, when worn together, give your look a theme which may appeal to your boy or repulse him, depending on his tastes. What's more, tossing a jacket over your outfit can change its look completely, meaning you'll probably end up trying everything with everything else at least once, just to see what happens.
This game hits all three points of the Dating Sim Trinity: Talking, Gifts, and Dating; but it weaves them in very naturally. At any time, you might bump into someone at school or while out and about and be able to talk to them; and of course, there's always the chit-chat that happens on a date. Gifts come up on birthdays and at Christmas. Once you know someone well enough, they give you their number, and then you can call them up ask them out; they might say yes or no, and depending on how close you are, they might even call you. The whole system is very organic, and puts as much emphasis on your impression of a person as on that person's impression of you, making this the most natural and lifelike dating sim I have ever reviewed since starting this blog.
Heartstring Bugs is amazingly true to life, despite its supernatural/sci-fi elements. The characters are believable as people, and their problems are handled plausibly. The art could be just a little bit tighter in places, but it still manages to hit the high-notes, and the game is so rich and nuanced that it really puts the “simulation” in Dating Simulation. With at least 5 guys and a lot of surprises, this is one game that you'll want to play over and over. I actually want to thank the folks at Unbroken Hours for making this, and for making it free. If the art were just a wee bit tighter, I'd say sell it and make a fortune.
As usual, this is all my opinion, and we may have different tastes. You might think this game is Cute and Sexy, or Bizarre and Awful. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. :)