Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Zayay

Author: psyAlera
Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: Teen

My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 1
Art: 3.5
Gameplay: 2
Romance: N/A

Summary


In Zayay, you are insert-name-here. You're in a place you don't recognize, with no memory of where you were trying to go. A strange bunny-man offers to help you remember by showing you around the area. What could possibly go wrong?

Review


The Writing


“What on earth did I just read?!” is not a good question for a story to leave the audience with. After several playthroughs, the only information I had gained about the world and the characters in it is that there was some kind of war, there are some kind of gods, and there's some kind of demon bunny named Lord Zayo Byron who sells bones. Also, the woods have a nymph in them. This wasn't because the story was confusing, exactly, but because nothing of substance really happens with any of the characters. Information is so minimal that one gets the impression that there *is* no story, nor any real sense of character beyond “here is a creepy rabbit-man”. Who are you, and why did you come to this place? Unknown. Why does Zayo do what he does? Unknown. What does he like? Fear? Dream about? Unknown. Unless, of course, you get all the endings and unlock the out-of-story character interview in the “extra” section, because heaven forbid something as important as characterization be anywhere in the actual story, and personally, I think the revelations given in this “interview” just make the character even flatter.

Furthermore, the game seems to outright mock players of romance games. At the risk of spoilers, there is one ending where Zayo flat-out insults the protagonists for expecting a romantic outcome, using the phrase “I hate your kind”. It's easy to see this as the author trying to mock the player for wanting to play a dating game and get a romantic ending from it. Granted, the fully-revealed twist makes things a little clearer, but again, the most information we get is outside of the actual story and so locked away that I'm a bit upset at having already used the “bewareof the leopard” quote.

The Art


One thing I'll say about Lord Zayo: poorly-written though he may be, at least he is well-drawn. The eyes especially were pretty captivating. Everything else, though, was kind of “meh”. The background of the forest was kind of interesting in that it had several layers which rocked back and forth, giving it a nice surreal sense that evoked the wind blowing through the trees. Over-all, though, the actual shapes and figures in the backgrounds were very simple to the point of feeling lazy. The music was nice, but I didn't really feel that it connected with the story or setting in any meaningful way. Like everything else in Zayay, it simply was.

The Gameplay


Perhaps the biggest (maybe even only) draw about Zayay is the randomized dialog which makes it so that no two play-throughs are exactly the same. In one session, Zayo first approaches you; in another, you first approach him. He may ask your name, or nick-name you himself. Responses to questions may be different, even contradicting answers given in earlier games. Of course, this actually worsens the problem of getting to know the characters and the world since information isn't just revealed, but changed.

Aside from the randomized dialog, though, the actual game itself is pretty linear and boring. There are five locations, and you will visit all of them, once and only once. There are three choices at the end, leading to four (technically three) possible endings, so while your choices apparently do have an effect, it's really only minimal. There is a sharp twist to the game that really doesn't become fully clear until you've unlocked and seen the extra, and frankly, it just doesn't seem worth it to me.

TL;DR


Zayay strikes me as a rather gimmicky waste of time. There is a twist on the otome-game genre and some interesting, randomized variations in the dialog, but the game is otherwise on rails, the characters and setting are never really fleshed out in any meaningful way, and while the characters are well-drawn, the backgrounds are pretty lazily done. It's not romance, it's not horror, and without the locked character-interview, it's not comprehensible.


But then, maybe you disagree. Do you think Zayay is cute, or does it just leave you wondering why you came here? Feel free to discuss in the comments.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Romance Is Dead

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

My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 4
Art: 3.5
Gameplay: 4
Romance: 2.5 (“With endings this sad, it's not just dead: it's buried!”)

Found at lemmasoft forums

Summary


In Romance Is Dead, you are Madeline “Maddie” Washington, a biology student at the University of New Orleans. You've come to the conclusion that romance is dead. Perhaps it's a good thing, then, that you've now found yourself in the company of three guys who are also dead! ….Wait, what?

Review


The Writing


Major props to this game for being the first one I've ever played (much less reviewed) that has a black protagonist. I point this out because most of these games tend to feature characters who are either white or “Asian but with white skin and fair hair”, and I'm not the only one who's noticed this trend, either. Perhaps the tide is finally turning! What's more, this isn't just a palette decision: the issue of race, and the language and ideas associated with it, actually gets brought up a bit, just as it was in A Due.

I also enjoy how this game has such a strong sense of place. This isn't just “Anytown, USA”: this is New Orleans. It isn't just a school, either: it's the sciences section of UNO. The amount of detail given in the story makes me inclined to believe that the creator(s) either came from this area or did lots and lots of research, because it all feels very rich and real. Even the state's history is taken to account for the characters' back-stories, as voo-doo and segregation and the Louisiana Purchase all play a part in making these characters who they are.

The story is also strongly dated, which is a bold and often-risky choice: pop-culture items like Buffy the Vampire-Slayer or The Walking Dead are often discussed, and we are reminded, quite firmly, that this is the 21st century. A lot of works set in the present try to avoid committing to a specific point in time, since time is always moving. Time will tell if this decision will preserve the work or make it rot.

The Art


I was very surprised at how cartoony the art-style was. It's not like anime, either, but more like something you would see on Western-made television. While it's not bad, it does seem to me like a style more suited to a comedic piece than a romantic one. The backgrounds are just filtered photos, which was a little bit disappointing when it's so clear that somebody involved in this production can actually draw. The music is nice, being a little bit creepy and a little bit jazzy and quite a good fit, though perhaps not quite the auditory match-made-in-heaven that Cafe Rouge struck gold with.

The Gameplay


The balance in this game felt perfect to me, having a good amount of branch-off points and dialog changes without actually carrying the story too far away from the main plot-line. All of the choices make a difference, both in the ending and how you get there, yet the anchor-points in the plot keep it from becoming a sprawled-out mess. The mystery of Adam's death and zombification always remains at the center, but how this gets resolved and who you end up with at the end is deliciously left open.

TL;DR


Romance is Dead is a very well-made game. The art could be a little better in some ways, but the writing more than picks up the slack for it, and the whole thing is assembled beautifully in a way that encourages lots of replay. Overall, I enjoyed this game quite a bit and look forward to seeing what else Tall Tales Productions comes out with.


Of course, this is only my opinion. Does this game capture your heart, or does it just stink like a pickled corpse? Let us pick your braaaaaaaaiiins in the comment section.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Number Days Sim Date

Author: Pacthesis
Availability: Free, Online/Browser-based
Genre: Supernatural
Rating: Teen


My Scores (out of 5):

Writing: 4.5
Art: 4.5
Gameplay: 4.5
Romance: 4 (“Ooh, now we're talking!”)



Summary


In Number Days Sim Date, you are Evelyn/Insert-Name-Here. You've gone with your friends to the grand opening of a new theme park, only to suddenly find yourself alone in a park that's now surrounded by a glass wall. A few other people are in the same predicament as you, and you've all gotten the same cryptic text message on your phones: “Your time here will end when your number reaches zero.” Your number is Twelve...


Review


The Writing


First of all, the plot is amazing in both concept and execution. The story is like an episode of The Twilight Zone, and I can easily picture it being adapted into a book or movie. In fact, if anyone reading this knows Pacthesis (or, better yet, is Pacthesis), I'd like to point out that the indie game Five Nights at Freddy's has already made such a transition, so it might be time to get an agent and/or publisher and claim some of that sweet, sweet Internet Money.

The characters are very distinct and fleshed out, each possessing flaws, passions, and quirks that come up again and again in both the cut-scenes and the dialog-trees. No two are interchangeable, and even characters with similar traits (weirdness, intelligence, shyness, etc.) express those traits in very different ways. This helps make the endings very satisfying and emotional, both in story-mode and free-mode.

I greatly enjoy how the plot itself isn't just flavor, but is instead used to showcase the characters' personalities by letting us see how they operate under pressure. Who takes charge? Who follows? Who tries to solve things by himself? I also like how every character's path ties into the game's over-arching theme of “Be Yourself, and Accept Others for Who They Are”, which is a good message. I do wish, however, that the dialog-trees were a little more synced up with the main story-line, since characters sometimes reference things that either haven't been introduced yet or were already solved.


The Art


Not only is the art well-drawn, but I'm very impressed by the level of effort that clearly went into it. Dialog is accompanied by a profile-picture with changing expressions, and the main part of the game features animated figures, decent backgrounds, and some very lovely CGs. I also like how the lighting changes from day to night, and the way inventory items appear in the backpack as actual items rather than just abstract icons of equal size. The music is fun, too.

The Gameplay


Number Days offers two modes of play: story-mode and free-mode. This makes it easier to go back and get alternate endings without the main plot getting in the way. Story-mode also offers chapter-select, and each section begins with helpful tips on how to play.

Like Cafe Rouge, much of the game involves wandering through the map, as opposed to just selecting a location and being magically teleported. Unlike Cafe Rouge, though, there is a handy mini-map to consult if you get lost. Also, as in MemoryDays and HeavenlyPlaygirl Dating Sim, characters' locations often change; however, the relocations are much more frequent and random, here, which can be very annoying when you need to find someone.

The classic Dating Sim Interactions of Talk/Gift/Date are all present and all affect the game, but with interesting side-effects that I won't discuss because of spoilers. There is also a point-and-click element of finding small objects scattered across the map, which presents an extra challenge. Strangely, there is also a set of...non-minigames? I'm not sure what to call them, since they're an activity that you can do to get tickets for prizes, but “playing” them really just amounts to rolling a die to see how well your character did. It took me a while to realize what was going on, and then, since I usually hate mini-games anyway, I wasn't sure how I should feel about it. Luckily, nothing about this section is truly necessary anyway, unless you really want to give your new friend an expensive present.

TL;DR


Two words: Magnum Opus. Number Days is one of the best games I've ever reviewed and may well be Pacthesis' crowning achievement. The plot and characters are well-developed, the art is lovely and brings the story to life, and the game-play is both elaborate and well-balanced. Most of Pacthesis' earlier games have struck me as being slightly experimental, and this game is where the previous experiments finally pay off.


What do you think, though? Does this game deserve all the happiness, or is its number up? The comment section is open today, with free admission and no height-restrictions!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Memory Days Sim Date

Author: Pacthesis
Availability: Free, Online/Browser-based
Rating: PG

My Scores (out of 5):


Writing: 2
Art: 4
Gameplay: 3.8
Romance: 2.5 (“Middle of the road, maybe”)

Summary


In Memory Days Sim Date, you are Ai/Insert-Name-Here. You used to only come to West Cigam for the summer, but a change in your father's career has resulted in you moving here, permanently. Now, you have the opportunity to let those people you met in passing become friends...or more. What memories will you make, now?

Review


The Writing


Plot-wise, there isn't really a lot to this game; you just attend school and talk to boys until summer break comes. What makes this especially annoying is that the intro seems to tease so much more, with cryptic references to weird happenings in West Cigam, and a character whose cousin has gone missing. Unfortunately, the only “weirdness” that you get to actually see is a cameo by Xolga in one character's route. Even the theme of Memory seems a little bit shoe-horned to me, since while memories and making memories are frequently referenced in the dialog, there doesn't seem to really be any call for it: nobody is on a quest to remember or forget something, memories do not provide a key to any plot-point, nobody's personality is defined by a memory...it just seems to be rolled onto the game like a coat of paint.

The characters themselves have some pretty interesting drama in their back-stories, but these don't really come into play at all until the end of the game. The dialog in the talk options is mostly small-talk that doesn't really give more than a hint of their personalities, and the event scenes range from sweet to mundane. All in all, I find this to be Pacthesis' blandest work in terms of writing, with a lot of smoke but very little fire.

The Art


The drawing style is about on par with Pacthesis' other work, but what really makes the art here stand out is the extra effort put into the technical things like scenery changes, wardrobe changes, and animated bits. Guys will change their clothes depending on where they are, and the backgrounds will change with the seasons. You can even decorate your room a bit, which I thought was a nice touch. It's a very nice level of variety that most games don't usually have, and I greatly appreciate it.

The Gameplay


I get the impression, between the art and the gameplay, that this game was really more of a “technological experiment” of sorts, since it's very different from all of the author's earlier games and has a lot more moving parts. Guys change their locations every day, the shops change their wares every week, and it's actually possible to break up with a guy, after which you can't talk to him for a while. Also, your actions are limited not only by energy, but by mood, which almost prevents exploitation of the work-food mechanic. There is also a need to spend some time studying, since failing one of the periodic tests will result in a sharp drop in mood and energy.

The overall format is actually closer to a visual novel than a dating sim, since the relationships with the guys are based entirely on events fixed in time (and choices made at those events), while talking, gifts, and dating don't actually matter at all. Granted, having a good conversation with your guy (or going on a date) can boost your mood, but they do nothing to actually raise your relationship and can be safely ignored altogether. Mostly, you just need to go to the right location on the right day and take things from there.

TL;DR


Memory Days does have some impressive features, though the writing is pretty thin and, partly as a result of this, the gameplay seems to drag a little bit. I can't really call it a bad game, though, since it's very clear that a lot of effort was put into its creation and, in many areas, this effort pays off. It's a mixed bag in my opinion, but overall, I think it's worth checking out.

So, am I being too harsh on a good game, or too light on a bad game? Is this game a cherished memory, or just a weird thing best forgotten? Go ahead and tell me in the comments!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Lads in Distress

Author: Catfish Crew
Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel
Rating: Teen

My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 4
Art: 5
Gameplay: 3
Romance: 3.5 (“A good notch or two above actual fairy-tales”)

Summary


In Lads in Distress, you are Princess Charming of Lunar Kingdom. You're skilled in magic and have quite a bit of a hero complex, which is why you have no problem with entering into a loveless political marriage to help your struggling kingdom. Of course, you still get to pick your groom, although three mysterious princes have been emphatically vetoed by your parents and it seems all of them need some kind of rescuing. Hmm.....

Review


The Writing


How do I love this game? Let me count the ways: I love that it flips the genders on classic stories, putting the girl in the position of the dashing hero. I love how Princess Charming manages to avoid crossing the threshold of Mary-Sueism by having her arrogance and savior complex actually treated as character flaws to be overcome. I love how each prince is recognizably based on a fairy-tale. I love how it twists the fairy-tales enough that, even if you're familiar with the story each prince is based on, you'll still be caught off-guard. I also love that Mer is clearly based on the original Hans Christian Anderson version of The Little Mermaid, as opposed to a certain popular 90's movie.

Granted, the script could have been proof-read a little better, and there might be a little bit of fridge-logic in one of the paths, but overall, the writing is pretty good. I was impressed that this story didn't romanticize royal marriages the way many fantasy stories often do, with love-at-first-sight and beautiful commoners becoming royalty because of their shoe-size; rather, we get the much more pragmatic truth of royals marrying for political reasons that have nothing to do with love, looks, or foot-wear. Yet despite this unromantic premise (or maybe because of it?), the relationships themselves are very sweet in how they unfold, with something that started out so cold and calculating slowly growing into friendship, trust, and love over time.

The Art


After much thought, I could not justify giving the art score anything less than a perfect 5. Calling it “beautiful” just isn't enough. It's...sumptuous! Everything, every artistic aspect, is clean, perfect, and of a professional quality. The backgrounds are gorgeous and richly detailed, with a wide variety of locations that don't “recycle the set”, so to speak. The music is exquisite, orchestral, and perfectly meshes with the game's setting and tone. The characters themselves are lovely and intricately detailed, with a very broad range of surprisingly nuanced expressions that match up well with the descriptions in the text. Even the color palette works on a level I don't usually notice, giving each character a distinct look that reflects something about them while still harmonizing with each other and the background. If this artwork were a cup of coffee,even the saucer would be perfect!

The Gameplay


Alas, I wasn't really sure what score I should give the gameplay, since while it doesn't really do anything “wrong”, I still came away feeling a little unsatisfied. To give just the facts: there are three potential suitors in this game, each with two endings (although they don't fall neatly into the labels of “good” vs “bad” endings, with one dark exception). After the initial three-pronged split, each path is pretty linear, with your choices mostly just adjusting subtle stats to determine which ending you get. Mer's route spiced things up by having options appear, disappear, or have a different outcome depending on your past choices, which I thought made things more exciting, but for the most part, there's only a narrow range of change in each route. (I was also privately disappointed when the fairy companion didn't turn out to be a surprise fourth suitor, but this did not factor into the score at all).

I feel that the general lack of any bad endings takes most of the risk and tension out of the game. While this can be a major plus for someone who just wants to relax in a comforting story, like the equivalent of a bowl of chicken soup, it's a drawback to anyone looking for more of a challenge. The value of a victory is mostly based on the threat of defeat, and without any real chance of losing, it falls to the main story itself to shoulder the burden of getting the reader invested. Of course, this is only a review of the NaNoRenO version, and it's possible that the future extended version will turn out better.

TL;DR


Lads in Distress is a fantastically beautiful game that turns classic fairy-tales completely on their heads. The game mostly stays on its rails with only a few endings, only one of which can be called “bad”, so you generally can't lose. Overall, I think it's very worth playing.


What do you think? Is this game so good it leaves you speechless, or does it deserve the kiss of death? Let down your hair in the comments section and tell us your thoughts.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Memento Dears

Author: OtomePalace
Availability: Free, Online (Demo) / Free, Download (Full Version)
Rating: PG

My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 4
Art: 3.8
Gameplay: 3.8
Romance: 3.5 (“Pretty good”)

Summary


In Memento Dears, you are Melodie. You've lost your memory after a mysterious hit-and-run, much to the consternation of your family and friends. As you try to put the pieces back together, you get the impression that something important happened with someone right before the accident...but who was it?

Review


The Writing


The writing is good, save for a few English errors here and there (such as “I too tired”). It's kind of ironic, considering that an early line of dialog has one character correcting another's grammar. Regardless, the story and characters are good, and the premise itself is very interesting.

What I really like is the strength and cohesion of the theme in this story: Bachelor #1 comes to strongly represent owning or clinging to one's past, while Bachelor #2 represents abandoning the past and embracing the future. It raises an interesting question: how important is the past? Granted, the hidden third Bachelor doesn't really fit as well into this theme; his story-arc is more about fear and bravery, and while one could argue that “bravery is needed to face the past/future, blah blah blah...” I just don't think it meshes all that well.

Also, the back-story does not change based on which course you take. I like that kind of consistency. I also like how different characters and paths contribute different pieces of the puzzle.

The Art


The art is anime/manga style and, while not flawless, it is rather decent. I like the quality and variety of the background music, and it's nice how the game uses sound-effects to let you know when something good or bad has happened.

The Gameplay


This game seems to perfectly illustrate the saying, “Aim for the moon: if you miss, you'll still land among the stars.” It's a very ambitious game, featuring stats, an explorable game-world, randomly-appearing characters, etc. In some ways, its complexity reminds me a little of Heartstring Bugs, especially since both are centered around a school. That being said, though, I do have a couple of major complaints.

The first and biggest flaw, in my eyes, is the Fake Gay Option. As I've said before: I have no problem with authors keeping it strictly dudes, but it's very infuriating to mislead your players (purposefully or accidentally) into thinking a NPC is obtainable when, in fact, she's not, and in a game this long, it's even more heinous. In the Stats page (more on that later), Suzie's relationship meter looks identical to those of the boys, even being marked with hearts at either end. We have the same talk/gift/invite options for her as we do for the guys, and in one outing scenario, she even asks “Is this a date?” and we have the option to respond “Yes”. What else is an unwary player supposed to think? Yet it isn't until the end of this very long game that we find out there is no ending with Suzie other than “You failed to get a guy. Your friend tries to cheer you up, but it just isn't the same.” At least Heartstring Bugs had a Best Friends Ending with the two girls that, while not romantic in the slightest, still provided a satisfying pay-off to all the time and energy invested in those relationships.

There are at least three better ways that this could have been handled:
  1. Have a gay option
  2. Make it clear from the interface that there is no gay option
  3. Have a Platonic Best Friends ending.
Whatever you do, though, don't make the player completely waste her time.

My second-biggest complaint is the difficulty in finding the Stats and Inventory pages. I eventually found them in the Options tab, in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”. The good news is that vital information like your energy-level and today's date are on the main game-screen, plain as day, so you're not completely flying blind.

Finally, I'm a little annoyed with how difficult it is to report back to the parents after I've purchased the items they sent me to get. It's the one instance where the “randomly-appearing characters” feature seems more frustrating than clever. Fortunately, it doesn't actually hurt the game in the long-run, since the amount of money involved is small and hardly missed, and interacting with the parents isn't really important otherwise.

Despite these flaws, I still found this game very enjoyable to play. Please note that it's apparently the first chapter of a series, although it stands alone just fine. I have not yet been able to track down any mention of the sequel, but I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for it.

TL;DR

Memento Dears has a lot going for it. The writing is good with a cohesive story and a strong use of its theme, the art and music are nice, and while the gameplay isn't perfect, it's still impressive in both what it does and what it tries to do. Overall, I strongly recommend playing this, and since the demo can be played online, you can try it yourself right now and see what you think.

In fact, what do you think? Does this game have a bright future, or is it something best left in the past? Share your thoughts and recollections in the comments!



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

My Superhero Boyfriend

Author: ?
Availability: Free, Online/Broswer-Based
Format: Arcade Game
Genre: Superhero
Rating: Everyone


My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 0.5
Art: 2.5
Gameplay: 2
Romance: 0.005 (“Well, there is kissing in it...”)

Summary


Back when I was first debating the idea of giving these game reviews an official Romance score, I mentioned that my personal idea of romance probably involved Batman somehow. I actually wasn't kidding, so I recently decided to find out for sure if any superhero dating sims existed. Instead, I found this.

My Superhero Boyfriend has nothing to do with being rescued from certain death at the last minute by a good-looking guy with strong morals and a sharp wit. It has nothing to do with dangerous secrets coming between loved ones, the constant threat of being discovered, or the complexities of leading a double-life. It has nothing to do with the difficulties of keeping a date when one of you might be called away at any time, or shouldering the heavy burdens of a job where failure can mean that people die. No, it is none of these things.

What is it, then?

...You walk down a hall, dodging guys, until you reach the one guy at the end of the hall.

Okay, so it's not exactly the kind of game I was hoping for, but let's look at it for what it is:

Review


The Writing


I almost gave this a zero, since there's no real story and no real characters. The “boyfriend” at the end of the hall could very easily be replaced with a ham sandwich. However, the game does at least try to pretend there's a reason for everything that's happening, so I had to concede half a point.

Seriously, though: awesome kissing somehow causes objects to fly into the air and try to hit you? Yes, I know the superhero genre is inherently a blank check for weirdness, but this hurts my brain. At least pretend it's telekinesis gone hay-wire, or something!

Also, there's a different guy at the end of every level, implying our main character changes boyfriends more often than she changes her clothes.

The Art


The graphic art is pretty decent. The obstacle-guys are apparently super-villains or something, given the costumes, and there's at least a little variety in how they look. The music, however, is an extremely short loop of annoying ear-kryptonite which strips the art score of its powers.

The Gameplay


Well, it's simple and easy enough: your character just walks forward, and you use the arrow keys to dodge the guys coming at you. If they hit you, you mash the space-bar in order to repel them with your laser-vision. Finally, you reach the end, and have to click a bunch of random objects. It's basically the kind of game you play when you just need to veg out for five minutes.

TL;DR


My Superhero Boyfriend...exists. The art is okay but with annoying music, the writing is virtually non-existent (and what's there is kind of stupid), and the game-play is mediocre casual-game fare. Worse things exist on the internet, and it's better than getting hit with a shovel.

Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments. Personally, I'm off to go read some Lois & Clark fanfic and wonder why FNAF apparently got a dating-sim before the Justice League.

Yes, FNAF.


WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE INTERNE—vermind. See you next week: same GGR time, same GGR channel!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A Due

Availability: Free, Download
Format: Visual Novel
Rating: Teen 


My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 4.8
Art: 4.8
Gameplay: 3.5
Romance: 4 ( “Why are all these onions here?!” )

Summary


In A Due, you are Sona Song-- a punky slacker whose Father inexplicably left you his orchestra. You wouldn't actually care, except that you only get his money if you attend their practice sessions, and you happen to owe a lot to some shady people. One day, though, you run into a strange fellow named Hao; he doesn't speak English, and you don't speak Chinese, but you can tell he's very upset with the quality of your orchestra's playing. Can the language barrier be over come by the language of Music...or even the language of Love?

Review


The Writing


This is one of the few games I've played through that made me want to cry. Granted, there are a couple clich├ęs and I groaned when I found out the protagonist of a Music-themed story was punnily named Song, but for the most part, this story really stuck a chor—um, hit home for me, especially since I have a music background myself. The musician's interactions with each other and their conductors really rang true (minus the violence and chair-throwing), and the themes of music's universality and how it brings people together just went straight to my soul.

I also like the fact that not only do we have a Chinese protagonist (perhaps the first one I've seen in any of these games), but her being Chinese isn't just “decorative”. Sona has to deal with racism, people assuming she can speak Chinese, and finally: the language barrier. Language itself is almost a character in this story, and the theme of language is blended exquisitely with the theme of music.

On top of all that, it really is a touching story with good humor and emotional moments, and there's major character development in both the protagonist and the love interest. I became very interested in these characters and their bond, and when the game was over, the story still lingered on in my head. I needed more. That's usually a sign of good writing. (As a bonus, this game also teaches you Chinese and Italian! What more could you want?)

The Art


The backgrounds are photographs, and the characters are decently drawn in the anime/manga style that's pretty standard for otome games. I got a kick out of the buttons being shaped like musical notes: that was a nice touch. Also, the chibi drawings between chapters were pretty cute. Another graphic detail I really like is the way that whenever Hao speaks Chinese, the words Sona actually knows have their transliterations written above the character: it helps to put us inside Sona's head (Plus, you get to learn Chinese words this way!).

The real show-stealer, though, is the music. You'd expect a game with a music theme to have a decent score, and A Due does not disappoint! Several Classical pieces play throughout the story, as well as a couple numbers that are a bit more Rock. As a nice touch, the background music even correctly corresponds to the songs name-dropped in the script: when Sona decides to have the orchestra play the theme from Romeo and Juliet, guess what you hear in the next rehearsal scene? Also, the story's own theme song is probably going to stay in my head for a long time.

The Gameplay


The gameplay is mostly linear; while your choices do affect which ending you get, the story itself doesn't really branch out the way Frozen Essence or Requiem of the Abyss do. That said, there are three endings, and getting all of them unlocks an epilogue. While not the shortest game, it can be totally completed in a day.

TL;DR


A Due is a beautiful story about language, music, and the need to love what you're doing. It's beautiful in every way, with good writing, decent art, lovely music, and clear, straight-forward gameplay. This might be one of the best games I've reviewed; it's definitely one of my favorites, although that might be partly due to my own personal biases.


What do you think, though? Is this a game you'd play con amore, or do you just want to smash a guitar over it? Feel free to compose your thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Heart Rate Dating Sim

Author: Skye033
Availability: Free / Online
Format: Dating Sim
Rating: Everyone

My Scores (Out of 5):

Writing: 1.5
Art: 2
Gameplay: 2
Romance: 1 (“No Sale.”)

Summary


In Heart-Rate Dating Sim, you are...You. The bell has rung, and now you face a critical decision: go to class, or ditch school and head elsewhere?

Review


Writing


There isn't much to say about the writing, as there isn't much *to* the writing. It's pretty short, simple, and straight-forward. The “plot”, such as it is, is that you decide where to go, meet a boy, and try to persuade him to go out with you. I will say, however, that the title (and title-page) are very misleading as this game has nothing to do with hearts, heart-problems, hospitals, or even Love if you stop and think about it since the relationship only progresses as far as “What's your name? You're cute. Want to go out?”

Art


Well, the music is upbeat, and there are backgrounds. I don't really have any praise for the artwork, though I've definitely seen worse. Much worse.

Gameplay


This game is very quick to get through. There's no mucking about with stats, time-limits, or alternate paths; if you say the wrong thing, the game ends. That's it. Its simplicity is almost beautiful, actually.

TL;DR



Heart-Rate Dating Sim is definitely a “casual gaming” experience, as it doesn't really offer anything deep or innovative to the genre. It might be good for introducing someone to the concept of dating-sims, etc., as it is very brief and easy to understand, though I doubt more experienced players will get much out of it. It needs a different title, though, because come on.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Charms of Lavender Blue

Author: Waffrus
Availability: Free/Online
Format: Visual Novel
Rating: PG


My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 3
Art: 3
Gameplay: 2
Romance: 1.5 (“Who is this guy, again?”)

Summary


In Charms of Lavender Blue, you are Nabi. Your family is under a curse that causes your first love to either kill you or die trying. Luckily, you have a magic charm to keep the curse at bay! You move back to your old neighborhood after years away, only to find that your childhood friend, Pierce, is now avoiding you. Seriously, what's up with that guy?

Review


The Writing


For starters, I like the premise. Instead of a setup where the protagonist has to find love, we are presented with a situation where love itself is dangerous. It's an interesting obstacle. Unfortunately, I don't think the premise is fully exploited; the only time the curse ever really becomes relevant (aside from encouraging Nabi to join the jewelry club) is in a flashback. We never really feel the pressure to stay away from Pierce, nor is the reason for his behavior apparent until the end. The danger is never made real in the course of the story, which is a shame, since it seems like it would make for a more exciting romance than the usual fare.

The other disappointment is that we don't really get to know Pierce or Nabi all that well. How much of Pierce's disposition was a put-on, and what is his real personality like? What does Nabi actually like to do, given that she mainly joined lapidary out of necessity? Why do they like each other? Is he smart? Is he funny? Do they have anything in common (besides being in this club)? At least in Lady of the Castle, we found out that the Prince likes flowers, misses his mother, and wants Elise to be happy. With Pierce, it's just “He was happy once, now he's grumpy. The End!” Oh, and he doesn't like little kids. That's something, I guess.

The Art


The art is very pretty with less of the facial problems that marred Lady of the Castle. Waffrus's strongest point seems to be hair and clothing, especially the latter: Waffrus has a knack for showing off the softness and folds of cloth, and I'm actually a little impressed by that since it's an area I struggle with. The backgrounds, while simple, have a painted look, and my only nitpick is that Nabi's room seems to have a dirt floor (or possibly straw). The music is nice, too.

The Gameplay


Once again, I had to deal with that funny little “I” cursor that indicates I'm about to type on a button instead of click on it. It's annoying, but not exactly a tragedy. My greater concern is that the choices you make don't really affect the game beyond the next page. After that page is over, the plot snaps back onto its one track with no lasting repercussions from what you had chosen. Nabi even talks to Pierce about “that thing you did”, simultaneously referring to the scene where he kissed her and the alternate scene where he sort-of hugged her; it doesn't matter to the game which option you chose. The only choices that determine which ending you get are the obvious decisions of whether to join the club and whether to enter a relationship with Pierce. Everything else could essentially be replaced with “White or Wheat?”

There is only one flaw that I find to be completely intolerable, however: a Double-Negative Question. I'm not speaking as a grammar nazi, here; this question seriously tripped me up. The question was “Is that a No?” and my options were “Yes” or “No”. I chose "No", to indicate “No, that wasn't a 'No',” i.e. answering the current question. However, the game did not parse it that way, instead translating it as “No is absolutely my previous answer, in case you weren't certain.” This kind of ambiguity is a very serious pitfall to have in your game, as it can unfairly rob the player of their ending because they thought you meant something different. As it happens, this decision didn't impact the ending at all (see above), but it still can cause lots of undue frustration.

Please, authors: check your dialog options for ambiguity. If one option can be read as meaning something very different, or if both options are essentially thesame, or if there is no context for the player to know which optionis true or which is a lie, then it may be time to re-write. Our choices should have meaning, and that can only happen when we are purposely and knowingly making that choice. We don't have to know what that choice will lead to—that is, after all, part of the fun—but we must know if we are choosing to lie, insult, reject, accept. Ambiguity hurts that experience, so please do your best to be clear at all times.

TL;DR


Charms of Lavender Blue is okay, but doesn't really reach its full potential. The premise is interesting, though the characters are a little under-developed for my taste, and there isn't any tension despite a lethal curse supposedly hanging over the protagonist's head. The plot is mostly linear with only the briefest of detours after choices, one choice being infuriatingly ambiguous. Overall, I give it a “meh”.


Of course, this is just my (admittedly fussy) opinion, and yours may differ. You might think this game is just charming, or it may leave you cursing. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Lady of the Castle

Author: Waffrus
Availability: Free, Online 
Format: Visual Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: Everyone





My Scores (Out of 5):


Writing: 2.5
Art: 3
Gameplay: 2
Romance: 2 (Eh, I wasn't totally feeling it.)

Summary


In Lady of the Castle, you are Lady Elise. You're celebrating your birthday with your cousin, tutor, and maid when you get a letter from your uncle, the king, informing you that you are to marry the prince of Rozale in two weeks. Happy Birthday, indeed!

Review


The Writing


After the darkness of Saccharine and Reverie, it was kind of nice to get back into a classic “meet and fall in love” romance game. Lady of the Castle is a bit of cute fluff, although it clearly doesn't quite pull off all of the ideas that the author had. The difficulty with anything this short is that the author has a very limited space in which to parcel out all the important information about the characters, setting, and plot. It's important that we get to know these people, especially our protagonist, ASAP, so that the ending has more emotional payoff, and in this game, it feels like a lot of interesting information shows up late and goes whizzing by with little or no elaboration. I know I've said before that I like when stories “bleed off the page” by alluding to things we'll never actually see, but something as critical to a character as “why she's living with her uncle instead of her parents” strikes me as something that should get just a bit more attention in the beginning of the story. Or, maybe that's just me.

The Art


Overall, I found the art to be rather pretty, although the faces struck me as being a little wonky, especially Elise's. I think it's to do with where her mouth is in relation to her jaw, and it's less noticeable on the guys. Still, the clothes and backgrounds are very nice, and the style is a refreshing break from the usual anime/manga look these games nearly always have. I was also pleased to see a suitor with some melanin, since again, these games do have a tendency to be completely White. The only other exception I've found to this rule so far is the Canada-based Heartstring Bugs. Variety is good, people: in games like this, the more different the suitors look from each other, the more tastes you can appeal to.

The Gameplay


Well, one advantage this game had over Saccharine was the giant button labeled “Start”. It was pretty hard to miss. However, the cursor only changes into that “I” shape you see when typing, which is its own brand of confusing.

There are 6 endings in the game: 1 for ending up alone, 2 for one suitor, and 1 for everyone else. It's a little odd to me that only one character has a bad ending, and it's not even someone the plot centers around. I had actually thought that the “official plot-line” would be that cousin Fred himself was secretly in love with Elise, yet his ending only has her end up as his adviser, a detail which other endings also include. As such, it wasn't until I got the other 5 endings that I realized that was his ending. Also, while some options like “Talk to Loren” are obvious in whose ending they build toward, others are a bit less intuitive on the first play-through.

TL;DR


Lady of the Castle is a very short, cute game that's very clearly an early attempt. There are no shocking twists or turns and the pacing needs work, but if you just need a quick dating-sim fix, there are worse ways to spend thirty seconds.


So, what do you think? Is this game fit for royalty, or nothing to write home about? Feel free to leave your opinions in the comments.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Reverie: an Odd Sim Date

Author: Amiralo
Availability: Free, Online
Format: Dating Sim
Rating: Teen


My Scores (out of 5):


Writing: 3.5
Art: 3
Gameplay: 2
Romance: 2.5 (Just one actual pairing, but darn it, I got misty-eyed)

Summary


In Reverie, you are Asuka, a high-school girl with so many problems at home that escaping into a dreamland seems like a good idea. However, once you find yourself *in* said dreamland, you decide you really ought to be heading home. Unfortunately, the inhabitants of this place are anything but helpful.

Review


The Writing


The English in this game is rife with grammatical errors and typos, which makes reading it a little bit of a chore. Speaking of difficulty in reading, there was also a struck-out passage in the intro which I just about went bonkers trying to decipher. Fortunately, the text is revealed in the end, although I still think its mysterious, taunting presence is some form of cruelty.

At first, I thought the story was just going in the direction of obvious wish-fulfillment for the player: you wake up in a fancy castle, are told you're the most important person in it, and some rich guy wants to shower you with attention and presents. However, it turns out to be much deeper than that: these things are really wish-fulfillment for the *character*, and not everything is as nice as it appears to be. The story is almost as dark and depressing as Saccharine, with themes of persevering in the face of disappointment and disillusionment.

The Art


The quality of the art varies. When we first see Asuka in her new bedroom, the detail and cool palette were so lovely that I was quite caught off-guard. However, this level of artwork isn't maintained throughout the entire game, and I was frankly disappointed in the “serene place” to which the duke takes Asuka. Backgrounds aside, props must be given to the creatively surreal character designs of Joker and the nightmare monster, whose appearances are not merely strange, but highlight the unreality of the place.

The Gameplay


Argh. Where do I begin? Well, the good news, first: The game doesn't appear to have any critical glitches, save for a suspicious moment when I could have sworn that Joker gave me a knife, yet my attempts at attacking the day-10 monster immediately afterward resulted in the message that I “tried to attack it bare-handed.” Oh, yes, you can be attacked by monsters in this game, and while the shopkeeper NPC states that you can't actually die, the effect is still the same.  Also, the "play music" button causes the soundtrack to irritatingly overlap itself if pressed more than once, but that slight problem is both easily solved and easily ignored.

The main thing that bothers me about the gameplay is that the game itself tries to discourage you from exploring (characters tell you not to, monsters attack if you enter the wrong rooms, and then after you die, the game chides you for wandering around), yet exploring is absolutely necessary. There is no map in the game; there are no indications of what a given door could lead to, and there is nothing that can be done in the bedroom except sleeping and checking the inventory.  The danger, while potentially interesting, is handled very unfairly, especially since once you've accidentally stumbled across a monster, you have virtually zero chance of escaping unless you had the good fortune to stumble across the shopkeeper first and stock up on items. It isn't even possible to back out of a monster's room once you've realized where you are: you can only go forward, wincing even as you push the button because you know this thing will want chocolate and you only have the roses and WHY IS NAVIGATING THIS PLACE SO HARD?!

The other major complaint I have has to do with the help document. Many games include such a thing, and that is fine...provided it's easily accessible at the beginning of the game. This game's help document can only be found if you stumble into the right room, despite the fact that the game itself apparently doesn't want you to explore. Once found, it tells you that there is a specific, recommended order to courting the guys, and it gives you *vital* information regarding their endings. So, good thing you explored after all, I guess.

Despite these major flaws, the game isn't actually unplayable. Still, you will need a good memory for navigating all those doors, and there's a non-zero chance that you'll have to completely start over when you were just within inches of victory. It's beatable, but also frustrating at times.

TL;DR:

Reverie is a dark, tricky game with spotty English that, nevertheless, tells a decent story. It has a lot of interesting ideas, some of which could have probably been executed better, and it's worth checking out if you can put up with a few head-desk inducing game-over situations.  

As usual, this is merely one girl's opinion.  You might think this the game of your dreams, or a nightmarish monstrosity.  Feel free to let your mind wander in the comments.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Saccharine: a Misleading Sim Date

Author: Amiralo
Availability: Free, Online
Format: Dating Sim
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: Teen

My Scores (out of 5):


Writing: 3.5
Art: 3.5
Gameplay: 2.5
Romance: 1 (As close to an anti-romance as you can get without being “I Want to be Single”)


Ladies and Gentlemen, the Girl Game Review is back, and the first game we're serving up is Saccharine.

Summary


In Saccharine, you are Branwen: a mysterious, pale woman who comes to the pastel-colored kingdom of Cadille with the hopes of hiding a wanted fugitive; and if that plan happens to involve winning over the prince of this cake-loving kingdom, then so be it. Be warned, though, that this is not your typical, sugary dating sim.

Review


The Writing

Let me say up front that this is the darkest dating-game I've played to date (pun not intended), and that is including the games with vampires and magic powered by forsaken children. The game warns the player up front that it is a “misleading sim date”, and that...might actually be a good way to put it. At the risk of spoiling too much, this almost seems to be an anti-dating-game, the way its story unfolds and twists.

While there are a few grammatical issues sprinkled here and there (such as a person called "Women 1" stating “If I hadn't already marry Matthew..."), the story itself is interesting and nuanced, with satisfyingly individual and distinct characters. Also, I like how enough hints of the world—its culture, history, etc.—are given to make it seem to “bleed off the page”, as they say. It's nice when a fantasy story feels like it has a larger world to live in.

The Art

The art-style is interesting in that the characters have a hand-drawn look, while the backdrops seem to be painted with water-colors. This, combined with the long, thin style of the characters and the haunting, music-box-like background music, fits very well with the tone of the story, I think. That said, I like how there's a noticable difference in both body and face-shape between Branwen and the innkeeper; she adds a nice bit of visual variety without actually breaking the asthetic.

There are rough, un-colored chibis in some of the cut-scenes, and I leave it to others to decide whether this is in keeping with the hand-made look, or merely suggests that the creator was phoning it in for these parts. Personally, I didn't really mind it much, and I found the chibi drawing of Branwen with a bag over her head to be hilarious. The other scenes can be quite beautiful, though certainly not perfect, and I have to admit that the first time I saw Branwen, I didn't realize her eyelids were closed and I thought she was staring out at me with blank, dead eyes. It was rather unnerving.

The Gameplay


This game has an enforced linear gameplay, meaning that you cannot pursue bachelor #2 until you win bachelor #1. This would probably be more annoying if this were a regular dating sim, since offering a variety of guys to suit players' different tastes is part of the point. Even so, the way it's executed (with a note in the help screen telling you that you need cheatcodes) is very bald, and could probably have been handled more subtly. For example, some games (such as Fantasia: Requiem of the Abyss) just quietly unlock the new content after you've achieved whatever goal the author has set. Still others (like Frozen Essence) enable all the paths from the beginning anyway, letting the player assemble the full story themselves in whatever order their play-throughs happen to be in. I'm not saying the use of cheatcodes and such is wrong, mind you; just that it's possible to blend things more neatly into the game without breaking the fourth wall.

Subtlety aside, there are a few genuine complaints I have about the gameplay: first, it took me a while to realize that, in order to start the game and progress through certain scenes, I had to click on a gem. It would have been helpful to have this icon labelled the first time we see it. In far worse need of labeling, however, are the cakes and recipes for sale in the shop. It was very frustrating to finally earn enough gold to buy a certain cake, only to discover I'd purchased the wrong one. It'd be one thing if I were having to choose between a watch and a bowling-pin, but when discerning the flavors of cakes, one can really only go by the coloring, and even that's iffy. It's even worse for the recipes, which are identical except for their almost-arbitrary colors. (Sure, blue makes sense for blueberry...until you realize there's a second shade of blue in that lineup.) Also, there is a bug where trying to feed Isador a cake you don't have will result in you having a negative number of cakes.

One thing I did like, however, is that the gifts were woven naturally into the dialog so that you couldn't progress until you'd gotten the right thing. This kept the gift mechanic from feeling unnecessary or hack-y. I was annoyed, though, that Branwen told the Prince she'd eaten a cake when it was clearly still sitting in her inventory. (Then again, she does lie, so maybe this was in-character?) In fact, there is no mechanic for eating in the game, and while there doesn't really have to be, I was sort of expecting an eat-for-hp system like in Festival Days and a few others. Ah, well.

Another thing I like is the game-changing moment half-way through, where you get the opportunity to play match-maker for a couple of side-characters. Choosing one option can affect your income at work, while the other can affect the prices you pay at the shop. It's a nice way to let the player have more impact on the game's world, and it's also nice to be able to give someone a shot at hapiness.

TL;DR


Saccharine is a dark, anti-dating-sim set in a world of cakes and pastels. The story is a little depressing, and the music and hand-made-looking art fit the overall tone. The game forces you to play in a certain order, and while there are a few bugs and frustrating bits, it's perfectly playable. On the whole, I think it's worth checking out, provided you're fed up with sweetness and in the mood for something sad.


Of course, this is all my opinion: you might want to eat this game up, or hack it into bits. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.