Availability: Free, Online
Format: Dating Sim
My Scores (out of 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.
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.
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-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.
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.
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.