Well then, against all odds, it seems VN reviews will continue on! I had almost given up on it after playing several sub-par games in a row; while raging out can be fun from time to time, I wasn’t really crazy about spewing bile for an entire article. Thankfully I was saved by an extremely enjoyable game that I hadn’t expected in the least.
So this time round we’ll be covering Dengeki Striker and School Days HQ. I’ll also do a small section at the end and cover the various other English visual novels that have been released since the last review. First up will be Dengeki!
Dengeki Striker is the latest Eroge by Overdrive, the main force behind Mangagamer. While I appreciate all they’ve done for the English market by pushing hard to get deals with Japanese VN makers, this game continues an unfortunate trend I’ve noticed with their games — a steady decline in enjoy-ability with every new game they put out.
Dengeki tells the story of a young boy named Yuuki Yamato who loves super hero stories and makes a wish to become one himself with unexpected consequences. Several years later he finds himself finally fulfilling that dream when a group of villains attack Japan.
Let’s start with what they did right. The user interface and almost everything about the game oozes a 1950/60s steam punk-esque aesthetic. The menus crank and bang sparks sound off coupled with the bombastic action packed opening movie really sells the setting and helps you get immersed into the setting excellently. The main character also has a superb character design and acts as a good bridge between the current era you’re in and the yesteryear of his origin. Between him feeling out of touch with the modern setting and his militaristic behavior at school, he generally remained entertaining to watch, heavily reminding me a much more milder version of Sousuke, who sadly didn’t blow up any shoe boxes during the course of the game.
The rest of the cast includes the suitably over-the-top villains, childhood friend Haruna, an extremely obnoxious American ninja named Jack and Sayaka who acts as the protagonist’s very own version of Kaname replete with constantly yelling at him for his bizzare behavior any chance she gets. Sadly this is pretty much where any good ends.
Both the villains and heroes after their initial scuffle settle into a sort of boring haze. They rarely do anything of note and their slice of life antics are just dead weight on the story. I get the fact that they thought it would be a laugh to see a bunch of villians having to worry about day to day living ,but what could have been clever and funny just turns to tedium quickly. One can suppose we’re meant to come to care about these villians but it just never really connects, so when the story clearly wants to make you feel something about their fates you can’t help but shrug your shoulders.
The same goes for the main characters, who all just plain lack depth. One of the great things about Souske was he had moments of introspection, but for our hero this is only limited to a short stint near the end of the first route and never heard from again. Even the Kaname wanna-be who seems engaging at first is quickly reduced to being a boring shallow love interest once her time in the spot light comes around…It all greatly undermines any sort of drama the game attempts.
Such drama is generally attempted during the several fight scenes in the game. Sadly, the game relies far too much on (admittedly high quality) animated cutscenes and well drawn event CGs like a crutch. While it’s nice to see animated parts, the general writing for the fights is just plain bad in all regards. Each engagement is equally short and extremely anti climatic, usually determined by people spamming super moves…Some of the finest fight scenes I ever had the pleasure of reading in Princess Waltz and Fate/Stay Night relied primarily on minimal sfx screens of non-descript light representing weapons and generated their excitement solely through the excellent writing. Overdrive has taken almost the complete opposite approach to it’s battles and is far worse for it.
The other aspects of the game are hardly up to snuff either. Probably one of the worst offenders is the fact that the game is almost entirely linear without the option to choose a different route. The sole three decision points in the game allow you to very slightly change some speech but otherwise has absolutely no effect on the route you can access. This again is a really disturbing trend with Overdrive games that have seen them slowly remove the choice aspect that’s so key to VN design. I wouldn’t mind if this linearity meant the story had more focus, but frankly even with this on-rails design the story feels extremely aimless and unfocused, like it’s not sure what it wants to be…
The “romances” during the two routes are barely there either. Aside from the fact that you will have a girl forced on you with no choice in the matter, both of the romances are very sudden and of the “oh, we’re going into battle tomorrow…I guess we should fuck” type. There’s hardly any chemistry between characters and very little reason given to even care about the girls. There’s several other things I could go into but I’ve already skirted spoilers many times and frankly, I’m tired of bashing on the game. Needless to say, I’m very disappointed with Overdrive at the moment. Their games have steadily and predictably become more and more linear and more and more un-fun to play, which is really sad since Edelweiss was one of the best eroge I’ve played.
The game possesses many individual elements that could have added up to something special but the inept assembling of all these varied parts has just fell flat. For a game that gently plays homage to super heroes, it’s a real shame that it completely lacks the one thing any great super hero needs…heart.
Final Verdict: Pass. Just a flat-out terrible linear “game” that doesn’t deserve your time.
Our next Eroge up for review is School Days HQ. This specific version of the game is a re-released HQ remake that reworks the visuals a bit and adds several new scenes to it. It is however not “HD” as the resolution it runs at is around 480p in quality sadly, but then if it was in HD the size of the game would probably be enormous. In any case School Days as the broken Engrish of the above image implies is primarily a story about 3 people, 2 girls 1 guy, who meet and set a rather lengthy drama filled love story in motion.
Ah but School Days~ Oh School Days, what a reputation you carry. I think by now most people have either watched the anime, the infamous bad ends, or have at least heard of the phrase “Nice Boat”. All of these things pile up to create a very preconceived notion of what this game is going to be like, but then preconceptions can be a dangerous thing and I’m here to tell you there is far more to this game then the simple train wreck factor.
Firstly lets start with Makoto our protagonist yea? I think most can agree he was a scumbag in the anime and rightly earned his title of one of the most hated harem leads ever, but this is far from the case in the game. What you have to understand about the anime and the bad ends is these both represent the game and characters at their absolute worst, but more than anything, School Days is a game about choice and consequence far more then any other eroge I ever played. If Dengeki was a linear corridor then School Days would be a goddamn labyrinth.
The importance of choice in the game extends very much so to Makoto. He is a product of your choices and to say he’s “terrible” is basically saying the same of yourself. He can be as gentle and thoughtful as you want or as cruel and despicable as you’d like. With that said, though even during the worst routes Makoto remains a surprisingly likable guy. He constantly meditates on the situation and his role in things. The term “nice” gets thrown around a lot for harem leads, but Makoto is genuinely nice. He doesn’t tolerate bullying of any sort and constantly tries to empathize with people. Sadly, he is still only a young high school boy with raging hormones so the amount of emotional understanding he possess is limited, which leads to some of the more tragic moments.
One thing that helps greatly in making him likable is using the option to disable male voices. No offense to Makoto’s seiyuu as a person, but I find his voice outright disgusting. No matter what he says he comes off like a creep and that goes doubly so for his male friend. It completely undermines the script at every turn and I’d go so far as to say it’s almost essential that you not hear his voice.
All of the other characters (with the exception of Makoto’s friend) have well developed personalities and are extremely enjoyable to converse with, which just makes the situations that they find themselves in all the more heart-rending and engaging.
Much like Makoto, you’ll genuinely care about these girls, and you’ll simply want to not hurt them… But sadly love doesn’t work that way, and the game’s writing is exceptional in portraying the old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”.
If you try to play the game as a dogged nice guy trying not to hurt anyone’s feeling you’ll quickly find yourself in more trouble than you thought you would ever see, and in that regard its wonderfully realistic. One of the reasons I probably like Makoto is I can emphasize with his plight. I have had to juggle two women at once in my younger years and I, like Makoto, tried to not hurt anyone and all it did in the end was bring more pain to everyone…not quite with the same over-the-top results, but I can understand where the poor kid is coming from.
But again there is no real “right” way to play the game, because it bends so nimbly to your choices. In any given route you might make 40 or more decisions, and almost every last one of these contributes to the course of the story in some way, with more than a few choices having far reaching consequences that you might not even see come into effect until much later.
While these delayed consequences some choices have can be frustrating, most of them are done in a way that you can see how it might affect things. There are no “well, do I want to go to the library or the gym” choices — the sort you would have absolutely no clue what kinda of effect it would produce. It’s an incredible system that really makes you feel like your choices matter. For example, rarely are your locked into a girl, and in more than a few endings the very last few choices you make can greatly alter your ending and which girl you end up with.
Because choice affects the story so much at any given moment, relationships can be constantly in flux as well. You may of course choose to stick to one girl faithfully during every choice, which will reward you with a very typical (although still excellent) single-girl route that’s as sweet and romantic as any other eroge.
Where things get far more interesting though is if you let yourself be swept up in the story and constantly waffle in your feelings. You can say you’ll only care for one girl the entire time, but when you see a sweet kind girl whose only wish seems to be by your side pleading and crying with you, attempting to stay true to just one girl becomes a great deal harder.
The main conflict of the game is generated by Sekai and Kotonoha, whose constant power struggles over you form the backbone of the drama in the game. This isn’t to say the side characters are slighted and I found the way 0verflow handles their routes was flat-out ingenious.
All of the side characters basically boil down to a variation of Makoto getting tired of the two girls constantly struggling over him and having you take a third option. These girls routes only appear during endings where the fighting between the two girls is fiercest and it makes the side girls feel like a beautiful oasis of calm in the middle of a raging storm.
While their routes are sadly short because of that, I’ve never experienced such a satisfying relationship in any eroge before…When you and Makoto are both feeling emotionally drained and ragged from all the drama weighing down on you, these side characters with their simple yet enjoyable personalities and sweet natures (even the one that bitches at you has her moments — trust me) makes for a breath of fresh air that no cool autumn day could rival.
So again in that regard the writing does a superb job of connecting your emotions with Makoto…During times when I was feeling really ground down so would he…When I was feeling hesitant and lost so was he… The only times I felt a disconnect with him was appropriately when aiming specifically for bad ends making choices that I normally would never would make.
It really is a testament to the skill of Overflow that I could feel so connected with a main character, and always felt he was walking towards a point that I had led him to, not one that the game had arbitrarily decided on (aside from the initial story setup, but that’s a compromise I’m fine with). This in a nutshell is one of the most perfect realizations of the “dating sim” genre that I’ve yet to find.
Love Plus has a similar sort of feeling to it tailoring to your choices, but the problem with that game is the protagonist in general doesn’t really have much personality, which is the truly amazing thing about School Days. Not only does it feel like your shaping Makoto’s personality but you also feel like its a natural process…Like he’s always been this person, not that he was some blank slate that your writing your own personality onto.
This satisfying character development thankfully also extends to the girls. They change and grow as the story progresses and as your various choices take effect. Not all of those changes are for the better, but they never ring false. They, like you, are a product of your decisions — it’s your fault that this girl has turned to sex to desperately keep a hold of your affections. Its your fault that things spiral out of control. That pervasive sense of control is exhilarating and immersive as hell at all times.
As far as those infamous bad ends go, there’s far more to them then what you saw. Videos generally only show the end result, but the journey to that point…the slow decay and breaking of both heart and soul the girls go through to get to that point and do such horrendous acts is one of the most heart-wrenching things I’ve experienced in a story. Yes, they are over-the-top and exploit the shock factor, but they are so expertly crafted that you hardly even take note of that. Instead you’re both horrified and riveted at how things could have turned out this way. Unlike the random brutal deaths in Dengeki, here you genuinely care about these characters and these horrible endings can really hit you hard.
All of this is supporting with an extremely interesting engine. The game carries an anime aesthetic to it in that it’s completely devoid of traditional static character sprites. There have been many games that added mouth flaps to character sprites, but this is the first game I’ve played that does away with the sprites entirely and added a motion component to it. The game isn’t always fully animated though as that would have costed them an absurd amount of money, but even in the more static scenes the aesthetic makes the entire game more visually interesting on the whole then a great many other Eroge I’ve played.
This animation of course extends to the sex scenes in the game. They aren’t quite up to par with your average hentai, lacking in motion and heavily recycling animations, but they have a certain raw feeling to them that I can appreciate…Its sort of the difference between watching a porno and watching a real couple have sex (the types of scenes in this game.)
Absolutely every one of these scenes has some purpose to the plot and none of them ever felt like fanservice, with sex being an extremely important theme in the game and treated with the gravity it deserves. There are dire consequences to sex in this game, and you need to keep that in mind any time you accept a girls advances.
Sadly all of this ambition comes at the price of stability. Overflow’s games have a certain amount of infamy in how unstable they are, and the English release is no different. There are at least half a dozen set points in the game that crash every time sadly… You can fast forward to get back to where you left off but this has its own unfortunate problems. If you use either the skip function or skip to next choice function the game will occasionally skip right over a decision point, and considering how important every choice is, this can really screw you over.
The other minor annoyance is the game won’t remember anything you played between a save point and when you crashed, so you can’t use the fast forward option without enabling it to skip already read text. Beyond the crashes, several pieces of the written text like mail you receive on phones aren’t translated, and occasionally the visuals can glitch like showing someone leaving a room then showing them back in it in the next frame.
Still, these are mostly small inconveniences that I gladly endured for such an incredible game. I know I may have droned on for a bit too long and essentially been kissing this game’s ass, but I felt I needed to when I see so many people say things like “Oh, Makoto is a worthless asshole,” or “This game is garbage,” I just can’t help but feel people are judging it on the basis of the anime and bad ends without giving the game a fair chance. If you do however give it that chance you’ll find a deep and involving eroge experience like no other with great characters that you’ll come to deeply care for.
Now that I’ve finished the game I’m genuinely sad to say goodbye to these characters, and I hope that if the sequels get translations that are as excellent as this first game!
Final Verdict: A near perfect 10. The game has some technical issues, but the gameplay and writing it self is superb that extols the power of choice in a way I wish more Eroge did.
Now that I’m done sucking School Days proverbial dick, I’ll move on to the other various releases that came out since the last review I wrote! So in no particular order…
Captive Market: Ah another Black Lilith title…If you don’t know who that is you’re probably best off avoiding this one. As for fap game aficionados I can’t really recommend it either. As with most Black Lilith titles, the art is ok and the story is forgettable…All and all I’m still waiting to see if Black Lilith can make any title outside of the Asagi franchise that can really grab me.
Magical Teacher: Terrible. Even for a fap game this is just pure garbage for many reasons, least of all the terrible story structure where you essentially just pick off a menu which route you want. Visuals aren’t anything great and…yea. Reminds me of the shit titles that Jast and all used to translate back in the early days of the English VN market. Hopefully Mangagamer won’t waste time on stuff like this going forward, but looking at the recent acquisitions they announced it seems unlikely sadly… In any case, avoid like the plague.
Hoshizora: This was one of those games I was really excited to play, as I thought the visuals were stunning and I’m a sucker for pretty things. Sadly it didn’t really do much for me at all…When the first 5 or so characters you meet range from boring to annoying and you’realready skipping through large chunks of text after only playing for 10 or so minutes that’s generally a good sign you won’t enjoy the game.
With that said, the production values are quite good and I would give it a try if it looks interesting to you…I have a feeling this one just might be a case of my tastes being a bit too specific. I might give it another go sometime later down the road.
And that just about does it for this week! Since I seem to quite enjoy mouthing off on the subject of visual novels, I guess this little series has a real danger of becoming a continuing thing.. Hopefully next time there will be more good games to gush over and less to ignore/bitch about.
As for me, I’m going to go replay Otome’s route in School Days because I think I’m in love! *sigh* Sadly there’s not a snow ball’s chance in hell of ever seeing a figure of her…Nobody even bothered making a GK of her! Damn it all…