Kouhei Kagami is a high school student, living with an adoptive family and coasting through life. His relationship with his father, mother, and younger sister is...cordial at best, and he's never been particularly close to them. He works a part-time job and is a reputed honor student at school, simply because it's the easy thing to do. He's an utterly transparent person and knows it very well, and the sheer monotony of his life is expressed through his frequent auditory hallucination of a train, endlessly rolling down a track.
But not for long.
One after the other, three people enter his life. Aeka Shiraki, the omega in the classroom hierarchy and a frequent victim of bullies. Mizuki Kirimiya, the talented student council president and an all-around slacker. And Cat Sidhe Nekoko, a strange girl come seemingly out of nowhere and a self-proclaimed seeker of the "fairy homeland." Each seems to exist apart from the empty reality Kouhei lives in, but each has problems of their own to deal with.
Can Kouhei reach out to these three girls...and in return find his own salvation?
Yume Miru Kusuri
I wasn't quite sure what to expect with this one. Sure, the concept had been lingering in the back of my mind ever since I bought it, but ultimately, I just knew that this was the other game I knew very little about...specifically, I knew about three glowing reviews on GameFAQs and the recommendation of the guy working the J-List booth. Still, after that horrible VN I last reviewed, I was willing to settle for just about anything.
And holy crap, is this game is like settling for a cheeseburger and receiving filet mignon, instead. Let's get started.
Once again, a visual novel (specifically, an eroge visual novel). You read the story, and occasional choices pop up. Said choices affect your relationship with other characters and influence the direction of the story, leading ultimately to one of seven endings.
Because of the comparatively little exposition that isn't already woven into the narrative (and almost total lack of possible death), this particular eroge is closer to the dating sim variety than the CyoA format (like, say, the TYPE-MOON games), though it also lacks the stat system and mutability of a true dating sim. In particular, the relationship points gained in the first half of the game determine who's scenario you're on (if anyone's), but the second half is governed by making the right decisions.
Early decision. Not an earth-shaking one.
The game also surprised me with its difficulty. Granted, it's not as hard as, say, Fate/Stay Night (where a single misstep can kill you and everyone you ever loved), but getting the happy endings in this game is made more difficult by the fact that, with one exception, there are no premature game overs, so you won't know you got a given heroine's bad ending until the end of the game. Further, each scenario has some exacting requirements for the good endings; Mizuki's route in particular has a lot of choices to make, some of which aren't obvious. Nekoko's has two decisions in particular that absolutely have to be made correctly. And even Aeka's scenario has a single decision that's very easy to trip over!
For the love of all that's good and holy, don't go outside!
The story in this game is very good. That sentence is the result of five hours of careful thought. I'm so eloquent.
Each of the game's three routes provide an interesting dichotomy. The story is rather lighthearted in tone, to begin with, and I was surprised that it could get pretty funny at times...which makes the contrast to the later parts all the more stark. Make no mistake, this game is dark, sometimes astoundingly so. Much as I'm not fond of the game's subtitle, I will admit that it hints very strongly towards the ultimate themes of social ostracism, suicidal depression, existential despair, and desperate escapism. Not to mention the game's sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, always highly critical stance on conformity...
Despite that, I'd be lying if I claimed this was a straight-up angstfest. Indeed, even in Aeka's route, the darkest and most emotional of the game's scenarios, focused as it is on the victim of Japanese bullying*, there wasn't as much angst as I might have expected. Mizuki's and Nekoko's routes (the "interpersonal" and "drugs" scenarios), on the other hand, are almost totally devoid. Not to say the game lacks emotional response, though, far from it. The response just varies.
Character establishing shot: mooching off of Kouhei
Note, however, that all bets are off when it comes to the endings. There are seven possible endings in the game, including happy and unhappy endings for each of the three main girls. Eloquent as it sounds, the happy endings tend to very much so (and, despite Tolstoy's insistence, happy families, and endings, are not all alike), and the unhappy endings tend to be massive downers...with one possible bittersweet exception, which is open to interpretation...
First, a note on White Knight syndrome: the perfect or near-perfect protagonist who "rescues" girls from their problems, which is a staple of many genres of eroge. When done right, this can give a game a clear sense of direction while not adversely affecting the plot. Done poorly, however, and it comes off as condescending and trite, and seriously harms the story. Either way, it's difficult putting meaningful characterization on a character who is too blatantly a player avatar (in the case of dating sims, though, I guess this doesn't matter).
Kouhei is a rather unusual protagonist, especially for this game's premise, in that he doesn't really fit that staple. While he's decently intelligent and bland by his own admission (most of which is unfounded self-deprecation), he's hardly an exemplar of well-adjustedness. In fact, this leads to one of the more effective aspects of his character; while he certainly does "save" Nekoko, Aeka, or Mizuki, it's not his strength of character but his flaws that draw him to the similarly-troubled girls and allow him to identify and fall in love with them. Nor are the relationships one-sided affairs; as Kouhei affects, so is he strongly affected by the love and actions of the girl he ends up with...even if she has to haul him bodily out of his complacency*. In fact, Kouhei is easily matched in characterization by the game's heroines. Aeka's sweet and spacey attitude, Mizuki's lazy capriciousness, and Nekoko's sheer energy, while they aren't really facades, do bely the hidden depths of their characters.
Two members of the supporting cast deserve full mention, as well, but since my creativity is once more running low, I'll just give them passing mention. Aya, Kouhei's adopted younger sister, is a surprisingly likable and important character. Now, if you're familiar with Japanese eroge at all, your head is probably still ringing with alarm bells at the phrase "adopted younger sister." There certainly are hints (Aya's got a rather tsundere attitude towards Kouhei, and he's initiated...semi-inappropriate situations) that that she could have been a love interest, but the game actually goes the realistic route. Instead, the hints simply serve to highlight Kouhei's disconnection from reality and Aya's worry and desire to be closer to him (but as family, not lovers). Then there's Tsubaki Hirofumi, Kouhei's sempai at work, who serves alternately as friend, reliable source of advice, and flirtatious annoyance (he's gay, just not stereotypically so). Since he's also a huge fan of eroge, his advice tends to be sound and humorously self-aware.
Of course, not every character has to be likable to be effective. Aeka's scenario, dealing as it is with bullying, is the only route with true antagonists (no, the yakuza Nekoko tends to piss off don't count), and they certainly succeed at being antagonizing. Kyoka Nanjou, the popular girl for whom Aeka is a favorite whipping girl and stress relief, is especially successful in this role, but I don't want to get too into particulars. Not because they're spoilers or anything (though some are), but simply because thinking about the particulars makes me sick.
Evil. (artist's rendition)
Incidentally, that alt text is outdated, written when I was 1/3 of the way through the game. Eventually, even the English language simply runs out of words to describe pure loathing.
This is a "text box at bottom of the screen" style visual novel, contrasting the full screen style of Tsukihime. I think both styles have different names in Japanese (one is technically "adventure game" style), but I can't recall which is which. There's some occasional typos, but nothing too widespread (and I think there's a patch for those).
The game's art quality is pretty good. Backgrounds in particular are easy on the eyes, and the CG gallery is fun to browse. I did find something...off, with the character design. Well, the character sprites, at least (the CGs were fine). Still, I'm not sure what it was, and whatever it was wasn't distracting for too long, so a passing grade nonetheless.
Maybe it's her hair.
The English translation of the game retains the Japanese voiceovers, which is great, since the voice acting is superb. The seiyuu for the game's heroines in particular pull off wonderfully characteristic performances, whether it be Aeka's soft-spoken fragility, Mizuki's coy, often deadpan delivery, or Nekoko's forthright, almost manic nature; this is besides those instances of extra character depth, whether Aeka's anger, Mizuki's worried contrition, or Nekoko's...well, don't want to give too much away. Aya's and Tsubaki's voices fit their characters particularly well, too, and Kyoka's voice was delightfully unendearing. Most other voices besides Kouhei's parents (especially male voices) tend to be exaggerated for effect, whether humor or tragedy. Gaito in particular speaks with such an over-the-top drawl, it's almost comical...if he weren't every bit the violent thug his voice implies.
As a side note, Kouhei himself is the only unvoiced character in the game. It seems to be the game's only concession towards making him a player character...and it actually works pretty well.
The soundtrack is a similarly well-done affair, mostly in piano, acoustic guitar, and synth. In particular, the ambiance tracks have a light jazz feel to them, and the unique themes (the deeply emotional On the Moonlit Rooftop, the light and airy Girls Are Made of Frosting Cake, and the swinging The Catgirl Stomped) add even more character to their respective storylines.
Yes, since this is an eroge, that means sex. And boy howdy is there a lot of it in this game. It was actually astounding how much they packed in. Aeka's route has the lowest amount, consisting of four scenes (all involving intercourse), which is a bit on the high side for a plot-heavy game like this. Mizuki's route has the highest, consisting of eight scenes (six involving intercourse), more than in the entirety of Fate/Stay Night!
Sad to say, this does work against the game a bit. The scenes during Nekoko's scenario (six total, five involving intercourse) in particular tended to feel really out-of-place. Only one or two could be considered important to the story, though to be fair, most of the others at least had some humor value in the leadup. Aeka fares slightly better, with two definitely important scenes, one arguably important scene, and one totally unnecessary scene. As for the almost insatiably horny Mizuki...oddly enough, I'd actually say all of her sex scenes are important in a way. Weird, I know, but trust me, it actually winds up making sense.
As for the quality of the scenes themselves...I'm a notoriously uncritical judge. Basically, as long it's not fetishistic, non-consensual, or lacking in pathos, I generally won't mind any given scene, and none of the ones in this game broke those rules in any appreciable way (though again, Nekoko came close). Hell, one or two even had me in tears.
Side note: if you're not used listening to Japanese hentai voiceovers, these scenes might sound kind of strange. Just a warning. In any case, if sex is a deterrent, then that's what the game's handy fast-forward feature is for. And if it's not a deterrent at all, that's what the auto-play feature is for.
I wouldn't recommend skipping past the drunken sex in the student council office, though. Mostly because it's disturbingly amusing. Just remember, when the choice pops up, effort on your part is appreciated. Just some advice.
Well, we're here. I've struggled to keep my sentimentality in check and myself objective...but really, I figured there was something wrong when I felt relief that there was something in the game I could complain about, just so people could take me seriously. Therefore, the review is essentially finished, so I'm going to officially abandon objectivity from here on out.
I love this game.
I seriously have not played anything else that provoked the sheer amount and variety of emotional responses that this game produced in me, including a few I don't have names for. Creeping dread, crushing despair, tearful relief, savage joy, bitter depression, awestruck wonder, loving empathy, inarticulate rage and utter hatred (see: Kyoka), deep shock, bittersweet satisfaction, growing suspicion, calm contentment, hell, even fatherly pride (of Kouhei) at one point...and three different shades of pure happiness.
Aeka's route in particular was spectacularly written, its resolution both horrifying and satisfying in a way I found slightly shocking, and its ending the happy memory that allowed me to move on to the other routes without feeling like a monster for ignoring her.
Mizuki's unhappy ending (which I did stumble onto) hit like a punch in the gut and lingered like a stab wound the more I thought of it...but her happy ending is the most heartwarming thing I've ever read. I actually walked around distracted most of the next day, so touched was I.
In a way, Nekoko's arc felt like the weakest...which didn't dent it much. Nekoko is still pretty entertaining, herself. I was particularly enamored after the twist most of the way through, which I totally did not see coming, but which ultimately made me love her along with the others. As well, her happy ending went with a cute sort of happiness that I found delightful.
The only thing preventing this game from overtaking Tsukihime and/or Fate/Stay Night as my new favorite visual novel is my love of supernatural elements, nostalgic bonds, and the sheer volume of the Nasuverse and its characters. As is, I'm rambling, so I'll cut off here.
EDIT: Shoot, I forgot to mention availability. I'm still not sure where to physically buy copies of games like these, but since this is an officially translated (not fan-translated) game, it's available online. Peach Princess has it available for download or shipping, and I've seen copies up on Amazon, too.
TYPE-MOON reviews: Kagetsu Tohya
Tsukihime's sorta-sequel and fun-filled canon romp.