"Times it's hard and I can't fake it, when she lets me see her naked
My roommate's a girl, she puts me through hell
When I tripped on love, she never fell..."
- Anything But Joey (please)
Meet Yusuke Sawada, incoming high school senior and doormat extraordinaire. As if it wasn't bad enough that his idiot parents transferred him out of Tokyo to some school out in the boonies, they forgot to register him for a dorm room, and wouldn't you know it, the boys' dormitory is full up. And the truck transporting his luggage breaks down, forcing him to hike a couple of miles carrying all his worldly possessions. And the apartment he's directed to for temporary shelter burns down. And just when he's about to give up entirely and sleep where he falls, he runs into his boisterous childhood bully, Asumi Hirota. Or rather, she runs into him. Footfirst.
However, upon recognizing Yusuke, she panics. Believing that he remembers something embarrassing from their past about her (to his confusion), she immediately assumes he'll try to blackmail her (to his further confusion) and asks what he wants in return. Figuring that freak chance was better than none, he asks her to find him a place to stay the night, and finally falls unconscious from exhaustion, apathy, and blunt trauma.
Her solution? Sneak him into her dorm room and throw him in the closet. Given his situation, Yusuke accepts this mildly humiliating new living space in stride...but naturally, there's a catch. Boys aren't allowed even near the girls' dorm, so not only does Yusuke have to hide his presence in Asumi's room, but he has to disguise himself as a girl when going to and from school. As well, Asumi really gave him the space under (imagined) duress, and her two roommates aren't especially thrilled that he's there, either. Yusuke's got an uphill battle to fight before they accept him...
Heart de Roommate
It's said that if you expect the worst, any surprise will be a pleasant one, and I'd certainly say that saying applies here. I originally bought this game because the premise sounded kind of cute, and I thought I'd heard decent things about the title (turns out I was mixing it up with To Heart, but anyway). However, given the one-two punch of the absolute worst and the absolute best high school-themed VNs I've ever played, I wasn't really looking forward to the chance of mediocrity.
Hence the pleasant surprise, since this turned out better than I was expecting. But enough of that, let's get started.
This is a visual novel. You read, and are occasionally presented with choices. Said choices influence your relationships with other characters and change the direction of the story...sort of. One of the more off-putting aspects of this game is how little most of your choices seem to matter in the beginning. Ultimately, there are only three choices that change what subsequently happens in the game. Regardless of choice, Namiki will catch you and find out you're not really a girl, you will end up searching for Asumi's missing hair ornament, or help Tomoe put away books in the library (and have a ladder accident), or fall off of the roof while approaching Marumu, etc. The point? The first half of the game - the first "season," if you will - doesn't really change, which hurts the replay value a tiny bit (you may as well fast-forward past most of it on subsequent playthroughs).
Halfway through: the single most important choice in the game.
All those choices aren't entirely useless, however. While they don't directly affect the storyline, they do garner relationship points, which are required to unlock the second "season" of the game. I didn't know this at first, so for the purpose of this review, I went back to test it. Turns out, yes, if you act like an anti-social dork, that choice up there won't matter a whit, because the girls won't accept you. I tested this process with Tomoe, and as a result, I feel like scum. All because of you, the readers.
I hate you all.
On the other hand, the second half of the game has precisely two choices. Once you're set on a certain path, the game essentially lets the story take over completely...unless, of course, you screw up either of those choices, both of which can lead to instant, rather unnerving game overs. And the choices aren't really that obvious...
I bring this up because this game is actually worth mentioning as the former. Its unique feature is that it literally takes the form of a 26-episode harem-style anime, including commercial breaks (no commercials, just the episode-specific "break" image) and episode previews. As a style, this worked pretty well for me, though I can see how it could be a bit distracting and flowbreaking to others. Like a lot of semi-episodic shows, the individual stories can be hit-or-miss. I, for example, found the two-part story of Toshibo the cat winding up with a litter of kittens to be...cute, but ultimately just a distraction. On the other hand, an episode with a cheesy story by Asumi about her friends and her saving the earth from an asteroid using the power of friendship (complete with a shift to crayon art) was absolutely hilarious. Typical high school slice-of-life comedy, basically.
The trials and tribulations of the first season (13 episodes) make for a bit of a slow start, given over as it is to character introductions and sessions of "how can we hurt Yusuke this time?" I was, in fact, sort of reminded of Love Hina, which isn't really a favorable comparison. In light of this, it's probably not that bad that you don't have to play through the first ten episodes more than once; most of the choices aren't hard to make, and since very few are at the expense of any love interest, you can almost save the game at episode 11 and reload there after finishing a route.
However, the story starts to come into its own near the end of the first season. By this point, Yusuke has been fully integrated into the cast, characters have been developed enough to be interesting but still hint at greater depth, the actual love story starts, which also causes the story to branch out based on who Yusuke falls in love with. While the story base is fairly constant, the details can vary widely. As a small example, Episode 19 always involves Yusuke becoming curious about how Asumi, Tomoe, and Marumu first met and asking his girlfriend about it...meaning he can get three very different versions of the same story.
Marumu's version. The least accurate, but the most entertaining.
The protagonist, Yusuke, jumps between forgettable and compelling every so often, leaving an oddly mixed impression. I think it's because, outside of his situation, he really lacks personality. It's hard to nail down exactly what he's like when you don't consider that he's rooming in secret with three girls who are initially wary of him. Still, his reactions and character growth are written well enough that he ultimately doesn't come off as a shallow character. His changing relationships with the girls and his acceptance of his situation, his confusion as to what a love relationship entails and even his occasional doubts about his own masculinity and assertiveness, really serve to highlight his progression from hapless boy to mature adult.
It's the game's heroines, however, who carry the game. This is all the more remarkable since they start off as clear stock characters: Asumi is the hyperactive, controlling, violent tsundere, Tomoe is the shy, non-confrontational type, and Marumu is the hard-to-pin-down emotionless girl. Not the most auspicious of beginnings, especially for Asumi. Needless to say, though, I found the first impressions were misleading, and not only are each of these girls more developed, but their individual routes are nicely varied. All have in common the theme of uncertainty in a first relationship, but where Asumi's path sticks with a fairly standard romance, Marumu's path goes a good deal into questions of compatibility and mutual discovery, and Tomoe's path surprised me by ultimately dealing with the transience of high school love after leaving school...and how such love might be rekindled.
Asumi deserves the most mention, though. I despised her in the beginning for being domineering and occasionally violent. Learning Tomoe's version of the roommates' first meeting didn't help this, and Asumi's weird obsession with drawing introverted, recalcitrant transfer student Hikaru out of her shell (a major subplot of season 2), even at the expense of her current friendships, was similarly bizarre. This started to change after I got Tomoe's ending, and then Marumu's ending, and then played Asumi's route.
Then comes the epilogue, Asumi's actual ending, when everything (everything) about her suddenly makes sense. That's...all I'll say about that.
This is still painful to watch, but in an entirely different way.
With a couple of exceptions, the supporting cast doesn't really leave much of an impression. Those exceptions (both of whom wind up discovering Yusuke's secret) are Ms. Yagami, the four's homeroom teacher, and Namiki, Yusuke's cousin who transfers to Aiho school to keep an eye on him. They do play roles in the main story; Ms. Yagami is a friendly source of advice who loves helping her students, and Namiki tends to butt heads with Asumi over issues of control, "advise" Yusuke on uncomfortable matters, and hit on and grope Tomoe (yes, being bisexual is part of her character). Oddly enough, they're also secondary love interests; if Yusuke still doesn't know his own feelings by episode 13, the game will end prematurely, but this can unlock side stories about these two (in the context of this game, I suppose they'd be OVAs). Namiki's route, unfortunately, felt rather unsatisfying; there's not a whole lot of development, and the ending stating they eventually get used to being lovers once out of high school felt more like a cop out than anything (though it did stop me from screaming "Westermarck! Where are you?!" over and over in my head). Ms. Yagami's route, on the other hand, worked pretty well as a touching story on a forbidden relationship.
Hikaru is a bit of a special case, as she's introduced in the second season and drives a major part of the plot forward...but I can't really think of a way to describe her without spoilers (other than to say her subplot had great buildup, but with a sort of anticlimactic solution...unless you're playing Asumi's route, of course).
Oh, and there's the bitch trio, the game's minor antagonists. They're more obstacles than evildoers, though.
This is about as mean as they get. The one on the left is even pretty friendly, at times.
Nothing really major to complain about here. The artwork is really good; the CGs are a joy to view, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and this game has the best-drawn character sprites I've seen in a VN so far. It even manages to pull off chibi artwork (including one of the only times I've ever seen dramatic chibi), and even uses pencil, marker, and crayon art as mood setters (typically as flashbacks or stories).
I was actually surprised how much I liked the soundtrack, too. The only piece of music in the game that left me underwhelmed was the opening theme (which is also the only voiced track). All the other BGM served its purpose well, and other than the fact that most of the music is clearly keyboard and synth (which doesn't harm any of it, though), this could honestly pass for a great anime soundtrack. Of particular note to me are the slower themes, like "Vague Memory," "Everything I Want to Tell You," and "The Time We Spent Together", that last of which I absolutely love; it really feels like a conclusion to a story that's passed into happy memory. In fact, my biggest complaint is that we don't get enough sustained music. Maybe it was just the fact that I read quickly and didn't always wait for the voiceovers, but the music quite often felt like it would shift every time someone spoke two sentences (so that I would only hear 15 seconds of any given piece at a time). Hell, I was 3/4 of the way through the game before I found out that, unusually for a VN, the music tracks don't loop!
The voice acting is...nothing too special. There's nothing wrong with any of it, and it's occasionally nice to listen to, it just didn't leave much of an impression. 'Cept maybe Marumu, but I think that's mainly because I wound up liking her a lot overall, and that included her deadpan girl-of-few-words delivery (even after finding out why she talks like that).
An unusually verbose moment.
The sex in this game was a mixed bag, overall, but I was surprised at how tenderly the scenes are depicted. With the main three, at least, the focus usually feels much more on the emotional than the physical aspect. This is especially obvious (and best done, in my opinion) with Marumu; she and Yusuke clearly aren't sure how they should progress their relationship physically, and watching them work it out (Marumu in her apparent dispassion, Yusuke in his awkwardness) was rather touching. In fact, strangely for an H-game, the two of them don't go beyond second and third base until the "farewell sex" half scenes in each girl's route in between graduation and the "one year later" episode. Asumi...well, I ignore her first scene, since we find out what that secret is that she thought Yusuke was blackmailing her over (it's mildly disgusting), but her second scene was more than sweet enough to make up for it. And Tomoe, well...okay, so Tomoe's scenes don't really fit this mold, except maybe to show that she's a lot bolder than she lets on.
As for the secondary routes, Namiki's scene was alternately all right and uncomfortable (half of it is her mocking Yusuke's awkwardness, and the other half is...Yusuke's awkwardness), not doing much for the story at all. Ms. Yagami's scene read like slightly higher quality but still run-of-the-mill hentai doujin work, and was the only problem I had with the story. The artwork is decent enough, but I couldn't shake the feeling that both could have been written much better.
Oh, and there is another sex scene (complete with CG) in the game besides these ones...but it's short, disturbing, and happens to be a game over. Here's a hint: sex isn't always a good idea, even in desperate situations.
In any case, if these are a problem, the game has a fast-forward button.
I was very pleasantly surprised with this game. The overall story is excellent, the episodic stories are at least entertaining, the romance is well done, the characters are much deeper than I would have thought, and the production quality is very high. The game's tone also varies well, encompassing lightheartedness, with darker moods later on, happy endings...and a beautifully bittersweet epilogue.
Of course, I doubt this game would hold the attention of anyone with no existing interest in visual novels or shoujo anime, but for those who have that, I can honestly say Heart de Roommate might be worth a look.
...wow, that went a lot longer than I expected. At least the character section did.
Neutral Drow Gets a Better Editor
Neutral Drow reviews: Hourglass of Summer
That is, unless I get to Melty Blood first...