A game with lots of pictures where half the cast is a lesbian vampire.
Now that I've gotten your attention, time for the review! Actually I'm not sure why I should even bother reviewing this anymore. With that description everyone who planned on reading this instantly logged out of the Escapist to go play it and won't be back for a very long time. Ah well, not like I have anything better to do.
Some pretty music to ease the pain of reading this review.
Aoi Shiro is a visual novel(basically a choose your own adventure book with pictures, music, and voice acting) containing elements of horror, mystery, slice of life, yuri, and Japanese mythology. Gameplay consists entirely of the player making choices for the main character that either get her/one of her "female friends" horrifically murdered or advance the story. So right of the bat I can give an enthusiastic recommendation to those who enjoy making tough decisions and those who enjoy killing women. To the first group, ten seconds, bacon or chocolate? To the second, Paris Hilton still exists, we're counting on you! Successfully completing one of the initially available storylines will open up other storylines for you to work your way through. While this does limit the player's freedom and can become rather frustrating when you realize you've put yourself on a path that you can't finish because it's locked, it does help to keep the story coherent, provide a sense of "flow", and keep you from spoiling the plot too early.
The story consists of main character Syouko and the kendo team she captains embarking on a field trip to a rundown temple that is strangely nostalgic. Upon their arrival it quickly becomes clear that something mysterious and EEEEVVVIIILLLL!!! is going on so she
teams up with her friends and their talking dog to unmask the crook behind it all becomes entangled in an ancient conspiracy that threatens to destroy the world. In order to solve the mystery and put an end to the catastrophic chain of events she'll have to team up with a bunch of girls she doesn't know(or does she? DUN DUN DUNNN!!!)who on any given day could heroically rescue her from demons, kill her, dress her up in a skimpy swimsuit for their perverted viewing pleasure, devour her soul, or confess their undying love(Pro tip: Your decisions in regards to these people are kind of important). Each storyline focuses on one of these girls, expanding on their backstory, providing characterization, uncovering some of the plot, and deepening the relationship between them and the main character. To the games credit, despite each route taking place over the same time period in the same area with the same characters each one feels fairly unique, and you won't have the plot all figured out with just one storyline which means there's more to each route then just learning about the various characters. The story isn't going to blow you away or give you a new perspective on life but it will keep you interested and the fact that you make the decisions yourself instead of just passively watching makes it all the more satisfying to solve everything and earn yourself a happy ending(and you are indeed going to earn that happy ending, there's 56 in total, only 6 of them are good).
There's 5 characters important enough to get their own storylines, a sprinkling of minor characters from the kendo team who only really feature in the slice of life sections, two villains, and one old guy who only shows up to provide exposition because the rest of the time Chris Hansen is questioning him on why he's alone with a bunch of school girls at an out of the way temple where no one can hear them scream. While each character does at the very least have a strong enough personality that they aren't utterly boring only the 5 characters with their own story are memorable or possess anything resembling depth. Admittedly, even those 5 do seem kind of stereotypical at first, but as you play through their stories everyone of them turns out to be more then meets the eye and endearing in an odd sort of way. Sadly none of them can transform into fighter jets or sports cars, a flaw that I find VERY difficult to forgive.
One of the things I did enjoy about the characters is that they manage to avoid the bizarre sickness that afflicts many visual novel characters where they fall off the planet and are never heard from again if you choose any storyline but theirs. They stay relevant, make their presence known, and often times getting them to work together is the only way to avoid a painful death. Oh yeah, you're going to have to work together. A lot. Syouko is rare amongst video game protagonists in that more often then not she's actually the "damsel in distress" that needs help or to be rescued by vastly stronger characters(the only similar case I can think of is Shion Uzuki, hurray, worked in my obligatory Xenosaga reference). If you try and fight even the wimpiest of monsters by yourself you're probably going to die. That's not to say she's a wuss, she's actually quite capable and brave, the problems she faces are simply out of the league of normal people. In a more action oriented game this would probably be really annoying, but in a mystery/horror visual novel that's going for a tense atmosphere it works incredibly well.
Where as elsewhere this game is merely "good" or "interesting" here the game really shines. There's a wide variety of music, and while very little of it is stuff you would listen to by itself, it all does the job of setting the tone for a particular scene. Voice acting is also of a consistently high quality with EVERYTHING being voiced, and I do mean everything, even the main character gets a voice which is rare in visual novels. And hey, if they aren't to your liking, you can mute individual characters(why oh why does this feature not appear in every game in the history of anything ever? Can you imagine how glorious that would be? "Hey, listen! Hey, listen! Hey, listen!" "STFU!!!" *permabans stupid, overly helpful fairy from speakers for eternity*).Then there's the graphics. I'm not one to dwell on visuals all that much, I mean come on I still play the original X-COM, but this game is just drop dead gorgeous. Everything from the characters to the backgrounds to random household items looks beautiful. The only flaw I can think of is that they're overly fond of the color blue and that's such a petty complaint I feel the need to punch myself in the face for being such a whiny bitch. They give me visual magnificence and I slander it out of a compulsion to give the illusion of objectivity by including both good and bad points. Seriously, fuck me, I'm not worthy of this game. No, that doesn't mean you can have my copy, you're not worthy either. I saw what you did to that cute little puppy, you bastard.
As far of the rest of the features go, it has all the standard stuff, picture and music galleries, fast forward, quick save, etc with a few extras. There's a quirky retro action minigame, various unlocking features(ie: you can unlock all the stories or pictures without actually earning them), a Create Your Own Scene thing that I'm sadly too much of a sissy to figure out, and most importantly of all, an ingame flowchart for the storyline. Words can not describe how awesome this is. If Chuck Norris and Captain Falcon had a baby, this flow chart would be the baby(don't think about how their baby ended up being a bunch of programming, or how two men had a baby, it won't end well) Essentially, as one plays through the game it keeps track of which paths you've gone through, which path you're currently on, and what direction different choices could have taken you. Now you can tell exactly when you locked yourself on the path to murderland and avoid doing it again, or make sure that you are actually on route to a new storyline this time. This one simple feature instantly made the game so much easier to navigate and let me avoid the humiliation of being forced to use an online walkthrough for a game where all you do is click once every 5 minutes. To all you game developers who are reading this right now(don't pretend you aren't, I know how much the opinion of some random guy on the internet under the delusion he can write means to you), include this feature in future visual novels or I'll...uhm...uhhhhhh...glare at my screen and be very disappointed with you I guess.
I feel kind of ridiculous including a section just for this but I've learned that the Yuri community is a fickle beast in regards to exactly how much girl loving is in their girl love stories. Recommend something to three different people and one will yell at you that it's perverted exploitative crap, another will yell at you that it's too tame and childish, and the last one will steal your shoes while you're distracted by all the ranting. Since I happen to really like my shoes, here's the section:
First off, there isn't any actual sex,
hurray this left me very disappointed as I am a hetereosexual male who very much enjoys naked breasts and does NOT enjoy men in anyway at all ever. Instead we get the "not sex scene" in the form of blood sucking. Remember at the beginning of this review when I said half the cast was a lesbian vampire? I lied. Instead blood just serves as a sort of generic way of gaining power for the various important characters, think Seikon No Qwaser(oh god, I admitted I watched part of that show, the idea of each fighter having their own element from the periodic table as their special power was cool okay?) with blood and necks instead of milk and boobs and you're on the right track. For the most part it's portrayed in a romantic manner rather than a sexual one, and by visual novel standards it's ridiculously tame so I won't hold it against the game. There are of course other more generic fanservicey things, e.g. the obligatory beach scene and Natsu never solving the mystery of how shirt buttons or bras work but it's not that bad, and most importantly the game doesn't completely abandon the plot in order to shove in breasts, it's worked into the narrative and the story continues without a hitch. Overall, on a "what would happen if you watched this at work" perversion scale of 1-5 with 1 being "your coworkers wonder why an adult is still watching Sesame Street" and 5 being "everyone gouges their eyes out and your PC files a restraining order against you" I would give it a 3. It's definitely there, but it doesn't render the game unplayable if you aren't into that sort of thing.
Summary The part everyone skipped to when they saw how long this is.
Aoi Shiro is hardly the greatest game ever, and if you don't like visual novels this one probably isn't going to change your mind. But if you do like visual novels(or want to give them a try), mystery or yuri in particular, I feel pretty safe recommending this to you. It lacks the complexity, emotion and mature themes you might see in more cerebral works, but makes up for it with a fast-paced mystery romp, light romance, and beautiful visuals. Beyond that though it's just fun to play, so far it's the only visual novel to give me that "Victory!!!" feeling on successfully completing a storyline and saving all the heroines from sharp pointy things. For me, that's justification enough, the rest is just the cherry on top.
PS: If you buy it get the PC version as it has more content and can be patched to English.