Swan Song Review
Prelude to tragedy
Swan Song is a 2005 Japanese visual novel from the game studio Flying Shine (known for their previous game, Cross+Channel), and translated into English in 2010. It deals with the collapse of the societal order in a small isolated mountain town through a devastating earthquake. Or rather with the measures taken to survive in the aftermath of this disaster by various individuals and groups, all as the finite resources dwindle, and the unending snow slowly threaten to envelop and silence them.
NO JOKE FOR YOU!
The game follows a group of 6 main characters initially brought together by circumstances in the immediate chaos following the earthquake at an old church: The quiet and seemingly emotionless Tsukasa, the unassertive and emotional nerd Takuma, the energetic, kind, and always abusive girl Hibari, the ever cheerful and in all positive aspects of the word manly Tanomura, the responsible and diligent, but reserved young woman Yuka, and the mentally handicapped girl Aroe suffering from a severe case of infantile autism. Having survived the initial disaster, they establish themselves at the church before looking for other survivors. For good and ill, they succeed in their search...
It's hard to go into much further detail without spoiling anything, but I will say that for a game about the downfall of society, it sure spends a great deal of time examining how one is built; What challenges it face, what core mechanics always come into play, and how easy things can go so very wrong in it. Beyond basic survival, the topic of (re)establishing many basic organizations also comes into play, as does the rise of crime, vigilantism, and even warfare between survivors as things get ever more desperate and out of hand. Religion and the problems of it - and also of the fanatical rejection of it - might pose in such desperate times also featured quite heavily.
But the external dangers are not the only ones the survivors have to face. In a world all but destroyed overnight, and growing more bleak by the day, meaninglessness and despair - even madness - looms right around the corner for most, making those it break little more than savage beasts brutally taking what they want, inflicting untold suffering on those who still cling to their humanity and stave them off. But just how long can one stare into the abyss before it inevitably stares back?
As a narrative style, Swan Song repeatedly switch between the perspectives of all its main characters (except Aroe), and use this both as a way of moving the story forward, and to provide insight into their thoughts and adaptation to this extraordinary situation. The primary POV-character is Tsukasa, with Takuma as the second most common one.
Also note that Swan Song is an 18+/AO title (whatever the highest rating might locally be), and that it shows, particularly in the latter parts of it. In general, cruel deaths and brutal rape await the characters should your choices lead them astray, and even the path(s) which will successfully complete the game aren't necessarily devoid of some ruthless brutality and very harsh fates. Contrary to American tradition, the game tend to shy away from explicitly showing - if not from vividly describing - the more violent scenes, whereas sexual scenes are explicitly depicted a few times.
Being a visual novel, there's very little that could be called gameplay in the traditional sense here (...at least unless you're so traditional as to remember text games like Zork and adventure games like Myst). At various times you'll get to choose a character's reaction to a certain situation, and this will determine how the story plays out. Some choices will only determine what/how much of it you get to see, while others will lead into bad endings - usually nightmarishly so - which are also game overs. There is but a single "true" ending the first time around, although another one can be unlocked after completing the game, which will probably take some 15 - 20 hours for most.
...enjoy it while it last
Swan Song has a fairly visually distinct and perhaps borderline minimalistic approach to this. Unique does not necessarily equal good though, and I'd imagine this is a part that'll very much be subject to individual preferences of whether one finds the very... rounded... character design and detailed but seldom vibrant artwork appealing.
Like most other VN's, much of the game utilize the various locales - in casu snow covered ruins - of where the story is taking place as background artwork, with individual CG's being reserved for more notable events. Unlike most other VN's, there are no full-on character sprites, with the portrait of interacting characters being shown in the corners of the screen instead.
Personally, I find that all this helps create a somewhat rough and barren feel to the game, that's yet quite appropriate for the story, and works well in tandem with it. By contrast, it's also all the more notable and intensive when the game then do go all out with its artwork at various high points.
A symphony of Frost and Flame
Like the artwork, the aural experience is a mostly subdued, but to me far from underwhelming one. The voice actors are well chosen, and all fit the characters. The use of music isn't constant, with some long stretches going without any, particularly when the setting is in the outside snowscape or during scenes of ordinary dialogue. When it does kick in, which seem to happen with increasing frequency as the game progress, it's mostly a calm affair, with even the action themes showing a measure of restraint; The grandiose opening theme being one of few exceptions to this rule. The ending themes both seem really out of place though.
Again, Swan Song often seems to go for a uniquely subdued and in some instances minimalistic style, much in line with the snow that covers its world. Whether you like the visual and aural art styles, and whether you'll find their use fittingly calm and composed to the story at hand, or simply lacking in vivaciousness and impact would again ultimately be highly subjective here; It won't work for everyone, and those who don't like it won't be at fault here. Those who do are in for all the more of a treat though.
That's what I'm saying!
The interface is very well designed, being both functional, minimalistic, and appealing. The game requires no special fiddling with one's system (putting it in Japanese locale etc.) to run out of the box, except for applying the English patch to it. The extras - unlocked after completing the game - features a CG gallery, a BGM player featuring all the tracks from the game, and an event viewer for the ero scenes (...strangely including some of the decidedly more unpleasant ones too).
I really liked this game.
It takes a while to get the ball rolling, but once it rolls this is a solid no-holds-barred story about the end of civility and everything that entails. From being a story about the initial survival, bonding, and hijinks of a group of fairly stereotypical young people, its scope gradually widens into a grand tale, and most of its characters deepen and change with the situation and the revelations of their past... except for Aroe, who's ever undisturbed and cheerfully indifferent to the world crashing down around her. Although she does make for an excellent catalyst.
What can be held against the game is mostly all of its artistic choices being potentially divisive (simultaneously a strength), that it has a bit of a slow start and slow down a bit again near the end, that a few characters don't really see too much character development (...and one arguably too much, although I think circumstances justify it), and that perhaps it isn't quite as inspired as it seems to think it is, if not far off either. Other than that, it's a solid title through and through.
Final Score: 9/10
The beginning of the End