Visual Novels - because insomnia builds character.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Explicit Instruction [Digital Manga]

  • Title - Explicit Instruction
  • Author - Kuroi Games
  • Style - Enhanced Digital Comic (Manga+)
  • Rating - Not for sale to minors, 18+
  • Trial - Yes
  • Engine - Ren'Py
  • Price - 2.99$
  • Website - Offical Website
  • Get - Kuroi (Download) (Can be ordered on a CD if desired)
Explicit Instruction is hard to rate because it basically makes a genre of its own. Digital comic distribution is something many have tried; from Tokyopop's attempts to pull anime fans in with music and limited animation to simple e-books packaged as iPod apps or released on the Kindle (but with no color). Kuroi is the first I've seen that sells a standalone computer application (made from the well supported multi-system Ren'Py engine) This is likely the best way to go for small press adult material which cannot make it into stores or the more famous digital distribution channels.

Enough on the format, as for the work itself, it's a spinoff of Explicit Proposal, Kuroi's debut work. I reviewed Explicit Proposal here . Like its predecessor, EI is a short sex-focused story.

Graphics - For better or for worse, the art is absolutely put-on-a-coffee-mug adorable (This does NOT mean they look lolicon!). The disadvantage of this style is that it is a bit awkward for some of the more explicit pages. I highly recommend the trial version to anyone considering purchase. While only the first few pages are colored (following the traditions of manga) the color work is well done with pastels and same detail and style carries over in to grey work. The line work needs a bit of polishing for consistency and smoothness but I have no particular complaints. Background art is smooth and matches well (I didn't notice it was a different artist until viewing the credits.) 8/10

Sound/Voice - Since this is a manga, and therefore fairly short, music plays a much lesser role than in a game. (and no role in page mode). Voice is the primary auditory component of EI, every line is voiced, and the recording quality is good. The voice actors are convincing and quickly set the tone both our characters. Music is standard Creative Commons fare, certainly appropriate and well written but has that vague feeling you probably heard is somewhere else. Page sound effects are a nice touch in page mode. 7/10

Story - While not completely implausible to reader's not familiar with Explicit Proposal, EI is a direct spin-off and references the preceding title. While EP was not "serious" in premise, the characters acted in a serious manner. EI is much more humorous. Mika's absolute adoration of Rei is charming and Rei's willingness to exploit it gets us straight into the action. Mika seems to go along with this all surprisingly easily. Much like the original this is the sort of title I would pick up when stressed or pissed because it is pure entertainment for entertainment's purpose. No moral queries or long monologues to click though in hopes of getting a panty shot some time next week; EI is like candy corn: not illustrious but cheap, tasty and bite-sized. 8/10

System/Extras - If Explicit Proposal was a manga book, Explicit Instruction is a doujinshi/fan comic with the added benefit of sound. The length (20 pages) and price are the same as comic book singles. There are two mode of play, Frame Mode which uses panel by panel zoom and pans and Page Mode which lets the user scroll around each page freely. Sadly one cannot zoom in and out of page mode. Oddly, (since English reads left to right) the pages were made in a right to left orientation. This seems to be a common quirk among OEL manga artists (and preferred by some readers) so I won't debate the merits here. This only becomes a usability issue in page mode because buttons are orientated so one clicks on the right button to advance to the next page (which in a book would be to the left hand side). Luckily a flipped option was added to Page Mode though it would be ideal to have the buttons move as necessary between the two modes. Cute menus with lots of extra art but no standalone extras. 4/5

Overall - The price point makes this a worthwhile purchase for anyone who enjoyed Explicit Proposal but I highly recommend playing that work first. If you were interested in EP but turned off by the art style give EI a try. A low-risk price for an experimental format, there isn't much to lose.

Score - 27/35 - 77% - Average

I altered review format to put less emphasis on sound (therefore more on story/visual) since this is marketed to the manga crowd.

Thanks to Kuroi Games for providing a review copy!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

YinYang! : X-Change Alternative

  • Title - YinYang! : X-Change Alternative
  • Author - Crowd/Peach Princess
  • Style - Multi-path Visual Novel (interactive)
  • Rating - Not for sale to minors, 18+
  • Trial - No
  • Engine - Proprietary Engine by Crowd
  • Price - 30$
  • Website - Crowd Website (Japanese)
  • Get - J-List, Peach Princess, RightStuf

EDIT: Somehow I forgot to put a intro paragraph on this review, sorry folks. Here is goes:

X-Change is a quite popular and somewhat infamous series of eroge (emphasis on the erotic part). As one might suspect the name comes from the common feature that the main character changes into a female (XX chromosomes, hence the name). That means that delicious red headed girl is actually that (equally delicious) red-headed guy. Since YinYang is a fresh take on the X-Change series I decided to give it a shot.

Graphics - The art is bright and clean. In particular, the male characters which are usually neglected get distinct, eye-pleasing designs that could just as easily be in a otome title. Tachi-e (character art) are of the same quality as event CG. Lots of variations for emotion and dress (or lack of). Scene specific variations like male Kaoru in the female uniform are included so the tachi-e match with the story. The vast majority of Event CG are H. Anatomy looks a bit strange in some shots but certainly passable and consistent. Some event CG are reused but the staggering amount of CG makes up for this (128 with variations). CG reuse aside, the art is pleasant and varied. 9.5/10

Music/SFX - There is really not much to say here as the background music is pleasant but simply average. Its not bad by any means, its just forgettable. Luckily, there are 22 tracks so at least the reader doesn't get bored too often. Sound effects don't stand out very much either (but I generally consider that a good thing). The two vocal songs (opening and ending) are both very good. I highly recommend picking up the OP mp3 from Crowd's website, its such a fun, happy, song and fits the game very well. 8/10

Voice - While the voice acting is nothing ground breaking it is certainly a valuable part of the work. Unlike many works (especially in the realm of yaruge) the males are not only voiced but done with care. It has often annoyed me how eroge makers would not bother with voices for side characters or the entire male cast (the protagonist is a different debate). Even relatively high budget titles seem to have this problem. Refreshingly, YinYang shows great attention to the male voices as well as the female one's. 8.5/10

Story - I will note here I have not played the X-Change series that inspired YinYang (I likely won't as I hear it has a whinier protagonist). YinYang makes no pretenses, its goal is to have as many sex scenes in as possible while still keeping a comedic tone, all rolled around easy to follow plot. It does so well. There are 6 major characters with 1-3 endings each (12 total endings). Many routes are split by if Kaoru stays female or not but this is not the only factor. Though I've mentioned this above, since Kaoru lives with men, sleeps with men and fights with men it is nice to see them presented as individuals. Tohya's and Renji's routes are very different even though they both could have been played as "childhood friend" generics. I am slightly disappointed in the lack of Sengoku or doctor routes but the game has 12 endings already. You would be hard pressed to find a better yaruge in terms of story. 9.5/10

System/Extras - This game uses a proprietary engine for Windows (but works on WINE pretty well). Much of the most heavily used interface is integrated into the reading window such as save/load, skip, and, backlog controls (including voice replay). Options are also accessed this was and load in a separate standard window. The usual CG and Music modes are present, the music mode is particularly well structured and has information on when each song is used. As is common in more sex-focused games a "memory" mode is also included. This mode is especially nice as it has thumbnails, titles for each scene, and shows some dialog to make finding the desired event easier. 5/5

Select dual core systems may occasionally crash but this can be prevented by setting xca.exe to only use Core 0 in Task Manager (I only had to do this once). I'm not dinging the title for this as it was made before dual core processors were common.

Overall - Despite some flaws, Yin-Yang has earned it's self a spot as one of the top yaruge (sex-focused games) on the market.

Score - 40.5/45 - 90%- Exceptional

Monday, May 11, 2009

ONE : To the Shining Season

  • Title - ONE ~Kagayaku Kisetsu e~
  • Author - Tactics/Nexton
  • Style - Multi-path Visual Novel (interactive)
  • Rating - Not for sale to minors, 18+
  • Trial - No
  • Engine - Proprietary Engine by Nexton (System localization required for installation)
  • Price - 7,140 yen
  • Website - (English Version)
  • Get - Himeya's Erogeshop (18+)
ONE is notable in the visual novel community as one of the pioneers of naki-ge (crying games) and because it's staff went off to form a little studio called Key. Recently, a translation has become available in English for the full voice version.

Recent to when I started this review anyhow. This game isn't easy to score. One part of me says its a fabulous work while the other thinks its firmly "average". I've given up on this review so many times but here it goes.

Graphics - This game was released in 1998 and it shows. This personally does not bother me (I kinda like it) but the other effect of age is that the files simply are not of that high quality. Some of the art seems pixelated even in Windowed mode but the resolution (640x480) is fine considering its age (640x480 is unreasonable for modern games, Clannad!). Without regard to age, the overall feel is unpolished and it would be easy to mistake ONE as a doujin product. Itaru's style has always been very much a love or hate issue among fans and ONE shows why. Despite all this, the character designs are superb and the CG framing is solid. H-CG in particular are surprisingly tasteful. 8/10

Music/SFX - The music is one of the stronger points of ONE. Featuring Key's famed Shinji Orito, its no surprise the soundtrack for ONE is close to excellent. Over 20 pieces of music are used to great effect especially in dramatic scenes. SFX are well done but nothing more than standard stuff. 9/10

Voice - The first line still sticks in my mind "永遠はあるよ”. The voice acting reaches near perfection at some of the eternity scenes. The weakest part (as it almost always is) is the H-scenes. Everything else is well done and quite enjoyable but I didn't find my self stopping to listen to every line. As a side note, the voice acting is much newer than the game as it was recorded for the rerelease. 8/10

Story - The story is gripping. The characters are likable, Misaki-sempai deserves credit as one of the best bishoujo of all time. But why couldn't the writers change it up between routes more? The individual routes are sadly very similar, even the route of the "main" girl Nagamori. While this game did define the nagi-ge and certainly envoked tears, the plot follows one formula every time and slowly beats it to death. For maximum enjoyment play one route every month or so. 7/10 (Misaki route: 10/10!)

System/Extras - The system has all the standard features and fairly nice menus. CG mode is by character and a music mode is present. Also, this full voice version has brief interviews with each voice actress (even side characters without tachi-e) but these are in Japanese only of course. I would have liked to have an H-scene menu as is common nowadays. 4/5

Overall - This was a hard game to review. I really do love it much more than the score indicates but for the price the story really needed to be more diverse.

Score - 36/45 - 80% - Good
Omake - This demo video was released to promote the game.

Note: While screen shots were taken on Mac OSX (out of laziness) the game freezes on WINE when the music changes. ONE is only confirmed to run under a true Windows environment at this time.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

True Remembrance

Graphics - The background is the first thing you see, a beautiful background image. It looks like a photo. The other backgrounds used in this game are similar in style. They stay consistent through the story, and are not hard to look at. The backgrounds have a lot of subtle detail that fill the screen nicely. Following shortly is an event CG. These CGs are usually simpler, with simple details and defined figures. The CGs are appropriately colored, for example a bright CG for a happy event. The character tachi-e are for the most part consistent with the CG art, and each character has a nice variety of poses. The tachi-e are simple and seem to focus more on conveying emotion than looking pretty. There are also little particle effects (snow) that show up once in a while that add a little extra detail to the scene. 9/10

Music/SFX - The music is nicely varied. The menu theme is immediately catchy and memorable. The other songs as just as catchy, setting a good mood for the story. There were maybe four or five different tracks. Each song was simple and effective. They didn't distract from the game. Sound effects on the other hand were mediocre. The sounds were unrealistic and low quality. They were placed accordingly in the story and didn't disrupt too much. There weren't too many sound effects, but for the most part they didn't feel necessary. 7/10

Story - The story is long, intricate, and very immersive. Each story element is introduced slowly but clearly, making it easy to pick up on the subtle details. The main characters are developed very thoughtfully and thoroughly, making them quite realistic. There are also many minor characters, and while for the most part they were important to the plot, some only show up for a very short period and could have possibly been merged into one character with the same effect. 9/10

System/Extras - There is a CG gallery, the standard save/load functions, and the option to view the opening movie. The opening movie features a vocal song, which is unusual for a small production. Unfortunately, there is no option to listen to the songs. 4/5

Overall - The story was interesting and original. The art was effective and pretty in its own way. The music was nice and varied. Overall, this is a game I would definitely recommend.

Score - 29/35 - 83% - Good

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Princess Waltz

This review was produced for and can be viewed here. A review copy was generously provided by Peach Princess.
  • Title - Princess Waltz
  • Author - PULLTOP
  • Style - Linear Visual Novel (interactive)
  • Trial - Japanese Only
  • Engine - Proprietary Engine (fully adapted for US environment)
  • Price - 39.95$ Boxed or Download
  • Website - English Site Japanese Site
  • Get - Store List Please note download edition is only available through Peach Princess/J-List.
To be honest, when I first heard of this title I paid little attention to it, most of the titles the Payne zaibatsu (J-List, G-Collections, Peach Princess, and Jast USA) produces fall into small inaccessible niches. While enjoyable, such games often provoke negative reactions from those unfamiliar with the genre and outside their target audience. Princess Waltz is not one of those niche titles.

Graphics - The visuals for Princess Waltz are stunning. Lines are crisp and colors are bright bringing a light-hearted tone to the game. Each character has numerous standing dolls (tachi-e) and full body variation convey emotion better than a slope of an eyebrow/twitch of a lip ever could. Most impressively is the large amount of animation/visual effects. It is very rare to click through a scene with out movement, be it a change in posture, zooming in or out of an image or even the quick movements of battle; the screen is always changing. These are not full motion animations, but simple tweens that add a great bit to the game. Unlike some games (from larger studios!), a large number of side characters have multiple sprites. This goes a great way to compensate for the static nature of visual novels and makes Princess Waltz an excellent game for newer players.

Backgrounds are clean and well drawn but nothing outstanding. Event CG however are well done. Many non-ero CG are included, especially for battles and dramatic moments. Another drawback from it's birth as a lower budget title is that detail is slightly higher on the event CG than on the sprites. This did not bother me as the change is more subtle than in other titles such as Ever 17; most importantly I would rather have some CG with extra detail than to have detail left out for consistency. HCG average at three per scene (with variations) with one scene per character (one exception). The angles aren't too ridiculous but the usual HCG oddities still apply, Arata turns invisible (except his dick) in some of the scenes. Fortunately or not, every issue I have noted is standard industry practice. Princess Waltz is truely a pleasure to look at. 10/10

Music/SFX - The music for Princess Waltz is pleasant and, possibly more importantly, quite fitting to each scene. Track length varies from under half a second to over four minutes and sound effects are when expected. Sounds are panned to create a richer effect, and some tracks are fantastic... 疾走無限 and 雨の旋律. Notice, these tracks are named in Japanese.... the included pre-tagged soundtrack has Japanese titles while the in game music mode has translations, this may be a bothersome for someone with no Japanese knowledge but retagging isn't too difficult as the order appears to be the same (tagging can be done with iTunes or any other music management software worth it's salt).

The sound effects are excellent and bring the battle sequences to life. Different attacks have different sounds and a SFX loop is used for metal on metal combat, a nice touch to keep the battles from becoming too calm between special moves. Luckily, no intrusive sound effects are used for adult scenes. 8.5/10

Voice Acting - Voice acting has no major flaws. Characters are consistent and every one except Arata is voiced. Princess Waltz actually would have benefited (more than the average game) from voicing Arata because he has a defined appearance and identity anyhow. One common complaint with the game is that the voice actors for characters with multiple identities make the relation too obvious. I however do not fault PULLTOP for this because they never seemed to care about hiding multiple identities: one look at the Graphic page will, for better or for worse, give away most or all (depending on how close you look) of the "secret identities" the princesses use. Voice acting for erotic scenes in particular is a notch above average because the lines and acting are toned down, providing a more realistic experience. 9/10

Story - The fact that the story is essentially linear (one endings with slight variations) will make this game lose many sales. This is really a shame because the story is quite good. The plotting and style is very similar to anime and would be an excellent introduction to the visual novel genre because of it. While the character development isn't lacking, certain heroines fall short during their individual chapters. Oddly, some of the side characters posses impressive depth and are quite entertaining. Like many visual novels the story starts in a school but that school scenes become fewer and fewer as the story progresses and refocuses on the fantasy plot. Quick twists and turns ensure constant entertainment.

The "choose-a-girl" style of the 2nd half is clearly the weakest point of the game. Despite that, it accomplishes two things: firstly it supplies the game with a diverse amount of erotic content and secondly it provides Arata a partner without completely supplanting the true heroine. Since the second partner is user-decided the game can unforgiving refocus on the main girl when it needs to. Unfortunately, in order to please fans, the ending is romantically ambiguous. While many bishoujo gamers feel the need to clear a game in a weekend, this game would be better enjoyed with time between the routes so one can better enjoy the individual merits of each girl than the pressure to skip through the same ending text again. Make no mistake, Princess Waltz aims to be a fantasy story not a dating-sim and it does an admirable job. 8.5/10

System/Gameplay (Battle) - The battle system is very accessible but not too simplistic. A slew of help files in battle mode explain as much of the system as you could want to know and an easy mode exists for those who just want to get on with the story. The graphics and sounds are in lines with the rest of the game. Many have complained that the AI is predictable but I found it comfortably challenging. 8/10

System/Extras - The system is very polished with the menus and text box themed to match the battle system, the text box frame also sports a quick access bar with all the major buttons. The biggest issue with the system is the courier font used for game text. It contrasts badly with the clean lines of the art and menus. After a couple chapters of the game it becomes unnoticeable but for the concerned the font can be changed by editing the Windows registry (see below). Extras include the usual Scene, CG, and Music modes (curiously one button in the music mode is untranslated but it's function is clear). As a bonus to the English edition (as if being half the price wasn't enough), Peach Princess included the aforementioned pre-tagged soundtrack in MP3 format with an average size of 3.4MB a song (bigger file size indicates higher quality). 4.5/5

Overall - This is a very difficult game to define, it has more akin to an fantasy anime than it does to the average visual novel. For the most part, the game is balances these two aspects well and is sure to please both new and seasoned visual novel fans. The linear nature will discourage many from trying Princess Waltz and that is a shame, they are missing out on one of the most enjoyable (if not deep) visual novels in English.

Score - 48.5/55 - 88% - Good

How to Change the Font
In the Windows registry access HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Software\Will\princesswaltz_us and just change the FontName Value to a font you prefer. Please remember that tweaking the registry can damage Windows, this particular tag is obviously for PW (not Windows itself) but don't change values you do not understand. I only have a theoretical knowledge of the almighty registry (have never needed to tweak it) and have not tried this myself.