This is a game that has been recommended to me over and over and is a heavy influence on Coffee Talk, one of my favourite games, so I came into Va11-Hall-A with very high hopes.
Mixing Drinks and Changing Lives
Va11-Hall-A is a visual novel with a drink mixing mechanic, which is your main way of interfacing with the story. The drink making felt a little clunky – there tend to be a lot of ingredients to add, and getting it wrong means a completely failed drink and having to start again. In contrast, Coffee Talk’s drink making has fewer ingredients, making the process feel smoother, and every combination makes something, even if it is incorrect. The idea that getting something wrong leads to discovery is really nice, and allows room for experimentation and taking your time – ideas that are inherent in Coffee Talk as a whole. Perhaps then, Va11-Hall-A’s less comfortable experience is also thematic – the game is about working a precarious minimum wage job in a cyberpunk hell future, so a clunky drink making experience that’s easy to go wrong is pretty indicative of the setting.
The story and world are very interesting in this game, but the dialog is strange in some places. I believe that English may not have been the first language of the writers, but I am unsure. I’m inferring this by odd grammar bits like ‘will you’ over ‘are you going to’. Another thing that stood out was the use of Miss Firstname as polite moniker, which is something we tend to see in translations of Asian media as an attempt to localise honorifics that we don’t have in English. I believe the team behind Va11-Hall-A are Venezuelan, so I’m not sure if this is something from Venezuelan culture or if its a deliberate choice that is meant to conjure up a Japanese feel, which is possible considering the anime and cyberpunk aesthetic that drives the design.
Another thing that felt odd, but in retrospect is likely intentional, is the way that we jump straight into conversations about happenings in the world with zero context. This is realistic, and does add to a sense of immersion, but is also confusing, as we try to figure out who factions are or what tech is as characters are talking about their relationships to it. Again, with the cyberpunk theme this must be a deliberate choice, as its reminiscent of the way Gibson writes in Neuromancer – a book that on first reading I hated for this reason, but on further readings became one of my favourite books of all time.
Story and World Building
So far, I haven’t felt particularly engaged in the main story of the bar closing down, nor have I felt attached to the characters. I like the world building though, and am curious to see where things go. In particular the additional world building and story information you get through the blogs and news apps are great, lending realism to the world as it feels like there’s a story outside of you and your customers.
The hacking story, online handles and just some of the way the future is handled feels like a blend between the retro-future visions of the 80’s and the mid 2000’s, which is sort of the future I imagined we’d have during the days of the early internet, so I do like the vibe very much.
There’s a lot I still have to see in Va11-Hall-A, and if more play time changes my opinion on it I’ll write a little more about it. I have feelings about some of the characters I’ve met so far – Dorothy in particular disturbed me – but I don’t feel I can comment until I’ve seen how their arcs go, if in fact that is something they get.
World Of Horror
I’m struggling to articulate why I love World of Horror so much. The atmosphere, built with the retro graphics, incredible soundtrack and Junji Ito motifs, is excellent, but there’s more to it than that.
World of Horror’s ability to provide an engaging, frightening story using procedural elements is really something. While the overall story of each mystery is hand authored, the individual events, such as meeting enemies, discovering ancient grimoires and getting lost on the subway are all procedural. This makes the game very replayable, but I also think it works on a thematic level. The unpredictability of the events means that you are always on your toes when playing this game. You can’t see the consequence of an action and reload to make a different choice. You can’t die and then plan to act differently next time. Just like the character in the game, you don’t know what horror will be facing you next and you have to improvise with whatever you have at hand. This powerlessness allows the player to relate to their character, as it is felt both through the eldritch god that looms over the town and through the rougelike nature of the gameplay.
Final Fantasy 9
I’ve been playing through Final Fantasy 9 with my partner, and its been really fun despite some issues I took with the characterization.
I didn’t enjoy Zidane’s attitude towards women. It wasn’t exactly offensive, particularly as the game does have some decent female characters, mostly just cringe and very of its time. ‘Bablicious’ – only in the 90s! It didn’t endear me to the main character much.
I was more concerned about the Quina character, who’s attitude and motivations were completley dissonant to the tone of the events in which I collected them. I understand that this was optional, so I give it some leeway for that, but the other characters were going through stories of war, of missing loved ones, of a return home and Quina was talking about food at every opportunity, using what can only be described as baby talk! Having a character come from a sort of native village using this type of language felt like it was close to touching on some very nasty stereotypes that didn’t sit well with me. I don’t think the food as motivation thing was neccearily bad in itself – travelling the world to try foods isn’t exactly unheard of in the real world – but said person doesn’t need to be portrayed as an imbecile, nor do they have to mention food during dramatic character moments for the rest of the party.
Regardless of these issues, I have really been enjoying the game due to its other very cool characters which seem primed to have some good growth, and its unique steampunk/Shakespearian setting.
Andromeda Six Chapter 5
Andromeda Six’s fifth chapter was released a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been waiting for this for a while – things are really heating up in both the central story line and the optional romance, with the ‘lock in’ moment for the romance being offered in this chapter and the crew planning an attack on Zovak.
I feel like I need to preface this with – I love this game. The characters are excellent and, for the most part, the writing are world are solid. It feels far easier to talk about the negatives than the positives and I think I may have been particularly harsh with my opinion on this chapter due to how much I loved the previous ones and how long this had been building for.
We finally get the kiss scene in this chapter, but it feels rushed. I see that there was an attempt for a dramatic moment, with your love interest saving you from the abyss and kissing you in a crumbling building, but the kiss felt like it came out of nowhere. Weeks (months? timeline is unclear…) of banter and getting to know each other and then, a desperate kiss in combat. Now that sounds great if the characters thought they would die then and there, but this came after they save you. I would have much preferred to have the saving us scene, then have the kiss later as the crew are decompressing after their dangerous adventure. This does exist to an extent in the forest scene, which I much preferred.
I wonder if the kiss feels this way because of how open the choices are. At this point, bar a couple of blatantly signposted options that lock routes, I’m still able to romance anyone in the game. From what I can tell, there doesn’t appear to be any kind of underlying system determining affection of the crew for the player, nor tracking the player’s choices. There is a single choice when leaving Cursa that lets you choose who you’re currently crushing for, and it appears this has some affect on dialog, but I think it is the only choice that does.
It is only at this point in the game that you are locked into a romance, and it explicitly tells you this. I’m not sure what I think of that. On one hand, the very clear signposting is helpful. It prevents you getting onto a route that you don’t want, but on the other hand, it is not subtle in the slightest which breaks immersion, reminding the player that this is a game and not real people that you are trying to suss out. In real life, when you’re trying to get someone to like you you try to show them your best self while also trying to learn more about them. This is what I enjoy about the romance aspect of visual novels, and the blatancy of the way options are telegraphed in Andromeda Six takes that away.
It is nice change of pace in comparison to games where you have to redo a lot of content to switch paths, and I do appreciate being able to reload a save and see a bit of content with another character, so its not all bad, its just a little ‘gamey’ for my liking.
Compared to the writing in previous chapters (chapter one’s introduction of Damon is especially good), I felt the actual prose was a little weak. Grammar was off in places, and the text for each of the characters was very similar, which was disappointing considering this is the pivotal moment for the romance part of the plot. It felt almost as if there were a couple of scenes written and they were mixed and matched for each character. Vexx and Damon’s scenes inside the building were effectively the same, with different scenes in the forest. Cal’s scene in the building was slightly different, but the scene in the forest was incredibly similar to Damon’s. The scene in the forest does give the player a little insight into how the love interest is in a relationship, but I think I just wanted more distinction. The valentines DLC does a much better job at this, having similar but not exactly the same events due to the characters being attracted to different parts of a festival, and having them react in their own ways to the idea of a festival centered around love.
Another issue I had was that if you choose Vexx its possible you’ve just found out some very dark things about your shared past. It feels far too soon for my liking. I don’t think that the Vexx romance shouldn’t be in there – friends to enemies to lovers though a redemption arc? Brilliant! But it needs time. There’s a lot of talking and figuring out feelings that needs to be done between the MC and Vexx before I can believe they could get back together.
The other think that irked me is that in every romance option the MC says ‘Do you wish I didn’t kiss you?’ to them.
For one, surely it should be ‘Do you wish I hadn’t kissed you?’? For two, why so down? I’ve had the choice to choose my personality up to this point, and that is not something that I would have had my character say. This moment should be happy and instead it reeks of insecure otome protagonist – we’d managed to avoid that up until this point! Have some confidence traveller!
Overall however, I love Andromeda Six and I’m looking forward to the next chapter. I get the impression the game may be wrapping up soon, so exited to see how it concludes!
I’ve finally got a Switch! I saw that Famicom Detective Club was being remade for it, and I needed to get one. Until that comes out though, I’ve got a whole bunch of Otomes to play.
The first of these is CollarXMalice, a mystery dating sim about a mysterious terrorist group terrorizing Shinjinku. So far I’ve played two of the routes. As far as I can tell, the content is very different between routes, with the heroine investigating a different aspect of the mystery alongside a different love interest in each one. Playing all of them seems to be the key to solving the crime overall. I like this approach, as it gives incentive to playing different routes beyond just experiencing the content with different characters. I like visual novels that have clearly been designed with replayability from the offset.
Choice Design and Replayability
Talking of replayability, CollarXMalice has a lot of good comfort options for making playing content you’ve seen before less hassle than it tends to be in other games. The skip function is genuinely fast, and the player can play with speed and content options to decide what to skip and how fast. It offers a history panel, as most VNs do, but offers the ability to skip back to anything in that history – a great option if you’re not a save scum type but want to make a different choice. In addition, once a route has been cleared, the option to start from later chapters in that route is available from the main menu.
The game does have a lot of dead ends though. Giving both early out game overs and multiple endings and routes gives us a lot of different content to discover, however most of the death endings don’t feel meaningful or interesting in a way that impacts the overall story. Mostly its a case of go the wrong way, follow the wrong person and end up murdered. One could argue this is a way to show how dangerous Shinjinku has become under the lift of the weapons ban, however this is never stressed and it often feels like it was the heroine’s fault for going somewhere dangerous. This is not only not a message I like, but it actively conflicts with the vison I wanted to have of the main character as a cop who could handle herself.
These endings are not well telegraphed. While I may have bemoaned Andromeda Six for its too obvious messaging of choice consequences, CollarXMalice goes too far in the other direction. Following the wrong person can lead to a fairly long section that only leads to death. One of the deaths in Kei’s route did foreshadow the villain of Mineo’s route, which is cool in hindsight, but didn’t feel good at the time.
The general wording of choices was also vague, and I wonder if this was also the case in the original Japanese or if its something that’s happened in translation. For example, there was an option where the main character is discussing what could happen if it turns out her and another character are not on the same side. The options are ‘I don’t want to run from him’ or ‘I don’t want him to shoot me’. I read it as ‘I don’t want to leave him’ or ‘I don’t want to be shot’, but the true meaning of the first statement was that the heroine was telling him to shoot her if necessary. The question was really asking if the heroine was willing to die for the greater good, feeding into the broader theme of greater good and the police system vs individual liberties. Dealing with serious topics like this is great, and its a little disappointing that unclear choices prevented me from expressing opinions on it.
Another slightly odd thing is trigger mode. As mentioned above, the main character doesn’t get to use her weapon often, so when she does its a big deal. Trigger mode appears when she can shoot, but it fails to appear if the ‘affection points’ with your love interest are too low. These points are displayed on a separate menu from the main game, which is easy to miss. There is a small ‘affection up’ UI element that appears when you make the choice, but I wasn’t aware until I googled it that this was actually a stat I could track as a player.
Even if this was well communicated to the player though, the mechanic doesn’t make sense. There is no thematic connection between how much affection your love interest has for you and your ability to hit a target. The love interest is normally the one directing you to shoot, but this stat doesn’t convey the trust you have in them, its all about their attitude towards the main character and how often you made choices they liked. When trigger mode fails to activate, she automatically misses. A guy didn’t like you enough so you missed your target? Mixing combat and social stats can be very successful – see Persona 4 and 5 – but there’s no justification that makes this one work. I’d rather have seen the affection points lead to a platonic ending, where the duo were still great investigation partners, but not in a romantic relationship. Conversely, the game could have replaced affection points with detective points, increasing every time you made a correct deduction. This could then inform trigger mode, as you know which target to hit.
Story, World and Character
So far I’ve really enjoyed the main story and mystery. The slight horror bent to a detective story is right up my alley, and it combines Japanese ‘death game’ style horror alongside engaging twists and turns over multiple related cases. The world is also engaging, with the police station, bars and streets presenting a cool depiction of Japanese working life. Most of the otome games I’ve played have been set in high schools or magical worlds, so this slightly more adult, grounded world was nice to see.
Unfortunately, that’s where the adult feeling ends. Despite being a police officer, the main character does at times feel like a typical teenage otome protagonist. The game goes to lengths during the opening to show her during target practice and this really excited me, but she is then scared and falters every time combat comes up during the main storyline, being side-lined to show off how badass her love interest is. While there is a degree of battle-couple style fighting together near the end of each story, I’d have liked the heroine to be more on par with the boys in terms of policing and combat prowess.
She doesn’t match the love interests in terms of detective work either, though this does appear to be variable between routes and I do hold out hope that others may be better. Though they were appealing love interests, I found myself more jealous of than attracted to the main band of detectives. I wanted to be a badass hacker cop or an ex-division one detective AND date guys who were just as cool. While the fish out of water heroine can be a fun way to introduce a player to a fantastical world, in a more grounded one that character type is far less appealing.
Parts of the romance in this game are fantastic – seeing the characters learn and grow alongside each other. In particular, the slow burn of distrust, to reluctant work partners, to friends of Mineo’s route was fantastic. It felt realistic and not forced – there was no love at first sight, just the slow realisation that these were two people who had similar attitudes and things in common.
There was great drama in Kei’s route, with him being unsure of which side the heroine is on and this being used to push and pull them apart. Unfortunately, his bizarre death wish was off-putting, and when we finally realise where his strange beliefs come from, they are solved in an instant via the power of love. This game doesn’t shy away from complex topics, but I think this was one that needed a lot more nuance to be handled correctly. This route also had you investigating a stalking case and brought up some excellent points about stalking and the Japanese justice system, all while including a love interest that literally followed you without your knowledge. At first I thought this was purposeful and was going to used to prove a point or as a source of conflict but it was never addressed. In the end it just came off as incredibly tone deaf.
There are some odd attitudes towards romance in this game that, again, wouldn’t be out of place in a game featuring teenagers. In Kei’s route the heroine thought that he was only interested in her platonically, despite him telling her multiple times he was interested, and in Mineo’s route it says she’s never kissed someone before. While I’m sure there are plenty of adults in this situation, its not the majority and if I’m playing an adult I’d rather she’d have a more adult attitude. I’m 27 – I want a character I can relate to!
I really liked the side characters in the game. Having work friends and a conflict to resolve with her brother makes her feel like more is going on in her life than just the main plot, and its good to see a main character than has a support system outside of just the romanceable characters.