Periodically I like to pull out a visual novel and play it through. I don’t do it very often, so I’m not extensively experienced in them, but recently it has seemed like there have been more and more available, both as fan translations and actual commercial releases. It makes for a nice break from watching terrible anime and procrastinating over updating this blog. Anyway, I recently finished Aoi Shiro. Aoi Shiro, for those interested, is a so-called ‘all-ages’ yuri VN by Success. Originally released in early 2008 for PS2, the PC port (which the translation patch is for) was released November 2009.
Two things attracted me to this enough to give it a spin. The first was that, as an all-ages game, I was fairly confident that I’d be getting a half-decent plot. I don’t have anything against 18+ games, but if there isn’t a half-decent story to keep me interested then there are far more expedient methods for obtaining such material. The other thing which piqued my interest was the fact that this is a yuri story. Apparently there is some connection between it and Success’ previous yuri visual novel, Akai Ito, but this was not expanded upon within the novel itself.
One of the first things that struck me upon loading up the game was the production values. Most likely this simply highlighting the fact that the bulk of similar games I’ve played are either fairly old or doujin games, but I was fairly surprised to find every line of dialogue in the game is voiced, with mouth movements and eye blinking animated for any non-event CG sprites. It’s a minor thing but it contributes quite a bit to the experience. The art in the game is also fairly nice, with an appealing if slightly staid set of character designs.
Voicing of dialogue isn’t really that uncommon, but usually the protagonist is not included in any voicing. Generally this is because the protagonist is little more than a generic avatar for the player himself. The generic male protagonist in these games is one of the reasons I think I find so many VN anime adaptions completely vapid. Shouko, as protagonists go, is refreshingly well-rounded and avoids a lot of these pitfalls. I’m not sure if it is simply expedience or a deliberate consideration, given that as a female character there is already a major disconnect between the usual male VN audience. The decision to flesh her out in detail results in Shouko receiving at least as much character development throughout the game as the rest of the cast, if not more.
As far as the plot of the game goes, it’s fairly good. It’s not going to be winning a Pulitzer any time soon, but it is intriguing, well-paced and pitched fairly well. I’m a big fan of the particular storytelling style which crops up in a lot of these games, where there are multiple endings reachable, and each major route through the game reveals a new aspect of the overall situation. The addition of a ‘true’ scenario unlocked upon reaching the end of all the other routes, which draws together all the members of the cast and ties together the various elements of the plot into a lasting resolution is fairly nice. It actually surprises me that this kind of semi-nonlinear, branching plot structure is rarely seen outside of the visual novel genre. The most common complaints about Japanese games in general recently have seemed to be hinged around the uninteresting and linear nature of their plots. I would love to see this particular structure used more.
Unfortunately the endings were probably the weakest element of the story. While the endings themselves were fine, the ‘happy end’ epilogues seemed very weak. Only the true end has a remotely satisfying epilogue, and it comes at the expense of an abrupt and slightly confusing final sequence. I also felt that there were elements of the plot which were not expanded upon enough, and I ended up being left with a few questions. The foremost in my mind is that we never have it fully explained why the protagonist has the ability she does. The idea that there is magical power in blood is a fairly standard trope. The exact same logic is used to justify boob-biting in Tsukihime[link nws] or at least half the sex in Fate/Stay Night[link nws], and the quasi-vampiric Shouko nomming which effectively takes the place of sex in the various routes are perhaps a slightly more tasteful reinterpretation of the same core concept. The reason why her blood is of particular power is explained within the plot as well, relating to her backstory, specifically that she had consumed the same medicine that had been keeping Nami from aging. They never did, as far as I recall, state categorically whether the references to her having eaten ningyo flesh was literal or simply an illustrative reference to the similarities between Yasuhime and Yao Bikuni of the ningyo story from Japanese folklore. Anyway, that aside, it is never actually explained why Shouko was able to take that medicine without any side-effects. It becomes an extremely major plot point, but the actual reason why it was possible in the first place seemed to have been left at the door. Perhaps it was a reference to Akai Ito, which having not played that game I would not have been aware of.
I played through the routes in a fairly conventional manner – Yasumi, Migiwa, Kaya, Nami, Kohaku then the true route. I probably enjoyed Kohaku’s route the most out of all of them. She was the character who interested me the most, and seemed to have the most mystery around her. It seemed like there was a lot more about her which ended up going unrevealed, which is a bit of a shame. I also noticed that there was a bit of inconsistency in Shouko’s character in some of the routes which was not there in others. Specifically, in some of the routes she has a lot more personal strength of will. In Migiwa and Kaya’s routes, she is a much stronger character. Kohaku’s route made her seem much weaker and more reliant on the rest of the cast, especially Kohaku herself. This may simply be a matter of expedience, where she takes the more submissive role in when paired with a stronger character.
I was also a little bit disappointed at the fact that the rest of Shouko’s classmates don’t play a large part in the story other than providing a vehicle for plot advancement, a bit of character development, and comic relief. I will admit I was crushing a bit on Ayashiro. Incidentally, they could probably have done with giving some of the other girls in the kendo team a few moments. The way that everything is presented you could almost be forgiven for thinking that the team is three girls and a manager.
However, niggles aside I enjoyed the game quite a bit and would absolutely recommend giving it a spin.