Saturday, October 27, 2012

Games for Adults Halloween: Kara no Shoujo


Kara no Shoujo Review

 

            Well, October’s here and considering it’s the right time Halloween theme, I figured I’d try it so each week of October I’ll be posting a review of a horror themed eroge. For our first game in our Halloween 2011 reviews we’re taking a look at Kara no Shoujo, Mangagamer’s most recent A list eroge release. If there’s one genre I’ve become enamored with in the VN area, it’s the mystery genre, most especially the crime solving kind. From when I started reading the Hardy Boys back in elementary school and watching the Hercule Poirot BBC series (David Suchet makes the best Belgian sleuth), leading into my long enduring addiction to Detective Conan and my love for the Ace Attorney series, a good murder mystery has never lost its appeal to me over the years. As you can guess, after playing Chain and the few C’s Ware mystery eroge that Himeya released, there was no eroge type I wanted to see localized more than a mystery themed one. Sadly, it would be years until that wish was officially granted, and that was this past May when Mangagamer announced they’d made a deal with Innocent Grey (a company I have long been a fan of for their dark mystery stories and excellent artwork) for one of their most highly regarded games, Kara no Shoujo, I was thrilled at the announcement, and since my buying it on the release day of June 17, 2011 I’d say this is a very strong return for the genre.

 

Pros: Good story that moves along nicely from the start, interesting characters, gorgeous artwork, splendid music, interesting investigation system.

Cons: Your decisions and actions really only determine the ending, true ending leaves a pretty major question unanswered, no voice acting, amazing opening (shown above) is not in the game nor is its music in the music gallery.

WTF?!: This scene. She’s talking about koi…and she’s serious…

 
            The story for Kara no Shoujo is set in 1956 Japan and focuses on ex-cop turned private detective Reiji Tokisaka as he investigates three different cases: a string of serial murders that have been occurring, the disappearance of two students from a nearby private girl’s school, and a request by a student from that very school named Toko Kuchiki which is to find her “true self”.

            I won’t deny being a bit of a fanboy for Innocent Grey as I’ve imported almost all of their games (though I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t finished any of them due mainly to time). One of the main reasons is they all have very well written dark mystery stories in which your character investigates a string of serial murders the likes of which you’d see in “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Se7en” and well written characters to match. I can say with confidence that Kara no Shoujo is no exception, and trust me as you get further on you’ll see I’m not making these comparisons lightly.

            To begin with, the story for this game is very well written from the very start. It draws you in with a cryptic start that has you very curious as to what this will mean in the grand scheme of the story before easing you into things with your being introduced to the main cast and see the beginning of Reiji’s involvement in the three aforementioned cases. The pacing is actually well handled by whoever wrote this as this portion never feels slow and it naturally flows into where the main story for the game begins and it’s there that we see how Innocent Grey has earned its reputation for writing good quality murder mystery stories, as not only was the writer able to establish an atmosphere that matches what’s currently going on from a deductive sort of feeling when clues or events related to the cases are being analyzed, to a creepy sense of foreboding whenever we see things from the killer’s point of view, but also managed to intertwine the three cases together well in a series of revelations that you probably won’t see coming. However there’s more than just the dark and suspenseful parts to the story that make it so good, the writer was also able to write in lighter scenes to balance with the dark and serious parts that are the meat of the story. These scenes really do their job well in providing relief from the events of the cases in that they don’t feel out of place in the story despite being of a lighter mood and help in providing insight into the game’s large cast such as how they relate to Reiji and even quirks. That’s not to say that these other scenes are all just comedy, some of them do have drama to them and do a good job at providing a look at the characters be it learning more about them or how they relate to Reiji.

 Now while this game doesn’t have routes like your traditional VN, only endings which are different outcomes to the final case, there is romantic development between Reiji and some of the heroines with Toko, Kyoko, and Hatsune technically having endings (sorry, fellow Tojiko fans). As for which of these three I prefer my first pick would be Kyoko since I like the subtle development of her relationship with Reiji which comes off as quite mature and believable considering how long they’ve known each other, Hatsune comes in second as aside from her interactions with Reiji being pretty cute her “route” does win points for actually showing a winnable heroine from a previous game moving on and starting a relationship after the MC of the previous game* ends up with the canon heroine which you don’t see very much of in VNs, Toko’s come in at third because while her interactions with Reiji are interesting and she herself is a really likable character the game tends to be a bit too ambiguous about just what her and Reiji’s relationship is. In all likelihood they’re probably saving that for the sequel, but even so I have to say Kyoko and Hatsune win in the romance department because their story in that area is more complete.

            Having said that, you can probably guess now that another major element that makes the game for this story so good is the characters in it (click here for profiles). For starters, Reiji is an excellent protagonist as he’s likable, interesting, and also quite believable as a character. He’s an effective investigator but has limits in what his deductions can accomplish in terms of solving the cases he deals with, the interactions he has with the characters he encounters are all interesting to look at, and in the area of making him likable the writer did a good at making him come off as a pleasant and reliable person to anyone in his social circle, be it friend or client. Of course his character is given more depth than just being likable as the game takes full advantage of playing from his perspective; a good example would be Reiji’s dealing with the death of a loved one and how it affects him as a character over the course of the game. The way in which these scenes are written do a very good job at conveying his feelings as a man still dealing with the grief and loneliness despite the amount of time that has passed since then, and none of the scenes come off as too long or overdone. Also, it isn’t just Reiji who gets this treatment when it comes to characterization. A very large portion of the cast has a well established character that makes them memorable, heck even the asshole police official has a bit of character depth to him.

            Of course having a well rounded and mostly likable cast of characters serves another purpose in Kara no Shoujo’s story: it makes for a very effective combination of suspense and horror once the killer begins making a move. The reason is because the culprit’s targets include people Reiji knows or comes to know well over the course of the game. Now you might think this is where you’ll be pulling in all your detective skills in order to save this character, but I’m afraid with one exception, no, that isn’t going to happen. Characters that feature prominently into the plot and Reiji’s social circle (and likely at least one you really like) are going to die, horribly at that, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. This ends up making for some very gripping scenes as you see Reiji and the police try desperately to find these characters in time to save them when you know it’s futile, and you get that same sinking feeling that Reiji and co. are supposed to feel as well the moment that you receive word that the remains of the killer’s deeds have been found. This game does a very good job in showing just how unglamorous it gets for a detective solving murders, especially if those murders include people he’s close to. In doing so it invokes genuine concern of who might be next as you consider how powerless you were to stop the last killing leading into you really wondering how this case is going to end as well as really motivating you to catch the killer. Now let me make something clear first, while the killings are enough that you want to do to the killer what Beldin wanted to do to Urvon throughout The Mallorean pentalogy (okay, there were a few variations so just go with all of the above), the game doesn’t go overboard. None of the deaths feel like cheap moves just to get you motivated, these are portrayed as genuinely tragic events, especially concerning the people close to the victims.

            Now as you’ve probably guessed from all of this, the story for this game is not a happy one, but I can say that it’s still a very good read and the 5 endings are all good in there own right. Three (technically four) of them do a very good job at mixing a sense of accomplishment and loss as Reiji solves all three cases and he and the surviving characters move on from said events. The final scenes in these endings each end in a way that despite all the terrible things that happened, there’s either some hope for future happiness or at the very least one small accomplishment wasn’t worthless in the end.

            Having said all though, I have to say that this game is not without flaws, even in the story department. The biggest flaw is that the true ending (and the almost true ones (play and you’ll see) leaves one big question unanswered. Don’t get me wrong, the ending is conclusive and ends on a very good bittersweet note, however the one question left unanswered will still nag you in the back of your mind for days after finishing. It’s not quite at the level of the unanswered question at the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but it’s pretty close. Innocent Grey has announced a sequel that probably will answer that question, but we’ll have to wait and see**.

            The only other main flaw that this game has when it comes to the story is that your decisions and actions really only determine the ending for the game. Only in one case are you able to make a story altering decision, the one that unlocks the path to the true ending but it’s a while until you see the results and even then the changes aren’t that big until the end. Now don’t get the wrong idea, the game’s story is still very good, but I do think it would have been a little more interesting if there had been more plot diversity.

The form of gameplay that Kara no Shoujo has is crime scene investigation similar to that of the Phoenix Wright games with you taking a look at the area and click on areas your cursor turns red on. Your analyses provide you with clues that are added to the evidence list in Reiji’s notebook, which also contains information on the characters, the investigation itself, a map of the city, and a character correlation diagram that essentially shows how each of the game’s cast is connected to one another. This notebook updates not only during your investigation of a crime scene but also in your interactions with the characters as someone usually has something to say that will reveal things like information about other characters or something that may be connected to the investigation or be useful to it later on. Some of these interactions occur depending on what part of the city you have Reiji go during the segments where you essentially select two locations on the map of the city to go to. Of course the visiting locations isn’t just for getting clues, some of them may lead to some romantic development between Reiji and one of the heroines.

            In the area of presentation, this game really succeeds in both the artwork and the music, and this is the other main reason I have for being a fan of Innocent Grey; they make very pretty looking and sounding games. Both the character portraits and event CG are all very well drawn, and actually stands out from the designs you usually see for a VN where the characters actually look a good deal more realistic as opposed to the more anime/manga style design typically used. Not that I have a problem with the latter, it’s just that it’s actually refreshing to see a different kind of art style than normal. Another element in the art department for this game that also amazes me is just how well detailed the background CG is. Every location in the game is just so well drawn it’s like looking at a good painting; every time I ended up somewhere new I paused just to take a look at the background just to marvel at how well drawn it is, something I have not done before with a visual novel game. A similar thing can be said for the music of this game since not only does it do a good job in setting the appropriate mood for the scenes that each piece features but are also good to listen to by themselves. It’s been a while since I encountered a game with music good enough for me to actually stop playing for a bit just to listen to it. Sadly this also brings up a minor gripe on my part, the opening isn’t in the game and that’s a real shame considering how well blended the song and the imagery are together and sadly the music for the scene is not in the music gallery even though it plays at the true end credits roll.

            As for the ero scenes in this game, they’re all pretty good, being well drawn and they fit well enough into the plot even if a few do seem to come out of nowhere.

            Before ending this, I have to point something out to you all. The original Japanese release of this game had voice acting but the English release had the voices removed. Sadly this is not a case like Koihime Musou where after x number of games sell the voices will be put back in, the voice removal is permanent. The reason for this is Innocent Grey had an odd arrangement in which they did not have the rights to the voices recorded for their game, the studio where the voices they were recorded at did and said studio asked for a ridiculously large amount of money (I hear it was equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars) to allow the voices to be licensed. Since the choice was either go voiceless or not release the game at all, both MG and IG decided to go with the former and release the game at a greatly reduced price which I’ll get to later. 

            Having played the game I can say that the lack of voices isn’t that big a loss, and you don’t feel their absence quite as much as you did with Koihime Musou (back when it lacked voices) because Kara no Shoujo involves more reading than the characters speaking when it comes to presenting the story. Also I have experienced the game with voices, one of the reasons being I own the original Japanese game (and there is a fan made voice patch), and while the voice acting is good (may even have a few big name actors as I think I heard Hikaru Midorikawa and Kentarou Itou in this) you aren’t missing very much and may even end up skipping past the voices at the intense story points since you’ll want to know what happens next and can read faster than the actors can speak. Also to take into account is MG’s honesty as like with the Koihime Musou incident, they were completely forthcoming and answered all the questions posted to them about the removal. A company that honest and informative to its customers deserves its support. However, the biggest incentive I can give you all to get this game is this: pricing. Due to lack of voice acting Kara no Shoujo is priced at roughly $35.00 (give or take about fifty cents), and for a top tier game like Kara no Shoujo that is a bargain price, not to mention that puts it at only a little more than your average game for a hand held console.

 

In Conclusion:

Kara no Shoujo is a truly excellent murder mystery thriller that’s not only an excellent game to play for this Halloween (or any time), it’s also one of the best games Mangagamer has. Its great story and characters, fantastic artwork, and memorable music give this game a quality that puts it above most of the VNs out in English right now. I highly recommend this to anyone who likes good mystery stories. While you are left with an unanswered question at the end (until the sequel) and many story events are pretty much set in stone regardless of your choices and actions, this is still an excellent game experience well worth the money and the time to play (10-30 hours). Also, if you’re worried about taking my word for it, then download the free demo for this game and see for yourself as it’s quite generous in the amount of content it has and more than enough to show you how good this game is. You can download it here.

 
Final Score: 9/10 Must Own

Author Recommendation: Buy it now.

 
As for the OVA for this game, let me say this: if you haven’t played through at least one ending don’t watch it, it will spoil a lot. Now concerning my opinions on it as an adaptation, well the first episode’s okay. In that episode you can tell they were trying to create an abridged version of the game’s story (though they skip over quite a bit from the beginning), but they don’t do the best job of it for a few reasons. First, all crossover characters from one of IG’s previous games, Cartagra*, are not in the story which makes for a bit of a plot hole considering two of them feature prominently in the game’s story. Second, because they skip over a large portion of what is essentially the start of the game, they have to change quite a few things that by the second episode make it clear the makers of this adaptation ended up writing themselves into a complete dead end. Third, it’s obvious that the people behind this adaptation were struggling between making a faithful abridged adaptation and showing sex scenes and they end up choosing to favor the latter instead. Not surprisingly, the studio gave up on the adaptation after episode two so it’s unfinished. If you’ve played the game, then feel free to check it out if you’re curious, but to those who haven’t played yet, play the game first and if you want something to show you what this game is all about before buying, then please just play the aforementioned demo.

* As you’ve probably guessed from these, Kara no Shoujo takes place after another of Innocent Grey’s games Cartagra and characters Shugo Takashiro and his wife Kazuna, Hatsune, and Yaginuma are returning characters. Don’t worry, you don’t need to have played that game as this isn’t a direct sequel. All you really need to know is that it takes place after Kazuna’s route which was the true ending of the game. Still, if you have played Cartagra (I myself have only completed about a quarter of it), you’ll get the few references to some of the non returning characters.

** If you’re curious about the sequel, while it has been announced for quite a while, IG has finally shown signs of the game moving forward with solid details about the story and returning and new characters. It's been given a release date of February 28, 2013. Here's the main site for the game if you're curious:
 
 
If you can't read Japanese, no problem as good old Siliconera has been giving this game some of the coverage it so desperately needs:
 
 
 

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