Saturday, October 24, 2015

Games for Adults Halloween: School Days HQ

School Days HQ Review

                Well I knew I’d be getting to this game eventually, and considering what this game is perhaps known for the most Halloween makes for a very fitting time to review it.  I say perhaps because the other aspect to this School Day’s fame is from its initial Japanese release by Overflow on April 28, 2005 (since then it’s been ported to PS2 and PSP and given an upgraded PC rerelease) it was advertised as a fully animated game where you could make choices that could change the plot and take it in many directions. When I first started hearing about this game was also about the time I was getting into Bioware’s games (I still hope for another Jade Empire game, someday…), so hearing that there existed an eroge with a similar sounding concept definitely caught my interest. Of course when JAST announced they’d be releasing the game (and to top it off it would be the upgraded version hence the “HQ”)through cooperation with a fan translation group (turned legitimate nowadays)called Sekai Project who’d been working on it prior to that I was very excited to try School Days HQ out on its release date of June 28, 2012. Now that I’ve played it I can say it’s a very interesting game with several things to like, but…

Pros: Interesting core cast of characters, animation is good where it counts, very good voice acting.
Cons: Too much plot diversity, game’s writing seems more interested in rewarding one type of choice over the other, not as “fully animated” as advertised, animation is not very good in some parts.
WTF?!: A movie adaptation of The Silmarillion exists in this game’s universe?! I have so many questions as to how that’s possible. Even aside from the legal issues from the Tolkien estate, I want to know how they go it into one movie. I mean there’s so many time periods that book covers from the creation and theft of the Silmarils (not to mention the very world’s creation) to the War of Wrath, the fall of Numenor and Gondolin, not to mention…*

*Our apologies, but it’s been decided to cut off the author’s ramblings here as uncut it goes on into triple digit page length. Please enjoy the rest of this review.

                School Days’ story begins with a student named Makoto Itou, who secretly admires a girl named Kotonoha Katsura, who rides the same train as he does to their school. In a twist of fate, one of his classmates, a girl named Sekai Saionji, discovers his crush and decides to help get the two together. After a period of time it seems Sekai’s matchmaking pays off, but while helping Makoto and Kotonoha get together Sekai develops feelings for Makoto herself.
                Okay, I admit the story’s premise sounds like the most cliché plotline you’d get in a tween romance story or soap opera, but I can say School Days does make a clear effort to work with the tropes to craft something interesting from them. For example the beginning does a good job introducing the core cast as we get a good feel for their situation and develop an interest in what direction their stories could go depending on your choices. This leads into the main strength this game has in the writing category: its core cast of characters (click here for profiles).

                Aside from the beginning of the game doing a good job establishing Makoto, Kotonoha and Sekai as characters, School Days writing strength for all three stems how well it uses system of many choices and their subsequent branching paths to show the multifaceted aspect of them and how well it’s integrated into the game’s episodic structure. It really is interesting to see your choices bring out the best and worst of these three (and some of the side characters) and everything in between. It’s rare that you see an eroge take this route with its characters, but this game pulls no punches in how your choices can result in one of these characters getting pushed not only into acting downright despicable, but also outright breaking them into murderous insanity. That’s not a joke or exaggeration, with the right choices any of our three main characters can end up on a path leading to a psychotic break down with differing but no less disturbing results. While I admit this aspect has over time become a little too gimmicky for this game over time (which we’ll get to later), these aforementioned routes are presented well enough in terms of writing and visuals to be the factor that earns School Days a spot in this year’s Halloween review series.

                That isn’t to say the game is all dark and disturbing, as School Days does have its share of light moments, though most of them are in the beginning, and as I said before you do get to see the characters at their best. This ranges from good character moments such as a scene between Sekai and her best friend Nanami near the end of one of Kotonoha's routes that does a good job showing the two as friends willing to support each other when things get bad to even subtle character development that can have you considering the quality of the characters as people and how their redeemable qualities stack up against their negative ones. For this reason I recommend not using a walkthrough on your first playthrough; just pick whatever choices feel natural or make sense and see which path you end up on. It’s a good way to gain the right impression of the characters and from there you’ll better appreciate the other routes, be the outcomes good or bad.

                Before we get to the flaws, I guess I should address something that many consider a flaw: our protagonist, Makoto Itou. Ever since School Days registered on the eroge community’s radar, Makoto has been called (at least one of) the worst and/or most despicable protagonists of all time. Having played the game…I have to say that while I can understand why some may feel that way, I don’t. Part of the reason is because I admit I kind of identified a little with him at the start. I was socially awkward myself through most of high school so I could understand why someone might act that way, especially taking into account that despite the required characters’ age disclaimer in this game the characters in this are written as teenagers and actually act like them. That isn’t to say I was 100% okay with our much maligned protagonist as there are quite a few moments of his that did make me shout “Really?!?!” at the game and some of these were when I was trying for a “good” Makoto playthrough. Finally there’s the fact that Makoto’s overall portrayal is dependent on the choices you make;  he can be a decent guy if you make the right decisions and an unlikable person if you make more irresponsible decision. I’m almost tempted to say this would be like holding it against the MCs of the Bioware games if you play Dark Side/Renegade/Way of the Closed Fist (I don’t think Dragon Age has a choice label), but that’s not quite the best analogy and why brings us to our next subject…

                The main flaw School Days has in the writing department is the fact that as impressive as its many choices and subsequent plotlines are, they’re also a double edged sword in how there’s simply too much of it. What we have here is a problem that’s essentially the equivalent of a problem many open world games suffer from: lack of focus on everything in between the beginning and end portions of the game. This is a problem because while the many paths show us different facets to the main characters and subsequently bring up interesting plot points, we don’t get any more focus than the bare minimum on most of them, which is really too bad because these plot points have so much story potential. For example, in one of the harem routes one of the plot points that comes up fairly often is how Sekai’s friends aren’t particularly fond of Kotonoha, and while this does serve the purpose of showing how much one of these characters cares about Sekai even to a fault the plot point is essentially dropped once she and Kotonoha begin sharing Makoto, leaving the player wondering how this would affect Sekai’s relationship with her friends since it’s obvious this would come up eventually considering how the story goes.
                One more writing flaw also stems from the choice system and it’s also the reason why the aforementioned Bioware analogy doesn’t fit:  the game’s writing favors you making the more “irresponsible” choices when it comes to Makoto’s actions. Basically more interesting stuff happens storywise if you have Makoto do the more thoughtless thing over what would be considered a “good” choice (though admittedly there are still interesting plot points going that path, just not as many). Now I know with that statement some of you are probably rolling your eyes, laughing or about to point out my contradicting my earlier statement regarding Makoto as a protagonist, but let me explain. My problem isn’t with the actions themselves, my problem lies with the fact that one type of choice was given more writing attention than the other. I admit this could be me being spoiled by more modern games that use choice to determine character action, growth and story progression and through that School Days may simply be showing its age, but it’s still off putting all the same, especially taking into account this is supposed to be the expanded version of the original release. Still, I don’t even have to look to the aforementioned triple A titles for comparison, there exists an eroge about the same age as SD that does a better job on the writing front in regards to story for both sides of the moral choice system, and it’s been updated about as much too. It’s called MinDead Blood.

                Regarding the system, the game does well in making the fact that it’s designed to be like an interactive anime to be as user friendly as possible. You can pause almost wherever you want (in some key scenes you can’t for a while) and you can also fast forward at whatever speed you like (which does make for some amusing sounds hearing scenes fast forwarded through) or skip scenes all together. Perhaps the only real flaw here is you can’t pause during choices, but you are given enough time to make a choice and sometimes not picking until the time runs out leads to interesting results.

                In the area of presentation, School Days HQ is kind of a mixed bag and nowhere is this more apparent than in the visual department. While there a good number of scenes that are very well animated (which thankfully apply to major story scenes)there are also a number of cases where the animation just isn’t very good. This ranges from cases where the studio obviously recycled character animations for the character’s more day to day conversations, to many awkward pauses in conversation which I’m not sure are intentional or the game trying to remember where in the story branch tree it’s at to what are essentially flick flubs where you briefly see characters in scenes who aren’t supposed to be there like the far end side of their character portrait. This brings us to another visual flaw in that this game isn’t as “fully animated” as advertised.

                Aside from the aforementioned recycling of character animation for conversations, School Days HQ has a far more noticeable break in its “full animation”: the use of still images during some conversations. Now I get animating a game like this is expensive and of course cuts need to happen to stay within budget, but seriously, I think they could have done better than what we have pictured above which looks like a screenshot from an early PS2 game and barely looks like it fits in this game. Even taking into account these stills are supposed to be for background purposes, it seems strange that Overflow wouldn’t draw still images that would better match with the game and just use some visual tricks to make it less noticeable as a still image like having the camera pan to the left or right as the characters’ conversation moves along. I know this may seem like nitpicking to some, but bear in mind advertising aside this is supposed to be the upgraded version. Kind of makes you wonder what the old version looked like…
                In the sound department, School Days HQ fares much better. Everyone in the game is voiced and their VAs turn in pretty good performances. The music’s pretty good too, though I admit I can't name any tunes since for some reason this game lacks a music gallery.

                As for the ero scenes, they’re overall just okay and the reason is only some of them are well animated. The ones that aren’t have a noticeably cheap and rushed look to them that kind of make you miss the animated ero scenes featured in games from studios like ZyX and even softhouse seal since those may have just been looped images but they still looked good. Plus there are cases where the character voices and their lip movements match up about as well as a Godzilla dub.
                Still, so as not to end the presentation on bad note and since it’s in the spirit of Halloween, there is one scene category that School Days HQ does not mess up on: the bad ending death scenes. Like I said before, the right route can lead to a character’s psychotic break and from there the game is not shy at showing the (literal) bloody culmination of it all. Let me leave you with a little sample image below and I promise there’s more where that came from…

In Conclusion:
                School Days HQ is an overall decent game with its good points showing just how much ambition was behind it in its creation. Sadly as impressive as its plot with multiple branches is, its noticeable lack of writing to support such a level of plot diversity leaves its story stretched thin.  In the end I’d say it’s worth playing but it’s still a bit disappointing in getting only a decent story when you can clearly see the potential for a much greater story there but not taken advantage of.

Final Score: 6/10 Above Average
Author Recommendation: Try it Out.

                As for the anime (talking about the show as I haven't seen the OVAs)…it’s okay. Admittedly it’s one of those love it or hate it kinds of shows and while I kind of lean towards the latter I can understand why the former appreciate it, usually as a deconstruction of harem style anime as one could easily make that argument about the game being that way with similar tropes in many VNs. My reason for not being all that fond of it kind of has to do with its being an adaptation of the bad end routes, not because of that though, the reason being the entire purpose of the adaptation just seems to be so it can lead into an all new death scene that was created for the anime. This is where we get to that bit I mentioned before, while I get that the death scenes are more or less what made School Days famous I think the creators may have let it become too much of a gimmick and let that get the focus for the anime and thanks to that the look at the characters is more on their negative aspects over the positive ones. To be fair though, the manga adaptation also has some of that too but manages to pull it off better from a writing perspective. While I recommend the manga over the anime when it comes to adaptations I will say one point in the anime’s favor is how interesting the story of its death scene’s censorship inspired a certain meme concerning boats. Aside from the fact that said meme makes a nice shirt (no pun intended) I won’t say anymore and suggest googling it if you don’t know what I’m talking about as it’s something has to be believed.

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