Norn9: Var Commons Review
Well folks it’s a new year, and it being Valentine’s Day too what better a way to start things off than by returning to a genre I’ve neglected: the otome game. Once again we’ll be looking at a release from Otomate/Idea Factory and Aksys in Norn9: Var Commons, originally released as Norn9 ~Norn + Nonette~ in Japan by Otomate/Idea Factory first on PSP May 30, 2013, December 11, 2014 as Norn9 ~Norn + Nonette~ VAR COMMONS, and for iOS in October and December 2015, with Aksys releasing the localization November 3, 2015.
Pros: Largely likable cast of characters, story does a good job playing around with continuity in each route, excellent artwork, great voice acting, good music, amusing little minigame.
Cons: The war and peace theme feels a little on the cheesy side, a couple routes feel rushed, an unlocked epilogue feels too much like an info dump, weak main villain.
WTF?!: It’s nice to see fan service is strong with this genre too…
Norn9 starts from the perspective of child prodigy named Sorata Suzuhara, who while on a field trip to the Japanese Diet Building gets transported back in time to what appears to be 1920s Japan where he meets a strange girl waiting for a ship of some sort. Following her reveals that this ship isn’t a boat, but a large globular flying vessel meant to take its passengers, all of whom possess an unusual power, to a mysterious destination in an effort by the major governments of the world to bring about peace. Along with Sorata and this girl are two more young ladies and nine young men. From there the story is played from the perspective of one these three girls and soon you choose which of the men they partner up with as it soon becomes clear that someone among them is working with an outside force to prevent the ship from reaching its destination and pairing up seems to be the only viable solution to find out who it is.
With its large cast of characters (click here for profiles), three (technically four) different POVs to play from and the three routes each from those views, Norn9 certainly brings a lot to the table in the story telling department. Fortunately, it mostly succeeds in giving us a very good overall experience and this is owed to some very good character writing. In the case of our heroines, not only are some of their best moments when the game’s story has them being strong and proactive in the story’s climax but also in some of the game’s more relaxed or subdued moments as well. Moments like these not only serve to build up the heroines’ relationships with the heroes of the game, but also in establishing the friendship the three heroines form with one another. Aside from it feeling genuine, it’s also interesting to see each heroine’s inner thoughts and/or intentions and how they differ from how they seemed to be thinking when you were playing from a different point of view.
This actually brings us to something that the routes do that makes them (and replay) more interesting than you usually would find in a multi-route VN. Basically it takes full advantage of the idea that each route is its own continuity, meaning that just because one route may start out similar to another one you say from a different heroine’s point of view doesn’t necessarily mean what you saw in that route will be happening off screen. This helps to not only keep each playthrough fresh, but it also can result in some very interesting surprises at certain major story events.
Moving on to the routes themselves, due to the differing POVs I’m going to have to do the rankings a little different this time. I’ll first start by showing my preferences according to each heroine and then my overall ranking:
8) Tie between Masamune and Ron
Starting with Natsuhiko, the reason his route ranks at the top is because his route is what an unlockable true route should be (you unlock it after clearing Sakuya and Itsuki’s routes). It reveals things about a character we have limited knowledge of from all the other routes and crafts an interesting arc for this character from it, we learn a good deal more about the game’s setting and above all Natsuhiko and Mikoto have a good romantic arc and really good chemistry. Thanks to the latter we even get some of the funniest character moments in the game, from how these two bounce off each other to an interesting use of the game’s mascots, the hiyokos. Of course it’s not just the comedy that’s good, but there’s good serious scenes like the two working well together to deal with conflicts or quieter moments of them learning something new about each other. Also this route is the one with the most of (sadly unwinnable) humorous sub character Setsu.
Akito’s route comes in at a close second thanks to a surprisingly good character arc for our aforementioned hero as well as the development of his relationship with Nanami. I say “surprisingly” because this route’s story is one where you can call most of what’s going to happen the moment it’s first hinted at and yet the story is still a largely enjoyable one despite that. This is because both Akito and Nanami have good character writing to get you invested in them but it also can’t be denied that another big factor in the enjoyment of this route is the performance of Akito’s VA, Noriaki Sugiyama, who many of you would recognize as Sasuke Uchiha from Naruto, Ishida from Bleach and Shirou from Fate/Stay Night. While his role is similar enough to the aforementioned more famous roles to the point you might suspect type casting, this route’s story direction does take the character in a direction where we can see Sugiyama-san can do more than just the “grumpy guy” role. Admittedly though this does lead into the main factor that brings this route down to second place: the route’s beginning is on the weak side since it needs to set things up for Akito to start developing into a more interesting (and likable) character.
Heishi’s route I have to say I enjoyed almost as much as Akito’s. This comes from the fact that he and Nanami relate to each other just as well on the romance front as the aforementioned and Heishi does have the advantage of being likable from the start. This is helped especially by the performance of his VA, Hiroyuki Yoshino, whose had notable VN roles like Takumi from Chaos;Head and Heisuke in Hakuoki and equally notable anime roles like Allelujah Haptism in Gundam 00,Firo in Baccano! And Kimblee in Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood. Yoshino-san really does a great job in bringing Heishi to life from making his outgoing and energetic side so likable to doing a really good job portraying the dramatic side of this character (which incidentally makes the route’s bad end worth viewing just for that performance). What brings the route down to third place though is its ending, which I must first stress isn’t a badly written ending. The problem with it is more where it ends than anything else; basically part of the story feels prematurely ended on a certain front. Still I can say the route feels complete and as a conclusion for that particular story it’s good enough.
With Sakuya’s route I can say it’s a very good introduction to Mikoto as a character revealing not just her backstory but also doing a good job establishing her character motivations. It also helps that the route does a good job building on the “childhood friend” angle for Mikoto and Sakuya’s relationship as it does a good job establishing these two really caring about each other and the central problem they have to deal with does make for a good enough plot point. The main problem this route has is when it gets to the romantic drama it’s groan inducing because of what it’s based around. Fortunately the route redeems itself first by making a good joke out of those events soon after they’re resolved and the story does make a good approach to the pair’s problem by having them proactively try to solve it in a way that feels smart and at the same time does a good job showing how well they relate to the other characters. In fact perhaps one of the best moments in this route is a series of scenes between Mikoto, Nanami and Koharu that really cements their friendship with one another.
Moving onto Koharu’s routes, I should say the reason they’re further down on the list isn’t necessarily because they’re bad, but because the first two are meant to be introductory routes (it’s recommended you play Kakeru and Senri’s first) they do come off as weaker than most of Mikoto and Nanami’s. Of the two I’d say I prefer Senri’s route over Kakeru’s mainly because I like Senri and Koharu’s interactions better. The writing does a good job in showing these two characters connect beginning with how Koharu’s able to get more than a few words out of the most anti-social member of the crew and from there reveal there’s more likable traits to this guy that she’s able to bring out. I’d say the best moments of this route are the slice of life scenes between the two. Sadly the route’s biggest problem for me is when the end route story begins. While I appreciate the writer giving Senri something to do for the plot’s climax, which does also have some good plot foreshadowing for another route, I didn’t really like how they had to weaken Koharu’s character to do that.
Regarding Kakeru’s route, while it’s decent as a first route for this game, it’s also a route that gets more disappointing the more you play the game. The reason for this is Kakeru is a very entertaining character in the other routes thanks to his role as the ship’s prankster (especially concerning Senri) and also one of the crew trying to get everyone to get along. This is helped especially by the performance of his VA, Yuuki Kaji, who some of you may recognize as the voice for Erin Jaeger from Attack on Titan. The problem in this route’s case is that for some reason Kakeru comes off as a pretty bland character with more emphasis given to hinting at his backstory than any of the characteristics that make him likable in the other routes. I understand why there’s a good deal of that since his backstory does connect to an important story element in the overall game, but the route could have used some better slice of life to get us more attached to Kakeru and give him more chemistry with Koharu. In fact the most memorable scenes that show chemistry between these two happen in other routes. I can say that this route still has redeeming factors, especially at the end where we get to see Koharu be awesome for once.
This actually brings us to Itsuki’s route since it shares a similar problem where we have a hero who is way more interesting and likable as a side character. I can say he avoids the problem of being bland like in Kakeru’s case as there are good character moments between him and Mikoto. The problem is very little is done with him as a character aside from getting him together with Mikoto, which is a real disappointment because a lot of hints to his backstory feature throughout the game, one of them even prominently. Unfortunately very little is revealed concerning these hints and that gives the route a feeling of not having a good sense of direction for its story considering you’d expect some kind of payoff to the foreshadowing concerning Itsuki but the route doesn’t seem to want to do any more than that and focus instead on the romance when there’s no reason for these two elements to be mutually exclusive. It also doesn’t help that the route ends on a note similar to Heishi’s as that route had the advantage of a very good and complete story for its hero so you could forgive it for doing that.
This brings us to the bottom of the list: the routes for Masamune and Ron. These routes, while not really bad, are without a doubt the most disappointing. Remember how I praised Natsuhiko’s route for being what an unlockable route should be? Well that’s because these two are the unlockable routes for Koharu and Nanami respectively and what Natsuhiko’s route does well this pair fumbles with. While Masamune’s route is better in ways than Ron’s thanks to the former being a more interesting (and at times funny) character and it does reveal a few things, what brings these two routes down is they barely do anything with their respective heroes. Both of these characters are presented as being mysterious for their own specific story reasons, but by the end of their routes it feels like we’re only just starting to learn anything about them. The romantic development both heroines also kind of ends up in a similar situation as while there is an arc of them getting closer to their respective love interests the ending leaves things a little too open to the point I suspect both cases to be relying on a sequel or fandisk to give a more solid resolution.
There are a few more flaws Norn9 has, the first of which concerns its war and peace theme that becomes more significant in the later parts of the game. Due to it getting only minimal focus when compared to the relationship building of the characters and even revelations about the game’s setting, it comes off as cheesy rather than effective, less Gundam and more Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. Another writing problem is in an epilogue you unlock after clearing every route that shows what happens on the end of a fourth point of view character besides the game’s heroines. While this epilogue answers several hanging questions well enough, the end of it just dumps so much information on you and the only character input on all this is our aforementioned fourth POV character. As interesting as the setting’s backstory is cramming it together with, new information about a couple characters and to explain what the motivation of our main villain is just before the end of this epilogue was not a very good approach.
And speaking of our main villain, this is perhaps the most notable writing flaw for this game: the main villain sucks. I don’t mean this in the usual way like the character is one dimensionally evil (though if it weren’t for the epilogue he’d be) or his motives are generic (though they are); the problem is he’s barely in the game. Again I don’t mean this in the usual way in that he just doesn’t show up until the story for each route is almost over, I mean that by he’s only in three routes. That’s right three routes, four if you want to be generous and count that unlocked epilogue. It’s really strange since those routes do a good job establishing why this guy would be a threat and after those routes you never see him again and the explanation for why just makes this character come off as even more pathetic as a villain. Not only that, but what makes this even funnier is thanks to our main villain not even bothering to show up more than half the time this game has two pseudo-villains who not only have more screen time but end up way more villainous and intimidating in comparison.
So we don’t end talking about the story on a negative note I can say there’s a nice little bonus for completing routes. Every time you do you also unlock unlock a little mini story for that which you can access by spending points gained from clearing routes, hiyoko omakes and a minigame we’ll talk about later (you can also use the points to unlock other extras). These stories are amusing little bits worth checking out, especially if you liked the route it ties in with. I’d say my top three favorites of them would be Natsuhiko’s, then Akito’s and then Senri’s since I think they do a good job adding onto the relationships of their respective routes…and they’re the funniest of the bunch.
Concerning the system, while Norn9 is your standard VN, there is an amusing little minigame you can unlock called Norn9 Quest. It’s a game designed to look like an old 8bit game featuring the heroines and heroes. You pick one of them and from there you’re put into a series of random fights where it’s randomly determined if you win or lose points. It’s an amusing little minigame for its design and the chuckles you’ll get from characters winning and losing. Additionally there is an amusing little addition given to the CG where you can get commentary from the characters about the CG, and a little thing called Norn+Ensemble where you can play around with the heroes voices a little bit.
In the area of presentation, Norn9 does exceptionally well. The artwork for the characters is exceptional as is the design for a lot of the background CG, particularly those of the ship the story mostly takes place in. The area of sound is where the game really shines, particularly in the voice acting as every character in this game is fully voiced and their respective voice actors turn in great performances, which you may have noticed me mention with some of the routes. Heck for one more example, Mikoto’s VA, Ayahi Takagaki, has featured in anime like Gundam 00 as Feldt Grace and recently Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders as Mariah as well as VNs with her two most recognizable roles being Ein from Phantom of Inferno and Otome from Da Capo II. Last but certainly not least is the music which gives us tunes that really do great job catching the mood of the scenes they’re to be used in, but what can you expect when the composer for the music is none other than Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy music fame?
Norn9: Var Commons is an excellent addition to the currently small line up of otome games available in English thanks to its enjoyable cast of characters, all well drawn and voiced as well as a very good soundtrack. It does have its flaws in the story department be it a couple weak routes or a really weak villain, but in the overall scheme of things they’re forgivable. If you have a Vita or PSTV this is one game I would definitely recommend to add this to your library, especially for this Valentine’s Day (and so maybe we can get the fandisk someday).
Final Score: 8/10 Awesome
Author Recommendation: Buy it Now.
As for the (ongoing as of this review’s posting) anime, so far I’ve only seen two episodes and I can say I like it so far. It starts out very differently from how the game does and there are some interesting changes like a certain character not showing up until the second episode and in a different way than he did in the game. From the looks of things it seems to be following Kakeru, Akito and Natsuhiko’s routes which I don’t have any complaints about. Even if Kakeru’s my second favorite of Koharu’s routes I must admit the anime is doing things better than the game did. So it looks like this could end up being one of the rare cases of a good anime adaptation of a VN. Only time will tell, and who knows? I may write a little review of the anime when it’s done.