Monday, October 31, 2016

Games for Adults Halloween: Kara no Shojo -The Second Episode-



Kara no Shojo – The Second Episode Review


                Happy Halloween, folks!!  For our final entry in this year’s review-athon ,we return to another franchise, this one not requiring knowledge of Japanese to play, Innocent Grey’s delightful little murder mystery universe. The entry is none other than Kara no Shojo – The Second Episode, released in Japan February 8, 2013 and released in English by Managagmer October 30,2015 with a physical release July 1, 2016. Given how the previous game ended a sequel was inevitable but shortly after the game’s Japanese debut things took an interesting turn. Several Japanese players and  importers who played the game had mixed or negative reviews which was surprising, at least to me. While Innocent Grey is far from perfect I’d yet to hear anything that consistently critical of their releases and considering how good KnS was, I was curious how such an anticipated sequel could be so bungled. Still when the English release came about I kept an open mind and was even hopeful that what I’d heard was wrong after enjoying the demo. No after playing the game I can say that while a good game overall, KnS2 is one of those sequels that isn’t as good as its predecessor even if you can clearly see and appreciate its efforts to surpass it.


Pros: Returning characters are as enjoyable as before, some of the new characters are good, there are some really nice twists in the mystery plotlines especially at their conclusion, story does a good job building off plot elements from previous games, great artwork, excellent voice acting, good music.
Cons: The pacing, a lot of the new characters are on the bland or forgettable side, most of the ero scenes feel unnecessary, the true ending has issues.
WTF?!: No joke, she means that literally…


                Kara no Shojo – The Second Episode takes place two years after the first game with our protagonist, Reiji, continuing his usual detective work while on the side still pursuing the hanging mystery around Touko Kuchiki. While helping the police investigate a new series of serial murders, Reiji soon finds himself taking a suicidal suspect in the case, one Masaki Tomoyuki, under his care and strangely enough under his wing as an assistant. As the pair dig further into the case they begin finding connections not only with a religious cult on the rebound since its collapse in the aftermath of the Ueno murders but also with a strange series of events and ritualistic killings centered around a curse from an angry god that occurred in an isolated mountain village known as Hitogata during the early days of the Second World War. Meanwhile, the escaped culprit from the murders two years prior seems to be making moves of his own, but to what end is anyone’s guess…

                With a plot summary like that I had a hard time believing KnS2 could be bad. The premise of Reiji investigating a curse based murder set in a remote village sounded perfect: a change in setting and murder mystery type that are almost an opposite of the previous game that has the added benefit of giving some Higurashi vibes. True, it did seem like hanging plot thread from the last game would be put to the side, but it’s kind of to be expected since barring really creative writing it you can’t really make a whole game’s worth of story out of that, plus you would want to give the new story room to be its own thing. In fact at the start of the game things seem to be going in the right direction, it was good to see returning characters again while new plot threads were being established, especially with the new character: Masaki…but then we soon run into the game’s most apparent writing flaw: the pacing.



                Okay, I kid it's not that bad, but KnS2 has a habit of slowing down its plot in order to establish future story elements that feels kind of forced. Ideally, when a story slows down to build things up it should either feel natural or be apparent at first but quickly pull you in by its own merits that you don’t mind it. KnS2 doesn’t quite hit either for a few reasons and these reasons are very apparent early in the game with a flashback arc that starts soon after the introduction. This flashback is a slow and overly long arc that many who have played it will nod sympathetically at you the moment you bring it up. I myself was warned about this part of the game, but I did try to give it a fair chance and am willing to admit there are good parts. The beginning I found interesting in seeing how a remote Japanese village is affected by World War II and how even though the setting is distant enough talk of the war still reaches that far and even affects some members of the community. It gives the setting some good flavor and while it’s there it does make for a nice contrast to the peaceful viewpoints of the setting’s main character. Also the arc’s last part gets interesting as it sets the stage for the murder mysteries in the present. The problem is soon after it focuses more on the everyday occurrences in the village alongside preparations for an upcoming festival that drag on and on. It’s supposed to establish how life is in the village and the function of the major families in the village and how the children of those families relate to their relatives, but only the parts that pertain to the central characters: Ayato, Naori and Satsuki are interesting the rest feel like information that you’re only reading because it’s required. That last part isn’t an exaggeration as quite a bit of the overarching case does depend on you knowing most of what the flashback explains. It’s too bad learning this is a slog since the plot revelations that come of it all are really good. It really makes you wish this part had the story and characters to not have you constantly wondering when the story will return to the present. And speaking of which…

                Okay, let me make something clear: the new characters introduced in KnS2 aren’t bad, but aside from the ones who are central characters the rest of them are just bland and for an Innocent Grey game that is a significant flaw. Generally the side characters from previous Innocent Grey games have been interesting in one way or another from the playful Rin of Cartagra to the adorably silly Tsuzuriko of the first Kara no Shojo, but in this case I can only think of a few memorable side characters and this out of many. Some of them have aspects to their characters with interesting potential but those aspects are either not used much or the story doesn’t do any more than one might expect. While it’s good that the central new characters don’t fall into this, it’s still a problem for several reasons. First these side characters are supposed to be supports to the new story built around the new characters; give the new setting places such as the village life or a sense of uniqueness. I realize considering how KnS2’s story goes a feeling of dullness and/or stagnation is fitting for the village but I’m not sure if being able to perfectly capture that is good at least for the start of the story. Second, having the side characters be bland doesn’t give you much investment in them, which makes the story moments when some of them die have little impact compared to the previous games. In those games you usually felt bad when their characters died, heck Cartagra was even able to make you feel sorry for an initially unlikable character’s death with a pretty well put together “we hardly knew ye” segment following that character’s funeral. In KnS2, the most you get from one of these characters’ deaths is a “well, that’s too bad…then again it’s not one of the characters I was really invested in, so…” kind of feeling. 
                All that said, once you get past the flashback the game does get better as it builds from what it establishes to not just tie into the mystery being followed in the present but also set things up for what for a while seem like B plots to eventually connect with the main plot. These are done fairly well and lead into plot twists that I really didn’t see coming (though I admit there is one mystery with a disappointingly obvious reveal). This is helped by some good character interactions, especially between Reiji and Masaki whose back and forth between each other make for not only make for good character chemistry worthy of a good buddy cop movie but also make for a good setup for a potential passing of the torch to Masaki for main character status in future games in how Reiji does end up mentoring the other in his own way. This leads into Masaki doing some investigation of his own in later scenes from his point of view that, while showing he is still an amateur at it Masaki does have some potential as a detective. In all the ways KnS2 ends, that does seem likely, and speaking of endings…

            Once again this is a game where I can’t do a route ranking because in Kara no Shojo 2 there aren’t really any routes just endings: most of them bad endings, 1 normal ending and the true ending. The bad endings are a mixed bag of including your typical dead end, endings which give a sudden premature end before taking you back to the main menu, endings that manage to mix tragedy and with a chilling outcome pretty well and a decent bittersweet conclusion. The normal ending just concludes the main story and the true ending acts as a continuation from that point. Personally I like the normal ending better since I feel it makes for a better stopping point than the true ending, but we’ll get to that after I explain the latter a bit more.
                Despite what flaws I feel it may have, I will admit the unlocking of the true ending has an interesting aspect to it. While it’s unlocked after finishing the normal ending, you need to start over from the beginning to see it and in doing so you get a nice new opening and unlock some new story sequences from other characters’ point of views that are for the most part interesting and do serve to enhance the plot you’ve already experienced as well as answer a few lingering questions from the normal end. There are a couple scenes that I feel are unnecessary but those are pretty brief so I won’t count it against the true ending path. What I sadly have to count against it though is even with the new reading material the majority of the text is the same as before so expect to have the game be skipping previously read text for quite a while at points. At one point while the game was skipping text I literally had enough time to grind a couple levels for my characters in Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel on my PS3 before I got to new text and had to pause (and mute). While good stories can leave you wanting more I don’t think this is quite how it should be done; which brings us to my main problem with the true ending itself.
                Okay, I’m going to do my best to be vague so as not to spoil things, but I can say one thing in the true ending story arc’s segment is it does give proper focus to the hanging plot thread from the first game, tying in well with the few hints about it going on in the background throughout the main story and bringing in a plot element said story that has interesting plot potential. The problem is it leads into an ending that isn’t as conclusive as the normal ending was. I’m not saying it ends on a cliffhanger or anything like that, but it will probably leave you saying “Wait, that’s it?!” once the credits are done rolling. Don’t get me wrong, my overall problem is not with the outcome that kind of seemed like an inevitable conclusion even at the end of the first game. My problem is that compared to the first game’s true ending it is just not as good. Kara no Shojo’s true end did leave a hanging plot thread but it still felt like a conclusion in that you had firm knowledge of where the characters were in relation to how the case ended for good or bad. In KnS2 you’re not only left wondering how this outcome will affect the characters but also with so many questions about a newly introduced plot element enough that if I were to make “five second sum up” of this ending it would include this (credit to Linkara for making this a thing):

                System-wise the investigation mechanic is back with your collecting evidence, story details and even character connections based on what you examine which in turn give you options of what to present to support certain choices and/or deductions. There's also the return of the notes which explain various terms and references that crop up throughout which do make for a ice bit of extra reading if you're interested in Japanese history and culture. The system itself is good and works fine, but it feels underused in part because of how much story occurs in between to actually use what you acquire it that you would be forgiven for forgetting when the last time it was you did this. Plus over the course of the game you’ll collect enough evidence to fill a real life crime evidence storage room, but you’ll barely use any of it. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Ace Attorney games in that of the evidence you gather enough of it is used that there’s an entertaining of mystery wondering just which of them will be the most useful, but I don’t remember the evidence I gathered in the first game feeling largely superfluous.

                In the area of presentation I can say that Innocent Grey hits it out of the ball park once again. The artwork is fantastic as always for the characters, event CG and background CG. The characters have a realistic enough look to them but at the same time leave enough room to retain that range of facial expression one can get from anime/manga style should a scene call for it without it looking out of place. The event CG is always well drawn to capture and express the events of that scene be it an emotional climax to a story arc or the grisliness of the murder’s that occur, be they the act itself or the aftermath that you investigate. In those latter cases KnS2 perfects the presentation its set in previous games of using fragments of the CG to lead up into the reveal for all the scene’s bloody horrific glory. The background CG is just beautiful, each one creating a picturesque setting for each location. The voice acting is phenomenal with everyone turning in a great performance especially from Reiji’s VA who is none other than Junichi Suwabe the voice of the Fate series’ mainstay Archer. The music is well put together as always, portraying the mood various scenes perfectly from creepy sounding “Curse”, to the ominous sounding “Together…” to the menu music you get upon clearing the true ending which I will admit does a good job capturing the tone of the true ending with it starting out small and somewhat gloomy but gradually building up into a tune that seems to hold the possibility of hope for moving forward from the events the true ending established. Finally the opening movies for this game are a sight to behold; mixing in good music with some really well put together visuals you’ll want to look at more than once for the pretty visuals and to appreciate what they hint at in the story. 
            As for the ero scenes…this is where I think KnS2 has another big weak point. There are only eight of them in this entire game and only two of them you can argue have any real necessity to the plot or characters. As ero scenes go they’re decent, having good artwork and are well acted. The problem is with the remainder, four of them are skippable depending on choice and two of those four feel like scenes you’d access from the extras gallery like with some of Cho Dengeki Stryker’s ero scenes. The remaining two, one of them being the first you’ll see, feel completely pointless; you could remove those scenes and have no effect on the plot whatsoever. The aforementioned basically as a callback to a plot element from a previous game but it just gives off a “…did we really need to see this?” kind of reference, while the other one I guess you could argue establishes a character’s motivations for stuff that happens later in the story but we learn it through character dialogue anyway and to be honest it’s effective enough with that just being left to the imagination. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suddenly going into prude mode; I still affirm my favorite VN series as being the Kyonyuu Fantasy games, but in this case it’s a matter of wanting better writing around the ero scenes and when only two scenes really have that it’s definitely a problem.

In Conclusion:
            Kara no Shojo –The Second Episode- is an overall good game and an experience I would recommend to any who are invested in Innocent Grey’s murder mystery series or want a good read (after reading the first game). It’s certainly a well-designed game and on the design front it does top previous games in the series, but I can’t say it’s a sequel that surpasses its predecessor on the writing front or even breaks even with it on that front. If you can get past its pacing problems then I’d say it’s worth getting, but its sequel status may make this one Halloween treat accessible only to some.
Final Score: 8/10 Awesome
Author Recommendation: For Fans Only!

            And with that we conclude our 2016 Halloween Review-athon. Happy Halloween to you all, and here’s hoping next year time (and circumstances) can keep this tradition going.

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