Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Games for Adults: Harukoi Otome ~Greetings from the Maidens’ Gardens~

Harukoi Otome ~Greetings from the Maidens’ Gardens~ Review

                The backburner: that ever growing pile of physical and digital media all of us human beings have that only seems to get bigger no matter what we do to make it smaller. Some of the items that occupy it are things we greatly anticipate experiencing but don’t have the time to yet while others are those things we have unfinished but dropped because better alternatives presented themselves. For normal people abandoning the latter option is perfectly natural but for a reviewer like myself it’s a different matter. We’ll be taking a look at an example of that aforementioned latter category in Harukoi Otome ~Greetings from the Maidens’ Gardens~, released in Japan by Baseson on January 27, 2006 and localized by Mangagamer on August 9, 2013. I’ll admit this review is late, you’ll soon see why it took me so long to get this game off my backburner to review it.

Pros:  Riru and Ayaka’s routes, characters can be interesting and funny when well written, artwork is pretty good, very good voice acting.
Cons: Yuika’s route, characters can be insufferable and lame when badly written, weak plot elements in Umi, Kisaya, and Sonya’s routes.
WTF?!: Sonya’s route.

                Harukoi Otome has you play as Akihito Hayasaka, a sophomore attending St. Francesca Academy, a former all-girls school that still has a noticeably higher female student population compared to the males. Attending with him are his younger sister Umi and childhood friend Yuika and through them Akihito meets other girls and the potential for friendship maybe romance soon presents itself.

                Yeah, as cliché as this story premise sounds I still had good hopes for this game back when it was announced for localization since I’d seen the OVA and liked it, it was not only set in the same universe as Koihime Musou but also was from some of the creators of said game. Sadly at the time I was not aware that some of the creators of the aforementioned also created Harem Party, and I’ve madeit clear how felt about that particular game. That isn’t to say that Harukoi Otome is THAT bad, but it’s a mixed bag where the bad mostly cancels out the good.
                This would be where I’d discuss story elements from the common route or ones shared by the other routes, but to be honest the common route doesn’t really have any stand out moments and the routes are extremely different from each other. Also the game’s strengths and weaknesses are kind of dependent on the routes, so with that let’s move right along to the route rankings.
1)      Riru
2)      Ayaka
3)      Sonya
4)      Kisaya
5)      Umi
6)      Yuika

Riru’s route ranks at the top for a number of reasons, the first of which being it’s the best put together of the routes. There’s a solid arc to both Akihito and Riru in how their relationship starts out as a platonic friendship that feels natural but when the time comes for it to turn romantic it’s believable. This is helped thanks to the writing giving them good chemistry in both stages of their relationship and good use of the side characters who help breathe further life into the plot. A good example being a look at Yuika’s serious side that isn’t very long but manages to be written in well and performed excellently by the aforementioned character’s VA. This route also has the advantage of having not only good comedy, but a transition into drama that feels natural to the story and never goes overboard about it. Finally, this route has one unique advantage over the others in this game: it has an epilogue and I don’t mean just a short scene followed by an ero scene and then that’s the end. This route has a short story to tell and two ero scenes to offer along with them. No lie here, but I actually didn’t know about this until I actually played the end segment last since I figured I might as well save the end ero scene of my favorite route for last since I wanted to end on a good note and I can say thanks to this bonus, Riru’s route is pretty much secured as being not only the best route of this game but also its chief redeeming factor. If I were to nitpick I’d say the closing scene is a little too long, but other than that this route is fine.

Ayaka’s route comes in at second place as it too has a pretty good story to tell which does culminate in a pretty good arc for our heroine that involves not just Akihito but also a character from one of the other routes and a character we briefly see in the common route but gets a better introduction over the course of the story (including a pretty funny take on how looks can be deceiving). There’s also the benefit of Ayaka and Akihito having some good scenes together from amusing interactions to some decent serious ones. What keeps this route in second place are a couple things: first, there’s a subplot introduced that’s concerning Ayaka’s stepmother that’s only briefly touched upon over the course of the story and second, while I don’t feel the dramatic part of the route is forced in, the event that starts it is extremely obvious. I can guarantee you’ll see it coming the moment it’s introduced. Won’t spoil it but let’s just say it’s a trope we’ve all encountered numerous times since childhood in most forms of media. What makes the transition into the dramatic part of the story not feel particularly forced is because it makes sense for Ayaka’s character and there’s even decent enough foreshadowing for it.

Concerning Sonya’s route…I’m not entirely sure how to start with this one. This route starts out like your typical cutesy romance and it does well at that with a combination of imagery and the voice acting on Sonya’s part. Then things get weird, though admittedly you might not notice that for a while since the middle portion of this route is really boring as many of the scenes don’t feel like they go anywhere aside from the ones concerning a puppet show Sonya and Akihito put together and even that isn’t all that interesting since we don’t see the show when it’s made, just told about it. The reason you wouldn’t notice is because the weirdness concerns the dialogue, which is basically a strange disconnect between all the characters when they’re talking to each other, like they’re talking to each other, but each character is in another dimension. This doesn’t go well with this slow part of the story as it creates a sense that you’re reading gibberish and you’re either bored or annoyed and just want to get this route over with. Fortunately things improve at the point where Akihito and Sonya start their relationship, first by dealing with the foreshadowed dramatic part quickly and then things get noticeably strange when logic essentially departs the story. From there the story events and character actions just start happening with very little (if any) explanation, but things are kept from being boring thanks in large part to more interaction with the character Mai, played by Hokuto Minami who matches this routes weirdness by hamming it up with her performance. All in all while this route has its flaws and is one of the oddest I’ve read in a while there’s enough appeal that I can say it’s something that needs to be seen to be believed.

Moving on to Kisaya’s route, I regret to say that this is where we get to the bad stuff and it’s a long way down from here. The thing with Kisaya’s route is that it doesn’t start out bad at all as she and Akihito have some good scenes, especially the ones dealing with him rediscovering a love for kendo that he had during childhood which ties well with his growing relationship with Kisaya. Honestly this route would have been fine as a pure slice of life route about kendo, but sadly this is where we come to the main element that separates the good routes in this game from the bad: forced drama. In this case that drama centers around bringing in acompletely new character who only exists in this route and this character is so cliché and one note calling him one dimensional seems generous. About the best thing about that part of the story is it’s brought to a close by an okay action scene, but that’s kind of offset by an epilogue that seems pretty contrary to the events of the route. 

Umi’s route is in a bit of a similar situation in that its later part is what hurts it. What ranks it below Kisaya’s is from the beginning it’s just an okay route. Don’t get me wrong, there are good moments like Umi’s love of horror flicks, some of Akihito’s antics are at least chuckle worthy and you can tell that the writer was doing his/her best to sell this pairing. The thing that keeps this route’s good points from standing out more is the fact that the story doesn’t really do anything to distinguish this from any other “imouto heroine” route story, which I admit is partially because HO is a bit on the old side compared to most of what’s been released in English but even then there’s nothing to really grab your attention with this portion of the story. As for the later bad parts, there are two main problems on the writing front. First the drama kind of trips over itself in that a good part of it depends on the idea that people would disapprove of Umi and Akihito’s relationship but we never see this come about at all. I suppose you could argue this is more about the two coming to terms with their relationship and this is just a psychological issue for them, but if that’s the case then it should have been better conveyed. The second problem has to do with how Akihito is written during this portion of the story but that’s something that bears discussing in the next route because as bad as it is in this case, the worst is still to come.

Finally we’ve come to Yuika’s route and boy do we hit bottom here Icarus-style. No point in mincing words, this is one of the worst routes I’ve ever played and the chief reason it took me so long to beat this game. It has been a long time since I’ve played a route that enraged me as much as this and over the course of at least 90% of the story. Now some of you may bring up Sofie’s route from Harem Party or Super SecretSexy Spy, but this route is much worse not only because it’s longer than those or even because this is supposed to be a story we’re supposed to take seriously but it’s because it’s a route we unlock (by clearing Umi’s). Unlockable routes are supposed to be special because their stories are supposed to reveal something new and amazing compared to what we’ve played before, something that turns  a previously read plot element on its head and through that gives you a new perspective on the game’s story and characters. Unfortunately what this route has to reveal is the furthest thing from amazing and surprisingly inconsequential to the rest of the game.

One of the best examples of this can be seen in the role they give comic relief side character Oikawa in this route. I won’t spoil what it is, but it’s a role that doesn’t match with him. First of all it’s too big a role for him when compared to his role throughout the other parts of the game, second it makes very little sense considering this isn’t hinted at anywhere else in the game (almost to the point I thought the whole plotline was a ruse), and third it’s kind of out of character too, especially since a major part of the role falls into the trope of “best friend lends a hand by being a total douche”.  This actually leads us into one of the main problems of this route: no major character in this story comes out of it a likable character. And speaking of which…

We now get to Akihito’s role in this story, the amplified version of what was a problem in Umi’s route: the incessant whining. The moment things take a dramatic turn Akihito lapses into a seemingly endless stream of self-pity, even when the drama concerns Umi or Yuika. I understand in stories there needs to be a low point that the hero hits that he needs to overcome, but not in a way that makes the character seem irredeemably weak and selfish like this does. Akihito’s constant bitching and moaning about how pathetic he is when confronted with a problem related to Yuika or Umi makes it seem like he’s more concerned about himself than his intended love interest. In defense of Umi’s route I can say that it thankfully doesn’t last very long in that case, but in Yuika’s route it’s there for the majority of the story. I’d say this makes the romance between the two hard to believe, but believe it or not this isn’t the main cause, which brings us to the heroine of this story.

While the main reason Yuika is unlikable as a character in this route is how emotionally distant she is, that’s really only part of the problem with her in the writing department and while one could argue that’s the point as it’s her main character flaw the overall problem negates that argument. The problem is that even though this is supposed to be her route, Yuika herself is barely involved in it. Since we see things entirely from Akihito’s POV, Yuika’s screen time is dependent on how much they interact, which is very little. I’m almost tempted to say she has more screen time in Riru’s route than she does in her own route but that would require replaying this route for comparison, but I can say that put all the other routes’ scenes with her together and not only would Yuika have more screen time but more interactions between her and Akhito, many of them giving her more character, than in this entire route. A romantic pair kind of needs to talk to each other for the readers to buy the romance and even more so we can experience the trials and drama they deal with in the story. As a result we’re pretty much just “told” the plot instead of “shown”. We’re told how we’re supposed to care about these characters even though none of them have acted in way at all likable in this story, we’re told about Yuika’s problem and at the end we’re told about how she resolves it herself just so we can get a happy ending.
If anyone were to ask me if I had anything positive to say about Yuika’s route the only answer I could give would that it introduced me to a new emotional cycle. That if you hate something enough, such as the main characters of this route, all that anger and frustration will eventually burn itself down to a weary sort of neutrality known as apathy. By the time this route reached what was supposed to be its emotional climax I was surprised at how little I cared. I wasn’t even rooting against the characters at that point; the story could have had a zombie apocalypse occur with them all dying horribly and it wouldn’t have brought me any joy. That was certainly an experience, though one I hope to never experience playing a game ever again (though with my luck…).

In the area of presentation Harukoi Otome does alright. The artwork is pretty good though at times some of the character portraits for some of the characters like Kisaya lack some polish. The music is okay but forgettable, but the best part of the sound department and the presentation overall is the voice acting. This game features some very talented VAs and having already mentioned Hokuto Minami, others you’d recognize include Riru’s actress: Yukari Aoyama who many of you recognize as Kazuko/Wanko from the Majikoi games or Yuika’s: Ran Touno who you’ll probably recognize as Yukie from the Majikoi games, Tonya from Ayakashibito and Kaede from the Shuffle! series. A shame the latter’s character had such a crappy route…

As for the ero scenes, they’re okay. Admittedly the better ones are the post credits scenes.

In Conclusion:
                Harukoi Otome is probably one of the best examples of the term “mixed bag” that I have encountered in a while. Of the six routes we have two good ones, a flawed strange one that’s still worth a look, two routes that are second rate at best due to weak story elements and a one that is absolutely awful. There’s enough good that I can’t completely write this game off as terrible, but at the same time the bad stuff is such I can’t give this much of a recommendation, especially at the current price of about fifty dollars. I advise waiting for a sale or price drop, and for that to compensate for what some may think is my having mercy on this game I’ll be creating a new recommendation not from the days of Blistered Thumbs.

Final Score: 6/10 Above Average
Author Recommendation: Wait For a Sale.

                As for the anime, I like it even though I know it’s an okay adaptation at best. It’s basically an adaptation of Umi’s route with bits of Yuika’s and Riru’s mixed in. I admit some of the stuff in there is weird like Kisaya’s role being pretty out of character compared to her game portrayal and this one scene in the second episode where I think some of the creators may have indulged in some recreational drugs while writing it.

                And speaking of clearing backburners, there’s another game I’m close to finally finishing involving an all girls’ school where the MC ends up transferring there after helping someone in need. Won’t spoil what it is but I can at least say it’s been a better experience than the game I just reviewed…

1 comment:

  1. You make a lot of good points and agreed with your rating.
    I still think it's good although I haven't played many VNs due to the language barrier and large expense.
    I do not know how this fairs amongst other "Prestigious School" VNs.
    Riru story is the most looking forward and what makes it worth it.
    As much as I like 'Imouto Route' in this case it's just badly written. I've done some research on the creators and they make some weird stories lol.
    That asides this VN had incredible potential. It sucks it didn't get a proper Anime with Riru in it. The Yuri was really forced, if it was a 'Cool Guy' I think it'd make more sense considering Riru personality. Some things do seem forced and awkward.