Visual Novel Reviews: The Blind Griffin (2015) and Aloners (2015)

Amazing stories can be produced, regardless of budget.

Image by Asphodel Quartet


1. The Blind Griffin

Have you ever wanted to play a visual novel that strays away from high school drama, the usual anime tropes, and Japanese culture in general? Asphodel Quartet's The Blind Griffin may just be the right fix for you.

Don't get me wrong; anything that involves Japan in gaming is awesome, but it isn't often we get a setup that breaks tradition and into other inspired stories worth telling. VNs are a growing medium in literature, so it wouldn't hurt to branch out into new—or at least different—ideas.

So, what's the story this time around? You take control of a young Chinese woman (whom you get to name) as she's desperately searching for a job in San Francisco during the Prohibition era. She comes across a speakeasy one day called The Blind Griffin, where she meets five magicians trying to keep their identities under wraps by passing off as speakeasy operators. She soon discovers that she herself was born into sorcery, and in order to keep her powers she must pass the Council's exam; otherwise, she'll lose all her memory of this entire experience. To ensure that she passes with flying colours, she must select between three of the male magicians in the group to become her mentor—backstories, conflict, and heartfelt emotions ensue hereafter.

The game is rather short; completing all the routes shouldn't take you more than several hours. While I do feel that a couple of the endings are a little rushed, the VN has much more going for than against it, many of which set it apart from other VNs in general. For one, I appreciate the diversity in our characters' backgrounds; aside from the main character, you've got: an African-American songstress named Vivienne (who may honestly be my favourite character in this game), a French woman named Marie who literally owns the place, a late Mexican teen named Emilio who's the closest thing to a "tsundere," an Italian musician named Giovanni with a big heart, and a Russian nobleman named Alexei who's sort of like a "kuudere."

Thanks to the focus on a smaller cast of characters, the camaraderie between all the characters is fully fleshed out, their mingling personalities making it all the more amusing and believable. Even when they don't get along at times, you feel their genuine care and intent to look out for one another. They all just want to bring out the best in each other selflessly. If there are any feelings of envy or what have you, they'll admit them to each other, explain themselves, and find the best approach to their problems.

It might take time, as all three men in particular have personal demons they need to overcome. But it really boils down to a test of character for everyone, which makes the breaking point all the more impactful as well as the resolution all the more satisfying. There's more than just the romance in this game; friendship is highly emphasized, which goes to show that it's just as important of a type of love as romance is—perhaps even more so.

That is why I really appreciate the fact that you interact frequently with all the characters regardless of the route; it isn't just about you and your chosen mentor. There are quite a few repeated scenes in each route, but that's because the routes are actually codependent. This codependency is cool for two reasons: 

  1. Because you learn more about the backstories of each character in all the routes and gain context for why they may say or do certain things in others; and 
  2. In addition to that, after you go through a route for the first time—regardless of the ending—you'll get a chance to read certain scenes from the perspective of the mentor you're courting the next time you play that route, making him a lot more personalized than the majority of dateable characters in VNs.

I like that the romance isn't in your face here; the characters really do take their time to develop their relationships, with their ups and downs. Depending on your choices, those feelings may be fully realized by the end of the game. Speaking of which, each route has four endings: the best ending, the neutral ending (or what I like to call the "friendship" ending—all are done incredibly well and speak to the significance of the characters), the bad ending (which are actually really grim and heartbreaking), and the lethe ending (in which the protagonist fails the exam and forgets everything—these are also quite sad).

All you have to do in the common route is select your mentor, which will lock you onto him (although the common route is really fun to read, so I recommend taking your time to enjoy it). One thing I will say is that while each route only has three choices, they're still pretty hard, especially since each one impacts your end game. What's more, there's little leniency than there tends to be in VNs. To keep a long story short, pay attention to these men's behaviourisms and think about how each choice might affect them.

Here is where I'll give you my advice on how to get the best ending with each.

Emilio: He's hot-headed, but doesn't actually mean much of what he says to you. That being said, however, there is a reason why he's like that, and there comes a point where you need to put your foot down with regards to his well being. Be assertive in your intentions, but despite his temperament, you may also need to consider which is your top priority when dealing with him during moments of conflict: defending yourself, or being patient with him. This route admittedly took me a few tries.

Alexei: I had the toughest time with Mr. Stoic, because there are many combinations of choices that will get you the neutral ending. I personally strongly disliked the MC's attitude towards him in this route though, in spite of his patience with her. He's composed and somewhat reserved, but he honestly would not be incredibly difficult to get along with nor understand—he'll listen to you and be open to your ideas. But anyway, it's important to recognize when's a good time to heed his advice, and when to be a little more aggressive. In other words, there's nothing wrong with expressing your feelings, but you should also give him a chance to do his thing every now and again.

Giovanni: Regardless of how nice he is, the MC's have to be brash with him too (although not as much as with Alexei, at least). This was an incredibly easy route for me; I got the best ending on my first try. The best way I could word this tip without giving away the answer is: observe how Gio acts and sees the world, then try mirroring him in your answers as best as possible.

There's no "hentai" in this game, although one of the best endings kind of hints at it, in my opinion. Try to guess which one it is! Still, it's always nice to have some subtlety without the need to shove it down our throats, as many of these VNs like to do.

The music in Blind Griffin fits the setting well; there's a lovely mixture of jazz and ragtime. However, there are times when the music is maybe a little too intense for any given scene in which nothing particularly dramatic is happening. I love the artstyle though; the only way I can describe it is that it reminds me a lot of my friend's illustrations.

The game's selling point is its dialogue, which is chalk-full of 1920s slang and sassiness. There's a glossary available when you click on highlighted words, and it'll give you hilarious definitions for each one. It's also nice that the game gives you the option to read through a tutorial if it's your first time playing.

Definitely give Blind Griffin a shot if you'd like to read something refreshing from this genre of gaming. It's free for download on Itch.io for all computer platforms.

2. Aloners

Just when I thought I was going to have trouble finding another visual novel like The Blind Griffin that doesn't focus heavily on romance and doesn't include all the usual anime tropes, sonnet009's Aloners shows up and keeps me reassured that the VN genre is continually being diversified. 

Once again, a big round of applause to the creator for giving us something refreshing and emotionally challenging. I have always been a fan of dystopian and post-apocalyptic narratives; I'm overjoyed to see that these types of storytelling are making the transition to the VN industry.

In this particular VN, you play as a girl (you name her what you wish) who wakes up one day in a random man's shack, despite the fact that you were taking a stroll in the park the last time you remember being awake. As you take in your new environment, you quickly realize that you've wound up in a reality completely different from the one you thought you knew—and not a very pleasant one at that. It's up to you and your new companion, who calls himself Trash, to figure out if there's anything out there beyond the ominous red cloud Trash keeps warning you about—and to try and keep yourselves alive all the while.

I'm trying to keep the synopsis as brief and vague as possible, because the way this story is told is through gradual reveals about the main character's past and purpose, Trash's backstory and motives, and what has truly become of the world. So, I'd like to leave everything a mystery, just as it was for me in my first playthrough. In that sense, it reminds me of how Attack on Titan and Z for Zachariah tell their stories. I really like that, because it allows for most of the time to be devoted to fleshing out the characters as curiosity unfolds through their travels and discoveries. The rest of the time can then be dedicated to tying everything together, and the suspense in what will happen as a result of that big reveal.

I also find it cool how you essentially create your character's personality based on the choices you make in your actions and attitude. This will also affect the kind of relationship you'll have with Trash. Regardless of the relationship, it unravels steadily and realistically with banter, jokes, flirting, and real talk. I'm glad sonnet009 decided to keep it to two people in order to focus on composing quality dialogue, and presenting us with complex dynamics that are affected both by the player and by the consequential events in-game. You will constantly be making choices in this VN, and it's the optimal way to increase engagement between the player and the narrative. Not only is the growing relationship satisfying, but you'll also see your character adapting to situations that you'd probably never imagine yourself in.

Beyond that, this game skillfully stresses the idea that nothing is clear-cut. There's no telling whether the intent behind placing the protagonist in this situation will follow through; it's uncertain whether all the surviving humans—who had become mutants—can be saved. Ultimately, we don't know what kind of world this will or can become. In a way, this can be seen as a sort of commentary for our world. Have we ever actually been able to predict how things will go, and is it possible? Or, do we focus on the process of changing something itself, as opposed to what the effect will be in the long run? This shows that horror comes from not only the dilemma and restrictions you and your loved ones are faced with, but also from wondering about what will become of the future from an outsider's perspective.

You know a story is great when it inadvertently sets those cogs in your brain on overdrive. Speaking of which, Trash is a pretty well-written companion and potential love interest. It takes him a while to truly open up to you, and you know it's meaningful when he does. It could very well be the case that he has motives of his own, but he proves his devotion to you and your safety time and time again. You can always tell that he has conflicting emotions that he tries to hide from you. In "trope" terms, he's a low-key softie with a brash exterior. His design is awesome; it totally suits his character and environment, and reminds me a lot of the boys from Holes.

One common criticism I hear about this game is that the backgrounds look awful. Isn't that kind of the point? They're in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, after all. I think the cheap, disgusting and contagious aesthetic really works in this scenario. Yes, it's all photoshopped places, but the intent behind them certainly isn't lazy.

Kevin Macleod is one of the better-known composers responsible for the music. There are only a few tracks, but they all fit the situations you hear them in perfectly. They range from tribal sounds to mixes of reggae and jazz.

If I did have one suggestion for improvement, I'd say to provide sprites and CGs for the mutant humans, in order for the reader to be fully convinced of what the characters have to deal with.

But if that's my only "complaint," then I clearly have nothing to complain about. The game's got my full recommendation—no surprises there. You can find it for free just a Google search away for all computer platforms.

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Visual Novel Reviews: The Blind Griffin (2015) and Aloners (2015)