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My Thoughts on 'Mystic Messenger' (2016)

In Which I Talk About This Popular Mobile Visual Novel as If It Were an Anime

Photo courtesy of VG247

In a market predominantly occupied by Japanese developers, we've got a Korean company called Cheritz that's been making quite the name for itself in recent years—most notably, of course, with its mobile interactive story/visual novel, Mystic Messenger.

It is also one of those few instances where the "bland" main lead—or "blank slate," if you will—is actually done right.

When we look at VNs specifically, there are times when your character will actually decide against the option you selected, or they will display behaviour unreflective of how you would handle a given situation upon making that choice. In these cases, you will typically experience less gameplay and will thus be able to make fewer choices, even where it seems like you'll be prompted with them.

Player control is an aspect often debated on within the community. While some will agree it can make sense to have less control over actions depending on the circumstance, others will nevertheless find it frustrating and not characteristic of a game

In the case of MM, however, it becomes a sort of gradation. When we reduce—or even completely remove—our character's dialogue, we find we are presented with many choices, and therefore will be presented with more opportunities to respond to prompts in ways that probably align with our own opinions at any given point. 

We then realize we are able to play as ourselves in a way, rather than in the shoes of someone else. This also means that the characters we interact with are fleshed out a lot more, giving us a chance to learn about and even try to understand their points of view. These characters and their situations, in turn, feel much more real to us. The game executes this idea exceptionally well. It definitely helps that the game is nonstop smashing the fourth wall to pieces.

However, this review will be different from my usual game reviews, and this unfortunately has to do with my unwillingness to adapt to MM's game mechanics. A major component of this game is waiting for chatrooms to open up, and this can happen at any time during the day—even well into the wee hours of the morning. I'm a working woman, and I honestly can't afford to lose any more sleep than I already do over a game, so I quit playing early on.

Instead, I decided to watch other people's play-throughs of MM and will be basing my opinion solely on story and characters, so if you're interested in gameplay elements, I'd suggest looking that information up online (especially if you want tips on how to play this yourself) and then coming back here for a non-spoiler review. 

With that in mind, let's get to the premise. You're a girl (whom you name) who comes across a messenger app for Rika's Fundraising Association, thinking it's a dating app (not sure why, but okay). Suddenly, a hacker breaks into it and gives you directions to Rika's apartment. There, you chat online with RFA's members and discover that Rika passed away, leaving everything to her fiancé and co-founder V, their close friend and business tycoon Jumin Han, Jumin's assistant Jaehee Kang, narcissistic actor "Zen," Rika's cousin Yoosung Kim, and genius hacker "Seven."

The initial purpose of RFA was to hold parties and raise money for various causes; after Rika's death, the members stopped holding the parties. Upon your arrival, V insists you all continue holding them, and once you're deemed trustworthy your task is to evaluate guest list suggestions given to you by the members and try persuading different people to attend via email. You get eleven days to do this. Yes, you read that right: eleven. And if you want a good ending, you need to make sure you've got at least ten people on your list.

As you get closer to the RFA members, you might even find yourself in a little romance along the way...

But, that's not all. The hacker who led you to the apartment is apparently trying to get at the members, so not only do you all have a party to plan, you also have to figure out who's responsible for tampering with your security measures and put a stop to their schemes. It's certainly a lot to take in for someone who otherwise has nothing to do with any of this. 

When it comes to story, MM unfortunately suffers from the same problem as the likes of Attack on Titan and One-Punch Man. The setup is brilliant, but once you discover what it's all leading to, that's where it goes downhill and loses what made it unique in the first place. To make matters worse, it's practically inevitable, otherwise you'd see no progression in the narrative.  

Now before I get into my opinion on each route, I should mention that I didn't watch all the routes. In addition, I only saw the good endings as I tend to take bad endings with a grain of salt and admittedly forgot about the normal endings. I only skipped out on Yoosung's and a secret character's routes for personal reasons, but from what I read on forums, I don't seem to be missing much outside of more in-depth perspectives from both characters.

Each route contains some degree of the overarching narrative. Jaehee, Zen, and Yoosung are part of what's called the Casual Story, in which major plot points are either kept to a minimum or practically omitted altogether, and the overall gameplay is much shorter. 

Jumin and Seven form the Deep Story, in which almost everything about the plot is revealed. One of these characters also has secret ending parts that can be unlocked by fulfilling certain requirements, which more or less give more closure to the game, albeit spelling out an unfortunate fate for one particular character.

A third category called Another Story has been recently released for V and the secret character, and these go much deeper into the antagonist's motivations and underlying backstory for this entire conflict.

And without further adieu, here are my thoughts on each route:

Jaehee: This is widely considered the friendship route, although the Christmas and Valentine's Day DLC leave the relationship open to interpretation, which I think is a nice touch. Jaehee is one of my favourite video game characters, period. You may believe her to be robotic and skeptical in the beginning, but she is actually a very well meaning and warm person who is far too good to others, never putting herself or her feelings first. She is wise beyond her years, forced to fend for herself early on and miss out on having real friends. Her story shows that building meaningful friendships takes precedence over romance, which is something that I personally relate to.

Zen: I'm going to be frank here: this fellow will pine for you no matter which route you're on, except for maybe Jaehee's. While the scenario is unrealistic, I will say the same thing here that I said in my Be My Princess review: it's refreshing to see a character be unquestionably and undyingly devoted to you from the get-go. He is extremely envious and protective of you, even before he knows what you look like. While he may be narcissistic, there is a kind of heartbreaking reason for it (which also ties into his dislike towards Jumin), and he is far from selfish. He also acknowledges the talents and beauty of others, and goes the extra mile for other characters, like looking after Yoosung in the darkest of times and becoming good friends with Jaehee, a big fan of his who (understandably) minds his well being.

Jumin: My favourite route, ironically, after Jaehee's. He's somewhat antagonized in her's, but he's really just pragmatic in how he operates his business. He also isn't hard of hearing; if you have any criticisms, he'll consider your words and isn't above compromise. In spite of his seemingly closed-off exterior, he's arguably tied with Seven as the most emotional member in the RFA and genuinely cares for everyone close to him. He is probably the strongest character in the game, as he often shows keen judgement and offers the most logical solutions laced with hidden emotions. Sure, he's got the financial power, but he'll use it to keep you all safe regardless of whether it benefits his workflow. His possessiveness towards you is different from Zen's in that it stems from his obsession with his cat, so it does seem unnerving at first. When you find out why, however, the road to him being able to understand different types of love is a worthwhile read.

V: In what is essentially the somewhat opposite of the secret endings, this is where the story falls apart due to the "Big Bad" reveal, but the relationship between you and V itself is incredibly satisfying. One day I will reveal and dedicate an entire piece to the antagonist and why I feel they are weak, but for now I want to focus on this route's structure. In terms of pacing, I felt that this romance was the most realistic out of them all, because it takes a back seat to the situation at hand. I appreciate how your character is willing to put aside her feelings in favour of doing what's best for V at that moment. That being said, much of the route consists of repeated dialogue that really should've been cut. It's exhausting to sit through and caused me to be unsympathetic towards the culprit. To put it simply, V is unfairly antagonized both in this route and in Seven's, and it all comes from miscommunication and failure of expression. But enough about the bad. Aside from this route's ending—which I'll still replay when I'm feeling fuzzy—one of my favourite parts of the game as a whole has to do with V's mother, who was his main inspiration for the man he became. The values he learns from her brilliantly come full circle here.

Seven: A lot of people felt disappointed by this route because they expected Seven to constantly be the joker he presents himself as in chatrooms. Rather, you unearth another side of him that's haunted by his tragic past. Because of a painful decision he made then, as well as his line of work, he feels as though he is unworthy of affection and prefers to keep his distance so as to prevent others from getting hurt. As frustrating as it understandably is for people, I was not upset by it because I know I'd do the same thing if I were in his position. Your character does become a little clingy, but she's patient in her perseverance and it makes for a great dynamic between you and Seven. The pacing in this one surprisingly feels fine. I do, nevertheless, find there is a bit of wasted potential with regards to some details that don't get resolved, and the ending is wrapped up a little too nicely. Still, it has the perfect amount of drama that isn't overdone with the exhausting and repetitive scenes in V's route.

Additional thoughts: I wish that this game didn't have any "Big Bad" tropes, and instead was strictly a commentary on social media, online relationships, and even cyberbullying/online harassment. For what it is though, I nevertheless found a lot to get myself invested in and enjoyed the fact that the relationships between all the characters and the obstacles they're faced with are just as, if not more important than your romance with any one of them. I do find it odd though that for being labelled "Casual" and "Deep," a couple of routes don't entirely reflect those categories, but this is a minor nitpick if anything. 

If you want to actually play the game, I say find out about strategies that could work well with your personal schedule. Otherwise, find videos online and treat yourself to some great characters—and not to mention outstandingly relevant humour. 

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