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1. Be My Princess: Party
This is the last freemium visual novel I played, and I don't think I'll be playing any more for a long time coming. I'm glad I played the routes I wanted and was compelled to play, because I was really worn out about four routes in. Thankfully, I only played through each one once. If you're not planning on spending any money, be prepared for about a year of waiting for enough in-game currency to advance each story. Any unique mechanic only exists to unlock extra stories, such as having "Secret Dates" in a town that you build with various buildings and items. You can also dress up your character (MC) and change her hair, but this is a mechanic that isn't fully realized in a fashion-oriented game.
Speaking of which, the plot is simple enough: you play as an aspiring fashion designer looking to get her big break in the industry. You get picked up by one of the biggest names in the world, Jean Pierre, and from there catch the eye of six princes and one butler. You choose who you want to work for—and pursue—and must maintain good chemistry in order to get a good ending. The way to do this is to make choices that cater to them (which I must say, overall, isn't terribly easy). Here's what I thought of each route:
Roberto: Both my favourite character and route. I saw so much of myself in Rob: he's cutesy, full of energy, loves to read, loves football (soccer), and tends to procrastinate a fair bit. There is one anticlimactic moment that made me go "huh?"; but other than that, the romance grows naturally and gradually. What makes it more fun is that his butler, Alberto, has this mentor-disciple dynamic with him and tries to be stern—but is a low-key cinnamon roll.
Edward: A lot of players found him generic and unrealistic. Personally, inasmuch as he is clichéd, I thought Ed's character to be refreshing in light of how many male characters are portrayed today. Who doesn't want someone to make their interest clear from the get-go, and remain totally devoted to them? Louis, his butler, is also an absolute sweetheart, and they both help make a dire situation with the politically manipulative Brotherhood of Courtiers more bearable.
Zain: My second favourite of the men, although objectively speaking, his route is the best-written. Unlike the other routes, you directly get involved in the politics, in the sense that you get caught up in the action, suspense, and the rescue of a nation in turmoil. Zain tries so hard to protect you by keeping you at a distance, but his benign and mysterious allure will undoubtedly pull you in. One thing I wish was built up just a smidgen more is the brotherly dynamic between him and his apprentice Theodore, because we never truly find out what Theo's connection is to Nobel Michel otherwise.
Keith: This is a route that has a lot going for it, but also a lot going against it. What I like about it is that you're not the only designer Keith hires in the beginning; you're competing with others for the job, adding to an already challenging feat. I also like that you develop relationships with your mentor Alma and Keith's sister Catherine. But for all the praise everyone gave this route, my major issue is that Keith isn't as fun as they made him out to be. He's more irrationally angry than he is sassy, and the MC doesn't take charge nor talk back nearly as much as she should. Still, Keith shows that he isn't stupid and is doing all he can to protect his people, and while I would've liked the MC to be involved in the politics, he proves to be a worthy prince in his own right. His butler Luke tries to be a mini-Keith though, and it really doesn't suit him.
Wilfred: Everything about this one made me so angry. Where do I even begin? If you think the MC is going to be passive in Keith's route, wait until you get here. Will is framed as one of the "nice" princes, along with Rob and Ed. But the only reason he asks you to be his designer is so that you can pretend to be his girlfriend for three months and help him avoid an arranged marriage with his brother's love interest. A nice gesture on the outside, maybe, but downright selfish when it comes to the MC. I don't understand why Will doesn't try to change the law, especially since his word apparently carries a lot of power. It doesn't help that his butler Claude is unnecessarily hostile towards you for most of the story, and it gets to be rather annoying.
Joshua: This route would have made me angry too, as the premise is somewhat similar to Will's. However, it's averted by a sort of logic within its own context. His kingdom Dres Van has a lot of oppressive and arbitrary rules, and because it doesn't allow affairs within castle walls, he has to marry the MC after she accidentally falls on him in order to not be labelled as a criminal. It doesn't mean I didn't find Josh excruciatingly boring, though. Literally every other character, including his rival, interested me far more in spite of him being flower language-savvy. I only enjoyed the surprising plot twist involving his butler Jan, who is torn between a life of treason and a happy life with Josh's family.
Glenn: I didn't even bother playing this one, because I dislike the character. He's too much of a stick in the mud for my tastes. His adorable butler Yu should have his own route.
2. DLC Quest + Live Fremium
We've had a lot of games making fun of, well, the video game industry in recent years, but Going Loud Studios' DLC Quest - and Live Freemium or Die—are definitely among my favourites.
These games are social commentary overload in a nutshell, with every bit of gameplay and DLC purchased with in-game coins a silent nab at the growing state of gaming as a whole. I dare not spoil any of the funnies, as it's all really something you need to enjoy in the moment.
DLC Quest's story makes fun of the damsel-in-distress trope, while in Live Freemium or Die, you're going up against the shopkeeper that was selling you the DLC in the first game. The second plot is creative and really takes the satire to another level, so I personally had more fun with this one.
Aside from foreseeing what is more or less the DLC culture (whether or not you agree with it), the other big thing I really appreciate about this game is the fact that it makes us realise how spoiled we usually are when we're able to perform even the most basic control inputs from the very beginning of the game. Here, you're extremely limited in what you can do until you purchase the DLC, and it ironically makes you feel as though you have to work for it.
Gameplay-wise, they're really easy to pick up and play as they literally tell you what to do every step of the way. Really, they're made for laughs more than anything else. Aesthetically, they're a cute throwback to the pixel art in sidescrollers from back in the day, complete with that "pixelated" music that suits each zone well (my favourite being the cave zone—so groovy and cool sounding!).
For two bucks on Steam (they are sold together), DLC Quest and Live Freemium or Die really do help you wind down and just have a good laugh for two hours. If you're looking for something light to provide you with a little relatable entertainment after a long day, look no further.
3. Carpe Diem
Eyzi's Carpe Diem is a short kinetic novel in which you, as Jung, have a limited time to spend with the girl of your dreams, AI.
....and that's really it. My "quick review" titles are certainly becoming less of a joke as time goes on.
The most important characteristic of this game is the ending, which without spoiling anything—though let's face it, you'll know exactly what it is—I'll get to in a second.
What makes this a kinetic novel is that you'll always get the same ending no matter what choices you make. Much like with Emily Is Away, even though it sucks, it works for the message the game is trying to send.
Unlike Emily Is Away, however, AI is quite cute and likable. A very chirpy and sassy character, she is. I really like her design, too. She has this mystical, bohemian look to her topped with my favourite colour, light blue.
Okay so, the ending. The whole point (that you can discern yourselves from what Carpe Diem means) is to truly appreciate the time you have with someone you care about, not in quantity, but rather in quality, because the memories you make with them are what stick with you forever.
I think the game pushes this idea well. You have a sense of Jung's relationship with her from the get-go, and have a chance to learn enough about her before the end. Eyzi did a great job establishing these two things in such a short time, which many writers struggle to accomplish in much longer stories. I found AI easy enough to grow attached to, hence why I think the story is effective.
Check it out for yourselves if you've got a few minutes to spare. It's free on Itch.io and Steam for all computer platforms.
4. To Kill a Black Swan
Have you ever played a game that left a bad taste in your mouth, in spite of it's strong underlying message?
That's what Marcel Meyers' visual novel To Kill a Black Swan felt like to me. But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
In this free short story, you're a detective, trying to figure out who was responsible for the murder of novelist Audrey's husband. You'll be investigating areas of significance and talking to people closest to the case.
By the end, even though I quickly realized who did it after one mistake, I nevertheless deliberately chose wrong answers just for laughs. Still, this portion of the game is interesting, both for the deduction portion as well as the commentary from certain characters that get you closer to the truth.
However, my problem with the revelation is that the build up comes almost from nowhere, especially since you don't get the opportunity to visit each suspect before the accusation in one go to piece together the backstory. This is because some of the characters will feel more suspicious to you than others, and it may cause you to reach a different conclusion.
It feels like the game ends the way it does simply to push its message, and for shock value. You'll realize the plot holes once the truth is revealed, likely due to the fact that you won't get to visit everyone at once, but ultimately because of poor writing and characterization.
In terms of the latter, the game tries to go for this Great Gatsby vibe, but it really isn't developed well. That tends to be the downside of short murder mysteries: you don't get to spend enough time with the characters, to subtly learn their motivations, feelings, backstories and whatnot, since the events as they unfold are prioritized first.
This VN in particular focuses too much on the "gameplay," rather than the narrative. It also doesn't help that none of the characters are particularly engaging or compelling. There is a point to the "superficial" writing, but rather than doing its job, it takes away from the experience.
It's really too bad, as I was genuinely looking forward to reading this VN. I guess disappointment got the better of me. This is why you shouldn't hype up anything for yourselves, people.
If you're still curious about it though, To Kill a Black Swan is available for all computer platforms on Itch.io.