|Publisher:||Sakura River Interactive|
|Developer:||Sakura River Interactive|
|Official Site:||English Site|
Is Canada poising itself to be the new Japan, at least in the independent gaming scene? Earlier this year, I played Black Sigil: Blade of the Exiled - a DS JRPG from a Canadian developer that I actually enjoyed more than some of its Japanese contemporaries. And now, I had a chance to play Fading Hearts, a visual novel from a Canadian developer that *gasp* I enjoyed more than some of its Japanese contemporaries. Sometimes it takes a non-Japanese perspective to put a truly fresh spin on something so typically Japanese, and Sakura River does this with Fading Hearts.
A visual novel pretty much lives and dies by its story, and Fading Hearts has one that kept me hooked. The story features an array of intertwining and sometimes left-field plotlines, but what kept me hooked were the various underlying themes and the nature of the storytelling. The driving theme behind Fading Hearts was that things are not always what they seem. Take protagonist Ryou for instance. Sure he's an ordinary, everyday high school student with a B average, but he is also a self-sufficient businessman. Ryou's otaku friend Alex is rumored to be an ex-member of a legendary posse of womanizers. Although Claire, one of Ryou's best female friends, acts like a tough, together girl, there is talk that she's secretly being abused by her sketchy boyfriend. Everyone Ryou meets and every place he visits are not what they seem and harbor their fair share of secrets. Even the various manga Ryou can purchase and read play into the storyline in some surprising ways.
As with many visual novels, how much of the storyline is revealed depends on the player. How deeply does the player want Ryou to delve into the mysteries of the town and its inhabitants? Should Ryou blissfully continue to believe that which is untrue and live life as usual? Or should he search for the truth, no matter how painful the revelations may be? Can the truth really set a person free? Or is freedom found through escape into the fantasy world of manga?
Those classic thought-provoking questions are only part of the reason I enjoyed the story. Another was the self-aware nature of the setting and characters. Aspects typical of Japanese anime and manga were lovingly presented from a delightfully surreal perspective. The fictional country of Sorayama and its inhabitants were like self-aware versions of anime, manga, and visual novel settings and characters. One of my favorite defining moments occurred in the beginning of the game when a girl blushed and stumbled on her words in front of Ryou and he thought to himself, "She is not very good at keeping secrets. Yet if this was one of those ren'ai games Alex keeps giving me, I would be totally oblivious." There were also some interesting conversations about finding life lessons in manga and how the cool stuff in anime or manga would be a pain in the neck to deal with in real life.
Fading Hearts is pretty surreal, and players need to just sit back and enjoy the ride. I played through the game about four times, and as with any visual novel, there is an option to fast forward previously read dialogue. Some of the end sequences I got felt choppy. Other times, my game ended smoothly but on rather bizarre notes. Subsequent playthroughs peeled back additional plot layers like an onion and opened up new storyline branches that made some contextual sense out of the myriad ending oddities. There are many plot-based mysteries called Achievements to unlock in the game and I only revealed a mere handful of them and their respective plot branches.
Although I loved the story's presentation, there are some flaws. The writing is generally very solid, but the dialogue sometimes reads a bit too stiffly or formally in places. There are also a few spelling and capitalization errors here and there that a spell-checker would have easily caught. None of this detracted from my enjoyment of the game, though.
Creating even more enjoyment in the game, the gameplay goes far beyond the usual Choose Your Own Adventure mechanic of "read till presented with a decision." This visual novel has a life-sim element to it where Ryou balanced social engagements, making money, exercising, reading books for personal gain, and managing his stress levels; all that good stuff. There is even an area filled with monsters that Ryou can explore, and this leads to RPG style turn-based battles. The decisions in the visual novel parts of the game in addition to how well players manage Ryou's life affect the storyline and overall experience. I think the best way to think of the game is like Persona 3 or 4, only without dungeon crawling and complex RPG mechanics. I really enjoyed the variety of gameplay offered in this game; it went beyond what visual novels usually do and, as usual, I found the life-sim and RPG elements highly addictive.
Good music is an important element to keep me hooked to a game. One thing I really like about reviewing independently developed games is hearing the fresh talent of up-and-coming composers. Fading Hearts presents a unique challenge because I think visual novels are a deceptively simple genre to compose for. Good music in visual novels needs to not only capture that slice-of-life subtlety, but also do so without being boring. I think Ameet Sharma did that here. I am actually a fan of his work and own a copy of his album "Energy," so I know he is talented. Sharma's music nicely captures the slice-of-life nature of the game in a subtle yet engaging manner. Even nontraditional visual novel pieces, like the battle theme, have an everyday feel to them that make any weird in-game happenings seem ordinary within the game's world. I thought the music did not merely complement my gaming experience, but enhanced it as well; I did not even miss the lack of voice acting in the game. My favorite piece is easily the vocal song "Forget Your Memories With Me" that accompanies the introductory sequence. I keep a save file right before that sequence so I can hear the song and watch the sequence any time I want.
Speaking of, the introductory sequence is the most visually striking aspect of the game. I found it artfully composed and it has some nifty animation in places. Other than that, the game has a very traditional visual novel look featuring glossy anime portraits atop glossy environment backdrops. The game is aesthetically pleasing and looks just like a visual novel from the Land of the Rising Sun... perhaps too much so. I think that may have been the point, though, given the whole "things aren't what they seem" theme. When I thought I had a character's archetype pegged based on appearance alone (which avid visual novel players can easily do), the game pulled twists that challenged my preconceived notions. Fading Hearts may not be the most original looking game, but the visuals complement the storyline, gameplay, and music beautifully. I could not imagine the game looking any other way.
Overall, I thought Fading Hearts was a delightfully strange and addictively fun game. It offered me a visual novel experience that took archetypical Japanese elements and showcased them in a refreshing way that made the familiar seem shiny and new again. It also had a variety of gameplay elements and a solid soundtrack with a sweet opening theme. If Fading Hearts is a hint of things to come from Sakura River, then I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for their future projects. Until then, I'll just play Fading Hearts a few more times because there are still more secrets for me to uncover.