"I was mildly embarrassed when I asked someone on a date to the (wilted) flower gardens in the middle of February."
I am not alone in wanting to see a Tokimeki Memorial game in English. I can say this confidently because a lot of independent developers are using engines like Ren'Py to create TokiMemo-style dating sims for folks like us to play. One of these is Unbroken Hours' otome (girl's side) dating sim called Heartstring Bugs. Otome games are enjoying an unexpected surge in popularity lately, thanks to publishers like Aksys who localize games such as Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom, slowly establishing a little otome gaming cottage industry. I do enjoy the occasional foray into otome territory, and I took great pleasure in listening to Heartstring Bugs' Original Soundtrack, so reviewing the game was a no-brainer, especially since it's a full-length title with a pay-what-you-want price tag. The game itself does not reinvent the genre wheel and there are plenty of better games like this out there, but I did have some fun with it.
Protagonist Elly, who you can rename, is a North American teenage girl who had a miserable first year of high school and is determined to make her remaining years of high school ones to remember. As she's walking to her first day of class, she crashes into an alien virus named Vi, who needs a human to host him as he writes his thesis on Earthlings. Vi infects Elly with something called "h@x" that allows her to catch glimpses of peoples' emotions and emotional responses. Although reluctant about babysitting an alien virus and sharing his powers, Elly soon grows to enjoy the confidence boost that h@x gives her to successfully navigate her remaining three years of high school.
The game follows a three year span and is more stat-driven than story-driven, though choices made throughout story sequences determine the character paths followed and, ultimately, the ending received. Many interaction sequences presented throughout the game are often recycled with verbatim dialogue lines that don't always make contextual sense. For example, after dates, a boy will always say, "See you at school" even during summer vacation months. That's just poor script editing. At the very least, the one-time-only story sequences are decent. Unfortunately, Vi's storyline lacks depth beyond superficial "comedy of errors" snippets here and there. The best part of the story is easily the entire senior year arc. The resolution of loose ends, the deeper character subplots, and a greater quantity of unique "teen beat" events than the first two-thirds of the game combined really make the sometimes tedious journey worthwhile. Patience is definitely a virtue with Heartstring Bugs, since I kept asking the game during senior year, "Why did you take this long to finally get good?"
Like any dating sim, there are a handful of potential guys to pursue, but there are also three girls whom Elly can enhance her friendships with. The establishment of a best friend/sidekick is a unique element since the best friend/sidekick usually doesn't play an interactive role in the various dating sims and love adventures I've played. Unfortunately, the lack of locations to visit and things to do over the long haul make the game feel more claustrophobic and tediously lengthy than it really is. On the plus side, although the characters are fairly archetypical and not super deep, the writers do allow the characters to sometimes play outside their archetype sandboxes both in terms of dialogue scripting and even in their preferences on which NPCs they choose to hang out with.
The majority of Elly's time is spent building her stats in areas like academics, charm, athletics, and style. Players also need to manage her levels of stress, via downtime and stress-reducing foods, and her wallet, via her allowance and an optional part-time job. Players plan out Elly's weekday schedule, determining when she studies, glamorizes, hangs out, goes to school club meetings of her choosing, etc. She does not always have successful days and bad days increase her stress level. She has more options of what to do on weekends, such as shopping, calling friends, hanging out in town, or working at her part time job for extra income to buy clothes, food, even gifts for her friends. Heartstring Bugs also has a "dress up" component where Elly can piece outfits together to different effects. Depending on how she builds her outfits, she can give off vibes like "sporty," "loud," "cute," "natural," and more. Different boys prefer different types of outfits (for example, the rocker guy likes loud outfits), and this can influence dating chemistry. It is also important to change outfits periodically, because wearing the same thing month after month can affect peer relationships.
All these mechanics are par for the course in a dating sim, but they get repetitive over the long haul and some of the stat building was inconsistent for me. For example, despite consistently studying and having a high academic stat after the second year, Elly still got C's, D's, and even an F on her report card. And although this is a matter of taste, when playing dress-up, some clothing combinations that I thought were nice were either not labeled at all or labeled something nonsensical like "bizarre" or even "awful," whereas some clothing combinations labeled "cute" or "sexy" were not cute or sexy at all to me.
The game's art consists of original backgrounds and character portraits. The backgrounds look very simplistic and there isn't much variety in them. One thing I would have liked is season-specific backgrounds, such as maybe the park having snow on the ground during winter months. As it stands now, the same spring-like background for the park all year round not only gets tiring and repetitive to look at after extended play, but it sometimes lulled me into forgetting to read the calendar dates. I was mildly embarrassed when I asked someone on a date to the (wilted) flower gardens in the middle of February. The character art is pleasant, if unremarkable, with overly smooth textures and simplistic shading. There was one character-specific cutscene I saw during my playthrough that had excellent textures and shading, but the other character specific ones for him weren't so great. It was as if that one golden scene was done by a different and more skilled artist. Not all the art is still, though. During Elly's day-to-day activities, simple but very cute "chibi" animations represent Elly and her friends doing "teen beat" stuff.
The game's strongest aspect is its soundtrack. I have a detailed soundtrack review here
. The jazz-influenced music is quite good, but it holds up much better outside the context of the game. Because the game is so schedule-driven and puts players into a "get things done" mindset, players will likely only hear the first 10 to 30 seconds of any given track. This is a travesty, because some of the tracks have slow builds where the good stuff comes later on. Therefore, the full majesty of the soundtrack cannot be experienced within the game itself and actually seems mediocre when it really isn't. Honestly, I think the game absolutely chokes the soundtrack and doesn't let it shine the way listening to it outside of the game does.
When all is said and done, Heartstring Bugs is a mediocre game that pulls down a stellar soundtrack into its mire of mediocrity. It has an irresistible price of admission and sometimes lulled me into moments of hypnotic addiction, but it is not a game I would want to play multiple times over like I did with, say, Brooktown High. This is too bad, because the game does have plenty of replay value and glimmers of potential in its storylines. That being said, I have listened to the soundtrack multiple times over in my car during my commute to and from work and hope to hear more from this precocious composing team in the future. Regardless of my feelings toward Heartstring Bugs, its mere presence makes me glad that the niche for dating sims, particularly otome dating sims, is gaining greater recognition and I look forward to seeing indie developers and open-minded publishers continue expanding this niche in the Western gaming market.