Narcissu is not your typical graphic adventure. If you had to describe it in one word, then experimental would be the one to use. At first glance it may seem just like any other visual novel with pictures covering the screen, white words subtitling the voices and describing the images, and a simplistic gameplay experience as you enjoy the story. But Narcissu tries a number of unusual mechanics and uses them to great effect. Intrigued? Then grab a box of tissues and join me on the journey of a young boy and girl destined to die.
Our protagonist (who never receives a name) is diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after his twentieth birthday. After a few trips in and out of hospital he is finally admitted to hospice care and told he is going to die. It's in this hospital's seventh floor where he meets a young, terminally ill, woman named Setsumi. She explains to him the unofficial lore of the hospital: if your condition stabilizes you're able to return home until it worsens again. But the third time you return to the hospital will be the last time you ever see your home. Days later, after deciding neither of them want to die at home or in the hospital, they run away. The protagonist steals his father's car and they set off across the country in search of a flower that Setsumi loves: the narcissus.
The story is haunting, but also beautiful in its own way. Just don't expect a happy ending; you're not going to get one. This game doesn't pull any punches when it comes to its heroes, both of whom you'll come to adore. Our protagonist, in the beginning, takes everything in his stride. He doesn't yet understand the full implications of his illness. Setsumi, on the other hand, has already given in to hopelessness. She speaks with little emotion and merely sits and stares at the television all day as though she is already dead. But once the two of them run away she begins to develop new hope. That's why the ending is so sad, but I won't spoil it for you!
This leads to a rather unfortunate aspect of the game: there are no alternate endings. In this genre, you typically make choices as the game progresses that can lead to a number of different endings. Sadly, there is only that one unhappy ending at the end of the road. It won't bother you too much as you play because you'll be hooked by the plot, but it flushes any potential of replay value down the drain. Mind you, I don't think the story would be as interesting or realistic if it ended any other way. On top of this, the game is rather short. If you're a fairly fast reader you should be able to cry your way through it in five or six hours. Luckily, the download version is free, so there's no excuse not to try it, right?
One of the most irritating issues I came across, free game or not, were bugs. I am not sure if these were present in the original Japanese version, but there are a few game-crashing bugs in the English localization. My file crashed every time I tried to save or load the game. Luckily a chapter select screen is available, so you can always load from there as each chapter is quite short. It seems many players have been reporting this issue and it does take away somewhat from the game experience. Some people have also reported crashing issues with the voiced version, though I did not see any of them myself.
Graphically, I return to the use of the word experimental. For almost the entirety of the game the graphics are only displayed on a thin strip of the game screen – the rest just staying black. It's a very unusual style and a little off-putting to begin with; but I think you'll find it's an acquired taste. Metaphorically speaking, the narrow images reflect the single path the characters are forced to walk towards: death. If you start thinking like this, the graphical style suddenly makes a whole lot of sense. Adding to this irregularity, you will only physically see both characters a handful of times during the game. You'll briefly see Setsumi's visage in a window reflection and a couple more times towards the end when a photo is taken. Again, it's about conveying the story through the image style, but I can see some people feeling distanced from the heroes by this.
In a technical sense the graphics are quite lovely but lack any real oomph. The environments are drawn beautifully, but many end up reused, such as the scenery used while driving the roads of Japan, and some also lack detail. It would have been nice to see a few more CGs throughout the game too, but I suppose only so much can be expected from a homemade title. Character design is charming and quite unique, especially the eyes. I'm sure you've heard that "eyes are the window to the soul" and this is a perfect analogy for design in Narcissu. The forlorn eyes of the characters echo the sorrowful, yet still hopeful, story.
The graphics and story are coupled beautifully with the music. A wide range of subtle, but emotionally-compelling, music is used to emphasize each scene. The early chapters in the hospital use the music particularly well. You can feel the hopelessness of the characters' plight through the use of music. It's this music that will stick in your mind even after you finish playing. During a second play through I found my emotions welling up almost immediately. You can also choose whether to play the game voiced or unvoiced. Mind you, the only voiced character is Setsumi. Her voice actress does a pretty good job and I see no real reason why you'd want to play it with her silent. Like most visual novels, having the protagonist mute really puts you in his shoes and draws you into the world.
As long as you don't mind a sad story with some drama then give Narcissu a go. The download version is free, so there's no excuse not to take the gamble, right? It's immensely enjoyable and if you're not normally a fan of visual novels, this one isn't long so it might be a good place to get started. Fans of the genre will enjoy the quality music and the experimentations with graphics. Aside from some annoying bugs, there's nothing you won't like about Narcissu. But, as previously warned, make sure you have tissues on hand! It's one heck of an emotional ride.