"Norn9: Var Commons is like going on a date with someone who is physically attractive, but a thoroughly un-engaging conversationalist."
Pretty, but dull.
That's it, end of review.
Seriously, I could write a graduate school level thesis on this game and anyone reading that verbosity would arrive at the same concise conclusion. But a three word review wouldn't look very professional here, so here's the long version if you feel so inclined to read it.
Perhaps I should preface my treatise by reiterating my fandom of visual novels, including those of the otome subgenre that Norn9: Var Commons falls into. In otome visual novels, you're a female protagonist following one of several "Choose Your Own Adventure" style story paths involving various male characters. Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom remains my favorite otome visual novel, thanks to its engaging storyline, fleshed out characters with loads of personality, appealing aesthetics, and some intensely written action sequences. Outside of otome games, whenever a game in any genre offers me the choice to play as a male or female protagonist, I always choose the female, because the girl usually has the more unique and interesting storyline.
Besides my proclivity of selecting protagonists whose gender is opposite mine, anyone who knows me knows I'm fond of using analogies when reviewing games. Given that I've played so many games that have been cut from the same cloth, it's not uncommon for me to recycle analogies frequently. The recycled analogy here is that playing Norn9: Var Commons is like going on a date with someone who is physically attractive, but a thoroughly un-engaging conversationalist. And after the date ends, you feel like you wasted your time.
What makes Norn9: Var Commons un-engaging? Well, the characters talk a lot without really saying anything at all, and spout a metric ton of pseudo-intellectual nonsense that's meant to sound deep and profound, but comes off as vacuous. Their dialogue also has noticeable grammar and syntax errors throughout. In addition, the paper doll characters hardly develop over the course of the game, and their stale personalities are nothing more than common anime archetypes we've seen time and time again. The characters sure are pretty to look at, though, and a few even comment that one of the guys is so pretty that they initially thought he was a woman.
The story starts off from the perspective of a 12-year-old child prodigy in Heisei Era (present day) Japan named Sorata, who doesn't think much of his genius. Sorata and his class are on a field trip to the Diet Building when he starts hearing strange voices and a soothing song before he collapses. He wakes up in Taisho Era Japan, preceding World War I, and encounters a strange amnesiac girl who leads him to a mysterious airship populated by equally mysterious people with odd powers. Apparently, this airship transcends time and space, and its inhabitants are emissaries from multiple eras recruited by an international secret society called The World that maintains global peace.
Once that prologue ends, you can forget about that Sorata kid, as he gets cast aside for pretty much the rest of the game. Even after multiple playthroughs, I couldn't figure out if our boy genius was meant to be a protagonist, a MacGuffin, a foil, or what. Whatever importance or significance he may have had was glazed over. Instead, the first chapter has you choose one of three heroines to play as for the rest of the game. Each heroine's storyline is mostly her traipsing around the ship and spouting internal monologues as she follows the storyline path of one of the many male characters towards either good or bad endings with them. There are nine possible story paths to follow, each with a few different outcomes based on the decisions made throughout play, and an epilogue once all nine are completed. As with any game of this type, some paths are more entertaining than others due to some characters having more colorful personalities than others, but even the best ones didn't grip or compel me the way Ever17: The Out of Infinity's storylines did.
Along with the whole coupling off thing, our heroines must also try to figure out the mysteries surrounding the nature of their voyage, why brigands insist on attacking them, and generally what the hell is going on in the bigger picture. These disparate characters are placed in dangerous, dire, and/or conflicting situations that should elicit tension, but the narrative lacks the sense of urgency I felt in such games as 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. There are moments that display a shred of intensity, but they're few and far between and not at all worth the slog to get to. It's like a 20 chapter book where the supposed good chapters are 14 and maybe 17, but the pages surrounding them are humdrum. And by the time you get to those scant few "good part" chapters, the supposed good parts aren't good enough to be worth it, if they ever were truly good at all.
Progression throughout the story felt choppy and awkward, even after following multiple paths to flesh out scenarios. It didn't help that the game couldn't make up its mind on whether to be a polyandrous harem anime with out-of-place mascot creatures or a "Captain Nemo and his crew trapped in the submarine" type of story. Not helping the awkwardness is a surprisingly unintuitive control interface that often had me doing things I didn't want to do, like fast forwarding the text when I wanted to read the backlog.
The aesthetics sure are pretty, though. The character art is well detailed and their designs are plenty attractive, as befits this type of game. Even the socially awkward shut-in has an endearing "moe" look to him, even though, in reality, he would be a pasty-faced troglodyte due to a lack of sunlight and exercise. The environment backdrops are also lush, detailed, and vividly colored, though many of them are recycled throughout the game. Lush could also be used to describe the evocative music, which matches the loveliness of the graphics, even if the compositions aren't the most memorable. The sound effects and voice acting get the job done without adding to or detracting from the picture. The voice acting is all in Japanese and is on par with what you'd expect from a garden-variety anime. It's good, but not mindblowing. The default balance between music, voice and sound effects is a little off, but it's nothing that can't be adjusted in the menu.
Because I like visual novels and appreciate the unique perspective that otome games offer, I went into Norn9: Var Commons wanting to like it. Sadly, I did not. It's like with pizza: it's a food I enjoy eating, but not every pizzeria's pies excite my palate. This game is not inherently bad, but merely uninspired. Aside from the above-average graphics and music, this game is as run-of-the-mill as it gets. I'm all in favor of seeing more localizations of otome/"girl's side" games, but not if they're mind-numbing swill like Norn9: Var Commons.