"Planetarian is a nice little ride, but compared to Key's other titles, it's more of a bite-sized morsel than a full course meal."
Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet is a visual novel by Key, who genre fans may know as the masterminds behind the acclaimed adult visual novels Kanon and Air as well as the all-ages Clannad. First released in 2004, the also all-ages Planetarian now graces gamers across the pond for its 10 year anniversary. Planetarian is a nice little ride, but compared to Key's other titles it's, more of a bite-sized morsel than a full course meal.
The 3-5 hour story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future and is told from the perspective of an unnamed Junker — a salvager who searches cities abandoned by war and plagued by perpetual acid rain for any trash that could be redeemed as treasure. The eerie silence of his seemingly eventless trip to the war-torn site of an abandoned planetarium is broken by the cheerful voice of a young woman greeting him as the 2,500,000th visitor. What is another person doing here? This doesn't feel right at all. So, with a grenade launcher cocked and loaded, he encounters Yumemi Hoshino — a chatty robot employee of the planetarium who's miraculously still functional but "a few fries short of a Happy Meal." At first, Yumemi's overly friendly nature and almost saccharine optimism annoy the Junker to no end, but her effervescence eventually grows on him.
The plot is not very complicated and some of the event pacing is abrupt, but what makes it engaging is the interaction between the festeringly cynical Junker and the unflappably cheerful Yumemi. The Junker could easily leave the robot girl and her ruined planetarium to rot, but something about her and the place compels him to stay a while and help her fulfill the preprogrammed objectives that appear to be her destiny. It's disarming to read how Yumemi breaks through the Junker's prickly shell, and the ending is sure to leave some of you a little misty-eyed.
Unlike many visual novels, which read like Choose Your Own Adventure books with branching pathways, Planetarian reads like a straight up "light novel" (Japanese novels with illustrations- somewhere between a manga and a full-on novel). Basically, all you do in this "game" is read words, look at the pretty pictures of anime characters atop dreary environments, and listen to the voices and background music. There are no choices to make, no branching pathways to explore, and only one ending. Speaking of light novels and voices, Planetarian spawned a light novel featuring four short stories and some audio drama CDs, so the storyline extends beyond the main game.
Music and voices are the only reasons to have Planetarian in a game format vs a print format. The evocative soundtrack has some lovely music, and my favorite pieces exhibit a shimmery quality. As far as the voices go, Yumemi's voice is suitably vibrant and Junker's voice is suitably disparaging.
Honestly, I'm not a fan of this kind of visual novels. When I'm playing a game, I expect at least a minimal level of interaction. Why play a game with no gameplay when I can just read a good book or manga? This aspect displeased me with Higurashi: When They Cry, and it displeases me here, because I felt that a few of Planetarian's plot points (e.g. Junker fixing the projector) could have been interactive or semi-interactive puzzles.
Planetarian is not a bad game, but it does not tug the heartstrings quite like Freebird Games' To The Moon or hit the emotional notes of Key's other games like Kanon, Air, or Clannad. Planetarian's story is all too brief, and the game's interactivity is nonexistent. I would only recommend it to the most ardent fans of Key, and even then I would say to wait for Clannad's localization instead.