"...if Sound of Drop is going to succeed, it will have to succeed on merits other than concept and setting."
I've kept a close eye on publisher Sekai Project over the years. They're part of the vanguard that brought the resurgence of visual novels to Steam, for better or worse. When looking at the full VN catalog on Steam, it can be overwhelming ... and, if you share my distaste for "fan service," it can also be disheartening. Fortunately, among the studios Sekai Project partners with, many are dedicated to making high-quality VNs. One of them, aiueoKompany, is a small team (approximately five individuals) whose first major VN is the one in question (Sound of Drop). As I write this review, aiueo have just released their next project, "Fatal Twelve." And as excited as I am to play that, I'm still reeling over my experience with Sound of Drop.
Sound of Drop -fall into poison- tells the story of Mayumi Nakanobe, a junior high student whose younger sister, Mari Nakanobe, disappeared during a family trip to the local aquarium. Her body was never found, but after months of searching in and around the Manten Aquarium, she was presumed dead. This traumatic experience has led Mayumi to isolate herself from her peers and to stay as far away from the aquarium as humanly possible.
Enter Himeno. She's bright, bubbly, confident, and she cares nothing for fitting in with the rest of the cool crowd. For reasons unknown to both Mayumi and the player, Himeno makes efforts to become fast friends with Mayumi. And, after enough time has passed, Himeno decides to invite Mayumi on a special trip: Manten Aquarium. Being too shy and passive to say no (why don't I get to make that
dialogue decision? Early bad ending route!), Mayumi decides to face her greatest fear with Himeno. Himeno is especially interested in the aquarium not just for the variety of sea creatures; Himeno has heard a variety of rumors about the aquarium having secret passageways and people reporting all sorts of disturbing phenomena. From ghost sightings to localized quakes and sea creatures swimming ephemerally out of their tanks and through the air, there are enough rumors to keep Himeno wanting to come back for days. As fate would have it, it will only take Himeno a single day to get her fill of disturbing rumors.
If this plot sounds familiar to you, there's good reason for it. Many horror VNs use "rumor" as a form of foreshadowing, such as in the Corpse Party titles. Furthermore, the classic visual novel Ever17 -the out of infinity-
takes place in an undersea theme park called LeMU, where things go wrong and it becomes the player's task to escape. (Aside: Ever17 and the Zero Escape series were all written by the prodigious Kotaro Uchikoshi.) Of course, it's fairly difficult to develop a plot or setting that has never been done before. But these are fairly famous examples among VN fans, so if Sound of Drop is going to succeed, it will have to succeed on merits other than concept and setting.
For a VN built in the advanced version of Ren'Py — SDK with full coding options — the game looks and feels professional. Perhaps most importantly, the logic behind the text skip options works perfectly. That may sound like a silly thing to get excited about, but I cannot tell you the number of otherwise high-quality games I've played whose text skip logic (skip none, skip read, skip all) was absolutely broken. For a game with a total of 31 endings, 27 "bad" and 4 "good," text skip is especially important for those of us who don't think to save often.
The developers give the gamers an added bonus: when in decision-making mode, your choices will appear in groups of either blue boxes or red boxes. If it's a "red box" decision, at least one of those options will lead to a bad ending. Generally, you die, though it's not always as simple as that. If it's a "blue box" decision, it's either flavor text or it's part of a longer puzzle to bump into Easter eggs or to unlock new routes for additional endings, good and bad. The developers did not place a time limit on decision-making, and you have the option to enable or disable a Quick-Save being auto-generated whenever you reach a decision point. Truly user friendly. In some ways, a little too user friendly.
The game's art is great. My only complaint is that there isn't enough to go around. The number of background environments is sufficient, but the number of portraits drawn for each of the major characters is woefully inadequate. This is especially important since there is no voice acting. The player relies on the character's posture and facial expression to add contextual clues to the written dialogue. I felt this to be particularly true for a character who becomes very important in the second half of the game and the New Game+ route, Sayo Sakuragi. But, honestly, if each character had two or three additional facial expressions to match certain nuanced or conflicted emotions, I am quite sure it would have made a stronger impact on me.
As for the sound ... as stated above, there is no voice acting. Regarding the soundtrack, I would refer you to my review of the game's soundtrack
. The game features two vocal themes, and the production quality on those songs are so good it almost overplays the game's hand up front. The rest of the game can't match that kind of quality. Then again, that's a common issue with visual novels, so I'll give it a pass. The only other thing to say about the sound is that the sound effects are really, really disturbing. During the end credits, the player can see for themselves that all of the SFX came from large, open-source sound banks. As I recall, four or five separate sound banks were consulted to find all the sound effects. The sound team definitely went deep diving into the millions of free-to-use sound effects to find the perfect sounds for each event. In some ways, I feel that the work aiueoKompany did here actually outperforms other horror VNs, from Doki Doki Literature Club to Corpse Party. Chief among these sounds, the "drop" sound (whether blood, water, or something else) is unforgettable. Impressively, the writers also found ways to use that same sound to convey moments of sheer terror as well as moments of purity and serenity.
The game's plot, as I introduced it at the top of this review, does get plenty interesting. It occasionally takes unnecessary tangents, but there were no major loose ends and the game's internal logic about the horror element (curses, grudges, angry spirits, etc.) holds through from beginning to end. It's not mind-blowing like many of Uchikoshi's works, and it doesn't do anything creative like the heavy fourth-wall-breaking in DDLC. If nothing else, I was entertained, and I do not think I'll forget this game or its characters any time soon.
Perhaps most importantly, I am pretty sure I couldn't handle going to an aquarium for the rest of this year. Maybe next year, too. Like Mayumi, I'll need time before I allow myself the opportunity to stare into giant tanks of water with exotic, deadly sea critters.