"Surpassing even my wildest expectations, Grisaia deftly weaves together the very best of what visual novels have to offer to earn itself a comfortable spot as one of the best games of the medium."
Romance is a genre that is too often abused for the cheap and easy emotions it can evoke. Whether it be the classic death flag that gets raised the instant anyone of importance speaks of their future (heaven forbid it be about marriage), or meek love interests that lack any substance outside of their sex appeal, the very tropes that make the genre so popular often shackle it to its stereotype of being tearjerker fodder. Perhaps I'm being a bit too cynical here, but the fact of the matter is that most romance stories these days for me go in one ear and out the other; they tend to leave me bored at best and drooling on my keyboard at worst.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I began my playthrough of The Fruit of Grisaia, Frontwing's flagship romance visual novel, with nothing more on my mind than its notoriously long completion time of over seventy hours. I trained my index finger to keep on pressing the enter button to continue the dialogue even if I fell asleep and braced myself for the worst. Yet by the time my first lengthy session came to an end I had to practically pry myself from the screen for some shuteye, cursing my need for sleep.
That being said, Grisaia certainly does not leave a particularly good first impression. Thrust into the shoes of Kazami Yuuji as he begins his "normal school life" at the prestigious Mihama Academy, the basic premise of the story seems all too familiar. Meet girls, find which one you like best, stumble through hours upon hours of stiff dialogue and clumsy romance, and then make it to home base with a nice happy ending. Par for the course for most contemporary dating sims and Grisaia initially appears to put in minimal effort to establish itself beyond the well-trodden territories of its genre.
But don't let the meager opening keep you from delving further into this gold mine of a visual novel. The tepid start to the story serves as more as a subversion of the reader's expectations than as an actual statement of the game itself. Of course, there are more elegant ways to set up big surprises and twists besides initially drowning you in fluff, but Grisaia at the very least provides a pretty solid comedy for the ten to fifteen hours that you spend on the common route.
Speaking of comedy, Grisaia's jokes are absolutely on point. It was a breath of fresh air to see topics like sex and serious relationships be approached in such a nonchalant manner in a visual novel, especially with Yuuji's deadpan delivery. Unlike most protagonists who don't even broach the topic of sex until the R-rated scene for a given route takes place, Yuuji's stoicism and blatantly blasé attitude towards the matter served as a hilarious change of pace. Admittedly, the jokes are at times a bit too abrasive and potentially in bad taste, but by and large, the quality and the execution is excellent.
The localization team really did a phenomenal job in this regard, as most of the jokes, and especially the puns, retain a lot of their original flavor even with some of the creative liberties taken. Almost none of the humor falls flat or feels hamfisted, and for a game that has over seventy hours worth of text that is an achievement in and of itself.
But the real meat of the story lies in the hours that follow the common route. Four choices make their rapid fire appearance an hour or so after the final event of the common route, and your choices here determine which heroine's path you're going to follow for the next ten to twenty hours. Although I wish these choices were spread a bit further apart or integrated into the common route while cutting back on some of the fluff, this is more of a nitpick than it is a serious negative.
As for the routes themselves, all I can really say is that it's best to go into each of them completely blind and let the engrossing narrative drive you forwards. Mihama Academy is no ordinary high school after all, and the girls that attend this place are the decaying fruit that have fallen from the tree of society (hence the title of the game). The girls are haunted by the shadows of their pasts. Uncovering the events that lead them to Mihama, while also watching Yuuji slowly break out of his shell as he aids the girls in overcoming their demons, was a profoundly moving experience. The characters are pulled apart at the seams as their ugly histories come to light and the manner in which Grisaia handles the delicate topics that surface, such as mental illness and survivor's guilt, is admirable in both the maturity of its presentation as well as the emotional wellsprings it is able to tap into. In this sense, Grisaia is an insightful deconstruction of the individual character tropes that the girls embody, even if some of the routes end up being too dramatic at times. Most of the action sequences, in particular, are hammy and jarringly out of place, only offering abrupt breaks of immersion instead of adding anything meaningful to the story. Nonetheless, Grisaia's serious approach to developing its cast when it mattered gave the romances that developed over the course of each route an enormous amount of credibility and left me desperate for more once the credits began to roll.
What surprised me most, however, was the lack of favoritism among the girls. The usual 'main heroine' that the writers clearly put more time and effort into over the other love interests is nowhere to be found, and you aren't particularly pressured into going down any one of the girls' routes either, so you're free to pick whomever piques your interest the most. The writing certainly reflects this confident presentation of choice as each of the routes provides a wholly enjoyable ten to twenty-hour reading experience, without so much as a hiccup of quality.
The excellent writing also improves replay value massively. Details that you might have skipped over your first time through begin to stand out and you can't help but be drawn into going through the game again to see just how many foreshadowed moments and clues you might have missed.
Audiovisuals for Grisaia are superb. Crisp character and background designs offer enticing eye candy, with some small added animations providing a nice sense of immersion. The soundtrack is top class, perfectly capturing the mood of every scene you read through. From sounding delightfully goofy during the more relaxed moments to being solemnly somber during the more serious moments, the soundtrack forms the emotional backbone for many of the more moving scenes. Voice acting also deserves much praise for being absolutely outstanding. I don't think I've ever gone through the backlog more extensively for a visual novel than I have for Grisaia, just so that I can listen to some of the lines again. The voices perfectly match the characters and serve as shining examples of just what visual novels can provide as a medium to its readers that books otherwise can't.
As of this writing, I've completed The Fruit of Grisaia two times over and I'm still finding new things about the game as I eagerly make my way through the third time around. Surpassing even my wildest expectations, Grisaia deftly weaves together the very best of what visual novels have to offer to earn itself a comfortable spot as one of the best games of the medium. If you have a hundred hours to spare and enjoy superbly well-crafted stories, The Fruit of Grisaia should be at the very top of your list.