"[C]hange isn't necessarily a good thing, and Labyrinth is a prime example of it."
I loved The Fruit of Grisaia
for a variety of reasons. The humor was refreshing, the writing was intelligent (for the most part), and no character felt like they got the short end of the stick with their routes for the sake of a corny main romance. If there ever was a winning formula for a visual novel, Frontwing certainly found and got a firm understanding of it with the first entry in their flagship series.
The Labyrinth of Grisaia attempts to continue on in much the same fashion, but it heads in an entirely new direction with its story, with mixed results.
The new direction in the writing already becomes clear in the opening menu of the game; five after stories of the individual routes from Fruit and an additional "Grand Route" make their appearance here. Labyrinth leaves it to your discretion which route you wish to get started with, but I'd highly recommend going through all of the after stories before starting the Grand Route.
The after stories themselves are, for better or worse, bite-sized slice-of-life romps which can be completed in just a couple of hours. On the one hand, it's great seeing the cast have a good time time after all of their trials and tribulations in the first game, and there were plenty of genuinely heartwarming moments in the hours that I spent reading through these after stories. But on the other hand, the quality of the writing here feels much weaker than before, both creatively and technically. Glaring typos rear their ugly heads much more frequently than before, and the fan service is especially egregious this time around, even putting some of the racier moments in Fruit to shame. Additionally, the action sequences haven't improved at all, and Frontwing decided to double down on these moments for some of the after stories, further dragging them down into mediocre waters.
Fortunately, the Grand Route proves to be a much more decisively engaging experience. Set in an alternate canon where Yuuji didn't commit to a single relationship with any of the girls while still resolving their individual issues, the Grand Route provides the meat of the story in Labyrinth. It should be noted that despite providing this alternate series of events, the route itself mostly consists of a detailed look into Yuuji's past, not unlike the backstories of the five girls that were presented in Fruit.
For the most part, this route is a welcome return to form; drama and humor are elegantly balanced as you delve into the darker and happier moments of Yuuji's life, finally fleshing out his mature, but otherwise fairly straightforward "silent protagonist" personality. Yuuji's backstory is every bit as gritty as I imagined, but it never devolves into the distasteful glorification of suffering that has become all too popular in recent years. In this regard, the tact that Labyrinth demonstrates here with its subject matter, despite the almost absurd extent of Murphy's Law that befalls him, goes a long way in establishing Yuuji as a credible and sympathetic protagonist.
That being said, the Grand Route does touch upon certain unsavory topics a little too often and early on for no good reason, which definitely soured my first impressions as the story began to hit its stride. Sloppy writing also makes an unfortunate reappearance in the final hours as the pacing picks up some unnecessary speed, leading to many of the finer details being dismissively waved away for the sake of closing out the story in an almost insultingly sequel-baiting manner.
The drop in quality proves to be even more disappointing with just how much extra content is tacked onto the game. The dozens of vignettes that you unlock as you complete the after stories, in particular, stand out like a sore thumb given that most of them are barely coherent and add little to the overall experience. I understand that game development isn't a simple A-to-B process, but considering the multitude of substantial issues in the base game itself, I wish that they did away with all this excess baggage and focused on fine-tuning the two centerpieces of the game instead.
However, aesthetically speaking, Labyrinth is every bit as pleasing as its predecessor, with a host of new CGs and backgrounds to feast your eyes upon as you make your way through the game. Character designs ooze polish, although it does feel a tad bit too streamlined this time around. With the exception of two or three characters, the newer cast members feel like walking stereotypes both in design and personality, which is a letdown to say the least. Sound, however, is unequivocally excellent; the new BGMs are a welcome addition to an already marvelous soundtrack, and they are definitely one of the highlights of Labyrinth.
As you might've guessed by now, qualified praise readily defined my experience with The Labyrinth of Grisaia. Although the writers at Frontwing do deserve credit for changing things up, change isn't necessarily a good thing, and Labyrinth is a prime example of it. The game simply lacks the spirit of Fruit, replacing the spunk of its predecessor with the genre tropes it did so well to subvert or avoid up to this point. Which is why it pains me to say that, as desperate as I was for more Grisaia related content in the wake of Fruit, The Labyrinth of Grisaia is not the sequel I was hoping for.