YU-NO: A girl who chants love at the bound of this world.
"...its twisted and often intense storyline is best suited for mature audiences due to its cerebral nature and uncomfortable themes that some folks may find morally disquieting. "
One of the oldest reviews we have here at RPGFan is for the 1997 Sega Saturn version of acclaimed visual novel YU-NO
. Originally released in 1996 for PC, YU-NO was a game nobody in their wildest imaginations ever thought would leave Japan. Although YU-NO is considered one of the most influential visual novels, its taboo themes and mature content along with the genre's lack of popularity abroad made it an impossible localization prospect back then.
Cut now to 2019 when times have certainly changed. TV shows like Game of Thrones have proven unafraid to showcase mature content with moral taboos, and they enjoy wildfire popularity among mainstream audiences. In today's gaming culture, the visual novel genre is burgeoning outside of Japan, as evidenced by the localization of games like Steins;Gate that feature sophisticated storytelling. From what I understand, Steins;Gate was influenced by YU-NO. Not only are we seeing a cavalcade of Japanese visual novels being localized, but developers in other countries are crafting visual novels of their own. In short, the time is finally right for a game like YU-NO to make its Western debut. Spike Chunsoft saw fit to localize this latest iteration of the game, and a YU-NO anime series debuted earlier this year via FUNimation.
In YU-NO, you are Takuya Arima, a troubled young man whose devil-may-care attitude induces both consternation and fascination in everyone he encounters. The boulder-sized chip on Takuya's shoulder comes from his contentious relationship with his overbearing and eccentric father, Koudai — a brilliant and lauded archaeologist/historian. I should probably also say that Koudai is Takuya's late
father, since his sudden and mysterious death during an expedition a couple of months ago rattled the entire community and catalyzed Takuya's downward spiral into delinquency.
Dead men tell no tales... or do they? One fine day, Takuya comes home from school and finds a mysterious package containing a complex device and a cryptic note that his supposedly dead dad sent to him. How can the old man still be alive, and why would he care enough to send his knucklehead son anything at all? Before Takuya can even wrap his head around this absurd situation, he's forced down the proverbial rabbit hole and, through dad's enigmatic device, embarks on whirlwind journeys exploring parallel worlds; alternate realities; the depths of his interpersonal relationships with friends, family, acquaintances, and lovers; and more. While characters fall into relatable archetypes, they are complex, compelling, and not always what they seem. The more I played the game, the more labyrinthine the various plot threads and branching story arcs became.
As captivating as the story is, the localization could have been better. Starting off on a positive note, the large print text adheres pretty closely to the spoken Japanese dialogue and is generally free of technical errors. However, the prose often reads stiffly and conversations occasionally feel disjointed. There are also inconsistencies, such as currency being in dollars in some scenes and yen in others. The high school Takuya attends also offers college courses for extended study, but the text sometimes has trouble deciding whether he and his classmates are older high school students or young college students. I also would have liked to see the honorifics written as "Person-san/sama/senpai/etc." as opposed to, say, "Mr. Person." It's 2019, and we live in an enlightened era more familiar with Japanese culture where players desire a more authentic Japanese gaming experience rather than an "Americanized" one. All of this may have been acceptable back in the 1990s, but had YU-NO been given a smoother localization on par with 2006's Persona 3, its story score would easily be 5-7 points higher.
YU-NO has an M rating because its twisted and often intense storyline is best suited for mature audiences due to its cerebral nature and uncomfortable themes that some folks may find morally disquieting. The original YU-NO had full-on hentai scenes that are not present here. I'm sure there are people out there who will insist that the missing hentai scenes are necessary for character development and declare their absence a travesty. I never played the original YU-NO, so I cannot comment on that at all. I can only judge this 2019 YU-NO on its own merits, and the absence of explicit hentai scenes didn't bother me. The game is already chock full of racy scenarios that don't need gratuitous "money shots" to be salacious. That being said, the editing surrounding the cut hentai scenes could have been smoother; there were times I could definitely tell when scenes were missing.
Another area where people may raise some objections is the updated character art reflecting the modern aesthetic of today's anime. The portraits during dialogue scenes showcase each character's personality and emotional state but look somewhat flat to me. A stronger color palette and more dynamic shading would have made the dialogue portraits really pop. Thankfully, the lovely cutscene stills are vividly drawn and shaded, making them the graphical highlight. Regardless, I can easily see folks bemoaning the "generic 2010s anime" aesthetics and pining for the original 1990s art. Although I prefer what I've seen of the 1990s art since that's the style of anime I grew up with, those character designs were not the most original either and often fell into the common anime and video game styles of their time. For example, the 1996 character art of a mysterious blue-haired girl named Kanna Hatano looks a lot like Umi from Magic Knight Rayearth
Speaking of style, some of the characters' risque outfits may raise some eyebrows, but that has been the case from the 1990s to the present in YU-NO and many other video games and anime. The colloquial phrase "because anime, that's why" comes to mind when, for example, you encounter the school nurse wearing a miniskirt and fishnet stockings while smoking a cigarette. I know it sounds like I bagged on the graphics and visual style, but there really is nothing bad about the way YU-NO looks. Actually, the game looked rather pleasant to me, and I didn't mind spending hours at a time viewing it.
As a visual novel, YU-NO involves reading copious text and making decisions at key junctures. While there are explicit Choose Your Own Adventure-style choices in the text, the majority of choices are more subtle and rely on active exploration to activate various plot triggers. However, there were times I felt like I was on a wild goose chase looking for those triggers. An optional and nicely designed hint system helps counteract this, and it can be turned on or off at any time.
A healthy portion of the game is spent in point-and-click screens where you examine and interact with environments to gather clues, information, and items to manipulate in the field as you would in a Western-style point-and-click adventure. Clicking on a hotspot icon doesn't generate all the content at once, so you have to click on hotspots multiple times to glean everything. Games such as this control more smoothly using a mouse and keyboard, but YU-NO's gamepad interface is not too bad and gets the job done.
The most notable interface aspect is an easily accessible flowchart called the ADMS system. ADMS shows you the branches you've followed/are following as well as junctures where decisions were made, and it allows you to set temporary bookmarks called "Jewel Saves" that you can use to quickly jump between branches or to different places within branches whenever you fancy. Not only is this useful to see what would happen if you zig instead of zag, but items you find in one time or place may be useful at another time or place. Judicious use of these Jewel Saves is key to getting the most out of the game, especially since you only get a limited number of them and you can't keep multiple main menu save files. When you hit an ending (which will more than likely be a bad ending on your first few playthroughs), you are given a choice of whether to restart from the post-prologue beginning or from one of your Jewel Saves, retaining New Game Plus concessions like retaining your current inventory and Jewel Save placements.
The original YU-NO was one of the first VNs to incorporate such an involved flowchart feature, and though I've seen variants appear in recent games (Hakuoki's "Record of Service" feature, for example), YU-NO's is still quite fresh. I should note that the ADMS flowcharts here have color-coded branches. In the original game, they were monochromatic. Even with ADMS, YU-NO is a complex game with tons of secrets in its often intertwining branches, so it's possible to spend a typical JRPG's worth of time across multiple playthroughs to get that elusive 100% completion. Even after 20 hours over multiple playthroughs exploring myriad branches and viewing a handful of endings, ADMS says my completion rate is still only 55%.
Fans of the 1997 Sega Saturn version of YU-NO will undoubtedly extol its all-star voice cast, which included industry icons like Aya Hisakawa — a personal favorite of mine. Sadly, from what I've researched, none of the original voice actors are in this remake. The current Japanese cast is plenty experienced and does an admirable job treating their roles with appropriate reverence, so I can't complain. Still, it would have been cool to see at least a few of the original voice actors in this remake. Oh yeah, although the anime has both Japanese and English casts, the game only has a Japanese language track.
The configuration menu offers two soundtrack options: the music in its original sound format or remastered music in a modern sound format. I can't necessarily say one is clearly better than the other, since the music itself is forgettable elevator fare typical of visual novels. The only reason I preferred listening to the original sound format was because it was quieter, less brash, and less intrusive than the remastered music at the default volume settings.
In spite of the harsh scrutiny I leveled at YU-NO throughout this review, I was thoroughly entranced by it. YU-NO's acclaim is well deserved and proves the adage that there is no expiration date on a good story. Whenever I was at work, my only thought all day was, "Man, I can't wait to get home and experience more YU-NO." That YU-NO finally made it to the West and even spawned an anime series (which the author of our original review wished for dearly) is something visual novel enthusiasts should celebrate.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.