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Many popular anime series are based around "harem hijinks." In a nutshell, harem hijinks involves a hapless boy thrust into a situation where a bevy of beautiful girls vie for his affections and perhaps he, in turn, is vying for theirs. Tenchi Muyo and Love Hina are two popular series in the "harem hijinks" genre. Following this trend, a new anime called Ai Yori Aoshi threw its hat into the ring and, like the aforementioned series', has spawned a digital novel video game which acts like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book.
Ai Yori Aoshi is a romantic comedy series about a young man named Kaoru, heir to the Hanabishi corporation. As the company inheritor, he has been betrothed to the daughter of the wealthy Sakuraba family since childhood. Hence, this marriage arrangement is also a business deal. Aoi, the aforementioned daughter, has been groomed to be Kaoru's wife, so whilst being wealthy, she is also well versed in housekeeping and related tasks. However, as Kaoru matures, he becomes fed up with the whole corporate lifestyle that's been mapped out for him and secedes from his family. He enrolls at Meiritsu University and lives the penniless, typical student life in a shabby apartment. Life is pretty normal until a kimono-clad woman re-enters his life. This woman is Aoi, his childhood friend and betrothed. Their relationship starts off rocky, but Aoi proves that she genuinely loves Kaoru, and has since they were children. She wants to eke out an honest existence with him, wherever he may be. Sweetly enough, Kaoru loves her too. Awwwww. But since this is a "harem hijinks" series, there are also plenty of other requisite females who too are vying for Kaoru's affections and want nothing more than to steal him away from Aoi. The game takes place a good ways into the Ai Yori Aoshi storyline where all the characters are already well established, including Mayu Miyuki and Tina Foster who are among the more aggressive females Kaoru encounters. Kaoru however, is very serious about his relationship with Aoi and has eyes only for her, much to the other girls' chagrin.
The game has two scenarios: "Southern Island" and "Lake of Winter." The game automatically starts you on the Southern Islands storyline and when you finish that, you can do the Lake of Winter scenario. There are various endings, but all happy endings that have been cut from the same mold. In other words, if you've seen one ending, you've seen them all.
The game's scenarios take place during winter break and start with Tina wanting to go to the beach after seeing a TV commercial. Aoi then suggests that the group take a vacation at her family's convalescent home in the southern islands. Unfortunately, during the boat trip, the weather takes a turn for the worse and the crew winds up stranded on a deserted island. Wouldn't you know it? The food supply's dwindling and communications are down. Oh no! Whatever shall they do? Never fear, because contrived and overly convenient plot devices are here! But at least "Southern Island" even has a story. The "Lake of Winter" plot simply consists of the group going to Mayu's mountain villa for a weekend getaway and hijinks ensuing.
Even for those with little to no familiarity with the series, the game isn't difficult to get into. The characters fall into predictable and well-defined archetypes. It's easy to get a bead on them -- Perhaps too easy. From my experience, the characters were rather one-dimensional and displayed little depth, often to the point of being complete idiots. Given that the game takes place a good ways into the Ai Yori Aoshi storyline, I was surprised that the characters were as shallow and predictable as they were. I would have expected more depth and slightly more mature dialogue from the characters, given that some were adults of legal drinking age. The shallow characters and cracker-thin dialogue were very disappointing. On the other hand, the simplicity of the text did make for the smoothest localization job I've ever seen from Hirameki thus far. The text flowed very well and there were almost no technical errors.
The game is extremely short and linear. There are also very few places to make decisions and even then, the decisions you make are of little consequence because the game will always end the same way, albeit with some variation. I expect linearity from this genre, but this game was too linear. Each scenario can be finished in 2 hours, resulting in one complete playthrough in less than a day. In one weekend, every plot branch in both scenarios can be explored thanks to the game's fast forward feature that lets you zoom through scenarios until you reach one you haven't seen yet.
However, the gameplay is more than just making choices. Periodically, there are arcade-style mini-games to play and your performance in the mini-games alters the plot direction ever so slightly. It really doesn't matter whether you win or lose them, because the endings will always be pretty much the same. Still, the inclusion of mini-games was nice way to incorporate some interactivity into this normally passive genre. Unfortunately, the mini-games are not much fun, suffering from loose, clunky controls and dated 16-bit graphics.
The visuals in general were not that impressive. The main graphics were the genre standard of 2D anime portraits over backdrops. The backdrops looked a tad washed out, but the portraits were crisp. There were even instances where the portraits' eyes and mouths would move during dialogue sequences. I liked that. Occasionally there were some cutscene stills, but some were blurry while others had great clarity. I was not fond of this inconsistency. There was an animated opening, but it too was blurry, sporting a fair bit too much of choppy character animation. As far as character designs went, there was nothing in the art that really popped out at me. Not to say they were bad, but they were plain vanilla.
With the exception of the well-done opening and ending vocal numbers, I didn't enjoy the music in the game at all. It sounded like subpar, simplistic, anime music with melodies that disagreed with me far too much. In addition, the volume was often overpowering, even when toned down. The quality of the voice acting also felt below-average. Yes, Hirameki kept the original Japanese voices as usual, but even Japanese voice acting can actually be mediocre or even bad. The actors for Tina and Mayu had grating voices that sounded like nails on a chalkboard. I know Kaoru is supposed to be a laid-back, calm, cool, and collected guy, but his voice actor made him sound like he was out to lunch a lot of the time. Sadly, the game even included a little girl with a shrill, helium voice. The only silver lining in this black cloud of vocal discord was Aoi, whose sweet and sincere voice was exemplary.
In conclusion, Ai Yori Aoshi is an abysmal disappointment as far as love adventures go. My only consolation regarding this game is that hopefully my dollars made a slight difference to encourage Hirameki to localize higher quality games of this nature for US audiences. I think KID makes some of the best Japanese adventure games out there and I would love to see more of their games in the US, so long as it's good stuff like Ever17 (from the stellar Infinity series that also includes Never7 and Remember11) or Memories Off, and not garbage like Ai Yori Aoshi.