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It's not easy being a teenage girl. Between school, societal pressures on self-esteem, trying to figure out boys, fighting with overprotective parents, and dealing with drama-prone friends who always seem to be at the wrong end of trouble (among other things), life can get insane. Of course, if you have to deal with werewolves, vampires, and the occult on top of all that, the normality of teenage girlhood doesn't seem so messed up, but this is precisely what Christina Robinson has to contend with in Fatal Hearts, a Japanese-style visual novel from an independent US game developer.
Christina Robinson, your alter-ego in the game, is a fairly typical fifteen year-old girl with typical teen girl issues, but is generally content with life. School's out for the summer and Christina spends much of summer vacation with her best friend Lucy. The two couldn't be any more opposite, with Christina being the more shy and awkward "good" girl and Lucy being the more outgoing troublemaker. Life seems pretty normal until the day after two boys invite them to a party. It seems that on the night of that party, a teenage girl was brutally murdered. Christina does not think much of it until she sees the brutally murdered body of another teenage girl while going for a walk in a local field. So between murders, strange dreams, and learning that werewolves and vampires walk among us, Christina's summer vacation has now become more dramatic than she could have ever imagined. People, places, and things are not as they seem any more and the normal life Christina once knew is being turned on its ear.
The story itself is engaging and has some great moments of suspense, but a single playthrough only reveals a fraction of the larger plot. The game boasts 14 different endings and players will need to replay the game at least that many times and pursue different story paths in order to get the full scope of the story and the characters in it. Like a good visual novel, players will frequently encounter decisions to make and every decision, be it subtle or major, will affect how the story progresses. Will Christina find answers and uncover deep dark secrets? Will she find her destiny? Will old friends become enemies? Will she meet her doom prematurely? It's all up to you, the player, to find Christina's fate. Depending on the decisions Christina makes and the path she follows, some characters and plot points will receive more development than others. Like other examples of the genre, the game is not that long (a single playthrough could easily be done in a weekend) but the high replay value counterbalances that.
Although the primary gameplay involves reading text and making choices as in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, an interactive cutscene will occasionally appear that involves some sort of puzzle or brain teaser for players to solve. The puzzles add a dimension of interactivity to the game and there is a wide variety of them to solve. There are even a few mini-games here and there, such as one based on the retro video game Joust.
Instructions for the puzzles are usually clear and hints are available if you need them, but some puzzles' hints and solutions can be vague and may have you searching online for esoteric information. I prefer that all required clues toward solving puzzles be within the game proper so I don't feel like I'm stepping outside of the game in order to progress within the game, because that can kill the immersion for me. Admittedly, clues to those puzzles requiring esoteric factual knowledge that no normal person would possess do appear in alternate story paths.
The Auto-Saver is a great addition to the game, since I sometimes got so into the story that I'd forget to save. Although you can manually save your game any time you wish to outside of a puzzle, the game automatically saves as you play, and into multiple slots independent of the manual save slots. This way, revisiting multiple junctures is quite easy. Another excellent feature present is that during subsequent playthroughs, any puzzles you previously encountered can be skipped. Previously viewed scenes can be fast forwarded as well, making the game very replay friendly.
Control/interface is usually fine, save for a few puzzles feeling somewhat twiddly or clunky. It's nothing I could not get used to, though, and practice made perfect. I have to give the game credit, as it's an independently developed game with its own proprietary engine(s), but the gameplay is not quite as polished as in its bigger budget counterparts.
The graphics in the game are not flashy, but they are nice. The majority of the game consists of Japanese graphic adventure-style visuals with 2D anime portraits atop hand drawn backdrops. The most interesting visuals are reserved for the cutscene stills, which feature beautiful art by a variety of artists using various mediums such paint, colored pencils, and even crayons. Some people may view the art as inconsistent, but I think it shows creativity and freshness. In this modern age where electronic mediums use computer generated art, it is wonderful to see more organic, hand-drawn art where any imperfections are charming and add character. I'm always a sucker for the "human factor" found in independently developed games such as this.
The music in the game is rather good, especially the more heavy dramatic pieces. It's mostly classically styled music, heavily reliant on piano and strings. The melodies are not hummable ones that will get stuck in your head, but the sonic textures convey the intended mood and scenery quite well. Although much of it sounds like European classical music, there are occasional forays into more exotic world styles. There are also some forays into more modern synth sounds. Sound effects sound as they should and add atmosphere when necessary. A larger budget game of this type would have extensive voice acting, but since this one was developed independently, there is none. I did not really miss it, though, since the music is fine and I could use my imagination to envision how the characters would sound. Sometimes silence is better than the kind of ear-bleeding English voice acting found in games like Mega Man 8 or the more recent Chaos Wars.
Overall, Fatal Hearts gets a thumbs up from me. Although some gameplay elements could use some polish, it offers an engaging take on the Japanese visual novel. Visual novels such as this are a rarity in the US and I would definitely encourage genre fans to check this one out. Fans of games like Professor Layton may like this as well. A downloadable demo is available from the Hanako Games website, so you can try it out for yourself. What do you have to lose? I certainly had nothing to lose and I am glad I checked this game out. It's good to see independent developers creating games like this, and I hope to see more games like this in the future.