Let me start off with a disclaimer: I’ve never played a visual novel before. I knew the genre existed, but only in some abstract universe of anime titles and comic book adaptations. If I wanted an excellent story, I always knew I could stop by a local bookstore or probe friends for recommendations. Y’know, for actual novels? But, alas, An Octave Higher is not a novel. So, when this gem showed up on the RPGFan doorstep, I wasn’t expecting much. Maybe some kooky music, a couple silly cliché characters, that sort of thing. What I got, instead, was a journey to an entirely new and exciting world that left me with a feeling of intrigue and a longing to someday return.
The story of An Octave Higher is set in Overture, a large city in the midst of an industrial revolution spurned by the discovery and implementation of magic. We follow three narrators as they grow and fight against the expectations this world has put upon them. These expectations range from the simple to the heart-breaking. While one character will struggle with disappointing his father, another will wrestle with the impending threat of having to work in a brothel just to survive. All the while, the world continues to expand and wage war against itself. Weaving such a complex tapestry of themes may seem like a lot to throw at players, but An Octave Higher does so with a simple nudge or reminder that, yes, these problems and situations will continue to exist and affect this world. The lower class is consistently in awe of the magic and machinery that the rich take for granted, while the upper-class look down upon the proletariat, who grow more and more resentful. Poor citizens are reduced to being compared to simple parts in a machine, and at a certain point we overhear a conversation among factory owners who weigh costs between buying new machinery or hiring more workers. This theme on human life is directly mirrored by one of the narrators, in addition to the ever-present reminders listed above.
I really can’t say enough about the writing. The pacing is excellent, and it encapsulates world building to an almost perfect point. In every instance, the writers find ways to explain details to players. Questions such as: what does the average factory worker’s day entail? How does a magical oven work? What are the rules of the arena sports game, Sorcer? All of these details are provided in context. The facts make sense and also play directly into the story. While this may seem like quite the undertaking, I was never bogged down by these details. An Octave Higher shines and provides a world in which players want more. There are numerous stories and avenues to be explored in the world of Overture, and that sense of a larger universe will captivate players until the very end.
An Octave Higher takes some time to really get things rolling. On my initial play-through, I didn’t make a decision until after the first 45 minutes. Players are only sparingly tasked with making a decision, but when those moments arise, they carry a much heavier weight than I expected. You won’t be deciding which clothes to wear, who to compliment, or how to handle every situation thrown at the characters. You will, however, make critical decisions that directly lead to one of the six possible endings. Due to the limited number of these decisions, players will need to think hard on their choices before deciding what happens next. That being said, more control over the story as a whole would have been a welcome addition.
An Octave Higher is available on both PC and Mobile platforms, and both versions are identical. However, the UI is built with Mobile platforms in mind. Large buttons appear any time that a decision is necessary, and the only downside to playing on mobile is that the font used for the text log can be incredibly small if you’re using a smaller phone or tablet. Saving and loading in An Octave Higher is quick and effortless, which, when combined with the accessibility of being available anywhere, gives the mobile version an edge over the PC.
Visually, there’s a stark contrast between the hand-drawn backgrounds and the characters. Each background is beautifully drawn and colored. However, many of the character shots undermine the work put into these backgrounds, which directly reduces the overall value of the entire product. It’s incredibly jarring to view a mature theme one minute and be thrust into an Intro to Drawing Anime Characters sketchbook the next. Luckily, the images with this issue don’t take over the entire game.
The music, while a bit lacking in variety, is pleasant and soothing. This gives gameplay a relaxing and calming effect, which in turn causes the hours of playtime to quietly float by. Sound effects within the game have a tendency to fall flat, but they aren’t distracting and don’t take away from the experience.
Ultimately, a novel of any kind should be judged on the content within. Because of the excellent writing and world building, An Octave Higher is not only enjoyable, but it creates a hunger for more. I want to go back to Overture. I want to learn about Sorcer battles and the magic engineering academy. I want to dig deeper into what happened during the explosive growth of magic. I want to see what new machines will be invented next. Kidalang has created a world of magical intrigue, filled with steampunk contraptions, awe-inspiring spectacles, and grisly realistic consequences, and I simply want more. This world has completely enthralled me, and I can only hope the writers aren’t finished with it yet.