Sometimes our preconceptions can be completely off the mark. For example, mine with vampire stories: on the whole, I’ve never been the biggest fan. Much like main character Abigail in the short visual novel Ballads at Midnight, I went into the game with preconceived notions of how things would play out based on initial knowledge that the narrative somehow involved a vampire. However, similar to Abigail and the vampire Lucius, given their initial impressions when meeting, my preconceived notions of what the story would be like were pleasantly turned on their heads. At its core, Ballads at Midnight tells a surprisingly cohesive and engaging fantasy romance tale.
The bard Abigail is not having a great time when the curtains open on this VN. Charged with a “heinous crime” against the Crown of a realm known as Illuvia, she’s carted off to become a sacrifice to an exiled vampire. An allegedly monstrous, nightmarish creature if the tales she’s heard are true. Faced with certain death, our heroine refuses to become an easy meal for the supernatural entity even as she’s unceremoniously dumped on his estate grounds. A chase ensues, resulting in a surprisingly civil argument where they strike a deal: if Abigail can provide the vampire Lucius with something in exchange for it, he swears to show her the way out without prematurely ending her life. Being a bard, the only thing Abigail has to barter with is her music. As she shares this with Lucius, a tentative bond of sorts begins to develop between the two as they realize there is more to one another than they initially believed. Of course, with that realization, other feelings might also potentially bloom between them.
That’s pretty much the gist of the central plot for Ballads at Midnight, and to delve any further into what actually happens would be a great disservice since the storyline is compelling, providing both hidden depth and a tenderly-written romance. Originally an entry made in a month for the NaNoRenO 2022 event like start;again, this version of Ballads at Midnight even includes a new ending that further fleshes out the world lore and characters’ backstories in fascinating ways, should you choose to pursue it. Despite being only two to three hours in length per playthrough, this VN is a complete story experience with a very satisfying conclusion overall. Writers Wudgeous and Notafish did an incredible job building up the world, the two main characters, and their bond through vivid description and snappy dialogue. Rowanty’s script work is also impressive in that regard! The narrative is easily one of the game’s biggest strengths.
Ballads at Midnight is very much a traditional, text-based visual novel from beginning to end, albeit on a smaller scale than some others, given there are only two central characters and a relatively short playtime. Players progress through the controller-friendly text by button pressing and must occasionally respond to choices as Abigail to decide the direction of the plot. Ultimately, your decisions will help determine which ending you see on a given playthrough. That’s basically all there is to it, but the dialogue choices and different paths to tread in the game help keep the story more interactive for players.
Director and programmer Ayael designed Ballads at Midnight’s UI, and it’s actually one of the prettier ones I’ve seen in a VN. It’s highly aesthetically fitting for the game’s tone while not appearing cluttered or distracting. You can even opt to have a dyslexic-friendly font if that’s helpful. The standard text and sound settings are provided for players to experiment with at their leisure, such as the ability to skip already-read text, see a history log, or even backtrack to the last text line as needed. These features work alongside the ability to manually save at almost any time while playing. It isn’t anything surprising to those already familiar with VNs, but such options are always welcome. I suppose the lack of a flow chart could make replaying more tedious, but the title is so short, with two or three decisions at a time when you must make them, so I don’t think it is a huge hindrance either way.
The amount of polish that went into Ballads at Midnight is quite impressive, even on its smaller scale. The artwork has an overall cohesive feel that fits its fantasy roots quite nicely, the soundtrack is actually quite lovely, and the partial voice acting for Abigail and Lucius is top-notch. The script itself is error-free, thanks to editor Jeneara’s work. From an atmospheric sense, both the visuals and sound are excellent and very fitting for the title. Beyond the striking UI design, the background artwork and the portraits for Abigail and Lucius are gorgeous. Arrapso did a fantastic job on the character sprites and backgrounds, and the portrait for a certain character by Luciam fit the visual style of the rest of the game wonderfully. The music was composed by Shar Joyner and suited the tone even if the loops for BGMs were short at certain scenes.
The game has partial voice acting with powerful and emotive performances from Megan Youmans and Eric Navarro as Abigail and Lucius, respectively. I actually wish there were more spoken lines! Because Abigail is a bard, there are two vocal songs in the soundtrack performed by Megan Youmans as well that are worthwhile listens: “Lute Heretic Song” and “Lute Lullaby.” Audio and voice director Eliana Zebro wrote great lyrics for them. There is an option to skip the songs if you so choose, but you’d be remiss not to listen to them at least once! There is also a helpful content warning at the beginning of the game that all potential players should heed.
There’s really not much to fault in Ballads at Midnight. It’s a well-polished, complete VN experience from beginning to end. I suppose it would’ve been nice to have more artwork in general, but that is largely because the artwork itself is so fitting and expressive! Honestly? I’d be really nitpicking if I did go looking for a few flaws. This is a solid VN for fans of fantasy romance in particular. Other positives include that it doesn’t take an exceptionally long time to play through and offers a surprising amount of content for the right price (since it is free!). Truthfully, I’m very much impressed by this outing from Synstoria. If this is the level of quality they can produce in a month, I’m very eager to see what their larger upcoming VN Imperial Grace will be like! Ballads at Midnight is the type of song I could pleasantly listen to on repeat time and time again.