When someone’s perceptions become accepted as facts to the majority at large, is it better for the truth to remain buried, or should it be forced out into the light of day no matter how painful? That is just one of the many fascinatingly insightful questions posed by Buried Stars, a Korean visual novel mystery adventure in the same vein as Hotel Dusk or the Zero Escape series. Fans of those titles will no doubt find something to enjoy in this game.
The game begins during the finals of a fictional reality TV audition show aptly named Buried Stars. This serves as a perfect introduction to the competition’s five finalists and the reality TV “character roles” they’ve taken on. Thanks to shoddy construction on the building where the show airs, a disaster occurs and results in all of the finalists and a TV staff member becoming literally buried in the wreckage. As the characters await rescue, darker mysteries and even more dangerous events begin to unfold within the building and on the outside as the cast remains connected to the world at large through the use of Smart Watches and a social media program known as Phater. Players of Buried Stars, like the main cast themselves, get treated to their very own “survival audition” once they’re given narrative control.
In Buried Stars, gamers take on the role of Do-yoon, a musician with a gift for observation who took on the role of a “betrayer” during the course of the fictional reality TV show. Perceptions of Do-yoon among those he’s trapped with and online have already taken a heavy toll on him even before the events of the game, and the mystery as to what really occurred between him and his former band gets explored alongside the growing danger within the ruined building. Do-yoon’s plot and the history of the fictional TV show he’s a part of weave a fascinating backstory that gets pieced together over the course of playing.
It becomes apparent early that the character roles each finalist is given for the reality TV show competition, and how they’re initially viewed by others, is only a fraction of the truth behind their stories and motivations. The narrative deftly brings to mind how much more complex and multi-faceted individuals are than people’s impressions of them tend to be. As Do-yoon talks to the other characters and pieces together more clues as to what has been truly going on behind the scenes of the competition, he has the potential to further build up a rapport with those trapped alongside him, revealing hidden truths and complex motivations.
I loved how much detail went into the characters and their stories in Buried Stars, as everyone in the cast is so much more than what they initially appear to be. Reactions to the traumatic situation they’re in are all handled in an incredibly believable and realistic manner. All of the characters have their own flaws and strengths that come into play throughout the plot and its numerous investigations. Of special note amongst a standout cast to me was the character of Juyoung. Her struggles with anxiety, depression, and compulsive disorders struck a very personal chord with me given my own experiences with those disorders. I loved how the game presented her as a strong-willed character because of how she has dealt with those matters. It’s a refreshing take that isn’t explored nearly enough in media. All of the characters, from Phater-loving Hyesung to the outspoken Inha, are incredibly written and fleshed out, especially if you manage to see their Rapport Events.
There is commentary throughout Buried Stars about the oftentimes negative impact that social media and rumor-mongering can have on society, and the game’s narrative use of the fictional social media site Phater particularly hits those notes home. Do-yoon and the others check their Smart Watches constantly, as they’re the only contact they have with the outside world while trapped. The distorted views that they get from the exposure is harrowing and disheartening. To go back to Juyoung: her ability to often work in tandem with her disorders and only suffer from the more damaging effects of them sporadically has many online accusing her of faking the issues to earn pity points because people only saw a portion of what she experiences through the show.
The character of Gyu-hyuk is often accused by the denizens of Phater of having a “silver spoon” background due to his famous father, despite the actual truth behind his circumstances being completely different. The game doesn’t sugarcoat the ugliness that can exist online, and I found some of the Phater posts to be quite difficult to read given how realistic they might be, considering real-life trolling and bashing. However, there is also a note of positivity in some of the online communications that can help to raise Do-yoon’s spirits, especially after a player gets through the game’s first forced Bad Ending. It seems the message of Buried Stars is that social media can show humanity at both its best and its worst.
While largely a visual novel at its core, there was a great deal of interactivity within Buried Stars that I normally don’t associate with the genre. At times, there are investigative sequences to break up the game’s large amount of dialogue and text and, like many other games in the same genre, Do-yoon must initiate conversation with the other characters in order to gather important clues and keywords. The level of choice you get within these communication segments is quite amazing: Do-yoon must often come up with a response to something someone has said. That response can have a huge impact on Do-yoon’s sanity level and his rapport level with said character, so while blindly attempting to select every topic of conversation available for a given character can be insightful to a degree, it can also be potentially damaging depending on how the characters will react to the topic being brought up in the first place. After Communication Phases are over with, there is a “debriefing” scenario where Do-yoon must present the correct findings to advance the story. Doing so accurately can prove beneficial in the long run for a whole variety of reasons!
The Smart Watch function of Buried Stars also provides an interesting gameplay element while players can peruse various apps. The most important of these is the ability to check out and respond to various messages on Phater, as well as receive helpful clues from messages there. There is also a chatroom for contestants that comes into play at certain points in the story, an “Auto-Write” feature players can alter a default message with for fun, and the ability to change ringtones and backgrounds for the Smart Watch, which becomes surprisingly important to do rather early in the game. The Smart Watch can also be used to make a phone call to one of the other finalists, which can help with Do-yoon’s rapport and sanity levels, though it is rather odd because players are essentially having a conversation with someone standing right next to them and everyone else in the cast. If anything, there might be too many Smart Watch features to play around with from a gameplay stance, but they actually all end up having relevance to some degree the further along you advance the plot.
Graphically, Buried Stars boasts a unique cinematic presentation, and the art used throughout story scenes is varied and expressive. The 3D graphics used aren’t the most detailed, but they get the job done. I felt that the backgrounds definitely gave players the sense of being isolated and stuck underground in confined and unstable areas. Players can switch between Korean and Japanese voice acting based on their language preference. Although the Japanese cast is impressive, I stuck with the Korean for this playthrough. I felt that the voice actors did an incredible job conveying the emotions and thoughts of their characters. If anything, my biggest complaint regarding the voice acting is that its usage was sporadic. For example, during the Communication Phases there was a heavy reliance on stock phrases and I really just wanted to hear the voices more. The music was very atmospheric and fit the tone of the story scenes immensely well. I especially loved the theme song, appropriately entitled “Be Honest.”
From a localization stance, there isn’t much I can fault Buried Stars with. The script translation to English is accurate and only contained a few odd errors here and there, though I would say that the weakest part of the presentation was how very literal many of the translations were. Technically, the script was correct, but there was a stilted awkwardness to the text that took you somewhat out of the story, almost like reading a dry textbook compared to an engrossing novel. Given how strong the plot and characterization were throughout the game despite this flaw, it was a shame that the translation couldn’t have had a bit more of a natural flow to really drive home the impactful story points. As it stands, the English localization is serviceable enough and didn’t stop me from enjoying the game.
Another weakness of Buried Stars is that you cannot save everywhere. Players can only save at their leisure during investigations and Communication Phases. Fortunately, the title utilizes an Auto-Save function at regular intervals throughout lengthy story segments. There is no real Story Map after you have finished a playthrough, though the game does helpfully keep track of previously seen conversation points and their effects to quickly help you get at least through the Communication Phases again. And there’s always the Fast Forward option.
Buried Stars boasts multiple routes and endings to uncover. However, the game does force you into a Bad Ending (and boy is it bad!) before you can unlock what is considered the True Ending. The differing outcomes greatly increase replayability, and players will want to go for the True Ending at least once to uncover the plot’s full mystery. I was deeply satisfied by how the plot threads all came together in that playthrough in particular.
Buried Stars is an enjoyable, thought-provoking visual novel that is only partially hindered by a stiff localization. If you’re a fan of the darker mysteries of that narrative-heavy game genre, I’d still wholeheartedly recommend at least giving this title a try. When all was said and done, I quite enjoyed unburying the truth with Do-yoon and company.