The year is 2015. Six years after Tokyo’s Shibuya ward was rocked by a one-two punch of a devastating earthquake and a serial murder case called The New Generation Madness, an aspiring journalist searches for scoops to print in his high school’s newspaper. Unfortunately, he finds himself in over his head at the centre of a grand conspiracy: one that involves hallucinatory delusions, new serial murders, and — of course — a group of cute high school girls.
Confused? It’s OK if you are. Chaos;Child is the latest of Chiyomaru Shikura’s Science Adventure Series (which encompasses Steins;Gate), as well as the direct sequel to Chaos;Head, a 2008 Japan-only visual novel that told the story of the aforementioned New Generation Madness case. Chaos;Child shares many themes, plot beats, and mechanics with its predecessor, and as such expects to be approached with a certain degree of familiarity. Fans can catch up via Chaos;Head’s translated anime adaptation, though Chaos;Child focuses on a brand new cast with their own mystery to solve. You’d certainly have an easier time starting here than you would diving head first into Steins;Gate 0.
Chaos;Child follows a few weeks in the life of Takuru Miyashiro, the aforementioned wannabe journalist, as he investigates the return of The New Generation Madness. Takuru has a keen interest in the bizarre, but also lost his family in the Shibuya Earthquake, which makes this case personal to him. Joining him are the other members of the newspaper club: Itou, Takuru’s bosom buddy and camera nerd; Hana, an antisocial girl who joined the club exclusively to play MMOs on their PC; Serika, whose ditziness belies her supportive loyalty; and Nono, Takuru’s no-nonsense adoptive sister whose concern for his wellbeing manifests as frustration. They’re a very likable lot, though perhaps not as memorable as the Steins;Gate crew.
Takuru is an intriguing character: he’s initially unlikable, yet relatable. He’s extremely arrogant with an intellectual superiority complex, and he loathes his classmates for being not as technologically-minded as himself. Yet if a classmate who’s not part of his inner circle speaks to him, he falls to pieces, not knowing how to react to the attention. At his heart, Takuru is extremely lonely, and what he truly loathes is the fact that he’s unable to communicate effectively to integrate with his peers. As we get to know Takuru, a portrait develops of a kind boy whose social awkwardness is exacerbated by the time spent alone in his own head.
Much like the other Science Adventure titles, interaction in Chaos;Child is through a Trigger System — in this case, the Delusion Trigger, a returning system from Chaos;Head. At certain points of the story, Takuru will begin to feel a delusion coming on. The player then has the opportunity to select whether he experiences a positive delusion, a negative delusion, or if he stays in the moment to forego a delusion entirely. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all had our share of fatalistic daydreams, fantasizing over the worst possible catastrophe that could occur at any given moment (Just me? Oh.); it’s a fun and relatable idea to watch a character’s imagination run away with itself, and one in theory very much like a digital adaptation of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.
In practice, it’s a little skeezier than I’m comfortable with. Takuru regularly fantasizes about sexually assaulting his female friends, and a number of these delusions are choices of whether he succeeds at doing so, or gets his ass kicked, or even accidentally kills a girl. There’s a very distinct disconnect between Takuru’s arc and these scenes, and they seem to only serve as titillation. Although Chaos;Child may have been written in 2014, it does not exist in a vacuum: in this post-Weinstein season punctuated by dozens of high profile cases of systemic sexual abuse, Takuru’s constant fantasies of assault feel less like a demonstration of improvisational id and more like an excuse for abhorrent behavior — “We all feel like this on the inside, right?” Whether Takuru follows through on his fantasies or not is irrelevant; Chaos;Child’s writers don’t seem to see women as people, and these depictions frequently leave a very foul taste.
The other big problem about the Delusion Trigger system is just how obtuse it is. If you thought it was tough to determine whether a text message in Steins;Gate was capable of ending the world or having no discernible effect, I can’t even begin to explain how to figure out which delusions affect Chaos;Child’s plot. Unhelpfully, the game doesn’t tell you that the first playthrough is completely linear — your choices do not matter a lick. It’s not until seeing the first ending and starting a New Game+ that Delusion Triggers matter. And they matter a lot; each girl has her own route and ending, and getting them all is the only way to see the True Ending. Even if you’re dedicated enough to engage this mammoth undertaking (I wasn’t), you’re best off making liberal use of a walkthrough.
Indeed, Chaos;Child’s biggest hurdle is the fact that it’s a 5pb visual novel. The return of the New Generation Madness is a gruesome and compelling mystery, but one that’s far too padded out for its own good. Early on Takuru and Serika sneak into a love hotel and come face-to-face with a mutilated corpse, and then it’s back to the high school to plan the upcoming cultural festival for an entire chapter. A few hours later, Takuru and Serika again find themselves where they shouldn’t be: hiding in a hospital restroom to sneak through a ward after dark. More horrifying things happen, then without fail, it’s back to school for the opening of the aforementioned cultural festival. Only after dozens of hours does the mystery finally take centre stage and become the non-stop thrill ride it should have been from the outset. Chaos;Child contains a gripping ten-hour suspense story padded out to fifty hours with the usual anime high school tropes — whether or not this appeals depends on the player, but it’s a story structure I have increasingly little time and patience for. The fact that the story’s true conclusion is locked behind seeing virtually every line of its script seems especially cruel.
As someone who really enjoyed Chaos;Head, I really, really wanted to like Chaos;Child. And there are a number of things I do like about it: the cast is fun, the core mystery is gripping, and the level of gore, while not for the faint of heart, is on par with a Sion Sono flick (nasty and weird, but not wholly distasteful). However, its preoccupation with padding its length with the same tired tropes and non-consensual sexual fantasies makes it tough to recommend to any but the most devoted Science Adventure Series fans. Please 5pb, hire a copy editor.