Putting on a charade means acting on pretenses, and that’s the essential premise of Idea Factory’s otome visual novel Charade Maniacs. The story centers around Hiyori Sena, an average high schooler in a futuristic Japan. One day she and her childhood friend Tomose Banjo get abducted by a mysterious masked figure while walking home from school. They get taken to a strange new reality named Arcadia. Hiyori, Tomose, and several other abductees must act in dramas called the Other World Stream or risk a fatal fate called a Dead End. As time passes, the actions needed to fulfill a script’s requirements become increasingly deadly, with hefty punishments awaiting those who can’t complete them. If that wasn’t bad enough, there are traitors within the disparate group’s midst. Will Hiyori and the others survive long enough to return home, and who can she even trust when everyone appears to be hiding something?
Charade Maniacs is a suspenseful mystery type of otome, similar to Collar X Malice or 7’scarlet. Of course, finding love is still a primary goal of the story, but just as important is finding the truth behind the Other World Steam and all the cast’s ulterior motivations. You can expect ruthless punishment games or acted-out scenes depending on how the narrative progresses. I mostly found uncovering the mystery drama elements of Charade Maniacs intriguing enough to want to play all the character routes, but the quality of the romance elements is inconsistent.
The game plays like a traditional visual novel, as you step into the role of Hiyori as she goes about her days, moving from dialogue to dialogue until reaching a decision point that impacts the direction of the story or a character’s affection rating. There’s a helpful glossary of terms you can peruse whenever you wish, and you can skip through already-read text or save/load any time. Charade Maniacs also utilizes a helpful extensive flowchart to keep track of narrative branching points. While initially intimidating, seeing as there are so many routes in Charade Maniacs, it helps set you on the right track for the hidden character routes. Still, that’s it as far as gameplay goes. Regarding extras, you can peruse unlocked movies and CGs in a gallery.
The common route for Charade Maniacs — the section before reaching the point where you find yourself on a specific character story route — is surprisingly lengthy. It only differs slightly depending on the major decision of which group Hiyori will work with. There’s the cleaning crew (comprised of overly-protective Tomose, game-loving Gyobu, and college student Futami), the cooking crew (which includes the innocent-acting Haiji, argumentative Ebana, and the mysterious Iochi), and the information group (made up of the thoughtful Chigasaki, justice-loving Akase, and inquisitive Dazai). After selecting one of these groups, your path narrows to its three members, with two routes readily available while one remains hidden/locked until you meet the prerequisites for accessing it. For instance, if Hiyori joins the cooking group, she can see Ebana or Iochi’s route right away, but you must play through one of their routes first and then go through some decision-making hoops to unlock Haiji’s.
Unfortunately, Charade Maniacs is a prime example of “quantity over quality.” There are many bachelor routes to uncover, and not all characters are likable. By the very nature of the game’s premise, you can’t trust anything you initially come across at face value, as many plot twists make you see the characters in different lights. Sometimes, as with the blunt Ebana, you get a deeper understanding and appreciation for the characters by going through their respective routes. Other times, you get left with a mixed sense of character. Such is the case with Iochi, as they do not-nice things in their route but for understandable reasons.
There are also characters you won’t like even from the beginning, and you may struggle with their routes entirely. For example, Tomose’s possessive attitude towards Hiyori made him impossible to warm up to, especially when he said things about how Hiyori owed him something (as a note: just because you develop feelings for someone doesn’t mean they owe you anything in return!). Some routes are well-written and incredible, as a character like Chigasaki stands out in his route, and his romance feels entirely believable. Sadly, not all the routes are created equal in that regard. It doesn’t help that Hiyori’s personality changes drastically depending on your route, making her seem inconsistent and not a memorable otome heroine.
As far as the English script is concerned, I find Charade Maniacs excellently localized with few errors. The soundscape by Tokyo Logic is Charade’s Maniacs’ biggest strength, with the background music tracks helping to convey emotion during pivotal moments or ramp up the intensity during high-stake plot reveals. The opening theme is ear candy! The voice acting is stellar as well, with everyone giving standout performances. Special mention should go to the casting choice of legendary voice actress Megumi Ogata as Iochi!
Visually, I’m of two mindsets on Charade Maniacs’ presentation. On the one hand, I adore the character models for their complex expressions and differing body language during story scenes. The UI’s simplicity is effective in presenting the story, especially when it turns green to differentiate a drama episode. But the unlockable CG illustrations often leave a lot to the imagination. Many of them have an incomplete quality, with strange camera angles.
Charade Maniacs isn’t a perfect game, yet I wouldn’t call it terrible. Even though I’m lukewarm about some of the character routes, I genuinely enjoyed others. Plus, the overall mystery is compelling enough that I wanted to solve all the mysteries presented to me. Charade Maniacs might be worth a few playthroughs if you’re a fan of suspenseful mystery otome titles, so long as you don’t go into it expecting greatness.