Fairy tales are often brutal, grim stories of mutilation and death in their original, non-Disneyfied forms. Reading them isn’t for the faint of heart. To this day, I remain haunted by the tragic nature of the original The Little Mermaid, and I inwardly wince when recalling what the step-sisters do in Cinderella to fit their feet into the fabled glass slipper. The visual novel Chronotopia: Second Skin embraces these darker fairy tale origins while exploring familiar and obscure stories within the genre’s storytelling sphere. Its central plot thread spins from the tale Donkeyskin, a lesser-known variation of the Cinderella story. The resulting visual novel is hauntingly powerful and incredibly visceral in its imagery. It is a fairy tale VN requiring a player to work especially hard to earn a happy ending.
Chronotopia: Second Skin starts from a seemingly disconnected premise, beginning with the point of view of a nameless, amnesiac shadow. After experiencing a rather violent death, the shadow wakes up in Purgatory. A wise woman called Lys tells the shadow that she can help retrieve some of their memories by allowing them to experience a fairy tale from another time and place. This action allows the story of Princess Kionna to take center stage.
Princess Kionna is the beautiful heiress of a kingdom that fell on hard times following her mother’s tragic death. Her grieving father has let the kingdom go to ruin, and many citizens are at their wit’s end. Even the magical, gold-and riches-procuring donkey who kept the coffers full suffers. Desperate to encourage the king to do better things or face a coup, the royal councilors send a druid to convince him to remarry. But the druid is a schemer, convincing the king that the only woman who can remotely replace his lost queen is none other than his daughter. Understandably, Kionna is horrified by this. She and her young lady-in-waiting Nahima, desperate to prevent the inevitable marriage, summon Kionna’s fairy godmother, Medeia. Like all fairy godmothers, Medeia offers the heroine her magical assistance. However, no matter what paths Kionna chooses, tragedy and despair loom close by. The princess soon finds herself locked in a brutal spiral with no promise of release unless she figures out what she truly desires.
Much like the fairy tales it references, this VN tells a darkly mature tale with a lesson at its core. It’s a fantasy narrative focusing on harsh alternative realities and romance, much like the otome VN, even if TEMPEST. Kionna is a character going through many trials and tribulations before reaching anything remotely resembling a happy outcome. Given the single-minded pursuits of her perceived goals, Kionna is sometimes rather unlikeable. However, her character development is phenomenal, and she grows into a more robust, wiser person I grew fond of despite my early misgivings. Nahima is a loyal friend, naively seeing only good in Kionna and the society they grew up in, yet her steadfast devotion is touching. I adored playing her romance route out to its conclusion in my first playthrough. However, the favorite amongst the central trio is undoubtedly fairy godmother Medeia, who provides the plot’s worldly knowledge and supernatural aid whenever needed. She gets some of the game’s best lines and reactions and is someone whose good graces you want to be in!
Because there are so many divergent story paths and time loops, other characters occasionally steal the limelight. Young farmer Fleur and her parents provide Kionna with a home in one instance, and a touching rapport develops between the two girls until Kionna’s ambitions eventually sour it to create a genuinely horrific conclusion. Berthe is the kind head cook of a neighboring prince’s domain, taking the oddly named “Donkeyskin” under her wing. Seraphine is a married noble unable to provide her husband with heirs. In one timeline, she decidedly becomes the villain, while in another, Kionna is by far the more monstrous of the two due to her desire for vengeance. Georges is a friendly, flirtatious traveling merchant, becoming a confidant to Kionna at different points in the story.
There are numerous male suitors for Kionna throughout Chronotopia, though I’m hesitant to truly call any of their routes “happy” or “romantic,” given what occurs in them. Kionna’s father is horrific, given his actions throughout the story, both in his insistence on an incestuous marriage with his terrified daughter and what he subsequently does for revenge in a later timeline. There are three princes: one cruel and abusive to any of a perceived lower status; another ineffectual in his indecisiveness; the third requiring absolute control and obedience from his spouse. All three are hard to perceive as anything but unlikable. However, I appreciate that the message is that societal views shaped them and their actions, much like Kionna’s initial viewpoints on what she feels she needs to do. As all fairy tale lessons are, the message is subtle and direct.
Chronotopia: Second Skin is not for the faint of heart. Most of the game’s time loops are brutal, with terrible conclusions for Kionna and others. There’s death by impalement, buried alive, drowning, mutilation, crucifixion, and burning. Young infants get killed, there are abusive power displays, descents into madness, and suicides. The game provides no trigger warnings beforehand, so players should take care! I often had to take breaks between playthroughs to recollect myself before it became too much. The actual “happy endings” you can achieve are worth playing the game for, but it certainly feels like you’re earning them.
Chronotopia: Second Skin plays much like any traditional VN. You move the story along through dialogue until you reach a decision point that impacts the plot’s direction. There’s an inherent extra layer of interactivity thanks to the Purgatory plotline. Occasionally, you find a piece of memory or an elemental spirit hidden within a background that ties back to the purgatory narrative. Clicking on it acquires said object of interest. You also get minigames, such as puzzle-solving or a “reaping the harvest” timed event. They aren’t the most complex minigames but offer a reprieve from continually reading the VN’s text. As you advance the story, you uncover information on fairy tales in an extras section called Archives. You can peer at the Archives at leisure, which I’d recommend since they’re intriguing and educational.
Visually, Chronotopia: Second Skin is stunning. I adore the character designs for the more critical characters, like Kionna, Nahima, Medeia, Fleur, Georges, and Seraphine. There isn’t as much variety for the secondary and tertiary character designs, but I give the title credit for everyone having art since not all VNs do that. The character portraits are expressive, too, with the emotions a character feels in any scene readily visible based on their body language and expression, such as when Fleur and Kionna get into their fight over nobility. The CG illustrations peppered through the story are gorgeous, conveying all sorts of emotions depending on the scene. The stained glass imagery used for narrative storytelling is especially eye-catching. The game provides an image gallery to view any unlocked CGs. Little details, such as the wind making blades of grass move in the background, are nicely implemented, too. The soundscape is astounding, and the Celtic instrumentation fits very well with the fantastical and medieval setting of Kionna’s story. I also like how the music tracks get briefly introduced on-screen when they start. My favorite soundtrack piece is “Fairy Empire,” which plays whenever Medeia makes an appearance. However, each song is emotional and fitting.
The one thing I wasn’t as fond of in terms of story presentation was how the worlds of Kionna’s story and Purgatory connect through the memory shards and elemental spirits. When you spot a hidden spirit or get alerted to a memory fragment on-screen, you must click the background to find it. Unfortunately, this also moves the story forward, so I sometimes skipped lines of text when trying to collect these items. Since the Purgatory plotline bookends the game, it feels like an afterthought to the principal, lengthier journey of Kionna, especially since you have to piece together how the two are connected. It’s intriguing but not as effective as intended. The script is available in both French and English. The English script is well-written, considering the game’s massive word count, but some typographical errors remain.
Chronotopia: Second Skin is an amazingly lengthy, choice-heavy VN experience shedding light on the darker aspects of fairy tales. It’s not for everyone, given the grim nature of some of its endings and its more mature themes. Still, those interested in lesser-known variations of fairy tales, as well as VN fans who appreciate darker stories and fantastic character development, should try it. Variations of Kionna’s story deserve telling, even if it takes a while to reach a happy ending.