Collar X Malice is a sleek noir thriller visual novel set in urban Japan, specifically the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. Shinjuku is showcased via photorealistic backgrounds that not only show its more popular areas, but also more mundane places to add to the believability. Contrasting these realistic backgrounds are the character portraits placed over them. The colorfully detailed characters, with their angular features, look almost ethereal due to their muted color schemes. At first I thought they looked too ethereal for such a gritty game, but that visual juxtaposition certainly grew on me. During conversations, the character portraits have different poses and facial expressions, but do not animate, leading them to “about face” from one pose to another.
The characters are truly brought to life through the excellent Japanese voice acting. These actors are definitely skilled in playing eccentric, off-kilter characters like these and it shows. The default audio balance is a little off in that the music sometimes overpowers the voices, but that’s easily adjustable in the options menu. This did not bother me so much, because the music presented here was quite enticing. Unlike many visual novels where the music provides atmosphere, the music here made me take notice and I enjoyed how the compositions played with multiple genres of music, including glam rock, which actually makes sense in the story.
Visual novels are video game versions of Choose Your Own Adventure-style books and this one is no exception. Once presented with a choice, the cursor bar is color coded to distinguish between choices that drive the overall plot, choices that build trust among characters, and choices that build affection towards characters. I thought color coding the choices was a nice touch. Outside of the normal visual novel gameplay are a few sniper scenes which involve lining up concentric circles, and occasional investigation scenes where you move a pointer around the screen to pick up hotspots not unlike a traditional point-and-click.
The plot centers on unraveling the mystery of a terrorist group wreaking serious havoc in Shinjuku. They’re called Adonis and refer to themselves as truth-seekers and dispensers of justice. Their ultimate goal is to enact a mass purge of Shinjuku’s corrupt populace on a day they call X-Day. In preparation for X-Day, they’ve already started rolling out intimidation tactics such as calculated monthly murder sprees, bombings, public airing of execution videos, and other nefarious deeds to throw Shinjuku into turmoil.
You take on the role of Ichiko Hoshino, a low ranking officer who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time after responding to a distress call. She is flung out of the frying pan and into the fire due to a traumatizing event, becoming both an unwitting pawn in this gnarled web of events and the key to unraveling them. Although Hoshino is a victim of circumstance, she is no shrinking violet and has some fire to her personality, making her engaging to play as.
I’d like to reveal more about this darkly engaging story, but doing so would ruin any level of suspense you would experience upon playing the game yourself. I found myself invested in Collar X Malice’s story and characters, all of whom are more than meets the eye. Sure I had to suspend my disbelief at times and buy into moments that play into shoujo anime tropes, but no more so than I would when watching a summer blockbuster film.
After my first playthrough, I got a solid ending that resolved one part of the overall plot but still left me with a million more questions that can only be answered through replays along different branches. The cool thing about subsequent playthroughs is that new choices sometimes crop up in previously seen chapters that were never there before. Because not every plot branch is open from the outset, each playthrough reveals new and hidden layers, keeping the game fresh over the long haul.
Collar X Malice has multiple endings gleaned from the choices made, including grisly bad endings that are easy to stumble onto. One reason for the multiple branches is that this is an otome game where the heroine can pursue endings with one of several guys. Do note, though, that romance is not the primary objective of Collar X Malice at all. It is present and nicely done, but the main thrust lies in sorting out a terrorist conspiracy. Collar X Malice is, first and foremost, a thriller that never lets up on the sense of danger surrounding Ichiko.
If I were to offer a film critic style soundbite, I would say that Collar X Malice is a slick, stylish, and sexy thriller. The story and characters held my interest and the sense of danger kept me on the edge of my seat. It had its tropey “because anime” moments, but no more so than your garden variety summer blockbuster. If you enjoy visual novels, definitely check out Collar X Malice.