Hourglass of Summer


Review by · June 3, 2006

Romantic love stories are among the most difficult, if not the most difficult type of story to write. They need to be sweet enough to make you go “awwwwww” and feel delightfully gushy inside, but not so sweet that they wind up being overly saccharine, and fall into the deadly realms of sappy or cheesy. Granted, some people go for the really sappy stuff, but not me. I do enjoy a good romantic tale, though, as I am a bit of a hopeless romantic at heart; however a lot of romantic storytelling really isn’t to my liking. For me, a good romantic tale should be gentle, delicate, and highly finessed, but also deep and interesting; it has to engage my intellect as well as my emotions. But too often, I find romantic stories rather ham-handedly scripted, horribly predictable, and just generally stupid. Either that or they’re so caught up in the gentle, delicate, finesse that they become painfully boring.

Enter Hourglass of Summer (Natsuiro no Sunadokei in Japan.) This highly acclaimed game was developed by Princess Soft who, along with KID, is a juggernaut of Japan’s love-adventure genre. Hourglass of Summer is a paragon of the love-adventure genre that not only exceeds my standards for a good romantic story, but my standards for a good story, period. Hourglass of Summer weaves a wonderfully written tale full of intense drama, sweet romance, subtle comic relief, and an endearing cast of characters. It hooked me from the start and kept me on the edge of my seat till the very end.

The story goes a little something like this: You play Kotaro Makimura, a second year high school student with a huge crush on Kaho Serizawa- a beautiful and popular girl who’s way out of his league. He confides in his best friend Takeshi and neighbor Ai that he’s going to confess his feelings for her. Even if she doesn’t go out with him, he’ll just be happy if she acknowledges his existence and is nice to him. Takeshi thinks the whole thing is a lost cause, but Ai believes in Kotaro and agrees to introduce him to Kaho, since she is Kaho’s classmate. On the way home, Kotaro hears footsteps and wonders if he’s being followed. He goes to investigate and clumsily encounters a mysterious woman wearing a trench coat and sunglasses. The encounter leaves him heavily sprayed with a powder that smells like bath scents. Thinking nothing of this, Kotaro goes home, showers, and plays some video games with Ai before going to bed. That night, he has a really strange dream.

The next morning, something feels odd… and it is! It’s September 1, the start of a new school year. It seems Kotaro shifted through the space time continuum and is now in a morbid future where he and Kaho were a couple, but on the way to meet him for something, she died in a tragic accident. In addition, his science teacher, Tomomi Yanagihara, is covered in bloody bandages. So between the shock of having “slept through” summer, the shock of learning that he was dating Kaho (since he hadn’t even asked her out yet), the shock of learning that she died, and the shock of seeing his teacher all bruised and beaten, Kotaro blacks out.

The next morning, Kotaro slips back in time to the middle of summer vacation where he has plans to meet someone that afternoon. Little does he suspect that he is to meet Kaho and run an errand with her. Kotaro’s muddled self somehow stumbles through the day and Kaho gives him a special necklace. This has to be all a dream, right? Well, that night Kotaro encounters the mystery woman again who tells him that this isn’t a dream and that he needs to save Kaho’s future.

When Kotaro wakes up again, it’s before summer vacation and the day Ai says she would introduce him to Kaho. But Kotaro is still on cloud nine after his date “yesterday” with Kaho. He tries to talk to Kaho at school, but she has no idea who he is, but through his clumsiness she notices a familiar necklace and strikes up a conversation with him about it. The bell rings and the moment is cut short as a bewildered Kotaro heads off to class.

What is going on here? Why does Kotaro keep slipping in and out of different days when he falls asleep? What day will he wake up to next? Who is that mysterious woman in the trench coat? What’s going to happen to Kaho, and how does Kotaro manage to woo her? How do the other characters figure into this whole thing? Well, play the game and find out. The story may start off simply enough and the initial premise may seem a bit corny, but the story is really good. It has many complicated twists and turns as well as some extremely intense moments that can sucker punch you. The storyline is also quite deep for the genre. It’s not ultra-philosophically deep like, say, Xenogears or Ever17: Out of Infinity, but it is much deeper than your average shallow romantic tale.

Even though the most prominent objective is preventing Kaho’s death, Kotaro doesn’t necessarily have to get romantically involved with her. There are other ladies in the game that you, the player, can pursue romantically and get endings with while questing to save Kaho’s, and hopefully everyone else’s, future. With multiple endings and the ability to fast forward and skip scenes, replay value is quite high, especially since you’ll probably still have questions about the big picture even after your first playthrough, and the different story branches and endings will fill in those gaps. The game is also pretty long for a love adventure, with a single playthrough taking anywhere from 15-20 hours, depending on whether you get a bad ending or not. The worst of the bad endings wrap up quickly after the main plot is done, but if you still have certain characters’ paths open, play is extended to try for their good endings, though one wrong move can easily trigger another bad ending.

The gameplay is really nothing more than reading the text and making decisions… very challenging decisions. In fact, none of the decisions in this game were “no-brainers” to me. All required me to think pretty hard, and there were many instances where the choice that seems the most obvious is probably not the best one. There were also many instances where I had to remember previous events in the game in order to make the best decisions. I enjoy digital novels where the decisions are challenging and require thought. As can be expected, some characters’ “true” endings are tougher to get than others. For example, the true ending involving science teacher Tomomi Yanagihara is easier to obtain than that of elusive underclassman Mana Kawamura.

The graphics, which are the standard fare of still portraits over backdrops, are a mixed bag, though. The transitions between screens and even the few character portrait animations are rather choppy. The backgrounds aren’t super crisp or minutely detailed, but the choice of hues lend well to the atmosphere of the game, which takes place in a charming coastal town. The best thing about the backdrops is the lighting effects. The way the light shines through the windows of various locales depending on the time of day is really cool. Some locations look different depending on the intensity of incoming sunlight. Sometimes, the backdrops play like fuzzy TV channels or use light and color in a way to show how disoriented and disconnected Kotaro is feeling. The character portraits, including those of the male characters, are all presented using soft, demure colors imparting a very pleasing look. All in all, aside from some frame choppiness, the aesthetics of the game are terrific and I cannot imagine it looking any other way.

The full Japanese voice acting is excellent. All the characters have appealing voices and every piece of text in the game is voiced, including all of Kotaro’s lines, even when he’s introspecting. Because of this, he has a ton of dialogue and his voice actor was chosen very well. A lesser choice would have made me sick and tired of hearing Kotaro ramble. The opening song, which comes after some introductory play, is quite beautiful, and though in-game music is often sparse and soft in volume, a wide variety of styles and genres are represented. There are smooth piano based pieces for the romantic scenes, pieces involving harsh sound effects for scenes of disorientation, some whimsical pieces for comic relief segments, all kinds. And as fulfilling as the good endings are, it’s worth it to get a bad ending too, because the music that plays during the end credits after a bad ending is really good; oftentimes better than the good ending themes. What’s really impressive is the use of silence, though. See, there are many moments in the game where silence speaks volumes and no music is played. But it feels very fitting rather than a cop out, especially since the music that is played elsewhere is quite diverse.

But as amazing as the game is, it does have two tiny flaws. One flaw is that there are some spelling and grammar errors in the otherwise excellent writing. The other, and more significant, flaw is a slightly clunky password system. While you can access the menu any time you want to get an 8 letter password, the screen only gives you the password one letter at a time and you have to keep clicking to get the next letter. In addition, the passwords don’t drop you right where you left off, but in the beginning of the chapter where you left off. Still, in some ways it’s preferable to those games where you have to wait and wait until the game gives you a password. Here, you can press a button, get a password, and call it a night if you want.

But at the end of the day, I have no reservations about giving Hourglass of Summer a high overall score and an Editor’s Choice award. The game is everything a love adventure should be and so much more. The storyline and characters are deep and captivating. The sounds and visuals are very pleasing. The decisions are challenging. It’s also longer than your average digital novel and has excellent replay value. It doesn’t matter whether you’re young, old, male, female, whatever; if you enjoy excellent storytelling in any way, shape, or form, then Hourglass of Summer is a must-play… and after you play it, you’ll want to play it again.

Overall Score 95
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Neal Chandran

Neal Chandran

Neal is the PR manager at RPGFan but also finds time to write occasional game or music reviews and do other assorted tasks for the site. When he isn't networking with industry folks on behalf of RPGFan or booking/scheduling appointments for press events, Neal is an educator, musician, cyclist, gym rat, and bookworm who has also dabbled in voiceover work and motivational speaking.