Hanako Games has carved a niche for itself via original visual novels like Fatal Hearts and addictive Princess Maker style simulations like Cute Knight. I’ve enjoyed Hanako Games’ software in the past and was excited to hear about their latest project: an RPG for PC, Mac, and Linux co-developed with Spiky Caterpillar Games entitled Science Girls! Science Girls! is one of those games I really want to like, but ultimately, design flaws and the need for further tweaking and refinement make it unworthy of its price of admission.
In this game, players take on the role of an unnamed teenage girl who is president of her all-girl high school’s science club. Just as the final school bell rings and our heroine is about to attend her science club meeting, a bunch of mutant alien plants invade the school to steal peoples’ hair. Our heroine must now assemble the rest of her six-member science club and together knock out this alien threat with magical powers inspired by branches of science… while still finding time to engage in scientific debates with each other. I think the best way to describe the plot is magical girl anime meets a Captain Underpants novel. At a mere 5-8 hours in length, though, the game is rather short and the characters suffer for it. I think it’s great that the six Science Girls are intellectuals who would rather debate quantum theories than spread hallway gossip, but they fall into clichéd archetypes and are not as fleshed out as I would like.
The mouse driven gameplay, with keyboard options, is an intuitive blend of visual novel and RPG. Story sequences play out like visual novels and there are often multiple dialogue choices during conversation. When not in a conversation, the game’s tiled environments are explored by moving your sprite right, left, up, or down. Controls are reasonably responsive, but movement feels a bit choppy. It is important to explore thoroughly, however, because that is the only way to procure items. Items, especially healing items, are scarce and enemies generally do not drop spoils. Battles are turn based, and the full party consists of six members. Only the three front row characters fight, but backline characters can be swapped in. Battles occur randomly in the first half of the game, but in the second half, enemies can be seen beforehand and can sometimes be near-impossible to avoid. Basically, this is textbook gameplay for the genre.
Unfortunately, the game was not fun to play at all due to badly calibrated difficulty balance. The borderline cheap balancing in the game was some of the worst I have experienced since Puzzle Quest. All enemies, normal and boss, had too many HP, overly high evasion rates, and strong attacks. Player HP, attacks, and skills were never quite strong enough to properly counter that, so battles were tedious and more drawn out than need be. To make matters worse, healing items were generally weak and extremely hard to come by. Multiple difficulty levels would have been a fantastic feature in this game. The game in its current form could be hard mode, since some players would justify the balancing as hardcore or old-school difficulty. For players not fond of lengthy battles, frequent butt-kickings, and a dearth of healing items, normal mode could maybe reduce enemy stats by 1/3 (particularly HP and evasion) and increase item drops by 1/3 while keeping player stats the same. For players who want a more casual experience, easy mode could be normal mode but with player stats increased by 1/3. If something like this had been incorporated, the gameplay score would be a lot higher and the game would appeal to a wider range of players.
The graphics in Science Girls! are not bad, but lack refinement in places. The visual novel sequences feature full-length, still anime portraits of pretty, but generic, girls atop static backdrops. These look good, but no better or worse than other visual novels. The RPG exploration graphics feature simple sprite and tile graphics that resemble hi-res versions of 8-bit or early 16-bit RPGs, but without the smoothness of, say, Phantasy Star. The sprites do not have any walk animations and look like paper cutouts sliding around on a flat surface. The tile-based environments also look simplistic and lack dimension. The best sprite work is reserved for the isometric battles where character sprites animate a little bit. Enemy sprites show hints of clever design, but are mostly drawn with plain textures. The battlefield itself is just a plain grey slab. Some variety in the battlefields would be nice, especially since the majority of time in RPGs is spent in battle. Looking at the same grey slab over and over gets boring.
The MIDI music is nice to listen to, but there is nothing here that’s truly outstanding or that I haven’t heard countless times before in 8- and 16-bit JRPGs. What makes matters worse is that due to the balancing issues making battles longer than need be, battle themes become very repetitive and tiresome to hear. The characters have voice clips during battles, which can be turned off in the menu. Normally I don’t mind voice clips, but here, they are all in Japanese, and I have a tough time believing that characters with names like Heather, Jennifer, or Andrea are Japanese schoolgirls. English language voice clips or giving the characters Japanese names like Sayori or Ayako would have greatly aided in the immersion effect.
For a first-try RPG, Science Girls! held some promise and I honestly wanted to like it, but in its current state it falls flat. The “magical girl anime meets Captain Underpants” vibe could have been great, but is instead rather shallow. The game is both short and a punishing exercise in tedium to play, which is a fatal combination in game design. The game could have benefited from more time in the testing stages to work out the balance issues. Spiky Caterpillar and Hanako Games need to tighten up their RPG-making skills big time before I would consider playing a Science Girls! sequel.