What would you do if you suddenly found your very life tethered to another’s? That to leave their side for even an instant could mean certain death for both of you? Would you do anything in your power to correct this fate, even if to do so means that one of you must die by the other’s hand?
Such is the course bestowed upon our heroine in the choice-heavy visual novel Sigh of the Abyss: Shadow Bonds Prologue, which serves as an introduction of sorts to the larger Sigh of the Abyss storyline. No sooner are we introduced to her and her profession as someone who reads to the illiterate for a mere pittance than our heroine encounters a troubled young man in mage clothing fleeing from a hooded pursuer. The youth begs for help and, no matter what she ultimately does, a nefarious spell is cast upon the two, effectively chaining them together. To say much more about the plot would spoil it entirely, but working out a way to sever this forced bond is at the crux of the narrative.
Sigh of the Abyss: Shadow Bonds Prologue is a short VN with most routes lasting little more than an hour. As the “prologue” in the title suggests, it serves as an introductory look at the world, lore, and primary characters comprising the larger Sigh of the Abyss mythos. For the most part, it can be viewed as a stand-alone story save for the obvious “there is clearly more going on here” undertones it often conveys to gamers. I find it succinct and almost too short as a self-contained VN, but looking at it through the lens of the beginning of a much larger tale, it serves its purpose well and offers Sigh of the Abyss a solid foundation to grow from.
Despite its shorter (and at times abrupt) length, all the trappings of a fully-realized, choice-heavy narrative VN are present. Players begin the game customizing certain elements of the heroine that even bring to mind RPG status and skill trees. You can provide a name for the protagonist or choose from a collection of preset ones, and you’re given the option to select the type of romances you wish to pursue in Shadow Bonds as well. There are two male and two female love interests, and you can choose to see the possible romance routes for all of them, some, or none at all.
Next, you have seven skill points to divide as you see fit amongst three Abyss “blessings”: increased physical ability, the magical ability to control shadows, or the ability to actively take control of another’s mind. The number of skill points you put toward one blessing over another affects specific actions you can or cannot take later on during the game. For instance, I was able to bend the very shadows to aid me during tough spots in one playthrough, while I chose to see how the power of persuasion ultimately affected narrative outcomes in another.
Beyond the decision points where your blessings come into consideration, the game will often use a conversation wheel to keep track of your emotional responses to a given situation. This draws from the Four Humors of Hippocratic Medicine, with one response considered sanguine (relatively happy or carefree), phlegmatic (thoughtful but inactive), melancholic (fear-driven), or choleric (generally sarcastic). How your personality is perceived changes depending on your selection of these responses. I tended to lean towards phlegmatic in my playthroughs, with some sanguine and melancholic undertones on occasion. It is quite the intriguing mechanic and helps tailor how dialogue scenes play out, though I would’ve loved for the overall “personality measure” aspect to be incorporated more throughout the game itself other than the status update screen.
At certain points during story progression, a map opens up that’ll allow you to choose which scenario you’d like to see. Selecting one opens up more paths along that specific route. Since there is no story map to speak of and playthroughs are short, you still end up seeing certain scenes over again at times. I didn’t find this to be much of a problem, as there are always minute ways to alter even similar scenes based on your actions and choices.
As mentioned, discussing the story in detail is tricky since the routes are so short. Suffice it to say, the darker fantasy tale that Sigh of the Abyss: Shadow Bonds Prologue spins is a surprisingly engaging yarn for as short as the game is. I actively enjoyed my time playing it and wished that it could’ve been longer. The characters are quite believably written with some interesting personality quirks: Alpheon is a minstrel with a strong connection to the mysterious power known as the Abyss, Atri is another connected to the Abyss with a storied past, Marané is a mage connected to the powerful organization known as the Hall, Sylas is knowledgeable about street life and thievery but sports an interesting set of principals, Malec is a sensitive pawnshop keeper, and Ornell is a fugitive mage who is timid and naive. The heroine herself has a strong personality and role in the plot as well, shaped in part by your decisions. The romances are also surprisingly heartfelt and tender if you choose to pursue them, focusing more on trust and friendship than anything else at this early point in the story. The lore and world-building for the game is quite extensive, with an impressive codex to peruse uncovered significant points of interest whenever you wish to grasp the narrative better.
Visually, Sigh of the Abyss: Shadow Bonds Prologue features gorgeous painted backdrops and expressive character art. The characters all have a distinct look, and the unlockable CG illustrations are absolutely beautiful to behold. There is even a CG gallery available to view those art pieces outside of the main game once you have seen them. The choice menus and text box designs are also aesthetically pleasing. The music and sound effects for the game serve their purpose well, and there is one music track in particular that sets a very distressing tone in an unsettling manner most appropriate for the scenes where it is used. The script itself is easy to follow and flows naturally from scene to scene, though I did notice an odd typo here and there. Still, they’re few and far between and easily corrected in my head. I should note that there is a warning before the game starts up about graphic description and imagery, and that is serious, as some story scenes can get quite dark in tone or visual depiction.
I’m hard-pressed to say much negative about the short time I spent playing Sigh of the Abyss: Shadow Bonds Prologue. It does what it says on the tin rather impressively, setting the stage for the larger tale to come admirably. I would love for it to have been longer, but my short time with the game also makes me eager to see what direction Sigh of the Abyss will take in the future. It is an enjoyable, albeit brief, VN with some neat interactive points. I’d highly recommend playing it if you’re at all curious about Sigh of the Abyss or if you just want a short-but-entertaining fantasy visual novel to lose yourself in for an hour or two during any given playthrough.