“Brevity is the soul of wit” might be true in most cases, but for video games on the shorter side it can be something of a mixed bag. Some projects can feel rushed or perhaps even incomplete. Fortunately, seeing the time-looping visual novel and puzzle adventure title start;again through to completion is very much the definition of “short-and-sweet” in the best possible ways. What you end up with is a poignant tale that hits quite a few emotional notes in a concise-yet-thoughtful manner.
start;again begins with main character Sebastian, called “Sev” only by close friends, waking up in a derelict house that he decides after a few moments is most definitely haunted. Discovering a young girl trapped in a packing box does nothing to alleviate his sense of panic. It isn’t long afterwards that he and the little girl named Nini find a rather belligerent young man called Mikhail, or “Mika” to a select few. The announcement that they’re in a death game with only two hours to escape goes blaring through the house, but something else doesn’t feel right about the unsettling situation: why do Sebastian and Mikhail seem to know little details about one another despite being total strangers? And why does it feel like someone is missing from their group?
The game then quickly backpedals to a surprisingly detailed flowchart, letting players choose between three different locations and scenarios before unlocking the rest of the “main” scenario. Each one features very different relationship points for Mikhail, Sebastian, Nini, and a mysterious young woman named Rinne (our aforementioned fourth person), though the premise is still eerily familiar for our small cast: they’re trapped somewhere and only have two hours to escape before the area is destroyed. Can they work together when they aren’t sure of what’s going on or who is trustworthy? Players are also left to determine just how all of these different scenarios are connected overall.
To talk more on the plot of start;again would be to delve deep into spoiler territory, and I’d be remiss to do so because the plot is amazingly detailed and the reveals are wonderful. Clues about what is truly going on are provided in each route even as the mysterious narrative deepens. I loved the rapport that develops between all four of our heroes: Nini is a sweetheart you can’t help but want to see get through the harrowing situations she is in and find something better; Rinne is enigmatic and sad but also strangely determined; Mikhail is contradictory and easily embarrassed; Sebastian is kind-hearted but not the bravest or smartest person out there. Together, they end up developing something of a family unit despite being unsure of who to trust. The gradual evolution of Mikhail and Sebastian’s relationship into a romance is surprisingly heartfelt and tender, too, and I adored how everyone looked after little Nini in their own ways.
The game is a visual novel that takes roughly two to three hours to play to completion. The title utilizes the flowchart to great effect as players use it to figure out how to solve puzzles in later routes. Clues given in one route will ultimately tie into a puzzle or choice point in another, and you can either pay sharp attention or even jump from route segment to route segment as needed easily enough for a refresher.
Puzzles also break up the routine of dialogue reading. While some might have you pause for a few moments, the answers are easy enough to come by if you’re paying attention to clues and hints. I found that keeping a notebook handy to jot down anything of interest helped a great deal with the puzzle solving, which ranges from math problems to word jumbles and the like.
The dialogue flows wonderfully from one moment to the next, with only a few instances of minor typos here and there that aren’t too detrimental to the overall enjoyment or interpretation of the script. I loved the range of emotions on display throughout start;again: there are some truly laugh-out-loud moments which is rare for a VN centered around a death game, along with some genuinely tender and altogether heartfelt moments, too. The bad endings you can get if you make certain choices are gut punches as well, and I admit I even teared up a bit at parts when certain story reveals were made later on.
Given how short playing through the title is even if you do absolutely every little thing to complete the flowchart, the emotional scope of its storytelling is impressive! I didn’t feel like it was too short or dragged on at any point, either. Rather, it was a self-contained and fully-realized tale with a satisfying and ultimately fulfilling conclusion if you reach the true ending.
The music for start;again is also quite catchy and memorable with BGM tracks that really capture the feel of any given plot moment. When Sebastian was being silly, the music keyed in on it. When something harrowing was happening, the music perfectly captured that mood as well. It helps convey so much of the feeling in a specific scene to further effect, which is exactly what a good soundtrack should do.
The artwork did have a bit of a tonal discrepancy to it since it’s quite obvious that different artists provide certain scenes, but I didn’t mind this too much since all of the art is fitting in its own way and lovely to look at. Colorful chibi CGs are used at certain points, and some of the more romantic moments between Mikhail and Sebastian are rendered in gorgeous CG scenes along with one amazing illustration of a praying Rinne. Highly detailed character portraits are used when the characters are discussing things amongst themselves, and I personally love how expressive they are.
As with most VNs, there are the customary options on the main menu that allow you to tailor your playthrough: display settings, skip choices, text color changes, rollback, text speed, auto-forward, as well as music and sound controls. In-game features such as a helpful notepad, a history log, the skip and auto features, saves, and preferences are also readily accessible. start;again is controller-friendly, though certain puzzles and the history log still require a mouse to properly utilize.
start;again is a puzzle-laden visual novel adventure with some wonderful mystery, suspense, found family, and romance themes that are deftly explored even in its shorter playtime. I enjoyed my time playing the game and felt like it was a solidly designed, well-written, and complete adventure. It’s impressive to know that the game was developed in just a month for the NaNoRenO 2022 event. I’d recommend start;again for any visual novel fans out there looking for a heartfelt and thought-provoking adventure that doesn’t take days and days to see to a satisfying conclusion.