The world has been thoroughly stratified and divided following a cataclysmic disaster. Steam Prison‘s story begins in the Heights, a residential area that rises far above the rest of the planet. The Heights’ often blissfully ignorant populace spend their years looking down on the Depths, the place on the surface world where society sends their criminals. The citizens of the Heights view the Depths as the stuff of nightmares, populated by nothing but barbarians and criminals who don’t follow the strict guidelines and regulations set up by the Heights to prevent absolute chaos. But reality isn’t quite so clear-cut, and one young woman finds herself facing that very truth full-on in the wake of a personal tragedy that has her exiled from the splendor of the Heights to the prison sanctuary down below.
Main character Cyrus Tistella is a police officer with a strong sense of justice, diligently serving to protect the citizens of the Heights along with her pacifist-minded partner Fin. Cyrus’ life seems to be right on track as she’s passed the examination to raise a rank within the police force and has reluctantly started getting ready for the government-arranged marriage her well-intentioned parents are so eager for. However, as the game’s opening moments reveal, everything around Cyrus comes crashing down when she loses her parents and is subsequently framed for their murders, becoming a criminal herself as she’s exiled to the very Depths she’s been trained to loathe and fear. Alone and facing extreme hardship in every direction she turns, Cyrus needs to not only learn how to survive life in the Depths but also figure out who murdered her parents and clear her name.
As far as otome titles go, Steam Prison is a slow burn. The game spends an incredible amount of time world-building and crafting the overall plot, with any actual romance taking a long time to develop over the surprisingly lengthy story routes. In a way, this is arguably both the title’s greatest strength and a huge weakness. The strong narrative is a definite selling point to visual novel fans who maybe aren’t so keen on otome games, as they could arguably still pick up Steam Prison and enjoy the mature fantasy plot on its own. However, otome fans might find that the romance they were expecting comes far too slowly. Ultimately, this “slow-burn” is extremely believable given the way the story has been set up, and it is also realistically handled based on Cyrus’ own viewpoints since the Heights’ society she is from made romantic love illegal. I imagine some otome fans might be put off by how slowly most of the romances come to fruition, but those who do give Steam Prison a try will find an engrossing fantasy story with some very mature and dark undertones, along with some surprising societal and class commentary. I found that I didn’t mind the game’s slow-burn romances given how they ultimately played out since the main plotline was intriguing. I was genuinely impressed by the attention to detail in the plot and how all the various routes had both large and small ties to each other.
Steam Prison’s cast of characters is varied and likable, and the game even provides you with nifty character guides to let you learn more about them outside of what you see in the plot itself. Standout characters to me were Ulrik, Adage, and Ines, but all of the potential bachelors have great personalities that are wonderfully fleshed out in their respective routes. Supporting cast members such as the helpful Rielith and Merlot or the antagonistic Sachsen also had a surprising amount of depth to them. Cyrus herself is easily one of the strongest otome heroines I’ve played as, with an assertive and strong-willed personality despite the hardships she endures. Her naivety about love makes sense given her background and general lack of interest in such matters in the beginning portions of the plot. She is definitely a standout character amongst many, and that’s a rarity in an otome title!
Steam Prison is a traditional visual novel in the sense that you’re reading through large portions of text, occasionally stopping to have Cyrus say or decide something. The decisions you can make in the game are more numerous than I tend to associate with otomes, helping greatly to break it up. The level of player choice had me feeling as though I had more of a say in the game’s plot than I usually do in these kinds of visual novels. There are numerous routes and various endings to uncover in Steam Prison. You will most likely need a guide of some type if you’re hoping to reach specific ones, especially since you often find yourself on multiple character routes through even one playthrough. Unfortunately, the game lacks a story map, so you’ll probably be relying on multiple saves at major branching points or using the Fast Forward option to fly through text you’ve already read before. This is a significant flaw given just how many different endings there are, even for each respective bachelor.
Visually, the visual novel presentation of Steam Prison is competent. Unlike the plot itself, background scenes can be sparse in details, but they convey the atmosphere well enough. Character sprites and event artworks are beautiful, and the game cleverly has you seeing things from the camera/“eye” perspective of Cyrus or whichever other character’s POV you’re following at a given moment by blurring images when they are adjusting vision and the like. Like most otomes, you can view artwork from your respective playthroughs.
Voice acting is entirely in Japanese, and the voice cast did phenomenal work throughout the various routes of the game. If you’re so inclined, you can even turn off certain characters’ voices, but I never saw a point in doing so as I didn’t want to detract from the emotional voice acting. The soundtrack is comprised of catchy songs that have an oddly nostalgic sound to them, often reminding me of tracks I’ve heard in PS1 and PS2-era RPGs. There is an opening theme sung by the voice actors for the respective bachelors as well, and each one has their own ending theme once you reach their good ending. While I enjoyed some of the themes more than others, I generally found the vocal songs to be especially easy on the ears. As an extra bonus, you can also listen to the songs you uncover during each playthrough.
Following gaining a good ending for a character, you unlock bonus scenarios in the Extras Menu. These range from “pre-wedding vignettes” from Cyrus or one of the bachelors’ perspectives to other characters’ perspectives from a given route (though there’s some awkwardness in the format), along with two world-building backstories about the Depths and the Heights. The amount of content both within the main game itself and outside of it after finishing routes offers quite a hefty incentive for replayability. The localization perhaps isn’t word-for-word accurate, and if I’m being nit-picky, I didn’t care for the font used, but the script itself is written out nicely and with only a few points where typos or grammar issues cropped up.
Steam Prison is an extremely enjoyable visual novel in several respects, especially if you don’t mind romantic undertones in well-crafted fantasy stories. The Switch port includes the Fin Route DLC that was sold separately on PC and some general upgrades to music and art. This probably makes it the “ultimate” version of the title. If you haven’t yet played the game and are an otome fan, it is easy enough to recommend even at its hefty price for the sheer amount of content and replayability you get. However, I’d be hard-pressed to say if it is a sure-fire purchase if you’ve already played another version of the title since you’ve probably seen most of the content before. That said, as far as VNs go, Steam Prison is another solid addition to the Nintendo Switch lineup.