Symphonic Rain is a music-based visual novel set in the fictional Italian town of Piova. Two things immediately distinguish Piova from being just another sleepy rural town: the perpetual rain that hangs over the city and its elite musical school that attracts students from all over the country. Despite the slight irony that a city with never-ending rain has one of the best musical schools in the country (I don’t even want to imagine how much maintenance needs to be done to keep all the instruments playable), Piova is otherwise a well-imagined city that oozes with detail — in its writing more so than its visuals. The brown-gray undertones combined with the watercolor style don’t make for a particularly eye-catching visual experience, but the details that go into describing the city more than make up for the lackluster background art. The characters are much the same in this regard. The art for them is uninspired at best, and the animations are basically nonexistent, but their writing mostly picks up the slack, keeping you engaged for the hours that you spend reading through the game.
You take on the role of Chris Vertin, an apathetic third year student at the Piova Communal School of Music. With his graduation recital coming up at the end of the school year, you play through the months of November to January trying to find someone appropriate to partner up with for the performance. This is how you pick the romantic partner you want to try to end up with, but Symphonic Rain throws in an interesting twist to the formula; you start off the game with a girlfriend you left behind in your hometown in order to pursue your musical interests. This small detail surprisingly makes up for the otherwise stock protagonist personality of Chris, as you’re forced to deal with a real conflict of interest during your playthrough. Do you stay faithful to the girl you left back home, or do you try and start anew? While this sounds pretty cheesy without context, the reality of these questions is made very clear throughout the story and puts a lot of weight behind many of the bigger decisions in the game. Although I do have to say that it is somewhat hilarious as to what the game considers the true bad ending with who you end up choosing towards the end, I cannot deny the savviness of the writing.
The only gripe I have with the writing is that some of the routes go from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye towards the end, despite being extremely vanilla to begin with. It’s almost as if the writers realized that the several dozen practice sessions you have to sit and read through didn’t really develop the characters quickly enough by the time the finale rolled around, leading to some very rushed development. Of course, that isn’t to say they aren’t entertaining, especially given how one of the routes in particular gave me some major chills as it reminded me far too much of Gone Girl, but it’s a shame that the game had to rush character development in order to reach some endings.
The gameplay, however, is much more of a gray area when it comes to quality. Most of the decisions you make throughout the game revolve around picking an area to go to after school so you can try and find a partner to practice with. While this is actually quite fun at first, when the game is still new and fresh, it becomes terribly monotonous after you do it a dozen times and straight up off-putting when you have to do it over and over again if you want to see all the routes. This monotony also unfortunately bleeds into the rhythm-based gameplay later on, which is also initially quite fun when the songs are new. But as you settle on a partner and go through the practice sessions with them, having to play one song over and over again really tests your patience. With how spotty some of the rhythm detection seems to be to begin with, I ended up just putting these sections on autoplay and tabbed out of the game until the song was over (yes, you can’t skip these tracks even if you turn autoplay on). On the bright side, if you actually practice each of the songs the few dozen times that you attend the practice sessions, you can easily ace the final performance, which, while hitting a little too close to real life, at least gives a certain amount of payout for having to slog through them to begin with.
The music is also, ironically enough, not very exceptional. The background music is pretty standard fare, and the individual character tracks, while well composed, suffer from the above-mentioned issue of being far too overplayed for the individual character arcs. Voice acting, however, is top notch as per industry standard in Japan, and it really does add that nice layer of immersion that separates visual novels from just being books on a screen.
If I had to come up with an example of a simply good visual novel, Symphonic Rain would be it. While its dabbling in the rhythm game sections does it more harm than good, it takes just enough risks and twists in its writing to keep you engaged throughout the five-to-seven odd hours it takes to finish a route. Symphonic Rain hits a little too close to the monotony of life at times with its gameplay, but the great quality of the writing certainly makes it a visual novel worth checking out.