The otome visual novel The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling has one of the most awkward video game titles ever, save for some Kingdom Hearts games. Oddly, the title makes sense once you delve into the game’s profound lore. It makes the title the perfect mirror to the VN itself: awkwardly earnest yet clumsy. A Switch port of an older Japanese PC, PSP, and PS Vita release (with an English PC release eventually), the game shows its age with problematic storytelling elements and a less-than-perfect English translation. Yet, it has enough positive that I’m glad I was able to play it all the same.
The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling‘s setting is in a fantasy world besieged by a horrific ailment known as the Rot that causes any woman who contracts it to die a painful death, leading to a drastic population decline. The kingdoms of Rus and Nasla, two neighboring countries divided by a riverbank of red flowers, have suffered because of the Rot, with Nasla arguably taking the brunt of the devastation of the illness. To bolster their decreasing birthrate, Nasla raids Rus to kidnap their women. During such a raid, protagonist Naala gets forcibly taken to Nasla alongside her best friends, Salanna and Shalu. She becomes the leader of the captive Rus women due to her adoptive connection to King Auri. Can she do what is necessary to survive such tense circumstances, ensuring everyone’s well-being? As political machinations shift and with the threat of war on the horizon, marriage (let alone love) is the farthest thing from her mind. However, Naala might have no other choice if she hopes to continue keeping the kidnapped women safe.
To say that the VN’s premise sets the stage for some potentially problematic and disturbing story points is an understatement. Still, I credit the game for often handling the complicated subject matter in a realistically believable tone. The narrative doesn’t romanticize the plight of the captured women. Instead, it accurately depicts how terrible such a scenario of women viewed or potentially treated as population replenishers would be. The three initial “romances” available to players dive headfirst into how problematic the idea of forced marriages is. Some genuinely horrific fates await Naala if the precarious balance of decisions she makes tips more in one way than another. It can be brutal to see some of these endings play out, and, given the material in general, the story leans into mature territory more often than not.
Those first three routes are for Touya, the king of Nasla who somewhat reluctantly follows through with his country’s raiding policy; Suren, the forceful military commander who doesn’t endear himself to Naala when they first meet; and Nohl, Touya’s political advisor who takes care of Nasla’s underhanded and insidious politics. Due to plot events, Naala must marry one of these three to save one of her friends. Touya’s route is arguably the healthiest of these initial three, though even his has issues that need resolving before reaching an optimal ending. Suren’s route starts in a pretty upsetting manner as not only is Naala forced into the marriage, but she also endures consummating the union despite not wanting to.
The one saving grace of this route is that Suren himself isn’t as horrible a character as Naala’s initial meeting with him leads one to believe. Naala is genuinely and understandably repulsed and traumatized by the events that happen during it. Eventually, a surprisingly believable friendship and potential love can develop between the two based on player decisions, but it takes a long time since it starts unhealthily. The narrative wisely acknowledges and addresses this adequately beforehand. Of the first three primary suitors, I had the most challenging time dealing with much of anything about Nohl’s route. His development comes too little too late. It also doesn’t help that you must see a particularly horrific, terrible ending route featuring him to open up a new character route later, negatively impacting my opinion of him. These three routes are the “forced marriages” and, therefore, the most dubious, so they’re pretty lengthy to develop any sense of romance.
Access to the second-tier character routes only happens after Naala’s forced to marry Touya, Suren, or Nohl. You can only get good endings for these three new characters provided you’ve already reached a positive conclusion from one of the first three routes. The route for the kindhearted doctor Ruiz shows up in Touya’s depending on your past actions, while the irresponsible politician’s son Cef becomes available at some point in Nohl’s. Suren’s cheerful adopted sibling-subordinate Nalan gets a route in his. Farther removed from the initial acts of violence towards the women, their character routes take less time to develop and are nowhere near as initially upsetting. The older Cef is a character type I’m generally not too fond of in otome titles in particular. Still, I found his respectful and patient demeanor concerning his treatment of Naala to be an especially welcome balm in contrast to Nohl’s harshness.
You gain routs for two other characters after seeing an awful ending for Nohl (be prepared: it is a doozy), allowing access to a new hidden “marriage route” in the prologue for Esta, the supposedly emotionless leader of Nohl’s black ops forces. Esta’s route is easily one of the best in the game, and even the “marriage” element is nowhere near as upsetting as it is in the initial three, as he genuinely suggests it to help Naala out. The two quickly become friends and allies first before anything else. They saved the best routes for last, as Esta’s is surprisingly touching and sweet. The hidden character route on Esta’s is Jigi, an abrasive young man working under Esta in espionage around Naala’s age. His route is also exceptionally well-written and more of a partnership of equals. It’s notable and frustrating that to see “better” routes, you must devote much time to the more problematic ones.
The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling is a traditional VN experience. You go through large batches of text until reaching a decision point that impacts the story or a specific route. It’s relatively easy to pick up. Fortunately, the game comes with the ability to save at any point manually, peruse a dictionary of terms, see a history log of previous text and dialogue, and quickly skip through already-read text. This last feature, in particular, is crucial, as the game’s “event list” isn’t a story map in the traditional sense and annoyingly doesn’t function as one. As a result, you’ll have to restart the game several times to see every route. To get any of the “best endings,” you must raise a character’s affection at every decision point that grants you such an opportunity. I got into the habit of saving often and keeping multiple save files. This VN is an extremely text-heavy game, though fortunately, it has several decision points within its numerous routes to help give a sense of interaction. You can also open up special mini-novels to read, or you can peruse unlocked CGs and story events at your leisure through the gallery and event list.
The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling is an eye-catching game visually. The character designs are lovely, and the background illustrations have nice details. I enjoyed the overall look of the exceptional CG art illustrations when shown. While I liked the UI, I did find it hard to discern between the white “not previously seen” text and the light yellow “already seen” text. The music adequately conveys the mood of any given scene with a gorgeous opening song. However, the tracks are relatively short and sometimes noticeably loop. The voice acting is phenomenal, and I especially like the inclusion of a voice actress for Naala, as that helps her feel like a fleshed-out and believable character in her own right. Admittedly though, some of the more “mature” voice-acting sound effects during certain scenes can be distracting.
The VN’s biggest weakness is that the English script’s not translated well. The story has some compelling moments, but a portion gets lost due to grammar and spelling issues. The game has a stiffer translation, with words like “mucous membranes” sneaking into romantic kissing scenes. In addition, character names often get misspelled. I’m honestly unsure if it should be “Naran” or “Nalan” since both are used frequently in the game’s text. Sometimes, Auri’s described as Naala’s brother-in-law instead of her adopted sibling. While many of the errors in the English script can be auto-corrected in your head while playing, and the story itself still makes sense, it would be a more potent overall product if the translation were more accurate.
The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling isn’t a perfect otome. It certainly shows its age with some of its more problematic story tropes, the lack of an actual story map is annoying, and the fact that you unlock a lot of routes through what amounts to trial and error can be pretty frustrating. Throw in a less-than-stellar English translation, and the game can sometimes get downright awkward. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the title, as several character routes are compelling once they move past their initial narrative discomfort. I don’t recommend this VN to newcomers to the otome subgenre, but those willing to look past some clumsy awkwardness could still find investing considerable playtime in The Crimson Flower that Divides: Lunar Coupling worthwhile.