This game is an excellent case study in the expectations that one can assume depending on whether the protagonist of a visual novel is male or female. I don't like to judge a book by its cover, but this game doesn't do itself any favors on that front.
At first, I was mildly intrigued by the opening. It's set in futuristic sci-fi world where for some reason global warming has caused the weather to be constantly gloomy and rainy and everyone lives in cramped apartments. The protagonist is Luke Black, a fairly ordinary middle-aged guy who works for Nanotech, one of the largest companies in the world for the production of nanotechnology. That seems like kind of a bland and confusing name in that case, since “nanotech” is a common abbreviation for nanotechnology. I imagine it could cause some confusion in conversation.
Then we are introduced to Luke's girlfriend, Helen.
My first thought was “Who in their right mind would ever wear such a ridiculous outfit?” My opinion of her character design continued to take a nose dive the more I looked at it. Her clothes are ridiculously skintight – you can see the shadow of her collarbone on the dress straps there. It looks like they're painted on, which, come to think of it, is probably how the artist drew them.
At this point, a nagging thought started to appear in the back of my head: “Oh. It's one of those games, isn't it?” But I gave the game the benefit of the doubt and continued with as much as an open mind as I could maintain. I did not have high expectations, however.
Apparently, the protagonist has been in a relationship with this woman for a decade, but he doesn't want to marry. His rationale is that, apparently, only 10% of couples get married. Not “and then they all immediately get divorced”, not “and then they go into a tailspin of poverty and despair”, not even because he doesn't want to, just, “Eh, no one else is doing it, so why should I commit to this? Effort.” The girlfriend is understandably fed up with this, and confronts him about it, saying that she'll leave him if he keeps up that attitude. I can only imagine what a horrible, waffling jerk the protagonist is if she feels she has no choice but to issue such an ultimatum for such an understandable request. How has she put up with him for this long?
You're then presented with two options: blow her off with an insubstantial non-solution, or suggest they start living together. Christ, Protagonist Guy, you've been in a relationship with this woman for ten years and the thought of trying to live together never even crossed your mind? That seems like a bit of a no-brainer if you have any interest in a long-term relationship. Well, anyway, I pick the latter option, since it seems like the only one that involves a baseline level of empathy, and I'm greeted with this lovely image:
...So yes. It is one of those games. Well.
Helen leaves, and the protagonist decides to call up one of his friends, a fellow nanotechnology worker called Tom, because he's bored apparently, then in the same breath says that it's getting late and he's getting tired...? Those seem to be mutually exclusive moods.
We then cut away to a “meanwhile” scene where we discover that there's some super-special robot prototype capable of looking just like a human that has escaped. Also, we're treated to some of the most cringe-worthy robot dialogue I've ever seen.
Robot: We're sorry, Mr. Richard.
Richard: You're sorry?? I should destroy you all for what you've done!
Robot: If that's your desire, sir, we're ready to self-destruct...
Richard: Shut up! Stupid scraps, always taking every single word I say seriously...
Uh, yeah, why wouldn't they? Who in the right mind programs robots like this, anyway? And why would someone who works with them on a frequent basis be surprised by this? What is this I don't even.
We then cut back to Luke. When Tom arrives, Luke informs him of his argument with Helen as well as his decision, and Tom is surprised that they're going to be living together. He then has a rather...interesting reaction.
Tom: Did she...give you an ultimatum?
Luke: What are you talking about?
Tom: It's a classic, man! You were still lucky. She could have decided to go with Plan B.
Luke: And that is...?
Tom: To accidentally get pregnant!
Luke: Oh shut up! I don't know what kind of women you hang out with
Personally, I'm surprised there are any women who are willing to hang out with him at all.
They continue debating back and forth, and Luke makes a pretty nasty comment:
Luke: ...you know? You would make a great lawyer. You manage to twist people's arguments like no other...
Le sigh, another evil lawyer joke. But really, why is Luke even friends with this guy? So far their only interaction has been Tom trying to pry into Luke's affairs and Luke trying to brush him off, and Luke seems downright bitter with that last comment.
Oddly, Tom has no reaction to this, and simply notes that there's going to be a virtual boxing match on TV and he wants to see it. Luke grumbles about how he may as well humor him for a while. Again, they don't seem to be enjoying each others' company very much.
We then cut to another meanwhile scene, this time to the “prototype” that the Richard fellow in the earlier scene mentioned escaping.
...Why is it female? Is it so that it can become a target for romancing? (With my powers of playing the rest of the game and returning here, yes, yes it is. Sigh.)
Anyway, nothing much happens, she just mentions that she needs to run into the city to find shelter, and also there are other robots pursuing her.
We cut back to Luke, an hour later. Tom apparently won't shut up about whatever they were watching on TV, even though Luke is tired and just wants him to leave. He just stews in silent misery instead of actually telling Tom that he's tired and has to get up early tomorrow, or some reasonable request like that. Wherever would we be without a protagonist with dysfunctional social skills.
Tom walks into the kitchen to get a snack, and Luke suddenly hears someone banging at the door. He asks who it is, and, well...
Female Robot: Open, please.
Luke: Eh??! Who is there?!
Female Robot: I don't want to destroy your door. It seems valuable.
Luke: What the hell are you saying?
Female Robot: Do as I said, or in five seconds your door will be smashed open.
You're then given the option to either do as she says and let her in, or call the police. I pick the latter option, because who in their right mind wouldn't, and the game suddenly ends right then and there. Creepy robot girl leaves, and we're treated to an epilogue speech about how Luke's life returned to normal and nothing interesting ever happened again.
It feels like the game developers yelling at me for not playing their game the way they want me to. Why include interactivity at all if you're not going to let it lead anywhere?
So, okay, fine, I do the crazy thing and let the robot girl into my house, and...
Luke: Alright, I'm letting you in...but be warned, I'm armed!
Female Robot: Killing you isn't my priority right now.
Oh yes, killing me isn't her priority right now. How encouraging.
Luke only gets a glimpse of the almost-certainly-homicidal robot before she hides because she senses Tom's presence. Luke manages to get Tom to leave (by saying that he's tired and it's better if he goes to bed now, why couldn't he have said that earlier?), and finally goes to talk to robot girl. Suddenly, her face is all fixed (due to regenerating nanotechnology or something) and we can see the rest of her body...
...Which looks almost identical to Helen's. It seems the artist only knows how to draw one female body type.
She says Luke can call her Tanya, because she prefers to have a human name instead of “Prototype 9”. Okay. She still refuses to explain that she's a robot, or anything else about herself for that matter. Then, suddenly...
Tanya: You're getting excited?
Luke: W-what?! Why are you asking me that now?
Tanya: Sorry, but I can catch various signals from your body that suggest a state of excitement...
You then get to choose whether the emotion she's detecting is happiness or fear. I pick fear, because seriously, she just said she was willing to kill me a few minutes ago. This causes her relationship meter to drop a few points. Being a dating sim, though, this probably just decreases my chances of entering a relationship with her, instead of increasing my chances of being painfully murdered by her if I do something wrong.
Luke: How can I trust you?
Tanya: It's rather simple... you HAVE NO CHOICE.
Gee, well that sure makes you look trustworthy, Ms. “Killing you isn't my priority right now.”
She then explains that she needs to lay low for a while, and Luke has to pretend nothing's amiss when he goes about his daily life. She, again, refuses to explain why. If this was me I'd be getting major “secret evil criminal” vibes from this. Luke, however, goes along with it, because Tanya's stunning beauty is super-effective against his teenage boy mindset and has turned his brains to mush:
Internal Narration: Not that she is an ugly presence, rather the opposite...
...but I don't feel calm... she gives off a negative energy!
I wonder if this is a result of me saying I feared her earlier? Well, whatever, at least Luke still has some self-preservation left.
Then there's a long, drawn-out, unnecessary gameplay sequence where you need to get Luke some sleeping pills because he's too stressed out from recent events. The pills have to be taken with food, so you also have to get a snack from the kitchen. When we go there, we're introduced to Luke's cat Orthello, which...talks? Or rather, he gets text in dialogue boxes but no voice actor, and no one reacts to what he says, so I guess it's supposed to be some weird comic relief? I don't even know. Tanya suddenly starts crying when she sees him because apparently, at the lab where she was created, the scientists tortured lots of cats for kicks or something? So I guess in the post-global warming apocalypse world, ethics limitations of science experiments no longer exist?
Getting a snack (chocolate-flavored mousse) triggers some internal narration with some worldbuilding explanation that is full of science fail.
Well, nowadays you can find the real food only in luxurious restaurants or in specific shops. The lack of sunlight made it practically impossible to cultivate groceries on a large scale, and the 90% of population
...Did they proofread this at all?
is vegetarian because it's basically impossible to raise livestock without grain and other cereals. So, now we usually eat mousse with various flavors. Disgusting.
Okay, so. They have no sunlight because everything's overcast. That's kind of a big deal. Without sunlight, Earth is a closed system, which is unsustainable. They should be devoting all electricity production to artificial light in specialized greenhouses to try and grow as much food as possible.
What they would not have is this:
Internal lighting? I could see them keeping some of that, it's pretty important (especially if everything's dark and overcast all the time). But random flashy lights on the outside of buildings that serve no purpose other than to look pretty? Nothing but a waste of resources that could be used to grow food.
Then, finally, he goes to sleep.
The next day, there's a “meanwhile” scene at a Holodeck-like...thing...of a nature park, revolving around random characters I don't know the importance of. There is a female character who, shockingly, is not dressed in stripper gear, from which I can infer means she's probably not a romance option. They're apparently police officers who have received a report of an unknown criminal, presumably Tanya. However, they complain about how they have no idea how to track her down, because the alert didn't include a picture or any distinguishing description. Well, that's useless then. Why bother contacting the police at all if they're not going to give them any of the information that they need to do their job?
We then cut to Luke waking up. Tanya is listening to the TV news of a dangerous unknown criminal and is excited because she's a famous figure on the news. Oookay. She reiterates that she's not going to kill Luke and that he has to pretend that everything's normal. You have the choice of refusing. I do so...
Luke: And... if I don't go to work?
Tanya: In that case, you wouldn't be of any use to me anymore...you understand?
Luke: Y-yes, I was just joking! I'm going now!
Why do they even both providing a choice here? It doesn't even affect her relationship meter, so it has absolutely no impact on anything. It's a completely meaningless choice that only serves to rob me of agency by reminding me that the story is only pretending to be interactive.
So, Luke goes to work. He notes that he can't concentrate and so is doing a poor job. Suddenly, he enters a daydream with a highly suggestive image of Tanya, complete with awkward jazz music, who then constantly says things like “Tell me you love me!” You get this scene even if you said you were frightened by her earlier. I'm hoping this means it's some kind of bizarre mind control on Robot Girl's part, but sadly I think that's giving the game too much credit. Normally, this is the point where I would say, "Yeah, I'm done here," but as a reviewer I suppose I have an obligation to play to the end.
From Luke's workplace, you can travel to the police station, where you have the option to report Tanya. Yes! Report the creepy robot lady!
...And this leads to another sudden ending where Luke is overwhelmed with guilt at "betraying" Tanya. Apparently the daydream was a telepathic message, because she continues contacting him through that method, but apparently telepathic messages overload your brain and he goes crazy, eventually being interred in an asylum.
Christ. Fine then, game, if you don't want me to play the way I want, then I guess we really are stopping here. Seriously, why do they even bother? This isn't interactive.
I think I've seen enough.
It really is disturbing how dating sims aimed at men are like this. In dating sims with female protagonists, marriage and a stable relationship are typically seen as the end goal that means everything's going to be great and okay from then on, while here, it's a sign that the relationship is going bad and they need to break up. And I mean, really, if the thought of being in a committed relationship fills you with horror, Luke, why don't you just break up with her? But that's not an option, nor is, “Oh, I guess you're right, I think we should have a committed relationship.” Both options are just “Oh no the woman is making a demand of me how can I make her shut up” with the only difference being that one excuse sounds nicer. And judging how much the game tries to artificially push you towards a relationship with Tanya, I have a sinking feeling that one romance option is going to be a harem ending. It's like it's insinuating that guys just want to have shallow relationships with as many women as possible, but committed relationships with actual emotional investment and effort are unacceptable? Ugh.
Oh, and for bonus failure points, the designers had the brilliant idea of having every line in the game be voiced, yet the voice acting is uniformly awful. The protagonist's lines have almost zero inflection throughout the entire demo and he constantly sounds incredibly bored, no doubt a reflection of his actor's opinion on his salary. Everyone else's lines are atrociously stilted and unnatural. It's like they have no idea how to do emotions. Anyone know Final Fantasy X's voice acting? Worse than that. Much worse.
So, in sum, a depressing example of why visual novels have such a bad reputation. For every Cinders, there are about a dozen games like this. Perhaps when I become a mad scientist, I'll use this as evidence to support my claim that the human race would be much improved if we were all sterilized.
(Note: It gets so much worse if you keep playing until the end of the demo.)