Steam had its summer sale not long ago, and I picked up a few visual novels to try. Each is available for both Mac and PC.
Magical Diary: Horse Hall is a very “meh” sort of visual novel. Bland backgrounds, forgettable music, and somewhat ugly character sprites do nothing to salvage to the lackluster school slice-of-life plot. The fact that the game is a blatant ripoff of Harry Potter doesn’t do it any favors. There are some interesting (and rather disturbing) world-building elements that don’t get enough development, but even those have counterparts in Harry Potter. Worst of all, the characters are completely uninspiring. I found myself caring about exactly one person in the entire cast. I got that person’s ending, but the rest of the cast is so uninteresting, and indeed unappealing, that I see no reason play again and seek their routes. Oh, and there isn’t much of an ending, anyway; the school year just comes an end. There are some stat-leveling mechanics which result in a lot of busywork (you have to pick out your class schedule every week for the entire school year!). These stats are then used when navigating short “dungeons” (simple puzzle-solving sequences). Note that there is no voice acting in this game. Steam says I spent about 7 hours playing, and it really wasn’t worth it.
Rating: D (for Don’t Bother)
From Canadian developer PixelFade (the same people who made Crystalline) comes ACE Academy. This is a solid school slice-of-life visual novel, mixed with romance and giant robots. There’s a little of bit of a plot relating to certain mystery, but the game’s focus is definitely the slice-of-life character interactions. The game spans a single semester. Lively music, strong voice acting, and lovely backgrounds help bring the story to life. As with the developer’s other visual novel that I previously reviewed, there’s also plenty of humor. You play as a recently orphaned college student attending ACE Academy to major in giant robot piloting (no, really, that’s your character’s major!). Gameplay consists of dialogue choices; there are some occasions where the choice is timed and the game picks for you if you don’t click quickly, but since the game autosaves at every dialogue choice, it’s easy to reload and catch one’s preferred option.
The game offers four romance options. Tsundere Kaori and shy Mayu are fellow pilots, flirty Valerie serves as engineer, and kind Yuuna helps out in various ways. Prominent non-romanceable characters include the protagonist’s younger sister, uncle, and aunt, as well as token male teammate Shou. Some of these individuals experienced pretty satisfying character growth, while others are a bit more static, though still interesting. It took me about 22 hours to complete all four girls’ routes, plus getting the ending where I didn’t romance any of the girls. As with Crystalline, there are some fanservicey sections that I wasn’t a huge fan of, but again its nothing worse than most anime. The ending feels kind of abrupt and leaves an important plot thread hanging. My lack of satisfaction with the ending brings down my overall rating for ACE Academy, but I still had a lot of fun with this game.
This is a short follow-up game to ACE Academy based on, unsurprisingly, Kaori’s path. The protagonist spends Christmas and New Year’s with Kaori and her family. Various silly and sweet interactions ensue. Several of the characters from ACE Academy make cameos. There’s not much more to say. This is a fairly brief follow-up, and took me just a couple hours to complete. If you previously enjoyed ACE Academy, this is a nice addition to Kaori’s route. I wouldn’t bother playing this on its own, though. The graphics, music, and voice acting are of the same quality as found in the main game, though I was distracted by some inconsistencies in pronunciation of character names. Seeing it as just an extension of the main game, I guess I’d give it the same grade.