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World End Syndrome Review — A Spooky Summer Romance

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Visual novels are a fairly new concept to western audiences. The games generally work as a choose your own adventure story, with long passages of text and the occasional choice to steer the tale in a new direction. While the genre has been a core part of the Japanese gaming market since the early 1980s, official English translations of said titles were near unheard of, while being far too expensive to translate for a niche audience. Thanks to the interconnected nature of the modern internet, niche audiences are now large enough to be profitable, so more and more visual novels are getting an English release alongside their Japanese counterparts. World End Syndrome is the latest title from Toy Box Inc, a developer with a strong background in visual novels, but is best known for producing the quirky horror title Deadly Premonition. Embracing a love of Japanese folklore, World End Syndrome weaves mystery and romance together in the satisfying tale of a summer spent investigating a mysterious town.

Mihate Town is a strange place. The protagonist can sense a foreboding atmosphere from the moment he steps off the train. The streets are lined with pinwheels to ward off the Yomibito, dead spirits that arise once every one hundred years to cause misfortune and death to the living. As luck would have it, the game is set exactly one hundred years since the last Yomibito was spotted. A transfer student to the local school, the protagonist makes friends and absorbs himself into the rhythm of daily life, dismissing the superstitious claims. Still, something feels just slightly off. Legend says the Yomibito will attack at the end of the summer, and only a  month of the season is left. With little time remaining before summer ends, the protagonist must both find love and unravel the mystery of Mihate Town before all is lost.

With such an intensely spooky setting, one may be surprised to find that World End Syndrome is primarily a romance story, with the mystery playing second-fiddle to the narrative’s primary concern: getting a girlfriend. The game features a lengthy prologue, with the protagonist settling in and getting to know the various love interests. Once the prologue is completed, a map of the town opens up, and the player can choose where to go each day.

Mihate town is full of interesting locales, with streets, beaches, and forbidden forests to explore. The goal is to find the current love interest, and to aid her in some way at the place the player visits, much like a romantically-themed Carmen Sandiego. The characters all have their own schedules, and will be at different places depending on the day and time. The locations of characters will often be hinted at through dialogue, but sometimes the player will have to make an educated guess to find a specific person. As the protagonist runs in to his friends, he builds up an aura meter, which makes finding specific characters much easier, indicated on the map with a glowing marker. This meter persists through playthroughs, and by the time the fifth and final girl is romanced, the player should have no problem tracking down who they are looking for.  

During a playthrough, the player will occasionally be given options on what to do: who to talk to in the group, where to go to look for a missing cat, whether or not to go for a late-night stroll. Choices are infrequent but important; choosing incorrectly can lead to a bad ending, and sometimes players may find difficulty deciding which option is correct. For example, in one girl’s route, a vital choice is whether to retrieve a lost wallet today or tomorrow. The game is thankfully liberal with its save slots, so making a separate save after each decision is wise. While minimal choices are standard for the visual novel genre, a few more could have made the game more dynamic. Some events that occur automatically would have been better as a choice due to questionable content; the protagonist occasionally engages in creepy behaviour, like taking pictures of a girl while sleeping despite her specifically saying she was not comfortable with her photo being taken.

The five girls the player can romance in World End Syndrome initially come across as stereotypes. Saya is a haughty rich girl looking down on the common people, Maimi is bossy and obsessed with sport, Hanako is a poorly-disguised idol trying to live a normal student life, Yukino is a cheerful journalist investigating the strange town, and Miu is cold and mysterious. As the protagonist gets to know them better, however, each girl gains depth and is more complex than she initially appears. The characters are well-written with distinctive voices, and they behave in a way that is consistent with their character. Unlike most visual novel games, the protagonist is not a blank slate. He moves to Mihate Town to get away from a mysterious distressing past, starting out the game very depressed. Like the girls, the protagonist changes and develops as he becomes better friends with his schoolmates. With such excellent character development during the different paths, the fact that Kensuke, the only other male in the friendship group, does not get a route of his own is disappointing. While all the other characters evolve as the player gets to know them, Kensuke remains the same throughout the entire story, a hyperactive horny teenager with the depth of a puddle.

In a visual novel, the artwork is often very minimal, static character portraits over a simple background, with the occasional change in pose. While World End Syndrome is presented in this basic style, the backgrounds are exquisitely detailed with little animations bringing them to life. The character models are well-drawn, too, with typical manga outlines and soft watercolour tones giving them a unique look. The obligatory fan-service portraits are generally tasteful, even if for story reasons the girls finding an excuse to swim in front of the protagonist is silly. The Japanese voiceovers do a good job of conveying their characters, and the host of the titular World End Syndrome radio show has a particularly calming and breathy voice, perfect for the otherworldly subject matter of the show.  

World End Syndrome is fairly lengthy game, with a five hour prologue, another five hours for the first ending, then another two to three– hours for each further ending along with a short epilogue tying up the loose ends. While such a long prologue is understandable to establish the many characters and gain a sense of everyday life, the story is such a slow-burn it may put off some players. The setting of Mihate Town is also under utilised; the Yomibito legend is arguably more interesting than the everyday lives of the teenagers, but the mystery is only really addressed near the end of the game.

World End Syndrome

At the end of the day, World End Syndrome is aimed squarely at the niche of romance visual novel fans. The game is very well-written and well-executed, but it is unlikely to bring in new fans to the genre.

OnlySP Review Score 3 Credit

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Review

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Review — A Symphony for the Fans

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Bloodstained Ritual of the Night

For a long while, the industry had yet to see a return to a true-to-form Castlevania title, leading many fans to speculate if Konami had abandoned the formula all together. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is ArtPlay’s response to this absence, with the legendary Castlevania-veteran Koji Igarashi at its helm. Although Bloodstained may not have certainty that it will continue the legacy of Castlevania, the title delivers on its promise as a game for fans, by the fans, and exceeds most expectations. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a true Castlevania experience in every way except the title. 

In Ritual of the Night, players take control of a Sharbinder named Miriam, an individual who can harness the power of magical shards crystallized by the souls of the enemies she kills. As the core mechanic, the ability to absorb shards and utilize their new skills is required for player progression and success. The fact that Miriam is a Shardbinder further reinforces the narrative of Bloodstained, since their existence often lead to negative events. The story contained within Ritual of the Night is similar to most Castlevania titles, except this time, Dracula is replaced in favor of Gebel, a more skilled Sharbinder and Miriam’s old friend and mentor. 

Bloodstained Castle

Most of the game takes place inside a castle, but long-time Castlevania veterans will expect that the castle is only an external facade, with caverns and caves hiding beneath. Remaining true to its Metroidvania roots, Bloodstained contains a sprawling map full of hidden rooms and secrets. Exploration is encouraged by the ever-present possibility of better items and power-ups in the following rooms. Bloodstained finds a perfect difficulty balance by spacing out save rooms to encourage caution. Every time death was close, the curiosity of what could be behind the next door drove the desire for further exploration.

The map present in Bloodstained is truly expansive and worthy of a Metroidvania title. Each new area provides an extension onto the already dense castle setting, never requiring players to travel to a new location to progress. All additional areas remain connected to the central castle, providing an experience that is continuous and believable. Similarly to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, players can unlock an “Inverse” ability that will flip the playable map upside down and allow for new experiences in an already explored area. Just as he did with Symphony of the Night, Igarashi-san crafted a beautiful setting that retains its appeal even when explored upside down.  

The desire to progress deeper into the castle is fueled in part by the Shard system and the potential of discovering new ones along the way. In Bloodstained: RotN, enemies have the potential to drop shards that provide enhanced abilities and passive stats. Players can equip multiple shards at once, each enhancing different areas of play. For instance, one shard can provide Miriam with an ability drawn from the creature that dropped it, while another can summon a familiar to accompany Miriam throughout her journey. 

Bloodstained Shard

As the game progresses, players are required to backtrack and utilize newly gathered shards to enter areas that were not accessible early on. In this regard, the title maintains its genuine Metroidvania, or Igavania, genre as some fans are hailing it. Killing a random sea creature might net Miriam the ability to create a directional aquatic blast, but use that ability near deep waters and players might be surprised by what they can do. 

Since every enemy in Ritual of the Night is capable of rewarding Miriam with a shard ability, players will quickly find themselves host to multiple of the same kind. To counter this, players are encouraged to sell unwanted shards for coins at the local merchant, where they can also purchase crafting items. The crafting system allows players to utilize recipes found throughout their journey and create food that provides a temporary boost to Miriam’s stats. Additionally, players can use materials gathered to enhance the shards they have amassed to alter its capabilities and damage output. 

Although Bloodstained deserves to be showered with praise, the game is not immune to technical issues that can hinder the experience. During the preparation of this review, the game was subject to continuous frame issues, where too much action would result in stuttering. Additionally, optimization issues plague the console port, with registration lag featured every time Miriam would absorb a shard or with the occasional room entry. ArtPlay has responded to these issues ensuring fans that optimization is a high priority for the company, and it will be addressing these problems within the next few patches.  

Despite a few technical setbacks, Bloodstained is truly an experience for first-timers and longtime Castlevania fans alike. Igarashi-san and ArtPlay built this game out of their love for the genre and that is evident in every aspect of the game. The preservation of a traditional Castlevania game along with the advancements made towards propelling the genre further help Bloodstained stand out amongst other Metroidvania titles of recent years. Although an argument could be made that the title leans too much on its Symphony of the Night influences, Ritual of the Night succeeds in providing fans of the genre with an experience that has been absent for years. 

Given that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is a crowdfunded game, the amount of love and attention evident in its production comes as no surprise. The level of quality that is present in this package is truly astounding, and the appreciation grows even more when considering the free content promised for the coming months. Perfection should not be expected from Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. However, the result is exactly what was promised by the developers, and fans could not ask for more. Throughout its development, Igarashi-san provided continual assurance that he desired to make the game a product of its fans. By listening to criticism and acting on it, he fulfilled his promise with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

OnlySP Review Score 5 High Distinction

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro. Also available on Nintendo Switch, PC, and Xbox One.

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