Despite how often it seems to happen, despite how simple everything can seem when hindsight is 20/20, people (such as myself) continue to fall for their own misconceptions going into a specific title. This doesn't necessarily have to be with visual novels, the subject of the game being reviewed today, but being entrenched in the anime side of Japanese culture, the vibrantly-colored heroines and the promise of fun times and major goofing off instilled within me the notion that Chuusotsu! would be a harmless and fluffy experience. Allow me to be the first to prove this line of thinking invalid; Chuusotsu! has quite a bit it wishes to say.
Albeit with the most unlikely characters and a world with a loose set-up of societal conformity—that of a laxer version of Orwell's 1984—it's just not something I imagined I'd be stepping into when playing this game. The upbeat music as one opens the game, the intro sequence detailing the life of a horribly-fidgety yet well-intended young woman, its willingness to indulge in industry standards for humor and character bonding; it feels like it couldn't possibly be serious. For a time, I believed it was a nuanced way to present a story on a level more subtle than most. As it would go on, however, Chuusotsu! would allow me to feel a number of different conflicting emotions.
Chuusotsu! 1st Graduation: Time After Time is available on Steam for your regional pricing.
Arue is a girl with a goal: to take her re-evaluation test and become a valued government worker so that she may help finance her family's poor-standing. One would immediately question the previous statement by saying "Re-evaluation? What's that?" In the world this game presents, society has assimilated into a reality where everyone has a job, and that job is assigned to every single person at the end of their educational lives; the system determines their fate based on their characteristics and strengths in various physical or mental areas. This world is not elaborated on in grand detail, only serving as the backdrop for the situation involving the major characters. I believe this is intentional as trying to embellish a world where all of this is possible through devices and bigwigs suddenly knowing what humanity can achieve seems much too far-fetched to be explained in any basis of logical interpretation. Chuusotsu! seems more interested in the emotions of logic.
Arue agrees to move in to an apartment complex with two other "chuusotsu" cohorts, people with whom she has yet to meet. "Chuusotsu," dumbing it down, is essentially the game world's interpretation of reality's common label of "NEET," where a person is unemployed, out of education, and fully-immersed in their world of escapist materials and desires. Needless to say, it's not a huge compliment. Arue's intentions is that the change in scenery will aid her in her quest for self-study and goal-keeping, only to realize early on that this will be hard to do when her two cohorts, Koiro and Arara, are a little too fun to ignore. The three girls are presented with an ultimatum by a busty A.I. projection: provide her with the answer to what makes a wonderful life, or face eviction after a week's time.
Upon the topic of NEETs, the more one plays this, the more it seems to be making social commentary on the state of Japan's "infestation" of these people. This game, which seems bombastic in its presentation and zest, may very well be trying to make an emotional plea for humanity when considering the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people. Philosophy is a prominent component in the storytelling of Chuusotsu!, the likes of which that made me invested in the story like few visual novels in the past have. The more the conflict grew, the more I became intrigued, because it wasn't entirely upfront about it; lingering in the background as the week of fun and bonding became more enveloping to these three young girls. I was ready to award this game with all sorts of praise for its approach to storytelling and symbolic trickery through employing industry standards as a ploy. Alas, this skids to a halt for one reason: the ending.
In saying this, know that my intention is not to discredit the game's major narrative components by defacing its ending. Only that the ending is so bloated, so over-the-top, and leaves far too much on the table to be questioned to think it was even within the same game. All that came before, veiled with the preface of discovering what makes a wonderful life, all led up to a very basic and confusing sequence of events revolving around a seemingly inconsequential set of events. True, the game does not try to explain the foundation of its altered reality or how it operates on specific levels, though the ending immediately brings into question the validity of the system without ever giving weight to the system in general. What was once just a scenario set-up to benefit the characters and encourage human decency is now taking the forefront without any body to attach itself to. On that note, the ending simply screams where the rest of the game whispered; not necessarily detrimental with an emotionally-charged game of introspection, but the tone seems too wildly inconsistent to remain immersible on the same level.
The ending is, by far, the most negative thing about this game, and one that makes it hard to recommend this game without thinking about it. What is recommendable without thinking about it is the way these characters look upon themselves, their situation, and how they connect with one another on an emotional level. The camaraderie here is undeniably fascinating, while also nurtured by a lovingly-deluded set of personalities clashing. The closeness Arue, Koiro, and Arara share, despite the simple foundations employed by them not really having friends to begin with, feels genuine. For that, the game receives enough slack with the story to make it all worthwhile in the end. These girls have fun with each other, support each other, and make each other's lives meaningful. It comes across in the strongest of fashions and was one of the major selling points of the game's quality.
This seems almost pre-meditated, but I never once laughed at any attempt of humor in this. Comedy in the most basic of formulas already seems to be a difficult one for me to attach myself to (I'm saying I never laugh at anything). Chuusotsu! definitely tries, whether it be with characters ignoring the flashy A.I. character, Arara torturing said A.I. with a seemingly sadistic pleasure, finding sex toys in a room belonging to an orphaned child's parents, or a recurring female couple who constantly makes sexual advances to one another. It's, again, the standard of the industry to incorporate some level of sexual provocation within a game involving many female characters (including a beach scene), and here it feels a tad overboard. Not in the sense that I feel it's inherently problematic (though one could definitely argue it), only that it doesn't seem to try anything new with its already interesting display of storytelling. I would've adored to see this game incorporate a little more satire to add an edge to its commentary.
Chuusotsu! is a kinetic visual novel, therefore linear and without many (or in this case, any) choices to make that alter the story's progression. Indeed, the manner of gameplay is limited to that of clicking and clicking and clicking some more. Its prowess is limited to that of reading an actual novel, one with moving pictures and a full soundtrack.
Do I find this very detrimental to the experience? Not necessarily. The impact of narrative strengths and character bonding doesn't necessarily need player-input to feel any more impactful. After all, there is no "MC" character present and Chuusotsu! presents more of an "Outside-looking-in" approach to its story. We, as the audience, enjoy the benefit of being alien to the system the game world incorporates and can then ponder what it would be like to live within it. Choices and branching paths may have hindered the process with which the player could process this point. Plus, in the end, I think this was more what it was going for.
Graphics and Sound
A few months back, I reviewed another game provided by Fruitbat Factory by the name of SeaBed, which was a game that prioritized the narrative over its other gaming components—most notably art. Chuusotsu! blows SeaBed completely out of the water in terms of polish, expressiveness, and (frankly) proportional characters. Whereas the previous employed a few pictures that changed expressions occasionally, Chuusotsu!'s characters change expression, jump around, are fully voiced, and move to some degree with practically every line. It feels far more real and much easier to get immersed in, though that may be a benefit of production value more than anything. For this case, it is wholly effective for the mood generated by the story and more notably the characters, while also instilling more of that "This cannot be taken seriously" attitude I had playing this for the first hour. While I can't say I was a fan of every picture shown—that is, by virtue of perspective and proportions—it allows itself some leeway by making itself feel fun and upbeat by appearing fun and upbeat, further adding to the layer of complexity that may just be understated by the ending sequence.
Sound is of similar quality, only with a lesser quantity than that of its visual brethren. Fun, refreshing, and occasionally unsettling are the things that stick out about the soundtrack, though I was a bit taken aback by the record-scratching at one point. Nice touch there. Setting the stage for the more emotional portions of the story seems natural to the game designers, so I can only assume that music was one of the most enjoyable aspects of making Chuusotsu!. For me, I feel the music accompanied doesn't quite live up to the commentary provided by the story or the expressiveness of the characters and their art value, though it's certainly not one I'll forget anytime soon.
Sometimes fun and games can be hard to justify. The simple pleasures of living are filled with the brimming interpersonal anxieties provided by those looking on, especially notable in a society that values production and titles. Whether its a genuine commentary on a growing issue of stay-at-home-everyone's or a simple suggestion of trying to understand everyone's viewpoint, Chuusotsu! 1st Graduation: Time After Time is a game I may always cherish for bringing me close to blissful sublimity. Its worth as a game of its time is cemented with its topic of discourse and its complete commitment to the visual novel industry's love for cute girls doing cute things. Whether it really says more than it is is something that's hard to really prove logically as the logic of this game doesn't hold much ground. It's a fleeting experience, one emphasized by a simple philosophical question with no answers, or perhaps multiple answers.
|+ Much more than what it seems||– The ending|
|+ Extra emphasis on personal introspection and community-building||– Lost opportunity for further individuality|
|+ Notable production values and vividness|