The focus of self-introspective narratives in visual novels have become more and more prominent with the development of society’s emphasis on mental health and self-care. In an increasingly-focused view of the state of civilization and its values, more stories have come to remind us to look back and take in the bigger picture, reminding us of our own individuality. Grimm & Tonic is an example of those willing to ask the priorities to those everyday citizens who feel enslaved by the responsibilities of their environment.
To let it be known right away, Grimm & Tonic is currently in early access, really early access. The developer has promised weekly updates, but as of writing this only the first episode is available to explore, which took me a grand total of thirty minutes. Should one be interested in trying out the game, I’d be sure to note its current build before doing so, lest one stumbles upon an hour of content before waiting a possibility of months before the game has a substantial amount of story. Even so, the short amount of time I’ve had with it has provided enough content to be able to paint a grimm picture.
Grimm & Tonic is available for Early Access via Steam for your regional pricing.
Death has made his(?) visit to your humble home, informing you that your life has come to an end. However, he’s(?) willing to let you live upon the request to work at his watering hole, DEAD-END, where you will converse with a number of interesting people. In some ways, this is presented as a sort of talking simulator, traversing conversation like a maze. The central premise gives way to a character-driven story of interpersonal connections and rebuilding one’s self-esteem. Admirable in premise, the prevalence of the story feels more like a placeholder for the kinetic exchange of characters who come into DEAD-END one at a time, one directly following the other.
Though to a larger extent, with only thirty minutes of content available to me, there’s not much for me to comment when the story is simply presented to send through to the gameplay. If anything, I found no evidence to show that the story will become anything more than of someone with no hope in life slowly becoming more hopeful through the personal connections of others’ struggles and advice. Based on the course of the first episode, the structure of the narrative is limited to the small sample of stories brought forth by customers of DEAD-END, all of which boiled down to wanting a drink and having a small current problem. Nothing about it really gripped me, aside from the real-life link provided within the text (an odd inclusion).
As primarily a visual novel, most of what consists of gameplay here is clicking dialogue options. One is given the chance to pick certain dialogue to trigger various responses from various characters, with the promise that these answers change the game in some way (this early, I see no difference other than characters’ answers). These dialogue choices are rather consistent, with one normally popping up every few lines or so, especially during a conversation. For those looking for something that is constantly asking for input to change the course of conversation, Grimm & Tonic is such a solution, though it has other situations that limit its success.
To some, grammar is of little concern. So long as they can adequately read the lines being told, they care little for the way they’re presented onscreen. As a perfectionist English major, I am not one of these people. The developer is in desperate need of an editor, with a large number of the paragraphs that pop into the dialogue box being littered with incorrect punctuation, missing symbols, and typos. Again, to some it matters little how precisely one adheres to the English language’s oft-times confusing ruleset, but to me, having them so persistently present is a sign of amateurish writing, as well as amateurish presentation and vibe.
The experience of the game may even be enhanced by the gratuitously disheveled language make-up, however. A game dealing with a main character with low self-esteem and an escape from reality may be encouraging a more light style of communication that doesn’t adhere to such strict criteria. This could all simply be gobbledygook, but it’s something to think about, nonetheless.
With a last bit of bad news, I wasn’t overall impressed with the interaction with the customers during one’s time at DEAD-END. Within the course of character dialogue cues, many times the characters didn’t stay long enough/say enough to really see myself genuinely reassuring them or entertaining them. Simultaneously, the effort needed to satisfy the guests feels too one-dimensional, with the option for “Small Talk” usually doing the trick most often. (My course of action included starting with “Direct Questions,” then spam “Small talk” the rest of the way.) Only the first episode exists and spans a total of thirty minutes, so perhaps this will be more diverse in later updates, but for now, it’s limited and unencouraging. And as far as I can tell, there was no fear of failure, either, as despite quite a few missed cues, I was able to finish the episode without any restarting or a potential loss of a “soul” (collectible item).
Graphics & Audio
If there is anything substantially positive to say about Grimm & Tonic, it lies within its visual and auditory aesthetics. With a distinct black-and-white color scheme combined with an urban look reminiscent of old-school comic novels, I immediately gravitated towards the game upon sight. Many of the characters are given an interesting array of characteristics that one can note simply from their appearance, which is a great way of visual storytelling. I do wish there was a heavier emphasis on visual effects within the game, with only image fading and scrolling being the effects of choice, but it’s only the beginning of what promises to be a fairly long title.
On the auditory level, there’s a distinct emphasis on two things: chatty background noise and lo-fi hip-hop, which is a nice touch. The chattiness of overlaying indistinguishable crowd noise only happens on a few occasions, which I think is a missed opportunity to make DEAD-END feel a bit more alive (pun not intended). At the same time, DEAD-END may be a more isolated district of the city the main character resides in, so the lack of noise is understandable. Lots of different directions the developer could take with this.
As for the hip-hop, it’s not something I’m normally accustomed to hearing in a visual novel format, which may be why I’m fond of the choice. It adds more individuality that one can’t find in their everyday kinetic visual novel. While every track isn’t an instant head-bobber, there feels like enough spirit into placing tracks that are slightly in tune with the characters that appear onscreen, which is another nice, subtle touch.
It almost goes without saying that this is a title to wait on until it builds more content for itself. At only thirty minutes, it’s worth nowhere near the current asking price, so the better option is definitely to wait. What it represents in its current state leaves a lot to be desired, but with some effort in creating more complex dialogue situations and—to appease my own preferences—completely cleaning up the editing of the language, Grimm & Tonic may just be quirky enough to escape a niche market. I can only hope that the effort doesn’t sully with time.