School is fun, and it only took not being in it to realize this undeniable fact. Compared to the harshness of the outside world and the stress embodied through menial occupations, school is, by comparison, a utopia. It is also a very popular setting employed by fictional media, particularly in the east. Something about its structure and the drama stemming from the human element makes it a very accessible source for stories. In comes Chemically Bonded, a visual novel from an aspiring developer with experience in the field, that knows this well.
What we do with our school lives is to our own discretion. For those (like me) who did basically nothing, it’s nice to imagine an opportunity to start over. This manner of creativity and “What if?” scenarios are the driving force behind these types of games, I believe. That, and knowing the warmth of human connection (with accompanying sexual attraction) is something that most humans desire. With a soft spot for the idea of interpersonal connection, Chemically Bonded was a visual novel that called to me almost outright. And, well, the nice visuals helped, too.
Chemically Bonded is available now on Steam for your regional pricing.
Kiyoko is a pure and sweet bundle of energy with youthful naivety, while Naomi is the latest tsundere model off the market (and the writing makes note of it often) with an unending desire for companionship. The mission? To get these two back together after a scandal broke them apart, with their hearts in need of mending. As per the norm for visual novels, the story of Chemically Bonded will take precedence over everything. Therefore, if it fails, there is no gameplay prowess to fall back on to save the remaining lack of quality. In this sense, many games of this type are a gamble. A writer must be immensely confident in their ability to enchant the audience, as only the visual style could provide any saving grace for a finished project.
In this case, some accolades can be given to the writer for knowing their specific audience. This story incorporates the use of many different character archetypes typically associated with Eastern stories. In that stead, it’s a rather easy-to-digest story of characters with good hearts that you’ll eventually care for in the end. Kiyoko is likely the more likable of the two lead roles, though Naomi may appeal to those that prefer a little more bite. Regardless of its formula, the dialogue is committed enough to make this an entertaining escapade.
What tends to hold Chemically Bonded back as a visual novel is the lack of nuance attributed to its story and characters. I note before that it tends to rely on character archetypes to develop its cast, which can either be good or bad depending on your expectations. Especially with Naomi, the role of a tsundere practically writes itself. Say something mean, be generally rude, then be meek and stutter often when cornered or trying to be nice. Her character rarely changes, and when she attempts to be more genuine (with Kiyoko as subject), it comes off as almost fake. Almost like flipping a switch, she goes from tsundere to tragic hero with quick succession. “Alienating” is one word that could describe it, but “silly” is probably more accurate.
Writing here is generally of a similar vein, whether for characters or scenarios. Despite whatever likability stems from adhering to popular tropes, eventually these things get old, especially with little differentiation. Its progression feels somewhat stilted, especially considering the short timeframe of the events (about a week) and how close these characters become in that time. Granted, the game takes only about 2-3 hours to finish, so some necessity to cram a story of two characters and have the main character bridge the gap with each is understandable. If nothing else, the story just didn’t impact me the way it so desperately tried to. With bits of existentialist dilemmas, middle-man troubles, and playing hero, there isn’t much here to make it stand out.
And while I haven’t encountered this too often when reviewing visual novels, there’s an issue with repetition here in regards to descriptors. Things being “tranquil,” characters being “cute,” others “basked in sunlight;” these are but a few of the many repeating lines and adjectives attributed to the writing. Especially with repeated playthroughs, this can feel tiring and break the overall immersion, knowing you’re reading similar things continuously without change. Variety is the spice of life, and the writing should reflect this. If not “tranquil,” try “serene.” If not “cute,” try “adorable” or, hell, “kawaii.” The best scenario would simply be to not set oneself up to repeat those same things.
In some way, the tragedy of the narrative is similar to the tragedy of lost potential. Chemically Bonded is not a complex visual novel, though it does harbor the spirit of one who adores the genre. While the main character is dull, he does have some lovely back-and-forth with other characters, particularly sly ones (Sae, Naomi). Other minor characters seem to hold enough importance to be provided voices, even if they mean nothing in the big picture. There was clearly a ton of work put into making this as emotionally poignant as possible, even if I found it too mismanaged. There’s almost a charm to its ambition, jumping far past its capabilities only to fall face-first. I wouldn’t wish to kick it while it’s down, but to encourage it to continue forward.
This section will be fairly short, as there isn’t much to do gameplay-wise. There are a few distinctions to note that aren’t always indicative of the genre, such as the possibility of multiple endings through player choices. From what I’ve found, there are four possible endings: a good and bad end with the two female leads. Not too confusing, one can either successfully find romantic happiness with either two women or end your friendship with both. With how easy it is to get the good endings, I’m not sure why anyone would fall into obvious trappings, such as intentionally ignoring either. It emphasizes the multiple endings as a selling point, but it doesn’t add much overall.
Aside from the non-kinetic model, there are a couple “interesting” decisions attributed to the game. The first, being a nitpick more than anything, is placing an unskippable, minute-long cutscene near the beginning of the story. Starting over and sitting through it every time got grating, though I could’ve also saved at a spot afterwards. Still, when I’m in skip mode, I’d like to skip everything—everything. The other comes with the decisions themselves which, through experimentation, don’t change too much. There are a few batch of decisions that change a bit of dialogue, but not the trajectory of the narrative path. The only thing worth focusing on is spending time with either Kiyoko or Naomi, affecting which woman you pine for. Even decisions that seem rude on the surface are made nice-sounding by the extra dialogue from the main character.
So does the player have much choice at all? Only somewhat.
Graphics & Sound
Stated previously, the graphical quality of Chemically Bonded is great for a visual novel. I wouldn’t quite put it up there with the best the genre has to offer, but for a small developer, it’s definitely impressive. The CG art that is sprinkled throughout provides a great boost for morale and emphasizes the purity of the female leads. My only wish is for more. Only twelve “special” artistic caricatures, and plenty of them just mirror the same action but with each woman. Four of the twelve (one-third) images are just the main character being hugged/kissed by each lead, which look nearly identical. In spite of this, it hardly ruined the overall look of the game: sleek, professional, and well-coordinated. Menu options were easy to grasp and everything was wonderfully accessible. A great array of diverse characters (silly or otherwise) also makes for a varied visual experience.
Another neat feature (especially for a small team) for a visual novel: Chemically Bonded has a fully voiced cast (outside the MC). Should one not prefer this, they could always turn the voices off in the options menu, but I like to get the full experience. That being said, the voice acting is by far the worst part of the game. I’m not familiar with who “N I I” is, but based on the inflection of her voice and the name, I’d guess she isn’t a native English speaker. Her pronunciation of certain words came off as odd, and while her voice is cute, her acting ability is questionable. Another question of whether the actors were given lines isolated from context or the full script could be warranted, as some of the line deliveries were perplexing considering the situation.
In total, there wasn’t anything salvageable in terms of voice acting. Amber Barile (as Naomi) was okay occasionally, though the tsundere act is hard to take seriously in most cases. Whomever voiced the teacher sounded like they were trying to be as quiet as possible, perhaps to not disturb others in their household. Subdued and mediocre, the two best terms for listening to the voices attributed to the game. I’d highly recommend turning off voices entirely.
But on another vein, the soundtrack to Chemically Bonded is fairly nice, if not standard for visual novels. Lots of instrumentation and upbeat, almost elevator-esque music (which I adore) to soothe over the content onscreen. L Dougherty and Red Robotix did a splendid job of bringing the scenario to life, though they could only provide so much. I’m quite fond of the main theme to the game, though I think most of the quiet guitar strings and piano keys make the soundtrack “tranquil.” It boosts whatever can be interpreted of the mood of each scene, even if not totally immersive.