There exists a certain stigma around otome games. Generally directed towards women, sure, and the typically female lead being surrounded by beautiful boys is a good indicator of its demographic. However, it seems to be as niche of a genre as can be, usually dedicated to the smaller corners of the gaming community. I have little experience with the genre myself, though this isn’t an indicator of shunning as much as it is simply missed opportunities. My time came with Love Spell: Written In The Stars, whose presence made my desire to review it quite potent. A debut work from a start-up company, the presentation looked impressive, to say the least.
Demographic and preconceptions aside, otome is simply a different perspective on the standard visual novel. It’s not a type of game that will attract all, but it allows for those endeared by storytelling to become acquainted with others’ voices and, to some extent, priorities. The tagline for Great Gretuski Studios is simple: “focused on bringing cute, inspiring & romantic stories to life.” After my time with the game, I can say that they’ve nailed this formula down pat. What remains is how much it could provide the same fluffiness to visual novel veterans, and if its technical aspects match the adorable vibes present from the outset.
Story – Spellbound and Hellbound
General Story Beats
One plays as the MC, whose name can be changed at the start of a file. She is a nerdy, lovable loser with a penchant for getting into trouble, whether through laziness or a desire to make things right. Through various circumstances, she saves a strange old woman from harm, who rewards her with a magical notebook. The catch? The notebook is a magical device that makes any name written fall in love with whomever writes it down. Think Death Note, but super romantic. But troubles are abound when the MC, after a terrible day, writes a name in a drunken stupor, completely unaware of the effects. The story then branches into four different paths, dependent on player input.
Love Spell is about 90% kinetic in nature, meaning player input does little for the course of the story. Once a suitable “name” has been selected, one dives into their story and the existence of any other character is purely situational. Some choices do arise which alter some short-term dialogue, but their importance to the grander situations near the end are likely null. To be frank, I never bothered to check… more on why later. There is one choice that does dictate between whether one receives a good or bad end for an individual route, which the game does well to place ample importance on. They’re generally easy to distinguish, so the chances of running into a bad end would require, well, not paying attention to the heart.
If the goal was “cute, inspiring, and romantic,” the studio does a splendid job. There is a very notable effort to properly build-up the relationship between MC and destined one, leading to a better connection to immerse oneself in. Chemistry between each of the suitors is never an issue, as they all play off one another through varying degrees of captivation. Whether it be awkward sexual tension within familiarity or a tease-worthy power struggle, there are character dynamics that align to different preferences.
Perhaps most importantly, Love Spell features a cast of characters that generally feel full or complex. Many seem to fit within certain molds on the outside, only to discover insecurities and motivations that provide the outer shell its image. For example, I wasn’t initially fond of Florian Atlas, who seemed generally sadistic, but playing more into his route provided the opportunity to shape his demeanor. More than playing to win the men’s hearts, as I do not find myself attracted to them (much), I was consistently intrigued to understand more about their lives and composition.
Good news for those who enjoy memes: so do the writers of this game. Love Spell: Written In The Stars is very aware of the ridiculousness of its central premise, which it pokes fun of on multiple occasions. Mostly through the character of Philia, a cute, magical penguin mascot whose existence is brought upon by the love spell being cast. The self-awareness, in short, is pretty amusing, though I wonder about the dosage quantity the writers chose to employ. Some may find instances of Philia saying, “BEGONE THOT!!!” to be cringe, but others may find the random references to be charming, particularly video game fans. If not self-awareness, there are many references included, my favorite being Enix having a pet goldfish named “Samus.”
Apart from the fun and games, the stories attributed to each character tend to range in dramatic intensity, from about 5 to 5,000. I suppose “inspiring” does have a mutual relationship with “drama,” as Marcello’s story, in particular, “goes hard.” A lot of it is taken within the same amount of seriousness as is required for each situation, but the overzealous tone combined with a scene of a penguin eating mozzarella sticks while making sex jokes at the MC just before is pretty tonally inconsistent. The overdramatic approaches do make this fairly silly, especially going from a pretty straightforward friend-to-lover story to mafia stuff. I suppose it’s up to the player to distinguish how much to take with a tongue-in-cheek approach.
One other thing to mention is that when playing through each story, they tend to mirror one another just a bit too cleanly. Each is comprised of 11 “episodes,” a good and bad ending, and an epilogue—assuming one gets the good end. However, even the build-up to the inevitable confession scene and conflict afterwards tend to fall within a similar timeframe. It generally goes like this: MC finds herself in a situation where she’s always around a suitor → They slowly build their relationship to that of lovers → Confession, then sexy time → Sudden conflict that tears them apart for some amount of time → Important choice, then resolution. Going from one route to the next, it tends to feel a tad repetitive. Some measure of differentiation, even if shorter or different-timed important choices, would’ve been appreciated.
Gameplay – Click, Click, Crash
While there isn’t much to say negatively about the overall tone and writing, what brings this game down quite dramatically is a couple of head-scratching omissions. What are things you would normally expect in a visual novel? Gallery, check. Visuals, check. Lots of dialogue, check. Quick save… not check? Love Spell: Written In The Stars makes a bizarre decision to not allow the player to save whenever they want. As if this wasn’t enough, it also doesn’t have a skip function, meaning one has to sift through all the dialogue within a given episode to potentially make a different choice, if one comes up. This is why I mentioned I never bothered to test if different answers made any difference, because doing so would require hitting enter over and over for minutes on end before getting to that same spot. Episodes don’t usually take too long—roughly 10 to 15 minutes—but the fact that one can’t save anywhere and immediately load to that same spot, or skip up to it in seconds, is borderline ludicrous.
Unfortunately, the technical faults don’t end there. In my time playing this game, it crashed and/or froze a total of three times. Usually, these instances would occur when trying to load up scenes or transitions, with the first time occurring literally right after inputting my MC’s name. Initially, this visual novel was due to release in June, but was delayed roughly a month for further polishing. It seems like it could’ve used a bit more time.
Interacting with the game itself also feels a little off. Occasionally, I will try to click on the hat to return to the title screen, only to continue the text. I continuously click, and it still doesn’t register until I spin the cursor around some. The game is supposed to have the mouse cursor assume the identity of a little hat, but once one travels outside the window, it almost never returns. Sometimes the hotkey to simply close the game (this was necessary?) won’t work either, almost as though the game has trouble mapping that the player has the window up. Little details like this go a long way, and having to constantly fight just to make simple actions can birth some underlying irritation.
As for the gameplay itself, there’s not much to it, given the circumstances of visual novels. You click, the text scrolls, and you click some more as you progress the story. As mentioned before, Love Spell is mostly kinetic, so choices are minimal and only one (that I can surmise) makes any difference towards the ending. It’s as most visual novels are, without going beyond the general threshold.
Graphics & Audio – Definitely a Looker
If not the writing, the general artistic merit of Love Spell is what will entice people to give it a shot. The character portraits are all pop-worthy and colorful, providing a nice softness to the eyes of players. What I most appreciated was the clear distinction between choice of suitors, all conveying a different flair of color and personality that suited that appearance. While their routes aren’t all that different, the atmosphere established by setting and minor characters gave enough distinction to keep things visually interesting. I won’t say the special portraits specific to individual routes are all great (two can be seen within this review), but they keep the energy and romance very potent.
My somewhat scarce history with visual novels aside, for a debut work, the wacky presentation via comedy and goofs is quite impressive. It reminds me somewhat of Chuusotsu!, whose frenetic bounciness was its major selling point. Mostly attributed to Philia, there are moments of bounciness and professional-esque effects that keep the carefree mood going during the earlier episodes of routes. While keeping in mind the clichéness of this comparison, Love Spell: Written In The Stars does feel fairly fairy-tale-esque. Sparkly, magical, and romantic all in one.
Sound, like the game’s mechanical structure, is a little flimsy. More than anything, I was thrown off by just how loud this game is. The sound effects seem twice as loud as the music, even when placed on the same sound settings. One can see from the Settings image above how far down I had to turn the sound to, because it was just that cumbersome to my ears, especially with headphones on. The soundtrack is pretty hit-and-miss, with a few tracks I enjoyed and others I found just a bit too cheesy for my liking. Again, it seemed they tried to go for the fairy tale vibe pretty hard, which, while appropriate, doesn’t make it stand out too much. Adequate for the situations present in the stories, though not something I’d listen to outside of it.