Why do romances in fantasy settings always intertwine with tragedy? A personal observation phrased as a question, one that also applies to the game under review today. Though this is far from universal, these scenarios have a tendency to indulge in every emotion present in humanity. Is true love as powerful as soul-crushing anguish? Do these emotions bear similarities to one another outside of strength, in that they cannot thrive without the other? Such philosophical curmudgeon and set-ups make home in Mizuchi, a visual novel inspired by a legend of Chinese origin.
While the Legend of the White Snake has been adapted and popularized in various fashions, here it is not very prominent. Whatever inspiration was taken is fairly light, only given form through the setting, a titular character, and one of five possible endings. Mizuchi is its own beast, written and developed to stand on its own upon the numerous stories present in today’s grand space. The ferocity of its stance could depend entirely on one’s expectations going in, and whether the writing effectively taps into one’s objective curiosity.
Mizuchi is available on itch.io for your regional pricing. It will be available on Steam later in the month.
Linh is one of many children in a peasant family within a god-fearing village. Resorting to petty thievery, her life is rife with hardship, harshly affected by both the financial disparity of her community and her gender. Both of these factors come into play when one day, her childhood friend comes back from being drafted into war and asks for her hand in marriage, which the situation makes harder to refuse for reasons other than desire. Through a series of events, Linh is framed for a heinous crime and is sentenced to kneel in a snake pit, where her life would change forever.
Going into this, I wasn’t immediately sure of what to expect. Romance was an obvious option, considering the Yuri tag and the almost tender presentation shown through the trailer. Mizuchi is a visual novel that moves in directions reminiscent of a long and arduous journey. Its themes and focus tend to shift dependent on character, scenario, and event, occasionally diluting the emotional impact they serve. In time, I came to appreciate the dedication to presenting all manners of life, but for a story of this type, it can be alienating.
The occasional lack of a focus, especially early on, presents one of few issues I have with the game. Without heavy spoilers, I can only provide one prevalent noun: food. Cooking with one character, eating (many) meals with both, scavenging for potential meals; there is a very heavy focus on food, food, and food. Granted, food is a frequent part of real life and bonding over meals is a very common occurrence. As a prominent feature in a visual novel, however, Mizuchi could have strove to relay more than what it did. Reading thousands of words dedicated to food prep, food eating, and food description can get grating.
Also noteworthy early on, a certain mood is established that almost makes my “long and arduous journey” claim seem false. While topics aren’t as varied, tone is something that sticks close to a cozy slice-of-life. This homely atmosphere is only compromised occasionally through cryptic messages of an unknown future, spread lightly throughout. Each ending is appropriately dramatic, though much of what leads up to them has a distinct familial charm. It’s a risky approach to further enhance the climax and resolution, having an everyday, carefree existence come under threat of ending forever. I think it bears fruit, though others may not find the motivation to continue past the first few chapters.
With that, let’s move on to the central characters, which almost make Mizuchi worth it by themselves. Linh, Ai, and Jinhai are the trio that the player will get to know throughout the events of the story. Ai is the “snake goddess,” a narcissistic, curious entity that looks at things objectively through reason. Jinhai is a former monk that is well-versed in the niceties of human behavior, but seems off in some way. These two, with Linh, form the catalyst to the narrative’s flow, which the player can choose to direct (more later).
Ai is more keen on discussing philosophical hypotheses, infinitely curious about humanity and their civilized patterns. This extends to emotions and the desire to improve oneself for others, which is lost on her. Some of the game’s more intriguing writing can be shown through Ai’s discussions, picking holes in the corrupt portions of society and elaborating on the absurdity of various customs and traditions. Jinhai is almost the opposite, knowing when to push and never going beyond the boundaries of comfortable bliss. Her essence is more maternal, caring, and affectionate, with the quantity of her kindness enough to have anyone adore her. Discourse with Jinhai is more akin to a tender hug or a supportive ledge to lean oneself on.
“Yuri” is one of the most prominent descriptors of Mizuchi, which isn’t entirely uncommon for visual novels. As such, one would expect the romantic fixtures to serve a pivotal point in the tale. It does here, though I’m left with the apathetic demeanor of Ai when all was said and done. I find one line present ironic, stated by Jinhai, about how familiarity can breed a false expectation of love for another person. To misinterpret kindness and support for romantic affection, it can make anyone under one roof become attached with constant contact. In this vein, I believe I feel the same for the romantic attempts shown in this novel, where these characters feel more like close friends than lovers. This doesn’t impact the endings too much, as platonic and romantic love grow very similar to me with age, though it’s a tad disappointing that I couldn’t be swept up in unfiltered, unparalleled sublime.
In general, the writing of Mizuchi is very good. With the constant banter between characters creating a stimulating atmosphere, even the early dullness is eroded by a satisfying ending punch. The game is very much a slow burner; the more I played, the more I wanted to play. Occasional phrases that don’t seem realistic for the timeframe set in-game, such as “in a jiffy” or “woulda,” could break the immersion, though these are only minor instances. Also minor are the grammatical errors and typos, of which I only found a few throughout. For a small team to be able to piece together a fantasy setting with romance, drama, comedy, and slice-of-life in near-equal quality of fulfillment, that is a feat certainly worth noting.
As far as visual novels go, Mizuchi isn’t much different from the pack, especially with the minimal, but commendable things available through the Ren’Py engine. One should not expect anything more than text, text, and text, with occasional choices thrown in. Fortunately, this title does allow for the player’s choices to matter, something not all within the medium can say. Regardless, this is not your next fix after completing Dark Souls, as the similarities are as bare as Ai’s naga form.
I was actually told by the lead developer themselves that this was “sorta made old school VN style,” in that a point threshold was required to achieve the “true” endings for both girls. This makes the choices not only paramount to new content, but gives credence to thinking about how the choices will affect those involved. Its implementation, which I will not elaborate on for spoilers sake, is also fairly clever, subverting one’s expectations on how one would normally achieve canon ends. While skipping through hours’ worth of text for experimentation proved boring, I appreciated the extra steps taken to get there. Otherwise, it’s standard visual novel fare, where clicking to continue text is the primary gameplay operative.
Graphics & Audio
What is sure to attract my attention quickly is really stylized and odd-looking things. One look at Ai in promotional material and there was an immediate fascination for how they would be used within the game. To some extent, she is the most interesting thing to Mizuchi‘s name, at least in terms of fantasy aesthetic. Otherwise, the visual aspect is about as commendable as the writing: generally very good. Background effects are animated decently and the character models are constantly in motion, bringing a lot of life into the events that take place. Most of the CG art is appropriately detailed and, while not always spectacular, provides an extra “oomph” to various moods. On a very personal note, anything featuring Ai (who perhaps unfairly gets a lot of visual dexterity) is lovely.
There is a bit of a washed quality to Linh’s portrait that doesn’t always fit in with the surroundings, but this is more of a nitpick. Having her portrait at all gives more individuality to her character, where the player can see her expressions with every line while also being simultaneously reminded that she is the main character. Although, it also occasionally makes it hard to keep track of who’s talking. A double-edged sword of good and bad that incoming players will have to face (ha) with it.
What does tend to break some of the immersion with Mizuchi is the incorporation of its sound effects. Credits show that the source is from a freeware website that is good for most basic events, though somewhat unprofessional. There are two noteworthy effects that come to mind: a male blood-curdling scream (which had me stifling laughter) and a very close, almost ASMR-like breathing snippet that made me uncomfortable. Kudos to the team for providing as many auditory elements as possible, but a few placements completely took me out of it.
On the opposite end, the background music and tracks are far better. There are a few noteworthy tracks that almost sound Sims-like, which suits the slice-of-life nature it embodies early in its narrative. Others have a very Eastern appeal that suits the setting and gives some cultural identity. Visual novels sometimes go overboard with establishing a location, but Mizuchi strikes a great balance of making it universally understandable. (Modern textual language notwithstanding.) Music is one of the most integral triggers to emotional feedback in stories, and the developers seem to understand this well. While not the best I’ve heard from a visual novel, this certainly holds its own among even brand-name products.