Fan the Flames
As games have become more popular and mainstream, and learning to program and write code has become easier and more accessible, so has the idea of “fan games” gained traction. These go even beyond indie releases, as fan games are typically made by a few people (or even one person) in their spare time, and not always with the intention to monetize their work.
As these are the kind of games that are “for fans, by fans,” one can expect to see these releases occasionally aimed towards some of the smallest niches of gaming. After all, it’s easier to target a small, specific audience if your goal is to just create something for them to enjoy, rather than widespread acclaim. If you do get that acclaim though, well, it’s a nice bonus!
These releases have seen popularity amongst western fans of a genre I like to write about: the visual novel. Many creators of OELVNs (Original English-Language Visual Novels) put together their works as love letters to one of their favorite genres of gaming. Being niche releases within a niche of their own, though, they don’t have much widespread appeal. The only one I can think of that garnered decent attention across the gaming sphere was Katawa Shoujo, a fan game created by users of 4chan and other internet boards.
Unfortunately, not everyone looks upon these fan releases in a positive light. There seems to be a resounding sentiment in the visual novel community that OELVNs are universally low-quality in both story and graphical presentation…the two most important parts of the genre. Whether these criticisms are true or not for any specific release, the stereotype definitely crops up whenever western fans step up and announce or release their own visual novel.
The game we are looking at today is one of these games: an OELVN fan game. However, it is one that I believe deserves attention due to the story it contains and its high-quality presentation, created by an international gathering of genre fans.
Developed by Fallen Snow Studios with publishing assistance by Sekai Project, Lucid9 – Inciting Incident was released April 14th, 2016. The game is available as a free download on Steam.
Only the Beginning
Lucid9 takes place in the holiest setting in anime and anime-inspired works: a Japanese high school. You play the part of Yama Ishimoto, a third-year high school student who really couldn’t care less about the world around him. Outside of his close friends and chowing down on fried chicken at the local “GFC,” Yama is content to just kind of let life happen. He’d rather just goof off while fighting against the world seemingly trying to set him up with his childhood friend, Rui Hayata.
Unfortunately, things aren’t perfect for Yama. For one, due to a traumatic experience as a child, he has a psychological problem that causes him to lapse out of conscious thought when confronted with trying situations. Also, there has been a string of disappearances at his school, with students randomly going missing every few days. Yama eventually finds himself dragged into the investigations into these disappearances, and with it, he begins to discover the darker underside of the seemingly idyllic city of Isamu in which he lives.
First things first, it must be said: Lucid9 – Inciting Incident is the first part in a planned overall story going by the general title Lucid9. However, this release is its own self-contained story, and is quite a satisfying one at that. The endgame definitely sets up for the second part (which is apparently in development, but no release date is set), but the story contained in Inciting Incident stands perfectly on its own.
Speaking of the story contained, I’ll flat out say: Inciting Incident tells one hell of a tale. The cast of characters is of a decent size, but not overwhelming, and each has a surprising amount of dedication to characterization for a game that runs just ten hours. Even with the next release intending to contain the “character routes” of the game, where each character will be focused on in depth, the development in this release alone is excellent. While each character does have their own quirky themes about them that they never really grow out of, they aren’t relied on as the personality of the character, like so many other games of this style. There’s enough here that I came to care for the entire cast of characters and what happened to them.
The overall writing of the story is of a surprisingly high quality as well, especially for a fan game intended for free release. While the opening hour or two of the story is somewhat weak in storytelling (the writer seems like they tried to force in dramatic situations for the sake of drama early), once it hits its stride, it remains on point until the end. Later dramatic moments are perfectly weaved in with the lighter slice-of-life antics, and the final acts of the game are straight-up gripping.
With the story falling in the mystery genre, it delights me to say that Lucid9 presents a well-written mystery aspect as well. There were points in the story where I was actively trying to poke holes in it, trying to spot red herrings and getting disappointed in story moments that made me think “well, they just straight up gave away the ending, didn’t they?” To my surprise, though, I was still thrown for a loop by later revelations, and looked back to see that the story actually had laid out the groundwork and foreshadowing for the climax…which is something I would consider a success in a mystery.
Gruesome Works of Art
When it comes to OELVNs like this one, there is an area where my opinion does occasionally fall into the aforementioned “low-quality” stereotype of these fan releases. That would be in the graphical department, specifically the character design. Much of the time, when I take a look into a fan VN project, I come out less than impressed with the art style of the character designs. The designs often feel like someone who doesn’t know how to draw anime-style characters is taking their first attempt at drawing them…with disappointing results.
Fortunately, I can say that the character designs and art in Lucid9 are of good quality…most of the time. The in-game sprites for each of the characters are designed well and surprisingly expressive. For a project such as this, the sheer amount of sprites and expressions therein is quite amazing, and they’re all consistent and attractive to the eye.
The only point where the art seems to suffer a bit is in the occasional CGs, which should be the parts that feature the most detailed scenes. Unfortunately, a few of these are somewhat lacking. There are a couple where the character featured doesn’t quite match up to the art of their corresponding sprites, usually in areas such as facial features and color shades. One or two of the early ones just plain feel low-quality, with faces that seem “off” and unnatural positioning of the characters. Luckily, these are few and far between, and the later CGs are of a much higher quality.
Enhance the Anguish
In a running theme for this game, the soundtrack for Lucid9 is surprisingly extensive for a project like this. The selection of BGM tracks is decently extensive and varied, and each of the characters has their own theme track as well. Overall, the music in this game accomplishes the task it was meant for: to compliment the story. The majority of the tracks are rather laid-back in feel, and even the more exciting ones have a bit of wistfulness to them.
The tracks are pleasing to the ear and occasionally catchy, but they’re not made to stand out; the story is the star here, and the music is just there to emphasize it rather than be a focus. Despite this, though, there are a couple of tracks that stick in my mind, particularly a rather melancholic piano piece (appropriately entitled “Melancholy”) that plays during quieter and more dramatic moments.
In its current release state, Lucid9 is completely unvoiced. However, Fallen Snow Studios is currently working on recording a full voice track for the game, due to be released as a free patch some time in 2017. The developer has released teasers of the actors and actresses on their YouTube page, if you would like to check out what’s to come.
Rearing for More
Overall, Lucid9 is a game that absolutely blew away all my expectations. It provided good art, great characters with a surprising amount of development, and a story I really found myself invested in. Once I neared the climax of the game, I lost track of time as I tore through the rest of the story to discover how it ended.
Lucid9 – Inciting Incident really is a gem amongst OELVNs, and I believe is has a chance to stand alongside some other big-name visual novels currently available in English, should the future parts of the story keep the quality that this entry does. My only real gripe with the game is that the opening hours don’t quite have the quality the rest of the game does, in both art and storytelling. It kind of feels like the team picked up the skills it needed as work progressed, without taking the time to look back and fix up some of their earlier weaknesses.
These are minor grievances, though, as the overall package is definitely a game that needs to be played. The fact that it is a free release further enforces that point. Fallen Snow Studios has also stated that they intend to release all of the future parts of the story for free as well. With that in mind, I see no reason why you shouldn’t give this game a chance, for you would be missing out on an excellent experience if you don’t.
~ Final Score: 9/10 ~
Review copy provided by Sekai Project for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.