Adding More to the Story
So, let’s say that you’re a game developer or publisher, and you have released a game that has (hopefully) become a rousing success. The game has acquired a fanbase, whether big or small, that loves it so much that they want to see more. Whatever are you to do?
Well, you could go the obvious route and craft a sequel to the original. However, if you hope to create one that will please your fanbase, it will take time, money, and energy. You could always create a spin-off of the original, bringing your concepts into a different genre, but your fans would prefer to have more of the same thing that they enjoyed previously. Perhaps you want to release something a bit quicker than usual, since you might be making a sequel and you want to keep your fans’ attention…or you just don’t want to do much work. Either or.
Pretending that we are in a time before the advent/apocalypse of DLC, what’s your best option? If you’re like many developers from last couple decades, especially a PC game developer, you may consider creating an expansion pack. A smaller release that may reuse assets from your previous game, recrafted to offer a new story or experience for your fans.
In the realm of visual novels, extremely popular ones tend to see expansion pack releases such as this, marketed as “fan discs.” These releases, as mentioned, tend to reuse some assets from their mother game while presenting new content, typically much more light-hearted and character-focused than the original. Fan discs are a good way to let fans spend more time with the characters that they came to love from a game, usually in a quick discount experience.
The game we are looking at today could be considered a fan disc. Spun off of the visual novel Clannad (which we have previously reviewed), Clannad: Side Stories is a visual novel-style adaption of a series of short stories focusing on the characters of the original game. The game was originally released in Japan in two parts for the PSP, and was translated and ported to PC as a single release by Sekai Project as a stretch goal reached during their Clannad Kickstarter campaign.
Originally developed by Key and published in Japan by VisualArt’s, Clannad: Side Stories was released in the west by Sekai Project on June 2nd, 2016. The game is available on PC via Steam.
A Day in the Life
Side Stories features sixteen individual short stories, each focusing on specific characters from the original game. Every story is available from the outset of the game, and can be played through in any order you choose. Aside from a pair of related stories featuring the entire cast, each of the other ones are entirely independent of each other.
Each of the stories are about 15-20 minutes long, showing vignettes of the lives of the characters they focus on. Most of them are set either immediately before or during the main story of Clannad, although a few are set either after the main story or in the distant past.
When I first fired up the game, I quickly noticed two things: I was unable to control the speed of the lines, and there is no option to save in the middle of a story. As it turns out, this is because Side Stories is less of a visual novel and more of a set of audio dramas with subtitles on the screen. Once you make a choice of what you want to read, the story plays out at its own pace with out any kind of interaction from you. Each one is divided up into “chapters,” though, that you can select from before the story begins, in case you need to quit in the middle of one and come back to it later.
This makes Side Stories an incredibly passive experience, even more so than typical hard-line visual novels. After selecting a story, you can just kick back and relax as it plays out in front of you.
The majority of the stories in this collection have a light-hearted tone to them, and they can range from humorous to heartwarming. How much enjoyment you get from each one, though, really comes down to how much you like the featured character. With each story putting full focus on one character, much of the time being presented from said character’s perspective, reading the story of someone you already don’t like can be tough to push through when they’re the full focus (Personally, I’m looking specifically at the story featuring Fuko, which is a solid 15 minutes of mindless drivel).
While the humor-focused stories are entertaining, and got me to bust out laughing a few times, the real highlights are the more dramatic ones. The original Clannad was a very much a dramatic story, after all, so these selections fit the overall feel of the franchise a bit better. A personal highlight was the story focused on Akio, the father of the original game’s main female character, Nagisa. This story takes place during Akio’s high-school years, and highlights the softer side of his usually boisterous personality, while also strongly fitting in with the original game’s theme of “family.”
As I mentioned in the intro, Side Stories is a fan disc in essence, and as such, reuses most of its assets from the original game. While a story is playing, a background image is presented behind the text, usually to represent where events are currently taking place. These background images, for the most part, are taken wholesale from the original Clannad. Much like that game’s western release, Sekai Project has also ported these graphical assets in high resolution here.
In this release, though, there are no sprites on screen for the characters. Rather, most of the story takes place over these static background images, with occasional art stills overlaid during certain moments. Interesting to note is that these stills are not done in the art style of the original. Rather, these represent the characters in more of a watercolor style with much more…realistic…facial proportions. For me, that is very much a welcome change, as I was not a fan of the style of the original game’s sprites. My gripe here, though, is that these stills are few and far between, and spending most of each story staring at background images can become boring after a while.
Fit for the Stage
Once again, the music of Side Stories
is mostly taken from the original Clannad. I am a huge fan of the original game’s soundtrack, and it was quite nice to hear some of my favorite tracks played again here. However, it feels to me that there wasn’t as much care taken in matching up tracks with story segments. While some songs were used in Clannad so well as to be heart-wrenching during dramatic moments, those same tracks here are paired up with events that are much more mundane, losing some of the punch.
As this game is pretty much a collection of audio dramas, full voice acting is present in the original Japanese. All of the original voice actors and actresses return, and the performances here are just as well done as in the original, if not better. In scenes with more than a few characters, though, I did have occasional trouble figuring out which one was speaking. The dialogue on screen does not let you know which character is currently talking, making the characters with whom I am less familiar with harder to pick out in certain conversations.
For the Fans
Overall, Clannad: Side Stories sets out to accomplish one goal – provide fans with more time to spend with their favorite characters – and with that in mind, it does so beautifully. Even after all of my time reading the original visual novel and watching the anime adaption (many, many times), I still had a great time jumping back in with these characters, even if the stories are much more mundane.
The visual presentation is definitely lacking, but the focus of the experience is in the audio performances, and in that, Side Stories is a great success. The complete absence of interactivity, though, did make it hard to keep paying attention during the stories of the characters I didn’t care as much for. For Japanese speakers, none of this would be much of an issue, as they could easily just listen to the audio while keeping occupied with something else. For those, such as me, who can’t speak the language, being forced to focus on static backgrounds for the majority of the experience can become dull.
If you have not played the original Clannad, or are not a fan of it, I would definitely not recommend this game, since there really isn’t anything here for you to enjoy. If you are a fan of the original, though, Side Stories is a mostly entertaining expansion to the original that, while weaker than the experience of Clannad, is worth your time. Especially since you can read through the whole thing in about five or six hours.
~ Final Score: 7/10 ~
Review copy provided by Sekai Project on PC. Screenshots both taken by reviewer and courtesy of Sekai Project.