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Review: A Butterfly in the District of Dreams

10 Jun 2017

Live Another Life

The slice of life genre. Probably one of the most boring things in entertainment when you hear it described…yet, somehow, I can’t get enough of it.

It’s exactly what it says on the tin. Stories about the lives of a set of characters, a snapshot of how they move about the world day to day. The entertainment value is meant to come from watching the lives of these characters. If its done right, like I said, it’s much more interesting than it sounds.

For one, having such a mundane description doesn’t mean the story has to take place in a mundane world. Splashes of fantasy or the supernatural can be quite common in this genre, although they’re usually handled is such a way as to keep the plot grounded in a sense of reality.

The genre is very popular in Japan, with many plot-focused games developed there containing at lease some slice of life elements. Visual novels, with them having less demand for interactivity, showcase the genre even more.

The game we’re looking at today contains a bit of all of the above: a slice of life visual novel with some splashes of fantasy, yet a firm grounding in a sense of reality.

Developed by Life a Little and published in the west by Sekai Project, A Butterfly in the District of Dreams was released on May 12th, 2017, on PC via Steam.

Leave Your Worries Behind

Butterfly follows Yumesaki Haruki, a college student in the midst of some family issues. His older sister, Anzu, is hospitalized, and his parents’ careers leave them little time to spend with the family. As such, Haruki has stopped attending classes, instead spending his time caring for his sister.

Attending the same college is Haruki’s childhood friend, Tsukibane Ai. Watching as Haruki slowly loses motivation to do anything aside from spending time with his sister, Ai steps in to force him to take some time for himself. Drags him back to classes, gets him to spend some time with her in the city, rather than worrying over his family.

They lose track of time at the end of the day, though, and find that the last train home from the city has already left. Or so they think, as an odd-looking train car pulls up to the station. Boarding it, they soon find themselves in what appears to be an alternate world. This is the town of Oriibugai, where shrine gods exist, the shopping district extends to infinity, and everyone is so happy and peaceful that they never want to leave.

The opening of Butterfly is very melancholic in tone, almost oppressively so. Reading Haruki’s inner monologue as he slowly regresses from the world to take care of his sister and family is saddening, and I was surprised that the game was able to create such a heavy atmosphere right out of the gate.

Once the plot moves to the town of Oriibugai, the tone slowly begins to shift. Here is where we are introduced to where the majority of the plot takes place: a coffee shop known as Kochouran, or “Moth Orchid.” Haruki and Ai find themselves here after exploring the town, where we are introduced to Butterfly’s main female lead, a young woman named Yurika. Learning of their situation, Yurika agrees to take them in until they can find a way home, in exchange for them working at Kochouran.

As the game progresses, the overall tone of the story begins to become more lighthearted. However, despite the humor and hijinks that ensue, there is still an undercurrent of unease. The plot handles themes of escapism and family vs. self, although this is easier to see looking back at the story rather than at the time of reading.

The game is relatively light on narrative choices. Once you’re about three hours in, Butterfly begins offering you the choice between three different characters: Ai, Yuriko, and a young girl named Riko. Selecting a character lets you read through an episode involving her, with Haruki growing closer to the selected character and romantic plot points starting to develop.

Eventually, you are put on a specific story route depending on which character you selected the most, with each route being vastly different in tone. Ai’s route leans more on romance and family themes, Yurika’s is more about the themes of escapism, and Riko’s is just uncomfortable, as it involves the college-age Haruki falling in love with a middle school-age girl.

Unfortunately, outside of the intro and the character routes, Butterfly kind of drags its feet. The game really settles into its slice of life genre in the middle hours, and as it turns out, working at a coffee shop just isn’t all that interesting. I feel the main issue here is that the game spends most of its time in this one environment, the coffee shop. Without changes in scene or situation, the plot just ends up sagging in the middle.

Overall, the game has a relatively short runtime – I completed my first playthrough of one route in about five hours, with each of the other routes adding an extra hour. Thanks to this, some of the characters lose out on development. The core three – Haruki, Ai, and Yurika – all develop quite well throughout the course of the plot as they grow closer together and learn more about each other. Riko and the other side characters, though, tend to stick to one unchanging personality.

The quality of the writing here is solid, although not incredibly detailed, making Butterfly an easy read. There are a couple of misspellings and grammar errors here and there, along with at least one line I noticed that was straight up untranslated, but none of these errors are big enough to distract from the story.

I do have one major complaint about the story. The main route ends on a cliffhanger…which directly advertises, in game, the sequel to this title. I find this to be incredibly lazy writing, pushing off the job of writing a real ending until later. It’s also a giant “screw you” to the customer, telling them that they’ll have to cough up more money if they want to see the conclusion to the story.

Bring Into Focus

The graphical presentation of Butterfly is rather interesting, in that its simplicity is both a benefit and hindrance depending on where you are in the story. The game has two different styles of background art. When the story is in the real world, backgrounds are what look to be real photographs blurred to be out of focus. In Oriibugai, the backgrounds are more traditional hand-drawn art.

The blurry background of the real world helps in creating the melancholic feel of the intro. It seems to further reinforce how out of touch Haruki has become with the world around him. The only things in focus during these moments are the characters you interact with: Ai and Anzu. The only things that really matter to him. Once in Oriibugai, all of the art is in focus, which you could say ties further into the themes of escapism…but they don’t have the tone impact the real world backgrounds do. Without said impact, the simplistic backgrounds just become boring.

The characters themselves are fairly simple in design as well, with their spites only having a few standard poses and expressions. The designs are attractive, but fairly standard – they’re not really much to write home about. The occasional CG art still retains the simplicity of the game’s design, making it so they don’t really stand out compared to the rest of the game.

Highlight Reel

After a long string of unremarkable soundtracks, I’m glad to say that I’ve finally found one that stands out…and it’s here in Butterfly. For one, I’m a sucker for piano-focused soundtracks, which is exactly what you get here. It’s also an excellent fit for the atmosphere and themes of the plot.

Once again, the soundtrack of the story’s introduction adds greatly to the melancholic atmosphere. Outside of that, the tracks here do great work of highlighting the feel of scenes throughout the game, whether dramatic, relaxing, or humorous. The compositions here are simple, yes, but their usage in the overall package helps to overcome that.

Butterfly is also fully voice acted (aside from Haruki) in the original Japanese. The performances, though, come across as rather generic. These are the kinds of performances I’ve heard in countless middling anime and video games, with none of the performances really standing out. They get the job done for those who want to listen to them, but I eventually just shut the voices off.

Needs to Dive Deeper

Overall, A Butterfly in the District of Dreams has a heavy hitting start and dives into some interesting themes, but has enough nagging story issues to detract from these notable moments. Only half of the cast ever really develops throughout the plot, and the pacing really sags around the midpoint. Luckily, the short runtime makes it easy to push through the duller moments into the character routes, where the story returns to the strength of the intro…aside from Riko’s route.

Really, I wish the writers would’ve dove into the themes of escapism more, rather than just hinting at and playing with them. After completing Ai’s and Yuriko’s story routes, it was easy to look back and see all of the unrealized potential.

For visual novel fans, this is a title that’s halfway decent as a “light snack” between reading heavier games. It’s quick and simple, but with enough impactful moments to make it worth a glance. For those new to the genre, it’s a decent introductory visual novel, although I can think of much better starter titles out there…and I would suggest skipping Riko’s story route.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Sekai Project for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.