Preview: Ciel Fledge

One of my favorite games of all time is still Princess Maker 2. I was introduced to it almost by accident during my freshman year of college, when its pseudo-abandonware status meant that it was pretty widely available for curious onlookers who didn’t want to actually purchase the game. I proceeded to lose nearly an entire night just playing that dang game. Then I got my future wife just as hooked on it, and we both spent nearly a month basically losing our minds and barely being awake enough for class as we raised our virtual daughters (badly, I might add).

I provide this by way of backstory to make it clear that I am on board for this style of game. Indeed, when I first saw the trailer for Ciel Fledge, my thought was that someone had tried to make basically another Princess Maker game but with science fiction trappings instead of fantasy. Considering that you can get Princess Maker 2 on Steam right now, my hope was for something that basically hit exactly that genre itch.

What I actually got was a game that not only understands what made that game so much fun but improves on it, updates it, and moves beyond it in nearly every department. It was something targeted directly at my personal impulses, and even with the handful of rough spots it’s a game that immediately makes me sit up and shout at people to buy this title, because it may very well be exactly the game you never realized you exactly wanted.

Ciel Fledge: A Daughter Raising Simulator is releasing on February 21st, 2020 for both PC and Switch. The Steam version was played for this preview

The Memories Fade Like Looking Through a Fogged Mirror

The game begins as the genre conventions would suggest. You play as a father or mother with a customizable background, both in terms of origin and previous occupation, who is asked by the administration of your Ark to look after a ten-year-old girl who survived the destruction of another Ark. Humans are under assault by the monstrous aliens known as the “Gigant,” so most of the population lives aboard these Arks, living out civilized life and training to deal with the alien invasion.

Your daughter, whose name can be changed as you wish but defaults as Ciel, has no memory of her previous life or why she survived. She does know that she needs a home, however, and so you take it upon yourself to raise her, doing your best to provide her with a loving home, the food and compassion she needs, and hopefully a nurturing environment to develop her skills.

Of course, it’s pretty obvious just from that backstory that there’s more going on than just convenient narrative reasons for her to become your ward. The game helps play this up by playing out, in part, like a visual novel or one of the Persona games. Events will unfold on certain dates as you do your best to raise her, with a robust cast surrounding your daughter ranging from her school-age companions (Marco, Vivi, and Becky) to older shopkeepers, teachers, and soldiers (Juno, Nieve, Sylphine, and Amira to name a few).

The trick there, of course, is that you don’t get to pick how most of these events play out. Your daughter makes these decisions. You get chances to make choices for yourself, of course, and some of them are reliant on building up affection with your daughter, but much of it is watching her grow and doing your best to help her develop into a strong, capable young woman.

The story is told slowly, but that’s actually to its credit. All of the slow beats of the story and the gradual rollout helps augment the idea that many of these events are taking place over a long period of time. Sure, there are clearly mysteries to be discovered, things to be searched, and a story to learn (which I am being deliberately vague about), but… your ten-year-old child is not ready to see all of it. She’s not ready at twelve, either. It slowly impacts her life.

And along the way she’s doing her best to be a normal child with an adoptive parent, make friends, eat tasty food, get hobbies… you know, the sort of thing that you’d expect children to do.

The Water is Warm, but It’s Sending Me Shivers

While the story might involve a bit of vagueness for purposes of avoiding spoilers, the actual game itself has a lot going on. And it’s all fun stuff.

The core of the game, as you might expect, is broken into weeks of events. Every week, you start off by choosing what you as a parent will be doing (working part-time jobs for more money, spoiling your child, pushing her to do harder, and so on) and what sort of diet she’ll be eating, and then you pick out her weekly activities. Ciel can head along to classes to develop her skills, work jobs to develop her skills and make some money, or even just rest and enjoy some fun times with her parent or friends.

Of course, in order to unlock better classes and jobs, she’ll need to refine those skills. There’s a rather elaborate tree of different options that require certain skill levels to unlock, which gives you something to aim for over time as you decide how you’re going to develop your daughter. This is also helped by the game’s focus tree, which highlights certain objectives and unlocks abilities and traits as you develop skills and expertise.

Abilities? Well, yes, those come into play during the game’s various trials. Rather than just having a battle system, the game has a timed conflict resolution mechanic revolving around playing sets of same-colored diamond-shaped cards. This system is used for everything from quizzes to difficult work scenarios to physical conflicts, with a variety of extra techniques to help you. And the techniques do matter, as to when you deploy them. Things like One-Two Punch and Drop Kick help when you’re fighting, but not when you’re trying to maximize your score on an acting test; on the other hand, Cute Pose and Spin are useful in the latter but not the former scenario.

Your traits also come into play here, some of them granted by your daughter’s outfits, others through leveling up friendships or skills. The skills and stats are remarkably broad in application, too. You might thing that Imagination isn’t very useful in fighting, for example, but it can affect your multiplier for successive hits. That means that repeated blows become more effective faster.

Oh, and all of this is not to mention that the game also tracks the affection between you and your daughter, which can be crucial for several story moments. And it’s not mentioning exploring the surface, a lengthy activity that takes the whole week but can allow you an entirely different avenue for gameplay.

If it all sounds complex, that’s because it is. You’ve got a lot of balls in the air at any given time. Fortunately, the game is forgiving enough that it largely works, slowly rolling these elements out and making sure that actual failures are more a result of repeated mistakes rather than just being too hard to manage everything. The game is also generous about saving between weeks and auto-saves after every week as well, ensuring that if you need to recover from something mid-week you have the chance.

At first glance, the biggest weakness is just that some of the game’s overall progress tree is obfuscated so you don’t know what skills you need to learn something new because you can’t access them yet. There’s a fair amount of interdependency, especially at early levels, but more transparent guidance would be appreciated. It’s also really hard to raise Affection early on, which leads to some early moments wherein you might not have the Affection you need and not really understand why.

Beyond that, you make most of your choices about meta-developmental choices (your origin and previous profession) without knowing how these elements interface with your daughter, which at least on your first playthrough can lead to you kind of not getting what you’re doing or why. And some of the battle events are… let’s just say unnecessarily difficult, to be charitable.

However… that’s honestly about it in terms of major flaws, and three of those are the sorts of flaws that can (and should) be addressed by more player community offering guidance about how to unlock things and what you’re aiming for. None of them really change the ambition of the game, or the simple charm with which it pulls so much off.

You Pick the Insects off of Plants

Graphically, the game has a not-quite-anime feel shot through it, the sort of thing that can easily feel at first like an enthused group of amateurs trying to replicate a Japanese style. (It’s not, or at least not in the way you might be thinking; Studio Namaapa is an Indonesian studio.) Once you start getting used to the style, it’s charming. The slight green hue to the interface is clean and professional while feeling warm and comfortable, and the character artwork is expressive and recognizable at a glance.

Characters alternate between full-body front-facing art during story scenes and cute little bobble-headed versions of themselves during moves around the map and during battle events. The chibi style is particularly expressive and usually conveys something about the characters immediately, like Becky’s perpetual side-eye or Amira’s stern countenance. I also like the fact that your daughter’s face in the upper-left-hand corner changes as she takes on activities, a quick glance at her mood and what she’s doing.

Unfortunately, the full-body portraits suffer a little in the sense that they’re never really staged or arranged so that you get any real sense of character movement. They get panned around the screen at times, but it’s also undercut by the fact that only important characters get any portraits, so some scenes feature characters talking to unseen generic individuals and thus lose some dramatic heft. There’s no real animation, just a few static poses.

Of course, at the same time it’s a testament to the writing and localization that you still get a strong sense of who these characters are despite those limitations. So take from that what you will.

Musically, the game falls into a pleasantly forgettable style. It’s definitely memorable enough that you’ll find yourself tapping along to some of the tunes, but it’s not setting the bar to new heights or anything. Still, since a game like this mostly needs its music to not be obnoxious, it hits that target and moves firmly beyond it.

I did notice that the game had the minor technical bug of not playing super-nice with having the focus taken off of it even in windowed mode; the game also tried to default to my controller, and while it switches inputs easily, there’s still a touch of irritation there. Be fairly warned for your own experiences.

Control Yourself, Take Only What You Need From It

I’m going to be direct – if Ciel Fledge was basically a low-budget copy of Princess Maker 2 with a different setting, that would still be worth a reasonably good rating from me. It’d be a curio, a neat attempt at doing something different that ultimately didn’t quite work, and that was exactly where I expected it to land. Ambitious, maybe, but something with a bit too much jank to recommend.

That’s not the game we actually have here, though.

Ciel Fledge does have some jank, but that’s in the midst of a game that has a great cast of characters, solid storytelling, and excellent mechanics to back up all of the things it asks of the player. It manages to really drive home the challenges that your daughter is facing while at the same time making the parent an active participant; you’re trying to prepare her and bridge the gaps between her even as you know you can’t fight her battles for her.

And it’s also the sort of game that makes you very aware, even from early stages, that it has a lot that it’s hiding beneath the surface. This is the sort of game wherein you’ll want to learn more about how it ticks not to break it but just to see what you can do with it. The sort of title wherein you may know all the story beats, but this time you want to see if you can make her a writer. Or a general. Or a criminal. Or… any number of things.

It is, in short, possessed of all that same great addictive energy. And if you’ve never tried a game of its ilk before, I think you owe it yourself to keep an eye on this release.

Review copy provided by PQube for PC. Screenshots courtesy of PQube.