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Review: Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen

22 May 2020

So this is a title with a weird approach. Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen is the first title in the Utawarerumono series, and also the last one to receive a localized release like this.

Here’s how this happens. Utawarerumono was released in 2002 for PCs as an eroge, part visual novel and part strategy RPG with an assortment of various sex scenes. In 2006, it was ported to PS2 in a form that cut out all of the sex scenes, and that version was itself ported to the PSP in 2009. This led to the sequel Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception in 2015, which in turn got its own sequel Utawarerumon: Mask of Truth in 2016… and both of those games got brought over for the North American market in 2017.

This brings us to Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen, which is a remake of the first game in the engine of its two sequels, at once the first in the series and also a standalone title insofar as it takes place before the later two games that form something of a two-part trilogy. So this is both the game that kicks off the whole sequence and the first time this one has actually been available for American audiences, unless you count the anime from a while back.

So that’s sure a convoluted history that’s no doubt of interest to fans of particularly convoluted porting and localization stories, but what about the game itself? With the sequels already out and readily available, how does this one hold up as a remake of a nearly 20-year-old game?

Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen is releasing on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita on May 26th. The PlayStation 4 version was played for this review, although it’s worth noting that there’s full cross-save capability for both platforms so you can hop back and forth.

An Intricate Tail

The hard part of summarizing the plot of Utawarerumono (you’ll forgive me for leaving out the subtitle here) is that… well, the game kind of has too much of it. Also, in some ways, not nearly enough.

The broad strokes of the premise are easy to understand. We start with the awakening of a man wearing a strange looking mask of bone in a small village, watched over by a young girl with a pair of soft furry ears and a tail. It soon becomes clear that he has no memory of his name or prior identity, and he is given the name “Hakuowlo” by the village chief in memory of her departed son. Hakuowlo quickly becomes a fixture of the village, befriending the chief’s grandaughters, Eruruu and Aruruu, as well as most of the local residents.

From there… well, stuff happens.

I’m not being vague to avoid spoilers, exactly. (That helps, but it’s not my sole motivation.) The fact of the matter is that Hakuowlo’s story is not strictly episodic, but it is very much akin to that in the sense of building in scope and length but not necessarily intricacy. It also starts out incredibly slow, with the first several hours devoted almost entirely to low-stakes village issues like starting a properly irrigated farm and befriending Eruruu as Hakuowlo seems completely oblivious to the idea that a girl might have a crush on him.

It’d be easy to mark that down as space for character building, but the thing is that none of the characters are really all that deep or complex. If you’re at all familiar with Japanese visual novels – especially in the eroge subgenre of “hapless man surrounded by lovely women to sleep with” – you will kind of understand who they are very quickly. That’s not to say they’re devoid of any depth or nuance, but you can understand Eruruu pretty quickly without a couple hours of her blushing at you and being humble and kind.

Oh, and then being insanely jealous when Hakuowlo exists within physical proximity to another woman and acts nice. Although given the genre, perhaps that’s reasonable.

All of this sounds a bit negative, but it really isn’t meant as such. It’s just that rather than a game with a more direct plot focus, this is about the rise and fall of nations and a sweeping scope, and a lot of the amusement is thus derived from watching the various characters play off of one another. Sometimes, that doesn’t work very well (witness Hakuowlo being a clueless idiot around women in general and Eruruu in particular); other times it works marvelously, like the gentle domesticity of Eruruu even as she plays in an increasingly large stage, or the not-actual-rivalry between Oboro and Kurou.

And, really, that’s the heart of the game. Far from being a title with a vague moral lesson, Utawarerumono has a pretty simple and sympathetic view of its cast, painting its heroes in clear tones and its villains being pretty clear right from the start. It tells a story that’s sprawling and fun, and while it’s intensely slow getting started and devoid of the straightforward thrust you might expect, it’s still charming in its own right.

Fuzzy Gameplay

There are two games in Utawarerumono, by which I mean there’s one game and a visual novel. If you’re accustomed to strategy RPGs you’re probably at least passingly familiar with a story told mostly by static portraits over a background, sure, but if you’re thinking “oh, so it’s like Fire Emblem” you’re down the wrong track. This very much is a visual novel with a strategy RPG bolted in, not a strategy RPG.

On the visual novel side, of course, the interface is refined, useful, and simple. You can backtrack as needed through conversations, replay voice clips, hide the dialogue boxes to admire the art, and so forth. It’s also very easy to save and load as you need, although there are no real choices or routes to be had. (This can be a bit frustrating when the story claims Hakuowlo is wrestling with a decision.)

The more game-oriented parts come into play when you get into the strategy RPG portion, which is… I don’t want to say simple, exactly, but it’s another reminder that this is a visual novel first. Things like equipment and abilities are stripped down to their most minimal formats, with characters very much placed in very specific categories in combat and the basic rules being immediately obvious to anyone who has played similar games before.

There is definitely an effort to keep things more than bare-bones simple; the set of elemental alignments and strengths/weaknesses, for example, or the passive abilities every character has stacked up. As a longtime fan of the genre, though, they’re just… not difficult or complex.

Which, fortunately, doesn’t stop any of them from being fun! So that’s a good thing.

Yes, the strategy portions are pretty simple to glide through for much of the game, but that in and of itself only encourages you to play smart and keeps the strategy portions as entertaining diversions rather than unwanted intrusions or “the real game” buried after hours of cutscenes. The game also gives you plenty of opportunities to cheese things if you want to; you can replay story battles as you wish, and you can even enter free battles to earn rewards and further advance if you’re so inclined. More to the point, the game has a Rewind feature so that you can always backtrack if you realize you need to make a different decision.

It also does actually play up as something that should make sense in-universe. Rather than Hakuowlo’s military success coming from raw might, it’s stressed that he succeeds via excellent tactics that allow him to overcome larger forces… reflected in the fact that most enemies are strictly more durable than your units, but tactical play allows you to cut them down sequentially and ultimately emerge triumphant.

The difficulty in balancing this, of course, is that you have to get players who are equally interested in the visual novel portion and the strategy portions, because you cannot glide past one or the other. (Unless you skip dialogue, making the whole thing pointless.) That kind of cuts down on some of the appeal right from the premise. This is very much a game wherein you are doing both all the way through, but not in equal portions.

Soft Focus Models

Just as the gameplay is composed of two pieces, so too is the visual presentation, split between the visual novel art and the battle scenes. And the art itself is lovely; while several bits are over static backdrops with moving portraits, the portraits frequently have a large number of different expressions and poses, and many of the scenes are bespoke pieces of art for just one or two scenes.

There are bits where the game’s roots do show through there, to be fair. (There’s a piece used for Yuzuha in which she is supposedly gasping for air and fevered, but the posing is, uh… well, it’s a bit more sexy than you’d expect given the context.) But overall, the art is really good; character designs are distinct and attractive, posing works well, and there’s a lot of personality even in fairly low-key side characters.

Battles, meanwhile… feel like they’re ported in from a PS2 game. I mean, they are so that’s how they’d feel anyhow, but while they’re smooth and attractive PS2 models and maps with decent textures and details, they’re still a bit limited and stiff. Some animations look just slightly wrong, most notably Eruruu’s moving animation which has a weirdly hangdog bit of body language as she shuffles. Others work well, like Oboro’s twirling sword ahead of item use, but it’s definitely not the more visually impressive part of the title.

I also really disliked Hakuowlo’s voice actor, not because he’s bad but because he just feels too old for the role. He’s meant to be roughly a peer, if slightly older, than Eruruu, but he sounds like he’s in his late 30s. Of course, it’s also hard to tell how old anyone is; Eruruu looks like she’s a teenager but everyone acts like she’s in her mid-20s and has never had any interest in men, while Aruruu is supposed to be not too much younger than her while the game alternately treats her as if she’s five or fifteen and she looks ten. So that’s a minor quibble.

The music half of things is also important for setting the mood across the board, and Utawarerumono hits this one solidly; the music is fun, stirring, and lovely. Apparently it’s actually remixes of the original tunes, so I suppose I might have stronger feelings if I was familiar with those, but I’m not, so I don’t.

Beast of a Time

There’s a lot of stuff going on with Utawarerumono, and not just because it has a title that almost feels tailor-made to putting Western players off from properly learning how to spell its name. And going into it, there was a lot that immediately turned me off. I’m not a big fan of visual novels, and the game then addresses that particular preference by having the plot moving at a glacial pace without any gameplay for the first couple of hours. It takes a really long time for things to start developing anywhere.

For that matter, I’m really not fond of “clueless man surrounded by beautiful women who’s just a super-talented everything” as a genre. So it had that working against it.

Why am I mentioning all of this now? Because darn it, Utawarerumono wound up charming me. It was slow going at first, and yet as I was winding things down for this review I found myself thinking that I was going to miss this game. It was still a mess torn between two very different parts, it wasn’t really tickling my exact preferences, and yet there’s something about it that also felt so genuinely warm and compassionate that I couldn’t help but genuinely like it right back.

Yes, all of the problems I’ve mentioned are real ones, and yes, I think some people are going to bounce off it right away because it is a weird combination of two game types (with an emphasis on the part that isn’t really a game). But when all is said and done, I’m really glad I stuck it out and started finding why this was a compelling combination.

So this one deserves a high rating. Because if it had a lot of stuff stacked against it and I still wound up really being sucked in at the end, I think more people should give this off-beat combination a try. For all its flaws, there’s a beauty and warmth within that could be just as charming to you.

And hey, how many other games will give you a chance to command a tiny fluffy-eared girl riding a gigantic tiger that thinks it’s a housecat? Not enough, I tell you.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review copy provided by NIS America for PS4. All screenshots courtesy of NIS America and sourced from the game’s official site.