Video games are finally becoming an accepted format to tell involved, intimate, and personal stories. At least, it seems that way to me. What was once the exclusive realm of film and literature appears to finally be normalized in the gaming medium, which has long been questioned on artistic merit (and whether it has any).
Developers and studios large and small are using the medium of games to weave intricate and affecting tales. But as a medium still in its relative infancy compared to others, not every story manages to communicate itself well.
The game we’re looking at today was designed by Italian writer Lorenzo Redaelli, and is intended to be a partially autobiographical story. A tale of a sudden romance that finds itself going down a darker path.
Developed by Eyeguys and Lorenzo Redaelli, and published by Santa Ragione, Milky Way Prince: The Vampire Star is set for release on August 13th, 2020, for PC and Mac.
A Sense of Power
Milky Way Prince follows Nuki, a young man aimless in life who sees a shooting star crash down in his city. At its landing site he finds a man who introduces himself as Sune. Nuki finds himself instantly smitten with him, partially due to physical attraction, but also because this situation seems pulled right out of a fairy tale he loves, the eponymous “Milky Way Prince.”
The story here is one of a sudden and passionate romance…but not a healthy one. It quickly becomes clear that Sune isn’t exactly stable, with much of the plot focusing on Nuki as he tries (or fails) to navigate a relationship quickly turning toxic.
The topics that Milky Way Prince breaches are heavy, the kind of story that would take some finesse to tell properly and get a general audience to connect with. Unfortunately, the writing here struggles to do so.
There are only two characters in this game (aside from a couple throw-away NPCs), Nuki and Sune. Everything revolves around them. However, the story does absolutely nothing to develop these characters, nor endear the player to them.
Nuki is set up as a sort of quirky character…and that’s about all we get to know about him. He plays piano and has a pet starfish, then he meets Sune and all further development is gone. Nuki does little more throughout the story than just react to whatever Sune is doing, and his personality offers up little-to-nothing to get me to connect to him…a dire mistake, considering the plot woven here.
Sune somehow fares even worse. It’s fairly obvious he has some kind of mental distress, but Sune is less of a character and more a series of obstacles to be navigated. His personality is different every time he appears on screen…which I guess is kind of the point, but without being given base character traits, his sudden mood shifts had little effect on me.
Much of this could likely be fixed if Milky Way Prince took a bit of extra time outside of showing Nuki and Sune’s relationship to develop the characters more. Instead, the story consists entirely of meetings between the two, often with timeskips of weeks-to-months between each tryst. What happened in the meantime? We never learn, as the game has no desire to let us know.
In its push to wring emotion from the player, the game relies on shock value, rather than well-rounded character writing. It’s an effective tactic, as I found myself saying “oh shit” aloud multiple times throughout the game. These exclamations, though, were more directed toward what’s happening on screen at the time, rather than out of any feelings for the story or characters.
Milky Way Prince doesn’t only stumble on the storytelling, but on the basic mechanics of a visual novel as well. Like many others in the genre, this game features three “routes” with three distinct endings, requiring multiple playthroughs to see everything. Unfortunately, the developers completely overlooked two very standard quality-of-life functions in most visual novels:
- The ability to completely skip dialogue the player has already read.
- The ability to save and reload at any point in the story.
The game auto-saves at the beginning of each chapter, which means that by the time you notice which route you’re currently on, you’re locked out of going back and changing up decisions to try again. So then you have to restart the game over, but now you have to physically move the story forward, spending another twenty minutes to get back to the branching point again. God help you if you have trouble figuring out the correct choices to move onto the story branch you need (like I did, multiple times), requiring you to restart again.
Making these restarts more painful is the very deliberate pace of the game. Dialogue moves slowly, and there are often small pauses between each line. There were numerous moments where I was sitting staring at the screen after clicking past a line, waiting for the next line to show up, wondering if the game had somehow locked up.
The only stone thrown to the player is the ability to boost the game’s dialogue and animations to 2x speed. This is little consolation when restarting the game for the fifth time to figure out where I went wrong in my decision making to get the final ending.
Straight Into Hell
Now for a complete 180 in tone; the visuals and sound design in this game are simply amazing. The simplest way I can describe them is “if the anime studio Shaft took a bunch of bad acid and turned their horrifying trip into a video game.”
Between ethereal environments and some mind-twisting animations, as well as occasional audio shocks and static, everything about the design here oozes a sense of foreboding. Forget the story, forget the characters, it’s the audio-visual presentation that carries what the game set out to create.
I will admit, I didn’t like the character designs for Nuki and Sune at first. Particularly Nuki, who has a giant eye in his hair for some reason. As the game progressed, though, the designs grew on me…especially as they slowly began to warp and degrade.
The aesthetics are madness, an occasional trip through hell, and easily the highlight of the game.
Overall, Milky Way Prince feels like an art piece. An outlet for Redaelli to tell his story, and craft it such a way to communicate his feelings and experiences to the player. In its visual design, this work succeeds in spades.
As a video game and visual novel, though, the full experience is weak. I was unable to connect to the story of Nuki and Sune, and the writing didn’t seem to want me to. With so little (if any) time given to character development, I wasn’t able to care for these characters, and therefore the story didn’t resonate with me at all.
This tale demands more detail. It requires more time spent in filling out the world and its characters. If the game had spent more time on these points, we’d be looking at one hell of a harrowing and affecting story. As it stands right now though, Milky Way Prince feels like a massively missed opportunity.
Review copy provided by Santa Ragione for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.