The idea of visual novels in virtual reality has always intrigued me. Taking a genre mostly made up of 2D sprites and massive amounts of text, and turning it into an immersive experience that actually allows one to interact with the characters and the story around them.
I had my first taste of this a few years back with Sekai Project’s Project Lux. While an interesting experiment, it ultimately fell short for me. Mostly due to the lack of player agency, and the fact that having to read subtitles completely destroyed the immersion VR offers.
Jump ahead to today, and I find myself strapping on my Vive headset again to see how the genre has evolved in the medium. A game that promises more interaction, as well as a much more involved story.
Developed and published by MyDearest, Altdeus: Beyond Chronos was released for SteamVR on February 18th, 2021. This title was experienced using base HTC Vive equipment.
Going Through the Motions
Tokyo, 300 years into the future. Humanity has been driven into hiding underground due to the appearance of “Meteora,” massive alien creatures seemingly hellbent on destroying Earth.
Altdeus put the player in the shoes of Chloe, a “designed human” created from birth to pilot massive mecha known as “Makhia” to fend off the Meteora. After serving for some time, the battle has suddenly become personal: Chloe’s best friend Coco has recently been killed and eaten by a Meteora.
If this sounds like a mash-up of mecha anime cliches, you definitely wouldn’t be wrong. Cliche storms aren’t necessarily a bad thing, though; 13 Sentinels was much the same, but managed to weave those tropes into a wildly engaging story. Altdeus, too, does some fun stuff with genre tropes…but it takes unbearably long to do so.
Like most visual novels, Altdeus has multiple story routes to build the overall plot. Unfortunately, the one it shuttles the player down on the first playthrough didn’t do much to endear me to the game. The initial route does do a few things right. It establishes the game’s world, starts building the core plot, and offers a few teases for what’s to come in future routes. However, it completely fails on a key component: setting up interesting characters.
The cast of Altdeus is fairly compact; it’s not like the game had to struggle to set up numerous characters. For the three-to-four hours it takes to complete the first route, though, the cast receives nearly no development at all. Chloe is a brick wall. Coco (in flashbacks) is a wistful brick wall. Mad scientist Julie is…well, a mad scientist. Chloe’s partner Noa is annoying, and side characters Yamato and Aoba just kind of exist. None of that changes for hours.
It’s not until the second and future runthroughs of the game that Altdeus suddenly decides its cast needs basic characterization and development. Once that kicks into gear, though, things start smoothing out. I found myself enjoying the game much more from this point, finally getting involved in the story.
Portal to the Future
Being a visual novel in VR space, much of the game is simply observing while characters speak and interact with you and each other. Altdeus does try to add in some interactive elements, but they’re fairly minimal.
Occasionally, the story pauses to let you “explore” an environment. I put that word in quotation marks as all you’re really doing here is pointing and clicking on obvious things to return to the story. There isn’t any real exploration. Hell, there isn’t even any real movement. The game puts you where it wants you for each scene after a quick fade to black.
Altdeus becomes a bit more interactive during the sequences where Chloe pilots her Makhia against the Meteoras. These fights are massive spectacles, and require various motion inputs and button presses to perform certain actions in battle. Unfortunately, it is entirely context sensitive, as you can only take actions that the game dictates you to take, a couple special moments aside.
For some players, though, the above issues with limited interactivity will matter little. This is a visual novel after all, a genre familiar with little-to-no interactivity. When it comes to visual novel functions, I have very little to take issue with in Altdeus.
The immersion here is excellent. Aside from characters not having completely free movement (they quickly fade out and in during a major pose change, like in many 2D visual novels), it was easy to find myself lost in the world of the game. Immersion-breaking elements inherent to the genre (i.e. dialogue choices) are woven into the storytelling to contextualize them (implants that display information in front of your eyes, also used in many other parts of the story). Hell, the game’s main menu is part of the worldbuilding, and occasionally mentioned in the story.
Another huge point in the game’s favor is a function that I wish was in every visual novel: a flowchart. As you play through multiple routes, a chart accessible in the main menu starts building out and showing the various different routes you are taking, as well as letting you instantly jump to specific parts in the story to replay and select different choices. The developers even went out of their way to make it visually interesting, designing it as a kind of star chart that weaves its way around your vision.
J-Pop Will Save the World
Visually, Altdeus can be iffy, but I think it hits more than it misses. The character designs are visually attractive, especially the more sci-fi “out there” ones (Julie’s weird robotic limbs immediately come to mind). Some of the environments are visually stunning, particularly the cityscapes and the cockpit of the Makhia.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the story takes place in a sterile lab environment, or Chloe’s average everyday apartment. The visual spectacle moments are somewhat rare, which makes them a treat when they do show up. You also get treated to a few virtual concerts by Chloe’s partner Noa (who is also a digital pop idol, because anime), which are legitimately entertaining, even if they have nothing to do with the overall story.
Speaking of concerts, if you’re a fan of J-pop style music, I can safely say you’ll love the soundtrack here. There are numerous legitimately great vocal tracks spread throughout the game, with the ones that play during Meteora fights going to great lengths to add a sense of “epicness” to the battle scenes.
Greatly helping the immersion of Altdeus is the fact that the game is entirely voice acted in English…a first, I believe, for VR visual novels. You can turn off the subtitles and just let characters speak to you and each other completely naturally.
Unfortunately, the quality of the voice acting is all over the charts. On the positive side, you get Julie, who is just constantly chewing the scenery to great effect. Yamato and Aoba also have some great acting moments…once you’re out of the first story route and they actually develop personalities.
The worst performances, oddly, are for the core characters Chloe and Coco. Both are incredibly stiff, robotic, and dull. Chloe I can understand, seeing as she’s a designed human built for combat…and, admittedly, she does have some good performances during more climactic moments. Coco, though, has no reason to have such a boring performance. You can practically hear the script the actress is reading off of during her lines.
Slowly Marching Forward
Mechanically, visually, and immersion-wise, Altdeus: Beyond Chronos is a massive step forward for visual novels in the VR medium. While the genre still has a way to go, this title shows that it can be successful in virtual reality.
The writing here, though, leaves a lot to be desired. I’m used to visual novels having slow opening routes, but completely foregoing any real character development for hours made this game incredibly difficult to get into.
Once over the hump of the initial route, though, Altdeus managed to provide an entertaining story, one that I didn’t mind strapping my Vive headset on for. It’s not mind-blowing by any means, but it’s still a worthwhile read.
Review copy provided by MyDearest for PC (SteamVR/Vive). Screenshots taken by reviewer.