Review: Qualia ~The Path of Promise~ [Switch]

10 May 2024

All right, kiddos, let’s establish something that’s not going to come as a surprise for much of anyone here: I like robots. I think there is loads and loads of storytelling potential for working with robots, and I especially like things that ask big philosophical questions about robotics as a concept. I also like when the story is about making robots fight things, but Qualia ~The Path of Promise~ (which I will hereafter be shortening to just Qualia because I am not typing that many tildes in a review) is not a Mega Man game. It is a visual novel, and…

Well, I’ve laid bare before now that I am not generally a fan of visual novels. But as the review linked there makes clear, I am also more than willing to give visual novels a fair shake and let them play out their story over their runtime. So I did have some hopes for Qualia and while the initial character designs already had me more than a little anxious about what I was getting myself into, I was still willing to give it the benefit of a doubt. Robot maids. All right. Give me something good, at least? Can you do that for me?

Currently Machina

My teeth were first set on edge when the game immediately made a big deal of the idea that Machina, the robot made in question, was the first AI capable of passing the Turing test. Because that immediately made it clear that the writers…weren’t actually all that interested in the situation they were putting forth here.

The Turing test is not an actual thing; it’s not a fixed test that something either passes or fails and that proves if an AI is advanced. Rather, it’s fundamentally an experiment about the conditions that could prove an advanced AI. “Passing the Turing test” by itself is fundamentally like saying a restaurant was “voted one of the city’s best in an internal poll.” It sounds significant without actually meaning much of anything.

But yes, this is technically a tangent. The plot is that Dr. Hiro Koshino has made an AI android named Machina who winds up coming to his house to work as a maid as she learns more about the world. Will Hiro find himself developing feelings for her as they live in the same space?

Yes. Almost immediately. Come on. That’s basically the premise.

The game’s plot immediately brings up interesting angles to take this based on Machina’s status as a robot. First and foremost, there’s a lopsided power dynamic. Machina herself is a machine under Dr. Koshino’s stewardship. He has the ability to drastically alter her at any time and, in fact, is not just more powerful than her but is fundamentally developing feelings for a being who is incapable of telling him no. Equally interesting, however, is the idea that she is literally incapable of having reciprocal feelings. He’s developing feelings for lines of software put in a visually appealing package. Machina isn’t a person, she’s the imitation of one, and describing her as “wanting” anything is fundamentally a flawed construction.

All sorts of story ideas immediately blossom from this premise. Qualia is interested in none of them. It wants Hiro to have a cute, submissive maid with a childlike demeanor to bring him out of his shell and slowly understand his feelings.

This, in and of itself, is not inherently the wrong choice. It’s a less interesting choice to me, but I’ve frequently reiterated the idea that it’s not what a story is about but how it is about it. But all of that stuff I just brought up? It’s hard not to judge the story for not being more interesting when it itself brings up all of these ideas and then quickly discards them to go back to big boob anime maid with childlike innocence.

It’s a dynamic that always feels faintly skeevy, not just due to the obvious power imbalance but also due to the fundamental inhumanity of it. Like, Hiro is written as a basically good-natured dork who genuinely cares about Machina, but it’s hard not to, because he develops all those feelings when Machina basically puts no demands on him whatsoever. She doesn’t inconvenience him, wants to do literally whatever he wants to do, serves him with relentless kindness and limitless patience, is model-gorgeous without any need for keeping up her appearance, and is… basically an ideal robot girlfriend. She’s never tired or snippy or annoyed or in a bad mood.

And the story keeps trying to circle back around to Hiro having a painful and traumatic past, which (to the story’s credit) he does have… but it hasn’t really impeded him in any significant way. It’s just made him dorky and a little bad at relating to other people, and yet Machina and his fellow developer Karen (who are basically the only other characters in the story) both have a seemingly endless willingness to drop everything to coach him through life. The game keeps suggesting that it’s going to have something to say about a character basically falling in love with a sexy appliance, but it never seems willing to go any further than saying “and that’s cool.”

As a result, it’s hard to care much about the characters or the plot that’s unfolding from where I sit. Instead of being a well-paced romance where you want the characters to wind up together, it’s a lengthy diversion in which everything feels like a painfully rote genre exercise that periodically pauses to offer some vague natterings about how artificial intelligence works.

Machina-Generated Art

The art for the game feels… oddly sterile. Part of this is the absolute paucity of characters at any given time – most of the art is given over to Machina, Karen, or Proto (the small rolling robot who’s the game’s mascot character/annoying child). Some scenes do get special bespoke art, but a large number of scenes are just taking place in Hiro’s living room, his bedroom, or his office. It’s perfectly serviceable background art, but when you keep going back to the exact same setting time and again you get a sense for how little the story is actually moving.

Music is… yeah, it’s not good. I honestly found it kind of annoying, and while I can’t say it’s super grating it just never feels like anything more substantial than “generic background music.” The voice acting is fine, but something in me had a deep-seated aversion every time Machina’s actress said “Master.”

She says that a lot. I know, genre conventions, it’s not her fault, but still.

I also just… personally really dislike Machina’s design. Not because she doesn’t look like a cute maid (although her proportions feel subtly off to me, like her breasts are just a little lower than they should be on a human being), but because she looks exactly like a cute maid. There’s nothing robotic about her, and if you were shown her design without knowing she’s supposed to be a robot, you wouldn’t have a hint about this fact. That isn’t a dealbreaker, since we have lots of games with robots that look completely humanoid, but in a game where we’re supposed to be constantly reminded that Machina is an android they don’t seem to have put anything in the design to call back to that.

Meh Machina

Look, if you want a story about a big-boobed anime robot maid who lives with what is clearly meant to be a player stand-in that occasionally gestures at concepts about robots, this is that. And you can play it on the Nintendo Switch. I know that I’ve been harsh on this one, and that feels a little bit bad; this is a first title from the studio and that’s always hard, it’s not like there are major technical issues with the game on Switch or something.

But the problem is that as a story about robotic concepts, it falls apart, and as a romance, it doesn’t work. I don’t feel the satisfying swell of emotions as the characters draw closer together, I feel like I’m watching a slow-motion set of beats that have zero tension or ambiguity.

A lot of robot fiction makes a simple collection of circuits and wires, just the barest indicators of humanity, into an intensely human character even with nothing more than the suggestion of a face. Qualia feels like it showed up with all the robot parts you could want in a box and simply made a pretty girl to smile at you, and she can’t even make eye contact.

~ Final Score: 5/10 ~

Review copy provided by Sekai Project for Switch. All screenshots courtesy of Sekai Project.