I generally like playing otome visual novels when I'm in the mood for something light and fluffy and Otomate is my favorite producer of them. Otomate's Hakuoki, which I covered earlier on this blog was the first otome I played, and I've played few more since. Amnesia: Memories aside (which uses a different story structure), I like the Otomate otome style because it makes a point to have a plot, one long and engaging enough that it takes several hours to get through, and it's more of a choose-your-own-adventure than a dating sim where you decide what to do everyday.
The typical Otomate heroine starts in the same place and has a chance to meet and get to know all her potential love interests before the story eventually branches off based on the player's favoritism towards a particular man. Equally important is that the love interests interact with each other, which allows them to become fleshed out characters who are more than a pretty face to pine over the protagonist.
Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ outdid itself in length as this is probably longest of the Otomate games I've played through, with a single branch taking me over 15 hours to get through, which is feat considering that gameplay is primarily reading/listening and making the occasional decision. I'm used to having 7 to 9 chapters for each storyline, but Code: Realize jumps to a whopping 13 for each love interest (unlike Hakuoki which shortchanges a few characters).
Also, Code: Realize has probably one of the best otome heroines ever.
It's common for the heroine to be passive so her love interest can protect her and she can be the one he is fighting for. If she has some meager combat skills they generally won't be enough to do anything meaningful.
Cardia (who can be renamed at the cost her name being unvoiced in dialogue) starts out like a doll because of who and what she is, but most importantly, she grows over the course of the story. She has her own emotional arc besides supporting the guy she's with and her own turbulent history she's trying to get over, which puts her on even footing with the guys. Once she's trained to look after herself, she does a fair job of it, whether escaping from imprisonment or busting a few mooks.
One of the things I disliked about Chizuru in Hakuoki is that she had special powers of regeneration and was a full blooded demon, but she didn't do anything with her natural abilities. She should have had the potential to be an equal combatant to the swordsman she loved instead of sitting on the sidelines bawling about how helpless she is.
Cardia likewise has something unusual about her, but she's not afraid to use it. Her body is filled with a corrosive poison so strong that anything that touches her skin (save her specially treated clothing) melts away. It even eats through titanium. She has a note at the start of the game from her father telling her to never to leave the mansion she lives in and to not fall in love, because it will cause her suffering on account of being a monster. Her poison accumulates around her, so if she remains in one place too long it builds up, and she knows firsthand that anyone trapped in an enclosed space with her will eventually die from prolonged exposure.
Obviously Cardia does leave her mansion at the start of the game, and over the course of the story she falls in love, but the game never forgets that she's filled with a powerful poison. Aside from causing romantic complications, Cardia understands that she can use that ability as a tool, and there are multiple times where she takes her gloves off to burn through something. In one ending, she even uses it to attack the man harming her love interest.
Code: Realize does not get enough love for having this girl as the heroine.
As for the rest of the game, it takes place in an alternate 1853 steampunk London. Each of the five love interests is taken from either history or a 19th century novel and aged appropriate to the heroine, so the player can romance a twenty-something Arsène Lupin, Abraham Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein, Count Saint-Germain, or Impey Barbicane. I was at least passingly familiar with most of them, with the exception of Impey Barbicane, who I had to look up. (He's a Jules Verne character from From the Earth to the Moon.)
The game does an excellent job of introducing the five and how their disparate quests come together and bring Cardia in as well. Though the shared path between all of them is a weighty eight chapters long, it's a lot of fun as the group gets into a variety of hijinks and you can see how the guys play off each other. I consider it important that the rest of the group interacts and have lives outside of their relationship to Cardia. The airship race chapter in particular was fun, because it made the cast come together as a well-honed team.
Cardia's story does not always come to a conclusive end. In fact, there's only one route where all the cards are laid out on the table, but they all feel like endings, with the promise of a happily ever between Cardia and the man she loves, even if she might still be a poisonous maiden who can't touch anyone. The love interests who don't get a poison-free Cardia at the end mostly take this in stride, though those endings also make it clear that they'll keep looking for a cure.
Code: Realize is probably my favorite otome to date, not just because Cardia is an awesome protagonist with her own growth, but because the story is good about keeping everyone involved no matter whose route the player is on. This is vital to keep interest from flagging when the player needs to play each of the routes to get the whole story, and the personal goals of the different men get nods even if they aren't the focus of a given storyline.
In general, Code: Realize is also good about making elements from one timeline exist in another. While the player's choices should have an immediate effect on Cardia and her friends, they shouldn't change things beyond the scope of her personal influence, and most of the time the game respects this even while furnishing wildly difficult climaxes for each route. It's not perfect, but generally it's possible to understand why certain things only happen in one timeline and not another.
Unfortunately Code: Realize is only on Vita (which seems to be the console of choice for visual novel fans), but since more and more Vita games have been finding their way to Steam, I suppose it's possible this one might be ported someday.
A US localization of the Code: Realize fan disc has also been announced, which I think is the going to be the first of its kind released stateside, so I assume it has been doing fairly well in sales. Even though Hakuoki has had fan disc material released in English before, it was only in a much later edition that combined it with the original game.
In Japan it's common to for successful otome games to have a fan disc (not literally a disc anymore) that provides additional scenes set either during or after the main story. They're generally fluff that doesn't affect the main plot but allows the audience to spend additional time with their favorite character(s).
Judging from the opening movie to Code: Realize's fan disc and the wedding motif, this one's heavily focused on the happily ever after.
I've also heard that an anime version of Code: Realize has been announced, but a release date hasn't been set yet. I hope it makes it out of development and into production, because I think of all the otome games I've played this has the most compelling story and, more importantly for an anime series, the most compelling protagonist, so people will want to cheer her on instead of viewing her as dead weight for the rest of the cast.
Though otome is aimed at heterosexual women where they can choose a romantic partner for their protagonist, Code: Realize doesn't focus as strongly on the romance as other titles. The plot has plenty of action, tension, and humor that I think will let it appeal to a wider audience once the buttons the player is pushing are removed.
Next week I'll dive into the first of the routes I played and spoilers will begin!