Monday, September 4, 2017

Otome Has Grown in the US

When I was a kid, things that were considered girl games were more like Strawberry Shortcake. Take a popular girl toy property, slap it on a video game, and that made it a game for girls.

When I think of the female-oriented games I play now, I usually think of otome visual novels, which have surprisingly caught on in the US. When Hakuoki first landed a few years ago I picked it up as a novelty, not realizing that it was the opening of a floodgate. Sweet Fuse landed shortly after from the same US publisher, Aksys, and though it was fun, most of the character designs weren't very appealing and some of the age differences between the teenage protagonist and her potential adult love interests were pretty skeevy.

I thought Sweet Fuse was likely a miscalculation and dampened unethusiasm for anything that wasn't more Hakuoki, seeing that Aksys ended up releasing the latter over and over again on just about every platform available (and is still re-releasing more Hakuoki with new, bonus content).

But then more stuff landed. Otomate released Amnesia on Steam via its own international branch and the indie scene developed. Re:Alistair, Seduce Me, and The Blind Griffin are all free or name your price English-language originals that serve as introductions to the developers' commercial works, but even at the price of free, they're all good, though much shorter than the average Otomate title. (I particularly like The Blind Griffin for letting me play a Chinese protag in Roaring 20's San Francisco.) And they're just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick scan through Steam will uncover dozens more, mostly indie, though there are a few from more established publishers, particularly from Japan, Korea, and China, and though I'm not a mobile gamer it seems like iOS and Android has tons of them, of which Mystic Messenger is probably the most prominent. The Vita is still the flagship for most of the non-mobile otome produced by Japan.

Otome is common enough now that we have Hatoful Boyfriend (in which the player romances pigeons) which wouldn't work as a parody of the genre without some level of genre knowledge to begin with. I mean sure, it can be passed off as a dating sim just to get the point across that the goal is romance, but what the player is doing isn't really dating. Usually an otome is like playing through a choose your own adventure romance novel with fewer choices and more novel. (And lots of lovely pictures!)

Now there are more coming out than I can reasonably expect to play, even if I limit it just to Otomate translations (which is admittedly my favorite publisher, because they usually have a very engaging story beyond the romance and they don't use stat-raising mechanics). I'm currently sitting with Norn9: Var Commons in my backlog. I bought it last year because Aksys had a sale at Anime Expo and I probably won't get around to it this year either.

I'm mildly curious about Period: Cube, but I don't have time to add it right now, and supposedly Bad Apple Wars is coming later this fall. Aksys has already announced three more otome titles for next year, and Otomate, which makes the bulk of otome that Aksys localizes, just announced eight new titles at their Otomate Party event this past weekend, not counting fandiscs and new installments of existing series.

It's a way to look at what we might see down the line in 2019, and I figure Aksys will pick up the cream of the crop.

I have no idea how the writing's going to be, because that's what really decides whether it's a good game, but my personal hope is that Variable Barricade makes the cut.


Otome heroines are often sweet, compassionate characters without rough edges for the guys to fall in love with. At most she might be "spunky" but never too assertive. Variable Barricade's protagonist looks like she's ready to kick the asses of all her over the top suitors. While I'm sure romance works out in the end, having a combative protagonist could be a lot of fun.

At this point I think otome is here to stay. Even if all the Asian publishers pulled out, the indie scene is strong enough to keep going, and it's better to have too much fluffy romance gaming than not enough!