Monday, April 16, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 2: √Before

Welcome to Part 2 of my Root Double: Before Crime * After Days discussion. I'll be writing about √Before with the assumption that √After has already been played, and it really should be the player's second route even though chronologically it takes place earlier. I covered √After two weeks ago.

The ending of √Before spoils several of the unanswered mysteries in √After, and I think playing them in reverse would make √After significantly less interesting, since the mysteries contribute significantly to the story's tension. However, there doesn't seem to be anything in √After that has the same impact on √Before.

I didn't really know what to expect for this route, other than Natsuhiko and his friends Mashiro and Salyu would eventually end up on some kind of mission that would take them to the nuclear facility while on the verge of a crisis.

The idea of following the day to day life of a high school student over the course of a week just didn't feel that appealing on the heels of having my characters figure out how to survive hour by measly hour in a facility that is slowly filling up with radiation and has a killer on the loose.

Fortunately, the game chooses to handle this by starting in media res with Natsuhiko and friends already at the facility just as the first explosions start. When the normally security-locked doors open to facilitate evacuation, Natsuhiko and his friends, who are already in the lobby, dive into restricted territory and meet up with another of his childhood friends, Yuuri, who is mysteriously inside the facility when she's a shut-in who never leaves home.

From there each chapter of the story follows a particular structure. We relive a day of Natsuhiko's life in the week leading up to what we now know is a terrorist attack by a group that hates telepaths and the specially built city that shelters them. At the end of each day, Natsuhiko has a conversation with Yuuri (in the past), which gets really weird as she asks Natsuhiko about his friendships, tells him how he is no longer the person he was, and lets him know that his peaceful days are ending. After each Yuuri conversation, he jumps back to the present at the nuclear facility and tries to progress through the bombs and the fires to stop the nuclear meltdown that he expects will happen.

Whenever Natsuhiko hits a crisis, the cycle repeats, until eventually the past catches up with the present. Interestingly enough, the bad endings only happen in the present, and are generally the result of Natsuhiko not listening to Yuuri, which causes him to lose focus in the face of danger. While Natsuhiko ends up on death's door in every bad end, he always hears Yuuri ask why he didn't do something or why he had forgotten something, and a watch ticks as he's fading away. The implication is that every time he fails he goes back in time and relives where he went wrong so he can fix it.

While the tension is not a constant presence as in √After, the present day segments help remind the player that there is something urgent happening. Meanwhile, the idyllic days in the past flesh out the characters in ways the √After cast never gets to experience, making them as a whole, more rounded personalities.

I enjoyed √Before overall more than √After, despite the lesser amount of tension, though it's not going to be for everyone. If you like the first half of the anime Charlotte, involving people with powers going to school, you'll probably like √Before as well, as a good chunk of it is slice of life with Natsuhiko going to school with his friends. And there are definitely shenanigans that happen in a school intended for telepaths.

√Before also has moments where it gets incredibly info-dumpy, to the point that my eyes were glazing over at one particularly dense section, because the story really wants you to understand its pseudoscience. While it's arguably necessary to fully understand the inner workings of the plot, it's not terribly well presented. The explanations read like a textbook and are about as dry as one too.

The worst parts are probably the flashbacks within a flashback. We already have Natsuhiko in the present reliving his previous week, but on top of that we have Natsuhiko in the previous week remembering events from ten years ago and nine years ago; which are basically the formation of his friendships with Mashiro and Yuuri, as well as some terrible memory from nine years ago that prevents Yuuri from ever leaving the house she shares with Natsuhiko and his mother.

I didn't mind some of it, since Natsuhiko's previous trauma is critical to the story, but there's so much of it that it's distracting and while Natsuhiko's adult-voicing-a-child voice is not horrible, it grates after hearing for the umpteenth time.

All of this culminates in a tear-jerking moment when Natsuhiko in the present finds himself inside his mother's office, inside the now burning facility, looking for a keycard so he can escape. In that moment he finds a report on the incident from nine years ago, the day that he and Yuuri had snuck into the facility to find his mother and got caught up in an arson attack.

Thanks to those documents Natsuhiko remembers the truth of what happened back then, and that Yuuri actually died from smoke inhalation. The Yuuri who has been with him is a delusion, one that his mother and friends indulged him with because he would have painful PTSD episodes without it. Since he viewed the incident with Yuuri as his fault, he's pulled back from taking risks and kept people at arm's length because he didn't want a repeat of before. Now that he finally knows the truth, he has to face reality and say good-bye.

Writing this, it actually sounds cheesy, but the game plays fair. When Yuuri meets up with the three kids in the present day nuclear facility, she's not in the security camera shot in √After. Mashiro and Salyu do not see her when Natsuhiko brings her over to them (since Yuuri supposedly never leaves home, they have no reason to expect he will see her). Also, when they meet a couple rescue workers, Natsuhiko says he and his friends are a group of four. Yuuri is visibly standing with them, but the workers are confused about the number, because in actuality there are only three.

It's harder to tell in the past segments since Yuuri never leaves home. Salyu is a little unsociable so it's not surprising that she ignores Yuuri unless prompted, and Mashiro is a high level telepath who has been using her power to "hear" Yuuri in Natsuhiko's mind, so Mashiro has been able to fully mask that she's interacting with someone who isn't actually there.

Unlike Watase, who spends most of his route trying to figure out his memories (and never getting there), Natsuhiko actually has a personal character arc that transforms him from someone who doesn't want to get involved to risking his life to stop an act of terrorism. We get his backstory and he overcomes it.

The rest of √Before from that point on is a fun lead up to the opening of √After. We finally learn why we didn't see Mashiro in √After (because she got shot and Natsuhiko sent her up the cargo lift to escape), we know who destroyed the controls to the cargo lift (Natushiko, so the terrorists couldn't chase after her), and we see Natsuhiko get shot multiple times by Watase, giving him the injuries he has when he finally appears in √After. The game does not even bother to hide Watase behind a silhouette like it did with Natsuhiko.

Watase pre-memory loss has a major beef with telepaths, attributing the death of over a hundred people to them, including someone who is implied to be his sister. His hatred is so great that when Natsuhiko reads his mind he gets a litany of "kill, kill, kill" on repeat.

They face off in Area N, where Natsuhiko desperately tries to stop Watase from ever getting to Mashiro and as a result shatters his mind, setting up the start of √After. Thus we know why nobody was able to find the three kids; Natsuhiko was in the reactor room that was supposedly flooded with radiation, Mashiro was sent up the cargo lift, and Salyu is canny enough to stay hidden or run away.

On a brighter note, the weird ogling of the female cast is also less prevalent and Natsuhiko is significantly less sexist. He does worry about his companions, but at least it seems like a reasonable worry over a friend, especially since Salyu is only thirteen.

Unlike √After, I was pretty happy at the end of this route, though I still had a lot of questions, particularly involving Yuuri, who is also one of the civilians in √After. √Before ends on an ominous note with Yuuri "waking" even though she's supposed to be dead. And though Watase is confirmed to be a terrorist in √Before, we still don't know how much he knew before he went into the facility, including whether he'd known that it does not actually have a nuclear reactor.

Next week I'm going to cover √Current, which is going to be a short post. √Double is the real final route, but because it's so long I don't think I can comfortably cover that and √Current without getting too wordy.