Monday, October 22, 2018

VN Talk: 7'scarlet - Part 1: Overview


In which I talk (write) about visual novels from a storytelling perspective...

Platform: PS Vita
Release: 2018

7'scarlet is an otome in which the female protagonist enters a possible romance with multiple characters, but is a little different from the standard in that playing through all the routes is a somewhat linear process. All but two of the routes are blocked off at the beginning, and the rest gradually unlock as more routes are completed. This allows the story can be told a particular way and reserves the characters who know the most about what is truly happening for later playthroughs.

I've complained about route locks in Code:Realize and Collar x Malice, but that's mostly because the routes do nothing to warrant them being locked aside from building a grand finale that can wrap up everybody's storyline in a single route. I didn't mind the locks in Hakuoki and Sweet Fuse because the locked routes took the protagonist off the beaten path and featured the perspective of characters who are villains and/or knew too much so it made sense to close them off to first-timers.

7'scarlet is closer to the latter, but done in incremental steps as we start with two routes, then a third unlocks, then a fourth, fifth, and so on.

Since I am writing this within a year of the game's English release, I figure there are people who may still be adverse to spoilers, so be aware that I will be spoiling all routes, including the overall storyline. If you're worried about spoilers, you should stop reading now.

7'scarlet follows Ichiko Hanamaki, a college student on summer break, as she heads for the small town of Okunezato to look into the disappearance of her older brother.

She goes along with her childhood friend, Hino, who is part of the Okunezato Supernatural Club, a group of online enthusiasts who are curious about the town's various mysteries (of which mysterious disappearances is one). The club is holding their first offline meeting in person in the town of their curiosity, but after Ichiko and Hino arrive, it quickly becomes apparent that there are more mysteries than the disappearance of her brother.

Though this is an otome game, the story is only partially about Ichiko, her search for her brother, or finding romance. It's also a story about a town, its turbulent history, and breaking free of the past it's been shackled with. The town may as well be a character, which is an unusual tact for a game.

The early mysteries are fairly mundane: the club admin who arranged their stay doesn't show up (though kindly enough he did prepay the bill for their get-together dinner), for some reason the hotel owner fired all but three employees a month ago (which leaves the staff incredibly short-handed even though this is a small hotel), and somebody seems to be watching Ichiko.

7'scarlet dances in between being a summer mystery to be solved among friends and a much darker thriller with a supernatural tease. You don't quite know (at first) whether the town's local legends are true or not, and the local portion of the cast is dismissive of their ancestral stories.

It makes for an interesting balance, because as you're playing, you aren't quite sure if there is anything supernatural at all, or this is just the work of a serial killer sheltered by a town that dislikes outsiders butting into their secrets. Sure there's a legend about people coming back to life as revenants who must kill others to obtain the life force that keeps their otherwise hollow bodies going, but we're not really going to see the undead in this game. Are we?

With each route, more of the truth is uncovered about Ichiko's history with the town of Okunezato, the legend of the revenants, and how she has forgotten what happened in there in years past. Though it's not amnesia, she has a problem with her long term memory, where even memories of elementary school are distant and vague to her. She knows that she and Hino have been friends for years, but she doesn't actually know that much about him.

The mysteries are what make 7'scarlet fun and more than just another otome. I wanted to figure out who the killer was before the game revealed it, and I enjoyed trying to solve mysteries before the characters themselves made the connections (and sometimes I did).

In fact the game makes good use of the fact the cast consists of modern day characters who make pop culture observations about their situation; like being in a rural town with a bunch of supernatural loving strangers is just asking for the weather to go bad and trap them in the hotel. When they find the town mascot wandering around in costume at night, Hino remarks on how creepy it would be if it turns around and there's blood all over its face. That doesn't happen (the blood part), but he thinks about it, which is perfectly in character and a fun addition to the script.

But 7'scarlet doesn't quite come together because Ichiko's goal of discovering the fate of her brother and doesn't mesh with whatever romance she finds. Her brother's been gone for a year and is considered dead, so it's understandable that she no longer feels a sense of urgency and can entertain the thought of falling in love, but every ending other than her brother's route results in her not finding him. Usually, if she gets anything at all, it's just one of his possessions along with the assumption that he was killed. It's not possible to have a well thought out romance and have Ichiko accomplish her goal of reuniting with her brother.

The two are mutually exclusive, and given the way they wrote her brother, Hanate, I'm not sure that he ever would have consented to going home with her. After playing Hanate's route, it's pretty clear that no matter which path the player takes, Hanate is both in town and aware that Ichiko has come looking for him. The fact he doesn't show himself on any route other than his own can only be construed as he doesn't want to. There is no golden route here where everyone leaves happy. In fact, Hanate's route ensures that that Toa's true ending will never happen.

In a way, I don't mind that too much, as I prefer games where one route is not so clearly the canon route. 7'scarlet actually does a really good job with this. If you look at the box art all the of the guys (save Hanate, who is held back as a surprise) are given equal prominence and in the opening videos everyone's presented in playthrough order with only a slight edge to Hino who gets to appear by himself in one of the shots when the other love interests are paired off. And that makes sense since he starts the game with Ichiko, and he's the one who convinces her to come to Okunezato.

Also worth noting, because Hino is a prominent character, the story doesn't write the player into a corner regarding Ichiko's feelings for him. She's simply blind to his crushing on her, making it feel a bit odd on some routes that she would not spend a certain amount of time with him, since they're still friends. His presence, or occasional lack thereof, is handled really well in Isora's route without making it seem like she ditched him. (I mean, who goes on vacation with a friend and then ditches said friend?) But other times it comes across as incredibly awkward, like how he's barely in Toa's and even leaves town without her.

I thought all the routes save the hidden one at the end were fairly solid, and I particularly enjoyed Hino, Sosuke, and Yuzuki's, though my appreciation for Hino's was greatly amplified by the final route.

Taken on its own it's still good, but there's a lot of additional context and a layer of tragedy to Hino's once you know the whole story. Usually I have a clear favorite route, and only feel like replaying one of them after I finish the game, but to be honest, I'd be happy replaying the majority here.

As with my previous VN Talk entries, I'll go through the routes one week at a time, in the order that I played them. Hino's route will be going up next week!