Monday, April 2, 2018

VN Talk: Root Double: Before Crime * After Days - Part 1: √After

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

Platform: PC (also on PS Vita)
Release: 2016

I first heard about Root Double: Before Crime * After Days during its translation Kickstarter two years ago. It had an interesting premise. In 2030 a nuclear research facility experiences a meltdown under mysterious circumstances, and there are two POVs to be played through; one from the perspective of a firefighter after the incident begins, and the one from the perspective of a high school student before the incident. Naturally, the expectation is that the player will uncover the full story after playing through both.

It's the kind of narrative trickery I love in a game. Though the player can start with either the √After or √Before storyline, √After is featured as the default and is clearly the route more heavily showcased in promotional materials, so that's the route I played first as well as the one I'll talk about first.

√After opens with explosions in a near future nuclear facility and follows an elite firefighting rescue squad that dives into the basement levels to find survivors as the entire place goes on lockdown. You'd think that wouldn't be such a slow burn, but it is.

The opening minutes are all right, setting up protagonist Watase Kasasagi as the leader of his rescue squad and that he had privileged knowledge of the facility that the rest of his team did not. But once he runs into the "monster" (which from the silhouette is pretty obviously the √Before protagonist), he suffers from a splitting headache that seals off his memories and runs away in abject fear.

We're then left with memoryless Watase, and the mysteries are largely put on hold while two of his team members find him and learn to deal with his amnesia. It oddly feels like we're just following a crew of firefighters around on the job, because from their perspective, even though this is a high octane assignment, it's still a job they were trained for and not out of the realm of possibility.

I'd say the story takes about two hours to really get going and it's two and a half hours until the primary stakes are on the table, which is too bad, because I really needed the adrenaline kick a lot sooner.

What happens at those junctures, is that about two hours in we've formed our core group of six survivors and also discover that three high school students (the √Before route protagonist and his friends) have mysteriously managed to enter the facility and that they're also trapped within the lockdown. This gives us our full cast of nine.

At two and a half hours, Watase discovers that all routes to the surface have been cut off by bulkheads in preparation for a nuclear meltdown. Brief, interrupted radio contact with the rescue team on the surface lets them know that lockdown cannot be lifted for at least nine hours, but the facility is slowly filling up with radiation and the group doesn't have enough of the hourly medication to keep everyone alive for all nine hours.

These two events provide the impetus for the rest of the √After storyline: Find and rescue the kids while also securing an escape route before everyone dies of radiation poisoning.

The discovery of the bulkhead was the end of Chapter 1 out of 6, but it feels like everything up until this point really needed to be a prologue. That the game plays the opening movie at the end of the first chapter shows that the design team was aware that this is the real start of the story.

After this point, the game keeps up its sense of urgency in multiple ways. The six survivors (Watase, his two squad members, and three civilians) scour the facility looking for AD, the nanomachine anti-radiation medication that was stored on site as well as given to the rescue workers before they entered, and they're constantly trying to make progress to where the kids were last seen, which is deep in restricted territory that requires appropriate keycard access.

They're constantly set back by fires, blocked hallways and destroyed staircases from the explosions, and running on near empty reserves of AD. On top of that, they find five bodies; two of other researchers, the two remaining members of Watase's squad, and an unidentified girl. It's clear that all five were murdered, and at least three of them were killed by gunshot wounds.

Tensions run high at the thought of a killer being on the loose while they're trapped, and there are only nine people are known to be alive down here, which means that the murderer ought to be one of them.

Suspicions naturally turn to Watase and his "convenient" amnesia, and the fun thing is that they might not be wrong. He doesn't actually know what he was doing in the basement or why he abandoned his command post (he broke up his squad into two teams of two and sent them ahead while he remained behind to coordinate).

What memories come back to him don't entirely line up with the truth his lieutenant remembers and he himself feels that there is something off about one of them. Moreover, his squad members feel like he's become a different person since his lost his memory, as his previous self was a very private man, who didn't share details about his personal life, and the current Watase wears his heart on his sleeve. He begins to wonder just "who" the Watase that currently exists is, and if he could just be a puppet of the mysterious voice that periodically speaks in his head.

Watase's memory loss also allows the game to explain one of the near future "advances" which is the discovery of telepathy among children born in the past couple decades, and while most telepaths are senders, a smaller group of them can also read minds, which strikes a primal fear in Watase, though he doesn't know why. But he eventually realizes that if the missing high school kids can read minds, then it's entirely possible that the reason the rescuers have searched every block of this facility and not found the kids yet is because they don't want to be found. It could be that they know one of the adults is their enemy, or worse, that they are playing a sick game of their own.

Tensions finally come to a head when someone steals the group's supply of AD and Watase finds himself an excellent scapegoat with his professed amnesia. While on the run from the less mentally stable members of his group, Watase tries to end the lockdown by sacrificing himself to physically put out the fire around the nuclear reactor at the center of the facility, only to find there's nothing inside the nuclear block save for a strange machine and an unconscious high school boy who is slowly bleeding out from multiple gunshot wounds. That's when he's attacked by one of the other high school kids, who blames him for attacking the boy.

But we don't get a whole lot of answers past this point. We know the facility is not actually a nuclear one, since there is no reactor (but a different machine) in the center of Area N. That in turn means that the reason for the lockdown not being lifted is not because there is an uncontained fire inside the reactor. This calls into question whether or not there is any radiation to begin with, even though the rescue squad's equipment assures them it's there (and something makes them sick and pass out when they enter highly contaminated areas).

Eventually everyone except for the unconscious Natsuhiko (the √Before protagonist) turns against Watase and he has to lock himself inside Area N to avoid being killed. That's when Natsuhiko finally wakes and tells Watase to get up, because they have work to do, and it becomes obvious (if it wasn't before) that Natsuhiko is the one who has been telepathically speaking to him throughout the story. Unfortunately Watase is at his limit and passes out.

The rest of the story going forward is covered in the route unlocked after completion of both the √After and √Before routes.

The tension and the build up (once the plot gets going) is pretty good, but there's a lot that Root Double falls on its face for when it comes to the other stuff. Aside from the pacing, its characters aren't that memorable.

Watase, if not for the mystery of his previous actions, is largely a potato. You know he's a tough, manly guy because he uses "ore" to refer to himself in Japanese, but he doesn't have much to his personality other than "being a man." His manly attitude towards the women in the game is also patronizing, though it's usually framed out of concern for the women in his group. This extends even towards his surviving squad members, who are both women.

Any woman capable of joining an elite rescue squad is probably as tough as they come, but he still feels like this is work they wouldn't be doing if not for the tragicness of their pasts. It makes me want to punch him, especially when they're often more capable then him due to his memory loss. There are tons of early game overs Watase can get for ignoring their instructions, and yet the game eventually frames it like he knows what he's doing. (Basically, early game Watase following his instincts is dumb. Late game Watase is probably right, presumably because he's gotten some of his memory back.)

While this chauvinism is mostly just Watase (it's reduced on other routes), the way the camera is positioned in the √After CG stills is designed to show the viewer as much of the girls and women as possible while ignoring Watase, even if he's physically in contact with them. This makes it clear which demographic this game's aimed at.

Four of the six characters in Watase's group are female, but they spend a lot of time being helpless and comforted in various scenes by him. Even his squad members seem pretty happy to be taken care of by him, at least right before all hell breaks loose. The game seems content to ship him with every woman or teenage girl in his group, with each potentially getting a heart-to-heart scene with him (the teenager's heart-to-heart is thankfully platonic though).

I probably would care less if Watase himself actually showed up in the CG images so seems like he's participating, but the fact he doesn't make it pretty clear he's just meant to be an insert character for the male player who wants to see cute girls.

And that's too bad, because the opening movie otherwise sells this game as a sort of confrontation between Watase and Natsuhiko. It features a dramatic face-off between them with Watase is pointing a gun at the unarmed Natsuhiko. We know their meeting at the start of the game is what triggers his memory loss, and we know that Watase had ulterior motives to his rescue mission. Though he's not a terribly good shot, we also know that he has had some unarmed combat training that comes back to him in his confrontation with Natsuhiko's classmate, Salyu, and even Watase recognizes it as something he shouldn't have learned as a rescue worker.

Potentially Watase could be a compelling leading man, between his past and present identity crisis, and his deep-seated fear of telepathy that not even his memory loss can erase, but so much of it falls flat and he doesn't even get his memory back to resolve it.

I expected a bit more from √After, but the parts it did well were enough for me to want to continue, and fortunately the chauvinism gets dialed back in the next route. √Before is next!

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