Indie Review Visual Novel

Ballads at Midnight – Review | Dancing on Dark Mists

A NaNoRenO 2022 entry by Synstoria, Ballads at Midnight sings of a dark and romantic tale involving a sarcastic bard who was exiled to an abandoned castle and a bored vampire living in the said castle. Updated with its last ending and more voiced lines among other features, the full version of Ballads at Midnight was released as a free game for PC (Windows, macOS) on 15 July 2022. Besides, this otome Original English Language Visual Novel (OELVN) is also on Steam courtesy of publisher Abiding Bridge. In this 4 to 5-hour enchantingly woven fantasy fiction where unspeakable secrets and passionate love intertwine, what awaits you at the heart of the castle shrouded under the faint moonlight?


A Hundred Ballads to Freedom

Ballads at Midnight opens with the protagonist, a young traveling bard, being led by Illuvian guards towards an old castle beyond the forest. Punished according to Illuvia’s laws, she is to be sacrificed to the Crown’s pet vampire. But who would willingly submit to such a fate when they have the means to possibly escape? Certainly not the witty bard who narrowly secured a deal with the castle’s only occupant, an intimidating vampire who is terribly bored rather than famished: she will sing him a hundred songs, one song per night, in exchange for her release.

What strikes me the most as I play Ballads at Midnight is the elegance radiating from every corner. First is the user interface, which bears a serif font reminiscent of texts in classic books, an unobtrusive screen border laced with regal-like cursive swirls and patterns, and text and shape elements that saunter in gracefully on each sub-menu screen load. Next is the writing that flows smoothly to well-orchestrated tempos while conjuring memorable imagery through generous use of metaphors. Walking confidently within the area between mystical abstraction and detailed realism is the background art, where their gentle and fluid transitional and overlay animations present another layer of emotion such as tranquilness and ominousness. Poised atop these hauntingly beautiful backdrops are the dashing semi-realistic character sprites with clean lineart, harmonious color blendings, and velvety-looking clothes. Then, there are sound effects that politely hint at just enough darkness without outright terrifying you. Last but not least, the handful of background music tracks — an original soundtrack by Shar Joyner — makes use of various classical instruments, especially stringed instruments, to bring forth a rich suite of moods ranging from heavy and foreboding to light and hopeful.

Ballads at Midnight - Taste of Regret

Truly, Synstoria’s attention to their visual novel’s aesthetics is astonishing. There is very little that actually spoils the air of elegance Ballads at Midnight possesses. The writing, in particular, is highly refined. I did not manage to find a single typo, a confusing sentence, or a misplaced punctuation mark. In fact, I love how certain words are thoughtfully picked for the added implications they convey. Still, minor imperfections are present, such as the Save/Load screen missing an appropriate visual cue to kindly inform me which page I am on, and the coarse manner in which a lengthy text under the first choice menu is squashed smaller to fit its encasing text box.

A Hundred Banters to Romance

At first glance, the bard and the vampire make an unlikely couple. Abigail (name can be changed) the protagonist is a human who is not keen to die yet, and she cannot be sure Lucius the vampire will not harm her. But as she takes a closer look at the imposing man, putting aside her preconceptions about him and the vase she was about to throw at him, she soon realizes he is not who everyone else has made him out to be.

Ballads at Midnight - The Vampire

Such complexity in the characters is another noteworthy characteristic of this indie visual novel. Despite Ballads at Midnight’s short length, its two main characters are portrayed with much life and depth via meaningful dialogues, expressive character sprites, and impassioned partial voice acting. In Abigail’s case, her candidness shone through her dialogue choices, several of which made me do a spit take, and the way her character sprite squints her eyes and lifts the corners of her lips slightly puts her devilishness on display. Furthermore, Megan Youmans’ powerfully emotive performance of Abigail’s lines makes the bard’s initial fear and subsequent friendliness clearly discernible. As for Lucius, his considerate side is revealed when he apologizes sincerely for his past thoughtlessness, and he feels mysterious and even dangerous whenever his character sprite is concealed in darkness. Eric Navarro’s endearing portrayal of Lucius, whether with a calm tone or a restrained angry bite, also further reinforces the image of a kind vampire who wishes no one any harm.

Complementing the duo’s character development is their constant banters, where all kinds of sparks fly between them. Heated banter between enemies soon becomes friendly and evolves into heated banter between lovers. The pair’s romance escalates quickly, as expected for a short title as Ballads at Midnight, but it is not at all unsubstantiated. After all, more than anything, banter is where Abigail and Lucius start to learn and appreciate more about each other, thereby lending their relationship a solid foundation.

Ballads at Midnight - Choices

Just as things get plenty lively when the two are around, there are certain elements that make the game lively as well. One of them is the choice menus where Abigail’s character sprite is shown next to the choices. Apart from those in the last few choice menus where their significant impact on the story is clearly indicated, all choices provided are inconsequential but add fun flavor dialogue lines that spice up the scenes. What’s more, as you hover the cursor over a choice button, Abigail’s initially neutral facial expression will change to reflect the tone of that particular dialogue line. This subtle but effective tone indicator may be a small addition, but the liveliness it gives to the choice menus is unmissable.

Character sprite animations are the other element that makes Ballads at Midnight look lively. Although the sprites do not blink or move their mouths, they would run energetically across the screen, dip downwards as they sit, do an unimpressive horizontal flip to face the other way and to my amusement, wobble a little when they sneeze. Nevertheless, not every scene involves such actions and Abigail and Lucius would sometimes stand unmoving in the same place for a good stretch of their conversation. Thankfully, their facial expressions would continue to change even if their positions did not change.

Ballads at Midnight - Creature

A Hundred Barters to Immortality

A believable, non-wishy-washy heart-pounding romance is not the sole thing Ballads at Midnight has in store; the unfolding mysteries surrounding the castle’s lone resident would keep your curiosity awake until its hunger is fed. Hints are dropped throughout with deliberation to their timing and amount so they would become a nagging buzz at the back of your mind, keeping you interested. Moreover, they form a logical trail that leads nicely up to chapter 7’s final revelation scene — a total page-turner with tension high and taut like the strings on Abigail’s lute, tuned and primed for her grand closing ballad. Except for the abrupt resolution to Lucius’ link to a ring that seems to come out of nowhere, the pacing at which the rest of the mystery unfolds has been enjoyably thrilling.

Since the questions are accounted for nicely, the two possible Freedom endings occurring after the revelation scene turn out to be especially satisfying. Three other endings (Departure and Bliss) skip the revelations entirely, but even those are nice closures that feel complete on their own. All five endings are presented with a first-person narration on NVL-mode, covering the fates of both Abigail and Lucius in detail sufficient to not feel open-ended. While the Departure ending is bittersweet and most other endings are heartwarming and passionate, I particularly love the dark variant of the Bliss ending for its wonderfully sinister twist I didn’t see coming. It is a pity Ballads at Midnight has no CGs to accompany its significant story moments or act as memorabilia for the endings, though.

Content Rating and Accessibility Aspects

Ballads at Midnight is rated Teen. Its content warnings as provided by Synstoria are as follows: suggestive material, strong language, alcohol use, and allusions to trauma, child abuse, and fantasy violence. Visual-wise, there are some screen shake effects used.

Created using Ren’Py engine, this visual novel can be played with a keyboard and/or mouse. Under the game’s Text Settings, players may choose to play in fullscreen or windowed mode, change the text skip behavior to skip read or skip unread, select either default or OpenDyslexic font for the in-game text, and alter the text and auto speeds. Under Sound Settings, there are sliders for adjusting the voice, music, and sound volumes respectively, as well as a “mute all” button.

None of the choice menus in Ballads at Midnight are timed, and players may save their progress at any moment, including when on a choice menu. There is no auto-save feature but there are practically infinite manual save slots to use.

Regarding accessibility concerns, there are two bard songs heard in Ballads at Midnight, but the ending song has no subtitles for its sung lyrics. Additionally, some may find the name labels displayed with an ornate cursive font difficult to read.


Ballads at Midnight is a short and sweet vampire romance OELVN served elegantly with enigmatic darkness, amusing banter, and romantic kisses. Its tale is performed with utmost careful attention to detail from start till end, stringing you along with vividly descriptive writing, dreamy visuals, enchanting music, and moving voice acting. Despite the absence of CGs and the lack of full voice acting, Ballads at Midnight is a delightful little morsel to sink your teeth and time into.


Unscored as Ballads at Midnight is Free

Platforms: PC (Steam, Itch)

If you would like to see more Visual Novels, you may be interested in our review of Cupid Parasite. Want another indie OELVN? How about Reimei no Gakuen? Or how about checking out some of the other top visual novels for this year on our Top Visual Novels of 2021 list.

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