Criminal Border 1st Offence (Liminal Border Part I on Steam) is the first in a series of four episodic visual novels developed by Purple Software, with the English translation being handled by Shiravune. 1st Offence is the opening act of a crime drama that sees a young man pulled into the underbelly of Japanese society after he accidentally creates a “digital drug” that has the potential to make a great deal of money. Criminal Border is an eroge, and the narrative explores themes that some may find uncomfortable. This review will cover those elements of the game so please only read on if you’re okay with that.
The Bitter Beginning
Criminal Border opens by introducing us to the protagonist, Ninomae Itsuki. Itsuki is a fairly typical bitter loner, with some significantly flawed personal perspectives on other people, especially women. For some of you that description might be enough to scare you off, we’ve seen this type of protagonist before and they can be truly unbearable. I’m happy to report though, that Itsuki bucks that trend. More on that later.
Itsuki’s life is defined by a strong sense of isolation, and whilst his attitude doesn’t help it’s not entirely his own fault. Itsuki’s perspective is justified in some sense by those around him. His parents are distant, his father is always working and his mother is obsessed with maintaining an upper-class facade and takes little interest in her son’s life. Itsuki doesn’t have friends in or out of school. His childhood friend, Rin, lives next door to him but their relationship has soured, with both finding fault in the rough edges of the other’s personalities.
Itsuki does have a hobby, although he’s not doing too well with it. He cuts together compilations with clips of various anime and uploads them online. I’m not all that familiar with this genre of video, but as I understand it it’s something in the same vein as AMVs. Itsuki’s computer is old and busted, meaning the rendering process for these videos is messy, often leading to barely watchable nonsense. His newest work, he believes, will be his greatest yet, having accounted for all the problems that arise in the rendering process. Things don’t go to plan though, and this is how he ends up creating the “digital drug” that’s going to turn his life upside down.
Despite his best efforts Itsuki’s newest creation comes out a disappointment once again, but with one quirk. When he watches the video Itsuki is overcome with lust and can’t hold back from dealing with said lust. By coincidence Itsuki has created a powerful aphrodisiac in video form. Shocked by this development, Itsuki seeks to learn more about the video’s effects. He decides to test it on Rin, with the intent to assault her whilst she is in a trance.
Rough start for a protagonist really. Difficult to get behind someone who makes that decision. He doesn’t go through with it thankfully, stopping himself in the moment and feeling at least some guilt that he’d considered it at all. I actually thought this was a pretty smart way for Criminal Border to give some depth to Itsuki’s character. He’s bitter, creepy, and pathetic, but he does have a line and it’s clear that he doesn’t want to be this way. It establishes Itsuki as a character in a dreadfully low place, but still with the potential to climb out of it.
This series of events of course then introduces us to Rin. She’s understandably upset and angered by Itsuki’s actions, and makes that clear to him with a well-deserved dressing down (and some justifiable violence). Rin’s focus shifts quickly though, to the money-making potential of the video Itsuki has created. Rin has a fixation on money, and she’s more than willing to exploit this “digital drug” to make bank, but Itsuki isn’t so sure. The two go back and forth for some time, until Ituski ultimately agrees to join in on her business proposal. Thus begins our descent into the criminal underworld.
Friends In Low Places
I’m going to avoid discussing plot points in too much detail from here on out. Criminal Border 1st Offence is a linear title, and as it’s one episode in a four-part series it’s on the shorter end of visual novels, clocking in at around 6 hours. Considering that, I want to leave as much of the plot unspoiled as possible. Of course I do have to say that the opening and premise leads into a deeper narrative where a cast of characters get increasingly wrapped up in organized crime, but that’s to be expected. There wouldn’t be a story to tell otherwise.
What stands out to me the most in Criminal Border’s narrative are the characters Itsuki meets and becomes closer to in the criminal underworld. Criminal Border’s central characters are all, in some way or another, trapped in a cycle of criminal activity by circumstance. Itsuki meets people who are fundamentally good, but who engage in morally gray (occasionally outright wrong) behavior. That disconnect forms the emotional core of the narrative, as you become increasingly attached to people who are pressed further and further into abject criminality.
Throughout the story you’ll be introduced to the four heroines who will form the main cast of Criminal Border going forward, but this first episode is focused almost entirely on Itsuki’s classmate Hina. At first Hina comes across as a fairly straightforward, laidback gal character, but as the narrative progresses you learn more about her background and the experiences that define her approach to other people. Hina was a great choice as a central character for Criminal Border’s introductory episode. She’s a bright, positive person, who is doing her best whilst trapped in a tragic situation.
The three remaining heroines get less development in this first episode, but it does a good job introducing you to them on a surface level, which is all that’s needed at this point in the narrative. Rin gets the most development of the three, being central to the plot from the get go. She’s a ruthless pragmatist who is driven primarily by money, or at least that’s what we see. There is more to Rin’s character, but it remains a mystery for now. We get some hints at her real motivations but no concrete answers.
Kotoko and Meryl round out Criminal Border’s cast of heroines. Kotoko is the daughter of a Yakuza patriarch, who has some fun quirks behind the intimidating aura granted by her proximity to such a dangerous figure. Meryl is Kotoko’s bodyguard, and we don’t get much insight into her character at all in this episode. She’s tough as nails and deeply loyal to Kotoko, but beyond that we know very little.
The lack of focus on these three heroines could be a downside, but Criminal Border manages to execute this well. It’s not that these characters are dull or indistinct, the script teases further depth and they do play an important role in the story even in their minimal screen time. Their status as secondary characters for this episode also has the benefit of allowing the writers to spend a lot of time developing Hina and her relationship with Itsuki, which is an indispensable part of what makes the narrative engaging. It also creates a sense of uncertainty around the three characters. You can’t trust them at this point, and that is perfect for the sense of anxiety and bubbling danger that underpins the story.
Best Boy Tatsu
Beyond the heroines, Criminal Border has a cast of well developed supporting characters who do a great job at adding depth to the narrative. Outside of the characters who are best described as victims of circumstance, you have associated reprobates who establish the danger and moral decay of the criminal underworld. It’s interesting to see characters with solid moral foundations interacting with these more corrupt individuals on an equal footing on account of the business they’re trapped in.
I think Tatsu, Hina’s brother and the leader of a small-time gang, is the best example of this. Tatsu is a good guy doing some bad shit. A sort of kind-hearted arsehole. I thoroughly enjoyed every scene Tatsu featured in. His interactions with Itsuki were funny, and also essential to Itsuki’s development. In one scene Tatsu gives him a brutally honest assessment of his character and ability, which leads to Itsuki trying to overcome his wimpish nature to meet the demands of his new environment.
Tatsu’s relationship with his sister was delightful too. A more grounded sibling relationship than those we tend to see in visual novels, the two bicker incessantly whilst doing their best to care for one another. It’s these interactions and relationships that make Tatsu’s position as the leader of DREAD, a gang under the thumb of the Yakuza, feel so tragic. There is no reason that Tatsu should be in such a position, it’s only by way of terrible luck that he’s found himself stuck there. I don’t want to hammer on the point too much, but the commitment to this theme is a core strength of Criminal Border’s narrative. Organized crime is a trap for all but those at the very top, and if you dip even one foot in you’re going to get dragged under.
Trust On A Tightrope
Once you’re stuck in an unforgiving criminal enterprise, who can you trust? No one. And Criminal Border plays with that brilliantly. As the story progresses you become attached to characters who are in desperate situations, and that desperation forms a swirling pool of anxiety. It’s never really clear who you can trust, who is operating honestly, and who is holding things back.
I touched on this earlier, but Rin is the best example of this. You’re given just enough depth to begin caring about Rin and wondering what might have led her to become involved in such shady business, but Criminal Border holds back enough detail and leaves Rin separate enough from the progression of events that you can’t be sure she isn’t a much more sinister person than you first thought. What does she know that we don’t? What might she do if things turn against her? Criminal Border lets that anxiety sit with you, it doesn’t rush to clear things up and I think that’s a great decision.
There’s an interesting interplay with Itsuki’s character development here. Throughout the story Itsuki grows to trust others, to form meaningful relationships, and develop genuine care and concern for his new friends. And all that growth is happening in the worst possible environment. If Itsuki wants to protect his newfound friends he’s going to have to dive deeper into danger, and bring about change through force. It’s an exciting setup, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Criminal Border delivers on it in future episodes.
Before I wrap up talking about Criminal Border’s narrative I want to mention its rather delightful use of dramatic irony. I think it would be fair to describe the first episode as the “naivety arc”, wherein our protagonist and his friends are unknowingly swimming into a riptide. I think the alternative title, Liminal Border Part I, is actually quite clever in this regard. There is a lot of discussion around “technical legality” and gray areas, with characters trying to justify their actions and positions, and obfuscate the severity of the situation they’re in.
Itsuki in particular falls victim to this idea of being halfway into criminality. Both Itsuki and the people around him discuss the idea of him “getting out” whilst he can, believing he’s not trapped in the same way others are. That’s an illusion though, the power structures involved in the narrative are inescapable. The reality is that even surface level engagement with an organization like the Yakuza is incredibly dangerous and difficult to move away from.
As the story progresses and the stakes expand, that liminal space between criminal and civilian disappears. And in the aftermath it’s obvious how insignificant that space was. This, combined with the undercurrent of anxiety and distrust I’ve mentioned previously, makes for fertile ground for a compelling, character-driven narrative. So far Criminal Border is doing everything right to build that.
I Want It All
This is, unfortunately, only the first part of Criminal Border’s story. It’s the downside of episodic releases that, when they’re engaging, you’re left somewhat frustrated when each episode ends. It’s a compliment really that I was disappointed to see the credits roll. Criminal Border builds to a high point of tension, and it’s the perfect jumping off point for the next episode. But, and this is petulant on my part, I want it now.
That said, I was satisfied by my time with Criminal Border. It doesn’t cynically hold back to incentivize you picking up the next episode. You get a nice, tight arc that builds up enough intrigue to leave you wanting more without blue-balling you. There is an unavoidable concern with regard to episodic releases, that further installments might not live up to expectations, but that’s just endemic to the model. For what it’s worth, the talent and effort displayed in Criminal Border 1st Offence does go some way to assure me that future releases will be worth investing in.
Away now with narrative, let’s talk about visuals. Criminal Border has an atypical art style for visual novels, though not dramatically so. Characters are drawn with a more rounded, grounded look, with softer features and colors. I found that the art style fit well with the tone of the narrative. A more exaggerated direction would have felt off-key here. Character designs are interesting, well thought out, and visually distinct, but they remain contextually realistic. These characters look and feel like normal people, whilst still showcasing a lot of personality.
The art style also allows for some wonderful work on expressions that helps make dialogue more engaging, and gives the characters a lot of life. Whilst I’m talking about character art, I want to shout out Rin’s incredible t-shirt featuring a range of slang for money surrounding a “pay-up” hand gesture. A bit on the nose to be sure, but it had me grinning.
I was impressed by the background art in Criminal Border too. Whilst the art itself is fairly standard, elements of the design are interesting and complement some of the narrative themes well. The background work for Itsuki’s home portray a fairly wealthy family, which helps to add to the idea of his naivety as he moves into the underbelly of society. The contrast in design for Itsuki’s school, which appears sleek and modern, with Tatsu’s school that is something of a tip, was another nice way to play on that idea.
Sound Of The Underground
Criminal Border features full Japanese voice acting, with the usual exception of the protagonist. It’s a shame actually, I think a voiced protagonist would have worked well here. Thankfully the VA cast we do have is great. Whilst there are a few issues with some character performances coming across rather flat – Kotoko specifically felt like she was missing some direction – the key characters are voiced really well. Hina’s VA in particular does an outstanding job, conveying an impressive emotional range and capturing the full spectrum of the character flawlessly.
As far as music is concerned Criminal Border does an alright job. You’ve got some groovy tracks that are well put together and fun, but they don’t always fit the tone perfectly. More laidback scenes in particular don’t get great musical matches here. The tradeoff there though is that more tense scenes are backed by some great sounds. I will say the music was never off-putting, as much as it could be slightly out of place it was solid for the most part and the issues present didn’t significantly impact the experience.
The Digital Drug
As an eroge, Criminal Border performs admirably. There are five h-scenes included in this first episode, and they’re all of fairly high quality. Each scene uses a fair amount of different CGs, and they’re fully, and loudly, voiced. CGs do remain mosaic censored in this release, though I don’t personally mind that, it may be off-putting for some. The integration of sex into the narrative is appropriately done and feels contextually appropriate for the characters involved. The content here is mostly vanilla, with some elements of drug use (the digital drug only though, nothing too shady).
It’s worth noting that if you’re playing the Steam release, Liminal Border Part I, then you will need to apply the R18 patch to see any adult content. I’d say the patch is pretty essential for Criminal Border as sex is an inseparable part of the narrative. Also the scenes are high quality and don’t contain anything off-putting so there’s not much to be gained by not patching it.
Criminal Border runs at a native 1080p, but scales well up to 1440p with only minor roughness around the edges on some sprites. The game comes complete with the usual gallery for CGs, scenes, music, and movies. There is also a nice little extra included, that being a sprite poser that allows you to browse various character sprites and put together little scenes with them. Always a nice bit of fun.
Criminal Border 1st Offence (Liminal Border Part I) is a great introduction for the episodic series. I thoroughly enjoyed the 6 hours I spent with it. The narrative built to a strong conclusion that left me excited to pick up the next episode when it releases. I love the direction Purple Software took with the art style, giving the title a unique visual identity that fits well with its mature narrative. I’m looking forward to seeing more of Criminal Border and I hope it can deliver on the potential shown in this first episode.
CRIMINAL BORDER 1ST OFFENCE IS RECOMMENDED
Thank you to Shiravune for providing a Steam review code for Criminal Border 1st Offence (Liminal Border Part I).
Support High-Quality And Detailed Coverage
Want to support the cost of us bringing you these articles or just buy us a coffee for a job well done? Click the Ko-fi button below. You can even find some digital goodies in our shop~!
A man described by critics as “pretty normal” and “memorable in the abstract”. He has committed his life to the consumption of anime and games, against the advice and wishes of his family and friends. Now writing about his passions, hopefully for your enjoyment.