Anime Review Visual Novel

Da Capo – Review

D.C. ~Da Capo~ is a 2002 eroge visual novel developed by Circus. This review is based on the 2009 MangaGamer English translation of Da Capo. So we’re dealing with a relatively old translation, one of MangaGamer’s earliest translations in fact, of an even older title. Some might balk at me describing a 2002 release as old, I feel a kind of dread saying it myself, but 21 years is quite some distance I reckon. Thankfully, Da Capo’s age is not an impediment, if anything it offers a kind of charm to the whole affair. Turn of the century charm can only go so far though, and we’ll have to talk about what that charm is layered over.

Da Capo - Nemu Walks to School

Story

Da Capo tells the story of Junichi Asakura, a boy living on the island of Hatsunejima who possesses some unusual abilities. When Junichi sleeps at night he doesn’t see his own dreams, instead he sees the dreams of others which range from mundane to incomprehensible. His other strange ability is simpler but as I see it much more useful, he can generate Japanese sweets from his hands at will. These abilities come and go in terms of plot relevance. Their introduction early in the narrative serves to give the player a heads-up that there is something mysterious and magical bubbling under the surface here, so you’re not blindsided when things get a little wacky down the line. However, you are still blindsided by the scale of wackiness.

Da Capo’s narrative is essentially split in half. The foundation here is the common route. Junichi goes about his daily life attending Kazami Academy, living with his (say it with me) not related by blood sister Nemu, dealing with the return of his energetic childhood friend Sakura, and interacting with a cast of characters best described as present. I don’t want to be overly harsh, but Da Capo’s common route is oppressively mundane. Nothing happens here. You are whisked through a series of character interactions with no tension and sparse charm, separated out by consequential but inscrutable choices that will decide which of the girl’s routes you’ll end up on. 

Now once you’re on a girl’s route it’s time to shift gears. It’s time for magic, romance, and drama. Da Capo begins to show its hand now and there is something interesting here. The magical elements of Hatsunejima start to assume a larger role and the tension that has been wholly absent for the first half finally begins to build. This is where Da Capo is at its best, and where it gives you little hints of what could be. Unfortunately what could be is just a dream, the lacklustre common route leaves the character routes with too much slack to pick up and the writing just isn’t up to the task.

Da Capo - Hatsunejima

Writing

A quick reminder that this is a review of the 2009 English translation of Da Capo. I can’t speak to the writing of the game in its original form. The script is messy. The plot is messy. The pacing is messy. Da Capo’s strengths are constantly undermined by these flaws. When the narrative tries to ramp up the tension and elicit some emotion it is undercut by a lack of build. My investment in the characters was never significant enough for the amateur dramatics to hit with any weight. When I reached the climax of a route, and Da Capo began to lean hard on its magical elements, everything just sort of flops. The narrative doesn’t jump the shark, it lethargically rolls over it.

I think the biggest problem here is in the dialogue. This strikes me as an issue of translation but I can’t be sure of course. Da Capo is full of non-sequiturs and unnatural conversation. Sentences frequently crash into each other, the flow collapses, and the idea that you’re viewing interactions between meaningfully human characters falls apart. There are times where I’d get lost in events, a few awkward lines would go by and it can get difficult to follow. This is particularly noticeable when you get into Da Capo’s mysterious elements, they’re obtuse to begin with and when you combine that with a bad script it’s just catastrophic.

The issue of stilted writing impacts the comedy of Da Capo badly at times. For the most part, the more comedic scenes pass by just fine, sometimes they’re even fun. But when the writing loses the thread and these comedic elements start to look more like empty padding it’s frustrating for the reader. Bits that don’t hit may as well just be white noise, and it’s a shame that Da Capo has these moments littered throughout on account of the subpar work on the script.

Da Capo - Mako

Mako

Mako is a good starting point for discussing how Da Capo handles its characters. Her route is noticeably shorter than the other girls, and her romance with Junichi is easily the weakest. Mako fits into a standard archetype. She’s tomboyish, has a contentious but friendly relationship with Junichi, and she is of course secretly in love with him but unable to genuinely express her affection. Once you’re on her route she becomes a little more interesting, she plays a more aggressive role in developing the relationship that would be great if it wasn’t squandered by Junichi’s writing.

Junichi’s attitude to Mako is poisonous to any kind of romantic storytelling. For the first half of the route he is written as completely apathetic, oblivious, and borderline cruel. Combining his sudden boorish attitude with the lack of chemistry and tension in the common route leaves little room for romantic development. For most of her route, I just felt bad for Mako. Junichi in every other route is fine, nothing special but he’s at least not written as a brick. In Mako’s route Junichi sucks, so when the two of them inevitably do develop a romance it feels contrived and hollow.

Mako’s route is a small-scale example of how Da Capo trips itself up in its storytelling. You spend some time in the common route, experience the tedium of Junichi’s daily life interspersed with character interactions ranging from painful to mediocre, then you get on a girl’s route and enjoy some decent development and every now and then some chemistry, and then the writing shits the bed and undermines any positive feelings it had managed to endear. Mako’s route is a little refreshing in that the aforementioned bed-shitting is in Junichi’s character writing and not the magical melodrama that appears in every other route.

Da Capo - Nemu

Nemu

On magical melodrama, let’s talk about Nemu’s route. This is Da Capo’s main route, and its worst. Nemu herself is one of Da Capo’s better characters, she has a large presence in the common route so you get a lot more time to understand and appreciate her personality. She also has the strongest established connection with Junichi, being his sister and living with him. Of course, the whole sister thing is a bit tricky and Da Capo flirts with the possibility of confronting that in a serious way, but ultimately only dabbles. Instead, the drama and conflict in Nemu’s route is derived from poorly explained and explored magic.

It’s difficult to talk about the problem with Nemu’s route without spoiling it entirely, but I will try my best. The core conflict of the route is that an unclear magical force is harming Nemu in some way, and the harm intensifies the more her and Junichi’s relationship develops. With a setup like this, there isn’t much room for the characters to develop. Their relationship isn’t threatened by interpersonal conflicts or communication issues that they can resolve, all they can really do is wallow in the tragedy of it. 

There’s something to be said for, well, leaving things unsaid, but Da Capo is practically mute. The magical elements of its narrative feel remarkably contrived, they don’t conform to a consistent set of rules and the effect they have on any given route is basically random. An inscrutable magic may be forgivable if it’s used to represent something or explore a central theme, but that isn’t the case here. For me, Nemu’s route just brought about a sense of exhaustion. I enjoyed her dynamic with Junichi, her flitting back and forth between chastising and fawning, but once the drama kicked in and things got all wispy and ethereal I lost any sense of investment or attachment.

Da Capo - Kotori

Kotori

I’ve been pretty down on Da Capo so far, so I want to talk about one of the brighter spots of the game. Kotori’s route is probably the best in the game, though not my personal favorite. We’ll get to that later. Kotori is the ever-popular school idol figure, bright and breezy, easy to get along with, and hiding the usual complexity behind her public persona. She becomes attached to Junichi as he treats her normally, interacting with her directly and not with the idol facade. It’s a dynamic I’ve seen before, but it’s done well enough and Kotori stands out so well from the rest of the cast that I found it easy to get invested.

Now the magical melodrama is present here too, but it’s handled significantly better than in Nemu’s route. Without spoiling anything, Kotori has her own magical ability much like Junichi but it’s much more difficult to deal with. Her ability isn’t revealed until towards the end of her route, but its presence is felt throughout and hinted at well enough. Rather than an inexplicable force driving her and Junichi apart, the magic of her route is a challenge for Kotori to overcome with Junichi’s help and that’s a much stronger basis for romantic storytelling.

I think Kotori’s route being significantly better put together than the rest could cause problems for those planning to go through every route. If Kotori is your first pick then you’re basically set on a downhill spiral of quality until you finish the remaining four routes and unlock the two extra girls. I happened to run through her route on my third playthrough which I think was ideal timing, at least for me. It refreshed my enthusiasm for the rest of Da Capo and let me see some of its strengths more clearly. Kotori’s route definitely helped save my interest in playing through the rest of the series, and perhaps even the Kotori-specific side game: Da Capo IF

Da Capo - Sakura

Sakura

Pulling the brakes on the praise a little bit now. Sakura’s route isn’t as woeful as Nemu’s, but it’s still not great. Sakura herself is interesting as a character. She fits into the energetic, overly-attached childhood friend archetype, but the writers play with this in some fun ways. Across the common route, and in some of the other girl’s routes, there’s a sinister air around Sakura. Beneath the happy-go-lucky exterior, there are questions about her motivations; her behavior sometimes feels much more deliberate and malicious than her demeanor would suggest. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into her route, and I was hoping to see this creepier side of her character explored.

Unfortunately, all the work the writers did to add some edges to her character amounted to very little. Sakura has some connection to the magic of Hatsunejima, but she isn’t some secret machiavelli. She does on occasion act with malice, but it is of course in service to her own wish to be with Junichi or to save him from some terrible magical fate, and it’s never directly confronted. There is a moment in Nemu’s route where Sakura makes a comment that triggers Nemu’s insecurities and anxieties around being in love with her brother, and then she plays it off as a misunderstanding with her goofy persona. It was a fantastic, unnerving moment and I wanted to see more of that explored in Sakura’s route. Alas, it was not to be.

Sakura’s route instead plays out much like Nemu’s. She and Junichi fall in love and get together, then some poorly-explained magic nonsense has to be overcome so they can achieve a happyish ending. Much of what makes Sakura’s character interesting falls away, though her endearing energy remains. There is also some truly uncomfortable father-daughter roleplay stuff in her route that reads to me as cheap fetish bait. It came across as disrespectful to the character and served to further weaken my investment, but I suppose some people might not take as much issue with it. It’s a shame, Sakura’s route could have been a real contender but the direction they took wastes the potential built with her character.

Da Capo - Moe with Xylophone

Moe

Now for the inverse, a route with stronger direction that is let down by poor character writing. Moe’s route is the last of the five key routes I went through and my feelings are mixed. Moe is an unfortunate victim of lackluster characterization. Her main trait is that she’s sleepy, meaning she is largely absent and difficult to understand in conversations. If you were generous you could say she has a kind of ephemeral air about her, I don’t know if I’m saying that though, I can’t decide. 

What’s interesting is that Moe’s sleepiness and lack of presence is actually justified in, and important to, her route. There’s a heartfelt story behind her personality that, whilst it isn’t unique, is nice and endearing. The problem I suppose is that it’s the magical element of this story that leads to her effectively living in her own separate reality. Moe’s story could have been told just as well, if not better, with no magic nonsense involved. If Moe had been allowed to develop as a character without the wispy airhead archetype weighing her down then I might have enjoyed her route a lot more.

Moe is also Mako’s sister by the way. I felt I should mention that but it doesn’t play much of a role in either character’s story beyond them being together in scenes often. Their routes are actually joined at first and then branch out into either girl depending on your choices. I think there was potential for better development for both that was missed by not having some more interaction or conflict between the two on their routes. Overall Moe’s route comes out as average, but I can see the vision behind it clearly enough that I feel a bit more positive towards it than the weaker routes.

Da Capo - Miharu

Miharu

Miharu’s route is my personal favorite in Da Capo. Her route is unfortunately locked until you complete the five routes I’ve covered so far, which means you have to get through some rough patches before you get the treat of Miharu. One blessing to make up for the time required to unlock it, Miharu’s route completely skips over the common route. You get onto her route through an event just a couple of days into the narrative, and from there you get right into the goofball comedy that is the Miharu route.

In the first five routes, you will see a lot of Miharu. She’s Nemu’s closest friend and is used in other routes mostly as a comic relief vehicle, but she does have a distinct and charming personality outside of that. Miharu falls somewhere between Sakura and Moe, being energetic, goofy, and dumb in a mostly endearing way. Her route is so strong because it leans into this character dynamic, it doesn’t take itself seriously at all from the outset. And when it does get serious it hits harder because you have enough time to get invested and the wacky stuff is established out of the gate.

Without spoiling the narrative, Miharu’s route starts by jumping the shark. Your expectations are set appropriately, you aren’t being lulled into a standard dating-sim route with unclear magic bubbling beneath the surface. From the outset, you are made aware this route is gonna get weird. There are still bumps present due to the stilted writing present across all of Da Capo. The climax of the route is still heavy on melodrama and if you’re not completely sold on Miharu as a character it could hit just as poorly as it did in Nemu’s route. For me, Miharu’s route showed me that there is a lot of talent behind Da Capo.

Route Wrap-Up

Whilst every route didn’t work out, I can see there is a strong creative team at work that could certainly put together something great with better direction. It seems based on the popularity of the series and the number of subsequent releases that said team did indeed get to that point of greatness. I’m interested to see how things change with the rest of the series. Da Capo’s narrative struggles, for the most part, arise from trying to do too much with too little.

The lack of chemistry and tension in the common route is a big hurdle to overcome for every route. A rough script with a heavy reliance on magic as a storytelling device is almost bound to fail in this circumstance. Still though on occasion the light shines through, there are some high points to enjoy in the form of Kotori and Miharu. And even when things go poorly you can see the good, like in Sakura and Moe’s routes.

There is a seventh route, but I’ve decided not to talk about it here. It is the second extra route you unlock after clearing the first five and it features a catgirl named Yoriko, so if that does anything for you then hey look forward to it. I decided not to discuss it further as Yoriko doesn’t feature at all in the narrative outside of her route; she’s very much a side character, and I don’t have much to say that I have not already said a few times over. I’m beginning to feel like I’m rambling and this is already quite a long review so best to knock it on the head here I reckon. It’s a perfectly fine route, about as middle of the road as it gets.

Visuals

Now that I am free to stop talking about Da Capo’s story and writing I can talk about a lot of the things I actually really liked about it. Isn’t that nice? Da Capo’s visuals are a delight. Certainly a product of their time and perhaps quite generic by modern standards, but looking at the game as a 2002 eroge I can only offer praise. Backgrounds have a consistent quality to them, and they’re packed with detail and love. There’s this really nice falling cherry blossom effect used in some areas that put a smile on my face whenever it would appear. I love the vibe of Hatsunejima Island, and that’s on account of the visuals combined with a lovely soundtrack we’ll talk about later.

With the character designs things go a little off the rails for me, but for the most part, I think they’re strong. Characters are drawn with a lot of dynamism in poses and they all have their little charm points. When Moe first appeared sleepwalking with xylophone in hand I thought hey maybe this game’s actually pretty great, even if the anatomy was a little off with a hand that could cover her entire face. The contrasting ribbons worn by Sakura and Nemu I thought were a fantastic little representation of the unspoken conflict between them. There are quite a few nice little touches like that where Da Capo’s visuals feel remarkably in-tune with the narrative.

On the more techy side of visuals, I have to talk about how well this game scales on modern hardware. I don’t know what arcane powers MangaGamer possessed in 2009, but somehow this visual novel that is locked to 800×600 resolution scales up perfectly on a 1440p monitor. I didn’t notice any loss in visual fidelity on sprites, CGs, or backgrounds. Text could be blurry in places, but the UI and menus held up perfectly too. And the UI is gorgeous, it is possessed of that early 2000s charm that you don’t see anymore. All the text boxes have a little pseudo-3d spinning cat in the bottom right in lieu of the typical arrow, which is adorable.

Music & VA

Da Capo is named for an Italian musical term that means “from the beginning” (thanks Wikipedia), which is nice but disappointing for those hoping for a Godfather nakige. Perhaps to justify its naming, Da Capo’s soundtrack is brilliant. Now I don’t know any of these fancy music words, I’d struggle to even explain what pitch means, but a word I do know is bangers and Da Capo has plenty of those. 

Da Capo excels at setting mood with music. Throughout the game you have slower-paced but bright tracks that ease the mundanity of the common route somewhat. You’ve got some great character themes that do a lot to add personality to your interactions with each girl, Sakura’s theme being a highlight with its relentless rhythm and energy that reflects the goofiness of your interactions with her. You’ve also got some tracks with vocals that kick in during those big dramatic moments, and they’re so good that they almost make up for the writing. At the very least the music does a lot more heavy lifting with emotion and tone than the writing does.

The voice work varies in quality across characters. For the most part, I’d say it’s average. Characters like Nemu and Moe are marked by pretty standard performances, it doesn’t feel as though there was enough direction given to add much personality to the voices in these cases. On the other hand, Sakura’s VA is stellar. It would be easy to ruin a character as energetic as Sakura with dispassionate voice work but thankfully Hokuto Minami nails the performance. The little English interjections sprinkled into Sakura’s dialogue are absolutely charming, it added a lot of enjoyment to the otherwise troubled route.

Oh it’s an Eroge

It really is easy to forget that Da Capo is an eroge title. There are sex scenes of course, and the occasional suggestive CG outside of those, but the bulk of your time with the game will be largely sexless. On some routes, the eroge elements are so light that I wonder if they were put in as an afterthought. Nemu’s route for example, the main route, has two sex scenes and they share a CG.

If you’re here for the naughty bits you should probably dip. Not only are the scenes few and far between, the CGs can be rough and the awkward writing/translation rears its ugly head. There was one CG in Moe’s route that was borderline body horror as far as anatomy goes. This might be a controversial take, but sometimes censored is better. Sometimes your imagination can do better than a dodgy uncensor job. If I saw some of these parts on real people, I’d be telling them to seek medical help immediately.

The writing in sex scenes drops the ball, at least in my view. A lot of the time it was more funny than erotic, the combination of messy CGs and an awkward script creating this dissonance in tone that could only ever really be taken as a joke. Moe’s route was the worst offender for me. Her character doesn’t lend itself to a believable sexual dynamic at all and when it wasn’t doing comedic body horror it just felt kind of creepy. She doesn’t have enough agency as a character for these scenes to read well.

Verdict

Assigning a final score to Da Capo is a bit of a challenge. The game is really strong in a lot of areas, particularly the music. It almost feels unfair that it’s let down by these significant failures in storytelling. As for who I would recommend it to, I’m not sure. I think if you’re interested in playing the rest of the series then Da Capo is good enough that it’s worth not skipping. If you’re in the market for a romantic drama though, and you’re not interested in the series more broadly, then there are so many better options.

I spent about 20 hours reading through Da Capo’s seven routes and I don’t regret my time with it at all. Of course, I have a lot of problems with the narrative, but I can’t say I came away feeling all that negative about the experience as a whole. I think if you sum it all up, the good and the bad, it comes out at about average. Your enjoyment will hinge a fair bit I think on your patience for melodrama and janky dialogue, but even if that does wear you down you’ve at least got some pretty pictures to look at whilst you listen to a top-tier OST.

WAIT FOR SALE ON DA CAPO

Platforms: PC
Purchase: MangaGamer

If you are looking for another visual novel, you may enjoy Otome Domain or Sugar Sweet Temptation. We have also covered a wide variety of visual novels both original to English and localized from Japanese, which you can check out here.

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