Another High School Slice of Life?
Released on 30 Oct 2019, Dark Nights is a free indie otome Visual Novel by Pinlin available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. With mystery, fantasy, and horror as its main genres, this romance game is aimed at audiences aged 16 and above as it contains content that involves violence, mild blood, death, partial nudity, and suggestive themes.
You play as Miyoko (name changeable), a high school student who is bored of her mundane life in the small village she grew up in. As if answering to her wish for more excitement, strange disappearances start to occur within the otherwise peaceful village. Curious and concerned about this new turn of events, the protagonist dives deeper into the center of it all and meets four mysterious males along the way. Miyoko’s fate, be it finding the truth or finding herself as the next target, lies in your hands.
Featuring four male love interests, the game lets players choose their preferred character route directly from the end of the prologue. There are four attainable endings per route, all of which can be obtained via choices made throughout the game. Each love interest’s route, which has its own storyline, spans four chapters and contains at least 12 unique CGs. In addition, there are 29 achievements and some bonus material that can be unlocked upon completion of the game.
In this spoiler-free review, let’s see how Dark Nights (latest version 0.1 [Nov 01, 2019]) fares as a mystery horror otome VN.
Character Sprites, Background (BG) Art, and CGs
Character sprites, other than the protagonist who sadly does not have one, are drawn in 2D anime style and come in a sufficient variety of facial expressions and poses to fit the narrative. However, I feel there is not enough clothing variation; some characters seem to only ever own a set of school uniforms and nothing else, which makes running into them during non-school days a rather awkward encounter. And while I am not bothered by the static sprites having no animations for their eyes or mouths, I am quite bothered by the over-trimmed sprites that sometimes unwittingly reveal themselves to be missing their bottom halves. I know this VN has horror elements but seeing the supposedly normal characters suddenly afloat without legs is certainly not the kind of horror I was expecting.
Character design is generally all right and leans toward modern fashion, though there are a few outfits that do not quite fit the setting they appear in. I like how certain items on the characters are accounted for in the story, even if briefly. This gives a meaningful depth to those accessories instead of passing them as mere fashionable trinkets only for show.
The background art is decent especially with the added day and night variants for most locations. Night variants, however, generally look like they have a negative filter applied to them and it took me some time to get used to them. Even though there are plenty of backgrounds drawn, a handful of them have recycled interior designs and the same background is sometimes used for at least two different locations. Due to the recycled interior designs used with few major changes made to the furnishings, several places end up having no particular personality of their own.
A recurring problem with both the background art and character sprites is that I found is how they often do not reflect the scene depicted in writing. I have come across instances such as the day variant of a room being shown when it is evening and the character’s eyes were kept stubbornly open even when the writing states that they are closed.
If it is not already obvious from the key art on the Main Menu and sneak peeks in its opening video, CGs are the best part of the visual aspect in Dark Nights. Two types of CGs can be found in this VN: fully illustrated pieces that can be viewed under the Gallery once unlocked, as well as sketchy cutscenes that are only seen in-game. They are simply breathtakingly beautiful and do a great job of capturing key moments of the story.
User Interface (UI) Design
Looking at the bigger picture, the custom UI design implemented is generally neat and easy to navigate with. From the Main Menu where the beautiful key art can be seen, players can easily access the Save/ Load, Settings, Gallery, and Credits screens. I personally like the designs applied for the Gallery screen and its sub-menus. While the entire menu system has pleasing visual layouts, I do find it lacking appropriate sound effects (SFX) as audio cues to accompany the basic cursor actions.
The in-game user interface is pretty clear-cut too, with the quick menu buttons lined up nicely and conspicuously along the right edge of the screen. Apart from the standard buttons, there is an additional “Skip to next choice” button (available on read scenes) that I really appreciate and love as it significantly speeds up replays. The font size used is good for a comfortable read although one can always adjust it with Ren’Py’s built-in accessibility menu. Nevertheless, in this unvoiced VN, a classic issue exists: all of the name labels within the text box are the same color and in the same position. It can be difficult to register who the current speaker is immediately. I have had to re-read a few dialogues in the game simply because I did not notice the speaker had changed.
Despite the charming visuals, the novel part in this visual novel is unfortunately not as lovely. I would go so far as to call it a nightmarish read.
Characters, Routes, and Choices
To my relief, the protagonist in Dark Nights is neither the helpless pushover nor the romantically clueless person. She knows self-defense, has leadership skills, and is smart. But by the divine powers of the Plot God, male characters still have an (odd) interest in her by default.
She hangs out with two best friends, both of whom have some interesting family backgrounds that are sadly not fleshed out. Not falling into the usual stereotypes, the main and side characters have unique backstories and visibly different demeanors. But personality-wise, most of them are not strongly characterized enough to leave any deep impressions on me. Even though I like some of them based on their appearances, I find myself having a difficult time liking (or disliking) them based on who they are. In spite of all the sweet and heart-throbbing moments and ample interactions present in the routes, I do not exactly find myself developing any feelings for any of the four love interests in the end.
In terms of route structuring, I like how we can select any of the four character routes right off the bat at the end of the prologue. However, this also implies that the choices presented in the prologue are essentially inconsequential, though it does make for a decent tutorial on the choice system deployed in the game. Because of the need to introduce all the love interests before the route selection, the prologue does feel a little lengthy especially since there are hardly any choice points presented.
The choice system in the game is straightforward and includes an audio cue that will sound when the “correct” choice is chosen. The threshold for obtaining the romantic ending is forgiving, so there is no need for 100% of the correct choices made. Stress-inducing timed choices are rare but when they are thrown in, they are used justifiably.
World-building and Consistency
Besides the urban legends that the plot is centered around, there is not much world-building done via the writing. Most world-building is conveyed through the art aspect, from the environment art to character’s fashion, though they constantly give me more of a “town” feel rather than a village that the writing refers to. Seeing the characters’ names, it is quite obvious that the setting is supposed to be based on Japan. But history-wise, it does not conform to reality, so I would describe the setting as a Japan Alternate Universe (AU).
Flimsy world-building irks me but not as much as the logical holes in this mystery novel do. There are some dialogues and choice branches that do not make logical sense under the situation where they appear.
Occasionally, our heroine would have a slip of the tongue and imply things that she should not have known at that particular moment. There are also times when an on-going conversation takes an illogical abrupt turn with no context, making the chat flow unnaturally — yet the conversing parties continue without qualms as if that is how it is scripted to be. Last but not least, there are a few choice branches that broke the narrative by introducing contradictions. At best, they can be read as really unexpected behavior on the character’s part, but these glaring contradictions really upset me as I would have expected a more solid plot for a mystery genre.
Writing Quality and Storytelling
On the whole, other than occasional typos, the writing is easy to read. The story is mainly driven by spoken dialogue with some internal thoughts and descriptive text. Sentences are typically short enough for easy comprehension and there is rarely any awkward phrasing seen. Nonetheless, English explanations of certain Japanese phrases (e.g. cuisine names) could have been added in brackets for clarification where appropriate.
Something that I enjoyed is the humor and spookiness conveyed through the writing. There are some witty references to other animes and games, and there are parts that are simply comical as intended. I have also been spooked not by cheap jumpscares but the dreadful atmosphere painted in certain scenes.
The game is ambitious on covering plenty of plot-heavy content and its coverage of other content suffered as a result. Some portions like the character’s backstory are boringly long without breaks while other parts like key emotional moments with the LI are regrettably short in comparison. In one of the final chapters, events are paced so rapidly that I became emotionally numb to everything that was happening there even before the chapter concluded.
The writing also often makes me lose track of time — and I mean in a bad way. Time progression happens frequently in irregular blocks with no standardized visual cue used, making it difficult to keep up with the timeline. Not to mention the issue of time inconsistency that can be seen even from the start of each route: the story starts with the claim that the protagonist met the love interest a day ago but an entire uneventful weekend had actually passed in between.
Wonderful Music but Inadequate SFX Usage
Moving on to the final major aspect, Dark Nights’ huge collection of 37 original music tracks has more or less ensured there are no dull silent moments during one’s playthrough of the unvoiced VN. The compositions generally fit the intended mood for the particular character or place or moment where they are used. As certain venues have their own themes, some music will be heard much more often than the others, like the school theme that very memorably has the school bell chime as its motif. Except for the forest theme that cuts off at a weird point, most of the background music loop flawlessly. But little was done to ensure a smooth transition between tracks and hence, many times, the music seems to change rather abruptly.
Although the music is nice, I am disappointed with the lack of sound effects to spice up the storytelling. They are used but they are terribly limited — imagine the confusion from hearing the exact same slow footstep tempo for all movement speeds described from slow strolls to fast sprints. There is also a particular SFX that is unfortunately overused and it slowly loses its impact as a result. In another case, one SFX was used one line late and it made the scene pretty awkward to read.
It is truly a shame. Dark Nights has a wonderful cast of characters living in interesting times. But everything simply falls apart when the writing is unable to tie them together in a logically sound and intriguing manner befitting the mystery genre.
As much as I would love to recommend this otome game by virtue of its excellent art and nice music, I cannot do so in good faith when I know this mystery title ended unsatisfactorily with more questions than answers for me. My advice for anyone who is going to pick this indie game up regardless is to not take the plot too seriously.
DARK NIGHTS IS NOT SO RECOMMENDED
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 person with many hobbies (and even more WIPs), KuroKairin plays, playtests, and reviews PC games. She loves games with good stories that bring her on an emotional and thought-provoking journey. Her favourite genres include otome visual novel, point and click, puzzle, and RPG. Follow her @KuroKairin.