I’ve heard good things about writer and developer ebi-hime in the English visual novel community but had never tried any of her games. I thought the release of her latest visual novel Embraced by Autumn seemed a good excuse to change that. ebi-hime is best known for her dark tales, but Embraced by Autumn is a warm romance story. And while it uses the common school setting, there’s a notable twist. The protagonist dresses as a girl to attend an all-girls school circa 1900 in the French countryside.
Say Yes to the Dress
Marcel de Saint-Rémy doesn’t have the easiest of lives. Though his family has means, his father, the famous actor Georges de Saint-Rémy, is largely absent from his life, and his mother struggles with frustration over Georges’ traipsing from one paramour to the next. This does little to help the family name either. Saint-Rémy is a staple of Parisian gossip rags. Between his father’s notoriety, his feminine features, and his sensitive personality, Marcel is a constant target of bullying at school. He does his best to endure, but when his father’s latest scandal reaches new heights of salaciousness, his mother fears his school life will become truly unbearable.
She approaches her sister, Marcel’s Aunt Aubertine, for help. Aubertine runs a school in the Myennes in the French countryside and suggests Marcel transfer there in hopes of a more peaceful life. There’s just one catch: it’s an all-girls school. Thus, Marcel will need to become “Marcelle”, dressing and acting a girl. He has the looks to pull it off, but there’s much to worry over. What if his secret gets out? And can he make friends acting as this new and unfamiliar person?
Where Might We Belong?
Crossdressing has a long history in literature and folklore, but it’s usually used either in comedy, for example Shakespeare, or as a way for someone to pursue an avenue otherwise closed to them, like women who dressed as men to fight in wars. Embraced by Autumn takes a more personal approach. Yes, Marcel needs to keep his secret to attend school, but he also feels profound confusion about his identity. While living as a girl feels new and alien, he frequently reflects that he never felt comfortable as a boy either. Marcel mostly refers to himself as a boy, hence “he”, but could be read as nonbinary at a time and place when that concept would not have been freely available to him. ebi-hime even mentions this in her authors’ notes, and Marcel’s desire to find a self he can feel comfortable being and a place he can belong is central to his journey.
The romance in Embraced by Autumn reflects Marcel’s struggles with identity and belonging. In a typical crossdressing comedy, one often sees the leads revert to traditional gender roles once the ruse has been uncovered. Marcel is clearly aware of these ideas, but neither he nor the story is overly interested in rigidly adhering to them. I think that’s the right choice. Instead of storybook romance, the love in Embraced by Autumn feels personal to the couple. Whether a boy, girl, both, or neither, Marcel is Marcel and love is about finding someone who accepts and loves that Marcel just as he does them.
Love Me Like One of Your French Girls
Embraced by Autumn opens with a brief common route and features four romanceable heroines. The free-spirited and devious Claudine makes the biggest impression. Carefree and bold, she’s a constant thorn in the teachers’ side with her mischievous antics and silver tongue. While charismatic, Claudine can also be callous. She’s not above bullying others for amusement and shows little care for the inconveniences she causes. Add in a knack for avoiding consequences, and Claudine can be demanding, even in her route. She’s also the first to stick up for her friends, and though daring, not without her own fears and weaknesses. As Marcel discovers, she’s hard not to love, even when you know she’s playing you like a fiddle.
The taciturn Luce is Claudine’s opposite. Luce avoids the spotlight to the best of her ability and keeps classmates at arms with her prickly exterior. Most are content to simply ignore her, but the English teacher, Madame DuBois, has a strong dislike of Luce. Marcel initially reaches out because Luce reminds him of his old self: isolated, ostracized, and targeted. Luce reacts the same way to her plight as he did in his Paris: with resignation. However, Marcel finds it harder to stand by and watch when it’s someone else suffering. I enjoyed the way the story showed Marcel and Luce bond over their shared experience and find hope for better lives in each other.
Mirabel is the class dunce. She’s plain, clumsy, and struggles in every subject. Marcel first reaches out because she simply seems the least threatening of his classmates. He’s quickly drawn in by her kind and earnest nature and comes to see that her struggles have a lot to do with being constantly told she was incapable of succeeding. Marcel wants to help Mirabel believe in herself and finds it can be a nice feeling to have someone trust and rely on him. I thought the ending had a couple of character swerves that were a tad too sharp, but otherwise I enjoyed Mirabel’s route.
While most of Marcel’s classmates are local, Celine hails from the city of Orléans. Her sophisticated persona makes her well-liked among the teachers, but many of the girls think her snobbish. Marcel, perhaps due to his Parisian upbringing, has no such thoughts, and the pair bond over the challenge of adjusting to country life in Myennes. Celine is often motherly toward Marcel, who in turn enjoys having someone he can trust with his insecurities. And while prim heroines tend not to be my favorite, I quite liked the chemistry between Celine and Marcel as well the warm and thoughtful ending.
The rest of the cast flesh out the private school setting. The teachers are stern and punishments like being sent to stand outside or taking a rap on the knuckles remind me of the old European private schools I read about in A Little Princess and Roald Dahls’ memoirs. The girls of Myennes can be surprisingly cutting and unruly at times, but I think this is accurate for children and teenagers. They’re not necessarily bad people but are still developing the maturity and empathy needed to think about responsibility and how their actions might affect others. And forced to face the hurt they might be inflicting on others, characters usually choose to act with more kindness. Claudine’s frequent mean-spirited comments can get a bit grating when removed from the context of her route though.
One of my favorite aspects of Embraced by Autumn is the prose. The writing is smooth, elegant, and has a novelistic flair I rarely see in visual novels. Lush descriptions lean on simile and metaphor, while Marcel’s internal monologue is thoughtful and eloquent. The danger with such a style is that visual novels are their own medium. The addition of visuals, sound, and music call for a different pace and style from those of novels. I think ebi-hime’s writing finds a good balance. The flourishes add evocative flair without overstaying their welcome, and the prose never gets caught up in itself at the expense of pacing.
Perhaps because the writing can be so flowery, the art feels a bit basic in comparison. Backgrounds of the idyllic French countryside and character sprites have their charm certainly, but I often yearned for something more intricate and detailed to match the prose. The art doesn’t always match the descriptions either. When Marcel first meets Mirabel, he describes her freckles as a striking feature. However, these are only barely visible on her sprite. In fact, I failed to notice them at all until she got a closeup. Other cases, like having only a single night sky CG while describing different phases of the moon are understandable limitations widely encountered in visual novels. I also thought Aunt Aubertine’s character art stood out as a poor fit with the rest of the sprites.
Embraced by Autumn doesn’t have voice acting but boasts a pleasant soundtrack full of tunes in the spirit of classical pastorales. It’s exactly the type of music I imagine Myennes would be set to in a movie or play. Sound effects add life to the environment too. Howling winds and pattering raindrops remind you Myennes is a simple village where nature is always close at hand.
Once you’ve cleared a route, you can revisit the important CGs in the Gallery under the Extras menu. Looking back, Embraced by Autumn has a good number of CGs for its approximately ten-hour length. You can also play any music you’ve heard with the Music Box. My favorite extra feature, and one I’d love to see more of in visual novels, is ebi-hime’s author’s notes. She talks about her inspirations and process for Embraced by Autumn, and I found it all quite interesting.
Embraced by Autumn is a pleasing read with endearing characters and warm stories. I enjoyed its earnest take on crossdressing romance too and felt the writing thoughtfully explored Marcel’s search for identity and relationships with the different heroines. While the art and music don’t impress on the same level as the writing, they have a pastoral charm that fits the setting. All in all, Embraced by Autumn is a heartwarming trip to the idyllic French countryside that’s well worth taking.
EMBRACED BY AUTUMN IS RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to ebi-hime for a PC review code for this title.
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A veteran of Oregon Trail and Battletoads, Wes has been playing and talking about games for as long as he can remember. He’s down to try almost anything, and he especially enjoys games with gripping narrative experiences.