The premise of Perverse Incentives, has the protagonist find himself stranded on a world infected with a virus that prevents almost all male births. One where the value of his semen catapults him from poverty into the planet’s top income bracket; It struck me as a setup for a zany porn comedy. Something like The Ditzy Demons Are in Love With Me, which builds a lighthearted story around a concept not meant to be taken seriously. The pitch sounded weird, but normal-weird, the sort of thing I’d expect to see someone build an offbeat eroge around.
Perverse Incentives is not normal-weird. It’s thoroughbred weird. It’s not a game you’d expect to see from a professional studio, in style or in content. But then it’s also not a game you’d expect to see from a small-time indie developer either. It plays heavily with readers’ expectations- even its real genre is a spoiler- but there’s a lot more to it than just subversion of expectations.
It’s also not a game everyone will want to play. If you are hoping for a lighthearted porn comedy, Perverse Incentives is definitely not going to scratch that itch. This is certainly an explicit game, in more than one sense, but it’s far from lighthearted, and definitely not light reading. It takes time to get into, but by the end, I was surprised by the degree of payoff it offered on that investment.
From the outset, it’s not at all clear what kind of story Perverse Incentives is actually aiming to be. It begins with an attempted suicide. This is definitely not glossed over or brushed under the rug of the narrative, but the story appears to progress from there into a slow-paced slice of life romance. “Appears” is the operative word though; it winds through food-for-thought economic exploration in the style of Spice and Wolf, through counterculture drug trip stream of consciousness, some very dark comedy, and quite a bit that’s dark and not at all comedic.
I have to admit, I’m rarely impressed by games which attempt to convey capital M Messages. A lot of writers mistake having strong opinions on some social or philosophical issue for having something interesting to say about it, or having strong feelings about a subject for being able to elicit those feelings in an audience. The author of Perverse Incentives is not one of those writers. This game is often thought-provoking, and genuinely powerful, and I don’t use that word lightly.
One thing it’s not though is a quick-starter. It wasn’t until early into the second chapter that I felt like it really started to find its footing. The first chapter is essential as setup, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily handled well. If you spend hours struggling to achieve a sense of immersion, without developing any particularly strong feelings for the game, that’s not surprising. The beginning is awkwardly paced, the writing is heavily jargon-y, by design, and it takes a while for the characters to really develop a sense of purpose in the story. But from the beginning of the second chapter, I found it consistently an uphill ride. If you’re still not interested half an hour into the second chapter though, you should probably give up; it’s definitely not a story for everyone, and not just as a story but as a visual novel, it has numerous rough spots which might be dealbreakers for some players.
Jargon-y and self-referential
Taira Sako, the protagonist of Perverse Incentives, appears at first glance as a typical if somewhat exaggerated example of the bland, vaguely loser-ish everyman protagonist archetype common to eroge. At second glance, he still seems like an example of the archetype, but with more depth than you’d first expect. and with a more compelling place in the story for a character of that type than you’d think.
The other characters mostly appear to play on similarly archetypical notes for Japanese visual novel characters, with an additional helping of economic literacy thrown into everyone else’s characterization. Apart from that unusual flavoring though, they develop in unexpected and unconventional ways. The game actually leans very heavily on an element which most works simply can’t pull off; smart characters who act in compellingly intelligent ways because they’re written by a genuinely intelligent writer. Nearly all the members of the cast are exceptional in their own ways (often ways that aren’t apparent at the beginning of the story,) and the way that the narrative both justifies and builds on that makes for a truly uncommon experience.
Perverse Incentives might be an uncommon experience, but it’s definitely not a polished one. The current release is actually an updated version of an older release with extremely rough art. “Original version Higurashi” might be an appropriate comparison. But even in the updated version, this isn’t a game anyone would mistake for a high-budget studio production. The art is serviceable, arguably nice in its own way if you don’t hold it to the standards of professional work, but still quite limited, and not used in a dynamic manner. The CGs are all heavy on narration, but very light on changes which reflect the action in the text.
As a notable, but not necessarily desirable feature, the entire game is done in NVL format, with text presented over the full screen, rather than constrained to textboxes at the bottom. Considering just how heavily it leans on the internal monologue, that may have been an appropriate choice of format for the game. However, there is no appropriate justification for how little the game does to signify who’s speaking at any given time. Even with the aid of context, the game sometimes makes it a struggle to actually tell who’s saying what, and browsing the backlog doesn’t make this even slightly easier. In fact, it’s even harder to make sense of the backlog because it often messes with the formatting of the text.
Some graphical issues go beyond being unpolished into being outright bugs; character sprites changing outfits in places that don’t make sense, a couple instances of text which runs off the bottom of the screen, a sprite whose background is missing transparency, etc. A few issues with the H-scenes and the gallery function should hopefully be fixed by the time of release (I’m reviewing based on an advance copy, and Fakku responded with the intent to fix them when I reported them), but the game overall is more than a quick fix away from being visually polished.
Compared to its visual elements, Perverse Incentives audio work is a distinctly mixed bag. It’s a testament to the fact that a game can have a good soundtrack, with tracks assigned appropriately to their scenes, and still have serious issues with its audio work.
Musical transitions are always abrupt throughout the entire game. There are no fade-ins or fade-outs, and the cuts from one piece to another can be distinctly jarring. Some of the music and ambient sound effects don’t loop smoothly, leading to pieces which may end and restart multiple times per scene.
Granting those flaws though, some of the game’s music is very good, and very well-suited to the places it’s used. Perverse Incentives features the second “badass stock-trading” scene I’ve ever seen, but between the two of them, it had decisively better music. Plus, it has what is almost certainly the most epic accompaniment you’ll ever hear to a scene of a character watching porn (and yes, it does fit the context.)
It’s impossible to fit a game as surprising as Perverse Incentives neatly into categories like “recommend” or “don’t recommend.” Overall, it gives the lie to the idea that natively Japanese games are necessarily of more polished design even compared to amateur OELVNs. I could compare it to an unpolished gem, but even that isn’t quite right; Perverse Incentives given polish still wouldn’t be a classically beautiful game, or appealing in the way that you’d expect an eroge to aim to be. Instead, I’d liken it to a raw fossil. It doesn’t, and couldn’t possibly sparkle the way major studio games will. But it elicits a hell of a “that’s interesting…”
If that’s the sort of thing you’re into, it might well deserve a space in your collection.
PERVERSE INCENTIVES IS INTERESTING
Many thanks go to Fakku for a PC review code for this title.
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