Indie Review Visual Novel

Refraction – Review | An Adventure Across Parallel Worlds


Refraction, indie studio Universe Zero’s debut game, is a sci-fi visual novel with a slice-of-life story about Jackie Shields who one day finds herself traveling between two parallel universes. Released on 28 August 2020, this original English language visual novel features an intriguing plot based around the concept of a multiverse and has a romance subplot with two romanceable characters.

In the following spoiler-free review, let’s take a look at this visual novel with a story that spans two parallel worlds.

Writing and Characters.

Refraction is a short game that can be completed within a few hours though its brevity is not necessarily a bad thing. I am not referring to how some people prefer short games (which is totally valid) but that short stories have their own charm and demand skills from the writer as much as long prose does. Through concise storytelling, the writing in this visual novel has shown several good qualities: there is a smooth flow of comfortably paced events that guides players through the whole universe hopping adventure in a relatively unconfusing manner, and relevant information is distributed logically and provided in appropriate amounts to move the narrative forward without spoiling the story early or making it too dry to read. Although not very intense, there is enough suspense to keep me hooked and wanting to know more. Coupled with some pretty polished writing, the main storyline about the protagonist’s experience traveling between two parallel worlds is handled quite well on the whole.

However, there are still parts that have suffered a lot from the short length allowed, particularly in characterization, which in turn affected the romance subplot. Interactions shown with the characters are enough to get a rough idea of how each of them is like as an individual but insufficient and not impactful enough for me to feel a bond or see them as anything more than acquaintances — the only exception is Jackie’s roommate. Personally, I did not develop any special feelings towards the two love interests; that is all right because they cannot be everyone’s cup of tea. But the final romantic scenes and even bad endings did not evoke any emotions from me either, which could be an issue of weakly set moods for those moments. Or, the short story has not persuaded me enough to care about these characters sufficiently for those scenes to become emotionally meaningful. Despite the lack of strong feelings from the romance subplot, the writing was nevertheless able to make me go through notable emotions of surprise, uneasiness, guilt, stress, and anger in the main story.

Refraction - Jun

Moving on, we arrive in the modern-day United States in Refraction. There are brief accounts of Jackie’s university life, including the modules and degree requirements she needs, which gives us a glimpse into the education system. Jackie’s dorm life is also touched upon and her time with her friends, Jun and Paul, shows bits of culture and habits of the people in that place. Apart from that, though, there is hardly any further elaboration about the location. Granted, this minimal world-building has no negative impact on the plot, where consistency is more important than details, but it makes the place feel hollow and undistinguished. A similar lack of exposition also occurred for the characters, some of whom have cultural background differences that are not made apparent through the writing. As a case in point, Jun’s different nationality noted near the end of the story came as a shock as I never once had that perception throughout Jackie’s time with her.

Although most of the cast did not leave much impression, the main characters have some noticeable character growth over the course of the story. Jackie’s character growth is the most evident among everyone and I have enjoyed watching her journey as she tackles her internal struggles while trying to make sense of the whole strange situation entrapping her at the same time. Still, there is a certain group of characters whose fates we never get to explicitly know about. This is a little disappointing considering that “choices” are constantly emphasized and other important questions have actually been accounted for in the game.


A bigger disappointment would be the game’s low replay value due to how the story is scripted. If one is not a completionist who must unlock all CGs and endings (and Steam achievements), they would easily find themselves knowing the gist of the entire story within one or two playthroughs. There are plenty of common story segments with no complex branchings and this ultimately translates to little incentive for additional playthroughs. Yet, thanks to how simple the short narrative is set up, it is not at all tedious to give all available content a run-through and unlock everything.

Putting replayability aside, the main story itself is decent on the whole. It is rather easy to go along with this science fiction dealing with universe hopping because its plot sticks closely to reason and reality. Nothing seems particularly overly exaggerated; Jackie’s reactions to the situation and event progression are all within reasonable limits. Besides smooth storytelling and emotional scenes, there are also plot twists present even though not all of them are exactly mind-blowing. All in all, the game presents an interesting main storyline that had me engrossed at least during my first playthrough.

Music and Sound.

Audio work in Refraction is pretty impressive, especially the music. I am particularly amazed by the track used in conjunction with the radio static sound and visual effects during some of the choice scenes. Those scenes gave me goosebumps and a heavy air of seriousness whenever they appeared, and the zing that sounds after a choice was made really hammers in a feeling of finality.

Refraction - What the Hell

They may not stand out in terms of genre or composition but each music track conveys a distinctive mood fairly strongly. I like how chirpy the day themes are, how relaxing the evening themes are, and how unsettling the mystery themes are. Well, I can even feel the hot weather listening to the tropical summer theme! There are also enough tracks available to avoid dull or annoying repetitions. Most importantly, these music and sound effects have been used appropriately to complement the storytelling, which is quite a big value-add to this visual novel.

User Interface (UI) Design and Art.

When I opened Refraction for the first time, the main title screen astonished me with its custom design and subtle animations. From the arcade-ish font and a color palette that is reminiscent of green monochrome monitors, the whole UI design brims with a “video game” aesthetics; even the four pages of manual save slots are denoted by gamepad symbols. The contrast for hover over effects and text against boxes is good as well. But I find the font chosen for dialogue texts looking kind of thin and its default font size a little small.

In-game, there is a special “accelerate to next choice” function that some players may prefer to use over regular skip, though I find its addition redundant as skipping through sections in-between choices in this short game is already considerably fast. Regardless, it is quite clear that much thought has been put into this thematic UI design. There is even an extra sub-menu created under “Help” to explain the icons used, something that I did not expect but am appreciative of.

Refraction - Flirting

The background art is astoundingly beautiful with all the intricate details and realistic render. They breathe much life into the otherwise loosely described locations and are easily the best aspect of the game’s visual work. In comparison, the character sprites do not shine as much. Sprites are drawn and cel-shaded in a 2D anime style that leans towards simplicity. In terms of coloring, I love how the hair for Jackie’s and Jun’s sprites have a beautiful smooth sheen to them. All character sprites have a range of facial expressions that nicely capture the intended interpretations, such as the university president’s creepy sideways glance that raises alarm and the satisfied glee on the overenthusiastic junior’s face that spells trouble. Everyone has a few different poses as well. They may not look outstanding but these character sprites certainly do not appear boring in the game either.

There are eleven unlockable base CGs with around fifteen distinct variants in Refraction, which is quite a large number considering the game’s short length. Most of them, however, are found under the two romance routes, so it will be necessary to go through both of them if one wishes to see all available CGs. Quality-wise, the CG art is generally okay. There may be some anatomical and camera angle or perspective issues with some of the CGs here and there, but I am quite happy with the range of composition seen.


In spite of the lack of romance felt from the romance subplot, the sci-fi adventure in Refraction has been intriguing and somewhat thought-provoking. And with decent art and wonderful music that very much captures the ever-changing scenes and moods in the story, this OELVN is worth a play especially for those looking for a short game.


Platforms: PC
Purchase Link: Steam, Itch

If you would like to see more visual novels, you may be interested in our review of Necrobarista.

Many thanks go to Universe Zero for a PC review code for this title.

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