Review Visual Novel

Sona-Nyl Of The Violet Shadows ~What Beautiful Memories~ – Review

Sona-Nyl of the Violet Shadows is a 2010 title from visual novel developer Liar-soft that features two female protagonists exploring a deserted New York City. Sona-Nyl is the fifth main title in the “What A Beautiful” (WAB) series of visual novels, written and directed by Sakurai Hikaru. The series is set in an alternative 20th century, where the widespread use of the steam engine resulted in permanently gray skies all across the world.

Sona-Nyl is a title I’ve been looking forward to reading ever since it was picked up for an official English release. As a fan of the WAB series, I’ve found that Sakurai’s style of worldbuilding that features fantastical elements incorporated into a setting, with characters and events inspired by both modern history and literature, is a treat to immerse myself in. It’s a fun and creative way of making stories.

The Corpse Of A City

Sona-Nyl is set in an alternate version of Earth where most prosperous cities have incorporated steam engines into various aspects of their residents’ lives. Among these cities, there were a few that developed faster than the rest, eventually leading to some being called “Mega-Engine cities” that served as paragons of science and technology. One such city, New York, found itself at the center of the world due to the numerous achievements of its scholars. However, on one fateful Christmas Day, the three million people living in New York City vanished, never to be seen again.

The story starts five years after this unbelievable event took place. Now called the Great Disappearance, the event led to the government shutting down all access to the Mega-Engine city. Further investigation into the matter was prohibited, leaving people wondering about the truth of what had happened. In essence, America had declared New York City non-existent.

Sona-Nyl follows the journey of Elysia Wentworth, a woman who is determined to find out the truth of what took place in the now abandoned city. With only her trusty automaton John accompanying her, she avoids military surveillance and enters the ruins of New York. She has one goal in mind—reach old Manhattan, the epicenter of the Great Disappearance.

Sona-Nyl - Lily Falling Alongside Books

Life Six Feet Underground

The majority of Sona-Nyl’s story, however, does not happen through Elysia’s POV. Most of the events are told through the eyes of Lily, an amnesiac girl who wanders through the Underground. It’s an enormous space said to exist underneath the Mega-Engine city New York, inhabited by mushrooms, fantastical creatures, and lifeforms that appear weirdly metallic. The Underground is home to various structures reminiscent of New York on the surface, albeit warped and twisted to some degree. Blanketing this realm is a violet sky littered with stars and a moon that you can sometimes hear sneering.

As proof of its parallel existence to the surface’s New York, most of the places in the Underground share the same name with their surface equivalent. None of these ring a bell in Lily’s mind though, as she is devoid of memories. There is, however, one thing that she’s sure of. Despite her head being mostly empty, for some reason, there is one thing she knows she has to do. There’s a destination she needs to reach. The violet tower at the end of the sky—Manhattan.

Thus, similar to Elysia, Lily sets off on her own journey in the Underground. Accompanied by her personal train conductor A, she makes her way to Manhattan. Two women with vastly different backgrounds gravitate towards the place where it all began, clueless about what waits for them at the end of their path.

Stories Along The Yellow Railway

If there’s one word that encapsulates what it felt like reading Sona-Nyl, I think it would be “adventure”. Its pacing is structured into chapters that feature different characters and mementos. What felt unique about this structure though, is that each of them contain a sort of short story that helps shed a bit of light on the truth of the Great Disappearance and the Underground. Although confined within the length of the chapter, they go through the entirety of a story arc and provide satisfying conclusions to their characters, making each of them feel like a complete experience.

These chapters, while individually different in terms of story, all feel relevant in terms of progression. As a reader accompanying Elysia and Lily, it feels incredible to invest in both of their characters because of how each minute change in their actions and thoughts are indicative of the previous chapters’ events. Their development and motivations serve as that chain linking each individual story together, forming a sort of odyssey that’s satisfying to follow. It makes each interaction meaningful and creates a rather immersive experience in their fantasy world.

Sona-Nyl - Elysia

A Journey Of Rediscovery

As evident in the title, one of the central themes present in Sona-Nyl is the idea of memories. Starting from the introduction of the Great Disappearance, the visual novel hooks you in as a reader with the premise of loss. It’s clear that in her journey, Elysia is grappling with the aftermath of losing something in the five years leading up to the start of the story. She talks about what she has discarded, her sacrifices, and what has been taken from her. And so, she walks forward to give meaning to the loss.

Lily, on the other hand, is an amnesiac whose only motivation is her journey to Manhattan. Besides her name, there’s nothing that reminds her of herself before she became who she currently is. Thus, with a start characterized by nothingness, her journey is one of gaining memories. With new encounters and new experiences every step of the way, she walks forward to an unknown horizon.

This parallelism between our two protagonists is brilliantly substantiated in the text. I’m honestly amazed at how cohesive the narrative feels both as a whole and in its individual parts. As both of them walk towards Manhattan, Elysia’s encounter with loss allows her to regain bit by bit what she lost five years ago, while Lily’s encounter with the unknown provides her a sense of self through new memories. Hence, while technically different, their struggles and development are largely similar in nature—steeped in rediscovery.

Sona-Nyl - Abstract Scenery

The Magic Of Sona-Nyl

Besides its cohesive narrative, what I liked about Sona-Nyl is the amount of effort it puts into creating an image of its world. While a large part of what makes visual novels attractive is the art that helps the reader’s imagination, Sakurai takes it a step further by including copious amounts of descriptions and imagery in her prose. Through repetition, analogies, and amplification, the text paints an incredibly vivid picture of what structure or creature is being described.

In contrast, the art style employed by Sona-Nyl’s artist AKIRA is anything but concrete. Backdrops of Sona-Nyl’s world are an unconventional mixture of lines, colors, and shapes that vaguely resemble what the text is describing. It’s very free in terms of form, drawn to give the impression of something grand that you can’t quite capture using words. It feels very mystical and adds to that fantastical atmosphere that Sona-Nyl is keen on establishing.

Moreover, this prose felt great for Lily’s case as an amnesiac. With her memories non-existent, Lily is unacquainted with the idea of emotions. As a result, what could have been described as anxiety and anger is expanded upon by using different kinds of images to resemble sensations linked to our emotions. It shows, not tells. Consequently, a large portion of my time reading was spent feeling my way through sensations being described, which I felt added a layer of immersion that made me appreciate both Lily and the Underground more.

Sona-Nyl - Ginger Rogers

Ambiguous Poetry

Because amnesia is a key story element in the visual novel, Sona-Nyl’s narrative purposely withholds information about the mysterious Underground from both Lily and the reader. It does initially work out because it keeps me interested, but after a while, the intentional ambiguity that the narrative chooses to work with becomes a little bit tiresome to engage with. Until the actual reveal near the end, I barely had anything to work with in terms of figuring out Lily’s identity. I had a hunch, but it’s the same hunch I’ve had since the start. And without that kind of confirmation, it doesn’t feel rewarding to keep thinking about it.

What instead becomes a driving force for Sona-Nyl is its strength in building characters. While the individual story arcs within each chapter are strong by themselves, the experience of going through these arcs is well supported by a cast that feels substantial and well-explored. Both recurring and side characters have stakes in this visual novel that are given space and ample care in development, which results in pretty memorable and emotional scenes. Just like Elysia and Lily, there’s a large amount of text dedicated to expanding on their feelings, their thoughts, and their issues. While they might not understand each other within the story, as a reader, the full view of these subtle details fuels my investment. And at its conclusion, the payoff is satisfyingly consistent with what I felt getting to that point.

Moreover, Sona-Nyl doesn’t slack in the presentation of these character subtleties. A large part of both character motivations and relationships are actually presented through the poems of the Underground, a series of freeform lines that deliver important details for a chapter’s central conflict. These poems contain elements from the story grounded in both the present and hidden truths about Sona-Nyl’s world that are marked purple. Depending on the character, the poems can range from being simple and direct to being stylistically vague. It leaves part of its interpretation to the reader. I personally found it fun to decipher things before the actual reveal.

Sona-Nyl - Katrijn With Juliana

The Truth Of New York City

At the end of each chapter, Sona-Nyl gives the reader space to parse through reports concerning the events that took place during the Great Disappearance in New York. It’s a test of the reader’s attention to detail and whether they can point out inconsistencies between what they’ve read and what was reported. Unsurprisingly, this is an unskippable feature in the visual novel that, if failed, will lock you into a bad end in the following chapter. It’s actually pretty easy to tell which is fake or not, because most of the time the passages will have phrases that obviously stand out as significant in the preceding chapter.

Initially, I thought that this section was a little bit annoying. It suddenly appeared out of nowhere and there were literally no instructions on what I was supposed to do the first time I saw it. It was confusing for no actual reason. In hindsight though, I appreciate the addition of this segment. While it technically breaks immersion, the details presented in this section work really well with Sona-Nyl’s glossary feature. Terms that might be unclear because of their absence or lack of relevance in the main text feel more impactful when given context through a glossary, and it just makes me appreciate more how much thought Sakurai gave to the planning of the WAB world.

The Option Of Refrain

To cover all aspects of the English release, I went through both the original adult version and the Refrain version. As a quick introduction, Refrain is a port of Sona-Nyl’s all-ages console release in 2014 that features alternative scenes which replaced the original’s more sultry ones. It features a handful of additional CGs, as well as a slight change in the final scene of the visual novel.

MangaGamer’s release, however, isn’t simply a port. Sona-Nyl’s English release introduces options to read the visual novel in its original 4:3 aspect ratio versus the standard widescreen option, in addition to the option of playing the original adult version or Refrain. Additionally, MangaGamer’s release of Sona-Nyl includes additional scenarios from the novels released separately from the original game, featuring new artwork and incorporating the stories into the visual novel format. It’s no understatement to say that Refrain’s English release is currently the best version of the visual novel available on the market.

But does Refrain being all-ages take away from the Sona-Nyl experience? The answer is, for the most part, no. While I feel that some scenes were better in the adult version because of how sex can serve as an alternate depiction of desire and hunger for something, most, if not all of the alternative scenarios in Refrain hit the mark well enough for it to not matter as much. If I were forced to pick only one version to read, I think I’d go with Refrain because of the minor additions to the story that it makes. I greatly prefer how it presented the ending there compared to the original, so aside from the raw intimacy missing from specific scenes, I think Refrain’s an overall better pick.

Sona-Nyl - Lily on an Abstract Stairway

Art And Music

Sona-Nyl boasts a total of 113 unique CGs, excluding adult-only artwork. Across both versions, that number increases to 123 unique CGs. As a fan, I can’t help but think that AKIRA’s unique way of working with colors and shadows adds to the fantastical flair that Sona-Nyl has. In a steampunk title like this, the kind of emotion that its CGs evoke make or break the coherence of the setting. For the most part, Sona-Nyl hits everything that feels right for its story. Its otherworldliness is captured really well in the palettes they chose to work with and the textures they applied to different surfaces, creating a product that’s pleasant to look at, but also mildly unsettling.

I really like the art direction in-game as well. Sona-Nyl makes use of a lot of cut-ins and portraits to add flavor to its scenes beyond the simple changing of character expressions. It makes the “show” aspect of emotions a lot more dynamic, adding variety and keeping the overall reading experience fresh. For the sprites specifically, I like how the game sometimes inserts full body portraits of characters being presented on screen. It gives me an overall better picture of the personality of the character themself knowing that they dress a certain way.

Sona-Nyl - Lily Spritework

For the music, most of Sona-Nyl’s tracks feature a variation of a piano piece. They feel like tracks that you’d hear while relaxing to music in a cafe, which is oddly accurate in terms of its vibes. High-emotion scenes have tracks featuring more pronounced notes with a certain density to them, while fantastical scenes usually feature high, shrill notes that ring in a playful manner. There were a total of 20 tracks in the visual novel, with titles that clearly indicated what type of scene they were intended to play in. My favorite among the tracks is probably Transformation / The Changing Girl because of the air of regal mystery it gives when it plays during appropriate scenes.

Additionally, I think the voice acting in Sona-Nyl is great., I’m still amazed by the range of roles that Kawashima Rino and Oukawa Mio are able to play. Rino’s portrayal of Lily’s youthful courage in particular was really nice because of how she’s able to make her voice shake a bit to subtly signal Rino’s inner thoughts. I still really like that most of the narration is voiced in the visual novel because it makes emotions carry over easily, even in internal monologues for various characters. It makes their thoughts and immediate motivations clear for certain situations.

Sona-Nyl - Lily Surprised by a Cat

Verdict

Sona-Nyl of the Violet Shadows ~What Beautiful Memories~ is a masterclass on character-driven stories. While the premise of the plot is rather simplistic, it turns a simple journey into an adventure laden with self-discovery and healing. Incredibly vague at times, the sheer amount of effort it puts into its imagery and literary devices form a reading experience that’s as dense as paperback novels yet retaining the colorfully vibrant world that visual novels are able to represent through additional creative assets.

As a visual novel, I think that Sona-Nyl, because of its creative liberties, demands a certain amount of patience when reading its text. Multiple examples of repetition, while an asset in strengthening images that the text evokes, can also serve as a detriment to a reader’s enjoyment of a visual novel. It is only by giving it your full attention and time that Sona-Nyl can really shine, given how much meaning it manages to squeeze into various aspects of the game.

Featuring artwork both beautiful and chaotic, and a narrative bursting with meaning, Sona-Nyl of the Violet Shadows ~What Beautiful Memories~ is a one of a kind experience that just sucks you into its fantasy world. I hope that this review gives you that firm push you’re looking for to accompany Lily on her journey to the end of the violet sky. Then maybe, just maybe, you can find your own beautiful memories along the way.

SONA-NYL OF THE VIOLET SHADOWS ~WHAT BEAUTIFUL MEMORIES~ IS RECOMMENDED

Platforms: PC
Purchase: MangaGamer

If you are looking for another visual novel, you may enjoy The Lament Of A Lifeless Star. We have also covered a wide variety of visual novels both original to English and localized from Japanese, which you can check out here.

Thank you to MangaGamer for providing a PC review code for Sona-Nyl Of The Violet Shadows ~What Beautiful Memories~.

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