Variable Barricade, the latest otome visual novel from Otomate and Idea Factory localized by Aksys Games, is a romantic comedy about a girl guarding her heart from a gang of overenthusiastic suitors. It’s a blast when it leans into humor and lighthearted fun but less effective when it veers into melodrama.
An Immodest Proposal
As heir to the wealthy and prestigious Tojo family, Tojo Hibari (name changeable) lives a life ruled by appearances and expectations. She attends an elite girls’ school, and her schedule is meticulously managed by her personal butler Kasuga. Hibari has the best of everything–except relationships. People care about “the Tojo heir” rather than Hibari herself, and her relationship with her grandfather, the family head, is strained. Hibari keeps her guard up and trusts no one apart from Kasuga and her best friend Tsumugi. While Hibari imagines a future in which she’ll be married off to seal some corporate merger, it seems far off. That is until four dashing men show up outside her school roses in hand and shout: “Please marry me!”
These men are suitors, hand-selected by Hibari’s grandfather, and all four, along with Hibari and Kasuga, are whisked away to a vacation home to live together. This is to be Hibari’s new life until she chooses a groom. Grandfather’s orders are absolute. But why now all of a sudden? And why the heck did her grandfather choose THESE guys? Amidst all the questions, there’s one thing Hibari can be sure of: none of these clowns will ever win her heart. Barricade up!
I thought Hibari was a great protagonist. Otome leads can tend to be wallflowers, but Hibari isn’t afraid to join the fray. She’s prickly and hesitant with her emotions–perhaps a bit of tsundere–and this makes for a fun dynamic with the enthusiastic suitors. Hibari can be naive and immature–she’s a teenager after all–but she’s also quite thoughtful about her position as the Tojo heir and how she hopes to incorporate this into her life. Rather than a spoiled princess who wants to leave it all behind or a robot bound by tradition, Hibari is a girl with dreams pulled between her various goals and responsibilities. As her world expands from living with the suitors, she shows a lot of self-awareness and growth, and her mindset makes her relatable despite her privileged position.
So who exactly are these mysterious beauties Hibari’s grandfather has personally selected? Surely they must be men of the highest caliber: scions of industry, masters of high society, and beacons of exemplary character. Hibari is surprised when she finds out they’re anything but and wonders what he could have been thinking. Her grandfather leaves her with only a cryptic hint: each of the suitors has something she doesn’t.
Once she arrives at the house, Mitsumori Ichiya wastes no time in laying it on thick. A self-proclaimed mature ladies’ man, Ichiya relentlessly accosts Hibari with cheesy pickup lines that would make even the boldest woman cringe. Ichiya might think he’s the prince charming who can’t help but melt Hibari’s heart, but to her, his tryhard act couldn’t come off as any less sincere. He’s hot and a great cook, so points there, but Hibari wonders: what is the real Ichiya like?
Joining Ichiya in the ranks of the obnoxiously helpful is Yagami Nayuta. Nayuta dumped all his stat points into strength and stamina, so he’s a great gofer but thick as a brick. He’s adamant about his desire to protect Hibari . . . and have her step on him. To Hibari, Nayuta seems more like a dog than a suitor. He’ll play fetch, but getting him to sit still or focus on anything is almost impossible. How can Hibari have any kind of relationship with, let alone marry, someone who seems incapable of serious thought and reflection?
The golden-locked Mayuzumi Shion is a leaf on the wind, drifting here and there as he fancies with seemingly not a care in the world. Hibari is intrigued by his subtle magnetism, and then appalled when she learns he’s spent his life as a sugar baby, living off the largess of his many patrons. How does one end up in such a lifestyle? And shouldn’t the husband of the Tojo heir have a distinguished career? Shion seems unconcerned though. What’s wrong with the way he lives if everyone involved gets something they want from it?
Lastly, Isurugi Taiga is the textbook delinquent, rocking neon pink hair and an assortment of piercings. He completes the package by being blunt, forward, and crass. At least, that’s how Hibari describes him. Taiga would rather view himself as a free spirit who speaks his mind. While the other suitors make romantic overtures (in their various dysfunctional ways), Taiga seems more interested in teasing Hibari. Hibari finds him immensely frustrating and in no way suited to the responsibilities of the Tojo name.
Variable Barricade opens with a common route but puts a new spin on the presentation with its Barricade Boards. Each Barricade Board presents scenes in a flowchart, breaking things up into bite-sized chunks. Though each board ultimately leads to a single climactic scene, you occasionally have choices as to the order of scenes. Variable Barricade often presents parallel views of events from different perspectives, and the Barricade Board is a neat way to highlight these structures.
In addition to the common Barricade Board, each love interest has level 1, 2, and 3 Barricade Boards. The level 1 boards are part of the common route and serve to familiarize you with the love interests. The level 2 and 3 boards can be considered the routes proper. Over the course of the boards, Hibari faces choices that will either increase her reason and the strength of her barricade, or the love interest’s romance and their ability to reach past her defenses. The climactic scene of each love interest board then features a Barricade Battle where, depending on your choices, either the love interest will break through the barricade to Hibari’s heart, or she will hold fast and turn them back. These battles play out on a chessboard with chibi animations. It’s fun and cute, but perhaps a little distracting in the final climax. The results of the Barricade Battles determine which ending you get. Each suitor has a good, bad, and normal ending. There are also a few extra bad endings you can reach by making specific choices.
Variable Barricade’s common route is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s a lot of great comedy in the banter among the suitors and their back-and-forths with Hibari. The problem is that initially almost everyone is unlikable or annoying. Ichiya is unadulterated cringe, Taiga is a jerk, Shion is a flake, and Nayuta is officious. Even Kasuga and Hibari’s grandfather often seem mostly interested in scoring points on her. The “hate to love” romcom is certainly an idea that can work, as in something like Leap Year, but it’s problematic here for two reasons. First, you have four unlikable love interests simultaneously rather than one pair of leads, and it’s just too much. Second, the pacing of a visual novel is slower than that of a romcom movie. You have to play a few hours into Variable Barricade before you start to warm up to any of the love interests, and that’s an ask.
Things do get better as you get further into the story. Each of the love interests has an event toward the end of their level 1 board that shows them in a softer light. By the time you pick your love interest and start their level 2 board, everyone in the main cast has had a chance to show off some of their redeeming features. The love interests you didn’t choose move into supporting role and simply start treating Hibari more kindly. It’s not a change Variable Barricade explores in much depth, but I still found it welcome.
Variable Barricade’s love interest routes vary in their themes and the dynamic of the romance, but all have a similar structure. The opening is lighthearted and sees Hibari and her love interest grow closer. The humor continues to shine here. Banter is even better now that you actually like the cast, and Hibari’s tsundere tendencies lead to cute and funny misunderstandings. She also has fun girl talk with her friends Tsumugi and Noa. Tsumugi is a hopeless romantic eager for juicy morsels she can squeal over, while the more level-headed Noa serves as a practical mentor. The beginnings of the love interest routes were consistently my favorite portions of Variable Barricade and where I felt the game hit its stride.
Around the halfway mark of each route, Variable Barricade swerves sharply into melodrama. A romance story will always have some obstacle for the couple to overcome, but Variable Barricade works hard to make it as big as possible. There are lies, schemes, and reveals aplenty. It’s effective at delivering a big impactful conclusion at the end, but getting there can be a bit of a slog.
A lot of the drama requires characters to behave in convoluted and obnoxious ways. Rather than build antagonists with well-developed motivations, Variable Barricade prefers to outsource the real reasons for the practical challenges Hibari faces as the Tojo heir to abstract or offscreen sources: disgruntled relatives, societal pressures, and family reputation to name a few. The ideas make sense for an Ojou-sama like Hibari, but the story’s engagement with them can be simplistic and unsatisfying. Characters who stand in as antagonists may be wont to reveal at the end that actually they always had Hibari’s best interests at heart, they were just going about things in the jerkiest way possible. For me, this is always a cheap redemption. Ultimately doing the right thing doesn’t erase putting someone through a great deal of suffering along the way. It’s also hard to not feel like much of the drama is manufactured. The problems are real but exaggerated by grandstanding and the assertion that the only way through the barricade is shocking emotional whiplash.
After completing the four love interest routes, the true route becomes available. This route answers questions that observant readers might have noticed lingering in the background but goes full soap opera to do so. It’s also too short to build up to build to a satisfying climax. I wasn’t impressed. A final true route is supposed to hit hard and bring things to a fitting conclusion, and this one falls flat.
Even if I didn’t like much of the drama, there’s still enjoyment to be found in the different romances. Nayuta’s is cute because he’s innocent in the sense that his heart is always in the right place, he’s just terminally dense. Shion’s presents an intriguing contrast between his and Hibari’s view of work and societal expectations. Shion won’t work but Hibari won’t relax. Is that any better? Ichiya ends up as an interesting take on the prince charming type, though unfortunately the good ending to his route is appalling. Taiga’s romance was enjoyable in a familiar way. The gruff exterior hiding a softer interior is something I’m used to from Western romcoms.
Each of the love interests has a short after story. Since the main story focuses on how they got together, I expected the after story to give a window into Hibari and her partner’s life as a couple. I suppose it does, but not in the way I hoped. The after stories consist primarily of Hibari and her partner rehashing and reflecting on important scenes from the main route. I would have preferred to see new material here.
Art, Sound, and Extras
Variable Barricade’s presentation is top-notch. The art looks great, and the sprites cycle through a range of expressions to complement the writing and voice acting. The UI design is incredibly stylish too. The base of the design is a chessboard and a wall of thorns, symbolizing the battle of love versus reason and barricades around Hibari’s heart, and embracing shapes and patterns gives everything a sleek, modern look. Characters comment when you select options from the menus, which is fun but leads to one small annoyance. These voiced lines are subtitled, and the subtitles sometimes cover the menus you’re trying to navigate.
The voice acting is likewise excellent. Hibari is even voiced, which is unusual for an otome protagonist, but welcome and adds a lot of expressiveness to her character. Her bashful whispers when she finally starts to open up and express her feelings simply pull at the heartstrings. The love interests are all well-acted too, from Nayuta’s machine-gun cadence to Ichiya’s schmaltzy chutzpah.
In addition to the usual gallery features, Variable Barricade offers extra content through WHIS, essentially Hibari’s text messages, and RABI, a surveillance robot gifted to her to keep an eye on the unruly suitors. Over time, RABI unlocks scenes of the suitors and Kasuga interacting around the house while Hibari is away. It’s a nice way to show they have lives even when offscreen, and maybe if you’re lucky RABI will even catch a steamy photo or two. As always with Otomate, the suite of customization options is impressive, including options to modify text speed, individual voice volumes, and the control scheme.
Variable Barricade is at its best when it leans into its inner romcom. Driven by a great protagonist and enjoyably quirky love interests, it has no shortage of sweet and funny moments. Unfortunately, the fun parts come with a generous side of tedious and manufactured melodrama. Overall though I still enjoyed Variable Barricade.
VARIABLE BARRICADE IS RECOMMENDED
If you would like to see more Otome Visual Novels, you may be interested in our review of Olympia Soiree or Cupid Parasite. Or how about checking out some of the other top visual novels for this year on our Top Visual Novels of 2021 list.
Many thanks go to Aksys Games for a Nintendo Switch 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.