What is it with visual novels getting me emotional? Last week was Emily is Away, which made me feel depressed over not having someone to be in contact with while I was in college, and now Carpe Diem, which strikes me as being like a visual novel as written by M. Night Shyamalan.
…Actually, that’s not entirely wrong, now I say that: this is one of those rare cases where I actually can’t talk about the whole plot of the game without spoiling it, because the ending relies upon you not knowing where the game is going right up until it pulls the rug from under your feet. While you could argue that there is a bit of foreshadowing in the visual novel, the game genuinely relies upon you buying into the narrative of the game up until the reveal of what is actually happening, which means that all I can say without spoiling anything is that the game starts out like a fairly typical visual novel (albeit with only one choice that doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things) and then, at the very end, has a twist which is surprisingly powerful if you’ve ever found yourself coping with loneliness through characters who aren’t real.
This kind of makes it difficult to critique the game’s story, because the likelihood is that the issues I could raise with the story are deliberately being done by the story to serve the point of it: it’s clearly wish fulfillment, but it’s being done deliberately to make the twist all the more powerful. It’s clearly cliche as all hell and totally unrealistic in terms of how relationships usually go, but the twist makes you realise that this is also deliberate. Since I don’t feel it right to spoil the twist, I can’t back up what I’m saying, but trust me, it all does make sense in context.
Still, I can critique a few things with this game. The art is actually not that bad, if maybe a bit basic overall due to it mostly consisting of a single character and a few backgrounds. However, this is not actually that unusual in visual novels: indeed, a lot of visual novels can be boiled down to stuff like that, so it’s only a disappointment if you go into it expecting a long game or are more used to more complex visual novels.
The length of the game is REALLY short (I got through it in about ten minutes, and I was taking the time to read most of the visual novel out loud as opposed to just skipping through it!), which I feel hurts the game because it doesn’t really give you the proper opportunity to get truly invested in the visual novel before it pulls the rug from underneath you, which undermines the twist a bit because it lacks some of the impact that it could have made had the game been a bit longer. Granted, you could make a fair case that the nature of the twist means a longer story would also hurt it to those who aren’t visual novel fans, but the point I have to raise is that most people who aren’t already fans of visual novels wouldn’t check this game out without being prompted to, so I think that appealing a bit more to the fans of visual novels by lengthening out the pre-twist part of the game a bit more would have still been a better move, as the short length does feel like it’s missed an opportunity to wrong foot readers by having them get properly invested in the story (albeit with some foreshadowing that something isn’t right) before it pulls off the twist. I wouldn’t say the story feels rushed through, but there was a lot of potential to expand it out and I find the fact that it wasn’t somewhat frustrating, as there is definitely a very strong idea for a visual novel in Carpe Diem that I just feel wasn’t realised properly.
I think the limited replayability is also an issue. With only three choices in the whole game (and one of them clearly being a quicker method of following story than the other two options), it’s really difficult to see anyone playing the game for more than an hour in total. I will concede that the story doesn’t really NEED more replayability to work, but I can’t see people replaying this a lot due to how few options it offers to the player. I know I’m asking a lot of a free game to have a lot of options to it, considering these are often projects by developers who are just getting started or doing it for fun, but a game which I feel offers little reason to replay it once it’s been played through once is still a flawed game to me, and, with visual novels, this is a REALLY big issue, since the interactivity is usually restricted down to just selecting options on a screen.
Ultimately, though, I do have to still go out of my way to recommend Carpe Diem. It’s not flawless, I’ll admit, and it will not be anyone’s game of the year by any measure, but the point it makes at the end of it is surprisingly sobering and makes it worth at least a single playthrough. Some people might not feel “Stick it out until the end” is a valid defence of a game, but this time, it’s really worth sticking it out until you reach the end of the game, as it redeems the rest of the game really well and puts most of the potential bugbears into a context which actually justifies them very nicely!