Considering I’ve spent most of my time over the last few days playing a bunch of games, it’s quite surprising that I’ve not talked about visual novels yet. After all, visual novels and video games can overlap quite a bit, depending on what the visual novel implements as part of it, and an argument could arguably be made that a video game with a particularly strong story is just a more interactive visual novel (although it would be stretching the definition of “visual novel” quite a good amount to make that argument, I will admit!).
So, for the benefit of those not familiar with visual novels, a visual novel is basically a game where the focus is on telling the story over interactivity (kind of like Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace, I guess). Usually, a visual novel has just options where the player may select what they feel is the best option to handle a situation, but some of them have games in them (one that I’m currently playing in my free time and MAY do a review of later has you basically learn how to play Poker as part of it and I remember one free game I played years back which had a first person fighting game in it). While there is a general trend of dating sims being visual novels (which I think is partially down to the fact that trying to do a serious romance novel in most other video game genres tends to result in a very dull game if you don’t shake things up with nightmare dream sequences and the like), there are a wide variety of options out there for visual novels (indeed, the earlier mentioned visual novel I’m playing through at the moment has a strong undertone of horror and investigation as part of it, despite the main focus of the game not being on those genres).
Obviously, a lot of people will probably be thinking “Well, how are visual novels games? They sound just like interactive stories to me.”
Well, yes, you’re right: a lot of visual novels probably would be better defined as interactive stories rather than games. However, a visual novel can often have a game (usually not a game that would be regarded as a serious game by most gamers, but a game nonetheless) as part of them, sometimes tied so deeply to the game that you can’t have one without the other. HuniePop arguably counts in this regard, but there’s also those games where you have stats to level up while still going through the game in the fashion of reading a novel, like Long Live The Queen. This can put the whole “visual novel” definition in a bit of a grey area, even among people who like both interactive stories and video games: what makes a visual novel a game and what keeps it purely an interactive story?
There’s a lot of answers to this one and, of course, there’s a lot of disagreement over definitions among various groups of people, but my personal take on it is that, if there’s an aspect of skill to an interactive novel (for example, you have stats to level up which affect your options in the game), then it’s usually fair to say that there’s at least elements of a game in it. This doesn’t mean an interactive story isn’t entertaining in its own right, obviously, and that definition doesn’t cover all possibilities (does an interactive story where every outcome is based purely upon luck count as a game or not?), but it certainly can help when you’re unsure whether to label something as a game or not.
In that aspect, I have to say that the two games I want to talk about today, Invisible Apartment (developed by Milan Kazarka and Jeroen van Oosten and published by Vysoko Anime Production, which I have a suspicion is the same people as the developers due to them having the same games connected to them on Steam) and Without Within (developed and published by InvertMouse, who has also done the games Unhack and Bermuda and is currently working on a game called Cursed Sight), are arguably more along the line of interactive stories than visual novels. Both rely purely on dialogue choices to guide them along, with no stats or game as part of them, and there’s not really anything that is skill related to them: anyone can play them, regardless of their skills at video games, and be on an even foothold. This makes it hard to call them “games” in the traditional sense, hence the slightly confusing title.
But all of this is glossing over one thing: why am I reviewing these two visual novels together?
Honestly, it’s a case of me choosing NOT to be lazy: I literally could copy-paste a review of one of them over to the other and, beyond having to change the settings of the games, a few names and a few comments, I would have summed up my thoughts on them perfectly. I am not exaggerating in the slightest: they manage to get almost exactly the same reaction from me on just about all aspects of them! However, I figured you guys might not want to read basically the same review twice, so I decided to tackle them both at once, as it would probably be the more interesting read.
…Also, I don’t know what the copy-paste command is on my laptop and I’m too lazy to look it up, but that’s not important! (OK, not really: I genuinely thought the double review would be the more interesting article. Although I will admit that the joke is kind of true as well: I don’t know the keyboard shortcuts to copy something and paste it, I just know the right mouse click options!)
So, what are Invisible Apartment and Without Within about? Well, both of them have surprisingly different stories, of which I have to be honest and admit that Without Within has the more interesting one due to it actually being kind of unique. Invisible Apartment involves a hacker (nicknamed Bunny for most of the game, but her real name is Kacey, if you really want to know) who manages to stumble across an apartment that is invisible to the government while trying to track down another hacker and…well, that’s really about it in terms of story. There are a few other elements, like a character named Alex who has a relative in a sleeper tank (basically, where unconscious people are kept alive on life support), but the main story can be summed up like that. It’s nothing new, but it’s handled OK, I guess. Without Within is basically a day in the life of a struggling calligrapher, Vinty, who stumbles across a game that reignites her passion for calligraphy. Nothing too major, but it does give a surprisingly realistic portrayal of what you’d expect the life of a person who has devoted themselves purely to art to be like, which isn’t as common as you’d expect from visual novels.
With both of the games, I have to give credit to the artwork. Without Within is more along the lines of what you’d expect from an anime in terms of art style, but Invisible Apartment does have an anime aesthetic to it as well (although, in fairness, would you expect to see someone with pink hair or green hair in anything outside of an anime?). Beyond the main character of Invisible Apartment having pink (and, later, green) hair, the character designs are fairly natural, so you’re not going to see people wandering around looking like they’ve borrowed a wig from Hatsune Miku or something like that (which begs the question of why a hacker, the sort of person who you would expect to want to AVOID being seen by people, is the one with weirdly colored hair, but maybe I’m overthinking things a bit here). Even the backgrounds are surprisingly good in both games. I think my only major complaint is with Kacey from Invisible Apartment, as something about her face whenever she has her scanner/glasses off in conversation scenes seems a bit off to me. It’s not TOO big a problem, as she nearly always has them on, but it is a problem nonetheless.
The music for both games is pretty good, fitting the moods of the games perfectly without distracting from the games at all. I do have a complaint with one bit of music from Invisible Apartment (I know it looks like I’m ragging on Invisible Apartment a lot, but it’s genuinely just a case that I have minor complaints with it which I can’t really put into one paragraph at the end due to the way I’m doing this article, none of which I have with Without Within), as it has a VERY audible loop point which frustrated me so much that I ended up just muting the song just because it was annoying me that much, but that’s the only music related issue I could think of.
The two big problems I have with both visual novels are ones which I feel I highlight. The first one is that neither visual novel is very long. Now, in fairness, both visual novels are intended as the starting point of a series of visual novels (indeed, Invisible Apartment already has a prequel, Invisible Apartment Zero, which I’ve not had a chance to play prior to writing this review, but which seems to be explaining how Kacey ended up becoming a hacker), so you could argue quite fairly that it’s more intending to give people a brief look into the settings and decide whether to stick with them or not, but there’s a difference between “short, but satisfying” and “…That’s it?” and, sadly, both games fall into the latter for me. Even if you take the time to play through every path and take your time with them all (I didn’t), you could probably completely go through them both in less than two hours each, which isn’t really enough to get a solid idea of what the stories are building up towards, and both end rather abruptly because they don’t so much come to a conclusion as they just…end. Some people won’t have a problem with this, but I personally found it quite frustrating!
The second big problem is that neither game really gives you any alternative routes. With both games, you really get the feeling that the story has been planned in advance and, if you try to go for the option that isn’t the one the developer intended, you might as well just get a game over screen come up. This not only drastically reduces the replayability of both of them (you pretty much only have to play through them until you get the good ending and then you never have to play them again), but it really begs the question of why you’re even given the options in the first place if the game only goes forward if you select the option the developer wants from you rather than giving you the chance to experiment. I’m REALLY hoping that both developers improve upon this one in the sequels to both games, because I personally found this a bit disappointing.
I also have to say that the logic behind some of the choices for Without Within is a bit questionable. I do understand why you wouldn’t want to attack or rant while in the middle of the street (not a lot of point in risking getting put in prison just because people aren’t paying attention to you or don’t like your work), but I got bad endings for opting not to play a video game (I know it advances the plot forward for a very good reason, but it still looks very weird on paper!), choosing to put Vinty being on time for her job over helping a lost child (considering the protagonist still had to pay rent at that point and hadn’t got their monthly pay to make the risk of losing their job feel worth it, I felt it a bit harsh that I got a game over for making that choice, despite feeling awful over making that decision prior to selecting that option!) and opting to stay in bed over answering the door for the landlord (which, considering she lets you have a few extra days to pay your rent anyway if you DO answer it, kind of makes the whole encounter pointless, especially since it’s never stated anywhere that the landlord couldn’t come back later in the day!), none of which felt entirely fair! Considering the ending of the visual novel is pretty much what you’d EXPECT to see if you’d gone for the rant/attack options when on the street, on top of that, it really feels like the story wasn’t properly thought through, which is really disappointing. Invisible Apartment does have a better thought through story: I never found myself questioning the logic behind the decisions I had to make and, when I got bad endings, I felt it was because I actually had made a bad decision than because I was getting penalized for making a sensible decision that just wasn’t what the developer wanted me to do.
Ultimately, both games are decent enough visual novels (or interactive stories, depending on what you feel is the more accurate description of them). They have their issues, but, considering they’re available for free and are intended to start off series, I can’t get too annoyed with them. Hopefully, the developers will be able to improve upon the issues of the first installments in their respective series in the future, because I am actually interested to see where they go with them from here!