By Chris Melchin / October 1st, 2015
Little Busters! is a visual novel developed by legendary developer Key and Jun Maeda, the same mind behind Clannad, Angel Beats!, and the recent anime series Charlotte, among others. If you know any of those series, you could probably already tell that Little Busters is going to be a crazy, emotional ride. Before I go on, I should mention that there are two major versions of this game: the original all-ages release, titled simply Little Busters!, and a re-release with extra routes and added sexual scenes for all the girls titled Little Busters! Ecstasy. This is a review of the original version.
First of all, Little Busters is a very long game if you plan to see everything. In order to really finish the game, you need to read all six girls’ routes, followed by de facto female lead Rin Natsume’s route a second time to unlock the final route, Refrain. It’s a very long process, but the auto-skip function lets players quickly skip through text they’ve read in a previous playthrough until it hits new text. It makes the entire process quicker and less tedious, but it will still be a major commitment to read everything.
Not to say that I minded the commitment. Little Busters’ story is absolutely fantastic. Each character has a very well-written route, and each has something to contribute to protagonist Riki Naoe’s growth. The game also beautifully incorporates the multiple story routes into an overarching story, with the common route before each character route evolving in subsequent playthroughs following the first to illustrate the emotional development of Riki and Rin Natsume over the course of the story. Refrain does an excellent job of tying everything else together and providing a framing device for the rest of the game.
It may be easy to assume Little Busters is just another slice-of-life romance visual novel upon first glance, especially while reading the early common route and even moreso if one is unfamiliar with Jun Maeda’s writing style and credits. However, after the individual routes start, it’s not long before the darker parts hit, and hit HARD. The routes where I found they hit the hardest would be for Komari Kamikita (the first route I read, so I didn’t see it coming here), Kudryavka Noumi (see her Building Character article for details, if you don’t mind spoilers), and Haruka Saigusa, not to mention the Refrain route at the end. Refrain is notable for being the first story I’ve ever seen that has ever made me actually start crying partway through, and it really makes all the other routes you need to get through to read it worth your time.
As a visual novel, Little Busters is naturally somewhat lacking in the gameplay department, but, unlike many other visual novels, it does feature a number of fully interactive segments, although they are optional and can be ignored if the player so desires. Brief batting practice segments happen daily as the Little Busters, the main characters’ impromptu baseball team, prepare for their first and only game. This continues throughout the common route, until the game at the end of the route. The batting practice provides a fun little distraction from the main plot, in addition to boosting the characters’ stats after each session is done.
The other main minigame comes in the form of battles, part of a ladder system wherein the characters fight each other in order to get to the top of the rankings. The battles are completely non-interactive, with everything automatically done and victory being determined by the aforementioned stats and whatever ridiculous weapon the characters randomly receive in the fight (such as a foldable paper plane, a set of balloons which function as mines, and a group of cats, among many others). Like the batting practice, it provides a fun little distraction and actually unlocks one of the game’s hidden endings.
The music is worth its own mention; the game’s opening theme is appropriately titled Little Busters! and has been remixed for each release of the game, as well as the first anime and Little Busters! EX OVA series, plus an alternate version at the true end of the Refrain route. Interestingly, the opening version from the original and the ending Little Jumper version are my least favorite versions of the song, with the Ecstasy and EX anime versions being my favorites. Not that it devalues the song at all; the only reason why I feel the original is lacking is because I heard the other versions before I heard it. The route ending themes are fantastic, as well; the upbeat rock song Alicemagic; the slower, more laid-back Sunshine After the Rain; and the slow, emotional Song for Friends. All of these songs, as well as the insert song Faraway, feature vocalist Rita, who also appears in a number of Jun Maeda’s other works. The regular background music is also great, coming from Maeda, as well as fellow composers PMMK, Manack, Orito Shinji, and Togoshi Magome. Particular standouts include Rin’s theme Ring Ring Ring!, the relaxing Slow Curve, and the unsettling A World Where Nothing Happened. The voice acting is also solid; I noticed no particular issues, but I’m a better judge of English voice acting than Japanese. It’s possible that someone who speaks Japanese may notice problems that I don’t pick up on because I don’t know the language.
That isn’t to say that Little Busters is perfect. The art style in particular is really subject to taste. I first saw it in Key’s later visual novel Rewrite and when I watched Clannad, so it all seems normal to me. However, I’ve talked to friends of mine who aren’t so fond of it, and it definitely takes some getting used to if you’re new to Key’s work. Art style can make or break a visual novel, since disliking the art can make it very hard to get into the story. Not to mention that it will consume many hours of your time if you decide to tackle it for yourself; my playthrough took over 50 hours in total. The game can be found on sale on Amazon Japan for just over 3000 yen (roughly $25 USD) new (plus shipping), while imported copies on PSP, PS3 and PS Vita can easily run over $50 USD, and those have no translations available for them. Newer versions such as Ecstasy or Little Busters! Perfect Edition, which features the three routes added in Ecstasy without the adult content are available, as well, and will cost more, closer to $100 USD. Perfect Edition has not been translated by fan translators, and only an incomplete one can be found for Ecstasy.
Little Busters is undoubtedly one of my favorite games of all time, it says so right down there in my profile. If you like Jun Maeda and visual novels in general, and have a lot of time to spare, I absolutely recommend tracking down a copy and a translation. Only the somewhat limited nature and appeal that comes with being a visual novel keeps me from giving this game a perfect score.
Review copy purchased by author; fan translation used
Jun MaedaKeyLittle Busters!retro reviewVisualArt's