By Benny Carrillo / November 23rd, 2015
|Title||Norn 9: Var Commons|
|Developer||Otomate, Idea Factory|
|Release Date||November 3, 2015|
|Genre||Visual Novel, Otome Novel|
|Platform||PlayStation Vita, PlayStation TV|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Teen|
Otome novels are a genre that often sadly get ignored due to the fact that you are a female protagonist and your goal usually is to develop a romantic relationship with one of the male characters. For male gamers, this can be an uncomfortable prospect at times. As such, the Otome genre often caters to a female audience and really focuses on the development of relationships and character building as opposed to an overall plot. Norn9: Var Commons attempts to address this by giving you a choice between three protagonists, who each have three love interests for a total of nine possible routes. All this happens while setting the backdrop in a world on the brink of World War I, yet with some very intriguing differences, such as the fact that guns do not exist in this world for some reason. Does it succeed? Is this the game that will finally prove that Otome novels have something to offer to everyone? Let’s start our search for that answer with a bit of history regarding the game.
The game was originally released as Norn9: Norn+Nonette in Japan on May 30, 2013 for the PlayStation Portable. The game was developed by Otomate (Amnesia: Memories, Code: Realize – Guardian of Rebirth) and published by Idea Factory (Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth3 – V Generation , Sorcery Saga: Curse of the Great Curry God.) The game was then ported to the PlayStation Vita as Norn9: Var Commons and released in Japan on December 11, 2014. This version was then localized by Aksys Games (BlazBlue: Chrono Phantasma, XBlaze: Lost Memories) and was released on November 3, 2015, which is the version we’re reviewing today. Speaking of the review, let’s start the analysis with the graphics and artwork.
Let me get this out right away. This game is gorgeous. In my review for A Kiss For The Petals: Remembering How We Met, I mentioned how I’d like to see more visual novels adopt HD graphics. The visuals are so important to the experience, and Norn9 is exactly what I want to see done more in the future. Everything from the CGs to the character artwork to even the menu and screen interface just looks lovely. This even applies to Norn Quest, a minigame done in a retraux style which we’ll touch upon later. In short, it’s a top-notch experience that I hope more visual novels start to emulate. Thankfully, the music also follows this pattern.
The big name attached to the soundtrack is Nobuo Uematsu of Final Fantasy fame who composed the game’s main theme (melee). However, the real hero of this soundtrack is its composer, Kevin Penkin. The soundtrack for this game is really good and it’s something I can just sit and listen to by itself. It’s definitely a more relaxing soundtrack than an energetic one, but it’s very enjoyable and thankfully the game has a BGM player. The only complaint I had sound wise is that there’s one alarm sound effect that gets used in a few places that is just outright annoying and goes on for far too long. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s a pretty small nitpick. So, if the sound and graphics are good there has to be something wrong with the game design, right? Well… not exactly.
The game is actually designed pretty smartly. You start off as a young boy named Sorata Suzuhara. You’ll play the prologue chapter as him as you get to know the other heroines. Chapter 1 has you select a heroine and, from there, you’ll get to know the three guys who will serve as potential love interests and partners. At the end of chapter one you’ll select which bachelor to pursue, and Chapters 2-7 will be following their path. One thing that may bother some people is that each heroine has one path that is locked at the start and, to open it, you must clear one of the other paths. In fact, the game recommends playing through one particular path first as each girl to serve as an explanation for the complicated backstory of the world. Personally, I don’t have a major problem with the decision to lock certain routes despite otherwise being a pretty open game. Without the context of the other routes, these locked ones don’t make as much sense.
Speaking of choices, each route of course has around seven to ten choices — some timed — and you’ll know almost immediately if your choice was correct in most cases, as the game has a handy icon that pops up when you increase your partner’s affection. There’s one character who also has a secondary meter which can’t be seen in the menu, but the icon that pops up when that stat increases is very distinct. Throughout the game, you can also end up getting Game Overs by making certain choices (my favorite being death by candy) or by not raising your partner’s affection stat high enough by the end of Chapter 7. Thankfully, quicksave and quickload are available, as well as a handy rewind feature that can be accessed through the log. Of course, the standard visual novel mechanics of text skipping are available to make repeat playthroughs easier. Once you clear a route, though, there’s still quite a bit to do.
Upon successful completion of a route, you’re awarded points. These points are spent in the Norn Store where you can buy single-chapter short stories, illustrations, four-panel comics, and even unlock the BGM player. Points can also be earned by playing Norn Quest, which is, as previously mentioned, a retraux style minigame. It’s really a game of chance more than anything else as you’ll pick one character to “play” as, and the computer will pick three “enemy” characters. From there a series of events plays out based on who was chosen and how they normally react to your character. For example, picking one of the heroines and running across a love interest generally results in you gaining points. Conversely, picking a male and running into a rival can cause you to lose points. After all three characters are encountered, the amount of points you gained or lost (you can end up gaining negative points) are added to your current total points. It can be a way to gain points very quickly to unlock things, but, other than for a trophy, it’s not necessary. It’s really just a harmless time waster, though some of the dialogue is honestly funny. As much as I like this game, we need spend a few moments talking about the localization and the problems that it contains.
Localized games can be very odd to review because many of the initial problems that are part of the game aren’t actually the fault of the localizer but come from the original Japanese version, such as with Corpse Party: Blood Drive. Norn9, though, is one of those weird cases where the localization introduces problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place, namely text formatting and grammatical errors. While the grammatical errors aren’t quite to the level of Beach Bounce, they still can be pretty bad at times. The worst of which I noticed was Mikoto suddenly speaking as if she was Nanami when asked if she put her to bed by Sakuya. The other major issue is the formatting of the text in the textboxes. These boxes can hold a maximum of four lines of text. I don’t expect every box to be filled with four lines, but there were a few times during my playthrough that I would run in partial one-line sentences that would take three textboxes. While I do understand this is more of a coding issue, it still feels very lazy. Then there are the minor things. Koharu always refers to Kakeru as Yuiga (his last name), despite the audio and his name box calling him Kakeru, as well as Itsuki being unable to make up his mind on what to call Akito (Aki or Aku) in the text. I’m honestly disappointed about this. Aksys Games isn’t a small indie developer where I might be able to excuse this. This is a major publisher with good resources. These problems don’t ruin the game, but they are an annoyance and really shouldn’t have happened in the first place. With these issues, why do I still say it doesn’t ruin the game? Well, let’s delve into the actual story and I’ll explain.
While the graphics, music, and game design are all top notch, what really makes this game shine is its story. As I mentioned, you begin the game as Sorata who, during a trip to the Japanese Diet building in modern times (referred to as the Heisei era), finds himself suddenly thrown back in time to the Taisho Era — specifically just before World War I. From there, Sorata becomes the player surrogate as he struggles to cope with what is happening and starts to realize that certain things don’t add up despite the time jump. Namely, how other people can have superpowers or that a flying ship exists. The use of Sorata as a framing device works rather well and serves to introduce us to the three heroines: Koharu, Mikoto, and Nanami. From there, as mentioned, we then learn about each of their possible love interests and partners and are able to select what route to pursue. Even with nine routes, there are actually quite a few differences between each one. While there are some common events (Chapters 5 and 7 have a few scenes the game allows you to skip if you’ve seen them before), for the most part, it’s fascinating to see how the simple action of choosing a different partner and fostering that relationship can have drastic effects on the story. Also, the game entices you to play through each route by having only some clues as to the world’s backstory in certain routes. So, as you play each story, you’ll start to slowly put the pieces together and come to understand what’s going on. While the focus of the game isn’t the world’s backstory, it’s still extremely well done and gave me quite the surprise once I learned what was actually going on and the truth behind “The World,” the entity that has been guiding your group the whole story. Now, let’s take a look at the primary reason the story exists; the character relationships and romance.
As much as I’d like to cover the characters in depth, I just don’t have the space in this review for that. However, if there is one thing Norn9 does better than anything else, I’d argue that it’s developing the romance between the heroine and the chosen bachelor. Because you’re locked into a route so early on, the story has time to cultivate and develop the interactions between them. Heck, they even went as far as to allow you to tap some images in certain places in the CG viewer to hear what the characters were thinking at that moment. There are awkward moments between the two as they start to figure out their feelings for each other — the hard questions that come when you’re afraid of what you’re feeling because no one has made you feel this way before and, in the end, having to make some very hard choices in some routes that can end in tragedy or even have you at odds with everyone else in order to pursue your love interest. That’s not to say the story is as dark as Amnesia: Memories. There’s an underlying tone of hope — that love can win out in the end and you can find happiness. It’s a story about choices and the lengths we’ll go through for someone we care about even if the world becomes our enemy. People often complain there are no good romance visual novels out there — that the genre only exists for fan service’s sake. If you’ve been waiting for a game that has a serious romantic plot — even daring to admit your heroine is sleeping with her lover in some routes (nothing is shown, this is a T rated game after all) — then this is what you’ve been waiting for. Let’s go ahead and wrap this up.
Norn9: Var Commons is an excellent experience and is a shining example of why Otome games are so popular in Japan. That being said, there are some issues as I’ve noted. While the graphics, music, game design and writing are superb, Aksys Games’ localization isn’t up to what it should be. Also, we need to consider the price. While you’re getting a story that can span 30-50 hours, it’s also going to cost you $40. With the localization issues, I can’t recommend this as a must-buy, as much as I want to. Wait for it to come down to about $30 or go one sale via the PlayStation Network if the localization issues will bother you. If the localization concerns and price aren’t a problem for you, then give this a shot. While Otome novels will continue to be focused on a female demographic, I do think Norn9 is one of those stories that transcends the gender boundary to just tell a good story about the struggles of life and finding one’s own path through the confusing world we all call love.
Review copy provided by publisher and played using a PlayStation Vita and PlayStation TV
AksysIdea FactoryNorn9: Var CommonsOperation RainfalloprainfallOtomatePlayStation Vitavisual novel