By Benny Carrillo / December 8th, 2015
|Release Date||November 18, 2015|
|Genre||Visual Novel, Romance, Trap|
AJTilley.com is becoming one of those publishers that seems to have a lot of good ideas, but doesn’t take the time to properly develop those ideas. We first saw this in Beach Bounce, which, while having a very interesting premise and story ideas, was marred with grammatical and technical issues. This is in addition to being split into three episodes with staggered releases. Today’s game, Highschool Romance, seems to repeat this pattern, but with the elements switched around a bit. What exactly do I mean? Well, let’s take a look at the game, starting with the premise.
Released on November 18, 2015, Highschool Romance stars Shoji, a young man who just transferred into an all-girls’ academy for his final year of high school due to some paperwork errors by his parents. Upon arriving at the school, Shoji is encouraged by the principal, Lea Rowen, to cross-dress as a girl and try to fit in, pointing out that, if he were to try and transfer elsewhere, the amount of paperwork and time it would take would put him behind in his studies and at a disadvantage as he prepares to transfer into a university. Thus begins the trap comedy that is Highschool Romance. Thrust into this strange new world, Shoji must find a way to hide the fact he’s a male, survive a year in the dorms, and possibly make some friends which could result in love blossoming. If you’re familiar with Himegoto or Otoboku: Maidens Are Falling For Me, then you’re probably already familiar with how this should play out. If not, we’ll get to that. First, though, the graphics.
Let me get this out of the way right off the bat. I strongly dislike this art style. I can’t put my finger on it, but it really just bothers me and feels like an imitation of an anime style rather than being done in an anime style. That said, the artwork is gorgeous. This is honestly some of the best artwork I’ve seen in a PC visual novel at this price. Despite my dislike of the style, it’s easy to tell there’s a lot of love and care that went into drawing and producing every asset of Highschool Romance. There is a problem, though, which is that, while the artwork produced is very good, there’s not nearly enough of it. Specifically, the character art. The main problem here is that characters aren’t expressive outside of the CGs. For example, at one point one of the girls, Hoshi, ends up drunk and her character art doesn’t change from her default smiling art. Out of the 160+ screenshots I took for this review, barely any of them show emotional change outside of the occasional blushing or a laugh. As such, you never quite make an emotional connection with the characters and you’re never quite pulled into the story. So, graphics are a mixed bag, but what about the music?
The music is actually pretty good. In fact, it’s probably the best part overall about Highschool Romance. While it’s not something I’d load onto my music player to just enjoy, every piece does fit the mood and help to convey what’s going on. Especially considering there’s no voice work in this one. However, for a game at this price point, I think that’s fine, especially as much of the budget probably went into the artwork. Really, I have no complaints here. The game design is where problems start to show up.
Visual novel game design is something that’s been pretty refined for years. Unless you’re adding features to make things easier for the player, there’s just a few basic elements you need to make sure they work properly. One of the most crucial of all being the skip read text feature which is there to make repeat playthroughs easier. I ran into some odd issues where Highschool Romance would not skip text even though I had already read it, or would skip text I hadn’t read yet. While the game can be patched to fix this (and may have, as the version this review is primarily based off of is 1.1 while the game was just updated to 1.2), it’s still a pretty basic feature to implement poorly. Route-wise, Highschool Romance does feature three routes, and getting through them is pretty easy. There is one route you can lock yourself out of very early on, but, due to the short nature of the game, starting over to follow it isn’t a major issue. As a whole technically, Highschool Romance is pretty sound, and there aren’t a ton of major issues. So, let’s dive into the story where things get more subjective and where the bulk of my complaints with this game are.
Let’s revisit the premise of Highschool Romance for a moment. Shoji has just transferred into an all-girls’ academy due to a mistake on his parents’ part. Because the premise is that Shoji is put into this odd situation, we can easily forgive any issue with the setup to this. In fact, the game tries to explain this by noting the school was originally co-ed until a few years ago and that his parents merely checked the wrong box for gender (which can still raise several other questions). A trap story really has only a few key points to hit to be successful. The character should struggle with maintaining their identity as the other gender. The character should probably (but not always) feel guilty for lying to others about their gender and for doing things they shouldn’t be doing (like being in the girl’s locker room while others are changing). And, finally, the unveiling of their true gender should be dramatic. It should a moment where the trap character is sweating bullets and wondering if they’re about to be shunned, or if the person who found out will be accepting of the circumstances no matter how bizarre they can be. The character making the discovery generally should have a moment of shock or crisis themselves even if it’s only for a few moments. Essentially, dramatic tension should be kept so that the payoff of the reveal feels rewarding to the reader; we can see the true colors of our characters, and the better aspects or flaws of humanity. This is where the story falls apart for me. There’s a lack of tension throughout most of the story, and a lot of situations come down to being told how things are going rather than shown.
As I mentioned in the graphics section, there’s a portion of Highschool Romance where Hoshi becomes drunk due to the two of you visiting a bar. There are several problems with this premise alone, namely the fact that neither the United States (21) nor Japan (20) allow students in high school to buy alcohol. Yes, it can be done and does happen, but visiting a karaoke bar and having the class rep get drunk feels out of place for the story. More specifically, we’re told from Shoji’s perspective how Hoshi is acting rather than being shown her antics. At least if we’re being shown the situation, we can laugh about it becomes enjoyable rather than awkward and confusing. This problem is compounded by the fact that everything is from Shoji’s perspective.
Visual novels often have a main character that the story focuses around and whose thoughts we most often hear. However, many visual novels either will shift perspective at times so we can see how other characters are considering certain situations, or at least give us another perspective. Take A Kiss For The Petals: Remembering How We Met, for example. While the story is told from Risa’s perspective, we do switch occasionally to Miya’s point of view so that we can see how certain actions are affecting both parties. Highschool Romance doesn’t do this, and, as such, we never quite get to see how certain decisions are reached. The most egregious being the handling of the main plot point: Shoji being a cross-dresser. The dramatic tension that should have been building is meaningless when characters claim that “they knew” all along. If we had seen them putting the pieces together that would be one thing, but to just have them basically say “I know” and just move on makes the entire plot completely inert. Does that mean there’s nothing good here? No, there is a good message to be had here, and that is one of acceptance.
If I were to claim that the story had some sort of underlying theme, it would be that there’s nothing wrong with crossdressing or identifying as the opposite gender. While our cast of characters is extremely small at four people, including Shoji, the cast is very accepting of Shoji once the truth comes out and don’t treat it like a big deal. Especially in this day and age where sexual and gender identity are major concerns, this is a good message and one that may resonate with players. Particularly those who enjoy trap-themed games. The problem is that it’s not integrated into the storyline well. A storyteller’s job is to weave a moral or message into the story so that we can see it in action. It’s another case of “show, don’t tell,” which seems to be a core problem with Highschool Romance. Let’s move on to the characters themselves before wrapping this up.
The cast falls pretty flat for me. We’ve already talked quite a bit about Shoji, but he fares the best. He feels guilty about the lies, but also tries not to take advantage of his situation by being a pervert. I think he’s a little too calm, cool, and collected at times, but he’s also the most well developed. Hoshi is the class representative and is my favorite of the three girls. She’s pretty normal and down to earth, but, for some reason, enjoys alcohol as I pointed out earlier. She’s very responsible, and it’s hinted that she has her own issues to work through. Sadly, however, we never see this. Selina is the most athletic of the three, and the most wild. Even if you’re not pursuing her, she’ll be the one pushing the plot towards its conclusion. I don’t mind her, but she really came off as far too pushy for my tastes. She is, however, a very accepting person. Principal Rowen is the last love interest and has the most bizarre route. It’s here where Shoji feels most like a male, which makes sense as Principle Rowen knows his secret. What doesn’t quite work is their relationship. The game just kind of has them flirt and make out quite a bit. It’s honestly more sexually charged than the rest of the game and feels out of place. In addition, while it’s hinted that their relationship is taboo, for obvious reasons, Highschool Romance once again doesn’t use this to create tension. It’s just swept under the rug. Acknowledging the taboo helps to build the tension and shows that both characters are struggling with their feelings. It gives the audience a reason to support the pairing and helps to ease us into accepting it. Without that acknowledgement, it feels hollow and could be misinterpreted as an abuse of power. Highschool Romance saves itself from going that far, but it still feels clumsy. With all that said, let’s close this review out with my final thoughts
Highschool Romance has been one of the hardest games I’ve had to review up to now. There’s a ton of things I really dislike about it, and I myself would not buy it. That said, a review is more than just the opinion of the reviewer. It is a factor, but to ignore the technical merits of Highschool Romance is doing it a disservice and is nothing more than an insult to its publisher and creators. The quality of the art is top notch, the soundtrack enjoyable, and the overall message of Highschool Romance is an interesting one. At the very least, it is a unique take on the idea of the trap comedy. At $10 and lasting about six hours to fully complete it, it’s not a horrible value. It really is going to come down to whether you like the art style and if the clumsy handling of the plot will bother you. For me, this is one romance I am more than glad to break up with and never see again.
Highschool Romance was provided by the publisher and played on a Windows 10 laptop via Steam.
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