Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Oh Tearie Me: A Review of Sepia Tears

Written By: Platitude

This review is (pretty much) spoiler free!

    Oh, visual novels... If there is a single medium that is more entrenched in pure, modern Japanese culture, I'll eat my School Rumble figurine set. Sure, manga and Ukiyo-e prints are both recognized by us otaku as bastions of Japan-ness, but Korea has their manhwa and China is typically considered to be the place of genesis for woodblock prints, so neither of these groups of works are exclusively Japanese. On the other hand, show a visual novel-style game to any westerner, and they'll immediately recognize the work as a product of Japan. They won't say it's from somewhere in Asia, but will instead gravitate their answer towards that little chain of islands that we all love. 

This is a manhwa. It's absolute tripe.
    Visual novels have experienced a surge of popularity in recent years, a pattern that can probably trace its roots back to the increased exportation of anime based on visual novels (such as Steins;Gate and Idolm@ster: Xenoglossia), and those with visual novels as a central theme (such as The World God Only Knows). However, most casual fans of anime and manga, as well as quite a few hardcore otakus still have not played a visual novel. The three most prominent reasons for this that I can surmise are the medium's aforementioned distance from western culture, the stereotype that all are innocence-snapping breastravaganzas, and the reluctance that some people possess to playing what is in their mind a video game with very little input on the part of the player. While I can understand and even sympathize with all of these points, I personally believe that visual novels are an under-appreciated group of gems, many examples of which I would put in my group of the greatest pieces of entertainment of all time.

    Well, I'd put a few.
    Well, I'd put a couple. 
    Well, I'd put one.

Go ahead and say it. Capitalize on my fan-boyishness in the comments. I'm a raving Steins;Gate fanatic.
    Alright, I guess I have to admit that there aren't very many examples of the genre that I'd hold in extremely high regards. As much as I am a proponent of utilizing the medium as an innovative method of storytelling that can weave complex narrative threads in ways not possible in video games or film, I feel that visual novels have never really used their potential to the fullest extent, preferring to wallow in mediocre harem titles and innocence-snapping breastravaganzas. Even so, I've made it a point to keep an eye on this realm of entertainment, hoping to one day discover a work worthy of the highest levels of praise I can deliver, one that elevates ideas in never-before seen ways and delivers a thrill-ride of emotions out of the reach of even the greatest manga or anime. So on that note, here's Sepia Tears, a free-to-play visual novel by Studio NEET for computers and Android devices, and another addition to the list of shit that the medium doesn't need.

It's not really sepia, is it?
    The game's story has us follow some bloke named Mark, a character whose personality is the closest one can get to resembling the cold, dead vacuum of space. I apologize for someone as non-British as me utilizing a colloquialism as exclusively British as "some bloke," but trust me when I say that there's no other phrase in the entirety of the English language that embodies him in a more efficient way. He's a faceless stranger in the crowd, differentiated by all of the other blank, nameless jack-offs solely by being the person we have to be riveted to throughout the course of this travesty.

When I say that Mark is a faceless protagonist, I'm not even joking. I think that this is the only shot we get of his features. 
    "Wait a second!" A voice shouts, its source bursting through the door leading into my room, wrenching the keyboard from my hands, and then proceeding to slap me about the head with it. "How can you say such things about Mark? He's not dull in the slightest!"

    "Oh, really?" I reply, as my cheeks begins to swell from repeated blows to my face until I resemble a chipmunk duct-taped to an air pump. "Give me one good reason why he doesn't deserve the Frodo Baggins Award for the Most Boring Main Character."

    "Well, he has a past that he wishes to forget!"

    "What, is he like a former serial killer or something? Is he actually a space alien from the planet Cygnus X-1, who came here to destroy the human race as part of an anti-humanity task-force but instead fell in love with the planet, so now he's in hiding from his former comrades, living a quiet life as a ravioli-maker?"

    "No, but he was rejected by a girl he liked!"

    "... So, do you want to give the acceptance speech for the award now, or do you have to prepare first?" I ask, after a long pause.

This work actually reminds me quite a bit of another visual novel named True Tears. Both games have "tears" in the name, and both are atrocious. 
    So we follow this tissue-thin character in a variety exploits, all of which revolve around five stock characters so entrenched in their respective archetypes that it makes me wonder if this story's author had an original thoughts kicking around in his head at all. There's Rin, Mark's bubbly little sister, Lukas, Mark's best friend who's so close to the "Shū Maiko Singularity" that it's almost disturbing, Lillian, an angsty bookworm and the focal point of one of the most retarded love triangles I've seen in a long time, and Myra, a flighty, eccentric girl who has something to do with Mark's past.

Someday, I'm going to compile a list of all megane characters that are otakus, perverts, or both.
    Don't worry if you haven't yet decided which of these awful characters bore you the least, because you'll hate all of them equally after playing through the story. While Sepia Tears' major storyline is supposedly centered around Mark's past and the role Myra plays in it, the game attempts to dredge up issues on every member of Mark's little group, padding out the plot into what the game claims to be a 40,000 word story. Now, this is something that I simply cannot believe, as the game feels much, much longer.

Or, we could get on with the actual plot for once... No? Fine, you just keep boring me, game...
    This work really feels like its writer got all of his ideas from a How to Make a Visual Novel... For Dummies guide or something. Besides it being as creatively bankrupt as Nintendo, the actual writing of the game makes the story both so completely impenetrable that Marian Rejewski would be reduced to fits of sputtering rage, and as childishly predictable as Sesame Street. The author has clearly subscribed to the school of thought that believes ambiguity to be indicative of a deep, well-written tale, but has not fully internalized the concept. Sure, a touch of mystery can make for great, thought-provoking moments, but Sepia Tears instead reads like every alternate page of its original draft had been ripped out during the visual novel's production. 

Remember how I said that Lillian was part of a love triangle? I didn't even figure this out until right before this subplot gets resolved, when we're very nearly at the end of the game. That's right, the very end. Sure, this could be forgiven if this was just a minor piece of the work's story, and I'll even factor in the chance that I may have missed something that was mentioned earlier on due to my own personal retardation, but what makes this absolutely inexcusable is that one of the other points in this love triangle is Mark. 

    Yes, that Mark. 

You know, Lillian's hands are quite large, especially for an anime character. It's actually pretty creepy.
    I may be Retard McDumDum XII, but even the most clueless imbecile should be aware of something this important to the plot. This is ostensibly a tale of romance, and an utterly pedestrian one at that, so why the hell is it so obtuse? We're not watching Inception, people! In fact, I managed to figure out that Lillian was in love with Lukas (the third corner of this triangle) before the chance of Mark lusting after her even crossed my mind. 

Oh, like you can talk, Mark. I wouldn't be complaining about your stupid romantic issues otherwise.
    You know what, I take back what I said. Botched attempts at ambiguity aren't really the cause of problems like this, nor do I believe it to be the author's main goal. Sure, it's an aspect that's still definitely present, and removing any informative text from the design document doesn't make the novel any less of a nightmare to read, but it isn't the main reason why I hate this game's story as much as I do. 

What does make me hate it is that the game's main plot, even once it has been deciphered, is about as dishwater-dull as a romance can get. None of the subplots that focus on individual characters seem to go anywhere, and could therefore be completely removed and one would end up with basically the exact same overarching story, one that has not lost any comprehensibility during the edit. Actually, the plot would probably be made more understandable by this weight loss, which comes with the added bonus of a paradigm shift on the part of the reader: All of the business with the Mark-Lillian-Lukas love triangle or the presence of Rin as a whole are not for world-building. Instead, they're can now be seen as just bells and whistles, gaudy trinkets to distract the reader from the crushing monotony of the main story between Mark and Myra.

Gee, how did you notice that I was bored, Rin? Oh, you're talking to Mark. Never mind. 
    The game being produced by a group calling themselves Studio NEET really is fitting, isn't it? It honestly feels as if the story writers have never spoken to another human being. I would go so far as to say that it has been quite a long time since I've seen such amazingly bad writing. With a dearth of description that's a definite detriment to demystifying dubious details, this is a script that I would expect to find on a site like FictionPress, not the Google App Store. If we remove the possibility of the game possessing a writer that forces ambiguity into the story like an exotic animal smuggler would attempt to stash a flock of kookaburras in his car's glove compartment, then we are left only with an author who is attempting to create a solely speech and character-driven plot, but is completely unaware of the fact that all of their efforts at writing dialogue produces what sounds like a conversation between an extremely thick person and one of those internet chat-bots.

Yandere. There you go. Your aphorism can suck it!
    I have the suspicion that the developers intended for this game to have multiple paths, as indicated by the absolutely pointless choices that the game occasionally presents to the reader (and which have no impact on the story whatsoever), but the creators just lost the will to live or something after completing only the first storyline and the remainder of the team was forced to hurriedly stitch up what they had before the deadline arrived, which would explain all of the unconnected plot threads. Of course, it could just be that the potential for visual novels to utilize a unique brand of storytelling has apparently flown over the heads of Studio NEET. There's absolutely no reason why this couldn't be a light novel. Hell, there's absolutely no reason why this couldn't have been a manga, anime, puppet show, or zoetrope.

This is completely unrelated, but I found this beautiful painting by Nagi Yanagi by Googling "anime zoetrope." Very pretty.
    Actually, I'm going to assume that the answer to the question of why Sepia Tears is a visual novel is simply that it's the best medium by which to elevate a cut-rate romance story into a marketable product. While it may be little more than a glorified PowerPoint presentation, it at least looks like it took a lot of effort, meaning that many small companies (Studio NEET included) enter the market with a visual novel or two, in order to get their name out. As much as I support third-party development, I would actually theorize that this steady stream of low-budget indie titles is hurting the market. As many of these works are free, or at least cheap enough to fall within the financial restrictions of basically all members of society with access to a computer or smartphone, newcomers to the visual novel scene will more than likely pick up one of these over something such as Rewrite or Higurashi no Naku Koro ni. A pity, as the majority will therefore be turned off by a combination of pay-walls, typos, and an overall lack of polish.

I just want to stress that this doesn't apply to all free-to-play visual novels...
    The point that I am trying to get at is that Sepia Tears looks awful. Besides the occasional appearance of portrait-style vignettes that are as out of place as a caviar dish on a McDonald's drive-through sign, I wouldn't be surprised to discover all of the character models on DeviantArt. There are all of  maybe three separate body positions for each of the characters, and the lack of adaptive shading on many of these illustrations make entire scenes appear flat and lifeless. This is not helped by the developers' unwillingness to put any actual effort into creating backgrounds. 

How long will it take before visual novel creators realize that it's a bad practice to take a real-life photograph, posterize the thing, and add fill lighting until the picture appears to have taken place during a nuclear bomb blast? Those vignette paintings I mentioned earlier clearly demonstrate that the staff artist that was charged with this project isn't completely incompetent, so I am baffled as to why so much of the art in this game was skimped on. 

I'm referencing pictures like this.
    Even so, the lack of aesthetic detail doesn't stop the game's frame-rate from chugging like a locomotive at a frat party whenever camera movements as simple as a goddamn scroll are involved. The Ren'Py Engine has powered games such as Katawa Shojou and Digital: A Love Story, both of which have run admirably on my ten year-old laptop, so the feeling that the engine must have been optimized by chucking pebbles at a computer keyboard probably isn't the fault of Tom Rothamel. So once again, the blame falls on Studio NEET. 

My first play-through of the game took place on my phone, a Motorola Atrix, which froze up and crashed a total of seven times throughout the course of reading the work, but as a fair and unbiased critic I decided to replay the visual novel, this time on my PC in order to compare the work's performance against that of other Ren'Py games. Needless to say, it ran slower than a molasses-coated sloth in the wintertime.

Plus, with a cute mascot such as this, how can you blame the developer?
    An aspect of Sepia Tears that ends up being actually tolerable is the game's soundtrack. It's not fabulous or anything, but the surprisingly large variety of tracks do add a nice ambiance to the scenes, although the game switching between thematic tones does mean that there are some pretty violent auditory shifts as well, so you'll be relaxing to a delicate piano sonata one moment, and then be slamming the "lower volume" button on your device the next. For a relatively short visual novel, there's a lot of music, but outside of a great vocal track over the end credits, very little is memorable, and half of the songs are nearly identical synth-piano blends anyways, although I did get "When the Fog Parts" stuck in my head on one occasion.

My favorite image from the entire work.
    Free is good, there's no doubt about that, but just because repeatedly banging my head against a wall doesn't cost anything does not mean I would spend several hours of my life doing it. Not having to part with any cash may make a lot look at Sepia Tears with far more forgiving eyes than I, but I'm far too petty to have mercy on a title just because of that. The story is awful, the dialogue is unrealistic, the writing is jejune, the game-play is a slog, and the characters are archetypal, obnoxious tools. Katawa Shojou has demonstrated that free, independent works can be just as much of a thrill ride as any pricey big-name title, but this and other shining embodiments of this concept have become buried under waves of cheap derivatives and other pieces of assorted garbage, one of them being Sepia Tears

In a way, it's the antithesis to the virtues of indie games, a shambolic performance by a little-known developer with no reason to exist rather than a revolutionary blossom of innovative design. Instead of being a sanctuary for auteur-driven storytelling, marketplaces such as the Google App Store have perpetuated this vicious cycle by constantly disgorging creatively dead slag. Studio NEET has clearly latched onto the idea that making a game free of charge allows them to also make it free of entertainment value.

The Verdict

The Good:
  • Some pieces of the soundtrack are... Tolerable?
The Bad:
  • The game can only be acquired through digital distribution, so I can't use the disc as a Frisbee.
  • There's an overall feel of half-assed art direction.
The Ugly:
  • The plot is one of the most insipid pieces of writing I've seen since Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies.
  • Each of the characters are so clichéd that I wanted to put my fist through my computer's monitor.
  • The game runs like an inner tube during a maelstrom.
    So, after all of that, I award Sepia Tears with a score of...


Pretty Damn Atrocious

    Congratulations. Please step onto the stage. So, do you prefer skinning or decapitation?

    Sepia Tears is available for free download for both Windows and Android devices from the game's website and the Google App Store.

On the subject of my School Rumble figurine set, if anyone is in possession of one of these limited edition Yakumo models, please contact me. Please. I will pay you. I will pay you lots of money.


Born from a freak lab accident, Platitude grew up in an impenetrable section of the Amazon Rainforest with nothing but his wits and a flying, talking arapaima sidekick named Scuppernong.
After being discovered by South American cocaine smugglers, he managed to reach the United States with the help of a friendly local cartel and three condoms of pure, fresh-cut Colombian bam-bam. There, he financed a new life by betraying Scuppernong and selling him to an aquarist. Platitude immediately spent his $20.00 fortune on a bootleg copy of Boku no Pico, and a legend began... 
You can find his mad scribblings during his frequent bouts of insanity here

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