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I'm usually not big into horror stuff. For a really long time, there were only two horror themed works that I found both legitimately creepy, yet compelling enough to want to come back to. This game is now the third. The horror works because it starts off subtlety. At first it seems normal, but then hints begin to emerge that things aren't quite right. Then you hit the game's Wham Episode ([[spoilers: Sayori's suicide]]) and things go completely sideways. Even from that point on, the horror elements are balanced between subtle uncanniness and jump scares.
What makes this game compelling is the fact that it has a solid, well-developed cast. All four of the girls gain a surprising amount of depth for such a short game, and what interactions we get in the brief time we see them are surprisingly complex and interesting. It's a testament to the game's writing that it can cram so much development into the game without feeling forced. Even Monika, the source of most of the game's nasty bits ends up ultimately being sympathetic, though obviously not completely justified in her actions. All of the girls' struggles feel realistic at least until Monika starts exaggerating them, and it adds an additional layer of weirdness to Act 2, when the girls realize something is wrong, but are powerless to deal with it.
That isn't to say that the game doesn't have issues. The main nitpick I have with it is that it feels like two separate games that were glued together, and the connection isn't entirely smooth. The first Act is mostly mundane and emotionally driven, ending with a surprisingly realistic and sobering look at clinical depression and the consequences. The issue is that immediately after this point, the game takes a bit of a turn and from that point on the focus shifts to the meta elements of the game. The emotional elements are still there, but take a backseat to the postmodernism. The meta aspects are well executed, but it really makes me wish that Yuri's self-harm and Natsuki's abusive home life would get the same sort of treatment as Sayori's depression. As it is, those elements feel a bit glossed over.
The disconnect isn't bad enough to keep the game from being a surprisingly meaningful experience, but it also feels like there are two games in here that could've each been excellent on their own.
(small spoilers below, be warned)
Let me just say, this game is terrifying. It's scary in all the right ways and combines some of my favorite genres (Meta horror and Romance Game gone wrong) to make something truly remarkable, all without having to pay a dime. It feels almost wrong for me to have problems with it for that fact. After all, what can you complain about if it's free?
That being said, while all of the horror in this game is great, it feels inconsistent. It's like they didn't know whether or not to make a surrealist Junji Ito style manga horror or a glitchy, meta game gone wrong due to a broken script and a meddling side character. It feels like it wants to be the latter for the most part, but then you find Natsuki's secret scare where her neck snaps like the crooked man and she charges at the screen, and it just throws you off.
And while I found Monika's monologue in act three to be insightful at the time, now that I reflect on it it just feels really out of place. She either sounds like a mouthpiece for the developer or an attempt to shoehorn depth into her character at the last minute to show the dynamic between her and the other girls. Then again, maybe none of it was meant to be taken at face value. It's always hard to tell sometimes.
Still, for the low price of absolutely nothing, it's absolutely worth a play if you enjoy this type of genre.
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