Fading Hearts Review


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What is Fading Hearts about? Answering that question is tricky, considering it’s about several different things. For starters, it’s about a teenage boy named Ryou who lives in a country called “Sorayama” (a portmanteau of the Japanese words for “sky” and “mountain”) and goes to Crystal Stream Collegiate Institute with his two childhood friends, the stubborn Claire and the docile Rina. Along the way, he also has encounters with local otaku Alex, quiet and mysterious reporter Sophia, magical girl Mystica, and … himself? Depending on the choices you make, you have the power to shape the story’s genre. You can help build or destroy business empires through just the click of a button on your computer, battle purple monsters in the forest, dare to venture into the local meido café, or just enjoy having bubble tea with your friends. What story will you build? Will it be a pure slice-of-life romance? A magical epic? Somewhere in-between? That is all up to you.

In case none of that raised any red flags here’s an example of what you’re in for: The Y2K scare from the ‘90s turns out to be real. However, for some bizarre reason, the rest of the world was not impacted by the Y2K bug, yet Sorayama was, despite being otherwise shown to more or less have the same technology as any first world country. As a result of this Y2K crisis, “thousands of people died” according to Ryou, and in the resulting panic, he, along with Rina and Claire and thousands of other children, ended up either orphaned or abandoned. Together, they are the “millennial orphans.” Not a single word of that is played for laughs. Every single bit is meant to be taken 100% seriously. Oh, and you can gain magical powers through reading manga. In other words, it’s just like that fanfic you wrote at age twelve, complete with a Gary Stu self-insert. Remember those?

STILL think it sounds good? Well, different strokes for different folks. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This is just the beginning of the game. Keep that in mind.

This is just the beginning of the game. Keep that in mind.

…Yep. I think it might be cliché of me to invoke that famous phrase from The Divine Comedy, though, so moving on.

 

The Visuals:

An eery moment of self-awareness...

An eery moment of self-awareness…

I just flat out don’t like the GUI—had to get that out of the way first. I’ve seen screencaps of the original GUI, and what I’d like to know is, why was it changed? Sure, it looked kind of odd, but at least it stood out. At least the text was easy to read. And at least the design somewhat fit in with the presentation and theme. Here, the GUI is just kind of boring and the text is a wee bit straining on the eyes. At the very least, it could stand to lose a small bit of brightness.

Apart from this, the art is at least pleasing on the eyes. The backgrounds are decent, though not particularly stand out-ish. The few CG’s here and there are fine (though there is one that drives me CRAZY because it’s of Rina and Ryou’s big kiss, yet the girl in the picture does NOT look anything like Rina!). How much the sprite art appeals to you will probably depend on how much you like the anime art style (or “anime lite” art style). While I personally liked it and thought it was kind of cute, especially the colour schemes for Rina and Tracy, there are two particular designs where this cuteness does not work quite as well: With the monsters, and with Ryou’s appearance.

I’ll start with the monsters.

attack

…I think that speaks for itself. Moving on!

Regarding Ryou’s design, there are a few moments in the game when you can see Ryou’s physical appearance. He looks more like he should be in his second or third year of college rather than a seventeen-year-old high school student—yes, there are teenage boys who are a bit tall or huge for their age, but the way it is drawn just doesn’t quite sit right here—and looks a bit awkward when contrasted against the other characters. Furthermore, his design makes the comments about how he’s not popular with girls look…weak.

Exhibit A:

exhibit a

Exhibit B (from left to right: Rina, Ryou, Claire):

exhibit b

…Yes. That is totally the body of a guy who spends all his time indoors reading manga and/or sitting in front of a computer all day, needs to read a book to learn how to lift weights, and is not considered “all that attractive by most female students”.

See what I mean about this being a Gary Stu self-insert fanfic?

Oh yes, that reminds me—time to get to the actual writing portion of this. Buckle in.

 

The Novel (the writing):

They're weeping because they realized they missed their chance to abandon ship and join Skyrim.

They’re weeping because they realized they missed their chance to abandon ship and join Skyrim.

The entire game, from beginning to end, is sheer pandering to its target audience—the “loner, misunderstood, male otaku.” …Or so the author presumes—from what I can gather, there are certainly female fans of the game, but there are still elements to the writing and presentation that feel very much “MALE otaku” oriented to the point of bordering on being a “boys only” club. Ryou gladly reminds Rina at every opportunity that people are just so mean and unfair to otaku. And if you didn’t get the message once, he’ll repeat it over and over again until it’s ingrained into your brain—and it honestly does get to the point where it feels like the narrative regards otaku to be a persecuted minority (or maybe this was a cultural side effect of the Y2K crisis, I don’t know). Every single element of the cosplay café screams “MADE FOR AND BY (MALE) OTAKU” to the point where it had me cringing. This pandering extends to the characters and archetypes they’re designed to fulfill—Ryou, as mentioned, is the Gary Stu lead. He’s not really a character so much as he is a cipher for the player to vicariously insert themselves into his shoes. The few bits of personality of his that are seen are not exactly the greatest. But the most unsettling aspect of this pandering lies in the portrayal of the female leads.

They’re all designed to fall under certain anime archetypes to appeal to the target audience: Rina is the “moe blob” . Claire is the “tsundere,” and Sophia is the “kuudere”. But I have seen a lot of anime characters who fitted into these archetypes with more personality and complexities than the ones depicted here. These three girls never fully develop outside of these archetypes, and any attempts to give them depth fall flat because they ultimately pertain to their relationship with Ryou. Rina, the docile and submissive girl, is ultimately rewarded and portrayed ideally for her undying adoration of Ryou, while Claire, the “tough, independent” girl is punished by the story for her independence and must learn NOT to be independent.

Oddly enough, the author also offers up his idea of a “strong, empowered female character” through Mystica, a powerful magical girl, and also through the various female leads of the in-game manga series. However, if you choose to pursue Mystica, she falls apart. And in the manga series, the female leads are sidelined or otherwise undermined because their strength is tied to a relationship with a man. It’s fascinating because the game is laced with casual sexism, but also believes it is not sexist because it has a “Strong! Female! Character!” as opposed to a strong character who is female. There are other, far more offensive elements to this casual sexism, but that’ll come up in a few paragraphs.

Your ally is a pick-up artist. Let that sink in.

Your ally is a pick-up artist. Let that sink in.

Putting all that aside, the story itself makes no sense, no matter what angle you choose to tackle it from. The dialogue, when not awkward and clumsy, is melodramatic, with less dignity than a parody of a soap opera. The narrative can’t decide if the characters are popular or unpopular, if Ryou is a slacker or a hard worker, or even what Ryou’s relationship with Rina is supposed to be—if you choose to pursue Rina, Ryou will mention in the narrative how he’s beginning to see her in a new light and might even be developing feelings for her, but then in the next scene will turn around and claim that Rina is just a friend while still pining after Claire. The game alternates for what feels like ages between a stats-raising event and a story-related event before something finally happens. Eventually, it got to the point where my main hobby in the game was buying and reading various manga volumes because the stories presented in the manga were more intriguing than Fading Hearts’ own story. If anything, this game did successfully capture how life can be so mindnumbingly mundane to the point where constant escapism seems like the more feasible option for survival.

Even more bizarrely, the game will occasionally cut away to random walls of narration with no visuals when Ryou is either resting or walking through the forest (a small sample of this is posted above, under the “The Novel” byline). But these stories are not, at first glance, related to the actual “plot.” They’re about either the life of a prince in a kingdom (with the dreams) or researching the forest (with the forest walks). These apparent non sequiturs eventually became so frequent and annoying to the point where I ended up skipping over most of them…only to realize at the very end of one of the routes I was on that this information might have actually been an important clue. The problem is that even if it is ultimately relevant to the story, the transition feels too abrupt and out of place and makes almost no sense. And it takes up until the path to one of the endings for bits and pieces of it to finally begin to fall together and become semi-cohesive. Because of the abrupt and tedious manner in which this “exposition” is presented, it becomes easy to assume this information is irrelevant and easier to skip over—and thus potentially leading to missing gaps of vital information.

The narration is a big, big violator of the “show don’t tell” rule—the game thinks that if it doesn’t have Ryou repeat the characters’ traits via dialogue often enough, you might forget who these characters are, or even to state what the characters are like before you actually get the chance to know them (something that crops up in the beginning of the game a lot). Even worse, the game has a tendency to state the attributes of certain characters, and then not actually show them. As one example of many, Claire is alleged to be really nice and gentle and not-assertive when she’s not around Ryou. The only problem is, we know this is so because Rina tell us it is so, and we never see any indication she’s any less rough when not around Ryou—if anything the “oh she’s not like that when she’s around YOU” excuse is a cop out. Claire is, quite frankly, a real jerk towards Ryou throughout, but the narrative justifies this as “pushing Ryou to become a better person”. When she’s less of a jerk onscreen, this is not because of any actual character development or growth, but because she has been emotionally broken by her abusive relationship with her boyfriend, and has only now realized how much of a Nice Guy Ryou really is. And even if she is not broken, she only remains whole because she has Ryou for support—not Rina, and not anyone else.

And this brings me to the absolute worst element of the narrative and story that I really cannot ignore or brush off as “lol dumb” no matter how much I try: its handling and portrayal of abusive relationships is downright horrible. If you choose not to hang around Claire and/or Alex too often, it becomes easy to overlook, but if you do…let’s just say that the game has a very specific idea about why women in abusive relationships don’t leave their abusive boyfriends, how they end up in said relationships to begin with, and what the perfect solution to saving them from these relationships is. If you have any triggers relating to this topic, then you might as well give this game a pass. The rest of the game is lulzy so-bad-it’s-good, but this one element crosses the line into downright tasteless and offensive and makes it hard for me to recommend it even on the sole basis of being lulzy. It’s easy to make fun of the rest of the game, but I can’t make light of this part. The subject matter, and the insensitive way in which it is handled, prevents me from doing so.

 

The Gameplay:

Not picture: the option to look up reviews for Visual Novels, find this review, and then implode from the inception-inception-inception.

Not picture: the option to look up reviews for Visual Novels, find this review, and then implode from the inception-inception-inception.

The game mechanics aren’t exactly top-notch, either. The boss battles against the purple monsters are suspiciously one-sided in the beginning. You, a teenager with little to no combat experience, have at least 300 health points while your opponent has significantly fewer than that, and can be defeated in a few blows. The only way you can be killed by your opponents is if you go out of your way to battle monsters several times until your health is lowered to zero. It makes the characters’ warnings about them laughable. The turrets in the Portal games were harder to defeat than this! The boss enemies do get tougher as the game goes on, but if you’ve been spending 100% of your free time reading manga, you will eventually gain enough magical powers to the point where defeating your enemies should not be a problem. The music is intrusive in its attempts to force the emotions of the scene down your throat, and it’s the usage of these tracks that indicates whether we’re supposed to take something seriously. More often than not, we are. A subtle score could’ve probably achieved the same objectives. Probably.

And lastly, I feel the need to discuss a certain element that the game keeps priding itself on, both in the bizarre introductory sequence with “Alice and Mimi” (aka, your guides through the ten circles of hell who only pop up at the beginning to tell you how to play a videogame, and again at the end of the game to tell you where you went wrong) and in its summary on Steam: “Almost EVERY NPC LIES to you at some point in the game!” Apparently, this is supposed to stand out to the player as strange because it’s in the norm for NPC’s to always be 100% truthful. As we all know, no other game in history up to this point has ever featured characters who either omitted certain truths from the player or outright lied to them, right?

ahaha

cake

This meme is overbaked!

P.S. YES I KNOW I’M DOING THE LEAST AMOUNT OF STEPS CHALLENGE WRONG DON’T JUDGE ME

That every character has their own agenda is intriguing, yes. That we get to find out what that “agenda” could be is seductive, yes. That someone might have something to hide is enticing, yes. Perhaps it’s not entirely original, but what matters is not what you say but what you do: If executed right, it could at least be a fun gaming experience. And to be fair, in the game’s favour, yes, it did genuinely make me deathly curious as to what would happen next and what was really going on. But what do these secrets and choices ultimately add up to in the end? Truthfully, not a whole lot. You could go down the game one way, only find out one set of clues to the mysteries, and otherwise have a “complete” gaming experience, instead of going back on different routes to examine the same mystery from different angles and perspectives. Who is this mysterious pick up ar—er, “player”? Who is Mystica really? What happened in Alex’s allegedly tragic past? (The last one, you don’t want to find out…the route to finding out also involves wading through the earlier mentioned insulting details) More importantly, who cares as long as you end up with the girl of your dreams?

What makes this “every NPC has an agenda” element fall apart is that, quite frankly, their true agendas aren’t very interesting, nor are they well-executed, and the consequences of finding out said agendas only really amounts to “you found out this secret”. It doesn’t contribute to an overall mystery or arc, it just is. If the identity of this “player” is revealed, nothing happens. Upon being confronted, the “player” just tells you why they did what they did, and that’s it (yet they never reveal why they couldn’t just walk up to you and directly give you advice about Claire themselves, other than “because we needed a mystery”). If you find out what Alex’s past is, nothing comes out of it (you can find out some additional information from Sophia, but even then it doesn’t amount to much). It falls flat because there are no drives, stakes, or tensions to finding out what everyone’s “agenda” is. You can “save Claire” without ever finding out who the player is or the truth behind Alex’s past and the “Wings of Light” group despite them being tangently connected to her situation. While the Mystica mystery isn’t without its problems and holes, it does at least tie in with your relationship with Rina (and, in fact, Mystica tries to break the two of you up) and you find out who Mystica is for yourself, so there is a greater payoff to finding out her identity. It doesn’t pay off quite as well as it should, but at least it’s a better payoff than “you found out this secret”, and at least it’s a secret you get to investigate yourself.

Sadly, this is more than I can say for the mystery of the player’s identity. You don’t even get to investigate and find out who “the player” is for yourself—another character finds out for you off-screen and then exposits this information to you later on. Instead, you, as Ryou, spend your free time either reading manga or deciding which businesses to build up and which ones to screw over or drinking Bubble Tea or whatever. It would be like if you were playing a Nancy Drew game where the mystery was solved for you off-screen while Nancy ran around in circles for hours.

Oh wait. There WAS a Nancy Drew game like that. It was not very good, to say the least.

If a game advertises a certain element, even if that element is one that’s been done before, it should at least pay off and have a greater consequence than just finding out what the great secret is. And the characters with an “agenda” should have an agenda with higher stakes than just “because then you’d find out who I am”—it should have a reason WHY it would be bad for their identity or side job or whatever kind of secret to be found out by anyone. If the worst that could happen upon a secret being found out is just temporary embarrassment, that’s not really much of a consequence. Unless one is writing a story where you can literally die of embarrassment.

 

How it all comes together:

If we shadows have offended, think but this and all will be mended...

“If we shadows have offended, think but this and all will be mended…”

So to recap: Manga gives you magic powers. The only thing impressive about Crystal Stream Collegiate Institute is the fact that it’s called Crystal Stream Collegiate Institute. Pick-up artists are unsung heroes. And the Y2K crisis went down as one of the biggest and most devastating tragedies to ever befall a nation in human history, rivalled only by the sudden emergence of purple monsters in the forest.

And, outside of that one majorly offensive element, it is gut-busting.

The sheer amount of self-importance and pretention is just so hilarious that you can’t help but laugh. This is Tommy Wiseau levels of self-importance. And while it does share certain elements of The Room—repeating conversations, casual misogyny, trivializing abusive relationships, plot points that get picked up and dropped at random, and shoehorning in any excuse to have the protagonist engage in a favourite hobby of the author’s—Fading Hearts is in a class by itself.

 

Fading Hearts is available for 14.99 from two different sources: Sakura River’s official website and on Steam.

Review: Fading Hearts

Summary

Fading Hearts barely falls short of becoming a so-bad-it's-good classic, nor is it adequate enough to be a basically good or bad game, but just might be the perfect game to play while stoned.

4.19/10
  • Story (2.83/10)
  • Presentation (5/10)
  • Gameplay (4.83/10)
  • Replay Value (4.11/10)

About Amber Loveless

Once and always a fanfic writer, now an aspiring VN dev creating my own project. I hope to be able to express my sincere love of the VN/story-focused-game medium through my reviews and analysis.

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