Let’s begin with a foreword. First of all, I’ve decided to do separate reviews for IroSeka and IroHika. It would simply get too long with both games incorporated into one review and besides that, there isn’t much I can say about IroHika without major spoilers anyway. For that reason, IroHika is going to be a spoiler review. In this review here, I’m going to hide everything that I consider a real spoiler.
Other than that, it’s probably of general relevance that IroSeka/IroHika are my absolute favorite VNs, and I’ve read a lot. For those interested, here is my VNDB profile and this is just the titles I actually remembered when I set up my VNDB account, plus I haven’t updated it in months. Overall, it easily amount to over 300 read titles. My only experience with Favorite titles before IroSeka was Hoshimemo, which was a pleasant surprise back in the day, but not a Kamige in my eyes. This is mostly because Nakahiro has some nasty habits when it comes to writing, which is also quite apparent in Favorite’s most recent title AstralAir. I won’t elaborate on that here though, that’d have to wait until I review a title that actually had writing by Nakahiro.
The whole IroSeka-verse is fully written by a different writer: Urushibara Yukito. He didn’t do any really got games before, so I remember that people were rather skeptical before IroSeka was out. Well, figured there was no need to worry at all because Urushibara Yukito excelled over Nakahiro in basically every department. In short, I absolutely loved IroSeka for everything that it was. My only complaints when I read this title first were the general unimportance of Kyou’s and Tsukasa’s routes, and the fact that some plot threads remained unresolved. However, IroSeka and IroHika had been written as two parts of the same story form the very beginning; IroHika is by no means what you’d call a “Fandisc”, it’s a real, genuine sequel and perfectly resolved those issues I had, consequently making IroSeka an almost flawless piece of work.
All right, now that’s that out of the way, let’s dive into this.
I’ll allow myself to be a little lazy here and simply cite the same summary that is also on VNDB so that those who have absolutely no idea what IroSeka is about get a rough idea about what I’m actually talking about here.
[pullquote align=”full” cite=”Omochikaeri” link=”https://omochikaeri.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/june-2011-eroge-releases/” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]When he was a child, Yuma received a special power from the “translucent magician”, Shinku. Just by touching someone with his hand, he is able to cure all of their wounds in return for some of his memories. In the furthermost port town of Kazatsugahama, there is a link to a another world hidden in the basement of the Arashiyama-sou dormitory. Within this world he lives his life like a dream. One night while the full moon shone brightly, a girl descended from the sky. “Mister magician, please save me.”[/pullquote]
First of all, it should be noted that the rather long common route is atypical compared to most other VNs, which makes it one of the best paced ones. Usually, the whole cast is introduced in like the first 30 minutes of reading and you’re confronted with 10+ characters all at once. Then, you get constant, uniform exposure to these characters over the course of the common route. This not the case in IroSeka. Characters are introduced gradually as you progress through the game. It takes roughly half of the common route until all main characters are introduced and established. Because of that, focus works much better; meaning you get to know and used to a new character first with your attention mostly focused on only that character before you get to the next one. The true genius in writing here lies with the fact that this approach doesn’t feel ‘artificial’. You get the feeling you’re following a most natural development.
What also adds to the pacing and enjoyment of the common route is the constant foreshadowing. IroSeka is literally littered with implicit, explicit, mild and blatant foreshadowing. On your first play-through, you don’t even notice most if it. With this added to the balanced alternation of serious segments and comedic relief, you get a concomitant underlying, fluctuating degree of tension that slowly builds up over the course of the common route.
Other than that, this game boasts an extremely well written side character cast. Each and every side character has an interesting past, well-devised background and significance to the story with idiosyncrasies that make them likable. In each character route, you have one or two side characters that thematically match to that route (or are of general relevance) and are further developed and explored therein.
The probably most interesting aspect from the perspective of story design is the incorporation of both global and route specific themes. Each route focuses on one particular theme, that all interconnect with the underlying main theme of the whole game, which is delved into in the true route, Shinku’s route. So basically, you could say that the other 4 routes are the foundation that support the true route – much like pillars supporting the roof. Since these themes are spoilers in itself already, I’ll spoiler-tag the sections where I discuss those.
The Protagonist: Kanoue Yuma
Admittedly, opinions on Yuma differ a lot. I can’t really relate why, but it’s a fact that a lot of people have a thing for super-badass, smart and basically almost flawless protagonists. I for one prefer to have human protagonists. Protagonists with strengths, and also human weaknesses that give rise to complex character exploration and development. And this is exactly what makes Yuma a great character and protagonist.
In general, you can consider him a proactive and intelligent character who highly values and stresses the importance of free will. During the common route, he is most of the time keenly aware of what he wants and needs to do and is able to set priorities. There is some level of intended discrepancy there though: While it is very clear to him what his goal is, you get the feeling that he isn’t fully invested nonetheless. That aspect is elaborated on in the true route. Like most other protagonists, he is also kind by nature and inherently unable to just abandon others in need, even at the cost of using Shinku’s power that comes with a price.
What I want to elaborate on are those “human aspects” I just mentioned. For starters, that’d be general and situational priorities. In roughly 90% of the VNs, this is fucked up. This is for instance very apparent by the excessive stressing of “school”, to the extent that it is absolutely unnatural and unauthentic. What I mean by that is, even when the the story is at its peak, maybe even involving life-and-death scenarios and decisions, the main character’s thought when he gets up in the morning is still “gotta go to school”. This is so stupid I don’t even know where to begin. In situations like those stories sometimes depict, a normal human being doesn’t even remotely think of school. So what I’m getting at here is, you actually have a character here who is able to gauge situations and discern what is really important and take rational decisions in accordance with that. Like a human being.
If I had to describe Kana in a word, I’d say she is ‘special’. Yuma’s first encounter with this eccentric girl who informs him with an innocent smile that the name ‘Minami Kana’ which she used to introduce herself only a second ago is just a fake name was when he saved her after she had jumped off a lighthouse – a suicide attempt. To top it off, she insists on knowing Yuma while has absolutely no recollection of their supposed past encounter.
She is quite the cheerful, upright girl. Coupled with a general lack of proper common sense, she becomes the originator of many comedic relief scenes because these traits cause her to believe the absurdest things people (mainly Suzu) talk into her. She also incorporates the common trope of being incredibly bad at cooking, but with an interesting twist to it: She is actually able to cook properly, it’s just that her idiosyncrasy compels her to make Yuma’s share ‘more special’. She wants the food she prepares for him to be more than just good, which causes her to put in weird ingredients like baking powder. The food she makes for other characters tastes perfectly fine.
During the common route, she is generally a ‘mysterious’ character since it’s completely unclear where she came from, why she knows Yuma, what her goal is and why she is so strangely adamant about ‘not crying’ despite that she is the type who gets easily emotionally involved and stirred.
Her route itself is arguably one of the best IroSeka routes.Not only are all the little secrets about her slowly uncovered, the route also deeply dives into the pasts of multiple characters and interlinks those, resulting in lots of character development for both her, Yuma and side characters. The romance aspect isn’t sudden or random, but decently developed and you can clearly see why both characters are so attracted to each other.
Click here for Spoiler Content.
Also, if you hadn’t realized before that IroSeka is a ‘nakige’ for some reason, this route is going to make you keenly aware of this fact.
The underlying theme of Kana’s route is ‘gratitude’. That theme is not only explored through Kana, but basically all
involved characters. Kana, Haku, Ren, Ayumu and Yuma alike. Each character basically depicts a slightly different form of gratitude, that all add to an integral, broader picture of the theme, effectively slowly building it over the course of the route.
For Kana, it’s gratitude and love towards her mother, which at the same time also gives rise to the sub-theme remorse. For Haku, it’s gratitude for having been granted joy in life. Ren is in a way mirroring Kana, so the depicted form of gratitude by her is similar in nature to that of Kana, but yet slightly different: Ren has a more ‘positive’ or ‘optimistic’ take on it, hence said gratitude effectively becomes her driving force while Kana takes it in the opposite direction; remorse due to not having fully valued and repaid what she received. In case of Ayumu, we have gratitude towards a friend, basically gratitude having his loneliness dissipated.
It’s a little difficult to accurately depict Yuma’s form of gratitude without diving into IroHika, but generally speaking, it boils down to gratitude towards having been able to meet Kana and other persons in his life.
Mio is Yuma’s slightly tsundere childhood-friend. She’s one of those tsundere characters that strike the right balance between acting cold and showing affection. In fact, often enough, she’s pretty open with her affection towards Yuma, like making lunch for him, but covers that up with random excuses. In general, she has quite the blunt and frank nature. Meaning, she doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to her opinion. Other than that, Mio is an advocate of a diligent and wholesome lifestyle, which she would try to also enforce on Yuma whenever possible since from her perspective, Yuma’s lifestyle is the exact opposite.
During the common route, gradually, more and more questions regarding Mio come up. For one thing, it becomes apparent that she’s in a way ‘dependent’ on Yuma in a different sense than just simple affection. On top of that, you see her getting evasive whenever a conversation would shift towards things that happened during her childhood or her general life situation. All that serves to animate the reader to theorize what all of that is about, making the reader more and more interested in her.
Her route itself starts off rather lightly. Mio wants Yuma to take school more seriously and to start actually studying. In an attempt to prop up his motivation, he promises him a reward if he actually manages to pass all of his make-up exams. That in itself is quite the typical development in VNs, but fortunately, we have a Kyou in IroSeka that has the ability to turn every hackneyed situation into something bizarre and she succeeds in spicing the whole thing up. However, with the two of them coming closer and closer, Yuma would inevitably also come closer to Mio’s secret, which then introduces the actual theme of her route.
Click here for Spoiler Content.
The theme Mio’s route deals with is ‘guilt’ and ‘regret’. Like in other routes, this is not portrayed in a one-dimensional way, but through multiple characters that add something to the overall picture of the theme. We have Mio, who feels guilty about not telling Yuma the truth about herself. This guilt is even magnified by the fact that Mio hates lies. She doesn’t want to hide it and lie, but the fear of losing what she describes as “her only connection to the world”, Yuma, is simply too great, which consequently also evokes a sense of self-depreciation. Interesting is, that there are already hints at this works main theme which is prevalent in the true route since we have a small sub-theme that discusses the difference between ‘truth’ and ‘fake’. To be precise, it’s about the question whether truth and fake inherently dictate value and importance.
With Tooru in the picture as well, we get also get a proxy for a ‘sinner’. Through that proxy, multiple grave questions are explored. Questions like “Who has the right to judge the guilty?” and “How can the guilty earn forgiveness?”. These questions are even further explored in IroHika while IroSeka in the end more or less puts them on hold, depicting that there is no clear ‘black’ and ‘white’ and at least more meaning in ‘strife for forgiveness’ than in unilateral condemnation since the latter only serves to maintain a chain of hatred. At the same time, a new question, though implicitly, arises. Namely ‘whose forgiveness has to be earned?’. This question is basically the main question the continuation of Mio’s route in IroHika deals with.
Of important notice here is all the slight foreshadowing that can be observed through Yuma’s reactions, and sometimes just meaningful pauses. In hindsight, it’s very clear that even without his memories, ‘guilt’ heavily weighs on Yuma’s heart, like a thick thorn stuck in his chest which presence he can instinctively perceive, but not associate with anything concrete.
I’ll say it here: A lot of people say things like “Kyou’s and Tsukasa’s routes aren’t really important and pretty short anyway, so they can be skipped unless you’re really interested in the character.” This statement couldn’t possibly be more wrong. Statements like that show that those people have only a superficial understanding of this work. In fact, if we also take IroHika into consideration, Kyou’s route is arguably the most important pillar for the work as a whole.
Anyway. Kyou is a very interesting character voiced by Kadowaki Mai (I absolutely love Kadowaki Mai). She is what I’d call a slightly atypical shut-in/otaku character. Atypical for one because of her monotone tone that even doesn’t change when she’s holding a feverish speech about galge and also her general facial inexpressiveness, which effectively makes it impossible to tell whether she is fooling around or dead serious. Noteworthy is, that the game has a very smart way of utilizing Kyou’s geek knowledge. Namely to take jabs at common galge and anime tropes.
During the common route, we only get to catch short glimpses of what’s going on inside her, but once we get into her route, it becomes apparent that Kyou is actually quite the scaredy-cat, who desperately wishes for someone to be by her side so that she doesn’t feel lonely. Taking that as a starting point and comparing that to how she is like by the end of the route, there is some astonishing character development, which is in line with her route’s theme. You can argue that in a way, Yuma is actually very similar to Kyou without even realizing it on a conscious level. However, it’s precisely because he subconsciously catches onto that while at the same time seeing something in her that he lacks that he starts to feel attracted to her. Consequently, as the two of them start to spend more time together during Kyou’s route, it’s nothing but a natural outcome that those two would eventually develop feelings for each other.
Click here for Spoiler Content.
The theme of Kyou’s route is basically ‘courage’. Courage to take the first step forward. It illustrates a contrast between twiddling your thumps as you consider yourself satisfied with the current situation, or to some extent only tell yourself that you are, and finding the inner strength to dare to desire more. To stand up for what your heart really desires. Inherent is of course also a nuance of being true to oneself. Meaning that as long as you avert your gaze from what you want because you fear the difficulties or consequences, it isn’t possible to acquire happiness in the true sense of the word. This gets even much, much more elaborate and prominent in IroHika, but even her shortish route in IroSeka manages to highlight that.
On that note, this is exactly what I meant when I said that she has something Yuma lacks. It’s the courage and strength to take chances for what you really want. This is actually quite important for the true route and also IroHika. It’s also something Yuma is aware of himself, especially once he has all his memories back.
At first glance, Tsukasa is probably the least important character in the franchise and admittedly, while the theme(s) of her route are definitely critically important, it kind of feels like Tsukasa herself is overshadowed by the other character, which is probably partly because she is the least ‘unique’ character in a way.
Tsukasa is your typical cheerful, energetic hard worker. There isn’t really much twist or anything to her character. While it is clearly foreshadowed and displayed that her obsession with doing her best (to earn money) has an underlying reason which she doesn’t want to talk about, that in and of itself was and is nothing new, nor is her actual reason you eventually figure out in her route. Don’t get me wrong; She has her moments and her character is written decently enough that she is likable, it’s just that she pales in contrast with the other characters which are a lot more colorful. The strange thing about that is, I can’t really criticize this kind of design since her being the most ‘normal’ and sort of ‘plain’ character chimes in with her route’s theme. She is written in a way that said theme matches her route and her general vibe at the cost of character depth and that’s okay for me since the true route has enough pay-off to justify that.
Click here for Spoiler Content.
As you might already guess from what I said about Tsukasa as a character, the theme of her route is basically ‘home’ and all that comes along with it. People who read this work might think now “wait, isn’t it about working towards goals without giving up?” and yeah, that is correct. That’s incorporated in the broader theme ‘home’. Ultimately, it’s about doing your best as a normal person who just wants to sustain and protect their place. Tsukasa’s wish to save that granny stems from exactly that. To her, she basically was ‘home’. Of course, there are also nuances of guilt pangs and the like mixed in, but that’s not the main focus.
Basically, you could abstract the theme even a step further and say it’s simply about ‘normality’. About the small things in life that don’t seem special at all, but in their sum, create a subjective feeling of happiness. It’s precisely this ‘normal, homely happiness’ this route tries to depict. In the consequence, it also leads to questions like “what is home?”. Is it something abstract? A concrete, physical place? What is it that ultimately defines and distinguishes it? Just like with other routes, all of these questions are further explored and IroHika.
Shinku is the ‘translucent magician’ that only Yuma can see and communicate with. You can generally say that she is a very rational, logically thinking character, but at the same time, she also has a slightly childish and innocent side to her. Apart from that, I just have to say that she is literally the kindest and most warm-hearted characters I’ve ever seen. This becomes apparent through both subtle nuances and explicit actions and words. It’s hard to put into words just how heartwarming certain scenes are, which at the same time causes others to be gut wrenching to the utmost extent.
It’s almost impossible to talk much about Shinku without entering spoiler terrain. During the common route, there is really not much you know about her. She is Yuma’s constant companion, always by his side, always worried and concerned about him. They’ve spent all their time since Yuma was a child together, and Urushibara-sensei created a masterful synergy between the two of them. While the two of them do have some friendly banter and all that, you keenly feel that they’re like one body and soul. The common route builds more and more mysteries about her, and even during the other routes, more and more questions pile up that all indistinctly feel like they’re somehow related to Shinku.
Consequently, it should be no surprise that her route is the true route of this work where most of the mysterious built over the course of this work are resolved in a satisfying fashion. Naturally, the spoiler section here is going to be the longest one by far.
Click here for Spoiler Content.
I’ll start with a little excursus that is necessary to talk about this work’s theme. In short, the true route’s theme and the work’s as a whole is ‘Aletheia’ which is a term that stems from Greek Mythology and Philosophy. Inside the game, the term appears as both the opening’s title and the title of the final chapter of the true route.
Directly translated, aletheia means ‘truth’ and in Greek Mythology, Aletheia is the Goddess of Truth. According to the Aesopian fable, Prometheus crafted her out of clay, but before he brought her to life, Dolos, who is the personification of deceive, crafted an exact replica of her, with the exception that he didn’t have enough clay for the legs. Prometheus, impressed by the similarity, then gave live to both figures of clay. Thereupon, the ‘real’ truth gracefully walked away while the ‘fake’ truth remained rooted in place.
There are two ways to interpret this anecdote. The simple and intuitive one is that the real truth always prevails. However, the more common interpretation, the more philosophical one, is a reverse definition of ‘truth’ itself. Meaning, that which stands and walks on it’s own, that is what should be viewed as truth in it’s truest essence.
The lyrics, themes, and chapter namings in this work are no coincidence; this is exactly what this work is about. The work explores the value of truth; basically: is a truth that only brings sadness, where no one can ‘walk on’ really ‘truth’ from a standpoint of value? Or isn’t a ‘fake truth’ that brings happiness to everyone, where everyone walks on, actually truth in it’s truest essence despite being acknowledgedly fake? As such, it’s only a natural consequence that this question further develops into the question of meaning and value of life itself in IroHika.
The groundwork for these questions are laid by the definition of human nature through Yuma and fundamental questions that correspond with human desires as depicted by respective route themes. In essence, the work depicts that we humans aren’t cut out to be gods that can make rational decisions in accordance with what is objectively best. This is portrayed through Yuma; he is what shows us the inherent weakness of humans. We aren’t made to be clinical, there is an inherent desire to share, to be with someone, to be seen and understood by someone. Even with incoherent memories, which are said to compose our foundation as individuals, these inherent human desires only grow stronger to eventually become something akin to a scream of the soul; something you cannot fend off even if you allegedly threw everything away that makes you human.
In that kind of state, with no memories at all, Yuma meets Shinku. She is what continuously answers to that scream of his soul. He finally learns and gains the warmth that we had always sought. It’s no exaggeration to say that she literally becomes everything to him – the center of his universe. As such, the shock of learning that no other than he himself is the cause of all the sorrow that she is going through is equally immense. Because of that, the journey he eventually embarks on is not a journey of being the hero who saves everyone, in the end, it’s all about the tiny wish of alleviating Shinku’s pain and sorrow, to make her happy, just as her route’s title ‘The only Important thing’ implies. By the some token, you can also say that it’s a journey of self-gratification since he is simply unable to live with the knowledge that he caused her harm.
Just like he himself acknowledges, this is nothing you’d refer to as honorable. Yet, it is a mirror of the human being itself. Humans are inherently egocentric and weak. If humans put someone else about themselves, it’s easy to argue that it’s ultimately still all about ourselves. But is that really all there is to it? This is a question that is explored.
And this is where we get to the aforementioned themes. There is guilt, gratitude and indebtedness, the wish for courage, the strength to pursue our goals and desires and the quest for a place we belong. At times, these contradict each other, yet these fears and hopes are all part of Yuma and basically of all humans. So, all that it comes down to is the question, what direction do we want to take? What is the real ‘truth’ and value in life?
The temporary answer this works eventually arrives at – temporary since we dive further into it in IroHika – is basically that there is no ‘absolute’ right way. There is always a drawback. Which is why, at the very least, there is value in a path that has the potential to lead to your and the happiness of others. Even if there’s falsehood in that, even if you feel guilt and regret, there is no point in averting your gaze from your desires since it’ll only lead to more regrets and consequently make you stand still – which is what defines falsehood in its truest sense. As such, before anything else, it’s important to walk on; thinking about the rest comes after that.
In Yuma’s case, this desire, scream of the soul, ends in one point: Shinku. Independent of the underlying themes, the love story between these two is amazing. Through the use of all the underlying themes and subtle plot points, the relationship between them is described better than words could. For instance, in all other routes Shinku ‘disappears’. As we know from the true route, her disappearing is in fact absolute in terms of recollection. It’s like it’s technically, physically impossible to remember about her and yet, in every route a severe feeling of loss, like a hole ripped into his heart is described. This strongly implicates that the bond between them transcends just the physical, the flesh. The work literally makes you feel that they are ‘soul mates’ rather than depicting it through exposition. This is brilliant.
When it comes to music, there aren’t many companies that can hold a candle to favorite. There’s key of course, but that’s pretty much the only competition in this regard. Since hoshimemo, all BGM tracks are composed by shinobu and his work can only be described as stellar.
One of my personal favorites would be “Because I was Blessed to Meet you – Arrange version”:
Or as a representative of the more melancholic tracks, “Sanctuary – Arrange version”:
As a general comment, I’d like to say that many people underestimate the extent of effect OSTs have. BGM serves accentuation. That accentuation is able to resonate with an already impactful scene and make it a manifold more impactful and of course, the opposite also holds true. The BGM that is used is quite capable of completely ruining scenes. In short, BGM is capable of drawing out emotions from the reader and if these emotions correspond to those the depicted scene is drawing out, it resonates and leads to an unique experience.
All hail Shida Kazuhiro. I absolutely love his art. In general, I just have to say that favorite has one of the best background art there is. It’s such a shame that most companies, even renown ones, put like zero effort into backgrounds. The number of VN developers that have good background art can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There is favorite, sprite, 5pb/nitro+ and after reading their most recent title, I’d also list pulltop. Strangely, I hardly ever hear people talking about background art, which is probably also why most developers don’t feel the need to put much effort into backgrounds – people simply don’t care enough I guess.
Personally, I do care. Background art is part of a whole, integral work just like all the other components and bad background art can greatly dampen the experience since it can in fact keep you from fully immersing yourself in the work. Anyhow, just like with the OST, I have no complaints in terms of art; it’s beautiful.
Admittedly, this got a little longer than expected. Note that reviews usually won’t be as detailed and long as this one, IroSeka is an exception. Anyhow, in the end, I can only say that IroSeka is a great first part of an amazing story. This is a work of highest quality in terms of music, graphics, character and story writing. You get both superb comedic relief, primarily during the common route, that gives you breathers in-between and an intriguing plot with a lot of foreshadowing, twists and turns and scenes that pull at your heartstrings. This is one of the works that genuinely made me cry here and there.
IroSeka offers a great experience for both the readers that want a good nakige with great characters without having to think too much and those that want more depth. One of the greatest strengths of this work is that it’s not so pretentiously ‘in your face’ with its more complex themes and sub-layers. It leaves the decision to you whether you want to explore them or overlook them, which is something AstralAir for instance failed at in my opinion – it was awfully pretentious. This is also underlined by the fact that the world and setting remains consistent with its inner logic without forcing wanna-be scientific explanations for fantasy elements on you. It’s a fantasy world; there is no need to try to explain rules of a different world by the use of rules of our world.
I hope I managed to get across why I believe IroSeka to be as good as I make it out to be with this review. Next up is the IroHika review, which is going to be a full spoiler review and more like just a further discussion and thus considerably shorter.