The term "dating sim" means different things according to who you say it to.
If we're being really picky about it, a "dating sim" in its purest sense is technically a game in which you build up the protagonist's stats in a vaguely RPG-ish manner -- perhaps through some sort of "time scheduling" system -- and then make use of those stats to pursue one or more of the game's romantic interests. It's quite literally a life simulator in which the primary focus of your machinations is to find yourself in a romantic relationship (and, possibly, bed) with someone who takes your fancy.
In Japan, dating sims constitute a popular game genre, and are released to cater to all manner of gender, sexuality and taste combinations. Here in the West, however, we tend to see a fairly limited selection get localized -- and due to the popular (and wildly inaccurate) assumption that male players still make up the majority of the gaming community, they tend to be of the "bishoujo" ("pretty girl") variety aimed squarely at heterosexual males.
Actually, here in the West we have a somewhat more liberal definition of what constitutes a "dating sim." Anything with some sort of relationship mechanic built in tends to be referred to if not as an outright dating sim, then certainly having dating sim elements. And plenty of works are described as "dating sims" or "love sims" when, in fact, they're visual novels with a focus on relationships and, sometimes, sexuality.
Ultimately the definition doesn't really matter all that much, so long as you're enjoying what you're playing. Or perhaps you've never encountered a game like this up close, in which case this column -- and a companion community playalong event, which we'll get to in a moment -- is very much aimed at you.
GAF poster Anne "apricotsushi" Lee is a Twitter friend of mine with whom I've had some fun discussions regarding Japanese gaming in the past. Last month, she successfully organized a community playalong of Falcom titles dubbed, imaginatively enough, #Falcomonth. This month, what with February being the month of love and all, she's decided to focus on dating sims by the somewhat broader definition given above -- i.e. games that incorporate a relationship mechanic -- and is encouraging the community to join in and play along, either by sharing their thoughts on this NeoGAF thread if you're a member, or on Twitter by using the hashtag #DatingSiMonth.
I love dating sims, whatever definition you choose to use. A good, solid relationship mechanic paired with interesting or fun characters is something that will keep me utterly hooked to a game, regardless of its actual "quality," however you prefer to measure that. Generally speaking, I would much rather play a barely interactive visual novel with well-realized relationships between the main characters than the most well-crafted game in the world that just happens to include characters or a plot that leaves me cold. This is all a matter of taste, of course, but on the off-chance you feel the same way -- or are simply curious -- I thought I'd help out #DatingSiMonth for the next few installments of this column with some recommendations of my own. Be sure to share some of your favorites in the comments, too -- I'm always looking for fun new games to try.
This week, I wanted to talk about a wonderful game called Aselia the Eternal.
Aselia the Eternal has an interesting history. Originally released in Japan as an adults-only title, it was subsequently completely rewritten -- and all the adult content removed -- for a PlayStation 2 release, which was then ported back to PC and eventually, some years later, officially translated and released by visual novel specialists JAST USA, allowing English speakers to play it for the first time without having to resort to fan translations and potentially dodgy means of acquiring the game content. For those concerned about censorship, don't worry; the "all-ages" version we have today doesn't feel compromised in any form, and due to its substantial rewrites and expansions over the original, is in fact regarded by some players as the definitive version.
The game itself is a visual novel, and a dating sim, and a brutally challenging strategy game, and an RPG. With all its diverse mechanics, however, story is always the priority, and so this sometimes means that a mission in the strategy game component might be interrupted by a half-hour visual novel sequence as your forces arrive at a specific location. This particular aspect of the game won't be to everyone's taste, I'll freely admit -- it's a significant number of hours before you get even a hint of the strategy or RPG components, too -- but for me, it was one of the most interesting and defining aspects of the whole experience.
The narrative revolves around the protagonist Yuuto being pulled into a mysterious parallel world called Phantasmagoria. There, he is enslaved by the native population and put to work alongside the Spirits -- powerful, female warriors enslaved to sentient swords and forced to fight battles on behalf of the various world powers. As an "Etranger" -- someone from another world who is also beholden to a sentient sword -- Yuuto discovers himself to have an enormous amount of power, and thus begins an epic and lengthy tale of a world in conflict, and of the sword Desire's quest to destroy its brother blade Oath.
Aselia's tale is told in a somewhat interesting manner. Unfolding from the perspective of Yuuto, your initial hours in Phantasmagoria are deliberately bewildering. The people you meet speak neither English or Japanese, and thus Yuuto's early attempts at communication are frustrating to witness. Over time, though, both you as the player and Yuuto as the protagonist start to recognize words and patterns that the characters use, and gradually everyone begins to understand one another. The experience of this slow, painstaking learning process is something I can't recall having in any other game -- it's agonizing to witness at times, but it accurately reflects the frustration someone would feel if they were suddenly thrust into an alien culture and unable to communicate effectively.
Once the communication issue is resolved, we start learning things about the Spirits. There's a main cast of characters whom Yuuto can pursue romantically over the course of the game -- in a nice touch, your relationship values are determined not only by the choices you make in the visual novel segments, but also by how often you fight alongside them in the battle sequences -- and a supporting cast of other spirits who make up the bulk of your army. Regardless of whether they're a dateable main cast member or not, though, every character is important and meaningful. Every character has a name, a backstory and relationships to explore. Every character has something to contribute and is a well-defined person in their own right -- which, in turn, makes them more than just a collection of stats and abilities on the strategic map and RPG battles. And, well, if I tell you that this game features Fire Emblem-style permadeath -- albeit with the ability to save and reload whenever you want -- I'm sure you'll understand when I say the strategic decisions you'll be making carry far more weight than in many other similar titles.
It helps that the game itself is rock solid, although admittedly its static 2D art, sprite-based combat and PS1-era tactical map probably aren't going to win the hearts of those who demand a more highly polished, cinematic experience. But in terms of how it plays, it's deep and enjoyable, rewarding patience and a willingness to learn the intricacies of the various systems at play -- and Aselia makes use of some well thought out and highly original mechanics rather than being an RPG by numbers. With the limited number of troops you have available at any one time, every decision counts, and you'd better think very carefully before committing one of your units to a battle against a tough foe. You'll think less about whether your Red Spirits can breach the enemy's defense, and more about whether Orpha is going to be all right if you send her on ahead. You'll fret about the mental state of your troops -- casting magic has a negative impact on their minds, which in turn makes them more withdrawn and less willing to talk to you in the visual novel sequences -- and try to mix things up so as not to "mistreat" them. It's an experience quite unlike anything else I've had from either the strategy or RPG genres, and it's well worth exploring.
Aselia the Eternal is a pretty hefty game as visual novels and dating sims go -- my first playthrough took me about 54 hours -- and is eminently replayable, to boot, with harder difficulty levels and minor, helpful tweaks to the interface available second time around. Although the basic overarching plot is mostly the same each time, the individual scenes you'll get as you go will be different according to the choices that you make and the characters you're attempting to woo. Each member of the main cast has her own set of things that she's going through, and these are used to provide a stark contrast between the somewhat cold, clinical nature of the strategic segments and the intimate, personal nature of Yuuto's interactions with them. Wars are ultimately fought by individuals on the battlefield -- and it's this idea that Aselia the Eternal explores particularly well over the course of its lengthy narrative.
While perhaps not what you might immediately think of when you hear the term "dating sim," Aselia the Eternal is a fascinating, beautiful game that is well worth exploring -- and one which, I'll wager, a fair few of you reading this might not have ever heard of before. If I've piqued your interest enough for you to want to find out more, here's the official site -- I look forward to hearing about your adventures in Phantasmagoria.