There’s an early moment in Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception where my amnesia-stricken character—dubbed Haku by a cute animal-hybrid girl—makes an accidental pass at the girl who saved his life, wondering aloud if it'd be appropriate that they'd share a room. “Planning to molest me, Haku?” inquires Kuon, the girl with white fluffy ears poking out of her raven-hued hair.
The scene singelhandedly reminded me that the game I was playing wasn’t always in the realm of this jarringly comedic and dramatic (with no means of balancing the two) visual novel and (extremely light) strategy RPG hybrid. At the series' humble beginnings back in 2002, it was merely an adult visual novel. So, sorta-interactive porn.
Utawarerumono isn’t the only adult-skewing series that has reinvented itself for a broader audience. Last week saw the release of Akiba’s Beat, the latest in the Akihabara-based game series. Where once the series pegged players with destroying the clothes of others’ backs as its primary gameplay, now sees it turn elsewhere. Consequently, Akiba’s Beat hardly looks attached to the games before it at all: it quite literally strips away the clothes-removal mechanics of its predecessors Akiba’s Trip and Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed, and ushers the series into a more typical action JRPG direction.
This is part of an ongoing trend with the adult games that become accidental hits in Japan. There are times when adult visual novels get ports to consoles, and take away all the sexual content (leaving everything to innuendos and imagination), such as the Playstation 2 and PSP port of School Days. School Days, both the game and the anime adaptation, are renowned not for the inherent sleaziness of its protagonist, but the consequences he faces after sleeping with seemingly every girl in sight. (Spoiler: it gets extremely violent.)
Fate/stay night, once just an adult game for PC, has since spawned a massively popular multimedia series encompassing anime spin-offs, video games, light novels, and more. The once sexually charged-nature of the series has long been left behind, as it’s followed a similar path as Utawarerumono. The once-adult-focused series have since emerged beyond the genre into something else entirely, though with its flirtatious nature kept in tact.
Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception isn’t a great game, at least not for players that aren’t already fans of the series. My favorite visual novels are often of the otome (dating sim) variety (so yes, admittedly very much more in my demo than the Utawarerumono series). My favorite dating sims and visual novels have a key element to entice the player: choices. Choices to determine how a relationship develops, sculpting your own character's personality, and even directing where a story goes.
Utawarerumono offers no such satisfaction. Often, I found myself traipsing through hours upon hours of dialogue with little to no interaction other than moving text along. And while the characters were sometimes charming (Kuon, in particular, grows beyond her initial stereotypical cutesy anime girl tendencies into a sassy, strong-willed heroine), feeling like I had little to interact with them in terms of dialogue options made the visual novel parts of the experience a huge drag.
It doesn’t help that the strategy RPG parts—the typical tiled battles similar to what you’d find in Fire Emblem or Disgaea—are few and far in between. As I would wade through hours of text, I’d eventually be dropped into a strategic battle. Then, usually within minutes, the battle would wrap up victoriously, and it’d be back to the visual novel slog. In the hours I played of the 50-hour game, nothing engaged me to wanting to see more of it, even as I grew to like Kuon and others, and as the surprising, tense violence caught me off guard.
Given the eventual climactic cliffhanger moment the game supposedly culminates to after 50 hours (the direct sequel, Utawarerumono: Mask of Truth, will see this conclusion through in September of this year, with another 50+ hour game), it’s disheartening to realize all the non-interactive text and fleeting SRPG battles it will take to get there.
After playing Utawarerumono: Mask of Deception for awhile, I wondered what the series has lost and gained in doing away with its once explicitly sexual imagery, as other series have made a similar change. Are women less gamified rewards, and given more room to be characters outside of the male gaze? Or does getting rid of sex as a reward instead damage the relationships between the player and the characters they surround themselves with, now that the very intimate connection is virtually nonexistent? I’m not convinced of either—given the dense boring text and the poor first impressions upon meeting various characters, but it’s a development that shouldn’t be ignored in games that come from sexual beginnings. Because sometimes, maybe the lewdness mixed with everything else is what probably set it apart.