Tales From The Under-Realm: After Midnight is the second game in Winter Wolves’s Tales From the Under-Realm series, which is a spinoff of its Aravorn series. Winter Wolves appears to be one of those teams that pumps out multiple short VNs a year and funds them through Kickstarter. It’s worked on over thirty visual novels since 2008. I bring this up because you would not get that impression from reading this visual novel. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this game—my impression after I finished this was, “This small, upstart team looks like it could have a nice future ahead of it; if it improves production values, it could make something really great.”
And then I saw that this game is part of a long-running series dating back to 2005.
Please keep in mind that I’m not expecting especially high-end production values here. Sometimes a minimalist aesthetic can fit the tone of the game. The problem with Tales From The Under-Realm: After Midnight is that some of the production errors are things that should be obvious. The most noteworthy error is the lack of sound effects at crucial moments. The addition of occasional sound effects, like the strike of a blade, would enhance the player’s experience, but so many of the most emotionally charged moments are only supported by background music. This ruins player immersion. On the plus side, the music is serviceable, although the only song that truly stands out is the full version of the main theme, which only plays during the sex scenes.
The visuals are, for the most part, decent. That’s a good sign, especially since I decided to cover this game because I liked the character designs. That being said, there are some stills that look awkward and underdeveloped. Most of these are shots of women’s backs, which often lack detail and shading. The lack of detail is especially noticeable during the sex scenes, unfortunately, and that’s when appealing imagery is most necessary. Overall, though, the sex scenes were still sexy as hell thanks to the quality writing. The fact that the text alone was able to carry intimate scenes is a testament to the general strength of the game’s writing.
Actually, now that I think about it, I think it’s safe to say that the writing carries this game as a whole. While the story did not seem particularly interesting, I did find myself becoming genuinely invested towards the second half.
The story takes place in the medieval fantasy world of Aravorn, and follows Nessa. Nessa works as a guard in a town plagued by murders committed after midnight. Over the course of the game, you must find out who is responsible while developing a relationship with either your childhood friend, Tara, or the mage, Cynthia.
I picked Tara’s route first because she’s a strong, powerful, muscle babe and is therefore best girl. Seriously, though, I felt genuine chemistry and passion between her and Nessa. Unfortunately, Cynthia’s route felt much more forced and lacked the same depth of emotion. Cynthia isn’t a bad character by any means, but her route only seems to exist because the developers thought readers wouldn’t play a game that won’t let them be with their preferred waifu, and so they had to railroad Cynthia in.
The story occasionally shifts to Evelyn’s perspective. Evelyn is a rich elf girl whose father Samael is the captain of the guards. The main conflict in this route is that Evelyn is a spoiled teenage girl and her father is a strict hardass who values full obedience—or at least that’s what Winter Wolves is going for. In reality, Evelyn is a total cunt at the beginning of the game. Then she suddenly stops being cunty and instead acts more like an abuse victim lashing out at her abuse for the rest of her route. The game does not, unfortunately, recognize this shift, and continues to describe Evelyn as merely selfish and spoiled. While Samael isn’t exactly a bastion of morality, the game’s narrator makes snide comments about Evelyn’s selfishness during her most tragic moments. This is jarring and, to be quite frank, rather patronizing.
As a general rule, writers shouldn’t tell the reader how they’re supposed to feel about a specific character. At best, the writing ends up redundant. At worst, it is genuinely maddening for readers who like that character to be told to hate them. And this does not even address the moral implications of trying to play the “both sides” game with an abusive father and his traumatized teenage daughter.
One last complaint I have is that all the endings feel rather abrupt and inconclusive. I thought that there must be some sort of “golden ending” that wraps everything up nicely, but nope. The story reads as if it’s missing something that really makes it stick with the reader. While Tales From the Under-Realm: After Midnight exceeded my expectations overall, I still feel that there is underutilized storytelling potential here, and that’s a shame.