When asked about how they got into visual novels, most people will answer with something along the lines of Doki Doki Literature Club!, Saya no Uta, Katawa Shoujo… For me, it was CHARON and their games. Some of them—like this one—might blur the lines between VN and RPGM, but I think it’s fair to say the barely existent gameplay is not the focus, only a way to transmit the story.
I first discovered Mikoto Nikki—my first experience with CHARON—when I was around 13-14. If it weren’t for that game, I probably wouldn’t even be writing this in the first place, since playing it was the beginning of my English language-learning journey.
So, who is CHARON?
CHARON is a team of game developers who are (in)famous for focusing almost solely on either yandere girls or other types of mentally unstable heroines. Although some plots are dramatic, CHARON takes an approach to mental health that I’ve always enjoyed; mental illnesses are never treated as the butt of the joke, even if you do end up getting killed in a lot of these games.
CHARON’S first game was Mikoto Nikki, released back in 2013. Since then, they’ve created many other games, most of which have been translated to English. Most of the games are freeware, though their most recent releases seem to be starting to trend toward being monetized with titles like Kaleido Stella, Vanilla: Garden of Judgement, and Utsuro Nikki, a mobile-only release, being sold for a relatively low price.
With all that being said, I’ll introduce my newest project:
the Covering CHARON series!
I’ll be reviewing every single CHARON game that has been released in English so far—though I might try to review the untranslated ones after, I’m not promising anything! I’ll be reviewing each game in chronological order and, after I’m done, posting something I’ve always wanted to write but feared I was never quite good enough or cool enough (lol) to do: an article explaining the CHARONverse—a.k.a. CHARON’s in-game universe, where many plots and characters are linked together in one way or another.
And, since this is the first game in the series, let’s begin!
Note: As always, I’ll be using the CAWPILE system to rate the game—each category will receive a score from 1 to 10, with the entire game receiving a score of 1 to 5. Do bear in mind that I’ll adapt the system in order to fit visual novels as a medium.
CW: Discussions of mental health and childhood neglect.
Mikoto Nikki is a pretty short game—it took me around 30 minutes to finish a playthrough and around 20 more to finish all the other endings—with a rather tragic story. I will be hiding the spoilers in this review, but since the game is so short, I encourage you to play it before reading.
I can’t say much about the plot without spoiling something, so let’s just use the synopsis on VNDB:
This is a story of two students—Matarou and Mikoto. It begins with Matarou confessing his love to Mikoto, which she accepts. Soon Matarou comes over to his lover’s home, where he starts to uncover Mikoto’s past.
Characters — 6
Our main cast consists only of Matarou and Mikoto. There are other characters, but that would enter spoiler territory! Matarou is a plain protagonist, which seems to be a theme with any character in a CHARON game with -tarou at the end of their name, but Mikoto is obviously the focus of this story. I really enjoyed the gradual discovery of her life and past, and the way that fed into an understanding of who the present Mikoto really is.
I will admit neither character is very well-developed, but that’s also due to the game’s short length.
Art — 8
Now, this is what I love the most about CHARON. Their pixelated art is the cutest thing I’ve seen in ages, especially their CGs. The sprites are very well done too, but some look a bit weird.
The artist is actually CHARON’s founder, Nekofuji Kaoru—the same person responsible for writing this game’s scenario. You’ll find their unique art throughout all of CHARON’s games.
Atmosphere/Setting & Soundtrack — 8
The music for Mikoto Nikki is all taken from Amacha Music Studio, Rengoku Teien, and Presence of Music—all of which offer free music (i.e. samples) to use. The tracks may be royalty-free, but they still fit the atmosphere of the game well, the sound effects included (provided by The MatchMakers 2nd). I remember the younger me being super scared to keep playing the game due to the creepy atmosphere alone.
The track that plays at the end of the true ending is beautiful as well, and always a joy to listen to!
If indie games and VNs taught me anything, it’s that a lot of royalty-free music absolutely slaps.
Writing — 6
Look, I’m not going to fool anyone. Writing isn’t CHARON’s strongest point. The focus of these games is how our heroine develops and how fucked up the story gets, not having beautiful prose. And sure, the imperfections in the writing could be due to the translation—done by terriball—but I highly doubt it.
I’ve only read one of their works in Japanese, but I immediately noticed how simplistic the writing style was. But unless you absolutely can’t do without breathtaking writing, don’t let this deter you!
Plot — 6
For a game so short, it manages to touch on some important subjects, even if the depth of their exploration does kind of suffer due to its length. Unfortunately, there’s really just no way I can talk about the game’s plot without spoiling stuff—it’s that short.
However, the true ending of the game still brings up some touchy but important themes, like childhood neglect and how it can affect the mental health of the person who suffered it, even extending to the way they view themselves. Mikoto was constantly expected to match the high expectations her parents set, despite the fact that she got nothing in return—no praise, no allowance for fun, nothing. Although I disagree with the idea of treating hard work as an exchange between people—as that will affect the child’s perspective on working towards something, and usually turns children into people-pleasers—that still doesn’t justify abuse or neglect. That much should be obvious.
Mikoto is presented as this crazy yandere (and I did put the word in my tags for this review), but honestly, I see her more as a menhera character. The two usually go hand in hand, but as far as I can tell, Mikoto’s instability is aimed at anyone who can give her love and acceptance, not just a specific crush. Yes, she killed her crush Yukimaru and, in some endings, our main character, Matarou, but the true ending show us just how much she needed help and a secure hand helping her along the way.
Ideally, I would have liked to see Mikoto get therapy and eventually answer for her crimes, (like I’ve seen before in one certain PS3 yandere game…but no more spoilers from me).
Mechanics & Gameplay — 7
As I said before, this game was made in RPG Maker 2000, and as usual in such RPGs, we can interact with the world around us. The only big gameplay aspect we have here is the “detective work” we have to do, collecting scraps of pages torn from Mikoto’s Diary (title drop!) as we learn more of her past. There are also a variety of choices to make that affect the plot, all of them appearing in the latter part of the game, almost directly before reaching the end.
If you can’t figure out where some pages are, or want some help figuring out what choices to make for what ending, there’s a guide here that can help with that.
Enjoyment — 7.5
Overall, I enjoyed this as the nostalgia trip it was for me. The game’s nothing too grand, and it’s certainly not perfect, but it is the first game in one of my favorite series that I always follow. Even though CHARON games are aimed at a very niche audience, I still definitely recommend them.
If you’re even the tiniest bit curious, give it a shot! Even if you don’t enjoy it, Mikoto Nikki and most of the other CHARON’s games are so short, you won’t have wasted much time on it.
As for my score, I give this one a 3/5. But keep in mind there are many more games to come, and much better ones the further we get down the pipeline!