The reviewer has received a pre-release review copy of this game by the publisher Shiravune. Thanks for all ongoing support!
I’ve covered a lot of graphic, violent, and disturbing visual novels in my career. I’ve developed a reputation for my willingness to review titles like Maggot Baits and Gore Screaming Show for what they are and on their own merits, rather than the surface level picture of the fetishistic brutality they are known for. I’ve speculated on why it is so uncommon for critics to seriously engage with these visual novels on an artistic level, and the recurring prejudice against kink or taboo fiction could very well be part of it.
There is one other theory for this however. A lot of anime esque and Japanese media have this sort of exaggerated sense of style that comes off as immature and childish to people who aren’t already big fans of the medium and find it difficult to adjust to this specific style. Those who consume a lot of anime-inspired media likely don’t even understand what I’m talking about, as it’s an abstract concept that I’m not sure how to describe myself, and I know the editor is going to say “Annie??? What the fuck are you talking about???!!!” as soon as they look over this review.
The reason I mention this is because The Shell Part I: Inferno, otherwise known as the 2019 HD remaster of Kara no Shoujo, does not feel the same way. As much as I have praised visual novels like euphoria, Maggot Baits, Gore Screaming Show, or Dead End Aegis, I can see why it would be harder for someone who doesn’t consume a lot of anime-inspired media and who may find them off putting. I believe that these people often make the mistake of forgetting that reality often does not feel realistic and is actually batshit insane, but I understand WHY people think like this.
I guess what I’m saying here is, The Shell feels more realistic than the games I mentioned, like it depicts something that can actually happen in real life – and that’s the most disturbing part of it. The Shell reminds me more of Saya no Uta, in that it feels like it was never intended as fap material, and that it was intended as psychological horror first. And part of the reason for this is the quality of the writing in the sex scenes.
Yeah, I know, fill that one out on the Annie Gallagher bingo card because I’m criticizing eroge sex scene writing again, but can anyone REALLY tell me they are getting turned on by “a symphony of squelching and moans reverberated throughout the room,” or “our hips composed a jaunty tune together“? I’m starting to suspect that sex dialogue is a lot harder to translate without it coming across as incredibly awkward, because it is insane how so many of the best visual novels I’ve ever read have worse sex writing than a teenager’s erotic roleplay.
That being said, not all the sex scenes were awfully written, just all the vanilla scenes… which is most of them. Any scene involving dubious consent or any scene involving Natsume were more enjoyable than the bland vanilla scenes, although I suspect that’s just because the chaotic nature of these lends itself more to a more absurd writing style than scenes that are intended to be warm and intimate. The art is pretty good though, so you may be able to enjoy them if you react more to visual stimuli.
Let’s be real though, The Shell is NOT something you read for the sex scenes. One major reason that The Shell lacks the same sense of deviancy and perversion of your typical CLOCKUP or Black Cyc title is likely because the story is not about a bunch of depraved gang raping scumbags sticking their dicks into open wounds. The Shell has violence, and it has sex, but it doesn’t have them together, and that may make this visual novel more palatable to a lot of people. However, that does not make the substance of this visual novel less disturbing, and I respect the hell out of it for its acknowledgement that depravity is every bit as likely to come from people looking to create beautiful works of art at the cost of human life than it is from some pervert wanting to get their rocks off.
Before I begin talking about the specifics of The Shell, there’s one important thing I need to note ahead of time – INSTALL THE 18+ patch right away! The censored version of The Shell doesn’t simply remove the H-scenes, it also removes any gore images, references to weird fetish shit, and it locks you out of an investigation scene that is required to complete the game. I made the mistake of forgetting to install the patch the first time through, and got locked into an unwinnable game by the time I installed it. This then led to me needing to re-do the game up to this point.
Also the left is one of the tamer gore scenes in the game.
This thankfully wasn’t too much of a problem thanks to text skipping, but Shiravune really needs to re-think how they handle 18+ patches if the game is literally unbeatable without it. And while I’m on the subject, I really don’t think that sending out pre-release review copies of Taimanin Asagi without making the 18+ patch available was a wise idea. I’m pretty sure that waiting until release day when the patch was available defeated the point of getting an early copy. (Since then, they’ve been distributing their pre-releases with the 18+ patch, but those are only available for a week’s duration, making it necessary to either find a suitable reviewer quickly or for the Steam curators to backup and re-distribute the patch. All these aren’t optimal solutions.)
That all being said, The Shell is an amazing visual novel and offers a must-read for horror fans. The Shell stars Tokisaka Reiji, a detective and former police officer who spends his days wilfully picking the most violent and brutal cases to solve. The Shell makes it quite apparent that Reiji has witnessed and experienced some seriously fucked up shit that has traumatized him, and makes him view the world as an unsafe place. This is in contrast to the cast of teenager girls that he’s trying to protect from a depraved serial killer, who are less mature and who don’t know what to make of the situation around them. The game even starts from the perspective of Reiji’s sister Yukari, who is still attending school.
That is not to say that any of the teenage characters are annoying or grating. In fact, every character in this game feels real, and The Shell rarely infantilizes these characters, almost as if to say that experiencing horrific trauma forces one to grow up faster. One will become quite attached to all these characters, which in turn makes makes for a serious emotional gut punch when the killer gets to them. It’s truly amazing how The Shell takes the trite slasher trope of a killer chopping up teenagers and flips it on its head by making these character feel real; by giving them each their own unique struggles, flaws, and trauma, and respecting them as human beings rather than by treating them as a shallow stereotype.
And yes, there’s also the elephant in the room that Reiji has the option to bone many of these teenage girls. I feel like this is inconsistent with Reiji’s character not because of “you can’t depict morally wrong things in fiction or teenagers will post pictures of Goku saying the age of consent is 18 at you on Twitter reasons,” but because Reiji just isn’t a very sexually inclined character. In fact, a few of these scenes result from emotionally damaged girls coercing Reiji into doing so, and there’s even one where a girl flat out says “if you don’t fuck me I’ll kill myself.” I think there is a recurring theme of these women trying to seduce an older guy like Reiji as a means of coping with their helplessness and vulnerablity, which is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of teens who actually DO stuff like this in real life. The issue though is that there’s a few scenes where Reiji just sort of goes along with it, when it feels out of character for him.
The main story of The Shell is set in post war 1950s Japan, and concerns a series of murders targeting high school girls. The commonality between these murders is that each girl has their uterus removed, is missing a limb, and found wrapped in a black cloth. Reiji goes undercover as a teacher at the private Oba Girls Academy, where he looks into the history of the victims and gets to know the girls that he needs to protect.
Over the course of the game, Reiji will find more clues that fill in the backstory of the various characters you meet, and you slowly begin piecing together the case. The story starts out feeling like a typical detective story, but the stakes continue to increase with each passing day, as the victims go from characters you never see, to established characters you got to know personally. This in turns leads to the repeated emotional gut punch of finding one of your precious friends missing, and then finding their corpse disposed of in a grotesque and horrifying fashion. And every time you think the story is over, the game finds a way to pull the rug out from under you even when you’ve seen the credits for the first time. It is STRONGLY advised that you pursue every ending in this game – including the bad ones. They all add up to form a masterful narrative that will keep you hooked and invested throughout the entire game.
There is one thing that breaks up the flow of the game, and that is the investigation sequences. At several points through the story, there will be an interactive sequence where you examine crime scenes or rooms of suspects. While I have no issue with the story content, and found them to be quite engaging on the first playthrough, they present a problem. This problem is that you will be skipping through a lot of text on repeated playthroughs, and these sections aren’t as easily skipped. This becomes especially egregious during the sequences where Reiji answers prompts related to the characters you met and the evidence you found, where you will have skipped through text up to that point and will likely not remember the exact context. While there is an option to read through the text in the prior scene, it’s in an out of the way spot that I didn’t notice until quite a way through the game. That being said, these sections have been immensely improved from the original release of Kara no Shoujo, where you had limited clicks and had to select pieces of evidence in the right order to get certain endings.
The presentation is top notch as well. The audio and visuals fit the intended mood perfectly, and the voice acting is absolutely superb. I consider a true test of a game’s voice acting quality to be whether or not being text only would be a downgrade, and there are surprisingly few games where that’s the case. The Shell, however, is one of the cases where a game just would not be the same without the voice acting, and where the entire cast gave it their all. This version is fully voiced as well, which is another change from the original release.
The music is also amazing, and is yet another part that this game would feel weird without. All of the tense and high stakes scene simply would not have the same power without “Sneaking” playing over them, and “Reasoning” captures the air of mystery of the investigation scenes perfectly. The Shell’s soundtrack is simply amazing at setting the necessary atmosphere of this game, but one would be remiss to not mention the breathtaking ending theme “Ruri no Tori,” which gives me goosebumps every time.
I’m at the point in the review where I must ponder how much more I should gush about the story and characters, because holy shit was this visual novel incredible! It honestly amazes me that this is the first part of a trilogy, because this one installment feels so complete all on its own. I said at the start that I don’t want to hold it above titles like Euphoria or Maggot Baits solely on the basis of its perceived “maturity,” namely because I find that titles with at least a slight hint of immaturity feel more accurate to the state of real life, and thus form a stronger connection with me, but it is also refreshing to see a game like this.
I often make a point of thinking outside of my own shell of comfort when it comes to what to recommend to others, and I can certainly recommend this to more people than the aforementioned visual novels, yet that’s not to say that this title isn’t absolutely gruesome. It’s just gruesome in a different way, a way that, contrary to popular belief, isn’t any less realistic than your typical CLOCKUP title, but certainly feels more real.
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