More than a decade ago, Kotaro Uchikoshi and Takumi Nakazawa written what would be undeniably known as the greatest visual novel of all time, Ever 17. Personal bias aside, Ever 17 did indeed garner massive amount of attention especially in the English-speaking community. Ever since they went on their own separate ways, Uchikoshi had been working on the Zero Escape series which had received considerable level of fame. Meanwhile, Nakazawa founded Regista, which produced I/O – one of it’s first major visual novels.
It is actually incredibly difficult to give a plot summary for I/O, so to save myself the trouble, here’s the synopsis (from VNDB):
April 26th, 2032 A.D. – Megalopolis Tokyo – 00:12 in the morning
A total lunar eclipse occurs for the first time in 3 years. Even though it’s supposed to be a simple astronomical phenomenon, it soon sets off a series of unexpected events. Unexplainable mysteries, terrorist incidents, and network crime surge as if in unison. The truth mixes with lies, as if the world is awake but still sleeping.
Something has begun. Somewhere no one can see. Something no one knows about.
This is a story of the chance meeting and tragic parting of the young men and women living in this world. Players get to play the game from 4 different points of view:
Route A – Hinata, a youth who has lost his sister and himself.
Route B – Ishtar, a freelance programmer and leader of a hacker team.
Route C – Ishtar, but seems a bit different from the Ishtar in Route B….
Route D – He, a man completely shrouded in mystery.
“The beginning is the end, and the end is the beginning”
Looking at the above, you can see that the visual novel is periodically shifted into different protagonist’s point of view, so it’s like ef in that sense, although definitely not as linear. At the start of the visual novel, you are given the choice of choosing which protagonist you want to start the story from. Ironically, without the preferred route order, which introduces you the relevant plot points in a coherent manner, you will be grasping at straws otherwise, so the purpose of providing a choice itself is a bit questionable at best. This visual novel is also, to describe it in simple words, HUGE, in a contextual manner, and it’s one of those visual novels where you literally had to play every single routes and even some bad ends to comprehend the story.
Just like the rest of the infinity series, I/O’s story revolves a lot around pseudo-science, including, but not limited to Jungian psychology, human physiology, philosophy and so on. A number of concepts like network-virtual technology, quantum mechanics and other relevant scientific jargon are frequently brought up in the visual novel. I/O also uses the Babylonian mythology as one of it’s main foundation for both plot and character creation. In any case, there are just a lot of infodumping. While I’m used to infodumping and getting mindscrewed, I think I/O is probably one of the visual novels with the most infodumping I had ever experienced, and sometimes, all these technical jargon the narrative kinda tossed right to the players can be a bit frustrating. However, I think all the concepts combined together, is an interesting mix in itself.
Aforementioned, you really had to play every single route the visual novel had to offer to really comprehend the story on some level. Even then, some elements of the story still required interpretation, which easily show the vastness of I/O. However, I/O suffers from pacing issues at some segments of the visual novel – they just quite frankly, feel draggy. For example, D route, while given a refreshing perspective shift to an enigmatic character of the story, it is arguably just a retelling of the C route; and don’t even get me started on the later prime routes. At some point of the visual novel, I was shaking my head and was like “Hey.. just when the heck will this story end!?” It was as if the visual novel kept throwing at you all kinds of verbose technical lectures just in an attempt to drag the story longer.
I might add that while I make it sound like I dislike I/O’s storytelling direction, I actually like the story as a whole, putting aside the infodumping. Aforementioned, the premise is an interesting blend of different scientific, technological and even mythological concepts, which is an ambiguous and creative mix; oddly enough, those very concepts are implemented well – complementing to each other. When all is said and done, some twists are undeniably, very well done too. I also like just how interconnected the different routes are, despite seemingly detached as separate entities at first. I also like how the narrative sometimes shifts into different perspectives and identities in rapid succession; a used, but still a very nifty literary mindscrewing trick (though the colors give it away).
While the second half of the visual novel, the prime routes, also provided the much needed character backstories – the more major case here being route D’, and some of the revelations on that route, really make a lot of sense. Now that when I think about it, perhaps one reason why I’m so sold on the story, despite it’s flaw, is because of the characters themselves.
There are very solid character developments, especially for some of the protagonists. Even for a portion of the protagonists who were already essentially “developed” characters the first time we seen them, they are given backstories for us to comprehend how they came to be. The rest of the characters aside from the protagnists are also given given ample exposure so as not to be treated as solely plot devices. Each of them possessed a valid reason for their actions, and some characters are given sufficient exposure and backstories, thus avoiding the risk contorting themselves to classical archetypes. Although likewise, all these character revelations are only discovered only once a player actually played all the routes, but the achievement just feels that much more satisfying for me after discovering a side to a character I was completely unaware of.
I have mixed feelings about the graphics for I/O. While I certainly applaud the high-quality CGs used, they are at times, very repetitive (especially the network dive CGs, which are all essentially the same). There are, at some point, very brief 3D animations, throughout the story, though subtle, and doesn’t distract from reading the story. The characters themselves are drawn quite oddly, the proportions feel wrong at some scenes, and some of the sprites doesn’t look very natural. I also don’t understand why the illustrator has to draw so many wrinkles on the characters’ costumes; perhaps to give a sense of realism? But instead, it just seems to give the odd impression that the clothes haven’t been ironed for decades. I/O may not be the latest visual novel, but I certainly did expected more visually from a visual novel released in 2006.
In contrast to the graphics, the music is superb. Onoken, the one who composed and arranged I/O’s music, made good use of digital and electronic arrangements, fitting the the setting’s atmosphere, heightening the sense of high-technology feels. There are some slight different ones however, like for example, the “Theme of Lem”, oddly uses a more celtic/folk melodies combined with an electronic backdrop, probably to give the song a more fantastical feel, considering it’s the theme of a… fairy. “Theme of HE” is another noteworthy song which just heightens the sense of badassery HE just seems to execute out of every pores of his skin.. or every nodes of his body. Some upbeat tracks, like “gamma”, took center stage during the more high-paced action moments, intensifying the thrill and excitement of said action scenes.
One noteworthy thing about the visual novel’s system is the “Defrag” system, based on real defrag programs from computers, I believe. All the scenes that you came across in the story will be recorded here, and if there are any additional scenes unlocked, it will also notify you (and you DO need to watch those scenes to progress to the rest of the routes). It wasn’t mentioned in the visual novel, but the former (before the additional scenes are unlocked) are called 0.1 while the latter, 1.0. The 1.0 endings are also distinguishable by some lines like this “B_complete = 1″ (in this case, it means you had watched all the additional scenes in route B). Because, there is already a system to guide you, getting a 100% completion isn’t really difficult, perhaps with the exceptions of a few bad ends. The “Keyword” and “History” sections are also great addition, considering that the story is so complicated, these two segments would help relieve some level of complexity. “Keyword”, is like a dictionary which provides definitions for some of the very technical, scientific term used in the story, while “History” basically gives a more coherent timeline for all the key incidents of I/O.
It is also important to take notice that there are quite a lot of bugs in this visual novel. I personally only experienced frequent crashes and had to re-skip a lot to the place I last stopped at, but after searching around, there are also a number of other issues ranging from font overlap problems and so on (though it seems like that particular issue is more apparent with XP systems). I heard from the translators that the original Japanese version even had a lot more technical issues, and they practically spent more than a year just trying to debug them. While the crashing issues, undoubtedly, did indeed dwindled my playing-experience of the visual novel, I try not to let it get to me, and it certainly isn’t such a big issue anyway, since it IS possible to progress nonetheless.
I/O may had overstayed it’s welcome, being more draggy than is necessary, and it may be a bit graphically jarring. But overall, despite the flaws, I think I/O is certainly a great visual novel. It may not rival the sheer quality of Ever 17, but those looking for a good sci-fi story with a good number of twists, would no doubt be appreciative of I/O.