This review is spoiler-free. Preceding the previously translated Kara no Shoujo, Cartagra is a story of gruesome murders in a post-war Japan. Kara no Shoujo is one of my favorite visual novels. Even taking into account the inescapable bias toward the first few visual novels you read, even looking back on its flaws, it had me so spellbound that I have to recognize it as one of my best experiences in the medium. You can thus imagine how impatient I was to be able to read Cartagra. This also serves as a forewarning that I will inevitably venture into comparisons between the two games during the review.
To put things back into their context, despite the fact that up until a few days ago only Kara no Shoujo was available to english readers, Cartagra was actually released in Japan by Innocent Grey three years before it. It is thus sensible to read Cartagra before reading Kara no Shoujo. Cartagra is set in 1951, in a slowly recovering post-war Tokyo. Shugo is a former police officer freeloading at a brothel, mostly unemployed but occasionally handling detective work. One day he is asked to investigate on the disappearance of Kohzuki Yura, a girl with who he had an intimate relationship before being sent to war. In parallel of his investigation, a series of brutal murders occur in the city.
While this sounds like the synopsis to a mystery novel, you need to be warned beforehand that Cartagra does not follow the “rules” of mystery novels, in the sense that its objective is not to give you the intellectual stimulus of solving the mystery. The investigation is obviously at the core of the story and will lead to a number of revelations, but it is not used to create suspense nor to make you actively look for the culprit. In fact, plot elements oscillate between obvious and hardly guessable in another way than intuition, which probably won’t satisfy the reader looking for a mystery novel experience. There is indeed a lot of pure entertainment value in being showered with revelations of how everything actually ties together in the true end of the game, but the point is somewhere else. It’s rather evident if you look at how the murders are characterized: there is no impossible closed room or mysterious circumstances. The murders are characterized by their brutality and their absurdity. The purpose is multifold: to create an atmosphere of impending danger, to draw raw emotions out of the reader, all the while appealing to one’s morbid fascination for the insanity behind the crimes. This leads to very intense scenes, such as the must-read Nightmare bad end and various other moments that I won’t reveal to avoid spoilers.
Cartagra is a game that relies a lot on its atmosphere. It’s not only the murders that cast a depressive mood over the story: the post-war setting actually plays an important role in that. On this point, the difference of atmosphere between Kara no Shoujo and Cartagra, who are separated by 6 years, is big. Cartagra has its protagonist live in a brothel and investigate in the wretched parts of the city. Through scattered scenes, descriptions and themes, such as the depiction of the duality of the police and the underground mafia or the consequences the war had on the population, the game really anchors itself in an after war background, despite it not being the main point of the story. Most of the visual assets also contribute to this, from the character design to the color and choice of CGs. To venture once again in a comparison to Kara no Shoujo, despite both games alternating morose and cheerful scenes, Cartagra has its own flavor and identity, one more troubled than the peaceful one of its sequel. Cartagra also features a really good cast of characters. Most of them leave a strong first impression and end up being relatively well fleshed out considering the length of the game. The only disappointing point being that the one exception is… Shugo, the main character. Rather bland, a bit too generic, Shugo has his moments (one of them being one of the few 3rd person view scenes of the game) but is overall not a too convincing protagonist. It’s all the more disappointing that having a protagonist in his late twenties is quite refreshing (it was one of the selling points of Kara no Shoujo for me). Thankfully, everyone else is there to compensate. Badass characters like Tôji or Arishima (voiced by Jouji Nakata!) or cute girls like Hatsune, but also even more marking personalities such as Nana, Shugo’s little sister. Nana might appear like your stock eccentric family member at first, but she’s actually not far from plain insanity. At times reliable and at times creepy, she’s a marking character throughout the game. Actually, I wouldn’t have minded having the story told from her perspective because it sure looks damn interesting!
Also worth noting is Kazuna. Main heroine of the game, she is the strong, cheerful and positive girl who brings a gust of joy in this gloomy game. Her scenes are always great and as a lead character she contrasts well with the rest of the cast and the mood of the game. At this point, since I’m talking about the characters, I think I ought to mention the sex scenes. Because they’re pretty bad, actually. Overall the game suffers from slightly too rough transitions, typically at the branch-off of a route, and I think H-scenes are partly to blame for that. Scattered throughout the game in a seemingly random fashion, they are not well inserted and rather badly written as well as not too visually appealing (although tastes probably play a strong role in that matter). I wouldn’t care because they are not exactly relevant to the story, but it gets to the point where Cartagra could almost be cited as an example of an eroge where sex scenes are actually slightly detrimental to character development. Not a major flaw but it’s there.
Since Cartagra is a translation, a small comment on it. I can’t judge its accuracy myself, but the game is not famed for having particularly difficult prose or complex concepts anyway. As for the English prose, it’s excellent. Essentially functional because the game doesn’t lend itself to bouts of literary prowess, but definitely up to professional translation standards, so it’s a quality release from Mangagamer. They even added some rad snow animation, which for some reason I feel compelled to mention. Cartagra has the really good art and soundtrack that most Innocent Grey games feature, and a fairly well constructed story. I think it’s rather obvious who the game doesn’t address to: people who prefer their stories lighthearted, or who can’t bear the gruesomeness of the murders, typically. For the others, how much you will like it will probably depend on your sensibility to the atmosphere of the story and the personality of the characters. I strongly advise you to at least try playing it and its even better sequel, Kara no Shoujo.