Developer – Kidalang
Publisher – Playism
Length – 2-10 Hours[Review copy kindly provided by Kidalang] [Kidalang have had no input into the content of this review]
An Octave Higher is one of the newest additions to Steam’s growing library of OELVNs (Original English Language Visual Novels), which I have something of a love hate relationship with. On one hand, getting access to visual novels without having to wait for translation sounds fantastic, but on the other the majority of these new titles lack the funding and quality of story to stand up to their Japanese counterparts. While An Octave Higher is not the OELVN we’ve all been waiting for, it’s most definitely a step in the right direction, boasting a novel and intriguing setting in addition to exploring moral issues that are both interesting and relevant.
Overture is a city of wonder, having rapidly developed a society centred around magic and its study. From scientific theory to engineered machines, mana and the powers it provides pervade Overture in its entirety…though this golden age has not come without cost. Those without the money or connections to keep up with progress, the Proles, live in abject poverty, forced to slave away in factories for the good of the general populous and earning the bare minimum required to survive. Elise is one such girl, eeking out a living after having been abandoned by her parents. She makes the acquaintance of Franz, a student of magical science, who hopes to work with her to find a solution for one of the greatest limitations of magic itself. Coming from opposite ends of the social spectrum, the two may succeed in their endeavors if they are not caught up in the bitter hatred of the Proles for their more well-off countrymen.
The thing that first struck me about An Octave Higher was the quality of its world building. Beyond the novelty of its magic system, which I’ll get to soon, the setting itself has been carefully and thoughtfully crafted to pull you into the story it hosts. Even the speech, both polite and vulgar, reflects the city of Overture and its culture wonderfully. Kidalang has tried to make a world in which magic has overtaken just about everything else in terms of innovation, scientific study and everyday use, and they have succeeded in doing that on a deep level. Very early on you are introduced to magic and how it works, with each combination of the five “elements” and four methods of invoking their power able to be represented by scientific formulae. It’s novel and it gives an extra layer of depth to just about everything else the story covers, from how the gravity-defying omnibuses work to exactly what actions a character is taking to produce that massive meteor falling towards their opponent.
So, in summary, it’s really easy to become connected to the world in which the story being told is set. The plot itself, however, while still being enjoyable, doesn’t do justice to the resources it has available. My major complaint leading to that statement has to do with the six different endings offered by the tale, of which the vast majority left me thinking some variation of “well…what’s next?” because they really hadn’t tied up the earlier story threads (or at least hadn’t done so to my satisfaction). In the cases of the longer routes, the future of Overture and the characters followed by the story were left in the dark, which didn’t help the issue either. The conclusions of the routes are anticlimactic, and you know there’s something wrong when I had no idea that I’d hit the True Ending and had to ask the developer whether I’d seen everything there was to see (which they were very helpful with, mind!).
The endings aside, I had fun reading the rest of the tale. The characters sit on the better side of bland but are very likeable and work well with the events they take part in (and let’s be honest, it’s tough to develop memorable characters in such a short story). Those moral issues I talked about in the introduction have to do with the imbalance of power between the upper and lower societies of Overture and the role of the revolutionary in upsetting the same. It’s exaggerated compared to modern society but the parallel can certainly be drawn (especially when considering our own history) and I was compelled to really think about who was in the right and who was in the wrong in each situation. The story itself provides its own answer, which I found to be a little incomplete, but the way it is worked towards makes for some entertaining reading. As a final note there are three protagonists that the novel swaps between regularly, which is another fresh mechanic that you don’t see often in VNs and works pretty well in An Octave Higher’s case. It allowed for a smooth transition to explaining another point of view throughout the story, and changing perspectives in the middle of an encounter was great for that same reason, even if it didn’t happen especially often. While tough to get right, Kidalang has done a good job with it and I’ll be interested to see if it’s a feature that pops up more often in the future.
I mentioned funding in the introduction as being one of the reasons that OELVNs have been slow to really take off. While I have no idea whether that was an issue in An Octave Higher’s creation I do have to mention that its production value leaves much to be desired. The art is often pleasant without stepping anywhere near spectacular (although the backgrounds have a certain stylized charm that fits well with the setting) but has consistency issues with sprites and especially CGs. In a nutshell, they do their job but little more. Despite featuring a number of appropriate BGM tracks derived from classical music, I found that the transitions between them were abrupt and jarring. This issue is compounded by the fact that many of the tracks are relatively short, meaning that they can restart multiple times within one scene. Additionally, there is no voice acting. It’s not often that I discuss a visual novel’s UI but in this case it deserves mention due to how limited it is. There were no obvious hotkeys for opening text logs and the usual auto-play function was completely absent, which seemed somewhat odd to me. Finally, with regard to the writing quality, I found that, whereas most of the text was well-written and pleasing to read, minor grammatical errors were scattered through the novel.
Summary – Whatever complaints I may have had, I enjoyed my time with An Octave Higher. I loved the setting and the scientific representations of magic, and even cared about the characters by the time the story had reached its end. However, I felt that the routes didn’t conclude in a satisfying way and failed to tie up the various plot threads meaningfully (though the bits before the endings were still enjoyable). The technical aspects, while not impressive, aren’t deal-breaking and have their own charm. All-in-all, An Octave Higher sits on the better side of the fence of available OELVNs and if it sounds like the setting or story would interest you then you should definitely give it a go.
Score: 7/10 – Enjoyable