“The Russian Katawa Shoujo” is how Everlasting Summer was nicknamed by the visual novel community upon its English release in 2014, mostly due to how it originated as if spontaneously from an imageboard. I wonder what Soviet Games, the makers of this title, think of this comparison. Sure enough they can be proud of the 600,000 people that own their title on Steam, and it might be safe to say it’s one of the most popular non-Japanese visual novels to date. Not without reason – Everlasting Summer features an expansive and mysterious setting that ensures multiple storylines are completely different from one-another and an interesting cast, which makes the game lively, yet surprisingly cozy in its atmosphere.
Here is what we are getting into: after having strange dreams night after night and then falling asleep during a (beautifully portrayed) mysterious bus ride in the winter, Semyon finds himself as a teenager in the 80’s who somehow ended up in a Soviet Young Pioneer camp in the middle of nowhere named Sovyonok. Worse still, no one bats an eyelid – the camp leader, Olga Dmitrievna, was actually expecting him. What we have is the “down the rabbit hole” approach to storytelling, enhanced by how the summer and the camp’s light atmosphere contrasts Semyon’s crestfallen demeanor and lifestyle in the “real world”.
As you are introduced to the camp’s crowd, routine, and lifestyle, you are invited to forget the mystery behind whatever circumstances led you to Sovyonok. Little by little, the ordinary tries to swallow the extraordinary: having to deal with a card game tournament becomes more important than looking for the bus that brought you to the camp; the embarrassment from running into a naked girl becomes more prevalent than the suspicion about that girl not existing at all in the first place. Semyon, of course, does not forget that he doesn’t belong to that time and world, but ends up finding life there comfortable regardless.
Sovyonok does try its best to be comfortable, if not pleasant to the reader. There was ambition and attention put into building this world, as is evident by the background art – which is, I would say, the most gorgeous I have ever seen in a visual novel – and the music direction. Both are capable enough of linking specific sensations to each place you visit and each person you meet. However, it’s the ambient sounds that bring the camp to life. The rich textures and enticing rhythm of each location’s ambience are more than enough to call Everlasting Summer’s sound design commendable – rivaled only by Dysfunctional Systems.
However, even though the more lenient players will not mind the character art, it must be said how different it is from the background art in style: the outlines are thicker, the colouring is completely different, and, as a result, it stands out like a sore thumb among the rather delicate landscapes. It is hard to get used to this difference, even moreso when you notice the background style also changes when it comes to CGs. It is not a deal breaker, but it might be a hindrance in the process of getting comfortable with the place.
But as you can see, Semyon is sooo inseeecuuuuuure. Such angsty remarks are not uncommon throughout Everlasting Summer, and as much as they are unwelcome, they are more or less your only clue to his personality. The reason for this is that the game is bigger than its routes and Semyon gets to find something he likes not in spite of, but because of the camp. I don’t want to spoil anything, but be warned that it will be a long time before you see any development from him in any direction. The writing doesn’t help, either: Everlasting Summer has an uncommon writing style for a visual novel, going out of its way to add descriptions about a speech after the fact, not unlike a regular novel but rather unbefitting of an ADV-style VN. Such minor stylistic choices actually end up making the pace even slower than it would otherwise be.
Now, here’s the real question: how much of a bother can this be for a game that depends on multiple playthroughs to show what it’s about?
Although the routes are more or less self-contained stories, they never answer the original mystery. Indeed, the most the game achieves is to entangle the player in its atmosphere while still leaving the impression that there should be something else for those who explore enough. However, as we know, encouraging the use of the skip button destroys any established atmosphere. Everlasting Summer does not seem to know what it’s really, really about from the bottom of its heart, so it ends up telling many stories and introducing you to many people while not ever giving absolute importance to any of these elements. You could, of course, only complete the routes of the heroines who piqued your interest. It’s the player’s prerogative, after all. However, the game would make sure you are certain there’s more to the story, and you still don’t know everything about the summer camp you went to.
Speaking of routes, let me tell you a secret: you get to meet a girl whose ponytails are teal coloured. She sings and her name is – no jokes here – Miku. In fact, she has a route. Now, her route is probably the one that diverges the most from the game’s central idea, almost as if it’s a spinoff within the game itself. But it turns out it’s one of the better routes, a great self-contained story that doesn’t try to appeal to the bigger picture and still uses Sovyonok both as a physical place and as a mystery, in the sense that it opens three questions for each one it answers. What is intriguing about this route is how detached it is from the rest of the game in tone, theme and narrative. As if a different team had developed it using the same assets.
This only comes to reinforce the notion that Soviet Games did not have a clear and precise idea of what they wanted to do with the game – yet, interestingly, they managed to develop a fairly consistent world, not necessarily in information acquired by the player but in feeling and atmosphere. This is why you could find yourself enjoying it despite not being able to understand exactly what is going on.
Perhaps it’s actually better this way. Everlasting Summer is quite an enjoyable visual novel, but demands more patience from you than you may be willing to deposit on it. It tells you to follow both your intuition and a walkthrough at the same time and, sadly, the two are mutually exclusive.