NaNoRenO 2020 Highlights, Pt 2: Horror (Updated)

Written by Plk_Lesiak

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Hello and welcome to the second part of my NaNoRenO 2020 coverage, where I’ll be going through the most noteworthy games submitted to the most recent edition of the biggest EVN game jam. While in the first part I focused on otome and other GxB romantic VNs, this time I’ll tackle the niche that, in my opinion, contained some of the best projects in the whole event – horror. Once more, I’ll be focusing on complete projects, rather than many demos and prototypes that get submitted to NaNoRenO – and thanks to the extended deadline devs worked with this year, that’s still a lot of interesting content.

                One game from the previous post, Dream Dilemma, also fits into this week’s theme besides featuring GxB romance – however, it was a rather unremarkable, simplistic game and most of those I’ll be writing about today are anything but that. So, please join me in this quick overview of NaNoRenO 2020 horror VNs – and as always, whenever one of them catches your attention, clicking its title in the list will get you straight to its Itch.io games. Of course, all the titles I’m covering are completely free to play. Let’s have some scary (and slightly messed up) fun!

Divilethion

Divilethion is far from your typical scary VN, tilting more to the side of grotesque horror-comedy, with visuals and writing style that contrast heavily with the grim essence of its story – and do so in a brilliant, at times hilarious way. The game follows Lynn, a young high priest in an isolated village “protected” by a monstrous god named Divilethion. While the entity is the only guarantee of survival for the community surrounded by monster-infested swamps and regularly plagues by disasters, the price for its “miracles” is steep – every time, a villager has to be sacrificed and his heart fed to Devilethion. Lynn, cynical and disturbingly diligent about his duties, is soon put to the greatest test yet by the apparently bored deity, asked to sacrifice one thing he might not be willing to give up…

                As serious as this story setup might sound, what sets its tone as primarily a dark comedy is Lynn’s warped perception of the reality around him and the grotesque enthusiasm Divilethion requires from his worshippers. This combined with an unrelenting writing style, never shying away from harsh language and disturbing story developments, creates a striking experience that will likely keep you engaged all the way through, to either a relatively-positive or deeply unsettling conclusion. While overall the game is relatively short, it’s just so full of personality and meaningful story developments it’s hard to not be satisfied with it. I deeply recommend checking it out – very few hour-long VNs left me with such a strong impression.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

My Bunny

My Bunny is well-stylized horror VN about a troubled girl accompanied by a sinister imaginary-friend character in the form of an anthropomorphic bunny. Isolated and bullied in school, with hints on traumatic past on top of it, the protagonist is fighting desperately to improve her life against all odds, while her every failure results in the stronger presence of the bunny, always whispering depreciating and violent thoughts. A chance meeting with a local graffiti artists finally offers her some respite and hope for the future, but a tragedy so long in the making is not easily averted…

                A solid premise and presentation of My Bunny is sadly at least partially wasted due to a rushed and poorly written ending – while I understand what the devs were going for, the behaviour of certain characters and options offered to the player at the end of the game are underwhelming. The bunny himself is also strangely underutilized, not influencing the plot as much as you would expect and rarely receiving genuinely interesting dialogue. Ultimately, while not bad, My Bunny is another one of those NaNoRenO VNs that leave you pondering its lost potential at least as much as its actual story – which is a shame, but maybe shows the possibility for its authors to produce something truly memorable in the future.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Eislyn’s Apocalypse

Eislyn’s Apocalypse is arguably the most narratively-involved and complex games in this year’s NaNoRenO, and my personal highlight of the event. While similar stories of a secret conflict between cosmic beings over the future of humanity, along with the quasi-Lovecraftian stylistics have been done in VNs countless times, this one is noteworthy for its uncompromising approach to horror – confronting the reader with disturbing, genuinely apocalyptic scenarios, unavoidable outside of the unlockable true ending. Each of the four bad routes shows something crucial about the game’s world and characters, giving context and emotional buildup for a deeply satisfying “real” conclusion. This structure by itself, of course, is also not new, but it’s a while since I’ve seen it done in a game jam project in such a deliberate and effective way.

                What is it exactly about, though? The VN follows a few protagonists, often switching perspectives, although the central character is always Adrianne – a strange young girl with an inexplicable connection to the monsters lurking the dark corners of the once-idyllic city of Memora. While the whole intrigue starts with an investigation to a series of murders, performed by a private detective recruited by concerned citizens, it escalates rapidly in every route, reaching often truly epic proportions. All the major characters, whether supernatural or average people, will be involved in an ancient battle between good and evil – and one in which the balance of power is definitely skewed in favour of the evil, while its corrupting influence makes the distinction between friend or foe less than clear. Outside of very average visuals and a pretty limited set of CGs, there’s little to complain about here – characters are compelling, the world-building fascinating and the plot emotionally involving with constantly-rising stakes. I won’t write anything more to avoid spoilers, but if you wanted to read just one VN from this year’s NaNoRenO, this one would be a good choice.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

#Influenced

Once more touching on the recurrent NaNoRenO theme of great ideas with half-assed execution, #Influenced is a short horror story about an aspiring social media influencer frustrated with her lack of progress. After meeting with a trending Instagram model that recently moved to her area, the protagonist is given the contact to the girl’s mysterious manager – one that can deliver near-miraculous results, but every time asks his client to sacrifice something… Honestly, I find this topic extremely compelling, as not only those looking for fame and money on the web, but even small creators such as myself are often exposed to similar pressures – the drive to find recognition and reach an audience, with techniques most effective in this regard not always being in line with personal integrity and self-respect. I still remember the grossed out feeling when the owner of a site I wrote an article for showed me a search-engine-optimized version of my work, and that’s hardly the biggest compromise one can make to get traction as an internet personality or creator…

                However, there are few things in #influenced that prevented the cathartic feeling I was hoping to get from it. The first is the protagonist herself, as I think she is unnecessarily shallow and envious of other people’s success. It would be a lot more interesting to see someone more sympathetic and hard-working fall into the same traps, as the social media sphere in its current, oversaturated state is not exactly fair or easy to break through even with good ideas and genuine effort. The second and most damning issue is the pacing – then the game starts being truly unsettling and tense, it doesn’t build up the atmosphere and properly represent protagonist’s descent into madness, but simply rushes to the conclusion in a rather unsatisfying fashion. That part left me deeply disappointed, as even the slightly preachy feel of the story didn’t prevent it from becoming genuinely interesting at certain points. So, while I don’t necessarily discourage giving this one a chance, set your expectation appropriately low if you decide to read it.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Epistle in a Bottle

No NaNoRenO since Digital: A Love Story can be complete without an OS-simulation-style VN, and Epistle in a Bottle fills this obligation in a pretty standard, retro-stylized fashion. The protagonist is an office worker handling communication in what seems to be the early 90s. Handling company email and distributing information between his co-workers, he starts his day doing mundane tasks, until a strange, unsigned message launches a chain of increasingly disturbing events.

                While this game does not always do a great job when it goes to building a narrative, I can’t help but appreciate the feel it has and the way it approaches the user interface – you switch between your computer, the telephone and physical messages that end on your desk in a pretty immersive way. As you control the main line of communication between your company’s boss and various parts of the office, you have a central role in both the mundane workflow the game starts with and the emergencies that soon follow. Eventually, things get way too over-the-top and the game sadly lacks genuine ways of influencing the plot, which kind of goes against its highly-interactive storytelling formula and various ways in which it could accommodate player choice. Still, for me, it was a fun little experience and if the aforementioned interface gimmicks are something up you alley, it should be the same for you.

Final Rating: Cautiously Recommended

Honourable Mentions:

Spellbroken

Spellbroken is more a supernatural thriller than a straight-up horror story, but it’s something that should be satisfying to fans of the genre due to its themes and effective writing. The game is set in a modern fantasy world where the society was deeply transformed by the appearance of witches – women born with powerful magic abilities, often hard to control and extremely destructive. The protagonist is a handler – a member of a militarized formation dedicated to subduing witches. Working under the Church, the de-facto ruling organisation of her city-state, she’s convinced that she’s performing grim, but necessary work for the good of her people. However, her next mission into the wilderness will shake that conviction in several different ways…

                Like this developer’s first project, Package Chat, Spellbroken is above all an excellent piece of mature writing, full of uncompromisingly-crafted characters and minimalistic, but effective worldbuilding. Without excess exposition, it manages to construct a complex and original fantasy setting, along with some compelling axes of conflict for the main story and a few arguably brilliant twists. The crude personalities and motivations of Collie’s handler companions sometimes balance dangerously on the line of becoming caricatures, but for the most part, they’re refreshing in their naturalism. The art, while simple, is nicely stylized and enhances the isolating, desolate feeling of the “Wild”, where the vast majority of the story happens. On top of all this, Spellbroken offers some yuri romantic elements, which were a bonus for me, but they were also pretty minor and I recommend checking it out to everyone regardless whether or not they care about w/w romance plots – it’s just that good of a (short) story.

Final Rating: Highly Recommended

Limbokin

The last game on today’s list is also not “true” horror, but something the visuals and narrative choices of which should appeal to many fans of the genre. Limbokin is an interesting short VN telling a story of a boy who dies with a lingering regret and ends up in purgatory. There, with help of another “limbokin”, as the inhabitants of this realm refer to themselves, he sets to connect to the living world for the last time and reconcile with his beloved older sister, an argument with whom let to him his untimely death.

           While utilizing horror-like, creepy imagery and a somewhat disturbing premise, Limbokin is above all a bittersweet slice of life tale, including some really wholesome and uplifting moments. Despite having just an hour of content (with three paths/endings), the game explores in an interesting way the relationship between the protagonist and his sister – an older teenager struggling with her identity and first serious love. On top of that, it briefly touches on the backstories of other inhabitants of the purgatory and offers a particularly amusing twist for Rafa, the girl that acts as protagonist’s guide in the world of the dead. The end effect is quite unorthodox and compelling – with the strong presence of LGBT+ themes, it reminds of the more original, high-quality Yuri Game Jam VNs. And if that sounds like something that you might enjoy, you should definitely check this one out.

Final Rating: Recommended

And this is it when it goes to horror VNs in this year’s NaNoRenO – there are a few ones which I purposefully skipped on listing, mostly due to them being too simplistic or low quality, although there are two I still owe a shoutout. The first one is Sleepy Agent’s Unfamiliar Work, which kind of overwhelmed me with its abstract visuals and confusing storytelling, to the point I’m not sure what to make of it – still, it’s definitely very different and I encourage anyone curious about it to try it out and maker their own mind. The second one, the Saya no Uta fan game by Arcane City, I didn’t touch, as I simply haven’t read the original game yet and thus wouldn’t be able to assess it properly. I’m still pretty convinced though that the three games I did cover and most strongly recommend in this post are among the very best projects in this year’s NaNoRenO. Also, in the cases of Divilethion and Spellbroken, they come from authors with highly developed styles, who I’m pretty sure will deliver more of such excellent stories in the future – apart from checking out their current work, I strongly suggest following their future endeavours.

                For the time being, I’ll be taking a short break from NaNoRenO coverage, while I tackle the latest slice-of-life VN by ebi-hime: nothing & nowhere. However, you can expect at least one more post in a few weeks, where I’ll be focusing on non-otome romantic stories. I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview so far – for me, NaNoRenO is a celebration of the creativity within the EVN scene and it’s hard to overstate its value, both as a training ground and promotional space for devs, and a gathering place for the fans of the genre. Sharing the message about the exceptional games that show in it every year and engaging with their authors is deeply satisfying to me and even if a fraction of that enjoyment passes onto you guys, it makes all this work worth it. Thank you for reading and, hopefully, see you next time around!

About the author

Plk_Lesiak

Fuwanovel's resident EVN fanboy. Formerly the author of the (most likely) only blog about non-Japanese visual novels, EVN Chronicles.

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