Utawarerumono

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Kemonomimi galore.

Utawarerumono is a 2002 SRPG by Leaf. It got a DVD version in 2003 and an all ages PS2 port, Chiriyuku Mono he no Komoriuta, with voices and added content and (slightly) improved gameplay, in 2006, which in turn got a PSP port in 2009. Is this PSP version the one being reviewed. It has a sequel planned.

vndb EGS(CD) EGS(DVD) EGS(PS2) EGS(PSP)

Story

The story starts when our protagonist wakes up from a nightmare in a rustic house in a Japanese style frontier village. He has no memories; what he does have is a mask that covers half his face, a mask he cannot take off. He was found severely injured in the nearby forest by one of the inhabitants of the house he’s in, the healer apprentice, and dog eared and tailed, Eruruu. Not having where to go, and at least until he gets better, he starts living with her and with her little sister Aruruu and grandmother and village head Tuskur, and quickly befriends the rest of the village inhabitants.

Hakuoro and Eruruu

Hakuoro and Eruruu

The village is poor to the extreme, not even being able to farm given the poverty of the soil. But Hakuoro, as the masked man has come to be called, knows of mysterious techniques for fertilizing the soil; and for many other things, like metallurgy. Things seem to be going well, but soon enough there are clashes with the oppressive local feudal lord, brother of the oppressive emperor of the kingdom they’re in, and with his son, former resident of the village Nuwangi, who has a crush of Eruruu and sees Hakuoro as a nuisance.

And things quickly escalate; and before he knows it Hakuoro is leading a rebellion against the emperor. What will happen now? (Spoiler: he wins)

Review

Utawarerumono is a visual novel/SRPG hybrid. Is basically linear in nature, and as usual for the type of game the progression consists in ADV segments alternated with the gameplay ones. Those one usually come in groups, and between the different campaigns the ADV sections have considerable length; here is where most of the slice of life and lighter stuff is, and the individual scenes can be seen in any order, making the game not completely linear (there’s still a single route/ending, so the non linearity is actually minimal).

Oboro and Benawi

Oboro and Benawi

The gameplay is simple but fun. Most characters don’t have any special skills to do except for attacking (the exceptions being the healer, and the two mages, and even these only have offensive magic), and with leveling they only get better stats; they do have their particularities, but even with them for the most part just going ahead and killing everyone in sight is a valid tactic (the harder difficulties modes in the PC version change this a little). The console version improves things, adding team attacks, passive skills, and items, but the change is not revolutionary. Peculiar would be the fact of having a single healer, who even though has unlimited healing only can use it at contact and one character at a time (no mass or range healing); this healing scarcity makes for a different dynamic than other games (and even the added healing chances in the console version don’t change this much).

However, though there’s maybe not much depth, the gameplay is very dynamic, and the battles are never boring; it’s simple enough that you learn it easily, but complex enough to not be just a time waste. Especially in the PC version; the lower hard modes make for a decent challenge, and the higher ones are genuinely difficult (though that difficulty is beaten more by grinding than by actual intelligence). And the existence of the titles, achievements unlocked at the end by having fulfilled certain conditions, and a CG unlocked with those titles, gives a certain replayability to the game, sustained by the mentioned simple but fun gameplay, which doesn’t get boring even in successive playtroughs. Sadly, both the difficulty levels and the titles are absent in the console version, so even with the improved battle system it loses in replayability.

But even though this gameplay is an important leg of the game, what really makes it shine is the scenario as a whole. And all the things that support it. Like the music, which always succeeds in setting the mood, be it either light hearted or epic (and this is another point in favor of the console version, which has as the ending theme Suara’s Kimi ga Tame). A traditional Japanese setting (with some Ainu elements, I understand), along with original geopolitic system and mythologies (rather than ones that are more or less transparent copies of existent ones) also gives it a fair amount of originality.

The characters are great, starting by the protagonist; an adult protagonist, intelligent and never slow (though he may be a little dense with respect to Eruruu at times). And the main heroine Eruruu is adorable, and has excellent chemistry with Hakuoro. But the rest of the cast is also fun, and pretty diverse. There are also several supporting males, all important (and maybe even more useful in the combat segments), so even though a harem component is certainly present, is somewhat camouflaged (and even more in the console version, which by removing the awkward H scenes suppresses the more forced romantic relationships); and the main romantic element, which is the relationship between Hakuoro and Eruruu, it’s not diminished in any way. Excellent voice acting, including for the protagonist, clinches it as a superb cast (another addition of the console version, though a voice patch for the PC version exists -at least for the English patch).

Urtorii and Karura

Urtorii and Karura

The villains are not so well developed. Pretty caricaturesque in a great deal, some seem to act just for the EVULZ, and their motivations and personalities are pretty thin. There are some exceptions, including the really main ones, but even then the Big Bad doesn’t have a lot of depth. I’d say there’s a single antagonist with any kind of development (another one may be interesting, but only as much as you are willing to fill the gaps).

And, somewhat related, thought only the most minor characters lack sprite, outside the main ones there’s usually a single variation per character.

Finally, there’s the plot itself. It succeeds in balancing the lighter and more comedic stuff (sometimes really hilarious) with the more serious stories without them clashing. The beginning is a little slow, but even that is reasonable and makes sense for the overall story, and not being a very long game in the first place it doesn’t take long for things to start happening. You could actually say that the lighter stuff is a little lacking in realism; that, or the palace life and manners are extremely relaxed in that world. Which may as well be true; the kingdoms are minuscule, so even though the leaders call themselves emperors it’s arguable how rich they actually are. They may be little more than glorified chiefs. You can also point the meteoric ascent of Hakuoro as not being very realistic (though, once again, this can be explained, looking back from the end).

As for the text itself, it’s not very florid; especially in the personal combats the descriptions are so nonexistent you have to imagine what’s actually happening, with the only help of some (not many) visual and sound effects. This makes for a light narrative: the text never gets dense.

All the heroines, conveniently together

All the heroines, conveniently together

All these bits aside, you have those slice of life sequences, which provide the comedy and the character interactions, and then a series of story arcs, in which the gameplay happens, and which make up the plot. This is the most notable part; rather than fighting against an evil empire, or a sealed evil, or the end of the world in some way or other, there’s a series of different wars against neighboring kingdoms; and though some kings are pretty evil (or maybe just petty evil), no kingdom seems to be much worse than any other (possibly with the exception of the slaver one), and though each war is in part a self-contained episode, there still emerges the greater narrative that’s behind the game; and behind the main character, who’s the one that completely defines the story. This scheme makes the story seem more politic (though it never goes into much detail in that respect); and the console version has an added bit of realism, dealing with the remains of the dethroned Kenashikourpe court in the added scenario and skirmish battles, showing that its followers didn’t just vanished with the fall of the emperor. As a whole, the end result is that the story has a coherence that though not immediately apparent it’s nevertheless there. And it also never holds its punches; there’s no gratuitous tragedy, but bad things do happen, and not everyone gets a happy ending.

So the plot is great; it avoids the more usual tropes, and has several lines that all converge in the emotional (and unexpected) ending. The non plot part of scenario is fun, sets the setting and characters, and doesn’t clash with the plot. And the rhythm of both is good, never rushing or dragging. The characters are a likeable bunch. The music is good. And the gameplay is really fun. If you are exclusively looking for the SRPG aspect, you may want to look elsewhere; the text/gameplay ratio here is heavily leaned towards the former, and the later is not so deep in the first place. But if you don’t care about that, or even if you only want a good fantasy story (in normal difficulty the battles shouldn’t give any trouble), you should check this out. Is not only the best hybrid I’ve played (of an admittedly low number); it may be the best JRPG I’ve played, period.

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