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Friday, October 4, 2019

Review: YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World (Nintendo Switch)


Review by Matt S. 

Yu-No: A Girl With A Very Long And Silly Subtitle is much better experience than its nonsense name. This is seminal visual novel that went a long way to establish the genre as we know it today, and inspire so many of the other big names in the space. In that context it's startling to think that it's never had a formal localisation into English before this point. We have it now, though, and while it it a lengthy slog at times, it remains a hugely impressive example of the genre.

It's important to note from the outset that Yu-No does go heavy on the fan service. Like so many other now-classic visual novels, the game's roots are in adults-only eroge, and while the sex scenes were removed from the console adaptation and, now, remake, the sexually-charged tone remains present throughout. The protagonist just can't get enough of staring at breasts and panties, which are described (and drawn) in lurid detail. The thing that many will overlook is that for the most part this content does come across as appropriate characterisation for building the protagonist up as something of a mix of teenage hormones and delinquency in coming from a broken home. With that being said, thare are also plenty of incidents in which that same fan service is clearly just there for cheap laughs or titillation. As always with fan service I ask myself if it adds something to the experience in deciding whether it's good for the game, and in the case of Yu-No, the answer is both yes and no.

It's consistently gorgeous, though, so as far as fan service is concerned it's not exactly unpleasant even when it's not helping. Yu-No was well known for being a rare example of a visual novel where the developers were willing to throw big money at it, and though this remake has had a new artist re-draw it, the fundamental design elements continue to really shine through as something of a genuine quality and mastery. Characters are distinctive and detailed. Beyond the people, the artists are also careful to fill every frame of every screen with interesting things to look at. Cheaper visual novels inevitably have "dead zones" on the screen where there's nothing much of interest to look at, but with Yu-No every scene, character, and environment drips with carefully constructed atmosphere. That Yu-No never drops from its astronomically high standard is specially impressive given that, at some 30 hours of length, that's a lot of art and design that the team needed to retain consistency over.


With that being said, it is a pity that the developer wasn't able to work out whatever licensing issues it needed to navigate over to make that original art available as an option. I understand the artistic argument to modernise Yu-No. Like other classic visual novels such as Fate/Stay Night or even Saya no Uta, if you look at Yu-No's original art, it will now look somewhere between "odd" and "archaic" to someone who came to anime more recently. Given the intent of the art was "gorgeous", the developer did need to do something to reframe what players see in their eyes. With that being said, this story was written for that original art style, and therefore any changes must ultimately lose some texture. There's no way around that, and that's the case here too. Thankfully, unlike with those woeful remakes of Dragon Quest that landed on the Switch recently, the "replacement" art is gorgeous, as I described above. Like with Link's Awakening, however, as someone old enough to admire the original art as being "gorgeous", it's personally disappointing that the developers felt the need to replace the art at all. With all of that said, however, its a moot discussion as it's hard to shake the feeling that licensing issues were probably the underlying issue here.

Further compounding how impressive Yu-No is, is the scope is the narrative itself. You wouldn't know from the introduction,. Within the first five minutes you'll be treated to a scene in which the protagonist is woken from a doze by a teacher, and she's wearing a dangerously short skirt, giving the guy a full and unfiltered look at her underwear as she stands over him. Based on this, the game's subsequent sharp deviation to world-jumping science fiction and discussions on everything from philosophy and ethics through to history is both surprising and delightful. Yu-No is smart, you come to quickly realise, and then you'll start paying very close attention to every line of dialogue. It's a slow starter, and I freely admit that for the first hour or so I was only casually reading through the dialogue (the guy was spending a lot of his time thinking about how hot his step-mother was in her nightwear, anyway). It crept up on me, though, and a few hours later Yu-No became gripping to the point that I found it harder to put down than almost any other VN I've ever played.

Yu-No's various winding narrative threads do become quite complex and unwieldy to unpack, but the game has a helpful mechanic - termed A.D.M.S. - which encourages you to move back and forward through the various moments of timeline divergence, to allow you to seamlessly experience the different paths through the story. This system in itself was considered rather influential, as it opened the door for visual novels to become more elaborate and have a greater range of narrative arcs, without requiring the player to replay the game over and over again. It does mean that Yu-No does not offer a linear storytelling experience, and is a little disjointed at times as a result, but thanks to the consistency across the rest of the visual and writing elements, it's never jarring.


One thing I did not appreciate is the way the game did exploration. In most scenes you'll be presented with a room full of icons, representing people or objects that you can observe or interact with. It's like a simplified point-and-click adventure, in other words, and that in itself is fine. Where it becomes irritating is that you'll need to interact with every icon a half dozen times. Say that I'm given the option of playing with a girl's skirt (if there's a girl on the scene you're always given the option of looking at and/or playing with her skirt and/or breasts). I select that option and it triggers a short dialogue between the protagonist and the girl. But then I need to select the option again to trigger another short dialogue, and continue to build out the scene. Then I need to do it a third, fourth, and perhaps even fifth time.

This system is busywork for absolutely no purpose. All of those dialogue sequences could have been rolled into one longer one and saved my OCD tendencies from going into overdrive in seeing icons showing up on screen that I need to click on over and over again to "clear." I know developers of VNs feel a tension to make their work feel "interactive" enough for the naysayers to shut up over whether it's a game or not, but this is not the way to do that.

Yu-No's biggest problem is that it's a game that deserves a lot of respect for its intricate, intelligent storytelling and nuanced look at deeper themes, but unlike the legendary visual novels that people do tend to take seriously (Steins;Gate or Danganronpa, for example), Yu-No's fan servicey elements are on the juvenile side of things just often enough that certain elements of the community will dismiss the game on that basis. It deserves better than that, because Yu-No is a brilliantly written, seminal visual novel, and even in the fan service it gets things right far, far more often than it misfires.


- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Review: YU-NO: A Girl Who Chants Love at the Bound of this World (Nintendo Switch)
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