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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Review: Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Matt S.

We finally get a chance to play the first chapter of the Utawarerumono series! The previous titles that were released in the west were sequels to this one, Prelude to the Fallen, which is a remake of the original Utawarerumono. The original Utawarerumono had sex scenes and therefore never left the Japanese market, but this one here is a "legitimate" remake and so, while it has fanservicey moments, it is also nudity free. If you have played an Utawarerumono title before, then you know what to expect. If you haven't, you have no excuse; these are great and now you can get in right at the start. 


If you're looking closely, the first thing that you'll notice is that Utawarerumono doesn't look quite like other Japanese fantasy games. It has got a distinctly anime aesthetic, of course, but it also has some unique approaches to clothing, hairstyles, and character design. There's a good reason for that, and it's Utawarerumono's most immediately appealing feature; this game is heavily inspired by a group of native Japanese people - the Ainu - and their aesthetic. The Ainu are a deeply underrepresented people and culture within Japanese society, but they are native to the northern part of the country, principally Hokkaido, and they do have a culture and history distinct to the people we think of in the west as "Japanese." 

For the longest time the Japanese government acted to smother and silence Ainu culture, and it's only in very recent times that they've been officially recognised as a people with a distinct heritage to preserve. Unfortunately, preservation is particularly difficult, as the number of people that identify as Ainu (or even realise they have that heritage) is small (and shrinking) and the pace in which culture and traditions are being preserved or restored is moving too slowly. There's also a continued resistance to full acceptance of the culture in mainstream Japan and Japanese politics. For example, there was going to be a demonstration Ainu dance as part of the opening ceremony in the Olympics, but that got dropped, leaving the Ainu with no formal role to play in the Games. 


The point of all the above is to highlight that Utawarerumono is a fleetingly rare opportunity to get any sense whatsoever of Ainu culture in modern media, and it's highly accessible and visually pleasing to boot. It's not an "Ainu" story by any means, but if you find the aesthetics and tone of the game interesting (and you'll certainly find them unique from within the anime space), then you may well become inspired to learn what you can about the people, as difficult as that can be at times (particularly if you're relying on English writings and records). I can't think of another game that is distinctly and identifiably "Ainu," and so Utawarerumono stands out as something unique and special on that basis alone. 

Utawarerumono is absolutely gorgeous, too, and that certainly helps present its Ainu influences in the best possible light. The fact that almost all the characters have animalistic features (furry ears and tails) is, at first, a jarring and unnecessary "anime" element that seems to be thrown in there purely on the basis that it's the anime thing to do. That initial impression fades, however, and soon enough those furry elements meld with the game's respect for nature and the natural order to create a tonal consistency that is subtle and appealing. This is a deeply Japanese game, after all, and the Shinto-like sense of spirit existing in everything and everyone, and of humans in their ideal state being an extension of nature, is brought out in full through the game's visual direction. Soon enough, you'll start to feel uncomfortable with those characters that set themselves apart from nature, as they represent inherently destructive forces, and while Utawarerumono does veer in some odd directions towards the end, it never loses its sense of where serenity should lie, and it's an inherently appealing trait within the game. 

Anyone who has played the previously-released Utawarerumono sequels will know that this series is wordy and first and foremost a visual novel. The combat moments, which tend to be brought to the forefront in PR and marketing material because the dynamics are an "easier sell", are almost a distraction - you might be lucky to fight in one battle for two or three hours of storytelling, and while the frequency does increase through the game, it's never "tactics first" as a Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics is. As a visual novel it's also completely linear, and while you do get to make choices about what locations to visit and who to talk to, none of this affects how the narrative plays out. I say all of this because I know there are people that seem to have an aversion to reading, and wouldn't want them to be disappointed that it's not the "tactics JRPG" it's sometimes chalked up as, but as for me personally, I do much prefer this approach.


For one thing, the characters are all truly lovely, and the wordiness allows them the full gamut of human emotion, from banter to an authentic kind of grief. Future friends aren't immediately trusted, and romance doesn't come from selecting the right answers in a menu over half an hour. There are scenes which are a little uncomfortably jarring for a game that is otherwise elegant and beautiful, and those are a holdover from when Utawarerumono throw some nudity into the mix to keep all the senses engaged, but those moments are infrequent and largely superficial to both the characters and narrative flow. The producer of the Utawarerumono himself told me in an interview last year that he didn't believe that sex was core to the experience and this release isn't any the lesser for its removal:


"...only the first Utawarerumono title featured sex scenes at any time. The sequels – which Utawarerumono Zan is based on - never had sex scenes in them, in Japan or the west and the writer was able to maintain his vision, characterisation and world-building without them. All of these games still feel like they belong to the same fantasy and universe."

Now sex free, Utawarerumono is a blend of a number of things - its that pastoral, native-themed fantasy with some high magic and political intrigue thrown in. It's a game that has little patience for decadence and an inherent position that power and wealth are corrupting forces (nothing new for fantasy there), and it has plenty of light-hearted and comic moments, with many of those having a romantic edge as our protagonist demonstrates how hopeless he is with women. None of these themes are unusual for anime, and while the storytelling of Utawarerumono might not break new ground or innovate, it does hit all the right notes in all the right ways.


Though combat isn't the core focus of the game, there is a lot to like about it nonetheless. It's a fairly standard tactics JRPG setup, in which characters are encouraged to stay close to one another so that they can launch particularly powerful "link" attacks. Additionally, there's some resource management involved, as each character has a power meter that slowly fills up. When it hits 100, the character can launch an extra attack that does bonus damage, but then, of course, the meter is drained and takes ages to build back up again, so you want to save it for the more challenging bosses. One element that might put people off is the difficulty spikes, and I found that I was needing to grind up experience at points as early as the third battle. These battles also tend to run long, but there is a neat ability to wind back around 50 turns or so to correct a mistake you may have made, and even the grind serves as a nice distraction from the visual novel at points. All together Utawarerumono is a lengthy game, and while I usually advocate for games to be shorter, in the particular case of this series, I do think the narrative justifies the length and experience that it's looking to share.

Who knows what - if anything else - is in the future for Utawarerumono as a property. With the release of Prelude to the Fallen, the core part of the franchise is now all fully (and formally) available in English, and that's a wonderful thing. I do hope that there's more to come in the future, as the unique aesthetics, thematic background, and design elements of the series make it both interesting and evocative, and after playing these games, they do kind of stick with you as something beautiful and memorable. I think back to the previous Utawarerumono games and they stand out as some of my favourite JRPGs this generation. I have no doubt that I will remember this one in the same way.



A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.

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



Review: Utawarerumono: Prelude to the Fallen (Sony PlayStation 4)
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