Take a dash of Alexandre Dumas, a dollop of class warfare, and a hearty dose of Steampunk, and then make it all sadistic and you’re more or less at Steam Prison. A little like Piofiore: Fated Memories, this game does like to subvert what people expect to experience in an “otome.” Yes, it does technically feature plenty of romance and it’s about one woman protagonist having a lot of really pretty boys to let woo her, but that’s almost secondary to the game’s lingering interest in significantly less beautiful subjects. It’s excellent, don’t get me wrong, but this one has a sinister edge and mean streak that you should be aware of.
In Steam Prison you play as a young woman (aged 18, but while that might keep the game above board legally, her behaviour makes it a struggle to think of her as anywhere near that age) who lives in a special, elite community high in the clouds called “the Heights.” A calamity in the world’s history meant that those that escaped to the heights live a luxurious – if highly controlled – existence, and they readily accept every aspect of their lives being monitored and manipulated because they know they have it so much better than those that eke a living down below, in “the Depths”. As the story kicks off, this girl is about to get married to her assigned spouse (there’s no marrying for love in the Heights), which is something she’s not overly interested in, as she’s too busy training to be a police officer. Nonetheless, as a dutiful citizen of the Heights, she goes and tries on her beautiful wedding dress, and everything in life seems to be going well for her.
But then something bad happens. Her parents are murdered and she’s framed for it. The engagement is broken off, and without so much as a trial, she’s banished to the Depths, where all prisoners go. Down there she’s quickly deposited in the slum prison colony, and left at the mercy of the HOUNDS – a unit of militant police that technically answers to the Heights, but move to their own beat and their sadistic, truly nasty captain rules the broken, miserable people with an iron fist. Thankfully, our girl escapes that to venture out into the greater depths. She does so with some apprehension, as she’s led to believe that out there in the “wilds” society is primitive and barbaric beyond measure, only to discover instead a complex world of city-states, clandestine politics and… well, a fair dose of barbarism anyway. Violence is rife through her new society, particularly towards anyone that has come from the Heights, which those in the Depths reserve a special hatred towards. Naturally, through this all, all our girl wants to do is get back up to the Heights and clear her name.
Right off the bat, the class warfare commentary at the heart of Steam Prison is its most fascinating element. It avoids being too preachy about it, but is quite firm in showing that the Heights isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, the hubris, ignorance, naivete and disinterest by the residents of the Heights towards the plight of those “down below” can very easily turn around on them, and while those from the Depths are certainly capable of some incredibly horrible, unacceptable things, there’s a fierce resolution about them that is admirable. At the same time, the game is careful to highlight that it’s the structures of this society that is the underlying cause of these issues, and not the individual – people from the Heights can be perfectly decent people open to having their perceptions challenged, and those from the Depths stop being so noble when they turn into a mob. Steam Prison is often meticulously written, and while it can go down some incredibly dark places, it’s always hard to put down.
Perhaps Steam Prison’s greatest issue is that the protagonist isn’t that inspiring or consistent, which might sound like a big problem for a visual novel, but her issues as a character are backgrounded enough that they’re only a mild inconsistency and irritation instead. The problem is that she’s presented as a strong-willed, honourable, brave and forthright “warrior princess” type, but this is undermined by her also being prone to her being girlishly naive; it’s one thing that marriage is a chore to her, it’s quite another that a girl of 18, who works around men, would not be at least able to figure out the meaning of some salacious humour thrown her way. It’s weird that at one point she’s willing to enter a duel to the death to protect a boy from a particularly vile HOUNDS member, and then jump to the defence of a woman that she sees being assaulted, but just days later she would stand and just watch a man be beaten to death. Yes, she’s told that stepping in would compromise her and the employer she’s working with at that point, but everything we know about the character to that point tells us that she would still step up to the plate anyway. Finally, the blushing and demure girlishness the moment the topic of sex comes up is really not in fitting with an otherwise confident and strong-willed woman. Once she was “free” of the expectations and restrictions of the Heights, there’s just no way that she would have blushed or hesitated at the opportunities that the men around her provided her, is my read on what the character should have been.
Steam Prison won’t win awards for visual innovation – character models aren’t static and there’s something vaguely off about some of the faces (particularly the way some of the eyes are drawn), but the art direction is, in general, gorgeous. Backgrounds set the scene beautifully, and the key art CGs are breathtaking – particularly considering how often they depict dramatic scenes like combat or, alternatively, the depths of romance. One of the lovely things about the otome genre is that the key art scenes don’t rely on fan service and displayed parts of the anatomy to catch the eye. It’s not that I’m against fan service by any means, but the otome genre does free the artists up to focus on other things in an appealing way. The one thing I’m not overly a fan of (and this is more a comment on the genre than Steam Prison specifically), is the way that otome games often depict the man in a position of power and effectively “taking” her. Of course, I’m aware that this is a common and popular aesthetic and narrative element across romance in all forms, and if it works for the primary intended audience, who am I to actually make a point of criticism out of it?
While I have some minor issues with Steam Prison, this is a glorious, thrilling adventure, told with expertise and panache. It goes to some very dark places, but never comes across as exploitative or “cheap” in how it does it. Backed up with gorgeous aesthetics and a distinct setting, Steam Prison blends some complex ideas together while ultimately keeping the focus on what people come to otome for – a great harem of men that are all so interesting that it makes choosing between them a real challenge.
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