Qureate, purveyors of smutty-themed visual novels like NinNinDays, TroubleDays and Prison Princess, has landed on exactly the kind of experience that actually works with the M.O. in Livestream: Escape from Hotel Izanami. This is a fusion of stalker horror, visual novel and the developer’s love of spread legs and panty shots, and it is a deeply creepy thing, but appropriately so. It’s not subversive or nuanced enough to rank up with the finest examples of the genre (in other words it’s no Clock Tower 3 or Haunting Ground), but this is certainly the most cohesive and interesting thing this developer has done to date.
The game starts out as a fairly useful play on the voyeurism of modern streaming. Three girls, all aspiring to be superstar live streamers, have decided to go spend a night in an abandoned hotel that has a reputation for being a haunted, nasty place. That’s not exactly an uncommon plot point; there’s an excellent 3DS horror game, called Creeping Terror, that has exactly the same premise. This one has an additional hook, though, which is thematically spot-on; the dilapidated hotel just happens to also be a former love hotel. For those not so familiar with Japan, love hotels are places where people can rent rooms for “short stays” – a couple of hours at a time – and young couples that would otherwise struggle to find some privacy, go there to go at one another like animals for a couple of hours. For obvious reasons love hotels often have sleazy reputations (though they’re actually typically very clean places, which makes them a little different to the cheap roadside motel of western culture), and this is an absolutely perfect parallel for some of the stuff that goes on in the world of streaming, where there is a very strong element of voyeurism within parts of the community.
Now, Livestream could have done a lot more with this theme, and actually take a position, especially given that all three protagonists are girls and their sexualisation takes on a resonance given the real-world discussions going with sexualisation in streaming. Sadly, the developers don’t really do that, and that’s to the detriment of the narrative. They’re much more interested in simply depicting pretty girls in short skirts being stalked by a weird monster and trapped in compromising positions that throw their skirts right up. Nonetheless, this is still the most cohesive narrative that we’ve seen from Qureate, where the sex themes are appropriate to both the overall narrative arc and setting, and there are moments where the writers really do get so close to getting it. One of the girls makes a joke about flashing her underwear for her audience at one point, and there are moments where the fan service gets just fetishistic enough to almost work as a commentary. Ultimately I think the issue is that the characters come across as a little too vapid and tropsey to carry any efforts at subversion – think about how Friday the 13th could almost work as a deconstruction of the misogyny of B-grade horror rather than an example of it – but still, this is a good effort to set up a creepy, unsettling, and highly sexualised horror experience.
Livestream does have pacing issues. See, the big thing about stalker horror is that the unsettling tension comes from knowing that at any moment you’re going to be thrown into a mad flight to escape, and that reprieves are few and far between. Livestream’s immediate peer, Creeping Terror, does exactly that, and while you might argue that it’s a little too limited in its explicit narrative, the reality is that you never feel like you’re going to get a breather for long. Livestream, meanwhile, loves its lingering dialogue. I chalk this up as a consequence of the developer being so completely focused on the visual novel genre previously, but there is a lot of back-and-forth which, unfortunately, doesn’t add much to the narrative depth due to the shallow characterisation, but does disrupt the horror rhythms.
It’s also got some significant issues with its gameplay. The monster that is stalking the girls can show up out of nowhere (if you watch the end of the stream above you’ll also see that he can pop into existence right next to the girl), and this, sometimes, means that he’s going to have you backed into a corner with no way to escape. With very little by way of tools to fight back, and very little warning that he’s about to show up, there are going to be deaths that have little to do with your own performance. This wouldn’t be such an issue if save points weren’t annoyingly placed at times. I had to go through that “girl’s having her legs pulled apart by the wig from The Ring” scene a half dozen times the first time I played the game, and as cute as her lacy pink underwear is, having to replay the same ten minutes of cut scenes and plodding walking again and again took the excitement out of seeing that a bit. As the game wore on I got better at strategically saving and backtracking to save points where necessary, but it remains true that for a game that can be so unforgiving about a completely random threat, a better checkpoint system would have been welcome.
The puzzles, meanwhile, are pretty vintage horror-adventure stuff, and I generally found them enjoyable, though the sharing of information to solving those problems was – ironically given the length of narrative cut-scenes – perhaps a little too limited. I know older examples of the stalker horror genre liked their obtuse puzzles, and challenging players to check every nook and cranny for random items that can somehow be McGuyvered into solutions, so I’ll give it a pass here, though I do think the elegance of Creeping Terror or The Coma show that this genre doesn’t really need those kinds of puzzles to be effective.
The developers did perfectly capture the aesthetics of the space and characters, though. The stalker is suitably creepy, the setting nails the feel of a small-scale, grimy love hotel where all kinds of dirty acts of decadence occurred, and all three girls are so pretty. This developer has always counted character designs as its greatest strength, and they’ve outdone themselves with this group.
Livestream is on the cusp of being something really special. It has the right setting, the right concept, the right character designs and the right themes to give players something special. Unfortunately, the execution’s a little off, and while the game is a lot of fun, it doesn’t say as much as some of the greats in the genre do. It is, ultimately, just an entertaining and fanservicey horror game with some enjoyable puzzles to throw at the player. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I must emphasise that this game is hugely entertaining. It’s just unfortunate that it’s too shallow to be remembered as one of the greats.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb