Crime Opera is a wildly ambitious project for a development team that wasn’t quite ready for it. This visual novel features 20-odd characters, a plot that shifts between six perspectives, and, thematically, is brutal. This is a story about crime families, with a patriarch that openly assaults and abuses the babysitter to his children, of a little girl that snaps after seeing extreme violence and starts hearing her teddy bear tell her to kill people, and a young boy that loves torturing animals (and that’s just three examples). It’s not aiming to be fun or entertaining in a traditional sense, and the actual narrative is very worthy. It’s just a pity that the rest of the game isn’t up to the standard to allow it to support that narrative.
To be blunter about it: Crime Opera has some real issues with the aesthetics. The artists themselves have some talent, with the design of each of the characters being intriguing and genre-appropriate, and the background artist set the scenes beautifully, but Crime Opera’s words aim to brutalise the player, and the sprites simply don’t back that extreme nature up well at all. Furthermore, there are some odd quirks in the programming, such as the sprites regularly shifting position so that you can see that the artist didn’t draw below the waist and therefore it looks like they have no legs. All this makes it more difficult to take the dark, violent, often (deliberately and thematically appropriately) vile narrative seriously. It’s almost a death blow to the game from the outset. You shouldn’t be giggling as a 12-year old girl monologues about being beaten by her father. Were this a book I would be very uncomfortable with the detailed, evocative way such is described. Set against the art here, though, I did find myself giggling.
I also felt that the scope of the game was far, far too wide. Most indie visual novels focus on two or three characters (up to perhaps five) for a reason. Each additional character requires extra work. A half different facial expressions. Poses that allow them to “interact” with the other characters and backgrounds in an appropriate way. Ideally, each would also have key art CGs, so players can see the full artistic vision behind them. Even the most expensive, detailed, “blockbuster” visual novels won’t pitch higher than ten or so characters. Crime Opera has almost 20 characters that have sprites, and they all have a critical role to play in the narrative. It leads to tonal inconsistencies. Characters will be talking to one another with their backs turned to each other. The youngest-aged characters (5, 7 years old) have sprites where their heads barely pop above the dialogue box. It’s essential for setting their size relative to the adult characters, but it’s a weird look for the visual novel medium. Because so much of the investment into this game went to designing characters, there’s a dearth of key scenes, and so particularly dramatic moments that really should be illustrated – such as a bloody raid on a rival’s home – are only described. They’re described beautifully, but it feels like the developers here went for scope rather than focus, and as a rule, I would suggest that indie visual novels are better when they reign in those ambitions.
Based on the game’s listing on itch.io, the team behind Crime Opera contains no programmers or gameplay designers. The game itself seems to have been built in TyranoBuilder. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – visual novels are not focused on “gameplay” in a traditional sense, and game makers like TyranoBuilder allow creative writers to focus on their writing rather than have to go learn an engine like Unity first. However, TyranoBuilder in particular has some weaknesses around the default font and layout looking quite cheap, and it took me a while to move past this to focus on the narrative (side note: I recommend the developers consider Visual Novel Maker for their future projects. Out of the box the software makes games that look much closer to the high-end VN projects). Again, I admire the game’s narrative ambition and its depth, but to compare it to a higher-end mafia-themed visual novel, like Piofiore: Fated Memories, it’s quite clear what impact the engine and presentation on just how intense the themes come across to the audience.
Now, with all of the above said, by the time that I was into the second hour of Crime Opera, I was quite invested in the thing. Firstly, shifting the perspective of the narrative to children – most of them innocent – as the world of their mobster parents starts to crash down around them, is fascinating. Through the game, you’re often given the opportunity to watch a TIPS scene between chapters. I recommend you don’t the first time through the game through though, because those TIPS scenes explain the context a little too well and Crime Opera is more effective when you don’t understand the context. When a rival mob boss shows up to one family’s home and is able to kidnap the seven-year-old because she’s just had a fight with her mother and is in an indignant mood, so he’s able to lure her away with the promise of candy, it’s all the more effective if you don’t know why he’s doing that because the girl doesn’t understand the full implications of what’s going on around her. Meanwhile, I also kept reading because Crime Opera is some real pulp fiction page-turner stuff. For example, I wanted to know if the broken psyche of the little girl that just saw her father kill someone will cause her to take the gun out of his desk drawer and go on her own murder spree, as the sinister voices in her head were telling her to. Meanwhile, with other characters, I had a visceral desire to read on to the point that I would get to see them hurt. The little boy that loves torturing animals, for example. The exultation expressed with each vile thought he had was enough for me to hope he had some of his own torture coming, and that it would be brutal.
It’s actually quite tough to write believable children characters well, and while the writer of Crime Opera sometimes errs on making them seem more naive than the real age bracket would be (kids learn a lot of things at a young age these days), functionally each character fits well within the narrative and allows the labyrinthine plot to play out effectively. The shifting structure, as each narrative jumps to a different character’s perspective, helps to game’s mysteries vibrant from start to finish. Whatever the game’s other faults might be, the author of the narrative is smart, aware of the mafia genre’s tone, structure and themes, and has executed them with precision.
Crime Opera’s grand ambitions aren’t limited to one game. This is the first of six (yes, six) titles that the developer has envisioned as a series. Having played this first chapter, I will be looking forward to the next one. It is a pity that the developer didn’t consider presentation and aesthetics more closely for a game that is quite serious in tone and theme, but the narrative value of this game is excellent, distinctive, and original, and ultimately, for a visual novel, that’s the first-and-foremost goal.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb