13 mins read
Review by Matt S.

Three years ago, when Idol Manager popped up on Kickstarter, and promised to give you the opportunity to manage your own AKB48-style J-Pop idol group, I assumed that it would all be something of a joke. I assumed it would be focused on fanservice, with very little serious simulation. Wow was I wrong about that. Idol Manager doesn’t flinch from anything. It’s more than happy to fail you and your idol business, and while it has got a cutesy charm and lots of pretty girls, Idol Manager also doesn’t flinch from the reality that this industry is deeply problematic, often associated with all kinds of the seediest individuals and businesses.

I won’t spend too long in this review qualifying just how problematic idol groups and culture in Japan can be, but for just a few examples: in 2013 AKB48 idol, Minami Minegishi, was forced to shave her head after “being caught” spending the night with her boyfriend (idol fans don’t generally like hearing news about “their” girls having sex lives). In 2014, an obsessive “fan” wielding a saw attacked a couple of girls, again in AKB48, at a handshake event, where men (predominantly) pay a fortune for the opportunity to touch the hand of their favourite girl. And when the groups aren’t actively encouraging every creep in Japan to become outright stalkers, they’re encouraging the most disgusting excesses of consumerism; in 2017 a man was arrested for purchasing 600 copies of the same CD, and dumped the lot of them in a forest (illegally, of course). Why did he do that? Because each CD came with a voting slip, allowing him to vote for his favourite girl 600 times in the annual “choose your favourite girl” poll. Buying hundreds of copies of a CD just to pump up the popularity of one of the members is a good way to make a lot of money for the producers, but it’s also a deeply offensive example of the obscene end of capitalism.

All of the above, and so much more, plays out to surprising detail and depth in Idol Manager. Idols get boyfriends, which causes scandals. Girls bully one another, or start dating each other, too, and that can have significant negative impacts on the group dynamic. They’ll get into scandals for doing the wrong thing on a live stream, and the whole group will get in hot water when politicians decide to speak out against the messaging in the music (or the “over-sexualisation” of the girls) in order to win popularity points. Mechanically, you’ve got to set dozens of rules about what girls are and are not allowed to do, and the penalties for being flexible and loose with the rules are very explicitly designed to encourage you to view these girls as resources to control, rather than people. They won’t be happy about it, but the more sociopathic you are in your managerial style in Idol Manager, the more likely it is that you’ll find success. Finally, of course, there are plenty of opportunities for sexual exploitation beyond the scandals. You can promote your group using everything from handshake events to “Lewd PV” (music video) releases, as well as training the girls to “dance sexy” to really lean into that side of idol promotion.

For all that I’ve written above, idol culture is also not all bad, since life doesn’t work in black and whites, and Idol Manager also represents the best of this industry. Idols are an institution in Japan, entertain millions of perfectly healthy, well-adjusted fans, and they’re a talent feeder that leads to any number of acting, modelling, solo artists and other entertainment career opportunities for talented girls. Idols set trends, delight, is worth a fortune to Japan’s economy, and these groups and individuals enjoy a deep cultural resonance whereby the (healthy) fans of these groups form little communities focused on helping to build up and celebrate their favourite group’s successes. There’s no direct translation to the way celebrity works in the west, and studying how the idol culture over there ticks does help you understand something about Japan. So, in Idol Manager, if you want to build a clean idol group, protect the girls from rabid fans, and be a positive influence on their careers, then that is entirely possible, too. You can get the girls to set up a popular online show, or contract your more popular idols to perform on television or model in fashion magazines. You can focus on building an audience with women and teens, too – no need to chase after the dirty old men if you don’t want to. Effectively, in Idol Manager, you really do have complete control over how you develop your group, and there are so many different ways to do it.

You’ll start out with a small group of girls, as well as a basic office, training room and recording space. At first, Idol Manager is brutally difficult, since your group has no fans (meaning you’ll be lucky to sell 100 copies of a song you create), and it’s far too easy to start haemorrhaging money on trying to get too much done at once. Moreover, you can easily burn out the girls, since you need each individual to be bringing in a lot of money via advertising opportunities and other paid spots, but they all have physical and mental stamina scores, and without a “B-team” to back them up and give them a break, they can get tired far too easily.

If you set the foundations up right then as time goes on things do become easier. Music releases start charting, your lead girls become massive money-spinning industries in their own right, and brands fall over themselves to throw money at you. Idol Manager is almost more enjoyable at the start, where you’ve got to scrap for every win, then when you’ve got more virtual money to spend than you know what to do with. Managing a big group also means you spend less time with each individual girl. At the start you’ve got the time to personally catch up with each of them to make sure that they’re achieving their goals, but as the group grows, you’re just going to see names and faces on paper. This is another authentic touch, and no doubt deliberate on the part of the developers, but for me, it did mean that the most enjoyable part of the experience was front-ended. 
There are two main ways to play – a full-on narrative mode, which kicks off with you being recruited by a former “adult massage” businessman to start an idol group. This narrative has surprising teeth and, again, doesn’t pull back on anything that goes on in the idol industry itself. With that being said, it’s only worth playing once, since, once you’ve seen all the cut scenes and whatnot, it doesn’t have the same experience the second time around. After that, there’s the sandbox mode, which is all the narrative mode gameplay, minus the narrative itself. That in itself is highly replayable, so together Idol Manager ticks all the simulation boxes. 
All of this is backed up by some excellent presentational work. The interface works beautifully, and that’s hard to get right with any simulator, let alone one that has so many systems working apart and together as this one. The in-world graphics had an appealing pixelation effect, which carries enough charm to ensure that it doesn’t become dull to look at, even if it’s relatively static (it’s mostly people standing around with icons above their head filling up as they complete activities).
Most importantly, however, is the girls. After all, this is a game about leading pretty girls to superstardom, and if the character art isn’t pretty, the overall experience would have taken a nosedive into something far too dry for its own good. There’s good and bad news here. The good news is that the character portraits are very pretty. The bad news is that there aren’t enough of them. When a girl joins the group, her portrait is randomised, and it’s entirely feasible that you’ll end up with a half dozen girls in the group with different names, but the same portrait and costume. The developers have given a couple of possible different hairstyles for each girl, but it’s not enough to differentiate them. The other issue is that the portraits are applied to any character randomly generated, whatsoever. A girl that joins your group at the age of 12 (and, yes, it happens in the real world too, leading to an entirely different discussion about how problematic this industry can be) can have the same portrait as a girl that joins at 20. The disconnect between the portraits and the statistics of each character does become a problem in the later game, as it can become different to track which girl is doing what, but it’s hard to get too mad at the developer, given the kind of budgets they were working on, and what they achieved with the gameplay itself. 
Idol Manager really needs a console release – the scope and design of the game makes it perfect for the Nintendo Switch in particular – but in the meantime, I can see myself spending a lot of time playing this on the PC. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of idols (at least, idols that aren’t digital and with aquamarine twintail hair), but I do find the culture behind them fascinating to study. Idol Manager is a far more thoughtful take on all of this than I was expecting, and consequently, I’ve found the whole thing to be fascinating.

– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

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