One of the most influential visual novels of all time has been updated for modern consoles - how does it hold up 23 years later?
It's hard, perhaps impossible, to talk about YU-NO: A girl who chants love at the bound of this world. without addressing its reputation up front. Around 1996, the year of this game's original release for the PC-9801, visual novels had a very different reputation. In modern times, the words “visual novel” instantly creates the picture of 60+ hour endeavors, filled to the brim with lore and choices and dozens of possible endings. But in the mid-90s, visual novels were most known for being very cheap and quick to produce, leading many creators to tend toward short adventure games, light on story and big on hentai. Enter ELF Corporation, a now-defunct eroge studio, and the two talents Hiroyuki Kanno and Ryu Umemoto who they just hired to make a big-budget adventure game coming off the success of some previous projects. With their newfound resources, Kanno and Umemoto realized they can dream much, much higher than anyone in their medium ever could have before. The question then: did they succeed?
In terms of scope, the answer is an unquestionable “yes”. The basic premise in YU-NO is hardly groundbreaking now— you can see its influence not just in visual novels, but in anime/manga media broadly—but is revolutionary in the context of its time. You play as Takuya Arima, a third year high schooler who is taking summer school after the death of his father two months prior. He is surrounded by many colorful characters, including fellow students, the faculty of the school, and the staff of a local company called GeoTech that his step-mother works for. There are mysteries about in the town of Sakaimachi, mostly surrounding a mountain outside the town's beach called Sword Cape.
GeoTech is researching the area around Sword Cape, but recently the workers at the site have been randomly struck dead by lightning at alarming rates. There is a rumor going around about a curse that is connected somehow to the very old house the school's principal, Ryuuzouji, resides in. Ryuuzouji, and old friend of Takuya's father, himself seems off, with people close to him saying he hasn't been acting like he normally does. To top it all off, at the end of the prologue, Takuya receives a package from his father, containing a strange device and a letter. The letter instructs Takuya to “take this device to Triangle Mountain on the Sword Cape at 10 PM.” And when he does, he finds plenty waiting for him: a passed-out blonde woman, the new transfer student, and Ryuuzouji himself—armed with a gun.
Because of the nature of this game as an intricate weave of mysteries and revelations, I am going to go into very little detail about the actual plot, but I will describe the main mechanic of the game because it's impossible to discuss otherwise. The device Takuya receives is called the Reflector, and it's how you navigate the world of YU-NO. Using the Reflector causes a map to open on the screen, a series of lines that represent the passing of time and which branch off from each other at various points, as well as a dot representing where in time you are. Your choices in-game change which “direction” you go on the map, and potential future directions are hinted at as branch nubs on the line you've completed so far. How this works mechanically is one of the most interesting and yet also frustrating things about YU-NO.
Inside the Reflector are small jewels you use to “save.” You can save normally, but only one spot at a time, so you're going to have to rely on the Reflector to navigate and find new routes and endings. With the map, called A.D.M.S., open, you can use one of your jewels to fix that moment onto the map. This consumes the jewel, so you can't just spend them as much as you want, but that leads to the whole point of using them.
At almost any point in the game, you can open A.D.M.S., click on a previous jewel point you had set, and instantly transport back to that point in time, conveniently keeping any key items you've found along the way. You also get the jewel back but lose the jewel point. Finally, scattered across the map are markers for jewels and other interesting things. These help you figure out roughly where you need to be to get to important parts of the game.
The implication of this is striking and nigh unmissable the first time you find yourself using it strategically—with this system, YU-NO's story also acts as its gameplay, its narrative an intricate mystery you have to solve yourself. I used the term above, but there are also extremely few actual “choices” made, at least in a traditional “pick from this list of responses” sense. It's a point-and-click adventure in the truest sense, and where on the timeline you end up is largely determined by your actions, not your words.
The only hand-holding is a hint system that shows you where you should go, or what places you could potentially go, and a popup that will inform you that you can either find an item where you are or need an item to progress. You can also turn the hint system off if you want the original experience. It only displays in those instances though, so if you need something at a certain point but don't have it, you're just going to have to remember when and where you needed it again after eventually finding the item elsewhere. I recommend taking notes. When you're on a roll, finding and executing on this system is immensely satisfying—you really feel like you're achieving something, digging deeper and deeper into the mystery of the town and uncovering seemingly endless secrets about the other characters.
Unfortunately, you're not going to be unlocking stuff left and right, and that's where the main issues with the gameplay begin. Missing key times to put down jewels can cause huge time sinks, as if you didn't have a jewel places before or at the key moment, you have no choice but to go back to the very beginning. That means long stretches of skipping content you've already read, clicking around over and over again until you finally get back to that part of the story.
Even if you play as well as you can, unless you're following a detailed step-by-step guide, you're inevitably going to run into a situation where you realize that you need to do a complete backtrack because the item or choice relevant is in another route, or you simply couldn't afford to put down a jewel at a point you knew you would be going back to eventually. And, of course, of all games I'd avoid using a guide for, YU-NO is one whose experience would be totally marred by not going through the motions and figuring it out for yourself. Luckily the skip option is very fast, so you're not actually going through a ton of text, it is simply that you still need to play the rest of the game properly.
Another pitfall baked into the map system is tempting but similarly a waste of time and avoidable. A.D.M.S. differentiates the various routes of the game by changing the color of the time line per character. In addition, because of the nubs indicating potential different routes, you can pretty clearly see where a new route potentially can begin. It's tempting to want to go back in the middle of the route and see how things change there, the way the game is designed makes that largely a trap. Because of how certain routes need certain items to finish, it's easy to accidentally end up on a dead end you can't have avoided because you haven't finished an “earlier” route. This means that to some extent the sense of freedom you have to explore the timelines is kind of an illusion. And though there is no official “order” to the routes, even if you can finish one of them “early” some of the routes simply give away way too much endgame information. Finish the wrong route first and many of the revelations in other routes won't feel so meaningful anymore.
The story itself mirrors the positives and negatives of the mechanics. The first two-thirds of the game is a compelling puzzle, the pieces of which don't come together within the narrative itself until the very, very end. Instead, you're trusted to be able to put things together as you learn more about the game's world. The biggest “a-ha!” moments don't ever come from the characters' mouths, but from you slowly coming to the realization yourself, making the whole experience incredibly immersive. Again, like the gameplay itself, the fun comes from the game letting you loose to mostly do as you please.
Unfortunately, detailing at all what the last third of the game is comprised of is an untouchable spoiler; luckily, I don't need to describe it at all to explain what's wrong with it. Simply put, the game becomes restrictively linear, and all of the cool time-jump shenanigans I praised above are essentially thrown out of the window. You're still in a point-and-click game, but one you don't have any meaningful control over until the story eventually ends. It has been said in interviews that this was not meant to be the case, that when concepted the whole game worked the way the first part does.
Deadlines caused this to not be the case, and we're stuck with what feels like a completely different game for what should be the climax. Indeed, I suspect the story itself suffered from the need to meet deadlines. The satisfying conclusions the previous part of the game enjoys are replaced with a plot that feels the need to wrap up as many loose threads as possible, in as little time as possible. YU-NO's story is memorable for the journey; the ending feels like an afterthought.
Something that definitely isn't an afterthought is this game's wonderful soundtrack. Instead of tracks being tied to places in the game, the whole soundtrack is carefully placed to match scenes and emotions. Characters don't have default themes, every single moment's musical choice feels deliberate in an unforgettable way. Also, while the remastered songs are good in themselves, this remake comes with the option to switch to the original version, something I highly recommend doing if you want the best experience.
On the other hand, the remake completely removes the overtly sexual content from the original game. Not to be confused for this version of YU-NO being very conservative in that area—it earns its M rating loud and clear—the actual sex scenes are cut around. Even if this doesn't bother you, it makes for some awkward scenes that are clearly the lead-up and aftermath of the event, but without ever addressing that anything happened in that in-between time. It doesn't seem like much if anything was done to the dialogue in those parts to make them feel more natural. Luckily there are very few of these, and they aren't very important to the story itself, so this doesn't impact the whole of the game much.
Speaking of such things, there are definitely things here that will turn you off of this game if they bother you too much. The first is the incessantly horny protagonist Takuya. There is actually something to this in the story. Takuya has a reputation among his peers for being skeevy toward women; however, in the mandatory parts of dialogue this only really comes up when he is called out for it by other characters. His non-optional internal dialogue is much more down-to-earth and serious, and his hatred for his father (another horndog) seems to stem from Takuya's hatred of his similarity to him.
That said, there are seemingly endless optional places you can click to get more of that, to the point I eventually just stopped clicking on unnecessary things just to avoid it. The second is more straightforward: incest. There's plenty of incest, it's important to the game, and the story itself doesn't even seem to think it's all that odd. That part is strange and sadly unavoidable.
On a technical side, the game is smooth. The redesigned characters are simply the classic '90s designs with changes to fit '10s standards, and the backgrounds are detailed and sometimes beautiful. The config menu is elaborate, letting you tweak every knob possible, from the text speed down to how loud each individual character's lines are. In fact, every single spoken line in this game is voiced in Japanese, using the cast from the recent anime.
It's also worth mentioning that the Switch version comes with a cute little side-scrolling 8-bit action game called 8-BIT YU-NO's GREAT ADVENTURE. Your only actions are to fire blasts at various creatures and the occasional boss with B, which you can hold down to keep them coming out, and jump with A. The screen is also constantly scrolling which can make the game pretty hectic. However, at almost any time you can press X to activate A.D.M.S., which works almost exactly like it does in the visual novel, except you can traverse time almost as much as you want, though if you run out of gems your run is over. The point of this is similar to the main game too; on the map are various things that indicate that going to that point in time will help you find items to help you out and raise your score. It's neat, and I'd like to see a larger action game integrate this system, but it's fun as it is. Probably best not to play it until you've finished the main game, since it's basically a spoiler for the last part of the main game.
YU-NO: A girl who chants love at the bound of this world. is an undeniably important part of the history of its medium, a behemoth of a game that inspired other creators to similarly reach for the stars. Even taken at face value it is a game brimming with ambition, grabbing you by the shoulders and trying to shake as much emotion and reaction out of you as possible. And a lot of the time, it works—I'll probably never forget even some of the smallest details about this game. But it's also inherently flawed in so many basic ways it's hard to say that by modern standards it's a particularly great game. Play it for the spectacle, play it for the history, but you're warned ahead of time that there are many bumps in the 40+ hour road ahead of you.
+ The original 1996 game's story is here, almost entirely intact
+ A carefully created and curated soundtrack, with both new and old versions available
+ The story has twists and turns that will leave your eyes glued to the screen until the very end
+ The game's unique mechanics turn the normal visual novel routine into a fun puzzle
+/- The H-scenes are removed entirely making for some awkward framing
- The same things that make the game's mechanics interesting also make them frustrating
- The last act of the narrative loses momentum and drops key aspects of the gameplay
Are you interested in tackling this blast from the past, or have you played the original and want to give it a new go with fresh paint? Let us know in the comments!
If you want to bug David Lynn for even more thoughts on this game or anything else, hit him up on Twitter at @NavyCherub.
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