I usually take a week off from my day job in September and divide that time between vacation and staycation. Vacation = go to the beach and read. Staycation = stay home and putter about. Or, if you’re like me, play a slew of demos for upcoming otome games. Once I did one demo, I went a little crazy and started playing demos for half a dozen other games I’ve been eyeing up for a while now. So here’s a stack of mini-reviews of those demos in the order I played them:

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Gilded Shadows

Developer: Steamberry Studio
Release Date: TBA (estimated to be 2020-2021)
Rating: TBA (estimated to be Teen)
Download Demo from itch.io here!

You can thank @SteamberryEsh for sparking this entire demo-dump. I can’t express how much I loved Steamberry Studio’s first game, Changeling, so when I heard that they were releasing a new game, I was immediately stoked. So far, my enthusiasm for their upcoming visual novel, Gilded Shadows, has only increased. The demo came out while I was on vacation, and the first thing I did when I got home was play it.

Gilded Shadows is in a genre that I hadn’t heard about before: solarpunk. While cyberpunk has a distinctly unequal dystopian feel and steampunk is an extrapolation of Victorian technology, solarpunk is a more upbeat, environmentally-friendly Art Nouveau vision of the future. And the demo reflects that feel of being both beautiful, sustainable, and self-contained. The art is both gorgeous and smooth, fully supported by the accompanying music.

Gilded Shadows is a science fiction setting on a far away colony planet called Altair which is tidal-locked (meaning one side is always day and the other side is always night with a thin band of twilight between the two.) The main character (MC) Morgan Leone lives on the day-side in one of the dome cities. Her life seems pretty normal, but there’s an undercurrent of unrest, particularly between Endgame (the planet’s defense forces), a crime syndicate called “Crimson,” and some other shadowy, possibly crazy cult-group called “The Host.” There’s a lot of terminology that may not be familiar to SF fans, but these terms are hyperlinked into an ever-expanding glossary within the game. You can usually understand the basics through context, but if you’re still confused or want more details, you can always consult the glossary. Since the inhabitants of Altair have nanobot implants that connect them to a version of the World Wide Web, it feels well-integrated and cuts down on info-dumps.

While similar to Changeling in the basics (a female MC traversing multiple paths that uncover mysteries as well as romancing six potential love interests), Gilded Shadows feels like a darker, more mature, and, if possible, even more complex story. The characters are older and you can even customize the MC to a degree. She’s not a lamp by any means, but you do get to choose her look (I went with red hair and pale skin), her name (I called her “Rose”), and some personality traits that she leans towards. According to the game description, “your personality traits lock or unlock various reactions and responses to situations.” I feel like this will play out more in the rest of the game, as the demo only covers the first day, which is in the Common Route.

But even in the common route, there are variations. There is an “inciting incident” at which you get to make one of three choices. I made each of these choices to see how they would play out, and I was both surprised and gratified to see how you still got the same essential information, but in different ways and different perspectives, which really enhances replay value. Each choice also gets you a first meeting with three potential Love Interests (LIs), depending again on which route you take. New to Gilded Shadows, there’s a nice addition when you make choices at the inciting incident: an icon will flash on at the top left or top right corner of the screen indicating if your choice is leading you towards Endgame or Crimson. I really liked this because it helps you steer with a little more intention, depending on which route you want to take, but without being a neon sign saying, “Do this to romance this character!”

Of course the demo ends right when I’m fully immersed in the story, and I am chomping at the bit for more. Changeling spoiled me with its high-quality story-telling, character development, and world-building, and Gilded Shadows looks like it may surpass the bar set by its predecessor.

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The Pirate Mermaid

Developer: Navigame
Release Date: TBA
Rating: TBA (estimated to be Teen)
Download Demo from itch.io here!

Have you ever wanted to be a pirate AND a mermaid? Yeah, I had no idea that was a life goal of mine until I stumbled across this game on itch.io. I was immediately intrigued, but for whatever reason hadn’t gotten around to playing the demo until now. The last update about the game was in May 2019, so I’m really hoping that it hasn’t stalled out for some reason because The Pirate Mermaid is just amazing. The story focuses on an MC who is a pirate captain seeking the hidden treasure of the mermaids. She makes a deal with a sorcerer who agrees to turn her into a mermaid to find the treasure if she retrieves a vial for him from the treasure vault. If she fails, she’ll turn into a lobster. Along the way, she meets a colorful cast of characters who give her the opportunity to become her best or her worst self in this fairy tale.

The level of detail and customization in the demo along is breath-taking. You can literally adjust anything, from turning off animations, to turning on hints for romantic and karma choices, to switching the voice-acting from English to Japanese?! Say what?! The voice acting is very good, although this was the first time I’d ever been exposed to partial voice acting. For those unfamiliar with the term, partial voice acting means that the main CG scenes have voices, but the rest of the text isn’t actually read. Instead, the characters will make sounds (laughs, sighs, etc.) and reused stock phrases (“All right!” “I’m sorry.” “Go away!” “Well, about that…”). The sounds I didn’t mind, but I found the phrases distracting, at least in English. I didn’t try it in Japanese, so that might be less distracting for me.

But beyond all of the cool animation and customization options, I loved all the characters in The Pirate Mermaid. The MC (whom I named “Navi” for my run-through) can also have her mermaid colors and clothing colors customized, and she’s a real fire-cracker. Interestingly, you can become a hero or a villain in this story. A karma meter tells you whether your cumulative choices are sending you towards good, evil, or hovering near neutral. And all of those choices made through dialog options remain within character. Navi’s had a difficult life, so you can see how she could choose to be ruthless and not trust anyone, or how she could be taken aback by someone being genuinely nice. She does have a sidekick, a parrot named Jack, which I fortunately found to be amusing and sometimes sweet rather than outright annoying (although some may disagree).

The LIs are where the character interactions and story-telling really shine. There are three potential LIs: the sweet mer-prince Mikali, the mysterious and antisocial Sorcerer, and the bad-boy trouble-making merman Malik. You can access the beginning of each of their routes in the demo. The land-route takes you back to the Sorcerer while the sea-route keeps you in the ocean to choose between Mikali and Malik. (In the full game, you’ll have the option to split your time between land and sea.) Malik isn’t the type of character I usually go for, but the banter between him and Navi is top notch. It makes for great chemistry and spiked my curiosity about Malik’s past and current agenda. The Sorcerer is equally interesting because he’s a real grouch, but I feel like he and Navi might have a lot in common with a lot of tragedy in their lives. I want to both tease him and give him a huge hug. Definitely the tsundere character of the bunch. But the one who really captured my heart was Mikali. He’s just… so… SWEET. And not in the overly sugary sense, but in the “this-is-a-genuinely-good-kind-caring-person-and-I-don’t-want-anything-bad-to-happen-to-you-ever” kind of way. I feel like he can bring out the best in Navi because she’s so used to people using one another for gain that she isn’t sure what to do with a good person who has no ulterior motives, someone who just genuinely enjoys her company. I want to explore all of the romantic paths in The Pirate Mermaid, but I think Mikali and Navi are my OTP for this game.

The Pirate Mermaid was apparently green-lit for Steam before the feature was discontinued, but I haven’t been able to find it listed on Steam itself. However, the demo and more information is on itch.io and Navigame’s Tumblr page. With all of the hard work they’ve already put into this game, I really hope we’ll get a release date soon!

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Mizari Loves Company

Developer: Reine Works
Release Date: ETA December 2019
Rating: TBA (estimated to be Teen or M depending on content settings)
Download Demo from itch.io here!

This was my second experience with partial voice acting, and while I’m still not fond of it, I do love the cast for Mizari Loves Company. It’s insanely high quality in that regard (some of the voice actors are from Dragon Age: Inquisition!), and judging from the demo the story and characters will be just as stunning. The artwork is a lovely anime-style, but that isn’t what makes this game stand out. For me, it’s the Beauty and the Beast style of plot. The MC, a healer cleric named Mizari (which I keep wanting to pronounce “mih-ZAR-ee” rather than “misery”) finds herself kidnapped by the demons who have been attacking human settlements. But instead of eating her, Mizari is approached with a request to help the demons survive. The mysterious Demon King is polite and charming, but a little cool and clearly willing to do whatever it takes to ensure Mizari’s cooperation. The effeminate (cross-dressing?) wizard Mimi is a kind of chaperon and bosom companion for Mizari who seems to like her, but I can’t tell how much may be an act. The antagonistic adviser Anja hates humans and doesn’t bother to hide his contempt from Mizari; he seems to be looking for an excuse to get rid of her, to prove to the King that humans are not to be trusted.

I’m very curious to see how Mizari handles life in the demon kingdom and how her preconceptions about demons are challenged over the course of the story. The character interactions promise to be VERY interesting, especially with Anja (although of course I’m immediately attracted to the Demon King.) I’ve only scratched the surface of the lore, but it seems rich and I really want to see more. The demo isn’t very long, but gives a good taste of the story. My only complaint is that there is a little too much talking in the town between Mizari and her companions, the elf-wizard Nerui and the human mercenary Merrick. It feels like a bit of forced character development when I was far more interested in getting Mizari to the demons. Still, it’s a minor complaint and one that did not ruin my overall enjoyment and positive impression of Mizari Loves Company.

For a while, this game seemed to be languishing without updates, but now we have an estimated release date for December 2019 and you can pre-order it with both Steam and itch.io keys. Hooray! With so many other demos for games that won’t be released for a year or more, it’s nice to have something closer to look forward to!

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Reanimation Scheme

Developer: Wind Chimes Games
Release Date: ETA 2020 (2021 for some Kickstarter rewards)
Rating: TBA (estimated to be Teen)
Download Demo from itch.io here!

So, a lazy necromancer, a shy scholar, a bubbly life-mage, a mono-syllabic ice noble, a grumpy cat familiar, and a reanimated ghost walk into a university… Sound like a set-up for the weirdest joke ever? It’s actually the premise for the game Reanimation Scheme! You play as Raenelle, a not-very-competent or enthusiastic Reanimator who finds herself in an awkward situation when the necromancers of the kingdom realize they can’t summon, manifest, or even contact the spirits of the dead. The concept certainly is a unique one and promises to deliver in spades.

I’d been seeing tweets about this upcoming visual novel for a while, but hadn’t checked out the demo until I saw that the Kickstarter was beginning October 4th. I like supporting indie developers when I can, but with the number of hopefuls out there and the amount of time required to bring these games to life, I like to play the demo to see how serious the devs are at seeing the project through.

Well, you can’t get much more serious that Reanimation Scheme! The lore, the world-building, the visuals, the gameplay, the menus, all of it is well-refined, deeply thought-out, and beautifully executed. And that’s just in the demo! While you can change the name of the MC, she’s definitely her own person. (I’m not usually fond of lazy or sleepy characters, but considering that Raenelle is a freakin’ NECROMANCER who has to use a lot of energy to manifest and reanimate the spirits of the dead, I’m not really surprised that she’s always tired.) That might not hold appeal for players who prefer to self-insert, but it’s great for a compelling visual novel.

And if the stunning production values aren’t enough for you, the personalities of the characters leap off the screen. Aldrias (affectionately known as “Aldy”) is a long-time friend of Raenelle who loves books, research, and societal improvement. He’s an absolute sweet-heart, but not a push-over; I get the feeling that he’d be immovable as a mountain if he was asked to go against his moral compass. Lyrissa is also sweet, but in an extroverted way, and I can see her and Raenelle getting into all kinds of trouble, not because Lyrissa likes mischief, but she does want to test the boundaries and restrictions placed on her. Kierdan the ice-mage is a bit of a mystery, and you don’t interact with him too much in the demo, but I get the feeling he’s a cinnamon roll on the inside. Currently only those three are the LIs (yes, this is a GxB OR GxG otome!), but if Reanimation Scheme meets its stretch goals, then we may also get Jori (the last spirit Raenelle summoned and can’t get rid of) and Sebastian (Raenelle’s shape-shifting familiar with a GORGEOUS voice) as potential LIs. (PLEASE HELP US RAISE ENOUGH TO GET SEBASTIAN I TOTALLY WANT TO ROMANCE HIM! *ahem*)

So, the Kickstarter for Reanimation Scheme is open for backers until November 3rd, and I urge folk to check it out. There’s even a quiz to see who your ideal partner in the game would be! Play the demo, support financially if you can and spread the word if you can’t. A game as good as this deserves some love.

(Side note: apparently the dev Windchimes had been a writer for Red String of Fate, the first otome I ever played! I had no idea! I love that little game…)

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Magical Otoge Iris

Developer: batensan
Release Date: TBA
Rating: TBA (estimated to be Teen)
Download Demo from itch.io here!

This is the third game in the Magical Otoge series that I’ve played (the others being Magical Otoge Ciel and Magical Otoge Anholly.) Batensan’s work is characterized by sweet romances, straightforward plots, cheerful female protagonists, and horrible puns. The artwork has a lovely watercolor feel to it, and while the choices you make in the other games usually don’t change the plot (only locking or unlocking certain reactions or lines of dialog) there is a satisfying feel to them and a happy ending. Even Anholly (WHICH MADE ME CRY SO MUCH OMG BATENSAN WHY?!) made me smile in the end.

Magical Otoge Iris ups the ante big time.

This is definitely a more ambitious and complex project than Ciel or Anholly. While Ciel stood more or less on its own, Anholly felt like there was some serious connective tissue and world-building going on. This only continues with Iris. The idea is that there are multiple parallel worlds and the spirits of the dead from all of those worlds come to a certain one to be purified and returned to the cycle of rebirth. The titular character Iris is a Purifier with the power of her world’s Magician to cleanse spirits. Magicians are like guardians of these many worlds, and there are some serious issues with the ones in Iris’s world, namely that one killed the other and then essentially abdicated his duties. There’s also a missing childhood friend, a mysterious stranger, a protective former teacher, a talking magical lance… there’s A LOT of characters (all with distinct looks fortunately) and a lot of mystery to uncover. My only (minor) complaint is that the music, while nice, is the same for all of the games, so if you play them back to back, you hear the same musical notes and cues over and over. That might be deliberate because all of the worlds and games are connected, but it would be nice to have a little variety to differentiate the games more from one another.

I’ve been going a little crazy trying to figure out all of the connections between the different stories of Magical Otoge and how the repercussions from events on one world may affect the others. The demo for Iris ends on a cliffhanger, and one that is surprisingly dark compared to the other Magical Otoge games to date. But that only makes me want to play it more because it feels like the stakes are a lot higher here, higher than any of the characters may realize… except for the Magicians and they are notoriously cryptic. I really hope batensan gets the support they need to complete Iris in full (and hopefully Magical Otoge Melanie as well!)

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Whew, that was a lot! I hope you enjoyed this demo-dump and will consider supporting these games!