Platform: PC | Release Date: May 06, 2015 | Hours Played: 2
*May contain slight spoilers but nothing that ruins any large plot/story.
Ahhh high school. A place for young teenagers to blossom and discover new experiences, including the most important one: Love. It’s no wonder that this is often the setting used in many romantic stories.
Thus it comes to no surprise when I say High School Otome is an Otome Visual Novel about a young girl’s experience of love… in high school.
High School Otome was one of the first games made on CloudNovel, an online platform where users can create visual novels without any need of coding. It was also written by the creator of CloudNovel herself, Sonya Fung with the majority of the art being free-to-use.
I originally attempted to play the game on Steam, but due to it being buggy, retreated to playing it on CloudNovel’s platform.
The story starts on a generic note, as our heroine, Sabrina, is late for her first day of high school. She breaks the fourth wall and introduces herself to the reader and how she’s not only excited about going to a new school but also meeting some boys, of course.
The game follows the standard otoge rules: Have your pick of the potential love interests and choose options that are focused on him. There aren’t many choices given in the game (about 5-6) and with 2 endings each, I wasted no time picking my first route and began rejecting all the others.
However, this led to one of the problems I found with the game that ruined it slightly for me. But this is something I’ll bring up later.
For me, the beauty of story writing is how a writer can make us believe that two characters who’ve just met a few paragraphs ago have already spent weeks or months becoming best friends.
In this game, however, the friendships are as abrupt as the writing itself. The heroine would somehow become close, or even, best friends with another character despite the player having as little as one scene (the introduction) with them. If they were background characters who offer nothing to the story, this would be understandable. But as love interests, the game needs to make us fall in love with them in the same way that Sabrina would.
Because of the pacing, you don’t get to know their personalities, except through Sabrina herself. They would say a sentence, which would be accompanied by Sabrina mentioning how ‘in character’ it is and we just take her word for it. This can be easily overlooked, however, as they are stereotypical tropes, such as the jock, the best friend and the quiet one.
The same can be said about the plot, as it attempts to feed players new information by throwing in a line or two in a scene. This ends up coming off as incredibly forced and awkward.
An example of where this happens is when Sabrina comes home late from buying school supplies and talks to her Grandma. It starts innocently enough, but somehow leads to her being accused of hanging out with boys and being a junkie. Through this, we’re supposed to learn that her Grandma is very mean and controlling. While this sounds fine on paper, the execution of the scene comes off as very abrupt and jarring. I mean, why would Sabrina come home late when she knew her Grandma would do this?
Onto Sabrina herself, she also comes off as spoilt and ungrateful. She’s supposed to be depicted as this bright child who is being stunted by her grandma but again, the game doesn’t allow the reader to learn that aside from the one or two scenes where it’s forced down your throat.
Then there’s the problem I mentioned earlier. As I said, in my first playthrough, I wasted no time choosing my love interest and began promptly rejecting all the others.
This also included a character who I chose for Sabrina NOT to help. In this scene, the character falls over and Sabrina can choose to help him or walk off. I assume that this was meant to introduce the character (whose name has been ??? in the dialogue) but ignoring him meant that I missed this interaction.
However, when Sabrina is given the opportunity to ask about the guys she might be interested in, this included the mysterious ??? one.
This was probably due to the game expecting you to get to know all the characters and they probably overlooked the fact they made it possible to skip one. But for someone who was having their first playthrough, I did find it disillusioning.
Another instance of this is a character who offers to swap contact details for a game, which, probably due to my choices, did not allow me to know they even played the same game.
It may seem nitpicky, but seamless route progression and connection is such an important element in visual novels, that games such as WILL: A Wonderful Review use it as a gameplay element. It can also draw a reader deeper into the world and make them feel like their choices matter more.
This made it difficult to keep myself invested in the story. Its interface also didn’t help, as the lack of format in the text made it hard to follow who was speaking and the choices screen clouded over the sprite’s face.
After powering through, once the story had already established itself from introductions to established friendships, the pacing improved greatly. Everything from the personalities to Sabrina’s relationship with her grandma became much more impactful.
I only played through 2 character’s routes but the struggles that they faced were interesting and, had the beginning not left me feeling whiplashed, I could see myself becoming more invested with them.
Although the sprites were free-to-use, each character does have 1 original CG for their romance ending which I found really beautiful and made the ending slightly more worthwhile to achieve.
I tried replaying the game another 2 times to achieve the friendship ending but even with the small amount of choice given in the game, I found myself either jumping onto someone else’s route or just achieving the romantic ending again.
I feel like the game had potential with the love interests’ struggles. While these were not overly unique or mindblowing, they were interesting enough to differentiate them from their stereotypes. But despite this, it was spoilt from its execution as the writing was too fast-paced and rather than making the relationships naturally form, it felt padded and thrown in so that they could get to the ‘main’ plot.
As a free game and being relatively short, it isn’t too hard to play/read even for someone new to visual novels. If they revise the game’s writing, interface and added a few more CGs, it would have the potential to be such a better game.
However, until then, I cannot recommend this game unless you’re really starved for some simple high school romance.