Platform: PC, iOS, Android | Release Date: April 4, 2016 | Hours Played: 4
The recipe for an otome game or visual novel is broken down to the art, story and music. You need to make sure they blend well or be left with a big mess.
Time is also an important factor as the greatest games often take years to make. But when you are given a deadline, it can be interesting to see what you can create.
Heartbaked is a fantasy, romantic comedy otome game that was created within 31 days, as part of NaNoRenO 2016. It is a relatively short game, taking 5-6 hours to complete with 3 pursuable love interests.
NaNoRenO is an annual game-jam, where people create original visual novels within March. Whatever you make is up to you, as long as it is created from start to finish.
The story takes place in an elven village who worship a Pastry God and surround themselves with baked goods. The heroine, Ginger (renameable) is a pastry chef who is selected to host the annual festival. Wanting to beat her rival, she finds a recipe called Heartbaked (titledrop) which requires an important ingredient: Love. With the festival in 9 days and having no boyfriend, she sets her sights on wooing the only 3 guys she knows. These include her childhood friend, her rival and… a random customer she met in the afternoon.
If this feels like the story seems rushed and sudden, that’s because it is, as the game intentionally parodies otome plots. However, this works because of how Ginger’s character is. Baking is her life passion and this shows by the constant baking puns falling out her mouth. While she has no interests in guys, she’s desperate enough to woo a guy she just met, all for the sake of her cooking.
This passion spills over to the game’s interface which is covered in cupcakes and bright pastel colours. Even when you try to save, load or exit the game, you are greeted with a pun-filled warning. This is good attention to detail which is always a plus in my book.
Speaking of book, the story is broken down into days that you can access on the menu depicted as her diary. You can progress or choose to redo any day you choose. This is interesting as this acts not only as an index but a progression checker for days you have left and character’s affections for you. There are 2 bad endings per character that you get through choosing a bad choice. However, the game allows you to restart the day to continue the good end. This makes the gameplay flow nicely as you do not need to worry about making mistakes.
Of course, none of these elements would matter if it wasn’t for the writing, which is the best part of the game. Often, I find myself skipping through texts but Heartbaked made me want to take in every word. The characters have great chemistry and the main course is definitely Ginger with her hilarious inner thoughts. I found myself taking laugh breaks with how well the game made use of the text to deliver punchlines.
This is aided by the colourful casts of characters. While Ginger being an elven pastry chef may not be relatable, her personality is down to earth yet quirky and confident. It makes it believable when she struggles to flirt with guys who she clearly does not find attractive.
It also works because the love interests are not trying to be your standard perfect pretty boys. They are all unique characters with their own quirks that make them fit into their world (or not fit). The interactions that Ginger has with them does pander as it should in an otome game, but this works because of how Ginger begrudgingly does, thus not losing her personality in the process. It really makes it believable when she falls in love with them for who they are.
Everything was created for the game which I found impressive. The game not only created its interface but their own music crafted as well, which fit the scenes nicely.
That isn’t to say that the game didn’t have its problems. The routes did have typos and grammar mistakes and even when you renamed Ginger, the characters still referred to her as such in scenes.
With the graphics, the backgrounds did match with the writing description but did look rushed and not as polished. I had no problems with the sprites as they were cute and fitting. However, the CGs were a little disappointing as not only were there only 1 per character, but the art was vastly different from the sprites. This made it feel jarring to what would’ve been a romantic moment.
Just like baking, the game clearly had a lot of love and passion put into making it and the results came through. The writing was one of the most entertaining that I’ve seen for a comedy themed VN, including commercial games. There are a few messy bits here and there, but given that the game was given a month to make, it was impressive that they have done this much. If they could redo the backgrounds and added more CG, that would truly be the icing on the cake.