“The combination of Kotodama’s gameplay just makes its premise stand out and personally adds the interactivity that I crave for in games.“
Platform: Nintendo Switch | Release Date: May 31st, 2019 | Hours Played: 11
When it comes to anime-style games, I often find that those with beautiful cover art that aren’t JRPGs or Visual novels, end up having… misleading gameplay.
I thought Kotodama would be no different and thought it would be a simple tile-matching game with an equally a simple story. I kept it on my wish list anyway and when I saw a 95% sale to celebrate its one-year release – how could I resist? And boy, was I pleasantly surprised!
A little spoiler for you now – this is one of those Schroedinger games where you should and should not judge the game by its cover (you know.. depending on if you look at the cover art… or the game screenshots… you’ll see what I mean.)
Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa is a high school, mystery visual novel with tile-matching gameplay elements. You play a third-year transfer student who joins Fujisawa Academy along with your kitsune demon familiar, Mon-chan. Oh yes, this isn’t your normal high-school visual novel as you have a demon contract that allows you to use the power of Kotodama, allowing you to reveal the truth in people.
You end up finding yourself embroiled with the Occult Research Club into exploring the 7 mysteries surrounding the school. Although these mysteries have simple truths at first, as your powers grow, you discover more sinister reveals that are waiting to be uncovered.
Sounds intriguing, dark and mysterious yes? I thought so too, but felt conflicted when screenshots of characters in their underwear smacked me in the face. That is the where your powers and gameplay element come into… well, play.
As mentioned, your ‘Kotodama’ powers allow you to see inside the person’s unconscious mind in order to get them to reveal their hidden truths. This is the tile-matching gamescreen where you match 3 in a row to slowly reveal their secret… and naked body.
This reminded me of a mixture between a more simplistic version of Apollo Justice‘s cross-examination and Hunie Pop‘s tile-matching gameplay. The concept of using the tile-matching minigame is quite common and often games throw in their own twists like in Puzzle & Dragons in order to create something more unique.
Likewise, Kotodama also attempts to do this as you aren’t able to freely swap or move bubbles, but instead, can select one to the top of the column and match with bubbles that cascade down from there. This adds some difficulty to the game and thus requires more strategising than your average puzzle. Different characters have different preferences to attributes and successfuly matchiing fills up their “Happy” bar.
And when you match things, they are indeed happy and express it with their actions, expressions and… sounds. They’re what you expect to hear from a Japanese game with ecchi-elements but when youre matching several in a row… Either play it in your room with headphones or turn the volume off because if someone hears you, they WILL misunderstand.
It is important to note that this takes place in a ‘different’ dimension only seen by the player and represented by their imagination. And what does your character imagine? Literally stripping away the character’s clothes into their underwear. (Mon-Chan also looks down on you for this.)
Of course, a big factor to the enjoyability will be if you like minigames like this and if not, then it may not be for you. For me, I found this to be a fun interactivity that breaks from the monotony of the storyline.
It may seem like an opportunistic insert for fanservice, I actually enjoyed this as although it does detract from the darker themes of the game, it makes sense because of the fact that you are a teen and probably a hormone-fueled one at that. Ergo, this gives them a surprising character development of being a huge pervert. Considering they allow you to choose your gender, despite not changing the plot in any way, it does make me appreciate them giving that option. Although I am sad that in-spite of this, they only give you one male character to strip. (AND NOT EVEN THE ONE ON THE COVER OF THE GAME!)
However, looking past the gameplay, we should not discredit the visual novel itself as it also deserves some praise of its own.
The presentation of the game is well-done AND the character art and designs are nice with distinct personalities. The game is fully-voiced with live-2D animations which is definitely a bonus considering many visual novels would usually cost more.
The first 2 hours of the game act as a tutorial and introduction to the world as you familiarise yourself with the gameplay. Up til then, the game is relatively happy with some darker themes peeking through.
The story is essentially unveiled through you as you help the OCR investigate the mysteries surrounding the school. These includes trying to find the school principle who no one has reportedly ever seen, or a rumour about a white wolf that is said to grant wishes if you see and touch it. The only ‘serious’ one is about a curse from a girl who committed suicide.
The themes of these are what I would say is an exaggeration of real life. Such as parental pressure, relationships and suicide, but expressed in a more supernatural way. When you investigate these, they seem straightforward initially, but replaying the game several times in certain orders can unlock extra scenes or information – such as keywords which aid you in your gameplay.
And when I mean replay, I don’t mean starting a new save file. Kotodama makes use of the visual novel element of getting several endings by making it a part of the storyline. Without spoiling anything, the game ‘ends’ on a ominous note and then you’re suddenly back to the beginning of the story. With no clue of what to do, your best bet is to literally retrace your steps and experience different options which may aid you – or end you.
I found this to be a great way to incorporate replaying the game while staying within the realm of the story. While most of the plot progression stays the same (hence the magic of the Skip button), there are new bits of information or even hints to the mystery of the game if you pick up on it.
The main story has a Good End, True End, and several bad endings – which are equally as interesting and should be experienced in their entirety. You can experience the same bad end at different points in the story and this will be made clear to you as you are transported back. They do provide some hints to the good endings through certain important being coded blue or red and figuring out the combination does add to the gameplay.
However, I did find myself getting frustrated with the that because of the fact that you can’t skip the minigame. Yes, it is the main mechanic but when you’re like me and make many mistakes which end up setting you back to the start for the 10th time, it gets a little tiring. Even though the game does level up the attributes you use, you can still risk losing, especially when it gets to late game and you’re playing through the same route again because of one wrong choice.
The game does not autosave so you must remember to save often as RNG will always mean you have a chance of losing and unlike wrong choices – this means you will have to reload your save. I don’t know if this means that you would lose all progress including if you finished a whole route. Regardless, I felt like rather then ending the game, they should allow you to restart the battle instead. There is very little you can do to ‘prepare’ apart from getting a missed power-up but it means nought if you’re dealt a bad hand due to RNG.
When it came to the ‘final’ bosses, I still struggled despite having all the power-ups available in the game. When you are running out of moves, you can use an item that gives extra moves with the chance of success being dependant on the amount of move. This is done through selecting one of the icons to ‘play’ with the character on different parts of their body (the stress of losing did not allow me the mind to enjoy this). However his is again, RNG based and failing gives you some sort of disadvantage. If you’re given a bad board in addition to a failed extra move – you have no choice but to reload, which can become time-consuming.
In addition to the minigame and CG in the actual main story, there is also a bonus mode where you can achieve bonus CG but does not use any of the level ups that you received in the main game. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to complete this and thus the CGs will be forever out of my reach.
I was incredibly surprised by the game as I expected a simple story with tile-matching gameplay to just pad in some fun. What I got was an intricate story that was cleverly woven together with the gameplay, characters and fanservice.
The plot of Kotodama has an intriguing storyline and explores unique themes and tropes that even on its own, would’ve made a great visual novel-only game. The combination of its gameplay just makes its premise stand out and personally adds the interactivity that I crave for in games.
As I said, I have no problem with the minigame itself – it’s just playing the minigame on the same route non-stop can get frustrating. If they changed up the gameplay or even provided a stress-free way of getting extra moves then it will allow for a more fun experience.
The world that Kotodama inhibits still has alot of potential and mysteries to uncover and can easily merit another sequel if they wanted. They already have a great game and if they just make a few tweaks here and there, then dare I say this game would be a hidden gem.