Not-Farla here. This game was put up for review by its creator over on the recs page. I have recently become obsessed with VNs, but finding good ones is nigh-on impossible (REC ME SOME NOW), so the instant I saw Ember praise it I was on that shit. It was a wonderful decision.
The game is incredibly atmospheric. I loved the art style– it was clear each color used was thought about well, and it’s no coincidence the protagonist, Crocket, and her friends are in dreary grays while the strangers Douglas and Deedra are clothed in vibrants neons: yellows and pinks. The way the figures were lined lent a shakiness and uncertainty to them that was perfect.
I also want to throw in a mention of the music, because I really liked it and thought it added wonderfully to the tone of the game.
The epigraph is chilling and sets the stage very well. I actually really liked the font, which is an odd thing to say, but the visuals of this game just complemented the story and set up the tone so well down to every last detail that I feel it bears mentioning. The backgrounds are wistful but dreary.
The story opens with you, Crocket, a Knight of Utrecht, meeting a Stranger in the woods (it’s all very Camus-ian) who asks to be walked a ways down the path. The backstory was somewhat Elder Scrolls to me, with the presence of several gods, each of whom has a cult who follows their advice. The cult of Utrecht is exactly what you’d expect from a knight: help the needy, focus on justice, hear both sides of a story before making decisions. Crocket in particular seems to be very taken with the Romantic side of her knighthood: her major character flaw is, in fact, a childish inability to put away her Romantic ideals and face reality. Sometimes this is a good thing; sometimes not.
There’s a problem with Utrecht’s knights, however: while their god used to give them wisdom and guidance, he has not manifested in a decade, and no one knows why.
When she arrives back the Knights’ fort, their leader, Murphy, is being talked down to by two Clerics of the god EllsMiralls, Deedra and Douglas, who tell him to abandon Utrecht and join them and also btw we’re after a fugitive accused of killing the princess let us know if you see him plzthxbai.
Obviously the Stranger that Crocket met is the criminal in question. He shows up after the Clerics leave, insists the princess is still alive but has been kidnapped, and asks for the knights’ help in clearing his name of the murder. He refuses to give any details about himself, why he was accused, what has really happened, or his past. You are charged with helping him, and as you journey into the world you have to decide whom to trust and when.
When I browsed reviews and Let’s Plays to see how everyone but me was wrong what other people had to say, I was kind of surprised by a) the pervasive complaint that the art was not anime-style (as if this is the only valid way to draw a VN), but mostly b) how people talked about the lack of a “sunshine and daisies” ending as a flaw.
Those of you who’ve seen me discuss things know I talk a good bit about how I really hate when people write stories where everything goes wrong just because the author somehow thinks this is more “edgy” or “realistic.” This is my major criticism of Song of Ice and Fire, actually, because the truth is, a universe in which nothing good ever happens is just as unrealistic and annoying as one where everything wraps up neatly.
To me, perhaps more than anything else, I found Hierophania to be a perfect example a story that strikes the balance between nihilism and irritating optimism. It’s a world in which there are no happy endings or sad endings, just endings. There seemed to be this expectation that in a “good” VN, you should be rewarded with the girl/power/a cookie for choosing the “right” options. But that’s stupid and people are stupid for thinking it. A realistic story– a meaningful story– is never that black and white, and neither are the endings in Hierophania. No, there’s no ending where things “work out.” But when is there, in life or otherwise? What is “working out?” What defines a happy ending and a sad one? Who is to say what a happy ending and a sad one are?
These are good questions to be asking after completing a story, regardless of the medium.
Depending on what you do and who you are in the game, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” change. What you learn and know at the end changes. And, in a way, what is real changes. In a sense, there aren’t good and bad endings, just “real” and “fake” ones: false senses of security and the burdens of knowledge, truths that simultaneously redeem and condemn or lies that leave us blissfully ignorant.
Needless to say, the “true” ending (the one with the epilogue that sets up the sequel) is… whoah. Good whoah. The plot as a whole is an amazing maze of twists and turns that never felt particularly obvious or stale, and the actual ending was the best of all. It was completely engrossing and left me really wishing for the sequel.
As an aside, a lot of reviewers seemed to struggle to get the real ending, but I got it on my fourth playthrough. *shrug* There are three endings, however, that I just could NOT get, even after having it explained to me, but I think what you find yourself getting has as much to do with your playstyle as anything, because people seemed to be all over the board (which is good, I think).
I did have some technical issues and nitpicks about the actual gameplay, however, as well as about the main character, Crocket, and how she plays.
My biggest problem with it was that the big, black dialogue box was located at the bottom of the screen and was incredibly distracting. I didn’t have much reason to be looking at other places on the screen than the very bottom, and so even thought the art was lovely I spent most of my time just staring at this black text box. Something as small as moving the box to the top could fix this. I would also have liked more motion from the characters and the backgrounds in general. Maybe have dialogue appear on opposite sides during conversations. Just anything to get me looking at other places on the screen.
There also didn’t seem to be any page from which to look over your past progress. It would have been nice to be able to see what endings I had gotten and what they consisted of, especially after the first few. This is a courtesy I think all VNs should include because I am a packrat and need to have one of everything and know I have completed everything (so maybe it’s just me).
In addition, there was some odd stylistic writing stuff going on. Why is the M in EllsMoralls capitalized if it’s all one word? That drove me insane. Similarly, the game forsook dialogue tags and instead put actions and speech modifiers in asterisks. This looked really, really childish and took me out of the game. A simple switch to the third person would have solved this without really affecting anything. Just add, “Crocket thought” to the end of her thoughts and then you’re free to describe her actions in the third person. No more *whispered* or *waves hands* or worst of all, *siiiiiiigh*. It was like being transported out of a professional video game and on to a message board populated by 15-year-olds. It grated on me, is what I’m saying.
From a story perspective, the largest issue was that the”real” ending came down hard on me-as-Crocket for doing things I didn’t have a choice not to do. The entire point of Gillian as a character seems to be to talk about what a stupid mule Crocket is, but I never had a chance to do anything clever. Midway through the game, Crocket declares she hates puzzles and won’t do them, and all I could think was, “But I love puzzles!” At least give me a chance to try and fail if you’re going to talk about how I’m a failure; don’t just saddle me with the outcome without even giving me a choice. This was a small part of the game and only came up in the very, very end, but it still was a bit frustrating and led to me looking for a way to actually do puzzles to prove I was smart or something.
Crocket in general didn’t really have much of a character arc. She seems to be the most one-dimensional character in the game, really, which would be okay in a self-insert style VN, but Crocket had too much of a character for that to be the case. The “puzzles suck” thing is a particularly bizarre example of that– and I mean, I’m playing an indie VN. I think it’s pretty safe to assume I don’t hate to think and do repetitive tasks. Having the protagonist be such a neanderthal about it without the option to grow her as a person and overcome that was strange. I’m not adverse to playing a VN character who has different likes and dislikes than I do, but I don’t like being told it’s what I like. (A switch to third-person narration would have almost entirely gotten rid of this issue).
Similarly, each of her endings has a drastic effect on the people around her, but she stays pretty much the same. She doesn’t really mature as a result of even the most harrowing experiences, but nor do we see her become respected. Right to the end, she’s talked down to and treated as a wide-eyed dunce.
Honestly, if the game had just cut all of the text about how stupid I am for everything I did out of the “real” ending, it would have been fine. It actually isn’t that much of the text; it’s just enough to be disheartening. It doesn’t add anything at all to the story or characters, and it detracts from the overall experience.
All of that said:
Overall, I really, really enjoyed this. It was second to only Cinders as the best VN I’ve found so far. It was a bit short, but I really recommend it and am totally looking forward to the sequel.