Hierofania/Hierophany

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.

23 Comments

  1. Ember says:
    I don’t see how switching to third person is either sufficient or necessary for the elimination of the asterisks tags. It would be just as easy to work “I did this” into the prose as it would “Crocket did this”. And the *whispered* tag came up even when non-Crocket characters were the ones whispering. I agree that the asterisks were pretty terrible, but I LIKE VNs to be written in first person.
    1. actonthat says:
      That’s certainly a fair point. I actually prefer third-person storytelling in general, and in this instance I felt like Crocket was too much her own person for me to really feel like I was the character anyway, so I thought third would probably work better to fix some of the issues.

      I am something a VN n00b, though, so I as I play more of them that feeling may very well change.

      1. Ember says:
        Think of it as something like roleplaying! Part of the fun is getting into the headspace of a character who isn’t necessarily much like you.
  2. illhousen says:
    “REC ME SOME NOW”

    Fate/Stay Night
    Tsukihime
    Both are written by Kinoko Nasu and take place in the same world. Urban fantasy, the first one about seven mages summoning heroes of myths to a deathmatch ritual which will summon a wish-granting devise. The second can be divided in two separate stories: one is about vampires duking it out and resolving ancient grudges. The second is about dark secrets of a family of monster hunters.

    Umineko no naku koro ni (It should be said that Umineko doesn’t offer choices to the player before the last episode which is different from most VNs. Still pretty good, though I feel the last two episodes are weaker).
    First episode is a murder mystery with hints of supernatural presence, the following episodes are supernatural metafiction with healthy amounts of mindfuck.

    Saya no Uta – Lovecraftian pornohorror. Written by the same guy who wrote script for Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Rather… specific game.

    1. actonthat says:
      I’m actually playing Fate/Stay Night now! Expect a Let’s Play of it. I’m still at the beginning, though, so not for a little bit, though it has definitely got my interest so far. I love Rin.
      1. Socordya says:
        Are you doing the pornless version of fate stay night?
        Also i totally second Saya no Uta.
        1. actonthat says:
          No, but the version I have did warn me about a NSFW image.

          Saya no Uta does not sound like my kind of thing. I’m here for storytelling and character studies. I don’t have much respect for shock artists in general; I’m certainly not going to seek out the worst of a genre I hate in a genre notorious for being worst.

          1. illhousen says:
            To be fair there is little explicit content. The story itself is a standard story for Call of Cthulhu RPG and such. Only with shoggoth sex. The focus is on psychology and slow descend into madness. It is also pretty short game.

            But yes, there are some disturbing events and imagery, so it is understandable if it’s not your cup of tea.

            1. actonthat says:
              I am both incredibly squeamish and a huge movie/book/video game coward.

              However, Boyfriend perked up at “Lovecraftian pornohorror,” so I’m going to try to make him do it. He insists writing a few paragraphs about his reaction is beyond him so I haven’t gotten him to do anything yet (because he’s selectively illiterate or something I guess), but this seems like the perfect chance.

              Reply
  3. Ember says:
    Also, as far as recs go: Hatoful Boyfriend. It is a dating sim about pigeons, and it is amazing.
    1. actonthat says:
      I’ve actually heard of that! It’s like a parody, right? It made it into a Cracked article. I should totally do that one after Fate.
  4. Dave says:
    If you like puzzles, 999 is a great, twisty story with lots of pseudoscience as part of worldbuilding. The sequel Virtue’s Last Reward is supposedly even better, and I have some respect for the author because a running theme in his work is making very good use of his medium.
    Also, as someone who likes SnU, it is nothing if not shock art. It’s seriously flawed and combines some creatively horrible things with much more disappointing problematic horrible things. I have a pet theory that it’s so highly praised because the VN playing/translating audience who hears about it is predisposed to being okay with it’s bad elements.
    Nasu is a cool guy who writes cool stories but he puts way too much porn in them? He has said that the family-friendly PS version with voices is the definitive one so I assume it’s for those sweet otaku bucks, but it really took me out of Tsukihime, and combined with the abundance of filler I think Kara no Kyoukai is a better version of the story (the protagonist is more interesting, too).
    1. Ember says:
      999 is actually really terrible as a puzzle game, though? Like, it force-feeds you the answers to half its puzzles, which are really easy to begin with, without even giving you a chance to solve them on your own. And I thought the story was also ridiculous. Psuedoscience of that sort is actually not a great basis for worldbuilding because it means you can make the story “twisty” just by throwing out a bunch of incoherent nonsense at the reader and calling it a plot development.

      I actually tried doing an LP of it once to share my pain before realizing that I had no where near the patience for long-term engagement with media I dislike that a Farla does. You can find the abortive attempt here: http://nonarysense.livejournal.com

      I didn’t even come close to reaching the stupidest parts, unfortunately.

      1. Farla says:
        And I lament all the time that you stopped. You should go back to it, wallowing in suffering is fun!
        1. Ember says:
          It is! But LP’s are surprisingly time consuming! Plus, mustering up the energy to do productive stuff of my own initiative is really hard! When I can manage it, I’d rather that energy go toward creating things that are maybe actually good!
          1. actonthat says:
            I also enjoyed it and vote for continuation.
            1. Farla says:
              See, everyone wants you to be unhappy! Bow to peer pressure, start LPing and doing drugs while jumping off bridges with us.
              Reply
    2. illhousen says:
      SnU is certainly flawed. Still interesting story, but yeah, plenty of disturbing elements.

      As for Nasu, I don’t think there is too much porn in his works. In Tsukihime there are what? Two sex scenes per route? The story can certainly do without them, especially since they are kinda boring and badly written due to Nasu not being the one to write them, but they are tolerable.

      KnK is indeed a good story, especially Paradox Spiral chapter, but actonthat asked for VNs.

  5. ludeshka says:
    I wanted to say, well, first of all. “Thank you so much!” for actually taking me seriously. :D

    I’m happy to say some of the problems you found with Hierofanía are already fixed in Hierofanía 2 (I’m talking about the way the text is presented, which will look something like this now http://fav.me/d5ofz73 )

    I’m going to give very serious thought to the way I “punished” the player for the main character’s mistakes. I plan to keep writing characters that make mistakes a lot, but I don’t want to hit the players over the head for things they themselves have no control over.
    I thank you very much for giving me things to think about, and also, (so, so very much!) for actually taking the time to review and reccomend this.

    (I got a message from one person who only played the game because of your review. Thank you for using your influence for good! XDDD)

    1. actonthat says:
      Ah! I love the new text box setup. I was actually thinking when I started playing Fate/Stay Night that the see-through-full-screen was the perfect format and was going to edit this post, but you’ve beat me to the punch.

      Good luck with the development of the sequel. I’ll definitely play it– let us know when it’s done.

    2. Negrek says:
      Juuust a little nitpick, but on the landing page that Act linked up at the top of this post, it should be “preceded,” not “preceeded.” Sorry, just kind of stuck out to me. ^^;
  6. Negrek says:
    Ghost Trick is one of my favorite games of all time; highly recommended, and perhaps a good one to play after Fate/Stay Night, since it falls on the “heartwarming” end of the narrative spectrum. Only thing is I’m not sure if it’s really what you’re looking for in a VN… it doesn’t offer any branching paths or alternate endings, just story-bits interspersed with puzzles. Wikipedia assures me that this can still be considered a VN, but I wouldn’t want to do any false advertizing, here.

    Except I would still recommend it anyway because omg Ghost Trick

    1. actonthat says:
      Ooh, I’ll put that on the list.

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