“Enjoy your princess raising sim & try not to get her killed too quick!” is my sister’s encouraging message for this game.
You play as Elodie, the crown princess of the kingdom, whose mother has just died. She is still too young to inherit, however, and so must wait a year before she can assume the crown.
Unfortunately for you, things get complicated fast.
The setting and story are both surprisingly complex, though you’re unlikely to see all or even most of it on a single playthrough. There is no fluffy, happy princess fantasy stuff here. You’re frequently called upon to pass judgment on murder cases, untangle internal plots among your own nobles, and deal with looming foreign threats. Overall, the story is a heavy deconstruction of medieval feudal societies – the nobles are selfish and unscrupulous creatures that will try their hardest to ensnare you in their plots and bend you to their whim at the slightest chance. It’s possible to face peasant assassins and rebellions if you’re too callous about them, as well.
Oh, and there’s magic too. The magic system is kind of strange – it’s practically genetic for all intents and purposes without actually being generic. Basically, there are a number of magic crystals in the world that can attune themselves to certain people who have the right personality (I’m not entirely sure if that means personality powers of if it’s unconnected). The crystals can only be un-attuned upon death, at which point they can be attuned again to someone with similar mind patterns or whatever. Usually, this means a son or daughter. The queen was one of these magic people (called “lumens” – I’m not sure if that means anything special), and you can get her crystal and attune to it yourself as well. I guess most lumens were also insane throughout history, because they face a lot of public stigma. Naturally, if Elodie becomes a lumen, her actions can either cement this viewpoint in the public’s eyes or change it for the better.
Elodie, as a 14-year-old girl, is woefully unprepared for the trials she must face, and the game does a good job of showing this. There are so many things happening at once, and entire subplots and story branches can be missed if you don’t have the right skills. (I didn’t even meet the main villain on my first successful playthrough because I did too well at defending the kingdom from them.) It’s one of the few stories where there are secret plots everywhere, but it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find out who was behind them. Practically everyone except her father is trying to use her for her own ends and pulling her in all different directions.
Right from the beginning, you can tell this is a game about balancing opinions and expectations and deciding who to trust. Elodie’s father Joslyn, the King Dowager, tells her that he will do everything he can to help her become queen and will always be around to help her. For the most part, he does stick true to this promise, being a very lax regent and giving Elodie mostly free reign of the kingdom. However, very early on, a women arrives at the palace to tell Elodie that her mother was a lumen and that she, in turn, can inherit her mother’s crystal and become a master of magic as well. Elodie’s dear loving father never saw fit to tell her about this, or that he keeps the crystal locked up in the deepest vaults of the treasury with elite guards blocking her path, and if Elodie demands the crystal, his one executive restriction on her actions is to staunchly refuse. Gaining your lumen powers is one of the most important events in the game, and developing those powers frequently means the difference between life and death. Joslyn believes he is protecting Elodie – he fears that overuse of magic was what led to the queen’s death – but he clearly does not realize just how desperate Elodie’s situation is. (Although, there actually is a scene near the end of the game where becoming a lumen really is a matter of life and death, and it reveals that Joslyn actually does have a contingency plan to protect Elodie in such a scenario – so perhaps he’s not quite as short-sighted as at first glance. Still.) In order to getting through, you have to either spend a lot of time power-leveling Elodie, or get your mentor to kill the guards. Both have their own consequences – and even if Elodie does get the crystal and successfully becomes a lumen, her magic mentor is very tight-lipped and only gives Elodie information on a need-to-know basis, forcing Elodie to figure out most things on her own.
Besides this, the only help Elodie really has are her tutors, who teach her two classes of her choice every week. This is where the gameplay/puzzle aspect comes in: you have to select which skills to train Elodie in every week, and pray that they’re the right ones to prepare her for what will come. There are a lot of skills though, and not all of them are of equal use. There are many skills I went without using at all. The whole thing is largely a crapshoot, and you will die very often if you don’t train whatever skills are vital for surviving the latest assassination attempt. Fortunately, the game is remarkably user-friendly in this regard, as there is an option to save a log of every single choice you made whenever you get a game over, allowing you to quickly catch back up to where you were, and hopefully make choices that won’t get you killed this time.
The problem is that Elodie is highly emotional and unstable. She has four “mood bars”, each of which represent two diametrically opposed emotions: anger/fear, happiness/depression, stubbornness/compliance, and pressure/loneliness. Whichever one she has the most points in will determine her mood at the beginning of each week. This emotional mood will give penalties or bonuses to many of her classes, and it fluctuates due to weekly story events and what activities she goes to on the weekends. As a result, even if you know what skills you need to train to survive future events, managing Elodie’s mood to fit that plan can be difficult, especially if you manage to accumulate a lot of points towards a single mood and have to rapidly reverse it. I honestly found this somewhat annoying, but I guess that’s supposed to be the point – emotions are uncontrollable and influential by their nature. One particularly irritating example, though, is the “royal demeanor” skillset, which contains by far some of the most important skills in the game, yet only gets a bonus from one emotion and is penalized by almost every other one – most extremely by depression, which is the mood Elodie starts with. Desperately trying to steer Elodie’s mood in the right direction to train royal demeanor is rather difficult, and if you don’t do it fast enough she can get screwed over pretty badly.
Another problem is that there are a lot of skills, with no real indication of which ones are more important than others. The game finds ways to work in all of them, but some are really situational compared to others. Part of it is also playstyle – there are a number of skills that are very useful for not dying in the case of an assassination attempt, but there are also skills that can help you not get an assassin sent after you in the first place (and can be useful for other things as well). The opportunities you have to invest in skills are so limited that you can’t really afford both. (This is a big problem with the Divination skill, in particular – it warns you of potential threats and challenges in advance, giving you time to prepare, but the skill checks are often so high that you won’t have enough points in anything else if you devote time to it.) So, if you’re confident you can try to invest in, say, Intrigue in the hopes that you can shut down whatever plot would get you killed before it happens – or you could play it safe and invest in self-defense and reflexes to allow you to survive in case you do screw up. Generalization is pretty much impossible, though. Skill checks spike in difficulty very quickly, and only get more difficult as time goes on, so trying to make up lost ground in an area you’ve neglected when you’re past the halfway point or so is often a fruitless endeavor. You have to play to your strengths and specialize in areas you’ve already trained up to have any hope of keeping up with the game’s increasing demands.
Sometimes I think some of the skill failures are a bit ridiculous. Elodie clearly isn’t on her own – if she has tutors, she clearly has people more competent than her. Joslyn is also a woefully ineffective regent, not doing anything to intervene with Elodie’s decisions even when she makes extremely stupid choices (his catchphrase is a meek “As you wish.”). Sometimes I can see this as acceptable – we are often privy to Elodie’s inner thoughts and rationalizations upon skill failures, and oftentimes this involves her dismissing the problem as irrelevant, so it makes sense she wouldn’t discuss it further or listen to her father if he tried to persuade her otherwise. In some cases, though (especially with purely knowledge-based skill checks like history), it’s clear that Elodie knows she doesn’t fully understand what’s going on and is missing a crucial piece of information. I sometimes feel like screaming at her to talk to her tutors for additional information instead of just going on her own lack of knowledge and making a terrible choice because of it. However, from an in-story perspective, I can see how this would make a degree of sense, as having to call on her tutors to make decisions for her would make her seem weak in the eyes of the nobility. Regardless, I do think the game should have kept it in mind, and maybe used some sort of mechanic where, if you’re in a situation where you would have reasonable access to your tutors, you can call on them to allow you to automatically pass a failed skill check for you. Obviously there would have to be limitations on this – like, maybe you can only do so an extremely limited amount of times in the entire game – but I think it would definitely be a good way to make the game a bit more user-friendly and dull the pain of seeing so many “skill check failed” messages.
I did, however, like the points where the designers clearly put effort into making obscure skills viable. There are often times when multiple skill checks will come up, and you only have to succeed at one to pass, with the result that there are often many different solutions to the same problem. Some of the skills that pop up are actually rather bizarre, but can have pretty cool effects. One of my favorites is a point where your falconry will save you from a late-game assassin – your noble falcon will swoop down out of nowhere and harry your attacker long enough for the guards to arrest them. Investing in niche skills isn’t always a good idea, but it can be quite fun to see the payoff.
An interesting note about the world: About the only thing that makes it better than actual medieval societies is that there doesn’t appear to be gender discrimination. Inheritance laws don’t care about gender, and men and women appear to wield roughly equal political power. It’s sad that such a setup is so rare it deserves exceptional praise for being included, but there you go.
Overall, I think the game is good. It’s very difficult and confusing the first time through, but if you know what’s coming (and make a record of all the challenges you’ve failed so you can try to pass them on future playthroughs), it can be pretty fun. The story can branch out a great deal, and there are often a multitude of options to deal with various problems, all with their own consequences. I often felt lost, desperate, and confused, which makes those rare times when things manage to go in my favor all the more sweet. I often felt frustrated at having to deal with the nobles’ incessant, petty plots when I was just trying to keep the kingdom running, and balked at the unfairness of having to deal with assassins thrown at me for offenses I didn’t even know I committed. I think that’s definitely the mood the designers were shooting for, and I think it really does a good job of putting you in Elodie’s shoes. I tried to play as a good person, being fair, generous, and not executing anyone, and the ending narration makes it sound like that paid off, which is nice. (The ending in general has many, many variants reflecting all the choices you made, a little similar to Cinders.) I also like the focus on education and the power of knowledge. You’re not going to get very far without a walkthrough or extensive note-taking, though.
The music is also pretty nice. Most of the music is just various mood tracks – you don’t really hear different, unique ones until the endgame. I felt most of it was vaguely good but nothing special, but some of the endgame tracks are very nice. All of them are effective at conveying the mood of their respective scenes; they never felt jarring. The game is not very good at transitions, though – when a new music track starts playing, it’s very abrupt and obvious, exacerbated by many tracks starting off with many busy notes instead of easing into the main piece. This is a bit nitpicky, though. (Also, interestingly, music is one of the artistic skills that Elodie can take up, and there are several hints that she’s actually exceptionally talented, culminating in an opportunity to “save the day with the power of music” by singing to the main villain. Power of music stuff isn’t anything new, but this kind of focus on music as Elodie’s artistic talent was kind of fun, I think.)
Oh yeah, romance. Because a visual novel wouldn’t be complete without it. The game actually takes a pretty interesting tack: most of your potential “love interests” are just unscrupulous suitors who only want to marry you for personal gain. You can actively try to fall in love with certain people of your choosing, or even make it to the end unmarried, but, like everything else in the game, doing so is very hard. I decided to not bother with anything so silly as ~true love~ and married the ruler of a powerful foreign country for political gain. To be honest, I think that’s more moral than waiting for true love – a powerful foreign alliance goes a long way towards improving the country and bringing prosperity, much moreso than something as flimsy as love. Elodie also ends the game a powerful figure in her own right, so she won’t be a puppet.