To the half of the Escapist -not- fleeing from the art style, welcome!
When did these things of which I dream take place?
The distant, distant past?
Or just a few minutes ago?
Within the dream, even that is obscure.
I cannot even tell whether the time I feel is passing...
As I dream of the day when I might wake.
"Just my luck, running straight into a tree in the middle of an emotional reunion after seven years..."
For Yuichi Aizawa, his parents moving overseas for work-related reasons was ultimately only a minor setback in his life. After all, they didn't require him to go with them and leave his high school education incomplete, and he was graciously taken in by his mother's younger sister Akiko Minase and her daughter Nayuki. On the other hand, it's January, and this required moving to a town on the opposite end of Japan, where the phrase "dead of winter" really means something. Not to mention that it's been seven years since Yuichi has been to this town, and his memory is full of holes on several details, like the location of his new house...so Nayuki being two hours late to pick him up in the driving snow is somewhat inconvenient.
Come to think of it, though, Yuichi's memory is astoundingly spotty when it comes to seven years ago. Even besides not remembering much about his own cousin, Nayuki, this becomes increasingly obvious as Yuichi meets other people. There's Shiori Misaka, the schoolgirl near-permanently off school due to illness. Mai Kawasumi, who sets camp in the school after hours, hunting evil spirits. Makoto Sawatari, an amnesiac whose only memory is an unexplained grudge against Yuichi. And Ayu Tsukimiya, a taiyaki-loving tomboy searching for something she can barely even recall. Most disturbingly, most of these girls seem to remember Yuichi well enough from all those years ago.
Just what happened seven years past? And why has Yuichi so totally forgotten? His dreams can sometimes offer tantalizing hints of the events of that winter, and why the snow fills him with dread.
And in fact, he might not be the only one dreaming from back then...
Merry Christmas! Wow...a Christmas posting, and the Escapist having a snowy background? That's as close to perfect as I can imagine...anyway, Key Visual Arts. Game company of a million tears, going by their reputation. And given their big three titles (Kanon, Clannad, and Air), it's easy to see how that reputation was earned.
What we have here, though, is a unique occurrence of me going into a game as a completely blank slate. All I knew of Kanon was that it had been made into an anime twice, and it was apparently the source of that "sad girls in snow" shtick usually associated with Megatokyo. I knew nothing about the story, no anime episodes, no reviews, not even a back cover to read off of to get an impression. It was trust in luck and very vague ideas, this playthrough was.
Did it hold up? Let's get started and find out.
Kanon is a pure visual novel. You read the story, and make occasional choices as they pop up. Said choices affect your relationship with other characters, determine the presence or order of events in the story, and occasionally get a headstart in wrenching out your soul. These lead ultimately to one of five endings, each focusing on a particular girl (or two, depending on how you interpret Mai's route).
Not much else to say, besides that. The game sticks to the visual novel format in both letter and spirit. While the choices one is required to make don't present any undue difficulty to get on or complete a given route...let's just say it's still a good idea that the game gives so many save slots (99 total). Much like in life, certain choices don't always have the result you expect, and in this case, some choices require you to think like the main character, instead. There are "bad ends," so to speak, but I actually only encountered one, when I accidentally passed up a chance to see Ayu 3/4 of the way through her route.
For some asides, the game actually lets you choose a name for its protagonist, but I finally went with the default "Yuichi Aizawa" after realizing that the novelty of playing as "Gakuto Kamui" would wear off quick (and it turns out that the voice patch ensured that). The CG gallery and music list are considered "Extras," and are only unlocked after finishing the game once. Oh, and occasionally pieces of dialogue are highlighted with blue text. After finishing the game, I still don't know if they mean anything.
What are you saying, game?! What are you trying to tell me?!
This is a very character-driven game, so most of the major themes are surprisingly route-specific. Nonetheless, the main gist of the story is that Yuichi hasn't visited the (unnamed as far as I can tell) town he now lives in for seven years, and that at some point in those seven years, he's forgotten essentially everything about it. Therefore, a major part of most scenarios is how much he eventually remembers...but even that is very character-specific. Only one route, Shiori's, has basically no rememberance at all (what with her being, ultimately, the girl Yuichi's never met before), while Mai's has a vastly different story. The remaining three, Makoto, Nayuki, and Ayu, all have memories relevant to the "main" story, if you will, but again to very different extents.
Like many visual novels of this sort, the game gets its kicks early on (and sometimes throughout) with lighthearted comedy, but really comes into its own with its dramatic twists and turns. In fact, Kanon shines in this regard; oftentimes, it seems that all but the most trivial of scenes has some foreshadowed meaning. One girl might have been holding a candle in her heart for seven years, while another might have been laboring all that time under self-inflicted, self-destructive delusion. And more than once does the game deal with the theme of impending mortality, and from several angles; how do you console someone in the throes of grief over another? Or relate to someone who might not have long to live? Or deal with someone who is quite clearly dying slowly in front of your very eyes?
In spite of this, the game is happier than you might expect...except when it isn't.
The extent to which the game's supernatural elements reach also varies per route, but in most cases they're a surprisingly major aspect of the story. No route is untouched by them; at the most obvious is Mai's ostensible demon hunting, and the least...well, that's the single biggest spoiler in the game.
If I had to sum up the overall theme of the game...snow. Imagine a meaning for snow, and it's probably represented here. Snow of love, snow of purity, snow of death, snow of childlike wonder, snow of supernatural mystery, snow of rememberance past, snow of the cycle of seasons...
And, of course, snow of testicle-shriveling cold.
Kanon doesn't have an enforced play order for its routes (nor even a recomended one, like in Tsukihime). Aside from a very short Sayuri story (unlocked by finishing Mai's), the player is free to choose which stories to play first. For my part, I wound up doing Ayu, Shiori, Makoto, Mai/Sayuri, and Nayuki, in that order.
You probably only have to glance at the character list to see why I bring that up. There is no argument that Kanon's heroines are all moe characters. Even aside from all of them fitting a certain definition of "cute," they're all...quirky, to say the least. Nayuki loves cats despite being allergic, loves strawberry-flavored foods, and can barely function on less than 12 hours of sleep. Makoto is an amnesiac with a love of pranks, nikuman (meat-filled buns), and manga. Shiori is an ill girl who willingly eats vanilla ice cream in below-freezing weather. Mai is an emotionless girl and a swordsman who has an odd fixation on rabbits. Sayuri always uses polite speech and refers to herself in the third-person. Ayu is a tomboy (and even refers to herself with the masculine personal pronoun "boku") with a cutesy verbal tic and a passion for taiyaki (fish-shaped, cream-filled waffles, basically).
I will admit, I find some of these things cute, but the thing I like most is that I don't have to. Kanon's character quirks are just that: quirks, that only scratch the surface of the characters...and that's not counting those quirks which have hidden, ominous meanings. No main character lacks for depth, let alone the five/six* main girls. Kanon's heroines are moe characters; they aren't moe archetypes.
I'd comment on this image, but I'm still trying to figure out why that sign back there says "Lolicon."
As for the protagonist...I'm not sure I can describe
Gackt Yuichi and still do him justice. Suffice to say, he certainly doesn't lack for personality. While he does mature over time (in different directions depending on love interest), typically at his mildest, he's rather snarky; at his strongest, there's little he loves more than getting a rise out of people. With stuff like bonking a sleepwalking Nayuki on the head to wake her (and half-convincing her that she woke with a hangover), or responding to Makoto's request that he name her pet cat with a little creative misinterpretation, he actually carries a rather large chunk of the game's humor singlehanded. In fact, it's another large expression of character depth just to see how each of the girls react to him, ranging from Ayu's utter gullibility to Shiori's unique ability to genuinely throw him for a loop.
And speaking of being thrown for a loop, there's Akiko. However, I'm once more running low on creativity, so I'll cut short. Not that that's hard, since while she's awesome, the woman baffles me. As a matter of fact, I wound up rather attached to both her and Nayuki, who really came off as the bedrock characters; they were always present (naturally, what with the protagonist living in their home), and one or both of them is always there for Yuichi in each of the routes, in small but important ways (which receives a dramatic turnaround in Nayuki's own route).
The artwork in this game measures up well. In particular, the CGs are rather good, and the backgrounds are quite often stunningly well-drawn. As well, this is the first visual novel I've played so far to have inhabited backgrounds...which contrasts with the rather unusual design style of having only one character sprite visible at a time (two being the more common standard). As for character design, I'm willing to admit that it's probably even more up to personal inclination than normal. This especially applies to that most obvious design aspect, associated quite strongly (albeit with mild inaccuracy) with anime: you can see peoples' eyebrows through their bangs.
One thing for it, it certainly makes faces more expressive.
Kanon's soundtrack is marvelous; of particular note to me were light, jazzy pieces like "Girl of the Snow" (which I think is Ayu's theme) and my personal favorite, "Pure Snows". Hard to say much more, aside from the preponderance of music that genuinely felt like they helped make the game, from character themes to dramatic pieces (often using motifs from the opening theme "Last Regrets")...
The voice acting was...interesting. Sure, there weren't all that many standout performances like in Yume Miru Kusuri or even Little My Maid, though neither were there any dull spots. It's just that, taken as a whole, I honestly can't imagine Kanon without the voices. Made almost every part of the game that much better. And I have to admit, quite often some of the characters (Akiko especially) are pretty soothing to listen to.
Funny note: the translation patch for this game is actually a fairly recent release. Non-Directional Translations finished the patch completely only last July. For the most part, it's really good. There weren't any typos that I saw, only one mistranslation that I noticed (involving, I suspect, the phrase "kusuri wo nomu"), and I think I may have found the answer to the mystery blue text. There are a couple of translation notes left in, and apparently, there was a rocky point at the beginning of the process which left its mark!*
Like many eroge protagonists, Yuichi is unvoiced, and his eyes are never visible. For both, you need to turn to the anime.
Quite often, an eroge popular enough to be re-released gets one with the adult content replaced or removed. In Kanon's case, that probably didn't require much effort. I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say the sex scenes add nothing to the narrative, but neither would their absence be remarked. There are a total of five possible scenes (one for each girl), all of them astoundingly short, and none of which are ever brought up again afterward.
Fortunately, the ero does manage to feel like something more than an afterthought. In particular, Shiori's scene actually felt rather well set-up. Even aside from the circumstantial justification, it takes more than a single immediate choice to bring about; if Shiori hasn't had time to get used to the idea (by Yuichi avoiding the subject instead of denying it when she brings it up), she'll opt not to go further than some deep kissing.
Akiko's one of the sweetest people imaginable. I still don't doubt she'd go Mama Bear on Yuichi's ass if it came to it.
Sadly, the other scenes don't measure up quite as well. Mai's actually manages to be a disturbing look into her psychology, but Ayu's and Nayuki's just have a "hey, why don't we try this" vibe, and Makoto's is even more abrupt (though far more justified by circumstance).
As for quality...well, aside from the art style really not lending itself to ero (not even considering the standard mosaic censoring), there's nothing wrong with Kanon's scenes. My three standards (minimally kinky, entirely consensual, and emotionally appropriate) are maintained, at least.
In any case, if sex is a deterrent, the translation patch can actually replace them (the accompanying readme document explains how), or you might find the All Ages version to begin with. Or, worst come to worst, the scenes themselves are all avoidable, and if you don't avoid them, you can hold down the fast-forward for 3-4 seconds (like I said, they're short).
What did I think of Kanon? I liked it a lot. The characters were very fun, the technical quality was all right, and the story managed to be both tearjerking and heartwarming with equal deftness. Even the one route that confused me managed to provoke a strong emotional response, and another had me crying myself to sleep one night (the next day) and distracted for a while after that; ask any of the Visual Novels group members, I was near-inconsolable for a week. I still can't listen to "Plain of Frozen Snow," and "Sea of Mist" is almost as uncomfortable after-
Anyway, yes, I'd daresay this game is a gem (considering the characters' eyes, probably an opal), and I certainly look forward to Key's other works. And I hope they aren't as difficult to find as this one, due to not only finding the game (which is ten years old, and never released outside Japan), but the specific version that works with the patch...
TYPE-MOON Reviews: Melty Blood
Tsukihime's fighting game spinoff.
Neutral Drow reviews: True Love
A very old game (1995), and possibly the first true dating sim I've gotten to. So yes, I'm finally getting to it, you who requested it.
And after that...something I'm not looking forward to. >_>