Creepy, disturbing, atmospheric and entertainingly insane.
I just love the nonsense Engrish in the sub-title here.
Chaos;Head is a 2008 visual novel made by Japanese developers Nitroplus and 5pb, starring a wonderful young man and our experiences in his crazy little mind. Player, meet Nishijou Takumi. Takumi, Player. You two had best learn to get along, because you're going to be spending a lot of time in his head. And oh what a wonderfully messed-up world it is in there...
To put it gently, Takumi is a loser. He lives by himself in a shipping crate(!) located on the roof of an apartment building in Shibuya, where he spends most of his days watching anime, playing ESO (the in-universe World of Warcraft equivalent) and admiring his anime figurines in varying states of undress. He has cut himself off almost entirely from his family with the exception of his annoying sister Nanami (though not from lack of trying), and follows a minimum-attendance chart that lets him go to school as little as physically possible and still pass. He also frequently suffers from various auditory and visual hallucinations, or "delusions", including a re-occurring one where he can feel someone's eyes watching him.
That's right, you play as a paranoid, delusional, socially stunted nerd with little to no redeeming qualities. Sound appealing? Despite its...interesting choice of main character, this is actually a fantastic visual novel, and a uniquely awesome experience in its own right.
Oh, and creepy. Very, VERY creepy.
This is not a line break.
WHERE ARE WE AND WHAT IS GOING ON?
I don't know what you're talking about. This isn't even here.
Our story begins in fictional modern-day Japan, centered around the Shibuya region. We don't get the chance to see much of the outside world though, as our "hero" Takumi spends the vast majority of his time at his computer, either browsing the internet through "Deluoode" and "@chan": the in-universe Brand X versions of Google and 2chan, respectively. He also plays excessive amounts of the MMORPG called Empire Sweeper Online, where he's a bit of an internet celebrity as one of the more famous players, Knight-hart. The number of people he interacts with in the beginning are spectacularly few: a classmate and wannabe playboy Misumi, his guildmate Grim, and his delusional ramblings with his favourite anime character and 2D crush, Seira-tan. Yeah. She talks to him. Frequently.
Essentially, you play a dork in a slightly alternate-world Japan.
An internet cookie to whoever can name the most figurines.
These line breaks are merely a product of your own paranoid delusions.
Until, that is, things take a turn for the disturbing.
There's been a few weird murders going around that people have dubbed the New Generation murders, or "New-Gen" for short. A group of 5 young people committed a group-diving suicide off a nearby skyscraper, and the "Mewtube" video uploaded anonymously soon after clearly shows a sixth party. A man is found dead, his stomach cut open and an 8-month old fetus stuffed inside, then sown back together. Enough to make an already nervous and paranoid shut-in want to stay in even more. On top of it all, Takumi's most common delusion, the feeling of eyes on the back of his neck watching him that he calls "Whose eyes are those eyes?", is getting more and more frequent.
Then one day in his ESO chatroom, a new person signs on with the nickname "Shogun". Claiming to have exclusive info on the third and most recent New-Gen murder, Shogun links him several pictures, one of which he tentatively clicks on. He has it up for all of 3 seconds before the picture of a bloody corpse nailed to a wall by cross-shaped stakes makes him gag. Shogun then leaves, but not before dropping one final cryptic bombshell: "Whose eyes are those eyes?"
As he's walking home late that night from one of his rare visits to school, he hears a soft, pounding sound. Like someone is pounding stakes into the ground, but with a squishier, meatier sound. Despite his best efforts to stay the hell away from the noise, Takumi finds himself draw towards it (y'know, as you would). He turns a corner into a dark alleyway, only to find a pink-haired and blood-soaked girl nailing the last cross-shaped stake into a horribly mangled corpse; pinned to the alley wall by hundreds of stakes. She hears his wonderful combination of gasping and gagging noises, turns around, and...
Calls him by name.
Fade to black.
Rimi gazed upon her latest work of art, and marvelled at its beauty. "They said I was boring!" she cried. "They said I need something more striking, more visceral, and preferably something with heavy religious symbolism. Well, that'll learn them."
It's actually a good idea to believe that everyone in this game is insane.
Takumi finds himself home sweet home, and wondering whether it was all a delusion or not. Seira-tan manages to convince him it was all in his imagination (I guess having a delusion convince you you're having delusions works pretty well...), and he goes to sleep eventually. Waking up the following morning, however, he finds a cross-shaped stake he vaguely remembers carrying home with him on his couch, and when he gets to school, he finds an oddly familiar pink-haired girl sitting in front of him. Worse still, she seems to know him, his friend Misumi even claims the three of them have been friends since middle school, and she seems interested in getting closer to him.
It only goes downhill from here. Takumi will meet many more people, some friendly, some unfriendly, and each and every one of them more insane than the last. He'll go on wild and crazy adventures, make friends, and fall in love, all on his quest to save the worl- Hahahahaha...NO.
This is probably the happiest moment in the entire game. Treasure it.
Whose line breaks are these line breaks?
WHAT YOU'LL SEE/WHAT YOU'LL DO/WHAT YOU'LL HEAR
Whose line is it anyway?
If you've played visual novels before, you might perhaps recognize the makers: Nitroplus. They've also done Saya no Uta and Demonbane, and it would be fairly descriptive of their niche to say that you can bone the local equivalent of Cthulhu in both. They do supernatural horror, they do it damned well, and Chaos;Head is no exception.
The first thing that will probably strike you when playing Chaos;Head is the production values. It looks very pretty, and it's very much more involved that most of the visual novels I've played. There are tons of CGs: backgrounds, locations, cityscapes, landscapes; some of which are large enough for camera panning. Nitroplus gives us an incredible attention to detail with no reused generic backdrops and beautifully disturbing visuals. Instead of static images, the "camera" will often swing around, zoom in/out, and generally give you a sense of motion most visual novels can't convey.
Kozue, in a rare moment of silence. No joke here, just a pretty picture.
Characters designs are kind of generic, though their sprites are very pretty to look at, and in an unexpected surprise, are somewhat animated. Lip-flaps match up with voices, and facial expressions change much more naturally than many other visual novels. Characters cover a wider range of expressions, although they still fall prey to the "only two outfits ever" trap. (Does a blood-soaked uniform count as an alternate outfit?)
Again, the characters don't look or act much different from your standard visual novel stereotypes: Ayase is essentially Rei Ayanami in a punk rock band; Sena is
that cold bitch in my Classics course who ignores me every time I try to talk to her basically Tsugumi from Ever17 with less plot importance and more technobabble; and Kozue is the token loli with a voice that makes me want to stab pencils in my ears; but they really shine when viewed through Takumi's twisted funhouse-mirror perception. This is a guy who lives and breathes eroge, anime and video games, and his thought processes -and his delusions- reflect that.
And that brings me to the most unique and engaging feature of this game. Contrary to your standard visual novel, which progresses by selecting various choices at certain points in the game; in Chaos;Head we have the delusion system. At frequent intervals, Takumi will have a minor hallucination or "Imagine Spot", and two squiggles reminiscent of heartbeat monitor lines will appear in the top left and right of the screen. The green one on the left lets Takumi see a "good(ish)" delusion, the red one on the right forces him to watch a "bad" one.
There is also a third option where you choose neither, and Takumi manages to rein in or otherwise ignore the oncoming crazy. I'm told certain specific delusions influence the plot slightly, and can change the ending on a second playthrough, but as there aren't any English-language walkthroughs and the system gives you no hints whatsoever, you're pretty much on your own here.
This delusion system is actually much more plot-relevant that it might seem. For starters, they work wonders at screwing with your sense of reality. The game uses an end-of-scene animation very much like the cord being pulled out of a TV, or a monitor being unplugged. Thing is, this will play at the end of a delusion spot as well, and sometimes there won't be that little "entering delusional mode" cutscene to clue you in, leaving you completely in the dark as to whether what just happened actually happened or not. Factor in the general unreliability of the narrator and everyone around him (I mean seriously, the character he has the most dialogue with -besides himself- is his figurine of Seira-tan. She gives him advice. He listens to it.), and you have a recipe for complete mindbuggery.
The bad delusions are, at risk of redundantly sounding redundant, pretty bad. They might be tolerable if it was just Takumi's gory, unpleasant death over and over again (and it might even be preferable if you find you hate him), but nooo, they find new and inventive ways to creep the hell out of you. Examples include botched suicides, a show of affection towards a girl getting coldly and painfully rejected, jeering classmates, accidental (and intentional) murder, panic attacks and my personal favourite, Takumi simply lashing out at everyone around him.
Don't think you'll get off easier on the "good" delusions, though. A good few are various girls professing their sudden love for Takumi, but the ensuing reality snapback is pretty painful to go through after the fifth time or so. Since the first time you play through, you'll get the same ending no matter what, and there are few changes in the plot, you can choose exactly what kind of screwed up you want Takumi to be. Is he a paranoid schizophrenic seeing his death around every corner, or a delusional escapist constantly brought down to depressing reality when his happy, perverted fantasies fall through? YOU DECIDE!
This is not a spoiler, as you might be led to believe. It's merely an optional delusion Takumi can have, where he "remembers" he poisoned the bottle his sister just drank out of.
The sound is pretty fantastic in this game. There are some great pieces to set the mood: "Fear" and "Doubt" are aptly-named songs you're bound to hear a fair few times when the shit hits the fan, and do excellent jobs of giving off a "something's not right here" feel; more light-hearted ones like "Girls" and "Tender Hearts" fit well for Takumi's happy-fun-time delusions, although "Girls" is kind of obnoxiously peppy...then again, it's his sister's image song, who is pretty obnoxiously peppy. They do a stellar job of setting an oppressive, thick and unsettling atmosphere, but aren't particularly memorable after the game is over. The exception being the intro song, "Find the Blue" which is damned catchy...and doubles as a Theme Song Power Up at the end.
Heh, Yua got shafted out of the pics. Serves her right.
THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS/OVERALL OPINION
TRUST NO ONE
Chaos;Head is a little difficult to describe in terms of feelings. I'll just state flat-out that I love it, despite everything it does to my soul. That said, let's start by tearing it apart before I build it back up again.
A few of the characters aren't really developed all that much, although I suppose that's to be expected when the only person they have to interact with is a messed-up social reject like Takumi... We do get to see a fair bit through flashbacks, though, which provides some much-needed backstory and characterization.
Kozue shows her true colors, which turn out to be blood red and whatever color spinal fluid happens to be.
I don't actually hate her though. She turned out to be pretty important.
The plot veers pretty deep into the pseudoscience multiple times, something I found a wee bit distracting, until I discovered that one of the basic premises that I thought was patently ridiculous has actually already been in the testing phases in the states for a few years with decent success, at which point I got more than a little bit creeped out. But yeah, some of it may be a little hard to swallow for some people, and there was a fair bit of technobabble from the Secret Board of Shadowy Figures (that can be either a Clone High or Evangelion reference depending on your preference) that raised an eyebrow or three.
But the main flaw a fair few people might have problems with is Takumi himself. It's not really a flaw so much as a personal opinion, but he really tests the reader's patience. As mentioned above, he's pretty much the lowest of otaku stereotypes. He can barely get out a sentence without stuttering, he treats his well-meaning (and almost saint-like) little sister like crap, he mentions frequently how much he hates 3D women and prefers 2D; he is a spineless, pathetic, cowardly, insane, delusional waste of electricity and his parents' money. There is also a scene on a rooftop where I almost gave up on him for good.
Instead of the traditional shoulder devil/angel combo, Takumi's guiding spirit urges him to run away and watch cartoons until his eyes bleed.
Don't listen to her! She just wants to suck out your soul and make you 2D.
I love him dearly in all his fucked-up glory. Not in spite of his flaws, but because of them. Also, I loves me some character development, and it becomes pretty difficult to still legitimately hate Takumi at the very end, after all he's been through.
The atmosphere of this game is almost flawless. I was on edge almost the entire time I played (at least 20 hours, possibly more, and I read quickly). It is relentlessly creepy and disturbing, and will do terrible, terrible things to your sanity. I could probably stuff a pillow with the amount of hair I ripped out in sheer madness. Chaos;Head is stylistically macabre: every frame, every CG drips just a little bit of maliciousness; sometimes hiding in the innocent smile of a young girl, sometimes gushing out of open wounds. It is frankly impressive how well it gets the player into the mind of a paranoid delusional boy: little things, like the ever-reoccurring "Whose eyes are those eyes?" moments, or Takumi's terrified ramblings, or just every time he turns around to check to see if something's behind him. The immersion is fantastic.
"What's in the box, John? C'mon! What's in the booooox?"
To sum up, if you like psychological horror, even if you've never touched a visual novel before, this is a must-play.
Play it alone, at night, with headphones on and all the lights off. I guarantee you'll enjoy it.
This has been your host and lovable furniture Transformer, Deskimus Prime. If you
sat through this enjoyed this review, you might also like this one about Ever17.
Next up is Cross+Channel, coming sometime later this week. See you next time: same Prime-time, same Prime-channel.