Welcome to Playing Text, a weekly column about all things Visual Novel.
Now you may be asking, "What on Earth is a Visual Novel?" The answer to that question is essentially a game that takes place entirely, or predominantly in text. Typically these are Japanese in origin and often feature a dating simulation and even adult content. For this column I will be covering a bit more of a broader range; games like Snatcher and even MUDs may show up from time to time.
Please note this column will often contain games that are intended for an ADULT audience. The site will remain Safe For Work so anyone may read but be aware many games will be for 18+ ONLY and will be marked at the top of the article as such.
This week I will be featuring Chaos;Head. Originally developed for PC by 5pb and Nitro+ it eventually made it's way to the 360, PS3, PSP, iOS and Android.... but only in Japan. Luckily for those that canonot read Japanese, a team called Dagger released an excellent English patch for the game. Supposedly this translation was being adapted by JASTUSA for official release but I haven't heard anything on that for quite some time.
Chaos;Head follows the story of Takumi Nishijo, an otaku hikikomori who lives in a storage container on top of one of his dad's apartment buildings. Having become a shut-in, he hardly ever goes outside and attends school just enough to be able to pass. Much of his life is spent online in an MMORPG and on websites that resemble 2channel, Youtube, etc.
The game begins with Takumi talking to his online friend - nicknamed 'Grim' - who tells him about a series of murders the media has dubbed 'New Generation Madness.' During their chat, a mysterious person named 'Shogun' appears and speaking in a cryptic matter, talks about the murders and leaves a series of image links which all appear to depict a real murder scene.
As Takumi is walking home the next day, he wanders into an alley and comes across the very scene he had seen in Shogun's images. A man has been brutally murdered and pinned to a wall with cross-shaped stakes and the murderer appears to be a pink-haired schoolgirl caught lingering around the scene.
[caption id="attachment_22355" align="aligncenter" width="439"] The game begins this way.[/caption]
After that closer encounter, Takumi believes that the mysterious 'Shogun' is trying to get everything pinned on him and tries to avoid everything relating to the incidents. Unfortunately, his sketchy behavior soon comes to the attention of the police and he quickly becomes a major suspect in the case. With the bizarre murders continuing and his belief that he's being targeted, Takumi gets caught up in a spiral of delusions and paranoia.
Chaos;Head is not an eroge (erotic game) so it's entire focus is on the story which 5pb and Nitro+ really nailed here. The twists delivered by the story are very unpredictable and suck the player further and further in; it has a very page-turning addictive quality to it because you need to find out what happens next.
Despite the main character being a shut in, the game quickly introduces more characters such as Takumi's nosy little sister, Nanami. Many of the characters have quite a bit of depth to them; the nature of this type of game leaves a lot of room for really fleshing people out. Of course, the main character is the one who players will learn the most about.
[caption id="attachment_22360" align="aligncenter" width="442"] Takumi's computer and his "waifu."[/caption]
Speaking of Takumi, he is a rather unique character in general. While there are a few works focusing on hikikomori - the series Welcome to the NHK comes to mind - it's not something that is explored very often. It was very interesting to follow a character that isn't your typical stock hero character; Takumi is not confident or very good at anything, he's often too anxious to even venture outside. This sort of character ratcheted up the tension on a frequent basis; you know that you are alone and that there's little chance for you to fight.
The game's story is controlled by the player a bit more than many other VNs. During some sequences, two heartbeat monitors will appear at the top of the screen. The player can choose green, red or nothing at all; these decisions will effect how Takumi reacts to certain events. Interestingly, the game never hints at exactly what this mechanic does but trial and error reveals that picking an option will lead Takumi into a good or a bad delusion. Not all of these delusions have a huge impact on the story but they do reinforce the state of mind the main character is in, making you feel closer to the events going on.
It's worth mentioning that Chaos;Head is quite violent; it rarely features gruesome images but it features loads of graphic and lurid descriptions. An event near the end is particularly brutal and is described at great length; those easily grossed out might have some serious trouble getting through these sections.
[caption id="attachment_22366" align="aligncenter" width="440"] Takumi's, ahem, "house."[/caption]
The writing is very competant in both the original Japanese and the unofficial English translation. It builds up the suspense very well and the payoff in the end is satisfying, if a bit insane. Unfortunately, the story doesn't change much after the first time you play through - save for the delusion scenes - so replayability isn't very high. There is more than one ending, but they don't offer a lot of variety.
Another major part of this type of game is the art and unfortunately Chaos;Head doesn’t really stand out much. I suppose the designers wanted the characters to look more like average people but they should have highlighted them a little more. The backgrounds look nice and there is certainly a variety with areas like Takumi's figure-filled "home" and the streets of Shinjuku; the only problem here is that, due to the nature of the protagonist, alot of these backgrounds are going to be repeatedly shown.
Also somewhat disappointing was the music in the game; it set the tone alright but there was nothing particularly memorable. This is really a shame considering that Nitro+ has done some great music before. The game is also fully voice acted with a cast of professionals; none were particularly standout or striking to me but they all did their jobs well.
[caption id="attachment_22370" align="aligncenter" width="439"] Out on the street.[/caption]
In the end, Chaos;Head was an interesting ride with a gripping plot and well-written characters. The positives far outweigh any of the negatives and is highly recommended. I would also recommend it to anyone just starting out in the genre; it's a very long game at around 60 hours but is really a stand-out in an ocean of games.
As an extra point of interest, this game is set in the same universe as two others: Steins;Gate and Robotics;Notes (featured soon!) All three of these games have received anime adaptations as well.