It’s been a really rubbish few months, hasn’t it? I know that game reviewers are supposed to make their articles and reviews in sort of a perennial, timeless way, so that we can look back on these years later and still get the gist of things, but it’s hard not to acknowledge that things are rough all over. Many people have been reduced to staying home for 85% of their week, working from home and trying to get food delivered instead of going out and shopping when necessary. In some countries, things are looking better, and we need to focus on something positive and light to get through it all. We’ve got good news on the horizon: Pokemon Sword and Shield expansion pass is coming in a couple weeks, there’s hints at more news regarding Mario and Metroid Prime sequels/ports, there’s this BANGER online video game convention that Japanese devs are putting on June 23rd (New Game+ Expo!), and Paper Mario will come in July. It’s all going to be alright. But we could still use a quick injection of a more cheerful, less stressful atmosphere to get through things, maybe help catalyse some good fortunes. Which is why Strawberry Vinegar might be arriving at the perfect time.
Strawberry Vinegar is a visual novel made by Ebi-Hime, creator of one of my favorite smaller VNs, The Way We All Go. Thankfully, while The Way We All Go is in the vein of horror VNs like Higurashi, Strawberry Vinegar is distinctly light, silly and cute, with a touch of romance that, thankfully, is handled perfectly to keep things from getting creepy. Sakuraba Rie is a nine year old girl who is jaded, snarky and pretty much fully disillusioned with the world, which seems strange given how loving and adorable her parents are. One day, after noticing food is slowly going missing in her home, she encounters Licia, a demon girl who is inexplicably in her home, eating all her cookies. Licia makes a command that really sounds more like a request: let her live in Rie’s home, experience her food, and live her life with her for a short period of time. Rie’s parents are more than happy to accept this Norwegian Princess into their home (hilarious cover story), and, slowly, we watch Rie’s life change, bit by bit, seeing what it’s like to open up to someone and see how the world really isn’t such a bad place after all. Full of capitalist pigs, yet, but not so bad.
Strawberry Vinegar isn’t going to be an especially long play, so don’t get upset if you’re planning to get into this game for the long haul. It takes place over approximately a week in the life of Rie and Licia, there’s various activities at school, at home and one particular field trip, and the story concludes in about three hours or less. I say or less because there are six distinctive endings, and it’s possible to choose the wrong path and end the game much, much faster. Most of the time, you’ll get two choices to decide between, with the occasional three choices to really keep you on your toes, and you really get to control the narrative for what will happen without a lot of input. I won’t spoil things too much, but the very first ending I got, the very first, is what I’d deem the true ending. I say that because it felt like the intended ending to the story, it was 6th on the list of endings (you can see the list get checked off in the options), and several small but important changes happened in the menu upon conclusion. Mechanically and technically, if you know how to play a visual novel, Strawberry Vinegar doesn’t bring anything new to the table there, but that rarely is an issue.
Writing-wise, Strawberry Vinegar is incredibly well paced and segmented in terms of dialogue, description and backstory. The on-screen text is divided into easy-to-digest chunks, and I never felt that anything was purposely short or long without the effect being satisfactory. Uses of ellipses to showcase character disbelief or thinking isn’t too frequent, and reliance on explosive, emotional reaction is few and far between. You might imagine that such a short game would focus exclusively on covering main story points, but there’s enough silliness and colorful side banter to keep everything interesting. One of my favorite points was Rie’s father quoting Nietzsche upon seeing the artwork that Licia had created, because it added that extra air of ridiculousness in what could have been something sad or potentially offensive. Ebi-Hime has revealed that this particular VN used a lot more of a cooperative approach with the artist for the game, SillySelly, and I think it works incredibly well. It gives more of a dynamic, diverse flavor to each of the characters within, and I came away feeling very satisfied about the connection between parents, children, and friends.
Speaking of the artwork, Strawberry Vinegar has a gorgeous balance between both the character sprites and the “artwork” within the game. Licia and Rie’s mother, Yuki, have fabulous outfits that crop up all over the place, with well done hair styles and a lot of glamour for what they bring to the table. Rie and her father, Kazuki, tend to be a bit more on the simple side, but the kitchen aprons are lovely and we get to see Rie in my favorite outfit in the whole game, that makes her look like an ice cream cone. Also, when people see “Art Gallery” in a visual novel, you imagine that it’ll get filled up with images of the characters in compromising positions, or longing, lovely scenery, or that final kiss that means so much to everyone. The Art Gallery of Strawberry Vinegar is full of food, and I am so freaking grateful for that. Seriously, I love Japanese food, and sometimes seeing pictures of it helps me to remember to find some better, healthier alternatives than another pack of crisps. In the same vein, the food is integral to the storyline: the dishes that are prepared, the food that is consumed by Licia help to give direction and meaning to the overall tale. Highlighting the food is a great wink and a nod to the players who’ve been paying attention as to what was important or memorable when these dishes were being discussed. It’s almost like looking at a social media account full of meals that were consumed on vacation: the food is great, but it’s what was happening at the time of the food that really matters to the photographer.
What keeps me on board and firmly in the camp of Strawberry Vinegar is the wonderful pacing and unfolding of the storyline. To see Rie and Licia develop and genuinely cultivate a good relationship is something that made me happy and felt organic and natural. As I said earlier, the choices to get to the “true ending” seem incredibly simple in terms of following the path to happiness, so players who are most interested to essentially get the best result for these two can follow the strawberry laden road all the way to the future. It should be noted, and I need to double underline this note, that Rie is nine years old when she meets Licia, and there is zero lascivious nature or impure connotation to the two’s relationship. Rather, we see a genuine blossoming of connection and understanding that Rie and Licia didn’t think they could ever experience. Rie has her guard up constantly due to her classmates and her own world views, and Licia is literally a demon from Hell. Somehow, the two find a way to relate, to create a bond that goes beyond anything else, and to understand, at a young age, that love can exist in ways that can’t be easily explained or quantified. The art styling helps to lend to this idea of innocence and purity, giving all the characters, even the more mature avatars, a softer, more timeless look that focuses on finer details without sexualizing anything. You can see that Yuki is a beautiful woman by how her husband fixates on her and not because she’s provocative. The sweetness of the presentation hits you with a soft, velvety hammer that resonates through your bones. It’s incredible to think that this same creator made a visual novel that chilled my blood, and then went ahead to make one that melted my heart.
I’ve got nothing but admiration for Ebi-Hime and their creation here, and Strawberry Vinegar mixes enough of the sweet and sour aspects of life and romance without making it too sugary or trying to shock you with horrible surprises. The bad endings are bad, the good endings are satisfying, and the true ending is exactly what I wanted. I hope that this visual novel finds a good audience here, in the slightly bitter and saddened world, to bring a note of joy that’s not cloying or plasticine. It’s genuine, it’s great, and it’s precisely what I needed to help the clouds part and bring on the sunshine. Recommended to virtually everyone.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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Strawberry Vinegar Review
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
User Review( votes)
Honestly, when you need a demon from Hell to help you lighten up, it should be a sign to change something in your life.