For as long as I can remember I’ve been an avid fan of reading, horror in particular, but I’m open to trying any theme or genre at least once. I’d say gaming tops reading just about, but for me you can’t really beat the ease to access any novel, and the pure escapism that it affords you. These two hobbies have been combined by developers around the world for some time, so I was shocked to come to the realisation that I haven’t ever played a visual novel. That is until now, and what better way to start than with a fun and light hearted romp that oozes Japanese charm, and Anime and Manga cliché’s galore. Strawberry Vinegar is a bittersweet tale about 1 girl, and her family who takes in a young and cute looking devil. The devil’s aim you may ask? Well, she wants to be fed delicious food for 7 consecutive days, or else she will reap the young girl’s soul.
Strawberry Vinegar was developed by Ebi-Hime and published by Ratalaika Games. This strikingly colourful play on Anime and Manga stereotypes has you exploring the relationships between daughter and parents, and her struggle with her identity and place in this world. I will start by saying that I’m going to steer clear of most of the plot, and intimate details. Otherwise, it’s akin to somebody giving you a book, and then telling you exactly what will happen, also how I perceive the characters, and subplots could be very different from yourselves.
The story line revolves around Rie, a striking looking 9 year old who has a rather depressing outlook on life, she has no friends, no desire to have any, and resents the attention that she receives because of who her mum is. Shirakawa Yukine or Yuki is a beautiful, pristine actress, who is strict, and happy go lucky all rolled into one. She’s the main breadwinner and has her husband well and truly under the thumb, not in an aggressive way, more that he accepts that he’s not the Alpha in this relationship. Sakuraba Kazuki, Rie’s father is a rather effeminate looking male. He’s the housekeeper/cook/tailor of the household. He has a love for all things cooking and fashion, and dotes on Rie. Finally, we have Licia Dia Ivlis the young female devil with piercing red eyes, and curly blonde hair. She is the daughter of one of the many Earl’s of hell, and isn’t one to be messed with, though her cute curly pink horns, tail and powers of persuasion will convince you otherwise.
The story takes place over a one week period, and is broken down into 7 chapters. You observe the day to day activities play out in the exclusive form of narrative text. When a game is presented as a visual novel, then it’s a give away that this is going to be the format. Fans of VN’s will feel at home with how this develops, as it follows a tried and tested formula. Licia pretty much spends her whole time demanding food, after all that is the basis of her contract with Rie, and her reason for completing her journey to Japan from hell. “Feed me, or I’ll reap your soul” is a reoccurring statement that is thrown in your face, and hangs over you like the sword of Damocles. As you progress through the novel you are given choices on how to react to certain situations, this then sets you on a course to one of 6 preordained endings. En route you get the visual treats of all things Japanese, from; elaborate festivals, maid outfits, traditional dress, and a variety of coloured foods. The 6 different finales are fantastic, each scream of a relevant and just closure to the tale. It’s up to you as the reader to decide which you feel suits the storyline, and as such my idea for how it should end will differ from yours, and this is what makes this title so great, we both play exactly the same plot but our own personal reflection on life determines what we perceive to be the correct outcome. With a fine mix of beautiful, sad, warming, and downright evil, there is something for everyone.
Ebi-Hime adds notes into the extras section which helps to put his thoughts into context. Having just worked on a dark and sad VN Asphyxia, he wanted to create something clichéd and light-hearted that revolved around Japanese life and the perceptions that are formed from the Anime and Manga stereotypes, these being; The bright festivals, school uniforms, maids outfits, and character sexualisation, and he creates this by the bucket full. Ebi-Hime openly admits that he normally works solo for the majority of his projects, consulting his artists once the majority of the plot is written. In this case he took a different and a more collaborative approach, working with the artist Silly Selly he used her skill of drawing food to form the backbone to the theme for this title. I believe this method created a more rounded and complete finish, where the story was told successfully with both the written narrative, and the images that are observed.
With a visual novel, it is key that the graphical presentation works perfectly. The artists have such an important role in aiding the text, that if they fail it can undermine the plot, and ruin any relationship the reader has with the author. Luckily Silly Selly has done an amazing job of bringing the world to life. Each individual character’s personality is reflected beautifully with the numerous costume changes that punctuate this story. The dad is obsessed with traditional dress, and brightly coloured aprons. Mum has pristine taste, and for the most part leaves very little to the imagination. Licile is obsessed with all things Japanese, and is shown flaunting the love in lots of bright coloured classic garments. Finally, Rie has some more ordinary wardrobe choices, but one in particular was truly delightful, and wouldn’t look out of place in either a sweet shop, or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The landscape and backgrounds represent Japanese culture extremely well, and supports the idea of the tale brilliantly. The use of distinct facial expressions, and the fading of the character models in and out of the shot helps to create both emotion and fluidity to what is otherwise a still masterpiece.
The music that is used is very simple and demonstrates the developers desire to create a piece of art that captures Japan at its clichéd best. It adds a layer of context to the gameplay, and helps to break up the constant demand of reading, it was quite pleasant at times to stop the story and just take a moment to look at the art while taking in the audio.
Now you may be thinking “controls, what controls can there be? Effectively you are turning the pages of a virtual book”. In all honesty, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. You are afforded some control over the proceedings, and you are given the chance to skip bits of text, pause, or turn it to auto if you simply want to let the computer decide the pace. You are also given the options to miss huge chunks of the story out, if you happen to not want to read through all the text again as you try to discover an alternative ending. I thought of this as flicking through the pages of your book to get to the point where a decision changed the course of the storyline. It was a nice touch and prevented me from getting bored as I explored all the possibilities.
Does a VN have a distinct replay factor, much like a good book, yes, I think it does. There are certain books that I will read over and over again, but can I say the same for Strawberry Vinegar? The use of 6 unique endings is great, you are given no clear hints as how to achieve them, and not all the dilemma choices make it obvious how they will impact the finale of each run through. Though I warmed to each character and enjoyed my time exploring a rather unusual take on Japanese life, I probably won’t return to sample it again. My love for all thing’s Anime and Manga isn’t high enough to drive me to replay this title.
This is an absolutely gorgeous, seamless novel that tugs at your heartstrings, while making you laugh. The nod to all things Japanese is well thought out, and works perfectly. The ability to decide how the story plays out helps the player to build bonds with the main protagonists that aren’t easily broken. This is a tale that shows that one small change can make a big impact on your life. Would I recommend this visual novel, 100% yes. It was a delightful experience from start to finish, both the developer and artist working in perfect harmony to create a beautiful piece of art which is both enjoyable and relaxing. Take a moment to walk away from your open world adventure, put down your virtual FPS gun to enjoy the peace and serenity that can be had from this unusual visual novel.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Strawberry Vinegar Review
Gameplay - 8/10
Graphics - 8/10
Sound - 8/10
Replay Value - 7/10
User Review( votes)
Life must really be bad if a demon can put a happy spin on proceedings. Its time to relax and take in the numerous plot twists in this food obsessed, cliché filled visual novel.
- Stunning artwork
- Simple yet effective audio.
- Great use of Anime and Manga stereotypes.
- A relaxing read.
- Not the longest story, but multiple endings adds to the longevity.
- Potentially too clichéd for some.