The more of these otome visual novels we play, the more we think we're a little too close to your average protagonist for comfort. Naive to the point of trusting everyone that comes along, more than a little bit clumsy, and with absolutely no clue when a guy is coming on to us, we seem to fit the bill perfectly. Perhaps it's not something we should brag about, but you could totally coax us into trouble with a cake and a half-decent lie. Maybe it's through some kind of ditsy girl kinship we play so many of the darn things - or perhaps it's just because we're a sucker for a good story, even more so if it's laced with some romance and warm fuzzy feelings. Whatever's the case, Aksys' upcoming 'Summer of Mystery' is like Christmas come early, promising three more otome games to romance our way through - the first of which, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly, is something a little different (and be sure to check out our review of the other Summer of Mystery title, 7'sCarlet).
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Playing as a red-haired girl, you awake to find yourself in the hallway of a mysterious mansion, with no memory of who you are, why you're here or even where 'here' is. Suddenly, a shadowy monster with a taste for blood appears, and gives chase though the endless maze-like hallways - when you suddenly find yourself saved by a strange man, who also can't remember a thing. Before long, you meet up with several other guys who're all in a similar situation, and decide to join forces to try and find your way out. A series of mysterious messages from the master of the manor task you with collecting the shards of a kaleidoscope as your only way to escape the confines of the mansion, recover your memories and return to the lives you once led. The only way to collect the shards? By defeating the shadowy monsters who roam the mansion, who were once just like you, but eventually succumbed to the despair of their lost memories.
Suffice it to say, then, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly is actually a pretty dark mystery - and one with so many twists, turns, and betrayals along the way, it's one of the best games from developer Otomate so far. While it is technically an otome game - meaning it's a visual novel with heavy helpings of guys you can romance - this is a game that's a mystery first and foremost, to the point where it's borderline impossible to get any guy-specific ending the first time through. In fact, the character-specific endings that are here are all comparatively minor, for the most part marking more of a 'bad' - or at least not 'ideal' - ending to the Black Butterfly saga.
As for the eligible bachelors themselves, it's a case of the usual suspects. There's the stubborn, logical leader Hikage, who sucks at expressing emotions; the quick-thinking joker and flirt Karasuba; and the gentlemanly nice guy, Kagiha. Rounding out the group, there's the roughneck loose cannon Yamato (who's actually much more of a nice guy than he first appears) and the mysterious masked Monshiro, a quiet and gentle soul, who's perhaps more of an enigma than the mansion itself. Named after the placards they find on each of the guest rooms in the mansion, the guys, along with protagonist 'Beniyuri', set off on their quest to gather the kaleidoscope shards with gusto, while the banter between the characters - particularly Yamato and Karasuba, who clash over practically everything - keeps things from feeling too dark and depressing.
As part of collecting the shards - and presumably as a way to break up all that reading - you'll need to play a couple of rounds of a 'Butterfly Hunt' mini-game. Paired up with one of the guys, butterflies fly out of the Vita's Touch Screen, and you'll need to drag your finger over them to target them, then press a button to shoot them down. The more butterflies you defeat, and the more you can take out in a single shot, the more points you'll earn, and the better rank you'll get at the end. Really though, apart from unlocking a few trophies, your rank and score don't really have much of an effect on how the story plays out. The points you earn are used to unlock the bonus 'Short Episodes' along the way, but you can always jump into the mini-game from the main menu and earn some more, should you need to.
Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly is laid out a little differently than your average otome game, too. The stories still branch, depending on what conversation options you pick, and which bachelor you spend time with - but now, you can visualise exactly where the splits happen thanks to the handy flowchart. Especially handy for when you're clearing up and getting all the remaining endings, the flowchart really does help cut out a lot of replaying and fast-forwarding, as you can just jump to exactly the chapter you need. Beside the flowchart, you also have a selection of what the game calls 'Short Episodes' - essentially extra events, scenes and random fluff that don't really fit into the main timeline, but which fills in a bit of back story about you, the guys, and the mansion. The catch is, at times, you'll actually need to clear a certain number of these side stories to be able to progress in the main story, which can sometimes feel like it's interrupting the flow of the main story a bit too much. Often locking the main story off at a bit of a cliff-hanger, you're then forced to play through some extra side stories that feel a little out of place, for example, seeing you suddenly sharing coffee with Hikage, cooking curry together and debating favourite foods. That's not to say the Short Episodes are awful - for the most part they're quite nice, and often funny, glimpses at their everyday life in the manor - it's just that they can sometimes feel a little out of place.
Beyond the sudden influx of Short Episodes, though, the only real issue is to do with the character's names. As each character's memory slowly begins to return, they'll each start to remember their old names and their connections to each other in the real world. This means they'll sometimes start referring to each other by different names, often chopping and changing mid-conversation, which can get a bit confusing, at least initially. What's even more confusing is when the game occasionally credits a line to the wrong character, or when lines repeat themselves in some kind of epic typo. For example, in one scene, a guy says "Sorry, Beniyuri. Could you head back on your own?" - her response? "What? Er, not much, other than my family." Thankfully, such errors are pretty few and far between, but it's still not ideal.
In all, then, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly is a bit of an atypical otome game, in which romance takes a bit of a back seat to the main mystery story - but it's a game that's all the better for it. It is a bit dark and unpredictable, and many of the romantic endings aren't necessarily the happiest, but the journey to them is arguably the best bit. All in all, we'd probably put Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly up there with the likes of Hakuoki and Code: Realize as one of the best otome games of recent years - so if you fancy curling up with a good story, it's definitely worth a look.
Format Reviewed: PS Vita