Notch: The Innocent LunA: Eclipsed SinnerS is supposed to be a visual novel about a series of murders taking place in a quiet island town that leads to something darker, but is really about how the gross incompetence of humans and supernatural beings can lead to terrible, bloody outcomes.
As a general rule I believe that you can tell a lot about the quality of a particular VN by looking at the title. So even though the Steam reviews for Notch were largely positive, I took one look at the title and knew there would be problems. This VN’s name made no sense, used multiple colons, had random capitalization, and typed “Ji” instead of “L” in LunA on their title screen, all of which are very bad signs. Playing Notch only confirmed these suspicions.
Before we get too far into the things this VN did wrong, let’s talk about some of the things that Notch did well, because for all its faults it does deserve praise for certain elements that were well executed. Regardless of anything else, I can say that the art and music for this VN were excellent. The sprites looked good, though their proportions were a little more stretched than I would have liked (think of the pipe-cleaner limbs from the Tsubasa or xxxHolic series, but toned down a bit). Everything was colorful whether you were indoors or wandering in the forest outside, with the music flowing gently in times of peace and promising something sinister as the characters wander deeper into the darker elements of the story. Throughout the whole VN, it was clear that thought and effort had gone into Notch’s technical design to make it look and sound great.
However, I did have a few minor complaints about the art and music all the same. The backgrounds for indoor scenes look very different from the outdoor scenes in terms of style and quality, and although both are really good looking (the art is one of the few things in this game I can’t fault) the differences are apparent enough to make them seem like they were drawn by separate people of different skill levels. And although the music was great for the most part and really helped to set the mood, there were a few tracks towards the end with electric guitar music that just really didn’t seem to fit what was going on in the story at the time. The music was never bad, to be clear, but putting a little more thought into track selections would have helped.
From a technical aspect, I have no strong complaints. Everything in the game worked perfectly for me; there was no problem saving or loading, I could adjust the text speed, music volume, and screen window just fine, and above all it never crashed on me. There was even a nice gallery you could access at the end after beating one of the good endings with CGs, music, and a small appendix. The only thing I didn’t like was that the sprites didn’t have a smooth cross-fade when they were switching from one pose to another, but actually popped in and out of the scene. If nothing else, I can guarantee that this is a functional VN.
Now that we’ve covered the positives, let’s move on to the negative aspects of the VN, by which I mean literally everything else. Notch allows you to pick the protagonist’s name at the start, and I shall channel that spirit in this review by calling our main character Block, because giving him an actual name is an insult to properly flushed out characters everywhere. Notch starts with Block having a terrible nightmare in a creepy hallway that ends with him finding and trying to rescue his childhood friend from a room containing dismembered body parts, only for her to die in his arms. Presumably, the head writer was unaware that you are allowed to use subtlety when dealing with foreshadowing. Block wakes up and is happy that the friend, whom I shall call Damsel, is fine, but soon a series of murders of young girls begins in their town and Damsel is attacked. Unlike Block, Damsel had an actual name, but it didn’t really matter because she stuck around just long enough for me to realize I was supposed to be attached to her before SPOILERS she got stabbed and whisked away. End Spoilers
This was about half an hour into the story, and honestly I couldn’t be bothered to care about Damsel because I was far more concerned with multiple things that Block had mentioned in passing. Apparently he and Damsel live in a former resort town that people stopped vacationing at decades ago. Fair enough, that happens and it’s always sad to see a formerly glorious town shrivel up and slowly die, so this should be the perfect background for a horror VN. However, he also insists that absolutely no one has come to the town since then, and that the town is completely forgotten and cut off from the outside world, despite his home having modern furnishings and the downtown looking like modern Beijing. If the VN really wanted to emphasize the forgotten and isolated nature of the town, I would expect more run-down buildings and a design aesthetic for the whole area that looks like post-WWII China. In fact, that would have made Notch way better, because then I could’ve spent the whole VN creeping around abandoned buildings instead of European mansions that had been built in the middle of a forest for reasons the story never bothers to explain.
Block also insists that since the town is cut off from everywhere else, apparently things like government and emergency services aren’t needed (since only outsiders make bad things happen, of course). As a result of bad things never happening, neither he nor his parents know who runs the town, there is no police service (which is why Block decided to try and investigate the girls’ murders on his own), and whenever someone is injured they’re brought to Block’s house to be treated by his mother, who apparently knows medicine and kung-fu. This goes beyond lazy writing and straight into the category of sheer incompetence regarding how society functions. Even in the smallest and most peaceful of towns, you need certain services (like a government) to keep things running. None of this really matters though, since less than an hour into the story Block runs off into the woods, never to address these issues or see the town again. The plot continues to disintegrate from there.
Notch left me with conflicted feelings for most of the story. The whole aspect of trying to find a murderer in a quiet island town but then stumbling into secret horrors deep within the woods sounds really appealing, which is why I bought the VN in the first place. And largely, I did like the story aspects. The intrigue, the mystery, finding dead bodies and desperately trying to piece this tale together were the high points of the VN for me. But the characters are so insufferable that it was a struggle to get through the story at all. Let me give you a brief summary of what happens in the chapters immediately following Block’s running off into the forest. After stumbling about like a moron for a bit, Block eventually finds a woman whom I shall call Bitey, because she keeps biting him. They eventually make it to the Victorian inspired house of one of the two rich families who apparently control the town (thanks Bitey for that info), where we first encounter Block’s maid fetish. Block leaves the house and separates from Bitey shortly thereafter, perhaps because he realized she was far too competent and made him look bad by comparison. Bitey is shortly thereafter trapped in another dimension for most of the game by a pint-sized demon brat, as punishment for attempting to further the plot in a timely manner. This is what you’re dealing with in the first two hours out of a supposedly ten-hour game. You have this amazing story concept with intriguing aspects, but it’s all ruined by the horrible characters performing the poorly-executed story.
The pacing in Notch was horrible, with everyone running from one action to the next without clear motivation sometimes. People would flip from happy to enraged to horrified at the drop of a hat, and it wasn’t uncommon for characters that hated each other in one scene to be buddies in the next. One girl had apparently spent years being tortured in a prison, but managed to walk away from that just fine as soon as she was freed. It was only later after a completely separate and brief incident that she showed any signs of PTSD, because apparently having her be traumatized earlier in the story would have interfered with the plot somehow. On top of individual flaws, all the characters perpetuated gender stereotypes in a cringe-worthy manner. Every man in the game was extremely sexist towards the women, insisting that girls were somehow purer than men or needed to be rescued or carried around; multiple times, a grown woman had the phrase “Good girl” thrown at her for behaving properly. Normally I grant foreign VNs a little slack with this because of culture differences, but none of the women in the game besides Bitey were particularly strong or capable, and most of them acted with love of a man for their motivation (when they weren’t simply being used to further along the plot for the men in the game). It was pretty rough.
But the characters cannot alone be blamed for this disaster of a VN; some credit also has to go to the writing. Whoever translated this from Chinese clearly spoke questionable English as a second language, as multiple sentences suffered from poor grammar, bad word choice, and simple sentences that read like something out of a grade-school primer. The game is supposed to take about 10 hours to finish, but I feel like several of those hours could have been cut out if the editor had taken the time to remove extraneous sentences where the characters were just repeating themselves again and again. And the company behind this, Angels Blue, has apparently put out at least half a dozen VNs, so there’s no excuse for such amateur work.
Notch definitely picked up in the second half of the story around chapter 6, and I quickly realized that it was because Block and Damsel were pushed aside in favor of giving the other characters more screen-time. The demons had their conflicts explained, the murders were figured out, and the horror factor was upped quite a bit. So for a while, I thought that Notch was going to redeem itself. However, this part of the VN came with its own issues that grated on my nerves even more than the poor translation and characterizations I’d already encountered.
There was one man whom we shall call Buttons, because he was very good at pushing all of mine. He was incredibly physically abusive towards another character that we’ll call Mute, because that was her most defining character trait. Buttons constantly beats Mute to the point of leaving scars on her, but insists that he loves her and Mute claims to feel the same. It’s revealed pretty early that Buttons has done a lot of really messed up things, including a massacre or two, but the game still tries to paint him as a sympathetic person towards the end by giving him a tragic backstory. The demon who helped him (and is in love with him by the way) actually says “Just because he killed a lot of people, he is not a bad guy.” Honey, that’s one of the major determining factors people use to decide whether someone is a bad guy or not. Murdering a lot of people is a red flag usually on par with war crimes or aggravated cattle rustling. Yet we’re supposed to find Mute and Buttons’ story romantic.
But what really killed Notch for me were the last few chapters. If you somehow manage to get on one of the paths for the three good endings (out of a possible 14 total endings), the conclusion to the game just isn’t satisfying. It felt like all the characters spent the final two or three chapters working to undo everything bad that had happened earlier in the story, all to no avail. If these final chapters or bonus unlockable ending were meant to provide closure or something along those lines, they did a terrible job of it. I felt like huge chunks could have been cut out and left on the editing room floor and it would have had the same effect on the reader, particularly since a lot of those scenes involve previously deceased characters returning briefly for one last hurrah, and then disappearing again (but for real this time, guys!) before the story is allowed to finish. It felt unnecessary and almost cheapened their deaths.
And even when you reach the end, the VN didn’t explain half of what happened to you or the characters around you. Why did the master of one house feel the need to torture a random girl for over a year without bothering to discover her identity? A demon who claimed there was no way to break a contract between a human and a demon without killing one party later managed to do it; how? Why does the local god stay in human form? Why does any of this matter? Notch tried to bring in a bunch of different dramatic plots and story elements, but could offer no real explanation for any of them except, “just because.” Awful writing, awful pacing, awful characters; it was just plain awful.
Notch: The Innocent LunA: Eclipsed SinnerS is available on Steam for far more money than it’s worth. Supposedly it should take a reader ten hours to finish and another ten to collect all the endings, but I was able to finish in just over six hours and spent another hour and a half collecting the remaining endings (of course with save scumming and skipping through previously read dialogue in the common route). Even with good art, charming music, and a fascinating story concept, the poor storytelling, awful editing and translation, themes of sympathy towards abusers and a lack of any good closure prevent me from recommending this to anyone. Don’t buy it, dear readers. There are much better VNs out there; avoid this one like the plague.