Gaokao.Love.100Days is the first example I have ever encountered of a time-management visual novel with way too much novel.
For those of you unaware, a visual novel with time-management elements typically works as follows: you start out the game as though you were reading a regular visual novel, which mostly involves meeting the characters of the story and getting to see a bit of the world around you. After this, some character or the game itself will introduce you to the skills and relationships you’re trying to manage, the activities you can do to boost these skills and relationships, and whatever this game’s equivalent of a fatigue meter is. Once you hit this point, 90% of the game will be revolve around the player managing a daily schedule and participating in different activities while the other 10% focuses on narrative moments that you can trigger either by getting to a certain date on the calendar or leveling up your skill to a certain point. Cherry Tree High Comedy Club would be a good example of this, or anything put out by Winter Wolves (only don’t buy any of their VNs because they are all terrible and we must, as united members of the human race, learn to stop giving them money). Gaokao doesn’t play like that.
Gaokao is about a kid in his final year of secondary school in China. You have the option to choose his name, but I went with the game’s suggestion of Lee. Over the course of 100 days, Lee is trying to balance a brand new relationship with his girlfriend against his friendships at school and studying for Gaokao, the college entrance exam that will determine what tier college a student in China can expect get into. It should be pretty obvious by this point that the challenge of Gaokao is meant to be striking a happy educational/social balance while not succumbing to stress or exhaustion. In reality, the challenge is trying to drag yourself through a tedious game that never knows when to shut up.
Theoretically, a school day in Gaokao is divided into morning classes, lunchtime, and evening classes before you go home, all of which have activities unique to each period. But you spend the first two of those just listening to your friends and girlfriend drone on and on about completely banal and asinine nonsense that will almost certainly never be brought up again. Half the time I wasn’t even sure what the characters were trying to say because they spoke fantastically broken English. Really, it was something of a marvel to witness so many sentences that clearly only had a rudimentary understanding of how English syntax works, besides their many cultural references and jokes that definitely were not translated well. It felt like a medieval torture method which involved making a goat to lick salt off a person’s foot until it wore through the skin to expose tissue and bone, with Gaokao’s writing being my goat’s tongue and the feet being the layers of patience and forgiveness usually granted to foreign language games.
Both of those flaws could have been forgiven if the narrative could have managed to be the least little bit intriguing, rather than dull and overlong. The story parts of Gaokao absolutely needed to be trimmed down by at least half for two main reasons. As I mentioned before, most of what Gaokao’s kids discuss or act out is pointless to the overarching story of trying to get into a good college without either ruining your relationships or personal health. Your best friend is called “Stom” because he gets frequent stomachaches (I will bet good money that joke sounded better in Chinese than it does in English) and half of his subplots revolve around stomach issues. An entire lunch period was spent trying super spicy curry that everyone knew was spicy but wanted anyway, followed by everyone complaining about how hot it was (except for your girlfriend Muxin, because Gaokao is one of those VNs guilty of treating hunger as though it’s a personality quirk and not a basic human sensation in a girl). You waste an entire Saturday afternoon listening to your girlfriend go into great detail explaining how she’d named all the stray cats in her neighborhood after an emperor and his concubines, which I guess serves to show how emotionally invested Lee is in Muxin because I certainly couldn’t think of any other reason why he didn’t walk off and grab a hotdog in the middle of that word vomit. And that’s just the drivel I can remember.
The really unfortunate thing is that Gaokao actually did have some good moments. Lee and Muxin had a positively adorable aquarium date that really established how the two of them could play off of and support one another. One lunch period was very somber because the school had just gotten word of a student who’d tried to kill himself over the pressure of Gaokao, and a few days after this Lee ended up getting dragged to a sign-up for Gaokao prep by his mother under the guise of her wanting to take him for a walk in the midst of a busy weekend. That was one of the best knife in the gut moments I’ve ever experienced in a VN. If I could have scraped away all the moronic stomach jokes and one-off skits that added nothing to the characters’ development, this could have been a really pleasant and touching coming of age tale. Instead, the player has to dig for those glorious snippets of plot beneath a mountain of obnoxious writing and poorly translated dialogue that coalesces into a decidedly mediocre story.
The other reason Gaokao needed less drivel is due to the fact that the game is clearly meant to be a time-management sim at its core, and constantly being inundated by ultimately pointless story bits wrecks any momentum you might build up during your playthrough. With other time-management sims you’ll receive a goal to work towards at the beginning of the game, and subsequently unlock additional scenes with story and dialogue as a way for the game to let you know if you’re moving in the right direction or not. This leaves you free to think 5 steps ahead and plan multiple turns out in advance, implementing different strategies to see how to get the best results on a particular playthrough.
Gaokao, on the other hand, lets you have one turn to do something before bombarding you with distracting scenes that inspire nothing in the player but a frustration that your rhythm was interrupted. Besides this, sometimes the action you take will fail for no particular reason, so you’ll have to reload your last save unless you want to take a random penalty (and trust me, a lot of the time you can’t afford it). On top of this, you may replay the exact same scene after reloading but have a completely random event occur then that also affects your stats, which makes it difficult to mentally plan out more than a day or two in advance. The only way to make any real progress is just constantly saving and loading to earn the best outcome by brute-forcing your way through all your options on a particular day. So instead of playing a fun strategy game with visual novel elements, I felt like I was stuck in stop-and-go traffic during my entire playthrough. It was miserable.
Even worse, the game never tells you specifically what goals you need to be working towards in anything but the most vague and general sense. You’re trying to get your scores up for Gaokao, but until you actually take the mock Gaokao exam you have no idea what kind of score to shoot for. How am I supposed to know whether I can afford to take a day to lower my stress if I don’t know how close or far I am from having a high enough math score? And as far as I can tell there’s no way to check your relationship with Muxin unless you get a cutscene wherein a man appears to you in a vision and lets you know that your relationship with Muxin is getting super low. At least your energy and stress levels are presented in numerical form on your stat sheet, otherwise Lee probably would have collapsed during a playthrough after a few random encounters absolutely murdered those stats.
You might be wondering why I didn’t just fast-forward through all the story nonsense then and only focus on training stats once I knew what focus to work towards. The answer is that Gaokao is mechanically broken. The art and sound are fine so I won’t waste any time discussing them, but the controls are absolutely borked. Despite the fact that I had the “don’t skip unread text” option checked, the game definitely bulldozed through a couple scenes that I’d never played before, presumably taking the tic in the box as more of a suggestion than an absolute rule that I desperately wanted it to obey. But this was a trifling annoyance in comparison to the fact that the game constantly skipped plot choices for me. Like most VNs, holding down the spacebar allowed me to fast-forward through text, but whenever the game came to a choice I had to make, it would register the spacebar as selecting one of the options and keep right on going. There were multiple times where I’d be trying to get through another bout of pointless rambling and see a brief flash of choices on the screen before it blazed right on through to more rambling, forcing me to reload and spam the spacebar for brief stints so as not to miss it again. That’s right, Gaokao is broken in such a way that it forces you to trudge through what I will charitably call hours’ worth of broken English balderdash.
I honestly have no idea what the developers were going for here. It’s like the time-management elements were clumsily tacked on and never optimized just for the sake of having a game that lets you simulate life under Gaokao prep. So much of this game should have been cut or at least tested better before Gaokao was allowed to release. And what kills me slowly is that I can definitely see that there is a good game with wonderful story elements trapped in this hot mess. Gaokao could have been something amazing with a little less story and a lot more focus on managing resources and stat building; in reality, the game I played is subpar at best. Granted, I wasn’t expecting much of a game with a questionable title that had the words all squished together (we’ve been over this before) but those brief glimpses of hope throughout the story made its ultimate failure all the worse.
Gaokao.Love.100Days is available on Steam for $10. Personally I can’t find it in me to recommend this game to anyone who either likes pure visual novels or time-management sims. Gaokao only succeeds in taking the worst elements of these two genres and fusing them together into a Frankenstein-esque disaster of a game. There are much better options out there, trust me. Don’t buy this.