October is that blessed time of year where people can be as spooky and terrifying as they like. To me, nothing is quite so perfectly horrendous and terrifying as some of the free VNs uploaded to the lemmasoft forums, and in the spirit of this month, I’ll be reviewing some of the VNs I downloaded from the site.
The first one, Spooky Soiree, truly embodies the spirit of Halloween in the sense that it was so sweet it gave me cavities. You play as Marzipan, a light witch who is going to a Halloween party with her cat Jam. Marzipan isn’t just making a social call, however; she is on a mission to get her first kiss from a girl at this party.
Spooky Soiree took only half an hour to get all the endings, but my goodness was there a lot packed into that half-hour. Depending on which girl you pick, Marzipan helps the party-goers reconcile with their darker sides, find the confidence to cosplay, or even hunt for bones in the backyard. There’s nothing mean or cruel on any of the routes; this may be the most wholesome yuri game I’ve played in ages.
Marzipan herself is a delightful character because even though she’s on a mission to get a kiss, her objective is never forced on any of the other girls at the party, and she’s very upfront about her intentions before any smooching occurs. In fact, a lot of the time her goal of getting a kiss is met not by intense flirting and seduction, but rather by her reaching out to another guest and giving them her time and kindness. You’re always happy when she succeeds because it feels like the kisses are natural results of being a loving person, rather than the end product of a sleazy hunt to meet some goal on her witchy bucket list.
The art and music were adorable from start to finish. Everything was bright and colorful, and reminded me of a family Halloween party due in large part to everything being rather spooky, but nothing coming off as really scary. I’ve been trying to place the style since I played, and the closest I can get (and even this isn’t very close) is to say it reminded me of the art from the old Huggly’s Sleepover game I played years ago. I guess this really emphasizes how unique the art is, especially for a visual novel.
Spooky Soiree’s playthrough was paired with a longer game, Freak-quency, which also embodies the spirit of Halloween by being a horrifying abomination from start to finish. This game had problems straight from launch, when I couldn’t get the menu to fit inside the screen no matter how much I tweaked fullscreen/windowed mode. Seriously, when I’m resizing the window and somehow I end up with black boxes on the side while the menu icons are still being cut off by the edge of the screen, you’ve done something wrong.
Freak-quency follows the story of Sonnya, and high-school girl and standard VN protagonist. Sonnya lives in a world where players of an online game, “Freak-quency,” are being killed for reasons unknown to the public at large. Sonnya eventually comes to discover that her brother was a player, right after she discovers that he’s been missing for three weeks (because apparently the family took more than a fortnight to become concerned about him not answering his phone). Her search leads to a park one night where people are battling each other with monsters in a game that is also called Freak-quency, where she is viciously attacked. Tragically for the player, the monster fails to kill Sonnya, and she instead manages to summon a monster of her own off her brother’s phone (I swear I’m not making this up). Sonnya later finds out that this means she’s now a “quency,” bound to a unique parasitic “freak” that will either devour some element of her personality or just kill her unless she wins a Freak-quency battle royale. So yeah, we’re about to embark on an adventure which revolves around the stupidest possible combination of Loveless and a Yu-Gi-Oh tournament.
The thing is, if the tournament part of the game had been handled well, I would be singing it’s praises to the heavens because that premise actually sounded pretty cool. The prize medicine to get rid of a person’s freak is an item in very limited supply, so there’s this constant awareness that your friends who fail to win the tournament are going to suffer. Sonnya’s freak is a kind to drain her life force, which puts her hunt and chances for success on a very limited time frame. All of this could coalesce into a fantastic drama about trying to save yourself while still getting on with your life, since the true danger of Freak-quency has to be hidden from the public. Unfortunately, this interesting concept is buried beneath a mountain of subpar writing and dating sim elements.
The majority of the game works as a time management sim, and I’ll give them credit, it’s the only most enjoyable part of Freak-quency. You have 4 different traits to manage: intellect, charm, bravery, and athletics. Your level in each of these categories affects what jobs you can have, what characters you can meet with, and what side quests you can take on. There are plenty of activities to help level up these skills, and some actions will give you multiple goodies. For example, if your charm level is high enough to start work at a cafe, then working there will not only give you a paycheck but also a bonus increase to your charm. And many of your activities are only available on certain days of the week, so you actually have to implement a bit of strategy on each turn. Maybe you really need to put more points into your relationship with Zed, but you absolutely need to boost your bravery this turn or else you’ll have to wait another two days for that activity. Having to think ahead like that is what makes a time management sim so enjoyable.
Unfortunately, Freak-quency had problems with this as well. A lot of the time you’re not really sure what can be clicked on and what is empty space, so a good portion of my playthrough was spent waving my cursor across the screen just to see where I could click. My only saving grace occurred the first time I launched the game and I could actually see part of the hit boxes for clickable areas. It took me until the middle of July to discover that the school had a library, which would have been extremely helpful to know when I was still trying to grind up intellect. The side quests are typically marked by characters with exclamations over their heads (though certainly not to any great degree of consistency) that do not go away once you complete the quest. Oh, and if you think the dialogue with these characters changes in any way besides adding a single sentence once the quest is done, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you real cheap.
The art is dreadful. Simply dreadful. The proportions of the characters’ heads to their bodies are completely off, to the point where some of them look like Pinhead from the Puppet Master movies. The backgrounds are horrendously inconsistent, with some being decently drawn backdrops with questionable shading while others are clearly 3D-models that someone whipped up in half an hour. Any CGs meant to show movement look clunky, and perspective is laughable. The only good thing I can say is that the aesthetic for the freaks and Malkav the announcer are pretty intriguing to look at. I just wish whoever was in charge of the art had possessed the same amount of technical skill for the human sprites and backgrounds as they did for the monsters.
All you need to know about the music of Freak-quency is that the cafe once played a jazz remix of the Happy Birthday theme for reasons unknown. Also turn off the voice acting because it cut in and out worse than a NASCAR driver with a gunshot wound trying to get to the E.R. in rush-hour traffic.
The worst part of the game was the writing. Putting aside the frequent snafus in spelling and grammar, Freak-quency suffered from issues with pacing, tone, and the method of storytelling. Freak-quency all too often rushed through plot-building moments and character interactions for the sake of getting to the next part of the story. That paragraph above where I described the start of Freak-quency was all handled in about 20 minutes, which is a lot to cram in. To help move the story along, characters’ emotions often bounced around wildly for no reason than because the plot demanded it, which was only slightly worse than the time-saving method of having some characters restricted to just one trait meant to represent an entire personality. For example, Crystal was a walking, talking mess of “lol, I’m so random and crazy ‘cuz of my freak!” (granted, she may have grated on me a bit heavily anyway for being a blatant ripoff of Poison from the Street Fighter series). People that were trying to kill each other one minute with literal fire and lightning were burying the hatchet minutes later. I got stabbed in the chest and was accepting an engraved watch from my stabber on the next turn. There was a throwaway line about burning players’ corpses behind a train station. I cannot emphasize enough how bad it was.
I’m happy that the writers of Freak-quency tried to give the player so many happy/enraging/depressing/etc moments, but the execution was so horrendous that it drags down the whole game. There’s no point in me feeling sad about a player’s suffering because they’ll be right as rain in a day or so. A handful of characters like Malkav really got to me, but they ended up buried under stupid moments like an accidental cafe proposal that sticks. There is no impact behind any scenes that are meant to develop the characters, and no one really changes all that much. I stopped feeling anything after an hour and settled into the subpar VN mindset of, “Ah yes, this is happening now, better make peace with it.” This game wasn’t so much an emotional roller-coaster as it was an emotional teacup ride that didn’t know how to stop spinning even after someone puked on the ride operator’s shoes. On a tangent, someone puked on my shoes during the game.
Very little of the actual plot occurs during the common route of the game or timed events. If you actually want to learn about freaks, Freak-quency, or your brother, you have to talk to all the characters in the game by finding them and initiating conversations with them. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Well only half the characters really piqued my interest in any way, but I had still had to talk to all of them to get the whole story, and you can’t talk to all of the characters right off the bat. Malkav’s whole story, which you need if you want to learn anything about your brother, is behind a paywall of $100,000 that you have to earn from crappy part-time jobs. Another character is only available to talk to in the first month of the game, and a third was only available after an in-game story event that I didn’t even know about, because the game only gave me the prompt to try and talk to her at night (I was game, I was!)
Oh, and depending on what order you try to complete this story-telling scavenger hunt, your actions and reactions in subsequent moments will make no goddamn sense. I learned about a character killing his gf in one scene, but hadn’t bothered to talk with him much by this point in the game. A month later, my character finally bonds with him and learns that *gasp* he killed his girlfriend. Actually in hindsight, why have two shocked moments in the script anyway? Logically speaking, one event has to be completed before the other, so the shock should have been removed from one moment and the story set up so you’d have the reveal first. Bad writer, bad!
Also, the game asked me to excuse a freak making a frequency/freak-quency pun. Twice. That moment gets its own paragraph in this review, that’s how offended I was.
The really crappy thing is that Freak-quency had a good twist at the end, and the background story for the freaks was actually pretty unsettling. But that reveal doesn’t come until the final day of the game, after I’d spent months dealing with insipid dialogue, grinding stats, and trying to cobble together a story during the search for my brother (whose hiding skills frankly put Carmen Sandiego to shame). It doesn’t matter how great your ending is if the rest of your VN sucked. No marathon runner admires how pretty the finish line ribbon is after they’ve spent a kilometer wading through shards of broken glass and kneehigh raw sewage.
Spooky Soiree and Freak-quency can both be found on the lemmasoft forums. Spooky Soiree is a strong recommend with an added encouragement to give the creators money on their Patreon. Freak-quency, on the other hand, is a hard pass that should be avoided at all costs.