Perceptions of the Dead may be one of my favorite short horror VNs ever.
Perceptions follows a day in the life of Tyrone, a spiritualist investigating a haunting at a house in a rich neighborhood. That doesn’t sound like an incredibly revolutionary plot, I know, but Perceptions makes it work because everything in the VN from music to writing to the art is brilliant. The majority of the story is narrated by Justice Washington, Tyrone’s voice actor, and he put the perfect amount of emotion into each line without becoming too theatrical. It felt like someone was actually trying to explain what was happening instead of reading from a script, and it gave the whole VN a good rhythm and flow.
The artwork was a perfect combination of cartoonish yet creepy that made me feel like I was reading a particularly colorful graphic novel. The characters were incredibly expressive, and both the sprites and scenery were pleasant to look at. The music added a perfectly creepy ambiance throughout the story, but definitely took a backseat to the voice acting. That’s not to say it was bad, it just didn’t blow me away. The sound effects (particularly the snippy scissor sounds) were great though.
The writing was fantastic. There was enough storytelling to let me know about the universe Tyrone operated in without feeling like the author was trying to cram a bunch of information down my throat. The dialogue between characters felt completely natural, and the pacing was just right. Best of all, the writing actually made me want to know more about the world of Perceptions. Exactly how did Tyrone get his jacket? Who was the ghost he’d been called to investigate? What exactly is Tyrone?
Unfortunately, none of these questions are answered because Perceptions of the Dead is so darn short. I didn’t time it exactly, but it couldn’t have taken me more than 20 minutes to get through the entire VN. It’s a well-composed story that had to be made in a month, to be fair, but it ends on a cliffhanger that makes me sad there isn’t more. It’s like finding a pilot that you really love and then discover that there’s no more episodes coming after it. I’d love to see more of Perceptions in the future in some capacity.
The other VN I read this week, Sickness, is a pretty good horror story as long as you don’t think too hard about it.
Sickness follows the story of Suoh, a young man who murders his boss at the start of the story. He calls in his friend Markus to help him dispose of the body, which puts him in debt with a crime boss. Gradually Suoh begins to take on more and more responsibility in this organization, gaining both a massive paycheck and an ever-increasing body count.
The art of the game is pretty alright. None of the sprites are awful; the artists clearly has a decent amount of skill, but there were definitely some issues with proportions (notably arm length and how the eyes are the same size on a child and adult head). What bothered me about the art was that it doesn’t really match. When the credits rolled I counted about half a dozen different artists who worked on different elements of Sickness, and it really shows. The background art looks very different from the sprites, both of which look radically different from the CGs you get in some parts of the story. None of it is bad, particularly compared to some of the nightmarish work I’ve looked at recently, but it inspires in me the same feeling I see whenever my father tries to leave the house in a Jimmy Buffet shirt with cutoff jeans and a Cincinnati Reds baseball cap. The individual elements are not horrendously offensive, but their combination produces a feeling of unease and moderate confusion at someone trying to assemble these elements in the first place.
The music is neither brilliant nor awful. It definitely amplified the drama of some of the murders and helped build tension, but during the more domestic scenes it came off as generic background music. I liked it overall and didn’t have any issues with the sound (which is more than I can say for a lot of other VNs from lemmasoft I’ve tried lately), so points for being technically functional.
The story as a whole works quite well, and that’s largely because the writing for Suoh is consistent from start to finish. Suoh is not a nice person, and he is under no illusion about that. His distressed response to murdering his boss is not borne of a moral grievance or any sort of guilt, but rather because he logically knows that killing the man will make his life much more difficult in the future. He is consciously aware that murder is supposed to be something horrible, but often derives at least a bit of pleasure from the act of killing itself. After a certain point in the story, killing becomes a job that he enjoys and takes a fair amount of pride in because the pay is good and his work week isn’t horribly demanding. As a result, we get to skip the cliche crisis of consciousness that so many VNs might have and get straight into the assassination business.
Sickness actually subverted a lot of my expectations by setting up what I was certain were going to be a number of traditional VN tropes and then completely ignoring them. There was one scene where Suoh and another assassin, Misa, were at the mall together and were being harassed by some people from Suoh’s former school. The longer the scene went on, the more I kept thinking, “Ah yes, this is the part where he lashes out to show off what a good fighter he is now, and they never give him trouble again.” But instead, Suoh recognizes that such behavior could put his family and career in jeopardy, and so he quietly takes the insults and lets the students escape unscathed. I cannot express to you how happy I was when I realized that the writer was going to be sensible in that scenario and have Suoh act like a professional.
The other characters are largely well-written and definitely helped me become more invested in the story, especially at the beginning when the plot dragged a bit. Suoh, Karasu, Sai, and Misa are the four people you’ll see the most during the game, and I found all of them to be quite nicely flushed out. Everyone had their own conflicts and goals, and the conversations with them were fun because you’re always consciously walking this fine line between teasing members of your pseudo-family and not trying to offend a group of people that could kill you a dozen different ways with a single chopstick. Sickness never tries to hide that these are bad people, but at the same time you can’t bring yourself to hate them. Additionally, minor characters come and go a la being murdered, because this story is about assassins at its core. Characters that I thought were going to follow me for the rest of the VN suddenly found themselves splattered on the pavement, and the world goes on. It works really well.
On the other hand, Suoh’s twin sister Sara was probably the blandest thing I’ve encountered since the bowl of Rice Krispies I had for breakfast. Part of the problem is the way the story wants to juxtapose Suoh’s secret murder life against what should be normal for a teenager, so his sister naturally has to be as saintly as he is damnable. It’s supposed to showcase the kind of life Suoh could have if fate hadn’t dealt the siblings such a cruel blow, and if a mysterious sickness wasn’t helping drive Suoh’s more macabre urges. But the actual result of that plan is that the reader might, say, jump from a scene of pushing someone in front of a bus to going home and having a sibling complain that the pot roast is ruined because the oven has given up the ghost. One of those elements is more intriguing than the other, and frankly it can be a bit obnoxious to finish a murder mission only to immediately deal with a solid ten minutes of your sister chewing you out over the state of the household’s laundry. Sara is boring and wholesome, and for whatever reason Sickness gives you an option to try and start up an incestuous relationship with her. Oh, and whenever a cliche VN trope popped up (aka walking in on someone naked in the shower, hackneyed domestic fights, etc) it was always a Sara scene. I’ll likely skip most of her scenes on my next read.
I need to go back to what I said at the beginning of the review, about Sickness being a great VN if you don’t think about it too hard because Sara is actually one of the more blatant symptoms of this problem. The twins supposedly come from a very well-off family in a town with extreme socio-economic disparity and a strong “us vs. them” mentality between rich and poor. But when their parents die in a car accident, the audience is meant to believe that the twins lacked both lawyers to help work out the estate and friends or family to look after them. Sara still goes to school but Suoh has dropped out to be the breadwinner, and frankly acts years older than Sara despite the fact that they’re supposed to be twins. The murder meetings that Suoh attends on a bi-weekly basis would indicate that about ten people are assassinated on average per week, which would give the town of Richmond a murder rate that would put Gary, Indiana to shame. Oh, and there’s no real moral grey area for members of the audience when someone is being killed because the target is invariably either a bad person or someone that would rather be dead anyway. Those little things pop up pretty frequently, but the rest of the VN was so enjoyable that I was willing to overlook those small hiccups. It’s like watching a cheesy action movie with a friend, and every time they say, “Wait, wouldn’t that mean-” you interject with “Yeah I know, but just roll with it.”
Perceptions of the Dead is available on the lemmasoft forums, but the developer Ithaqua Labs has several additional games available on Steam right now; Brilliant Shadows is one I’ll likely review in November. Sickness was also found on the lemmasoft forums but can be downloaded from Steam for about $10, though there is a free demo and I’m positive I picked this game up for a much lower price in either a bundle or a sale. I’d recommend both.