Gingy's Corner
A young brunette girl with a bright blue bowtie surrounded by a cadre of attractive Japanese male characters, one iwth long blue hair, one with short red hair, one with short gray hair and one with yellow blonde hair

A Culinary School Sim, with Dating Elements

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  • It’s that wonderful post-holiday time of year where our stomachs are full of sweets and our wallets are full of regret. The Steam Winter Sale finally concluded this morning, and like most of you out there, I picked up quite a few games while they were at bargain-bin prices. Some of them jumped out at me due to gorgeous art, clean design, or intriguing concepts. Others caught my attention because there was something about them that promised I was about to step face-first into a raging forest fire of disappointment. Maybe it was the clear struggle with the English language in their VN’s description and trailers. Maybe the art looked like it had been drawn by a drunken toddler recuperating from serious head trauma. Or maybe it was a number of factors I couldn’t quite name that enticed me into a glorious maelstrom of mediocrity. Whatever the case, I grabbed about a dozen VNs (all of which had been marked to under $3, always a good sign) and intend to read every last one of them. After all, what better way to start the new year than by lamenting the poor choices made at the end of the last year?

    With that, let’s start our month of regret with Pastry Lovers, the world’s premiere broken English baking otome.

    Pastry Lovers follows the story of Sakura Asakusa (clunky, I know, and the game could never remember how to spell it). Sakura is an orphan living on a small island in a kingdom where pastry chefs have an extreme amount of social and political clout, provided that they can earn the right credentials. Sakura’s goal is to study at and graduate from St. Patras College, the kingdom’s best culinary school, where she can set herself up with a good internship and perhaps discover the truth about her parentage.

    A watermelon carved into the shape of a shark, surrounded by snippets of watermelon.

    When I said the English in this VN was broken, I wasn’t exaggerating. I’ve read some VNs that have really questionable word choice and sentence structure, but Pastry Lovers reads like it was the writer’s first time trying to translate something into English, and they definitely did not have a native speaker on hand to do any kind of QA testing. The grammar is a mess, verb tenses change without warning, and on multiple occasions the word choice was so very odd that I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d simply picked up a Chinese/English dictionary and selected a word at random without checking to see the context of the English word, or even if that particular word was still actually used in everyday speech. Aside from this, the story is largely told in second person, so when Sakura’s dialogue box pops up it always says “You” instead of her name, and narrates her actions in second person while simultaneously describing the actions of others in terms of stage directions {e.g. “Why, you” (blushes with quiet voice and moves hand by head) “This is for doing later”}. Picture that for hours on end, and then randomly towards the end we get a bit of third person narration like one traditionally expects with VNs.
    This might sound frustrating, but honestly it was more depressingly funny and sad than anything else. It gave me the feeling of having a friend that is trying so hard but still failing so badly at speaking English, to the point where it’s honestly a struggle to hold a conversation or interpret what they mean to say. I have about 10 hours put into Pastry Lovers, and I’m certain that at least part of that time was due to having to slowly muddle through the gobbledygook Engrish. And this isn’t just a peeve of mine, go to the Pastry Lovers discussion section on Steam and the English fails are the most discussed topic.

    The translation issues especially suck because the VN is pretty solid mechanically. Pastry Lovers is divided up into five sections: the time prepping for the admission exam, first semester, second semester, internship goals, and the goals for whatever final route you end up on. Each section requires you to meet some minimum score in traits, stats, number of classes attended, etc. Pastry Lovers only helps you in the first section of the story when you’re still on your home island, where pulling up a help menu tells you what each area does to your stats. After that, it’s trial and error in the hope of stumbling into the right activity to grind before finals week. It was a perfect combination of not too easy but not too hard; I had to keep checking my stats to see if I was on track, and there were actually two occasions that I had to reload an old save because I had failed. Dividing the game into smaller sections with individual goals, rather than forcing the player to keep clicking away week after week with no tangible reward, kept Pastry Lovers fun to play, if not to read.

    However, there was a major issue with money. Pastry Lovers wasn’t stingy with funds; quite the opposite, in fact. One mechanic of the game (which I’ll get to in a bit), involves making different kinds of cakes that require different ingredients. You purchase these at a local market, where you can also acquire pets to give you daily stat boosts. You can also buy foods or books to help raise some stats, but the majority of your purchases are going to be ingredients. The game offers multiple activities to help you earn coins, but these are all utterly unnecessary because most items are purchased for between ten and thirty coins, and the game starts you out with over ninety-nine hundred coins in your purse. Unless you are particularly endeared towards the shopkeepers, there is no reason that you couldn’t completely stock up on supplies and pets in your first turn at the university and then never go shopping again. It was like some kind of gameplay miscommunication occurred wherein the developers wanted to have a financial management mechanic but forgot to actually make it necessary to carefully watch your finances. It’s like telling a trust fund kid to be careful about how much money they plan to spend at Taco Bell.

    A girl with pale pink hair and mouth slightly agape.

    The art was pretty nice, but it’s very clear that at least two artists worked on this game and made absolutely no attempt to have their styles compliment each other. About half of the sprites look like basic VN models with some minor shading, whereas the other half have a dreamy, washed-out quality that reminds me of ebi-hime VNs. The backgrounds are all over the place as far as style and technique goes, but nothing was awful or distracting. The music, on the other hand…let’s just say that there were about six tracks across the whole VN, and one of them was a sped-up electronic rendition of “Heart and Soul.”

    The story is…something. I realize that’s a terrible way to describe it, but wow. Just, umm. So you get to the college and you meet a girl who quickly becomes one of your best friends (I guess? She kind of vanishes after you finish the storyline to get an internship) and then run into another girl that you already sort of met on your island when her brother (who is a teacher at St. Patras) encouraged you to take the entrance exam and definitely pushed for you to get a full-ride. But then a literal prince shows up and proceeds to never attend class, much like the gangster romance option who runs the Fruit Society club. Pastry Lovers doesn’t care about any of this, though, because half of the main route cutscenes are for this aloof other noble that apparently Sakura is just super attracted to. Depending on some choices you make to put you on different romance routes, you’ll completely miss a few cutscenes but future character dialogue will reference these events anyway. There’s no option to turn off skipping unseen dialogue, so more than a few times I completely missed the plot in random encounters because the VN zipped right through them. And there are additional side stories you can access from the main menu, but they’re available as soon as you boot up the VN for the first time, so I accidentally had to deal with a short story about three of the girls before I’d even met them in-game. It was kind of a mess.

    That’s to say nothing of the relationships you attempt to build throughout the VN. The writers of Pastry Lovers appear to be firm believers in the mantra that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, because the only way to max out your relationships with the characters (or even build them up in the first place) is to bribe them with cakes. Each character has two different kind of cakes he likes (the VN is nice enough to tell you what these are), and you get more points with the boy depending on whether you gave him a cake from a basic or advanced recipe. You have to give cakes to all the boys to hit a certain level anyway, and then you just keep stuffing the face of whichever boy you want to romance. You can only feed them once a day though, because apparently Pastry Lovers has some sort of scruple against romancing your way into type 2 diabetes.

    A gray haired man with a blue bowtie, looking towards camera.

    As for the non-romance characters, most of them have no real benefit to the player except to give you gifts that provide a one-time stat boost. There were a few exceptions; maxing your relationship with Bebe gets her on your time for a school competition, and filling out Henin’s relationship meter can put you on a “surprise boinking the art teacher” route that I didn’t find until my third run. But really though, Paris and Lina were the only non-romance characters I enjoyed speaking with, and Paris can only be encountered on one route.
    Pastry Lovers is a hot mess from start to finish, but I love it for one simple reason: it’s absolutely, 100% sincere. No one makes sly comments or winks at the audience when a gangster joins the school; he’s here to make pastries, obviously. The biggest conflicts revolve around culinary struggles, like not understanding how to make a cheesecake without the top cracking. Your entrance exam asks legitimate questions about cooking, and oddly, I learned quite a few culinary facts during the game (did you know that angel food cake doesn’t use any oil? I do now). You cannot get into St. Patras College without you as a player knowing both the ingredients and proper cooking steps to make a chiffon cake. When you decide to make a teahouse that caters to women, Pastry Lovers nods its head with sagely wisdom and proceeds to teach you about all the differences between Chinese, Japanese, and English tea ceremonies. Even if the English is broken, it’s pretty obvious that the writers knew their way around a kitchen.

    That, I think, is the saving grace of Pastry Lovers. You are not playing a dating sim with a culinary school as your background; rather, you are attempting to be a top student in an academically trying environment, where boys really don’t factor in until you’ve made some important career decisions for yourself. Yes, it has some questionable moments (such as being able to molest all romance options plus one of your friends at a hot spring) and it’s kind of annoying that you can only really research Sakura’s personal history on one character’s route, but underneath the broken English and questionable writing lies a fun VN with a lot of heart and expectations for the player.

    Pastry Lovers is available on Steam for $5, but I definitely grabbed it on sale for less than a buck. If you can get around the absolutely borked translation, it’s a pretty fun little VN and the Steam Winter Sale purchase I least regret. If you ever happen to see it on sale, go ahead and pick it up. You could do a lot worse.

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