Nicole is published by a company called Winter Wolves, with whom I have a long and antagonistic relationship best summed up as I viscerally despise them, their company, and everything their games represent. They are the France to my Britain, the mayonnaise to my hotdog, the peanuts to my anaphylactic shock. I have tried their games again and again, hoping to see some improvement that would convince me the writers and designers have learned from their mistakes and are now producing VNs worth spending your money on. Unfortunately the only change I’ve ever seen is their games varying from mediocre to horrendously terrible, and Nicole was no exception.
Nicole is about a girl starting college. For reasons that are never clearly explained, she ended up at her first choice college for law despite the fact that she’s only a freshman. Upon moving in, the titular character Nicole discovers that there have been three different cases of girls being abducted from campus and turning up days later with drugs in their systems and no memory of what happened. But hey, can’t let something like that get you down! There are boys to date and cat pics to blog, after all. That really sets the tone for the rest of the game, and things somehow manage to get worse from this point on.
As is the case with most Winter Wolves games (other than the original Bionic Heart), the art is good. I can’t complain about the backgrounds; there were a lot of them as Nicole went all over her town and campus, and each one was rather pretty. The sprites were drawn well and shaded nicely, but there was one pose that Kurt did where you could really see how off the proportions of his arm were. As a minor complaint, I also had a problem where I couldn’t tell the difference between Ted and Jeff, they were just that similar to me. Overall though, the art was easily the high point of the game.
The music left me with mixed feelings. My problem was that objectively, the sound effects were great and the musical tracks were well-composed, but the music choices for this game were really weird. A lot of the “happy” scenes either just had ambient background noise or this generic elevator music that really didn’t match up with the on-screen mood. The rest of the time you had to listen to music that could best be described as what one might play at a funeral home when the director is concerned that the funeral attendees aren’t quite sad enough. Let me tell you, it’s a bit hard to get excited about a kidnapping mystery when the soundtrack makes me feel like I should be lighting a candle for grandma’s departed spirit at mass. There was also an issue where the music noticeably took several seconds to shift between scenes, and after about an hour I just put it on mute. Maybe some of the romance or later mystery scenes in the game had better music; I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care, because the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach himself couldn’t have composed music good enough to save this disaster of a game.
The biggest and most apparent issue is Nicole herself. She is objectively, subjectively, and empirically the worst written protagonist in any Winter Wolves VN. Whether watching a movie or reading a book, people like it when characters have some kind of flaw in their personality because it makes them more genuine and relatable. Maybe they spend a little too much time on the Internet, maybe they’re always a little late, it doesn’t really matter so long as that fault is merely a quirk in an otherwise pleasant (or at least intriguing) character. Nicole, however, is less a flawed character and more a grotesque amalgamation of flaws that somehow gained sentience and human form.
Nothing about her is likeable. As I mentioned earlier, she starts her time at school by deciding that she shouldn’t be worried about girls from her college being abducted because there’s no point in “getting gloomy.” Her greatest pride is her blog on Rollr. She whines that not being able to find her classroom building is surely a sign that she’s going to flunk out. She complains about receiving basic on the job training. She seriously asks another character to say something in a Southern accent because she thinks it’s funny, and cracks up when someone calls that character “Cowboy.” The character in question is from Alabama. But the moment I gave up on her was when she became jealous that one of her new friends was closer to his roommate than her, so she skipped class to intrude on their time together before announcing that they were, I kid you not, her “bro-tee-pee” (and yes, the game spells it out just like that). Nicole is an archetype of the most obnoxious, insecure, self-centered 15-year-old girl you could imagine, and she’s the main character. Sure she’s pretty, but pretty is not a redeeming character trait.
The story is just as much of a mess. Supposedly the game is a dating sim with a mystery to solve, but in reality it’s a boring time management sim with dating and mystery elements clumsily tacked on. I played the otome version of the game, which means male romance only. You can pursue 4 different guys, but I can’t for the life of me imagine why you’d want to. Ted is a bossy tsundere from Alabama. Jeff is an obnoxious tool with a grand master plan to become the future CEO of Herbalife by making artificial oxytocin out of flowers. Kurt is the most stereotypical and sexist jock character one could imagine. Darren the introvert was the only likeable guy, and he deserves better than a girl who tries to force him into outing his online persona to real people because it’ll be fun (and yes, that’s part of the game). Honestly, I was torn between not wanting to date three of the guys and thinking the fourth had never sinned so grievously that Nicole ought to be foisted upon him as punishment. Usually with VNs you have to carefully pick your dialogue to make sure you get enough points into a character’s relationship route, but in Nicole I was actively trying to pick the worst dialogue choices to avoid ending up with most of these guys.
It’s not like the routes are terribly challenging anyway. You can save scum before any dialogue choices to ensure that you make the right one, which I’d feel worse about that if the game didn’t specifically tell you to create a new save file in case you don’t want to romance a certain character. That’s right, the game itself tells you to cheat to get your ideal ending. Plus even if you pick the wrong dialogue, you can just ply the guy of your dreams with presents you bought online anyway which give you a huge bonus to your relationship. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had to do that to max out my relationship with the guy I picked, so good job Winter Wolves for sending a message that love can be bought. Oh, and one of the guys you can romance is actually the kidnapper. That’s not a spoiler, Winter Wolves advertised that as a selling point on the Steam store page.
The time management comes into play once you decide which guy you want to romance. You have to get your relationship with a character up to a certain level, but to get their best ending you also need to have leveled up a stat that they value, like amity or wit. If you ever played Always Remember Me, it’s a slightly better version of that. At least in Nicole you’ll always get a stat bonus for a skill you train, with no chance of random failure. But because you’re only focused on one guy, you only ever train that stat. And because only certain activities give that stat, you keep cycling through the exact same chain of events day after day just to grind that one element. Most time management sims go a whole year, but Nicole only lasted for her fall semester, and for that I’m grateful because I would have quit out of boredom by December in-game anyway. Seriously, I would have rather listened to an hour long presentation by a high school freshman on the history of ragweed than go through one more cycle of cafeteria-park-nap.
If you’re wondering if the mystery could possibly make up for the game’s other shortcomings, don’t hold your breath, it’s really horribly executed. The one speck of intrigue is when the mystery begins 51 days into the game, when Nicole starts getting disturbing Rollr messages that promise she’ll be the next victim. Now that could have turned into something really interesting, but I know Winter Wolves better than that and expected them to fumble this royally. Sure enough, Nicole decides that not only should she refrain from telling the police (or anyone else, really) that she’s being stalked and is likely the next victim, but also decides to take on solving the mystery herself. You know, because a first year pre-law student is so much better equipped for this challenge than an entire police force.
Solving the mystery, and I use that phrase as loosely as possible, involves you running around to do different activities that will result in you collecting clues. The game at least tries to implement some strategy to this, because you have to train up your other stats to get more clues. For example, at the start of the game I could only get about 5 clues, but by the end I could get 18 or 20 at a time because I’d trained up the amity stat for Darren. But again, only certain activities give you clues, so you just end up training your romance stat for part of the game and spend the other half grabbing clues. After collecting a certain amount of these clues, the player is punished rewarded with a cutscene that furthers the mystery by having Nicole ask her romantic interests about the kidnapped girls and going through newspaper reports. Brilliant work there, Nicole. You’ll make detective in no time.
Honestly though, the failure of the mystery is just a symptom of the larger issue that Nicole feels poorly constructed from beginning to end. None of the characters have much depth to their personalities; you just have the same two or three traits thrown at your face again and again, such as every interaction with Kurt involving a sexist joke or Jeff using big words to prove how smart he is. There were multiple instances where the game tried to introduce me to a character in October who I’d already met at the beginning of the game, which makes me feel like the editor couldn’t even be bothered to properly proofread this drivel. The game lets you collect clues at the very start, despite the fact that Nicole does not become interested in the kidnappings (and makes this point on multiple occasions) until you’re seven weeks into her semester. Napping is supposed to take two turns, but if you do it at the end of the day it’ll only take one and you still restore your energy and morale. Little things like that, along with boring mechanics and uninteresting characters trapped in an even less interesting story all combine to make a disaster of a game.
Part of me has been wondering if Nicole is perhaps geared towards a younger female audience that would be willing to forgive the flaws with the boys because they’re cute and ignore the problems with writing because they don’t quite understand how colleges or police investigations work. The game doesn’t appear to have a rating, just a content warning for sexual innuendo and scary moments. And the sad thing is, I can imagine a lot of younger girls would probably play this and walk away thinking it was pretty good. They might find Nicole relatable if they’re on social media all the time and treat her like Nancy Drew solving a mystery instead of an idiot who ought to seek police help. Not to mention the game practically holds your hand through building relationships and solving the mystery, almost like it was designed to be a kid’s first foray into the world of dating sims. That said, I don’t know how many teenage girls actually play dating sims or if that’s even the market Winter Wolves is trying to target. If they’re not the target audience though, I don’t know who it could possibly be.
Nicole is available from the Winter Wolves’ website and Steam. Don’t buy it. Don’t give these people financial incentive to continue producing boring sims with insipid characters and lackluster chains of events attempting to pass themselves off as a coherent plot. I’m positive that I paid pennies for this game in a bundle, and I deeply regret even giving them that much. This game represents 7 hours of my life that I’m never getting back. Just say no, guys.