XOXO Droplets is an exhausting slog through the worst elements of a half-baked imaginary high school.
Let me preface this by saying that I got the free version, which is apparently the “we couldn’t be arsed to care” edition of the game seeing as the first time I clicked on the CG gallery screen it crashed and took me to a different screen with all the VN’s code on it. Telling XOXO Droplets to continue anyway immediately loaded up a new game, where you get to pick your character’s name and a pretty ribbon to go around her neck as the potential threat of crashing lurks in the back of your mind. Delightful.
The game follows two years in the life of a young woman named Block, who is an impolite boy-crazy disaster of a teenager. Block constantly insults or mocks the other people around her as a primary form of communication, leading me to believe that her family ultimately sent her to a boarding school for two years not because they felt she deserved a better education but so that her parents and two sisters could have a reprieve from this incessant, unrepentant monster in their midst. When you arrive at SSB (your school whose actual name I could not be bothered to remember and the VN could not bothered to mention after the first week) Block is immediately assigned to a group of six boys and Lynn the androgynous counselor, as part of a school initiative to make kids more sociable, I suppose. Block discovers that these boys have been put together because they are utterly insufferable and would not have been tolerated by any other group at the school; in short, this group is SSB’s dumping grounds. Ten minutes in I could understand why.
Do you remember the kind of kids who attended your high school? How there were some kids who liked to poke fun at one another but would ultimately rally to their defense when the occasion arose? Students who might crack jokes but knew to apologize (or at least quietly make amends) when they took things too far? These are the folks you can remember as having had a few rough qualities that were especially apparent on bad days, but ultimately you were happy to have them around because frankly you weren’t exactly a blue ribbon prize back then either. On the other hand, there were likely a few kids whose best qualities might be something along the lines of “chews with their mouth closed” or “probably won’t murder me” seeing as there was little else about them which could be described in any manner as redeeming. Perhaps they were overly boisterous, perhaps they were completely full of themselves and regularly professed to be better than their peers, or perhaps they simply came into this world as a physical manifestation of humanity’s worst qualities.
I will give you a full minute to guess which caliber of teenagers make up the bulk of the story in XOXO Droplets.
I honestly cannot fathom what the writers were hoping to achieve by packing this dating sim full of only deplorable romance options. Trying to decide which boy to pursue was an absolute Sophie’s choice of a dilemma, complete with the residual guilt I felt afterwards for moving forward with any decision at all. Every boy besides Shiloh is a total prick. They’re either too good for their school (a private boarding school at that), too “mature” to deal with the rest of the student body, too educated to speak to commoners, or something along those lines. Their behavior and disdain is so over the top that it doesn’t even feel like real teenage angst, but more like GB Patch Games went out of their way to make these characters flat and built each of them around one miserable trait. The “downer” kid, for example, says Halloween is an excuse for criminals to run around and commit crimes while wearing masks. That doesn’t sound like an angsty kid with an actual gripe against Halloween, that sounds like the writers decided to pick one holiday which they were certain most of their target audience would like and then come up with a frankly stupid explanation for why Jeremy hates Halloween.
One of Block’s few established characteristics in this story is that she’s boy-crazy, as previously mentioned, so naturally she’s delighted to be in this group because even though the boys are awful, they’re still attractive (remember kids, it’s only a problem if ugly people are mean). Naturally she jumps on the insult bandwagon and immediately starts verbally sparring with her group mates, which infuriatingly makes up 90% of the interactions you see with this group and have to read through as the main route of the story.
I know that it’s unfortunately common for boys to verbally spar with one another as a form of bonding. Some of you may be wondering if I simply misinterpreted what was going on in XOXO Droplets, perhaps mistaking male bonding rituals for bullying. I can assure you this was not the case. The kids spent an entire getting to know each other activity mocking each other’s taste in movies. Block describes Everett’s eyes as belonging to “an empty shell of a man” because they’re so light. Two characters have issues with one another because Everett won’t stop belittling Pran’s best friend Jeremy, and Everett doesn’t see any problem with his behavior because in his mind Jeremy deserves it for being so weird. These people are straight-up mean to each other, tearing into their fellow group mates with the fervor of rabid jackals as Lynn uselessly sits on the sidelines and occasionally tells them to calm down (excellent use of authority there you hack).
When you’re not reading through the story elements in group meetings/debating the merits of forcible relocation to military school, XOXO Droplets has the player run the time management side of the VN. Your goal isn’t anything noble like building up a scholastic repertoire or working towards a future career, but rather the ultimate goal is simply becoming popular. SSB features six main cliques of students, because apparently we’re in a John Hughes movie circa 1985. The cliques are designed so that some cliques are indifferent to each other, while others seethe with outright animosity towards, say, the nerds. Each week you spend your weekdays on campus, either talking to a member of a specific clique or avoiding them to earn/lose points with certain cliques. Ideally you’ll have a tolerable relationship with all the cliques, because hitting 0 points with all of them guarantees you an early game over screen as your parents have to collect you from SSB before the teenage mob comes at you with torches and pitchforks.
I just got done with Seiyuu Danshi, and frankly following it up with something like XOXO Droplets felt as though I had just enjoyed professionally prepared filet mignon for lunch and then decided to finish off my day with a hamburger from Rally’s. The time management handling of the cliques in theory should run Monday-Friday, but your Wednesdays are almost always nothing days that only feature Block throwing out some stupid comment like forgetting her locker combination, lol, with no actual play time. On Monday you can pick which clique you sit with for lunch, but other than that the game will randomly pick one person you’ll encounter on the other three days of the week who could be from any clique. This is beside the fact that the kids are so petty you can raise your standing with their clique in the coming week just by equipping, say, a box of colored pencils on Sunday night.
There’s also a problem where I didn’t necessarily understand why Block had to have a good relationship with all the cliques. When you’re first introduced to the boys Shiloh explains that the reason no one likes him is because he tried to get along with all the cliques, and so people assumed he was being fake. Yet Block is told to do the exact same thing he apparently became ostracized for, and her success in the prom court depends on that (we’ll come back to that later). There’s this weird disconnect between what the story wants you to believe regular life and interpersonal relationships in the school are like, and what you as a player are actually trying to achieve.
The management sim itself is boring because there’s nothing you’re really specifically building towards. Pastry Lovers and Seiyuu Danshi both did time management well because there were always smaller, incremental goals that you were working towards to help move the story along with your bigger goal staying largely in the background. In XOXO Droplets, gaining more points with the cliques only helps you unlock more potential date spots with your chosen man, which might actually be rewarding if I’d wanted to go on any date with any guy. Otherwise you just need to keep your scores with the cliques above 0, and again that’s as simple as making sure you equipped the right stickers on Sunday night. Dating someone also raises your standings with all the cliques, because I guess these people really want you to be happy for some reason? Even if your boyfriend is straight-up antagonistic to their clique? Again, weird disconnect between story information and player goals.
That’s the meat and potatoes of XOXO Droplets. You have a core group of datable boys to pick from, either on or off-campus, who range in personality from mediocre to fish hooks in my eyes insufferable. The background characters are flat, the high school itself seems to promote toxicity (one character makes a “humorous” offhand comment that the cheerleaders apparently petitioned to have 2 downer kids banned from pep rallies), and your school might be running some sort of child labor ring through your weekend part-time job options. You spend your school week plodding through a dull time management sim with the hope of eventually getting a scene where Block and her date spend ten minutes of your time insulting each other on a weekend date. If you maxed out your relationships with all the cliques your only reward is getting to be prom queen, which I guess is something you’d want for an end goal after 2 years in-game? Nothing says cherished high school memories like being queen bitch of the horribles, I guess.
Also as an aside, XOXO Droplets had a slight issue where every person of color was either aggressive, moronic, or both, with the exception of Cala the child psychic, because of course what this VN needed was the magic black woman trope. This was only an issue because with exactly one exception, all the white people they’re juxtaposed against are kindly and understanding to the point of being canonized as saints by Pope Francis himself. I don’t think this was deliberately racist, mind you, but that’s also because I don’t think the writers are competent enough to deliberately craft bigotry into their narrative. It was hugely disappointing because XOXO Droplets is one of the few VNs out there that actually has a cast not primarily composed of pasty white anime sprites, and then they chose to make those characters as unlikeable as possible. Just another one in a series of failings here.
XOXO Droplets is on Steam in either free or pay versions, and you should get neither.