I mentioned a while back that I’d acquired a copy of School Days HQ from JAST USA/JList, but I didn’t play it very far due to a few rather nasty bugs that unfortunately made it on to the master CDs. Two rather hastily-deployed patches later and the game now appears to be fully playable without issue, which means I can get stuck into it. I’m now two “episodes” in — I’m not sure how many there are in total — and ready to give some first impressions.
School Days HQ, for the uninitiated, is a remake of a visual novel originally released in 2005 for Windows, PS2 and PSP. It’s unusual in the visual novel genre in that instead of static backdrops with characters and text overlaid atop them, it’s fully animated. “Fully” might be a slight exaggeration, as the game has something of a tendency to cut to images of the sky or a particularly interesting piece of ceiling whenever something that might have been difficult to animate happens, but for the most part the game looks rather convincingly like an animé series you’d watch on TV and, occasional strange cuts aside, is well-directed, with good use of split-screen and other special effects. In essence, it’s an interactive movie rather than a visual novel, but it tends to be lumped in that genre due to its similarities in structure and gameplay. And, of course, the fact it has bonking in it.
Said gameplay involves a lot of watching and occasionally making decisions that will branch the story off in different directions. You can’t afford to sit back and relax in School Days HQ, however, because decision points come without warning and “expire” after a short period of time — effectively making “say nothing” a valid option in most situations. This is an unusual feature for visual novels and for narrative-based games in general — the only other recent examples I can think of are The Walking Dead from Telltale and Heavy Rain, both of which have more in common with the visual novel genre than more “conventional” game styles. (I suppose choosing not to do the Paragon or Renegade actions in Mass Effect might sort of count, too.)
School Days HQ’s narrative is all about close personal relationships, a favourite theme of mine. Protagonist Makoto finds himself sitting next to class cutie Sekai when their seats are rearranged, and through a bit of underhanded manipulation on Sekai’s part, admits that he has a bit of a crush on the very shy Kotonoha, a girl from another class. Sekai, who firmly establishes herself early on as a complete control freak, makes it her goal to get Makoto and Kotonoha together and succeeds in her machinations.
Both Makoto and Kotonoha are almost painfully awkward together, however — extremely hung up on the conventions of polite Japanese society and not quite sure how to cope with the prospect of a relationship — it takes two dates before they’ll call each other by their first names. Sekai, meanwhile, appears to have her own designs on Makoto, but so far in the story has done nothing but help the couple — with a bit of gentle teasing along the way, however. Given that she took her “payment” for getting the two together in the form of a kiss from Makoto and then spent her train journey home crying, however, it’s clear that all is not as it seems with Sekai, and I’m expecting a distinctly messy love triangle as the story proceeds — something which has already been rather strongly foreshadowed.
So far I’ve very much enjoyed what I’ve seen. The animation and voice acting is decent quality, the subtitles appear to be well-translated and the timed decision points give the player a strong feeling of involvement even though, as usual for the genre, they’re relatively infrequent. The characters are interesting, and the plot, while seemingly mundane, certainly has a lot of potential to head off in a bunch of different directions — including, as I understand it, some distinctly fucked-up ones. Which is nice.
As with many visual novels, the game is specifically for adults and features explicit sexual scenes. There haven’t been any yet, but given that the game supports bona fide wanking machines for both sexes, it’s fair to expect that there will be at least a few on the game’s various paths. There’s also the usual unnecessary (but seemingly expected) “fanservice” throughout — there were two rather gratuitous shots of shimapan in the first episode alone, though the second episode seemed to restrain itself from further pervertedness — fitting, since it largely revolved around Makoto worrying whether or not him attempting to hold Kotonoha’s hand would make her see him as a “pervert”.
I’m looking forward to continuing through the story. Its episodic nature means that it can be easily digested in small chunks like a TV series — and I mean this literally, as each episode opens with a short teaser, plays an opening title sequence and ends with a credits crawl. As such, it’s an experience that can easily be fit around other things or marathoned all in one go.
Will I get a good or bad ending, though? That remains to be seen. I hope I get a good one. I kind of like these characters.