2016 has been a year of surprises for us here at Okazu. Among the many firsts, was the very first time I managed to get through a Yuri Visual Novel, with the extraordinary Kindred Spirits on the Roof. Since then, I’ve had a number of opportunities to try out other Yuri VNs, but so far, being compelled to complete a story has eluded me. You know how I am. ^_^
Imagine my pleasure, then, when Highway Blossoms, from Alienworks and Sekai Project became the second Yuri VN I completed! High praise indeed, since I’m such a curmudgeon about the VN format. ^_^ I was provided a beta version of the game by co-creator Josh Kaplan – we’ll be talking to him later in the week.
The story has a unique setup – Amber is escaping dealing with the death of her grandfather who raised her, by traveling to California in his old RV. On the way, she picks up a hitchhiker, Marina, who involves Amber in a treasure hunt and a life-changing set of experiences.
Right off the bat, being freed from the confinement of a school setting was refreshing. The backdrop of an RV road trip was both uniquely American and a little nostalgic. Most Americans my age remember a great deal of their childhood spent on highways going somewhere or other. ^_^
The dialogue is some of the least awkward I’ve read in a VN, although I am already exceedingly tired of the cynical/naive pair that seems to be common in VNs. I know that writing original characters is hard, but I have to say, I think folks who work in visual novels make it seem a little bit harder than it actually is. ^_^; Luckily for us, both Amber and Marina develop quite a bit during the course of the story.
I’d like to give the writing some props here, as that is, by far and away, the thing that keeps me interested. The achievements have no meaning to me and I find the whole unlocking-an-image-as-a-reward really exhausting and unmotivating. On the positive side, Amber is presented to us as a woman who has had girlfriends in the past, and is apparently well past discomfort with that, generally. Her feelings around Marina are, specifically still a bit of an issue, but it’s not that she’s attracted to Marina that’s the problem, it’s the relationship she’s created with Marina in her head that is the issue. Later in the story, we catch a throwaway side character flirting with Amber and it doesn’t faze her at all. Apparently fandom has embraced that pairing, as they do so often with the unlikely.
The treasure hunt, which seemed silly on the face of it, became a terrific lead-in to a tour of American western landmarks. I quite liked the travelogue bits and think the story could have stood up to a few more cheesy bits of Americana. ^_^
Acting as foils to Amber and Marina, are a trio of characters that I can honestly say added almost nothing to the story except a trio of characters. I wish so desperately they were written like really decent humans, rather than stereotypes. Again, I appear to be alone in this, but the screaming was so very unneeded to move the story or character development along. Every scene the “trio” showed up, I unconsciously rewrote in my head to make shorter and more meaty. They could have functioned as society, as foils, or even enemies, but ended up more often just being tropes. The few times they actually added something to the story I was relieved. And they did, ultimately add to the story…they just could have added so much more.
The romance developed rather naturally, along with the story. A few of the scenes were genuinely touching and sexy. There is a voluntary patch that can be added in to supply adult scenes. They didn’t add anything specific to the story, but weren’t terribly written, which was a relief. There was one oddly realistic moment in the sex scenes, that was kind of dumped in our lap, but never dealt with, that I honestly had no idea what to do with as I read. It’s left hanging, unresolved and while real, felt out of place.
But these are small nitpicks in what is otherwise a very satisfying narrative. Individually, weak elements might be weak, but as part of the whole, it hung together rather well and I was actually moved to finish the darn thing.
In Louis’ review of Starlight Vega he discusses the place of sprites in the VN mechanism. I have to say, I found the transitions here much more natural….but I am still befuddled at the refusal to take a half second and simply draw the characters more naturally in keeping with the text. “X puts arm around Y”, could really just be a still of X with their arm around Y and I will forever not understand why it isn’t. I still find the 2-Dness of the characters awkward and in some places, laughable, specifically when they are being flipped back and forth to show them “looking around.” Coulda just turned their head, but nope. I’ll never fathom this, apparently.
There is no gameplay as such. You receive achievements as you complete scenes. There were a few goofs in the beta version, the journal entries were misnumbered and I was unclear on the meaning of some of the achievements, but Steam assures me I gained them all. Phew. The achievements have rather cutsey names and so am not sure what some of them actually refer to in the story.
The soundtrack is worth mentioning and while I personally often turned it off, because I read faster without the distraction, the fact that it was original music that suited the tone and location of the story was fun and impressive. The soundtrack is available for purchase as a separate download and I can definitely see folks wanting that on its own.
The art is generally good and has moments of excellence, with one exception. There is literally one scene that was clearly put together by a different team and was glaringly not as good, but all the main art pieces were lovely and a few worth adding to my Yuri screensaver. It was in the art that you could clearly still see the Japanese VN influence.
So…was Highway Blossoms good? I’d say yes.
Art – 8, with one scene as an exception
Story – 8 Generally satisfying
Characters – 9 They grow on you, which is a sign of good storytelling
Yuri – 10 Yep
Service – 5 There are the optional sex scenes, but they are surprisingly not skanky or service-y
Overall – A solid 8
If you are looking for an entertaining, and pretty chunky Yuri Visual Novel, I’d recommend Highway Blossoms for a nice bit of storytelling, freed from almost all of the most stifling tropes of Japanese media. And, at the moment it’s 15% off on the Steam store, which makes it a steal at $8.49 for decent bit of content and a few hours worth of fun.
Check out the trailer if you haven’t already and let me know what you think in the comments!