Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gakuen Redux

'In Gakuen Redux the past, the present and the future come together. The only love, the only regret and the only second chance. This is really her. This is the awakening… to the final school story.'
In accordance with the title and tagline, ATP Projects' Gakuen Redux is the story of Azasuke, a 27, almost 28 year old man, who while not being unhappy with how his school life turned out, constantly dreams about those days, how he was unable to fully appreciate them at the time, and how he could have better taken advantage of certain opportunities. In particular, there is one regret he carries with him – that of his first love, Miyori, and the chance he missed with her in the past. One day, after going to sleep, he wakes up in the body of his younger self, from twelve to thirteen years ago, putting him in the second year of high school. No in-game explanation is provided for this redux phenomenon, and the writer, mikey, intended it to be a simple 'wish come true' event. In any case, how the redux occurred is not at all important for the story itself.There are a lot of details about the setting in the readme, which is modelled on an Eastern European high school. I'd strongly recommend reading them before playing, as even though certain events described in them are only briefly touched upon, or not mentioned at all in Gakuen Redux, they help to fill out the overall world view.

In the average school eroge, it's common for protagonists in 'school' to skip classes, or even to sleep through all of them (while eagerly rushing to school to be on time for them). The actual contents of the classes are seldom depicted, and although events like exam cramming are quite common, it's hard to take them seriously, when in many cases the writer doesn't even describe what subjects the characters are having difficulties with. Indeed, almost all of the school eroges I've played have used the school mainly as a place where the characters gather together, as part of a larger plot.

Perhaps creators have gone down this path because they're unable to see the appeal of school life. In one sense I'd have to agree – after all, not many people would want to reread/relearn calculus in an eroge, nor to mention that this would require the authors to be on top of their subject matter. However, what's fundamentally missing from most school eroges, and what Gakuen Redux does extremely well, by being able to contrast pre and post redux experiences, is conveying the impression of being a genuine teenage student, of being someone who is still under the sway of his parents and the school environment while wishing for what he had as an adult in his pre-redux years.

In the first half or so of the game, there is the contrast between the pre and post redux situations, as the protagonist recalls his past experiences, and tries to change the present for the better. In addition to the obvious benefits that come from increased age and knowledge of the past, such as the ability to make money based on knowledge of future events, what also stands out in these sections, is the protagonist's ability to understand his surroundings and relationships with other people. Azasuke is not just able to understand the difference between teenage and adult relationships, but as a result of his past experiences, can also appreciate what his parents and teachers were thinking at the time. That said, despite his self-justifications, at times his thinking patterns are likely to cause difficulties for the player, as even with his pre-redux knowledge, in many, many places he still lacks the courage to take the correct, or logical decision, and at times suffers because of that. I don't want to give anything away about the latter half of the story, but I will say that the last two chapters in particular were fantastic, and were a perfect conclusion to the game.
It needs to be said here that the game's writing may be problematic for some players. Firstly, there is no dialogue, and the story is entirely written in first person from Azasuke's perspective. Gakuen Redux is already a rather long story as it stands (well over 100000 words), and with the addition of dialogue could well have been half a million words or more. Conversations are generally described by highlighting the essential contents of the scene, interjected with Azasuke's own thoughts on the situation. I personally liked this approach, as it was quite easy to imagine what might have been in the gaps, and I wouldn't mind seeing other eroges take this approach. Additionally, Gakuen Redux began life as an English story, which was then translated into Slovak, before being retranslated into English for the final game. As a result, the sentences are often short, and sound relatively odd in a direct English translation – something which mikey wanted to preserve that feel in the final version of Gakuen Redux, as a reminder of the Slovak version. In addition to the sentence structure, which may put some players off the game, there are also a few too many noticeable spelling and grammatical errors. With everything else Gakuen Redux has to offer though, I found this to only be a minor issue.

Although I've primarily focused on the unusual aspects of the story in this review, rest assured that the approach taken with the art and music is similarly unique. Due to the very large cast of characters, some compromises had to be made the amount of art, which results in an unusual minimalist, but highly effective approach. All of the art is black and white, as the added time Although the art uses a handful of CGs and tachie for important events and characters, most of the female sub-cast are represented by a small, circular facial portrait on the left of the screen instead of tachie. Out of necessity, the game uses a very large number of backgrounds, and it would again be impractical to draw them by hand. Although the use of filtered photographs is very common in free games, Gakuen Redux's reduction of them to black and white outlines creates an effect similar to lineart, and helps unify it with the overall artistic presentation. The music, composed by evo, is largely trance based, and the total length of the tracks is approximately an hour. For a game of this length, that's more than an adequate amount of music and the quality is also high – it remains one of my favourite eroge soundtracks, and it's possibly (with the possible exception of some of evo's other work for mikey's games) the best I've come across in a free game.

This is the only ADV/VN I've played that I'm not willing to attach a score to. My scores are all given relative to other games, but despite having played hundreds of eroges, I still haven't found anything remotely comparable to Gakuen Redux. When I initially finished Gakuen Redux, after it, I thought that I'd never want to read another school-based game, as it truly felt like 'the final school story'. This was prior to me learning Japanese, so obviously I've read numerous school-based games since then. However, none of them have been able to make me recall my own school years as vividly as Gakuen Redux, and for that reason alone I'd commend the game to others.

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