Although the scenario writer is almost always the most important determining factor in the overall success or failure of an eroge, in terms of the number of sales (particularly preorders), the artist has the biggest individual role. Many consumers will purchase an eroge solely because of the art style and/or one of their favourite artists is working on it. As a result, there's the temptation by some companies to avoid putting similar effort into recruiting a writer of equal ability to the artist and structuring an effective plan for the scenario, as it may have little effect on the sales. Often, these so-called 'art' games also feature an ordinary 'default' setting with a slight twist to set their game apart, without making a significant attempt to innovate or depart from a default 'school' setting. In the case of Princess Lover, the focus of this review, this is the high society setting and characters, whereas others might use a trap protagonist, unusual club activities or a few magical or supernatural elements/heroines.
Princess Lover! (hereafter without the exclamation mark), released in 2008 is the debut eroge of Ricotta. The company was in charge of the planning, and they enlisted they highly prolific writer Shouta Onoue to work on the scenario. While the bad writing is evident in the scenario, Ricotta didn't provide a good plan to work from, as will be highlighted later in the review. I should mention that although this review consists largely of nitpicking, I'm not sure how else I could write it, as Princess Lover is an eroge that's very inconsistent across the board, ranging from excellent art to an ill-conceived plan. As an aside, I haven't seen or read much about the anime adaptation, however given the thinness of the story in the game, the clear separation of content and the relatively high amount of ero content, I suspect that the anime is significantly different from the original.
The scenario of Princess Lover goes roughly as follows. After the death of his parents in a car accident, the protagonist Teppei Kobayashi is visited by his grandfather, Isshin Arima, an exceedingly wealthy and influential figure in Japan's economy who proposes to adopt Teppei as his successor. Teppei is suddenly transported from life as a commoner into the upper echelons of high society, moving into a vast mansion with many servants, including his own personal maid, attending the wealthiest school in Japan, and joining the elite social club, which only consists of a handful of select students. After this, the scenario splits off into four routes, each of which have very similar plot structures. Despite what the title implies, only two of the heroines are princesses, and there's not a particularly strong emphasis on romance.
While the winnable heroines are arguably the most important characters in an eroge (and I think Princess Lover succeeds resonably well here), the most difficult character to write well is generally the protagonist. Unfortunately most of the time, Teppei is one of the most useless eroge protagonists I've encountered, being slow, stupid and with a tendency to be overly passive but occasionally prone to rash actions. In spite of this, all the heroines are mysteriously attracted to him almost from the beginning of the story. Additionally, none of Teppei's actions have any lasting consequences, as the story resolves very coveniently on each route to lead to a good ending. While it's understandable that there are no bad endings, I'm not sure that Princess Lover succeeds as a feel-good eroge, as the resolutions on each storyline are often a bit too far-fetched.
For a character driven pure love eroge, secondary characters are likely to be less important, or to have a minimal connection to the overall story. This is not to suggest that the sub-characters should be omitted, but rather that they should serve to complement the 'winnable' characters, Vincent and Maria being good, well-written examples of this. Unfortunately, a majority of Princess Lover's sub-cast is unpleasant and suffer from poor repetitive dialogue. Alfred, Charlotte's butler is rude and does nothing but insult the protagonist; Seika's two flunkies, Ayano and Erika are cold towards all characters bar Seika, and show nothing but scorn and disdain for the protagonist; and Haruhiko, the self-proclaimed best friend only serves to annoy with his fixation on everyone's blood type (it's never made clear why the latter three are in the social club either). Ayano and Erika in particular are two of the worst and most pointless characters I've encountered in any eroge. Although much of the protagonist hate is richly deserved, the delivery of it is lacking. This would not be so much of a problem if the insults were witty and varied, but when characters constantly harp on about the protagonist being useless, a commoner and the like, they wear rather thin very quickly.
With regards to the setting, Princess Lover is certainly one of the most hypocritical eroges I've played. The social club (or high society club), is described repeatedly as something which all students aspire to join, but serves little practical function outside of organising events and is essentially more of a symbolic institution that the students of the most elite families belong to. On one hand, the club espouses morals/superior standards (on at least one occasion, it's mentioned that yawning in school is unacceptable, as the social club aspires to a higher standard of behaviour than the 'normal' students) and the story repeatedly emphasises that even minor mishaps may create a social scandal. Although several factors in the scenario undermine this, the main one is the are random ero scenes in inappropriate places that would create far more of a social 'disgrace'. On two routes, the protagonist and heroine briefly dance with each other at the annual ball (attended by numerous high society figures), and then disappear into a convenient room for the next few hours. Other scenes take place in the library, in the perennially empty nurse's office, in a restaurant,in a back alley, and in the dining room of Isshin's mansion. Of course, none of these scenes are ever noticed by other characters. While a lot of eroges use similarly unrealistic locations, in combination with the repeatedly emphasised tenets of the social club, this creates a fundamental disconnect between action and belief throughout the game, that's too jarring for me to overlook, as it makes some of the serious plot-related scenes on each route feel very odd.
Besides the art, the ero content is the other main selling point of Princess Lover. The scenes are generally long, the quality of the art is high, and if it's your thing, there's plenty of urination. It's also worth mentioning that the ero is one of the few occasions in the whole game where the protagonist switches from pacifism to sadism, making the scenes feel very out of character. There's a definite disconnect between the sex and story, not only because of this characterisation, but also as mentioned above, due to their often being no sense of reality to their placement within the scenario. There's not enough ero (27 scenes overall) for Princess Lover to be considered as a nukige or for it to be worth purchasing for the sex alone, but even so, a reasonable portion of the text on each character's route consists of ero-scenes. While one could easily delete all the ero from Princess Lover with only marginal changes to the scenario, that would leave very little of merit in the game.
While I enjoyed some parts of Princess Lover, these were almost without exception the ordinary character interactions that could easily have taken place independently of the game's setting. Although this review is quite negative, I'm not trying to suggest that Princess Lover is an outright landmine. Unlike a lot of other eroges that I've given a similar score to, which often meander through their story without any undulations, Princess Lover does manage to deliver a clear beginning, middle and end. However this game drops the ball so badly in some areas, that it makes it difficult to recommend even to people who are drawn to the game because of the art and ero. Ricotta's Walkure Romance was released a few days ago, and despite some criticism of the story and pacing, the early reviews suggest that it's superior to Princess Lover in all aspects. Thus, there's little reason to recommend Ricotta's first title.
Overall Score: 57%