How do you solve a problem like “reviewing video games whilst at the same time being terrible at playing them”? Well, I suppose you could, in theory, just lock yourself away in your room for weeks and play like crazy until you’re a true ace. But life is short, gameplay is long and I have a day job to do. Then, there’s always the George Wood approach – be an amazingly terrible reviewer (look up “Gaming in the Clinton Years” for the entertaining results). In spite of all evidence to the contrary, though, I would still claim that I prefer to avoid making a complete idiot of myself if I can at all avoid it.
Here’s my solution – review a visual novel, the genre where story is everything, gameplay is minimal, and if you’ve seen someone’s video of it on YouTube, you might as well have played it yourself. Such is “Code:Realize – Guardian of Rebirth”, and before going any further I’d like to thank ChorpsAway, Devious Vacuum and Dirili, who all did Let’s Plays of this game and thus saved me having to work out where the hell to actually buy it.
“Code:Realize” is a steampunk anime romance in which you play Cardia, a girl who has been hidden away in a secluded mansion in Victorian Wales by a scientist father who has told her that she is a monster who must be kept away from others. Given that she has dangerously corrosive acid for blood and a weird glowing jewel-thingy called the Horologium for a heart, he’s got a point.
At any rate, Cardia is rescued from her prison by Arsene Lupin (gentleman thief and famous literary character) and Impey Barbicane (genius engineer, rather less famous literary character and, in this game, the comic relief and thus a bit of a prat). They all head off to Steampunk Alternate History London, most of whose technology was invented by Cardia’s dad before he mysteriously disappeared. There they hook up with several other famous literary characters and/or real-life historical figures in an effort to find Cardia’s father (spoilers – he’s not a nice guy when found), solve the mystery of who or what she is and, inevitably, save the world along the way.
Oh, and because it’s a romance game, Cardia also gets to work out which of the several guys around her will be her One True Love, and those choices have consequences for the story. Victor Frankenstein, Abraham van Helsing and the Count Saint-Germain, all looking a lot younger and prettier than the source material or real life, are the romantic options along with Lupin and Impey.
It should be fairly obvious from even this cursory summary that “Code:Realize” doesn’t have an earth-shatteringly original plot. Alan Moore did “famous characters from novels team up to do good” in “The League of Gentlemen”; a Japanese descendant of Arsene Lupin was the central character of the “Lupin III” anime decades ago; at its climax, the “true” route even has vague overtones of “Return of the Jedi”.
However, it does make its plot work and most of our heroes are likeable or at least tolerable, or you get reasons for the less likeable things they do. Our villains are – well, you could call them proper villains. Let’s just say that if you like your bad guys to laugh evilly and act hammy, you will not be disappointed. Some of the ham deployed by the voice actors here transcends the language barrier, and possibly the time-space continuum.
The very nature of the medium means rather heavy demands are put on the suspension of disbelief. As always with visual novels, the artist only drew so much, and what they didn’t draw isn’t there, so the same backgrounds tend to come up repeatedly regardless of whether or not they’re supposed to show the same places. For the same reason, particularly epic battles have a habit of happening off-screen (or you just have to take the narrator’s word about the intense combat going on against an empty background) and there’s an awful lot of dialogue instead of action. You suspect that most real-life antagonists would have killed these heroes several times over given their habit of stopping to have long conversations with each other in the midst of fighting.
However, if you can keep disbelief suspended, there are rewards. Everyone gets some character development, especially Cardia, who begins as a girl with little knowledge of the world and a crippling lack of self-confidence caused by her belief that she is a monster, and ends as one who believes in herself as a human being. This mostly works through the power of true love rather than her own actions – although Cardia does get her moments as an action heroine – but then, this is a romance game.
It is rather old-fashioned in that way, with quite a bit of Cardia being a damsel in distress for the boys to sweep in and rescue. If you find that scenario problematic beyond belief, you won’t like “Code:Realize.” If it’s your favourite romantic fantasy, you’re probably the target audience.
The writers also seem to have done enough research into English history to make the setting convincing. It goes without saying that everyone looks and acts very anime, but at least this isn’t just Japan under another name. It’s fairly obvious that the real Queen Victoria wasn’t either the inspiring heroine or the megalomaniac villain that she gets to be at different points in this game. Real 19th-century Welsh people probably weren’t a bunch of superstitious peasants subject to regular famines and willing to form torch-wielding mobs at the drop of a hat either, but then what would a monster game be without a mob or two of angry villagers?
In the end, I was entertained by “Code:Realize”, and if you can turn off your inner cynical meanie and stop nit-picking, so will you be, and that in the end is what matters. Apparently the game has now been turned into an anime, which at the very least should show the action sequences more fully, so if you’re committed enough that too is presumably available somewhere.