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2013-03-20

Nocturnal Illusion Review



Title: Mugen Yasoukyoku
Original title: 夢幻夜想曲
Alias: Nocturnal Illusion
Release date: 1995-04-21 (original release)
                       1998-11-27 (Renewal Edition)
English release date: 1998-04-15 (original release)
                                    2003-03-21 (Milky House Memorial Collection)
                                    2011-01-14 (Renewal ViLE Edition)
                                    2012-06-28 (JAST USA Memorial Collection Special Edition)
Developer: Apricot
English publisher: RCY America (original release)
                                JAST USA & Milky House (Milky House Memorial Collection)
                                JAST USA (JAST USA Memorial Collection Special Edition)
                                ViLE Project (Renewal Edition) (as a fan-program/loader)

This time I will review a timeless classic of visual novel world – “Mugen Yasoukyoku”, better known in the west as “Nocturnal Illusion”. It was one of the first Japanese H-VNs released in the occidental territories. Published by “RCY America” that died after releasing only two visual novels, it developed a surprising cult following, despite being a work of completely unfamiliar genre to many people.

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
-Dante Alighieri "Inferno", I, 1-3.
The REAL main character of the game.
“Nocturnal Illusion” has a special place in my heart, as it was the very first VN I have ever played more than eleven years ago. OK, I’m lying a bit. “Ring Out” was my actual first novel, but let’s forget that little fact, especially considering it’s all of fifteen minutes in length. It’s a real shame that after playing NI and “Divi-Dead” and almost crying at the greatness of those works, I failed to find anything of interest amidst the other visual novels and slowly forgot the genre until 2006 and the release of “Tsukihime”.

The original release of NI back in 1998 was heavily censored with sex scenes portraying two loli girls cut out. It’s a testament to the cult following that a fan-patch restoring the censored content was released. That wouldn’t be that strange today, but back in the dark ages of 1998... Luckily, all the subsequent re-releases by Milky House and JAST removed the censorship (by slipstreaming the fan-patch into the official product, no less).

The fan following doesn’t end at fan-patches, though. NI inspired an American author Jack Bushell to write a series of novels based on the game... and release them commercially. I haven’t read them and cannot know if they rise above a level of bad fan-fiction, but I really doubt the legality of his actions. The legality just might be the reason why the books are now OOP and not available through any outlet. Additionally, there was a project to create a fan sequel to this VN, but ultimately it fell apart.

All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.
-Edgar Allan Poe

“Nocturnal Illusion” is notoriously difficult to make run on modern systems. The original Japanese release was published for PC-98 and a subsequent Win95 release was a 16-bit program... as is the English version. Now, being a 16-bitter it won’t run on any 64-bit OS, period (yes, even the 2012 re-release, that is the only version currently in print). In that case, a virtual machine is one of the only three options (the other two being ViLE or Asenheim, as will be explained shortly). As I run Windows 7 32-bit, I managed to launch it, but not without some problems. It wouldn’t run at all until I did some changes to my registry. Note, the changes described must be applied before installing the game. If you have already installed it, you will have to re-install the game after the changes are saved.

To edit the registry:
1. Exit all open programs.
2. On the Windows taskbar, click Start > Run.
3. In the Run dialog box, type the following:
regedit.exe
4. Click OK.
5. In the Registry Editor, navigate to the following key:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\FileSystem
6. In the right pane, examine the following Name:
NtfsDisable8dot3NameCreation
7. If the Name does not exist or the Data entry for this name is set to zero, stop. This entry is not the cause of the problem.
8. If the Data entry for this Name is set to one, double-click the Name, change the Data entry to zero, and click OK.
9. Exit the Registry Editor.

The game still doesn’t run perfect – the graphical palette gets corrupted during the scene transition and you need to minimize and maximize the game window to get rid of the corruption by clicking the black bars, but at least it’s playable. The corruption disappears if the compatibility mode is set to Win95, but then the game refuses to run in fullscreen. I wonder what happens if someone tries to launch this game on Win8. It probably makes the rig explode.

Reality is a momentary dream, but a dream is reality for an eternity.
-Mistress
Let's face the probability of being decapitated.
Now, once we get the history and technical details out of the way, let's proceed with the game itself. The plot has a pretty unusual premise. Our hero Shinichi Kashiwagi (name can be changed) is a university student who decides to delve into his own spirituality and search for self identity. He decides that the best way to accomplish that is by going on an extended hiking trip in the wilderness with no one but his own thoughts to keep him company. As it happens in those instances, a typhoon hits the area he is camping and Shinichi slips and falls of the cliff. As he lays horribly injured, he is chanced upon by two women who bring him to a nearby mansion where they live. While the protagonist is grateful to his saviours, soon he realizes that there is something horribly wrong with the mansion and its many inhabitants. Despite his own experiences, he is assured that there was no typhoon in the area for quite some time now, disembodied voices seem to be heard in certain locations, people drop cryptic remarks that do not fit the time or place and some of them seem to be perpetually stuck in a certain position repeating the same motions over and over again with no awareness of the outside world.

The most pleasantly surprising thing is that Shinichi judges everything at face value. He is not in a denial or blind to the truth. He sees and observes and quickly discerns that he is in a quite extraordinary and possibly supernatural location. The mistress’ remark that the gates of the mansion sometimes open to let someone in, but rarely to let someone out also doesn’t remain unnoticed. It is explained that some people simply lose their way during their life journey (something, which reminds me of the first verse from Dante's "Inferno") and the game takes it to the logical extreme by making those lost souls find their way to the mansion, where they might be redeemed. It's quite a unique premise and one many can identify with. Our protagonist himself is not really that well characterized, but more because of his peculiar state. He is not a "blank slate protagonist", but rather an observer that drives the plot onward without himself becoming a center of it. Mistress says that Shinichi brings a wind of change, but in my opinion he himself is the said wind. He is here to play a role, to perform a function and that function is not to be a well fleshed character, but through his actions to flesh out the other inhabitants of the mansion.

Human emotions are like a labyrinth... that go on being reflected like mirrors for eternity.
-Mistress
When girls pull out their main weapon...
“Nocturnal Illusion” is a very easy game to play for a beginner to the genre and it is probably one of the reasons why it hooked me so well more than a decade ago. Unlike in many modern VNs, NI follows an almost linear path to the very end and only your last decision determines which of the eleven possible endings you will get. The game also employs the ancient “Look/Think/Take a dump” command based interface in opposition to modern choice based ones. I like the said interface and don’t have any complaints, but some people might be more spoiled than me.

During the course of your stay in the mansion you will get to socialize with the inhabitants of the mansion (only one of whom is male) and eventually snag your (mostly) happy ending with one of the female ones. I said (mostly) happy, because even the best outcomes are bittersweet at best, but that fits the theme of the game very well. Eight heroines get their own endings and three of them (Sari, Arisa and Mistress) have two - normal and good. I question the logic of getting the normal ending by simply saying "oh, I don't want the best possible outcome", but that is only a small quibble. On the other hand I admire how tight the plot of the game is. There are no unnecessary filler scenes with boring slice-of-life that are so prevalent in many a game. Starting with the beginning and to the very end the game involves you in an unrelenting effort to banish the past ghosts of the heroines with hardly a chance to take a breath. I admit, that the beginning chapter, which introduces you to all the inhabitants is a bit slow and might be boring, but that quickly changes when the character specific chapters start.

Everybody's life is a fable told by god.
-Hans Christian Andersen
Just don't become trapped in the past.
The most important female character in the mansion is probably Mistress, though she is not actually given a name in the game (useless trivia: Jack Bushell calls her Mikae in his novelization -,-'). She is not really the owner of the mansion, as no one owns the mansion, but she is the person that oversees and runs it. It’s not a job she likes, but it’s not like she has any choice in the matter. Shinichi’s arrival brings a wind of change to the mansion and Mistress hopes that he will be able to mend the hearts of its inhabitants and redeem them. Eventually she herself might turn out to be the person you choose.

Mistress frequently appears during the course of your adventure to drop cryptic remarks and put you on an appropriate path, but sadly she herself is dreadfully undercharacterized. NI lets you get emotionally close with quite a few female victims haunted by their past demons (sometimes literally), but we never learn what's exactly eating Mistress and thus your choice to redeem her comes out of the blue sky (if you choose this option) as you haven't had enough time to become acquainted with her on such a close and personal level as to seek to free her from her curse.
There is something very hot about short-haired women.
Maya at first glance looks like the most cliche Japanese representation of a crazy feminazi, but you have a chance to learn that she is a much deeper person than appears at first glance and has quite a legitimate reason to be angry at the male population. She is quite hard to sympathise at the beginning, but in the end she became my favourite heroine. She is level headed and is the only other person that actually investigates the mysteries of the mansion and is not broken when confronted with supernatural (unlike Kusayama). Maya also has one of the most satisfying endings out of all the heroines.

Miwako is a meido in the mansion and does all the menial work, including cooking, cleaning and etc. At first she appears to be very shy and even afraid of Shinichi, but warms up to him quickly. She is a lovable and kind-hearted person with a dark past (who hasn't that one in the mansion). Additionally, I really liked her sex scenes, as they played with the fetishes I enjoy. One big letdown was the ending, though. It was incredibly cliche and trite, playing on the overused meido fetish and even coming across as mildly offensive.
I'm not THAT scary.
Misao is a slight exception to the other guests/prisoners of the mansion as she literally rather than figuratively lost her way. It doesn't make for better circumstances - if anything, it makes everything worse. Misao appears to be a true free-spirited person with not a care in the world, but she hides a deep pain in her heart and only you can alleviate it. She is a cheerful person, but in my opinion slightly underused and underappreciated. The ending also leaves something to be desired.

Yukina is an enigma. She is a loner and appears to be scared of everything and everyone. In a slight subversion, she doesn't know what she is afraid of as upon entering the mansion she lost her memories. After Shinichi saves her life, they develop a connection and Yukina starts to slowly unravel the threads of her memory.

Yura is... well, it would be a spoiler to tell much about her. Let's just say that her story is a sad one and a true example of someone, who cannot let go of their past. Her chapter was well made, but the ending was too abrupt and unrealistically sweet. Oh well...

Sari is a mysterious silver haired beauty, who constantly waits for her lover in the back garden. She is never seen in the mansion proper and appears to be solely fixated on her vigil. Her personality appears to be distant and cold like a moonlight. She is an unusual girl, who rather than being tormented by her past is in denial of it. I liked both of Sari's endings, though strangely I found the normal one to be more fitting to the situation.

Arisa is probably the most mysterious inhabitant of this enclosed world and only Mistress appears to be even aware about her existence. It would be spoilerous to speak about her at length, but I believe her chapter to be one of the best and on par with Maya's and Miwako's. Also, both of her endings are absolutely great and fitting within the storyline (the good ending is especially touching).
That's a very specific denial.
Kusayama is the only other male inhabitant of the cursed mansion and is a direct antipode of Shinichi. He was obviously included to clearly denote the differences betwixt those characters, Where Shinichi confronts the hardships and scales the obstacles, Kusayama loses spirit and drowns his insecurities in alcohol. It's interesting to see his sanity unraveling and him becoming more and more unhinged when confronted with mysterious and supernatural happenings.

I feel that my existence disappears from this world once I fall into sleep...
-Miwako

Probably the greatest feat of "Nocturnal Illusion" is its ability to invoke an emotional response and its staying power. I played the game more than a decade ago and upon starting to replay I realized that I still remember most of the events and most of the emotions I experienced while playing it. It's miraculous how atmospheric the game set in a limited space and sporting very outdated looks can be in this day and age. On the other hand, I am a big fan of retro anime look, which might contribute to my appreciation of such games. I would take the graphical presentation of "Nocturnal Illusion", "Divi-Dead" or "Eve: Burst Error" any day over the looks sported by many a modern VN.

Obviously there is a very limited number of assets, as the game is set in a mansion. Backgrounds and colour palettes repeat themselves and soundtrack loops the same few melodies, but this minimalistic approach works incredibly well to create a certain mood and I don't think this is a nostalgia talking. At least not all of it. As I have already mentioned soundtrack, let's just say that I really like the music of this VN, as limited as it is. Incredibly, I fully remembered how it sounded after all those years.
In the words of a certain dwarf: "The best kind of magic... Lesbomancy".
When it comes to sex, NI is pretty low on H content and puts it in pretty appropriate places. The scenes are of a proper length and straight to the point, never becoming an "aah, ooh, slurp slurp, gasp" fest, like many eroge tend to do. The presentation is also pretty tasteful even when racier content is used, thus NI won't freak out novice VN fans if they decide to try this game.

Of course, it would be an injustice to forget, that NI was localized in English back in 1998 and as such suffers from many things associated with that stone age era. Censorship notwithstanding, localization leaves a lot to be desired. It's nowhere near as bad as that horrible butchery work that was inflicted onto "Divi-Dead" and doesn't appear to have any overtly noticeable mistranslations, but is still chock full of grammatical, stylistical and syntax errors. Despite that, "Nocturnal Illusion" is still one of the most quotable games I have ever played, with hardly ten minutes going by before someone proclaims a phrase worth jolting down in your notebook.

The more you think of success, the harder it gets to accept failure.
-Misao

It's important to mention that in 1998 a remake of NI called Renewal was released in Japan, but never reached the western shore in an official way. This remake re-touched the dialogue, re-done the art, remixed the soundtrack and added voices (even for the protagonist). There are ways to play Renewal in English though. The Asenheim Project and ViLE Project take care of that, at the same time squashing compatibility issues.
Way to shoot me down.
The Asenheim Project is an effort by Russian VN fans to make most of the old visual novels playable in your browser. Currently they have already ported 22 games, among them "Nocturnal Illusion" and its "Renewal" remake, fully playable in Japanese and English. In such way an old visual novel is compatible with any system that has a web browser. On the negative side, you cannot play offline. However, TAP has a big advantage of being the only way to play "Nocturnal Illusion Renewal" with voices!

ViLE (Visual Library Engine) Project was much more ambitious, but it hasn't been in development since 2011 and appears to be on an indefinite hiatus. Its goal was to create a loader program that would combine the script from an English release of NI with the graphical resources of a 1998 Japanese remake of the game, while at the same time increasing compatibility with modern systems. It never got out of beta, but is in a working condition. In short, you may play "Nocturnal Illusion Renewal" in English on most modern systems (including 64-bit OSes, Mac and Linux). The downside is that the voices from the "Renewal" edition won't play (something that was solved by Asenheim). It's funny, but the version of the loader that is supposed to be the most complete (0.4.8) has a bug that will frequently miss some lines. You actually need to download the earlier (0.3.24) version in order to play NI (though crashes still occur).
What a free spirited woman.
I gave the Renewal version a spin and immediately noticed the different, but at the same time familiar art. The graphical face-lift was done in such a way, that it's a clear improvement over the old Win95 release while at the same time upholding the familiar retro look. Natheless, I question the decision to remove the place descriptions from the new 3D map. That would make it so much more confusing to the person unfamiliar with the game. At the same time I can surely say that I absolutely prefer the old soundtrack over the new remixed version. There just was something really touching in those simple chords that is gone now.

In the end, "Nocturnal Illusion" still holds its own against many current H-VNs despite being almost eighteen years old. I can firmly say that it still remains one of my all time favourites and is worth checking out for anyone that likes mystery, drama and supernatural.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site for the original/Renewal versions
Buy JAST USA Memorial Collection Special Edition at J-list
Walkthrough (not that you will need it)
The official page for ViLE Project
Download an earlier ViLE version from Sourceforge
Download the Japanese "NI Renewal" edition from Erogedownload (it's OOP and technically abandonware)
Play "Nocturnal Illusion" through The Asenheim Project
Play "Nocturnal Illusion Renewal" through The Asenheim Project
For those interested, download the original Japanese PC-98 version of NI
Get a PC-98 emulator here

Final Verdict: 91%

6 comments:

  1. Anonymous26/3/13 18:56

    Hi there! I loved the article. I feel I should comment, though, to clear up this: "but I really doubt the legality of his actions"

    There's no need to doubt the legality. I hold full permissions from the copyright owner to use every aspect of NI as I see fit. I retain that permission I believe for fifteen years. If you'd like to see documentation I will provide it.

    My books are in and out of publication because of personal conflicts about the story and the places that I, sadly, chose to publish them. If you would like, I will provide you with a copy of the trilogy. I don't make a habit out of doing this but would be happy to in this case. My email is pyrestarter@gmail.com . Please feel free to contact me.

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  2. Hi there, i will just say that i always read you blog and this is just the first time i coment. For me this was my first visual novel and like you when i replay it a few months back i rember exactly all the scens and what my 13 years old self felt when i played it. This VN was my favorite of all time (till i played Fate but thats another story).... Srry for my bad english.

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  3. I'm curious as to why you don't respond to comments. I took just a hint of offense to the legality issue you put forth in your NI blog post and set out to rectify that issue with you. I even went so far as to offer you a free copy of my out of print trilogy. I've waited a few days, thinking that since there's not two hundred comments on this post I would at least get a "no thank you". I love your blog but there's certainly an etiquette to be pursued when establishing a 'comments' section. Perhaps, and I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt, unlike you favored me in your post, it was merely an oversight. Have a fine day.

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    Replies
    1. Dear Jack, no need to become offensive. I have written an e-mail to the address in the first post and thus I didn't see a need to comment here. I'm curious if you didn't get it, or maybe it went to the spam section an you didn't check there. Please check and get back at me. Have a nice day.

      Delete
  4. Jack Bushell2/4/13 18:58

    Dear Beliar,

    I commend you on handling my offensiveness with tact. Not very often does one encounter such...grace...especially when dealing with people online. I do apologize for being a bit rough, if I was. I've set my e-mail to automatically purge spam so I probably didn't receive your e-mail. Please feel free to try again if you'd like as I've temporarily adjusted the settings. Best regards, Jack

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Jack, I have re-send a slightly updated e-mail to your address. Hope you will get this one. Keep in mind though, that I might have no chance to post anything or send any more mails until the middle of the next week ("might" being the keyword).

      Delete