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2013-06-29

Phenomeno Review

Title: Phenomeno
Original title: フェノメノ
Release date: 2012-06-16
English release date: 2012-10-02
Developer: Nitroplus
English publisher: Suimin Chuudoku & Pin201 (as a fan-patch)

While the name of my latest venture into visual novel world is "Phenomeno", it has little to do with a Dario Argento movie and even less so with that film starring John Travolta. Instead it is one more VN from "Nitroplus" that caught my attention.

The "Phenomeno" novel was first released on the Internet as a collection of two scary stories. Later the novel was expanded with an additional story and published in "dead tree". "Phenomeno" the visual novel only turns the very first story called "The House that Grants Wishes" into a game. Actually that is a kinetic novel as there are no choices to influence your outcome and the text is a 100% carbon copy of the one present in the book. It's no wonder that after Suimin Chuudoku translated the book into English, a Russian guy named Pin201 took the translated text and made it into a patch for the game. Oh, and did I mention that the game is completely free? Must have slipped my mind.

Imagine you are Siri Keeton  beliar. You download the game and Pin's patch. You put the patch into the game folder and you click "Start_Game" as is said in the "readme". Imagine you get an error message and spend the next 15 minutes in a WTF state. Imagine that Pin201 bundled the patch with NTLEA - a locale emulator similar to "Applocale". Imagine that if your computer is in permanent Japanese locale you have to launch "Phenomeno_en" instead of "Start_Game", because otherwise the game will crash. Imagine Pin forgot to mention any of that in his "readme". Imagine giving him a well deserved spanking on the buttocks, so that he doesn't forget to mention something like that ever again...

"Things that bother people also bother ghosts"

So, I finally managed to start "Phenomeno" and immediately noticed that it has a minimalistic look not dissimilar to that of "Saya no Uta". As I said before, such minimalistic look really does wonders to a horror story. The backgrounds are blurred photographs with sprites sometimes superimposed on them. Sprites themselves are well drawn and the infrequent CGs denote the key moments.
The culprit of the story.
The protagonist and narrator of the game is one Yamada Nagito, going by the handle Nagi online. He is also an occult fan and a frequent visitor to "Ikaigabuchi" web community, which is basically a hub for supernatural maniacs to hang out. Nagi recently moved from countryside to Tokyo and with a huge luck (?) managed to rent a cheap house in the suburbs. Of course, as a famous proverb says: "Only mousetrap has free cheese". Soon mysterious scratching sounds start in the middle in the night and in the morning Nagi finds a numeral 7 scratched into a wall. He at first dismisses it, but when later numerals 6 and 5 appear in visible places, he realizes that something or someone started a countdown the moment he entered the house. Out of his wits, Nagi called for an offline meeting for "Ikaigabuchi" members, hoping that one of the occult veterans will be able to offer a solution. Sadly solution is not forthcoming. Many members of the community come to the meeting, but immediately dismiss Nagi's concerns. They are here for one reason only - to meet a mysterious member of the community named Yoishi. There are many urban legends regarding Yoishi, but they all agree on the fact that bad things happen when he or she attends the meetings.

That is the basics of the story and it is quite a short one. "Phenomeno" can be finished in just about 2 hours and it is its greatest strength and greatest weakness. It is undeniable that this VN packs a punch. I would go as far as to call it a genuinely scary story. I played the game at night with my headphones on and I tell you it was an uneasy feeling. I wasn't scared, mind you, because there are not many things that can scare me, but "Phenomeno" was a first VN in a long time that... rattled me. Its mixture of story, graphics and audio effect is very effective in striking the most primal chord in your brain. Nevertheless, the game's greatest weakness is that it's a... oneshot. While "Saya" was a short visual novel, it was also a self-contained one, telling the story that didn't need to be expanded on. While "Phenomeno" is a self-contained ghost story, it leaves lots of room for additional material, especially regarding its core enigma Yoishi. It doesn't feel that this game is complete, but rather that it's a small piece of a larger universe.
Sometimes you learn what you didn't know.
The personages are also quite shallow and as this is a solely plot rather than characterization centered novel. Actually, there are only two persons of note in the game. Nagi is the catalyst. He jump-starts the plot by moving into a supposedly haunted house and we get to see his psyche unraveling under the pressure, but despite being a protagonist I wouldn't call him a main character. The game centers around Yoishi - a mysterious girl who supposedly brings bad luck to any meeting she attends. Yoishi is a seriously bizarre character that appears to feel no emotion apart from those related to her investigations into supernatural. Yoishi doesn't care about herself or anyone else and her soul only blazes in the presence of the unknown. Talking about the unknown, another character called Krishna almost word for word recites the famous Lovercraft quote about the greatest fear of mankind, which is not strange in the least as Nitroplus previously released two VNs directly drawing from the influence of the Grandmaster. We never learn what Yoishi is, but the end of the game strongly hints
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

I have to say, that while the story is not very deep, it's surprisingly unpredictable. I didn't expect it to end the way it did and was pleased with the conclusion, though there is one plot point that is very hard for me to swallow:
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

"Darkness is as lukewarm as water and as bottomless as water"
Decipher the enigma.
The other two stories do not have visual novel adaptations, but the book is fully translated, thus I will talk about them too. The second story or case, as it is called, is named "Self-responsibility-type" and is a direct sequel to the "House". Rather than following the conclusion, it draws upon the briefly mentioned incident in an abandoned hospital where Yoishi's ill gained reputation originated. Nagi, after recovering from his previous ordeal, decides to clear her name and deduce the secret of the mysterious "hospital that grants wishes".

Strangely, despite a similar thematic, the second story belongs more to a mystery genre than horror. After a visit to the hospital, Nagi is being pursued by a restless ghost, but the story moves at a much more subdued pace than in the predecessor story. The atmosphere of creeping dread is still present, but doesn't have a comparable impact. Of course, I must own that it might be just because it is not a VN. After reading the text version of the "House" I noticed that without the audio-visual aspects to emphasize it, it was nowhere near as scary as the game. Still, "Self-responsibility-type" focuses much more on the relationship between Nagi and Yoishi and puts the psychological aspects of the story in the foreground, thus making it a mellower tale.
Applied mathematics for ghost understanding.
However, the second story is just as unpredictable as the first and presents some very thoughtful ideas at the conclusion. Sadly, Yoishi is still an enigma and an unexplained presence with no wraparound for her story. The next tale doesn't have her present in an active role and we will probably never find out more about her. On the other hand, maybe it is beneficial to leave the most important character a mystery in case a sequel will be created.

Additionally, I would like to mention that at one point in the story a character performs a divination using fingers. I don't know if that was a made up technique or if it really exists within Shinto, but I would have liked explanation courtesy of either the author or the translator. Now the whole sequence flew right over my head.

 "This world is an abyss, and it's endlessly entertaining"

The third and the shortest tale is called "Raven Notes" and is a prequel to the "House". It literally happens just hours before Nagi's monologue at the beginning of that story. The protagonist of the story is our friendly neighbourhood fortuneteller Karasu who appeared in small roles in both previous tales.

Nearing the age when it is hard to find a boyfriend, Karasu decides to register on a dating site and is immediately contacted by someone claiming to be a demon. This demon insists that he previously met Karasu when she was a schoolgirl and that she somehow escaped his grasp. He is interested to find out how she did it and how she managed to stay hidden from him for all those years.
H-hey! It's not like I want you to accuse me, or something!
The following short story is a trip down the memory lane while switching between present time and Karasu's schooldays. I found it to be interesting but purposefully unclear as nothing is explained. The demon's nature is a complete mystery and even Karasu cannot even begin to imagine what it is and why it does the things it does. On an unrelated note, this tale also gives us a small glimpse at a child Yoishi, though her involvement here is minimal.

On the whole, "Phenomeno" is a quite interesting study into supernatural/ghosts and gives just enough to tickle our imagination, but never sates the appetite. One could even call it a cock tease. It's an interesting visual novel/book, but it never reaches great literary heights like other Nitroplus works.

Also note, that translation is pretty bad. It's awkward, stilted and in some places simply incomprehensible. Grammatical mistakes are galore and syntax is crying. The translator really needed a good editor... or twenty to fix this mess. It's readable, but grammar notwithstanding I couldn't understand a few places and I blame the poor translation for that. This is just a warning so that you wouldn't come seeking a translation quality akin to that of "Saya".

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site (download the visual novel here)
Download English patch
Read all three translated stories from Phenomeno novel

Final Verdict: 77%

7 comments:

  1. Anonymous4/7/13 04:39

    Good review I enjoyed reading it. I too wish there was more to the first case. The ending felt unnatural and it seemed like it was just cut off in the middle.

    ReplyDelete
  2. As I've said already the 1st book wasn't fully translated as a printed version of it has case:03『「襖の向こう」』.
    Also there are 2 more books already released that continue the story and were actually advertised after the end of the VN:
    http://imageshack.us/a/img856/1503/clipboard01ue.jpg

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  3. Oh and lastly "Raven Notes" is just a bonus story that was released for a short time on the same site that has the first 2 cases.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the clarification.

      Delete
  4. Anonymous6/8/13 19:13

    does the novels (Book) come in English?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have provided links to the fanlation site of the first book. It contains the translations for the first two stories and "Raven Notes". Also, apparently Suimin Chuudoku has recently started the translation the last story of the first book.
      However, if you are asking if the books are licenced, the answer is no. You cannot buy an English version.

      Delete
  5. Anonymous8/8/13 22:39

    I see cheers mate!

    ReplyDelete