The Royal Trap Review

Title: The Royal Trap
Release date: 2013-02-23
Developer: Hanako Games
Publisher: Hanako Games

"Hanako Games" is one of the three best known commercial original English language visual novel makers currently in business; the other two, of course, being "Winter Wolves" and "Sake Visual". It's a real shame that Hanako prefers to create stat based simulations and very rarely gives us pure visual novels. "The Royal Trap" is one of such exceptions.

First things first... I fucking love the OP song for this game! The first thing I did after hearing it in the game, was to seek the full song on Youtube (there is also a remix version). Both are sung by Natasha Cox of "Mankind is Obsolete". Now, while the song was great, the actual soundtrack of the game was nothing exceptional - it fit the VN quite well, but not a single tune has been left stuck in my head after I finished it.
Oh, lookie, the lovebirds.
So, what this game, with a clever double entendre for a title, is about? It's about royal politics, intrigue, swashbuckling action, romance and other things... Princess Cassidy of Gwellinor has reached her majority and the festivities are raised in her honour. Five foreign royals were called on for the honour of participating in the celebration, but only three showed up: Gaston of Bardowen, Nazagi of Asineth and Oscar of Ocendawyr. This being an otome game, neither of them is a protagonist. Rather you are Madeleine Valois, a valette to prince Oscar - his attendant, advisor and bodyguard. The festivities proceed normally with nothing to disturb the peace: the presents are given, the dances are danced and the princess is kidnapped... Wait, what?! Immediately your prince becomes one of the prime suspects, as he was the last person to be with Cassidy. It's your job to make sure that the suspicion doesn't become a conviction, but soon the situation spirals completely out of your control.
Is it just me or does the king look kinda ridiculous?
TRT is set in a medieval (though closer to Renaissance) fantasy world without any fantasy. There is no magic, dragons or a seven hundred foot tall Wall. There is plenty of backstabbing though - that is common to all faux medieval worlds. We don't see the wider world and our knowledge is confined mostly to the castle, which is a good thing. That removes a need for HG to invent a new elaborate setting with countries, people and customs. We don't know where Gwellinor is or what religion does Ocendawyr follow and it all works quite well. Sometimes less is more. Annoyingly there are a few things that were hard to follow. Madeleine talks way too freely to the royals. Somehow I dreaded her head rolling more than once as some of her initiated conversations are almost disrespectful (or maybe George R. R. Martin just ruined me to non-violent fantasies). The other thing that really bugged me was the overall insecurity of the Gwellinor's castle. In one of the paths it fell so easily that it was almost laughable and don't even make me start about those under lock and key constantly escaping and wondering the castle without anyone noticing. A castle of fucking blind bats.

Nonetheless, there were quite a few details that pleasantly surprised me and actually reminded me of my favourite fantasy series "Kushiel's Legacy". Hanako's created a world where royalty follows a matrilineal succession just like the Cruithne people in the Legacy, Additionally, I first encountered a Queen being called a Wisdom in the third book in the said series. Oh, and let's not forget all that faux French :-)
Action! Cut!
While some elements of the setting might be a bit wonky, I found the plot very solid and well written. Actually, very well written as far as writing goes, as Hanako manages to give distinct voices to all the characters and actually fools us into believing that the action is actually happening in the supposed time period. There are no noticable anachronisms out of place or weird expressions that would disrupt the flow.

As I have already said before, one Madeleine Valois is our protagonist and she is a very believable and, what is more important, relatable protagonist. She is loyal, courageous and determined; might be too modern for the period, but this is a fantasy world, right? What's even more admirable is that she also looks out after herself. Madeleine knows that she cannot stay with Oscar in her current position forever and is ready to snatch any opportunity to increase her standing and ensure her livelihood, if the opportunity presents itself. She is even ready to do some less than moral things if the situation called for it. Madeleine is a well fleshed character and her inner monologues provide ample insight into her thinking, and she thinks that she has most chances to float if she attaches herself to one of the possible four princes. Cue the suitors...

Oscar is Madeline's osananajimi prince and her employer. Up until know she was taking care of him in order for him to make the best impression everywhere he went. Of course, it's a bit harder to do with a person like Oscar as he is a bit clumsy and, well, too good-natured for a prince. He is already in love with Madeline, which she is aware of. It's your choice if you answer with the same feelings or not. Sure, Oscar is cute and sweet, but he is somehow less characterized than other princes; Hanako focused on his good nature and that is mostly all (there is a reason why his route is called "The Squire"). Contrary to his good nature, Oscar's route is the most actiony and the things really go to hell in comparison with the other ones. The ending is the most fairy-taily, though. Yes, you guessed it, they married and lived happily ever after. Still, overall I hold this route in high esteem and give it the first place as it works the best logically, has the best romance and the most logical introduction into his path. I think that Hanako really borked the believability by giving us so little interaction with the other suitors before the split. The route you enter almost literally depends on one single choice.
Apparently glasses have already been invented.
Nazagi is a prince of ill repute with sinister rumours floating about him. Those rumours mostly relate to the fact that he is a farmakeist - a fancy word for alchemist in the game's world. And alchemists are generally severely disliked in all the countries, except for Nazagi's homeland Asineth. Asineth itself is obviously based on Japan, which becomes painfully clear after talking to Nazagi, who himself is eastern looking and wears something resembling a kimono. His route is called "The Spider" and for good reason too. Nazagi is a plotter and a manipulator, seeking to advance his own agenda and you might fall right into his web. I really admired Nazagi's cold ruthlessness and Madeline's willingness to go with his morally questionable plans. I loved the ending of this route the most and the route itself stands in the second place for me.

Oh gods, it sparkles! Yes, I'm talking about Gaston of Bardowen who takes his fashion lessons from Edward Sullen, though there is nothing sullen about Gaston. There is a reason why his route is called "The Jester". Before I started the route I wondered how in nine hells is it even gonna work between Madeline and our dear prince. Never fear, for it works really well as the path goes in a completely unexpected direction. Additionally, Madeline itself manages to find affection and understanding in a completely unexpected place. The writing here is very thoughtful and touches on such societal problems as the need to pretend and display a mask in order to be accepted in the society at large. Oh, and Gaston is a yuri fanboy, which is always a plus. Despite my initial prejudice, this is a really competent route that stands along that of Nazagi's.
Actually she's talking about his perfume.
The fourth available prince, whom I haven't mentioned yet, is no other than Cassidy's younger brother Callum and he... Oh, screw this! Burn him with fire! This fucking route is a fucking disgrace. Madeline, who in all the previous paths was a competent action girl suddenly becomes a doormat and whiles her time sucking on prince Emo's face. I am at a loss of words of how bad this route is. The only reason to play it is in order to finally find out who the fuck Dolores is (though even that is only hinted and not told straight).

Dolores is a treacherous and self-serving page in the castle and surprisingly she has her own two endings (no yuri for you though). Sadly, her route is just a very short off-shot from the Callum's route and gives absolutely nothing as a reward. I don't even like Dolores, so why should I go for her if she provides nothing new plot wise?
Considering he looks kinda like Viserys, give him a crown of molten gold. That would serve him right.
Now, that you have read about the suitors, let's read some more about the intrigues. It's a real pleasure to read a work that gives you so many red herrings that your supposed Genre Savvyness gets completely lost among them.
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

It's a shame that the routes are not locked and if you play Callum's route first, you know the real identity of Dolores. Of well, the bad is offset by the good and there is plenty of good in this game. For example, I didn't expect to read so well expressed ideas about the roles of sex and gender in this game. Colour me surprised.

From the talks about plot, to the technical details. It's very unusual, but this visual novel uses both ADV and NVL interfaces at the same time - ADV is used for dialogues and NVL for narration. I don't remember ever seeing a VN that does the same. Sure, "Suika" also used both, but in different chapters. The other technical details are much less impressive.
A sound suggestion.
The CGs that are sparsely peppered throughout the game are gorgeous and frankly some of the very best I have ever seen in an OELVN; the other graphics are much less impressive though. The backgrounds are terrible, they are sparse of details and really do not fit the rest of the game. They look like they were taken from a 3D game from early '90s. The situation is even worse with sprites... to a certain degree. The paper dolls of the four main princes are quite good, however those of side characters use a simpler drawing style and sharply contrast with the former ones. Even Dolores, who is a winnable character, is not exempt from using a worse art. Alas, the worst thing is that all the sprites have only one position that never changes. That is mitigated by the portraits that show the emotions of the persona talking at the current moment, but some positions the sprites are perpetually frozen in are frankly ridiculous. Dolores again gets the shaft - she is stuck in such an absurd pose that my jaw almost dropped to the ground (I'm sure her arms were hurting by the end of the game). And don't even get me started on a fact that her clothing doesn't even look like a page livery. Still, if "Winter Wolves" and "Sake Visual" usually manage to do really graphically impressive games, I gather that Hanako can do that too. With more polish it could have been a great game - now it's only a good one.

Ultimately, this is not a game that you will play for the graphics, but for story which is really solid and surprisingly male friendly. This is no sappy romance (unless you go for Callum), but a true medieval mystery. Moreover, there is a huge replay value as the VN has 15 possible endings and the character paths are vastly different. A sequel would be a good idea... with a larger budget, of course.

In the end I want to mention a small personal gripe of mine and that is a lack of a proper yuri route. The game cockteases us with having Dolores as a winnable character, but there is no actual girl love. For once I would love to see a visual novel where the main character is a female bisexual and the GxG paths are equal in quality to BxG ones.

P.S. As a finishing touch it would be fair to note that there are two versions of the game: the standard downloadable edition and a DVD edition which also contains a HD version of the VN as a bonus.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Hanako Games' website for the game (buy a digital edition of the game here or download the demo)
Buy a physical release of the game
Ren'Ai Archive page
Georgina Bensley-Okerson's blog
Lemma Soft forum thread
The Royal Trap walthrough (note that there are some mistakes, especially regarding Nazagi's bad end)

Final Verdict: 76%


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