Backloggery

Backloggery.com

2013-08-22

Hourglass of Summer Review




Title: Natsuiro no Sunadokei
Original title: 夏色の砂時計
Alias: Hourglass of Summer
Release date: 2002-05-30
English release date: 2004-07
Developer: Princess Soft
English publisher: Hirameki International

“Hourglass of Summer” is one of the visual novels released by “Hirameki International” in a DVD-PG format, which makes it nigh unplayable if you don’t know what you are doing. Even if you know what you are doing, this format brings its own share of problems and thus HI eventually got rid of DVD-PG and started releasing games for Windows. That didn’t save the company, but we have overeager hackers to thank for that.

So, “Hourglass of Summer” – a romantic nakige masquerading as a light sci-fi visual novel. The concept actually works quite well, but the game has its own share of debilitating problems that do not let it rise above mediocrity. However, let’s leave the shittiness for later and focus on the basic premise first.

The summer vacation is coming close and our inept protagonist Makimura Kotaro is just lazing around and being a usual dumb as fuck eroge protagonist (not that fuck is dumb). He also has a longstanding crush on an ephemeral ojou-sama Serizawa Kaho, who is as unreachable to him as yesteryear snow. However, it suddenly changes one evening when on his way home Kotaro realizes that he is being stalked. You can choose to either confront the mysterious person or run from “him”, but in the end the outcome is the some – you crash right into this person and two things happen: you learn that your stalker is a woman and you are sprinkled with a mysterious luminescent powder. Well, Kotaro’s assailant escapes and he himself goes home, has a bath, goes to sleep and wakes up on… September the 1st. Yes, you get it, Kotaro traveled through time only to learn that somehow during the summer he became Kaho’s boyfriend and Kaho herself died just yesterday in an auto accident.
A perfect disguise.
Kotaro continues jumping back and forth through time with an intention to change the timeline so that Kaho avoids her unfortunate demise. On the other hand he might decide to break the timeline and come close to one of the other four girls of this game.

The game draws many parallels with Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol series as it portrays the time as fluid and flexible, meaning it’s particularly hard to change the future. If you remove the cause of some future event, the timeline snaps around the disturbance and creates another similar cause that results in the same event. Additionally, Time Patrollers present in the VN might or might not be a shout-out to Anderson as the game has many Western pop culture references that were not introduced by the translation. For example, the game starts with the protagonist quoting Heinlein’s “The Door into Summer”, which makes it the second VN I read within a month to do that.

Despite the consistency the game treats time travel with, it also rises some hard to swallow reasoning behind it. It is revealed that corruptions in the timestream sometimes spontaneously appear and Kaho’s dying was not part of a proper timeline. After accidentally bestowing time travelling powers on Kotaro, TP Lee Jane leaves it to him to restore the timeline and save Kaho. That’s it! It's expected of us to believe that a perfectly ordinary school boy would be a better problem solver than a time patrol agent! Meanwhile she herself does absolutely nothing! On the other hand she might be right, considering what happened to Jeanne d’Arc after she tried to help her. -.-'
We actually get a face during CGs.
Now, once the premise of the game is quite clear, let’s shift our focus onto the protagonist. Makimura Kotaro makes me quite conflicted. It is undeniable that he is one of the dumbest if not the dumbest eroge all-ages visual novel protagonist… at least in the first third of the game. It’s commonly accepted that visual novel protagonists are usually your everyday not very smart high school boys in order for the game to relate to the target audience, but if that is true, the writers this time were aiming for children with Down syndrome as their target audience. Let me give you a few examples of the sheer idiocy that the game expects you to swallow:
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

After all this brain cell killing activity, Makimura suddenly… becomes competent once Mana’s arc hits. He quickly discerns causes and effects and manages to do some pretty awesome things. It’s like a completely new writer came aboard and decided to make Kotaro likable and strangely he is partially successful. The game can clearly be split into four distinct parts: Prologue, Mana’s arc, Tomomi’s arc and Character Route. If you can slough through a completely horrible prologue part where Kotaro is acting brain dead, you will find a pretty nice and engaging game. Romance is done in a pretty believable way, and the girls are mostly likable even if their routes suck for the most part.

Yeah, keep counting.
Serizawa Kaho is the first girl and the game tries very hard to present her as the main one. Majority of the events are Kaho related or have something to do with her, though Ai is a second strong contender as many choices force you to choose between Kaho and Ai. Kotaro has a false idealized idea of Kaho as he has never really talked to her. He is just in love with an ideal modest and beautiful yamato nadeshiko girl he sees at school. He has no idea that Serizawa is not happy with her life as her freedom is constantly constrained by her extremely strict and cruel father. She believes that he hates her, but surprisingly it’s Makimura who first conjectures that he actually loves her too much with a deformed love and wants to preserve her unchanging in her gilded cage. It’s no wonder that her favourite work of fiction is Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. I found Kaho’s path sweet and worthy of reading, but disliked how many of Serizawa household problems were handwaved away at the end. The game strongly implies that now all Kaho’s problems will go away, as she finally found a boyfriend. The enmity with her father is barely addressed which left a sour note over an otherwise good route. Natheless, the epilogue was hilarious. Lee Jane trolled Kotaro really hard in this route :-D
An obligatory klutzy scene.
Seno Ai is Kotaro’s osananajimi and one of his only true friends. She vies for the main heroine status with Kaho, but my opinion of her is quite mixed. Ai is a cheerful genki girl and her upbeat personality perfectly complements Kotaro’s more serious outlook. Cute fangs and tripping on her own feet are also included in the package. She lives with her father who is constantly pestering Kotaro to marry his daughter. Of course, Kotaro treats that as a joke and is a complete donkan when it comes to Ai’s feelings. I personally like girls with the personality like Ai’s and by all accounts I should have liked her, but…
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «
That brought her into a creepy territory and I’m not a fan of such character traits.

Titless Twintail Monster No. 2
Lee Jane is a Time Patroller that started the whole mess of Kotaro jumping through time. At first she is elusive and keeps away from Makimura, but eventually he corners her and she has to come clean. Lee Jane is fickle and kinda childish for her role, but later we learn that she had the natural ability to time travel since her birth, so of course it was obvious why she joined Time Patrollers. Her irresponsible personality hides a deep seated loneliness as she can never get close to anyone due to constantly having to time jump to various periods. I don’t have much else to say, as she is such an underemployed character that it’s kind of shameful. Her route is the least realistic in the romance department as I never felt like she made any deep connexion with Kotaro. That is mostly game design problem, though.

Let’s talk about that game design problem that almost kills the game – Kaho’s, Ai’s and Lee Jane’s routes are identical! Yes, once you finish one of the above routes there is almost no new material upon trying to reach a different route. Let’s see how my own reading of this VN looked like. Upon finishing Kaho’s path I went for Ai. Her route looked like this: skip skip skip skip skip new scene ending. All in all there was at most an hour of new reading material in her route tops. Lee Jane’s path was even worse in that regard. Her epilogue fits neatly into 15 minutes. It would look like an unfinished route if not for the fact that you have to pick particularly counterintuitive choices in order to reach Lee Jane’s ending. This was a fatal game design flaw as those three routes were made completely interchangeable with almost no new scenes for the different characters. Luckily it all changes if your go for Mana and Tomomi as these paths branch much earlier and have a much different structure.
Apple rabbits or rabbit apples.
Kawamura Mana is a swimmer. She swims when she trains, she swims during her free time and she probably swims in her sleep. It’s no wonder that Makimura calls her a mermaid. The plight in her route is not that different from that of Hinata in “Edelweiss”, though it’s treated less seriously and off-handedly here. Mana is a typical kuudere and at first appears cold and indifferent toward Kotaro, but he manages to make friends with her, especially due to his weird antics in her presence. Lee Jane claims she is one of the two persons involved in Kaho’s death and that prompts Kotaro to become close to Mana. Nonetheless, her route plotting is kind of weird. Tomomi's arc never hits and it's never explained if the events in it were resolved in any way or not. Additionally, you spend most of this route preparing for a special event... and that event happens offscreen. It's like the writers were building for something great and ended it all with a whimper. Despite the weak ending, some really great ideas were thrown about, especially regarding learning to live for oneself instead of for the expectations of others.
Where does it all fit?
Yanagihara Tomomi is your Hollywood Homely science teacher and a supernatural freak to boot. She of course wears thick glasses and a messy hairdo, but ditches those in the end for a "more appealing" look. I don't think I like the implications and personally found her better looking in her usual garb, but what am I to contest the needs of the public. Tomomi is my favourite heroine personality wise and her special interest in the supernatural phenomena makes her the most relatable from Kotaro's point of view, but her route kind of stinks as it goes absolutely nowhere. It's basically a diluted version of Tomomi's arc present in Kaho's, Ai's and Lee Jane's routes. That arc was exciting and suspenseful. Sadly, it was simplified for Tomomi's own route and again ends with a whimper, where it ended with a taser before. At the very least, Tomomi owns a doll rabbit named "Harvey". That's one serious Easter Egg; I wonder how many people got the reference.

In addition to the girl specific endings, there are 10 bad ends and, as I have already mentioned before, you must specifically chase them, in order to get them. Getting any bad ending will net you a music gallery password and girl specific endings will unlock passwords for CG galleries. The password system itself works quite well, but still cannot replace normal save/load functions of a PC game. Actually, “Hourglass of Summer” has an H-version for PC in Japan with a subversion. The all-ages PS2 release came first and that’s what the English release is based on. Later a completely different company ported the Playstation version to Windows with added sex scenes. In my opinion that makes the all-ages release a definitive version and the English audiences are not missing anything.
No VN is complete without a male best friend that gets no pussy.
In a technical department HoS is not stellar. The graphics are nice, but nothing that hasn’t been seen in many other VNs. The sprites are pretty and their expressions and positions adequately portray the character emotions, but there is a very limited number of them. It becomes really funny to see Ai’s sprite with her hand raised above her head for the hundredth time. Some more variety, please. However backgrounds are the greatest offenders. It’s not that they are not pretty – they are. No, there are so few of them that many scenes become ridiculous. To make a few examples, characters are talking in a pool, but we see a generic corridor, characters are talking in a hospital, but we see a street in front of a hospital, characters are talking at school, but we see the field in front of a school and so ad infinitum. The number of backgrounds is lower than the number of fingers on both hands and they are reused for completely unfitting scenes. It is obvious that the game was made on a shoestring budget. It doesn't help that this specific DVD-PG version runs at 1 fps. No, that's not a joke! It was actually recorded at one frame per second and thus animations and scene transitions take forever to load. It takes good ten seconds for a sprite to move across the screen. That's what I call an exercise in frustration.

If a shoestring budget was allocated to the graphical presentation, then the dubbing got a lion’s share. Not only all the heroines and the protagonist are voiced. Every single character, even if they appear for one scene only, is voiced too. If that weren’t enough, narration is also voiced. It’s astounding and probably one of the main draws of this novel, because voice acting is quite competent, even if there are no exceptional performances. On the other hand, the soundtrack is nothing impressive. It's also worth mentioning that the English release is bilingual and you can actually choose to play in English or Japanese.
Meido will clean all your mistakes away.
The English translation is a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, the honorifics and Japanese name order are mostly preserved, which is a big plus for me, especially considering I didn't expect it from such an old localization. However, there are quite a lot of spelling and grammar mistakes within the text. Moreover, by listening to the speech it became apparent to me that the translator flubbed quite a few parts. There are many scenes that appear identical, but have mild variations. For example, near the end of the common route Kotaro gives a letter to Takeshi and asks to give it to Kaho and Tomomi (in Kaho's route) or just Tomomi (in Ai's route). The translator probably copy-pasted the translation for the scene from Kaho's route into Ai's and the scenes became identical in English, where they differed in Japanese. That also introduces a plot hole. I also encountered some head-scratchingly bad translation choices with three of them being especially striking:
1. Japanese word "mansion" is translated as "mansion", where actually it means "apartment complex". It's extremely hilarious to listen how Kotaro describes Tomomi's "mansion"... LOL
2. Word "ペンダント" is translated as "necklace". I can not only hear, but also see that it's a friggin pendant. Now I'm becoming convinced that the translator was blind and deaf.
3. And the worst offender of all is... Tomomi-chan uses a preservative agent called "ホルマリン". Why the fuck was it rendered as "alcohol"? Did the translator think that an average VN reader won't know what formalin is?

Oh well, "Hourglass of Summer" is not really a good game, but not bad either. It's just so average that time travel can barely lift it above a mass of similar games. Interestingly the best written part is the common route and namely Mana's and Tomomi's arcs (after Kotaro stops carrying an Idiot Ball). Actual character routes are mostly bland and forgettable.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site
Waybacked official English site
A guide how to run the game on a PC
“Hourglass of Summer” walkthrough
Buy the game at: Amazon.com, Amazon.ca or Amazon.co.uk.

Final Verdict: 64%

0 comments:

Post a Comment