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2014-07-06

Soul Link Review




Title: Soul Link
Alias: ソウルリンク
Release date: 2004-12-17
English release date: 2009-12-28
Developer: Navel
English publisher: MangaGamer

"Soul Link" was one of the earliest games released by fledgling MangaGamer. Initially there was a fan translation project, but then the translator went to work for MG and the game was eventually released officially.

"Soul Link" is frequently referred to as "Ever17 in Space" on the internet. How accurate that statement is I can not say, as I still haven't played the latter game, but the main premise is not so different. Both games deal with a group of people trapped in perilous circumstances: an underwater park for E17 and a besieged space station for SL. Another popular opinion on the Net is that the game has a pretty great first chapter and a sucky second one. I don't particularly agree with that statement, but let's leave that for later and start with an introduction.
Shuuhei is a real trooper.
Aries is a military space station orbiting our planet Earth and that's where our first protagonist Shuuhei Aizawa is headed to. Shuuhei is a young prodigal sergeant who managed to skip two years of military academy due to his high intellect and got an appointment to Aries, which he himself requested. The fact that both his younger brother and his love interest are currently students on the station might have something to do with that. However, what should have been a fun if unusual experience ends in catastrophe, when a religious extremist terrorist organization seizes Aries. Majority of the station personnel manage to evacuate in escape pods, but a small number of staff and civilians are left behind. They manage to barricade themselves in the station Sheratan module, while terrorists entrench themselves in the control module Hamal. Thus the war of attrition begins.

The VN has a prologue, whose events I described above, and three chapters, with each of those having a different protagonist. Shuuhei takes lead in the first chapters and with his quick thinking and combat training quickly manages to gain a tactical advantage over the terrorist group Jararacas. Shuuhei is a likable protagonist with natural leading abilities and a good sense of humour, who falls prey to the main flaw of the game. The VN simply treats its characters as plot devices and completely fails to flesh them out as human beings. As I continued to play the game and my dissatisfaction with it deepened, I realized that every single person is a cog with a specific function to play with no deviations. Here stands a leader, there sits a computer expert, over there lounges a vehicle expert, an inevitable traitor stands behind you and so on, so forth. Once you put all the pieces together, the game doesn't hold any surprises anymore and, the attack of "The Thing" knock-offs notwithstanding, all the plot twists can be predicted from a mile away.
Aww, she is so wifely.
I didn't mind such a formulaic design within the first chapter, as Shuuhei's fight against Jararacas is fairly interesting and his interactions with other characters, especially Yuu, are pretty funny. However, I wasn't so hot about Shuuhei's romance with his childhood friend Nao. Actually, all of the romance subplots in the game are so tragically written that I have to wonder if, by chance, there shouldn't have been any romance in the game, and it was added at the last minute on producer's insistence.

But let's return to Nao. She is a shy and soft-spoken childhood friend of Shuuhei and his brother Ryouta. Shuuhei really loves her and has even prepared a ring, but due to the action packed nature of the first chapter there is not much place left to develop Shuuhei/Nao romance, thus we are being TOLD about their love rather than SHOWN. Also, while I wouldn't say "What does he see in her?", Nao is not really a military material. She is such a damsel in distress that her being in a military academy is an obvious plot device to generate more drama. Still, the first chapter taken as a whole, and not examining the separate parts, is quite good. It has a proper ratio of tension and relief to work.
That is... a very good question, Ryouta.
Now, before delving deeper into the second chapter I should really talk about Shuuhei's brother Ryouta, who is our second protagonist. During the first chapter he is introduced as a wimpy stuttering background decoration with no purpose other than to annoy the reader. I knew beforehand that he is a protagonist in the second chapter and dreaded that - after all, one wimpy stuttering protagonist in "Chaos;Head" was enough to last me a lifetime. But then the second chapter came and suddenly Ryouta grew some cojones, took the leadership position and started ordering his "subordinates" around like a sergeant with 20 years of experience. Of course, it made the chapter infinitely better than it might have been, but at the same time it was so unrealistic that I just had to ask myself "How did it happen"? And then I realized: this is what I was talking about - a leader cog named Shuuhei left the mechanism, so a new cog has to fit the vacant spot. I don't know who wrote "Soul Link", but this just proves that he is a terrible writer and shouldn't be allowed to do anything more complicated than condom commercials on TV.

Sad thing is - "Soul Link" works... if you turn off your brain. It's just like a bad action movie - no real substance but nice explosions and it's pretty to look at. Just like that, the second chapter is a nice read, as long as you do not think too much. I'm just surprised that other characters (especially females) are also not thinking. The moment Ryouta acquired ten levels of badass, they all started crushing on him. Yes, despite the still looming terrorist threat, this chapter is mostly focused on slice-of-life and romance. Only at the very end is the state of open war entered again.
So, you played with cars instead of Barbies when you were a kid?
The first of Ryouta's romantic interests is Sayaka Nagase and she is a capable and quick-thinking young lady. Moreover, unlike with Nao, I do not question her presence on a military station. Not only Sayaka is quick with a gun, she can also drive most of the conventional vehicles, and some of the unconventional ones. Her romance with Ryouta is also the most realistic, as her crush on him has been evident since the prologue. Ryouta and Sayaka naturally progress from being friends to beings lovers and it is all quite sweet. Sayaka not only beats other two heroines, but also overshadows Nao, who is almost a non-entity by that point. The only complaint I have is that if Ryouta decides to take another route, Sayaka lets him go without any fight... or any expression of feelings for that matter.
That's the worst excuse ever.
Yuu Yamanami is the second love interest for Ryouta and her route leaves me deeply conflicted. Yuu is the only civilian on the Sheratan and a tough no nonsense woman to boot. Initially she scoffs at the other survivors and refuses to associate with them, but eventually warms up to them. Ryouta can warm her up even more and turn a strong independent woman into a love-sick puppy. Sigh... This is another of those ridiculous purely Japanese routes, based on the notion that a woman can only find happiness if she is feminine. At the very least Shuuhei treated Yuu as his equal - she should have totally gone for him, rather than his wimpy brother for whom she showed no interest whatsoever before the middle of the second chapter, when she suddenly decided to jump his bones.
Aki, the flying wondergirl.
Aki Nitta is the third heroine with the worst written romance arc I have ever seen. Her sudden interest in Ryouta is even more unexpected than that of Yuu's and the route itself is made of completely inane scenes that somehow completely manage to ruin Aki's character with no effort. You see, if you don't romance Aki, she stays a funny, sarcastic computer wiz, full of unspent energy. The moment you enter her route she turns into a wet blanket clinging to your arm and crying "Ryouta, save me!". My brain hurts just writing this and I want to forget the events of that route ever happened.

There are other important non-romanceable characters within the story: like Cellaria, Morimoto, Nanami and Kazuhiko... and a dog named Ku-chan, but I shall not talk about them as all of them have their own roles to play and it's more interesting to find them out for yourself. And I swear that Nanami does have a purpose and that she doesn't stay so annoying for long... I'm being totally honest.

A year after the English release of "Soul Link" Japanese got an updated version of the game called "Soul Link Ultimate", which added another heroine. I wonder if she was any good, but I'm not hopeful. Actually, it might be a blessing in disguise that we didn't get an updated version - it would mean reading through more of the bad writing prevalent in this VN.

I personally think that the writing is not the cause but the effect of the game's main problem. "Soul Link" suffers from an identity crises - it doesn't know what it wants to be. It's not really a sci-fi story, as the space setting could be easily replaced with any other closed location, like Nakatomi Plaza. It's not an action game, as all the action is compressed into a few scenes within chapter one and the very end of chapter two. It's not a charage, as the VN has some of the worst characterization of its personages I have ever experienced. It's not a nukige, despite quite a large number of sex scenes. It's not an utsuge, as it has a pretty happy ending. So, what the hell is it?! I don't know, and that is a major problem. The writer cannot make up his damn mind, and thus the writing is all over the place as he spreads his efforts way too thin while trying to cover many different topics.
Gale is such a badass that he doesn't even need to cover himself with a shield.
Maybe if the game had a strong villain to carry the game on his shoulders it would have been better, but Jararacas leader Gale is such a large ham, that it's difficult to take him seriously and his replacement is more of a looming evil presence than an actual direct threat. Thus in the end "Soul Link" is a game about cogs striving against a portentous evil presence while engaging in bad romance. And what the hell does "Soul Link" even mean!?

Conclusion: the game is an unholy mess, but it's not a complete disaster. The third chapter is very nice and actually manages to deliver some surprises, though I partially suspected some of the things revealed. It neatly fills in the gaps in our knowledge and even gives us a nice characterization for one of the more annoying members of the cast. The voice acting is fairly competent and even the protagonists get a partial voice acting. BGM is also very nice and some of the tracks actually reminded me of "Nocturnal Illusion"; I have no idea why. The VN is easy to finish without a walkthrough, though a 100 % completion is hard due to a high amount of bad endings. It annoyed my, though, that those bad endings usually were just abrupt ends with no story behind them. Just bam!, you are dead. For all the effort it took to reach some of them I expected more.
They are window cleaning.
The sex scenes were a mixed bag. "Soul Link" is quite controversial due to a high amount of rape scenes, but that actually was the least of the game's problems... or not a problem at all. I actually thought that romantic sex scenes that Shuuhei and Ryouta engage in were pretty ill timed and uninspiring (though Yuu's scene was quite nice). On the other hand, the avoidable heroine rape actually carried a much higher emotional impact. If it were me, I would have completely removed the consensual scenes and left only the avoidable (except for the dream sequences) rape in this game. IMHO, that would have actually worked better.

In the end "Soul Link" is a VN equivalent of fast food or a Michael Bay movie. Not so much due to the explosions, but because in order to enjoy it you need to turn your brain off. It's not terrible, but the amateurish writing does not help you in taking it seriously and it's missing most of the components I expect to see in a good visual novel. 

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site
Buy a digital release of the game from MangaGamer
Soul Link walkthrough (alternative walkthrough)
Soul Link font hack (because the existing font is terrible)

Final Verdict: 59%

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