Dark Hunter Review

Titles: Dark Hunter: (Jou) Ijigen Gakuen & Dark Hunter: (Ge) Youma no Mori
Original titles: ダークハンター ㊤ 異次元学園 & ダークハンター ㊦ 妖魔の森
Aliases: Dark Hunter: Strange Dimension School & Dark Hunter: Demon Forest
Release date: 1997-04-04
Developer & Publisher: Koei

When it comes to "unique", "Dark Hunter" might not take the first place, but it is surely one of the most unusual examples of a visual novel you might find. Developed and published by Koei, it was the second part in Shibusawa Kou's "English Dream" series - a franchise of educational interactive movies developed to teach Japanese students English language. Rather than creating some boring dry educational disc, Shibusawa envisioned to use engaging storyline and visuals to wrap the teaching aid. "English Dream" might not have become a series he desired, but two games, "Emit" and "Dark Hunter", saw the light of the day.

"Dark Hunter" was released for Microsoft Windows, Mac OS, Sega Saturn and PlayStation. However much I scoured the Internet, I was completely unable to find the first three versions of the game, and the PlayStation version, which was released last, is the only one available for download on obscure sites. "Dark Hunter" was actually released in two separate parts, with the second part being a direct continuation of the first one. So, lets take a look at this strange chapter of history and see what it has to offer.
A fancy dictionary.
The first game, "(Jou) Ijigen Gakuen", or "Strange Dimension School" introduces us to a secluded Jigen Academy, which serves as a spiritual healing place for students with psychological issues and disruptive behaviour. Kayano Mariko is a recent transferee to the Academy, who after her father's new marriage, started experiencing strange hallucinations of vines creeping along the walls and ceiling of her bedroom. Diagnosed with a psychogenic reaction born out of jealousy towards her new stepmother, she was shipped to Jigen Academy, where her hallucinations abruptly stopped. Mashimo Ran and Cher Mulligan are the newest transfer students, who enter the Academy at the start of the game, three months after Mariko.

Ran is a cold and aloof guy, secretly obsessed with revenge towards the man who murdered his father and older brother. Born from a family of talented psychics, Ran displays skills in telepathy and psychometry, and these talents were a reason his family was targeted. A few years ago he accidentally encountered the face of the murderer in an article about Jigen Academy, where he was named to be the headmaster Kuji Shougen. Cher Mulligan appears to be a provocative exchange student with an easy going attitude. She recklessly drives a bright red sports car, smokes within the school territory and displays a standoffish behaviour, however she also has a secret agenda centered around the school.
Yeah, getting used to anal probing by alien slugs.
It's not really a spoiler, because we find that out pretty early, that the game centers around interdimensional plant-like invaders, who inhabit human hosts and seek to wage the war against humanity. These invaders set their headquarters up within the Jigen Academy, and Kuji Shougen is one of their generals. It's unusual within the scope of such fiction, but the governmental agencies across the world are aware of the invasion and have been thwarting it for some years now (though the general populace appears to be oblivious). In one of the scenes the Director of CIA says that Japanese government is usually pretty bad at responding to crises, but even they had to move their butts once the enemy set fire under their feet. Thus, as the final hours to stop a full scale invasion are ticking down, Mariko's, Ran's and Cher's paths intertwine as they fight both literal and metaphorical demons.

"Dark Hunter" is deliciously oldschool in its presentation. Its graphics and soundtrack are reminiscent of the games of old like "Divi-Dead" (though obviously not so good). I love that crisp, well-defined look characters have in the visual novels from mid '90s, though I admit that pre-rendered backgrounds in DH were pretty bland. "Dark Hunter" is also fully voiced both in English and Japanese, and you can switch between the languages at any time. For that matter, you can switch between subtitles too, or even play the game without subtitles, rather watching it like an anime, and considering that it is almost completely animated, it wouldn't be a stretch to call it an interactive anime. Every character movement is given motion, which is not a surprise, as the development team included people who actually worked on anime before.
Hero lineup.
The Japanese voices are neither very good,nor very bad, there is no outstanding performances, but the actors do their job decently. On the other hand, the English voice acting is so bad, that it almost physically hurts to listen to it. Just do yourselves a favour, and if you ever play this game, immediately change the language to Japanese, as it starts with English as a default one. It's interesting to note that DH shares basically all its English cast with "Castlevania: Symphony of the Night", which was the released the same year. That... cannot be a coincidence. I gather that Koei somehow borrowed the voice actors from Konami for a short time, to record the dialogue. Blowjobs were probably involved as a currency between the CEOs of the respective companies. Another interesting fact is that Michael G., who voiced Mashimo Ran in "Dark Hunter", later went on to receive limited fame after staring as Harry Mason in the original release of "Silent Hill".

Story wise, "(Jou) Ijigen Gakuen" is incredibly shallow. There are no unexpected twists and turns or some deep plot. Characterisation is also pretty much nonexistent. All of the three main characters - Mariko, Ran and Cher - serve as protagonists in their respective chapters, where they interact with each other. You can technically chose the order in which you read the chapters, but the aforementioned order works the best from the story perspective. There are no other important characters, as everyone else is a sideshow figure and an absolute cardboard cutout. Even the Big Bad appears only in the flashback. Not that there is enough time to flesh out the characters or the plot, considering the first game is only about 3 hours long and ends in an action-filled cliffhanger, which is an obvious ploy to force the players to go out and buy the second part.
That reminds me of an old joke about Petka and Chapaev.
The second game "(Ge) Youma no Mori" continues exactly where the previous one ended, with all three of our protagonists embroiled in a fight against the demonic aliens. Though "fight" is way too strong a word for Mariko. She is a painful cliché of a female character - at first she takes too long to believe the existence of the aliens, even after seeing them with her own eyes, and, after finally coming to terms with their existence, she is turned into a damsel in distress waiting for her saviour. Cher doesn't fare much better. While outwardly she appears to be an action girl, her role is relegated to that of a support unit for the true main character of the story - Ran. The endgame tries to introduce a plot twist to spice the things up, but the player first should care about the plot at all in order to be surprised by that twist.

The educational aspect of "Dark Hunter' is tied to its interactive elements. The most obvious one is that if you play with English subtitles "on", some English words are highlighted; you can stop the scene and move the cursor onto that word to get the Japanese equivalent. Strange, but you cannot do the same if you have the Japanese subs "on". DH is completely linear, but there are choices in it. Some of the choices are completely meaningless and only lead you to some new vocabulary words. Other choices require you to state some info that was mentioned previously and thus examines your comprehension skills (or just checks if you haven't fallen asleep). Not counting choices, there are a few different types of minigames. First of all, there is basically a retro example of a hidden object game that comes during the English class. You have to find and name in English ten different objects within the classroom. So, it's an English lesson hidden within a virtual English class... sneaky... There are also some map movement scenes where you have to explore your surroundings.
What a beauty!
Neither of the aforementioned interactive elements can be failed. Both the comprehension check and the English lesson can be repeated as many times as you want without any penalties and the map sequences are more confusing than difficult, but there is one minigame that CAN be failed, and that is "first person fighting". No, seriously, I have no idea what it has to do with helping students learn English, but during the course of the game you are sometimes attacked by the demonic invaders. Depending of whom you are playing as, you have to either hit or shoot the enemy as it attacks. When the enemy charges, a certain part of its body flashes green and you have to immediately bring your cursor there and tap the confirmation button, which is an exercise in frustration when playing a PS1 game on an emulator. The enemies are usually just too quick, with the minigame resulting in your demise. There is a trick though - if you make a savestate right before the battle, all the enemies will be using the same scripted sequence of attacks. You just have to memorise it and then the fight becomes a breeze.
Mars Attacks!
The second game discards most of the minigames that are supposed to teach you English. The fighting, including an interesting scene, where you shoot aliens while driving the car, still features prominently. There is also a timed "uncover the picture" puzzle and the timed map movement. Hell, it appears that every minigame in "(Ge) Youma no Mori" is there to test your reaction time, rather than serve some educational purpose. Maybe the developers just wanted to get on with telling the story, rather than giving the players an English test to complete... Not to mention, that English language in both games is really wonky. The script was translated too overly literally in order to match English lines directly to Japanese lines, that many sentences stop making sense or just sound weird.

In the end, "Dark Hunter" is more of a historical curiosity, rather than an actual fully fleshed visual novel. It doesn't have an interesting plot or characters to attract modern gamers, but it is markedly better than any educational program I have ever seen. You can learn and save the world from evil aliens at the same time! Nevertheless, the game didn't age well and has little relevance nowadays, but I still felt that I didn't waste my time while experiencing this piece of retro history.
Why is she dressed like a Mayan priestess?
Considering you need to emulate the PlayStation game in order to play it on your PC, there are basically three best emulators to choose from: ePSXe, PCSX-Reloaded or XEBRA. ePSXe is the best known PS1 emulator and I used it to play the first game. Due to numerous plug-ins, it can enhance the graphical output with various filters, which works really well for more graphically intensive games, but it is actually a detriment to a VN like "Dark Hunter". In case you decide to use this program, also use "Eternal SPU Plugin 1.50 beta2" for audio output (changing "Audio out method" to SPUasync) and "Pete's OpenGL2 Driver 2.9" together with "PeteOpenGL2 Tweaks 2.3" for graphical output. I chose to play the second game with XEBRA, which is considered to be THE most accurate PS1 emulator, and preferred the output, despite the fact that it really is a newbie unfriendly program.

Links of Importance

Visual Novel Database for (Jou) Ijigen Gakuen
Visual Novel Database for (Ge) Youma no Mori
Download PS1 version of (Jou) Ijigen Gakuen
Download PS1 version of (Ge) Youma no Mori
(the game is abandonware, thus I'm providing download links)
Youtube playthrough of the first game
Youtube playthrough of the second game
Download PS1 emulator: ePSXe, PCSX-Reloaded or XEBRA.

Final Verdict: (Jou) Ijigen Gakuen - 62 %
(Ge) Youma no Mori - 62 %


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