Sekien no Inganock -What a Beautiful People- Fullvoice ReBORN Review

Title: Sekien no Inganock -What a Beautiful People- Fullvoice ReBORN
Original title: 赫炎のインガノック -What a beautiful people- Fullvoice ReBORN
Alias: Inganock of the Brightest Flame Fullvoice ReBORN
Release date: 2007-11-22 (2011-12-22 Fullvoice ReBORN Edition)
English release date: 2009-12-18 (2012-11-20 Fullvoice ReBORN Edition)
Developer: Liar-soft
English publisher: Amaterasu Translations (as a fan-patch of both Regular and Fullvoice ReBORN Edition)

Oh, the fantastic, the unbelievable and the magical - those are the words that characterize the stories of fantasy. The books of that genre are supposed to immerse you in a world very unlike our own and let you forget the mundane and the boring and whatever anyone would say, visual novels are just books in a different medium. Sadly, only rarely can visual novels truly unleash the magic upon you.

Even some of the best novels like “Tsukihime” or “Fate/Stay Night” didn’t manage to tell stories without relying on character routes and romance subplots, but SnI does away with that. In this aspect, “Sekien no Inganock” can be truly called a Visual Novel as it does away with the pretence of being a game and is simply a book about beautiful people.

Among all literary works, be they expressed on paper or through a multimedia program, steampunk is quite a rare genre and it’s always nice to see authors tackling such a niche thematic. All of the “Liar-Soft’s” steampunk titles derive their names from the writings of Howard Phillips Lovecraft and his contemporaries. “Sekien no Inganock” is the second title in a loosely related series (after “Souten no Cerenaria”, incorrectly labeled as Celenaria) and takes its name from the great city of onyx within the Dream World. Actually the novel itself has little else to do with HPL lore, though Randolph Carter, the protagonist of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”, turns up in a cameo role and he’s still holding onto his Silver Key.
A girl and her pet.
Just like the previous game in the series, this one was misspelled by the developers as the City was actually named Inganok by Lovecraft. I gather that the developers used the Japanese translation of “The Dream-Quest” and backwards transliterated the name without checking the internet for the actual spelling. The translator retained the misspelling, but it doesn’t detract much if at all and only then if you are familiar with the source novel.

After the fan-translation was released back in 2009 by Ammy, it generated a bit of a controversy. Some people were mad that "Baldr Sky", that went against it in the polls lost, others injustily labeled the game "furry shit" (despite the universal truth that everything is better with catgirls) and some more hated the the transliteration of the protagonist's name into Gii. For some incomprehensible reason they wanted to turn him into a French and name him Guy. But time went by, controversy dvindled and now I picked the title up.
Maniacal laughter. What could go wrong...
In the original novel, Inganok was a city built of onyxes, but you won’t find any in Inganock of the game. When we dive into the game, we experience a city in ruins, but the story itself started ten years ago. That was when everything changed. The Grand Prince Astea created a plan to build a fully self sufficient city that can survive without an outside influence and that was all put to the test, when Revival hit. What the citizens of Inganock call Revival was a cataclysm of unknown origin that sealed of the city from the outside; at the same time the people started to mutate into fantastical beings and 41 Creatures that since then sowed the terror among the masses appeared. The population of the city was decimated and now, ten years later, people are eking a living in the slums with little prospects of the future, while the access to the Upper Tier of the city is forbidden under the penalty of death. With fairy-tales suddenly becoming real and starting killing people, people stopped telling tales, because previously mystical beings suddenly become real. There is only one fairy-tale left in the city, that people still tell. It's a tale of "him behind your back" that brings "beautiful things".

Ten years ago Gii was a young resident just out of a medical school. Now, he is called a Traveling Doctor. Every day he is trudging through the Lower Tiers, healing the sick and helping the weak, usually without any reward. What makes him such an efficient doctor is Phenomenon Equation, a fantastic invention of Grand Prince Astea, that can hack a human body like a computer and rewrite the sick parts as healthy. It’s almost indistinguishable from magic and even Gii himself doesn’t exactly know how it works. However his monotone days come to an end when he saves a young girl Kia from an Ogre…
Save me, Doc!
As you understand, Gii is our protagonist (or he might not be), but the novel takes an unusual approach of telling the story in third person – something that not many VN’s do (there is a reason for that, though). Gii has a strict moral code, according to which he wants to save as many people as possible. Outwardly cool and calm, Gii is quick with his wits and fights for what he believes in. At the same time he is an observer who knows the city and can introduce us to the changes brought by the power called Kia. She is a Changer, a Shifter, a Lightbringer and a moral compass for Gii and many other people. Even almost-certainly-evil Alisa Greg mellows when confronted with Kia. After all, despite there being lots of action in the game, it is a very philosophical experience. What is love? What is despair? What is insanity? What are we humans and why are we moving forward even in our darkest hour? In the end the question is: what do we wish, what is our desire? Until now Gii never allowed himself such questions, but Kia’s presence changes not only him, but also those close to him and like a fission reaction spreads throughout the city.

The third major character is Ati the Black Cat, a Runner with a crush for Gii. Runner is a city slang for an all problem fixer: an assassin, a thief, a hacker and a bodyguard all rolled in one. Her life was saved by Gii many years ago and since then she looked up to him. While I liked her, I felt that she was a bit underused as a character and served mostly as an electron to Gii/Kia nucleus. On the other hand, I’m not even so sure that Gii and Kia are that important either, as after finishing the game I realized that the main character and the real protagonist of the story was the City itself. In that regard the game clearly reminds me of “Perdido Street Station” by China Miéville.

Clear parallel’s can be drawn betwixt Inganock and Miéville’s New Crobuzon. Both are grotesque sprawling cities with clearly divided social castes, populated by fantastical beings and steam machines covering the city in smog. Tomorrow is full of despair and uncertainty and manages to bring out the worst and the best in the inhabitants. Both of them feel like living breathing entities overshadowing those little ants crawling their underbellies. The wind of change is brought to the former by a pink-eyed flaxen-haired girl, to the latter by a wingless bird. Hack, even the love interests for the protagonists in both works are anthropomorphic beings: a cat for Gii and an insect for Isaac.
It's not a good idea to oggle her boobs.
SnI is an unconventional story and it doesn’t surprise me that the conflict is unconventional to. There is no real villain here, only adversaries who have some goal; it’s just that this goal usually clashes with that of Gii. Even more, all of the adversaries are really pitiful, once you get to know them and their driving force, and in the end I could understand and even relate to them. Despite that, I think that Kerkan was the only anti-villain that really mattered in the grand scale of things as a direct antipode of Cracking Doc Gii (even though he was the only one that didn’t drive the main conflict). I found him just as interesting as the Doctor and his relationship with a certain girl was executed flawlessly.

While “Sekien no Inganock” is classified as an eroge, that is not exactly true. All the erotic material is softcore at best and no genitals of either gender are shown. The only thing you will be able to actually see will be some boobies and thus there is no mosaic censorship associated with Japanese games either. Bonus points for the fact, that all the erotic material is well integrated into a story and actually serves the purpose of deepening the characterization of our heroes. That is not really surprising, though, as the writer of this game is a female.
Heartwarming moment... literaly.
You might not be aware of it, but the VN was written in verse (something that was lost in translation). There was an attempt to do a verse translation, but I don’t think it gained any ground. What the novel is infamous of is lots of repeating text. Some sequences repeat themselves over and over again every chapter but with small variations, that become important in the later chapters. Additionally, Gii himself is a Master Exposition and tends to repeat himself ad infinitum, especially concerning Revival. I didn’t mind that, as I felt that repetitions were aesthetically fitting for overall schizophrenic and surreal mood of the game and the original verse, but I can see how some people get irked by that.

What I did find slightly detrimental to the overall feel, was the monster-of-the-week structure that plagues at least the first half of the game. A monster attacks the city, Gii faces the monster and defeats it. It’s only by the sixth chapter (of the twelve) that the game starts to gain a cohesive narrative and the overreaching plot starts to thicken. At the very least, one is those chapters (the one involving the Black-cap) had absolutely nothing to do with the main plot and served no purpose whatsoever. In addition, our Doctor is way too overpowered and easily vanquishes all but the last two threats in one hit. The chapters themselves are pretty short and can be completed in 1-2 hours each (though the last chapter is probably the longest and might take significantly more).
"He" behind your back.
In the gameplay department, SnI has a mini-game in every chapter. This is an almost universally detested feature by almost everyone. I, however, liked those minigames. They appear in the middle of the every chapter and display the inner thoughts of the persons involved. You have to read the inner thoughts by clicking on various characters in a certain order. Once you read enough, the portraits of the most important characters within the chapter will be uncovered and a choice will be unlocked near the end of the chapter. You don’t actually have to read all of the thoughts, but they give lots of insight into the backstory regarding the Revival. If you fail to uncover the portraits, only the choices leading towards a bad end will be available to you at the end. I found the games quite easy and uncovered all the portraits by myself with no walkthrough (actually, this was one of the VNs where I didn’t use one).

The ReBORN edition actually let's you skip the mini-games from the get go, but if you choose to enable this feature, you will miss a lot of important context. You should only use this crutch on subsequent playthroughs and only if you are really bad at the mini-games.
It's not nice to peep into private thoughts.
“Sekien no Inganock” is a game with many themes and an open ended conclusion. It feeds you bits and pieces of information and let’s you yourself puzzle out the plot and the conflict. The ending doesn’t reveal all and leaves many thread untied, but I found it satisfying in a manner that struck at my heart. Still, I would have liked at least a few things clarified or at least one of them: who or what was Teacher Iru? It was nagging at me since I finished the game and I realize that he was a special existence within the city, but what exactly? Maybe an anthropomorphic personification of the city itself. Who knows...? Also, I would have liked just a tiny bit more closure to the Ati arc. She was left hanging in an uncertain state the last time we saw her. Admittedly, the webnovels gave some closure not only for her, but other characters as well.

Amaterasu Translations not only released the game patches, but also translated Inganock webnovels "Inganock Tail" and "After the Inganock". The former focuses on the backstories of some of the characters and the latter is a sort of epilogue to the VN. I must admit, that the epilogue chapters are well made, but even more confusion is introduced with an addition of a new character - M. Gods know who he is and what purpose he serves. It's interesting to note, that the webnovels are the only ones, where Randolph definitely introduces himself as Carter, by mentioning how he entered Inganock through the gates of the deep slumber and talking about the gods of Kadath.
Apparently villains obsess over exact timing.
While writing about the internal aspects of the game, I left the most well known – the external one, for the last. I am talking about the graphics and they are spectacular. The unusual graphical aspect of all the Liar-soft steampunk games is known even by those that have never played them. Minimalistic art used for the backgrounds compliments colourful and vivid character sprites that appear in various poses and various zoom levels. In addition, absolutely fantastic CGs and surreal action portrayals complete the picture. It’s not really unlike Demonbane, sans 3D artwork and with even better realization of artistic vision.

Sound is pretty good and fitting the atmosphere, especially the orchestral tracks playing in the moments of suspense and danger, but what really shine here are the voices. The original release of the game was only partially voiced, but recently released Fullvoice ReBORN edition gives voices to all the characters, even those that only appear in the smallest roles. Even the protagonist himself is voiced (and for that matter he has a paper doll and is fully shown throughout the game) and all the voices are great and really enhance the mood. Well OK, I wasn’t so hot about Petrovna’s seiyuu, but she has a relatively small role anyway. There are some other changes to the game and they are listed on the blog of Amaterasu Translations.

To sum up, "Sekien no Inganock" is definitely not your run of the mill visual novel and takes many unusual approuches both in storytelling and audiovisual presentation. If you want to immerse yourself into a unique fantasy world with vivid setting, likable characters and sad, but ultimately hopeful storyline, pick it up. The sooner the better.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site / Page for ReBORN version 
Get a download version of the original release at: DLsite.
Get a download version of the ReBORN release at: DLsite or Net-Ride.
Search for a physical version of the original release at: Mandarake.
Search for a physical release of the ReBORN release at: Mandarake.
Get English patches for Regular and ReBORN versions at Amaterasu Translations
Read SnI webnowels
Recommended reading: The Silver Key, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

Final Verdict: 82%

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous17/1/13 23:24

    Kudos, great read. While unconventional style for a VN review (reminds me more of professional book reviews), who says it's a bad thing? if I wanted a plain one i'd go elsewhere anyway :P Keep up the good work.