Saturday, July 24, 2010

Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards by Hirameki Publishing

This was quite an unusual departure for me. "Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards" is a visual novel, which is to say, written words enlivened by a background showing the places the story is taking place in, and a series of pictures of the various characters appear as they speak, both on the main screen and next to the box where the text appears. The smaller pictures next to the text box show the speaker's emotions, while the larger picture is more static.

If more than two characters are in a scene, the picture only shows two characters at a time, and more will appear if other characters in a scene speak. It's somewhat like reading a graphic novel or manga, because all action scenes are static. A swordfight may be shown by the mere depiction of a glowing sword path on a dark background.

These visual novels are definitely manga-esque, and most of them have voice-acting as well. While the main character (the reader's stand-in) is usually unvoiced, the other characters are voice-acted, sometimes with only a few voice actors, sometimes with a full cast. In addition to looking and acting like a graphic novel, with voices, it also has a "pick your path to adventure" part, as readers are asked to make several choices during the novel that will drive the book to a happy ending, a sad ending, or a bad ending (usually involving character death).

"Yo-Jin-Bo: The Bodyguards", is the story of Sayori, a modern-day Japanese School girl with an interest in history. When she joins the history club in an excavation, she discovers an old Jade pendant buried in the mud and ends up picking it up, then taking it home with her. At night, the pendant comes to life, glowing a weird green and putting Sayori in touch with the ghost of a Princess named Hatsuhime, who used to live in the castle that the club was excavating.

Hatsuhime Mochizuki lived in a time of unrest, and she was her father's only heir. Believing she was unsuited to the role of head and ruler of her clan, one of her clan's vassals, Harumoto Ohno, attempted to replace her with a male related to the clan through a bastard child. Trapping her at his estate, Ohno attempted to kill her in the middle of the night. She was rescued momentarily by her faithful retainer Muneshige Tsukuba, but met her death in the tunnels beneath the castle.

At this point Sayori is distressed by what has happened to the Princess in her vision. But to her surprise, she resurfaces in Sayori's body in the room where she was awakened by Muneshige. Once Sayori realizes that if she doesn't do anything, she will meet the same fate as the Princess, she tells him of her vision of death, and will not go crawling through the tunnels to meet the same fate.

She and Muneshige take refuge in the foundation of the castle itself. But when she doesn't return from her walk, her loyal retainers are alerted, and Yahei, her elderly majordomo, hired a group of Samurai to find her and bring her home safely- a group she had met the night before at a festival, under an assumed name. These Samurai consist of Yozaburo Shiranui, nicknamed "Yo", Jinnosuke Murasame, nicknamed "Jin" and Tsubaki Tainojo, nicknamed "Bo" from an alternate reading of the Japanese characters that make up his name. They are accompanied by a pervy monk named Monzan Kadokura, who calls himself "Mon-Mon".

Each is a very different sort of character. Yo, a young man from a ninja clan, fulfills the Shota role, or underage character. Jin, a hot-headed, red-haired Samurai, is rough and ready, and completely unskilled with the opposite sex. "Bo" is as Mon-Mon describes him, the "Froufy Ice Queen", a pretty Bishonen. And Mon-Mon fulfills the role of older pervert, with silver hair and an impressive set of muscles. Not only do the characters call each other by their Nicknames, but "Yo Jin Bo" means "Bodyguard" in Japanese, making the name of the game and the characters a play on words.

Yahei hires the four to go out and find Hatsuhime and bring her home safely. At the castle, they are joined by Ittosai Tatsunami, a "glasses wearing Psychopath", as Mon-Mon pretty accurately describes him. He is the meganedanshi of the group. As a sign of this, his classic trademark sword move is "Bare Blade Indiscriminate Slaughter". Though the others are not pleased to be paired with him, Yahei has already hired him, and they will work with him if that is what Yahei wishes- but they aren't terribly pleased about it.

Meanwhile, back under the other castle, Hatsuhime and Muneshige are getting ready to move out. He's heard Ohno's Ninja getting closer and closer to their hiding place in their searches, and he wants them to leave under the cover of night so they have a better chance of eluding their pursuers. Ohno is furious that all his ninja haven't been able to recover one weak girl and her retainer. He orders them to step up their searches and FIND HER.

The ninja agree, and scatter to continue their search. Ohno speaks with his older brother, a larger and more accomplished Samurai, who he sends to Guard the Road to the Princesses Castle. Meanwhile, Hatsuhime and Muneshige have skirmished with the ninja on the road, and are rescued from certain death by the arrival of Yo, Jin, Bo and company. Assisting Muneshige against the Ninja, they win his trust, and the seven flee towards Hatsuhime's clan home by an alternate path, seeking to evade the Ninja.

For Hatsuhime, several choices must be made on the road. Who is the reader trying to end up with? Whose story are they interested in? By concentrating on talking and interacting with that character to the exclusion of all others, you can almost be assured of reaching the good ending. However, two of the characters will end badly unless you choose the correct opening choices, so saving after every chapter is a must.

Even when you choose different characters, you get to see a slightly different version of the ending, including a showdown with Harumoto Ohno (which you only get if you will get the good ending to the story). Each character gets a slightly different ending. Most endings have you staying in the past with your chosen boyfriend-character. One has the character coming to the future with you, and two have you returning to the past from the future, one as yourself, one as Hatsuhime.

Because this is a computer game as well as a novel you can find walkthroughs online to guide you if you can't figure out why you are dying, or need help in reaching a particular ending. You can also skip scenes you may have read once already or page through at the same speed as the lines are being read by the voice actors. Also, if you play through multiple times and get the good ending for each character, you are treated to a special ending where all the characters come to the future and open a host club together- but all of them still love you and consider you their "Princess". Aw.

I have to say, I really enjoyed myself reading and experiencing this visual novel. Most of the male characters are certainly visually attractive, and you generally won't mind ending up with the characters in the story. Well, I couldn't exactly get behind either Yo, who, at 15 (possibly) to my personal 43, was not the kind of boyfriend/love interest I am looking for. Neither was Mon-Mon, but not for reasons of age- more like personality. Someone who spies on women in their bath is also not someone I find myself interested in. And through him you find out that Yahei has been spying on you in the bath ever since your breasts grew. (Makes "EW!" face) But then again, the way he calls for Sayori so passionately made me cry. My other least favorite was Jin, as he was merely vanilla filler and a character I wasn't particularly attracted to or cared for.

So who were my favorites? Going from least to most, Bo, whose "past problem" was as shallow as a parking lot puddle. Essentially, "Girls like me because I'm handsome, but I can't let them know who I really am or they won't like me any more." ::sigh.:: To which I felt, "Here is the world's tiniest violin that I am playing for you." Still, the character design, Bishonen as he is, really appealed to me. He's tall, cool and elegant, and the end when he convinced Sayori that they were dancing on the air just enthralled me. Second was Muneshige. His flaws include truly horrendous jokes, impressions and puns. Pros. His character design reminded me of Wolverine (from the comics) when his hair was in the Samurai Topknot, and Aragorn when it was down. He's also the character your character spends the most time with- and while you confess to all the other characters that you aren't really the Princess, he knows before you tell him. And he's a really nice guy. Most Favorite: Ittosai. This was the first good ending I got all on my own, and it really impressed me. Out of all the characters, he has the most horrific backstory, and in the end, you turn his entire life around. Really. And did I mention his voice actor makes some really erotic-sounding noises when he kisses you? And at the end, Sayori gets a little more feisty herself.

Two other things to mention. The first is that Hirameki started out as a sound studio, so the voice acting is very well done. And I mean VERY WELL done. Witness my tears when Mon-Mon calls out for Sayori even as his character was making me want to throw up. It's too bad that they went out of business because people were torrenting their games instead of, you know, paying for them and buying them. This makes me sad, because so few Otome games come out for the Macintosh- heck, for any platform. The second is that the game is played for fun instead of being deadly serious. Oftentimes, the characters will talk about Sailor Moon, or other modern references that their characters, by all rights shouldn't know about. This made me laugh, because these moments, by and large, are very funny. You also will hear Ohno, the villain, singing "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast... in English. Bad English, but still...

I loved this visual novel. It's the first Otome, or "Reverse Harem" title I have read/played, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how much I enjoyed it. I'd definitely love to play more, but at the same time, I'll admit I was not precisely the target audience for this title. I'm too old, and therefore was not into Yo. And need I mention (one more time), that Mon-Mon's ending make me want to puke? If you're female and have stayed away from Visual Novels before because you have heard that they are all centered around men, this title may be enough to change your mind. But even if you are male, you might want to play this one, because it is so very well done. I highly recommend this title.

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