You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
Aksys Games are a publisher I have recently become more and more aware of. Originally in my mind for such gems as the Zero Escape trilogy, they have published hit after hit in the visual novel world; making accessible games I never expected to see come to the west. After reviewing Collar X Malice, I have to say I was suitably excited to take a look at Bad Apple Wars (BAW), but have I bitten into a rotten apple?
It’s a perfectly normal day, as it oft is at the beginning of any grand adventure or grim tale. A hollow soul, our protagonist feeling familiarly empty at the prospect of attending a new school. Everything changes, and yet nothing changes. Aware of her own emptiness, she does nothing to move forwards, and yet has no reason to rebel. Unwillingly thrust into the world of the dead, she stands as a perfectly pure canvas—an apple neither good nor bad.
When I first turned on the game, I left it idle, as I usually do. Sorting out my miscellaneous errands, I was caught somewhat off-guard by what I was hearing. Glancing back at my monitor (as I had decided to play on my Vita TV), my mind started to put the pieces together. It was the game’s opening theme. It’s not unusual for a visual novel to have a solid opening sequence; it’s actually something I’ve come to expect. You want it to introduce the characters in a way that makes you want to play the game, to see what lies beyond their devilishly good looks. You want it to intrigue, to entice. You want it to be backed by something to stimulate excitement. It’s not a difficult formula to get right, but to get it right to this degree brings a smile to my face. This opening theme ticks every box: it shows off the style of character art, it shows off the game’s stylish nature, and most of all, it is backed by a phenomenal song by a recognisable artist. I was excited to begin; more so than any advertising or research had made me previously.
And then, peace. Calm. As if to drain the excitement, the eagerness built, the game plays a mellow theme more befitting a Professor Layton game. At first this seemed an odd choice. It derailed the tension with such intent, it’s almost unsettling—brilliantly so. In just two minutes, the first two minutes of the game, before any actual gameplay had been presented, here we have the tone, the essence of the game laid out before us. The unsettling calm of the Good Apples, the unhindered chaos and excitement of the Bad Apples; the confusion of you, the protagonist, at their distinct intertwined and contrasting nature. For a simple menu to give such insight into a game’s tone is truly staggering to me. Of course, this is something plenty more appreciated on reflection, however the implications for first-time players shouldn’t be overlooked. The contrast and confusion created by these themes lead into the introductory chapter well, and allow for another level of empathy with the protagonist as she is cast into an unknown world both similar and different to what she has known.
Angelic Inspiration, Demonic Presentation
Just beyond the introduction, a school waits for you. As you might expect, this is no ordinary school. It sits in a world of its own, the students trapped within its grounds. The conditions to graduate? Follow the rules and be a Good Apple. With graduation, so comes a renewed chance at life. Ring any familiar bells? Throughout my time playing BAW, I couldn’t help but draw a comparison to the 2010 series Angel Beats. That too finds its setting in a school afterlife, with similar conditions to graduation and, again, have another chance at life. It’s difficult to avoid the parallels if you’ve seen Angel Beats. It is however equally difficult to avoid the sheer contrast. From my perspective, BAW almost parodies the ideals of Angel Beats, presenting what felt like a dystopian spin on the popular series. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, given the comparison to an entirely different medium, but I did find it interesting how I was constantly being led astray by my knowledge of it. The off-beat familiarity of the situation paired with the masterfully chilling soundtrack built up a surreal experience. It enhanced the game in a way I struggle to believe was intended; and yet it fell together so well.
The sinister vibe extends far beyond the contrast of angels and apples; it is woven into the very fabric of the game. Prominent in the soundtrack, the dialogue, the very nature of graduation, it’s always with you. An unsettling uncertainty. BAW’s way of portraying generic characters ties well into this. It’s often interesting to look away from the main cast, and see how visual novels handle the unnamed masses. Often undrawn, faint figures; to an extent, ghosts. BAW goes above and beyond what I expected. Instead of viewing the generic masses as a nuisance, it toys with their very concept. The lifeless horde is a lifeless horde, the faceless figures donning unnerving masks. They’re used as background noise, an echo chamber ominously repeating the hope-deprived words of their teachers—and they fill this role better than any unique character ever could.
The Drawn and the Undrawn
It’s a shame such thought couldn’t be carried into every character. While BAW handles the generic character wonderfully, it struggles with those who have a place neither here nor there. Those who find themselves not quite in the spotlight of being a main character, but not quite irrelevant enough to be one of the faceless. BAW’s approach? Simply to not draw them. At all. This is a design choice I cannot find reason in. Perhaps a limited budget? I truly find it a shame how any potential these not-quite-main-but-named characters had is thrown away by a lack of visualisation. Even something as small as a portrait window would elevate them. They may not be worthy nor significant enough for a full-body design, but seeing nothing puts them at a level below the masked Good Apples in my eyes, despite their named status.
Of course, where the characters are drawn, they are spectacular. As with many modern visual novels, your love interests are clearly marked by their colour. These colours are not only used to create a unique and bright identity to these rebels of a bland world, they also provide clear choice when it comes to route diversification. Many of the games’ choices come in the form of a school map, asking you which location you would like to visit. These colours allow for simple association, and tell the player “if you head here, you’ll meet Mr White”. It’s simple, but subtle enough as not to disrupt the flow of the game in choosing a route.
A Soul Untouched
BAW uses one more method of route diversification, albeit sparsely throughout the game. Soul Touch stands as the game’s contribution to the standard visual novel formula, and takes advantage of the PS Vita’s touch screen to interact with characters to better understand them. It’s an interesting idea, I’ll give it that much, however I found its implementation questionable with often arbitrary execution. To break it down, you touch the person in the right place, and you learn a bit about their past. Touch them in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’ll put yourself on the path of a bad ending. It serves as a means of interaction with the main cast, but no part of it ever feels particularly rewarding nor, for the lack of a better word, intimate. This system is supposed to put you closer to understanding a character, it’s supposed to put you in the position of the protagonist, but ultimately it comes down to tapping random parts of their body with no reason nor rhyme. I appreciate the idea of this, but I feel it flawed by design.
The system itself leaves me a little disappointed, but I struggle to deny the impact of the scenes that follow. Bit by bit, feeding me sad tales of unfulfilled lives, I shared the pain just as the protagonist would. Despite its minor faults, BAW stands out to me. It encourages me to look beyond the mask. It pushes me to understand that which is hidden. It reminds me forbidden fruit should be savoured.