9
Our overall verdict "gold"

Japan has fallen victim to a lacklustre and corrupt police force and the people are suffering. But no longer! Terrorist group Adonis has started a deadly countdown with a series of brutal and mysterious crimes all leading up to the final re-birth of Japan – X-Day. Collar x Malice is an Otome visual novel with both plot and romance. Localised by the awesome folks at Aksys Games, known for bringing us such gems as Tokyo Xanadu, Exist Archive and the Zero Escape games, it’s clear that we’re in safe hands. But does Collar x Malice truly satisfy in the way a good Otome game can and is there enough plot to please those not interested in the romance?

The first thing that’s worth noting about Collar x Malice is its incredibly dark undertone. I’m not going to give any specific details or spoilers, but it’s not unicorns and rainbows. Your protagonist Hoshino is a police officer investigating the X-Day crimes and it’s gritty stuff. The main storyline is a mysterious tangle of murders, suspects and hidden meanings. Who is Adonis? Who is there leader? What lengths will they go to and is it even possible to stop them? It’s intriguing and very well paced. You need to play through every path to get the whole story and each path, as well as focusing on one of Hoshino’s potential romance options, is also linked to particular crimes. Each playthrough is very different to the last and even though you have the option to skip past dialogue you’ve already experienced you’ll rarely need to do this. Each playthrough is unique and results in a totally different ending (along with some unfortunate endings along the way).

As you play through you’ll be prompted to make dialogue and gameplay decisions. Some of them will affect your trust and love levels with the boys and some will decide whether or not you meet a bad ending or continue on. Some of the decisions are easier further into the game as you’ll have a certain amount of prior knowledge. Save often in case you suddenly snuff it with little warning, but generally if you change your mind about a choice you can rewind and select differently. There is also a chapter select so you can go back and play things through differently from specific points – very handy for trophy hunting! This is what I would call a kind game. It never wants you to get stuck wading through stuff you’ve seen before, because, well, that would be so utterly boring. No, Collar X Malice gives you plenty of options so that you can keep playing and experience all things fresh and new. Each playthrough retains its narrative impact because it’s so different from the last plus you haven’t nodded off halfway through skipping half the plot.

With each playthrough so contrastive, this is truly a visual novel you won’t get bored of. Thanks to tight writing and unique story paths and character events, Collar x Malice never gets stale. Each playthrough deepens the mysteries of X- Day and tells a different part of the story. There’s no doubt that the standard visual novel aspects of Collar X Malice is top notch and perhaps one of the best we’ve seen so far on the Vita. In fact I would go as far as to say that even though its technically an otome, which are generally aimed at female players, Collar X Malice’s story is strong enough, serious enough and good enough to appeal to anyone who likes a good crime mystery, regardless of gender. The romance aspects are tastefully done and although they are a huge part of the game, they don’t feel at all sappy.

That said, for those looking to get their otome on, you’ve also come to the right place. There are five guys to choose from, and as I mentioned earlier each one is connected to a different angle of the investigation. As well as such different events in each playthrough, the romance and character options are equally diverse. Each guy is very different, with his own special set of issues. You could be forgiven for thinking that Hoshino is quite a weak character who needs these men to rush in and save her from the nasty X-Day bullies, but actually as each path progresses this is pretty much subverted and it’s the guys who actually need her. What eventually emerges is a pretty well balanced battle of the sexes. Everyone has outer weakness and inner strength and the characters need each other to get through their problems.

The diversity of the male characters doesn’t end just with their individual storylines. They all have a different look and staggeringly different personalities. There’s the young and over-the-top sweet guy, the rude bastard, the strong and steady alpha, the untrustworthy sociopath and the easy-going weirdo who naps in the street (my favourite). I probably haven’t made them sound very attractive, but they are all wonderful well written characters and although you’ll end up with a favourite and a least favourite, they are all extremely likeable – yes, even the sociopath (whose lovely long blond hair and cat fetish immediately earned him my number two spot).

The art style here is just beautiful and it feels like an achievement every time you unlock a brand new still for the gallery. Each character is further individualised by these gorgeous pictures. It’s not just the beautiful painting; there’s so much emotion put into each one. Shiraishi with his cat, Okazaki dozing or Sasazuka clinging to Hoshino in his sleep. As much thought has gone into the art as has gone into the writing and with the perfect Japanese voice acting and good English subs, the characters jump right out of the Vita and come blazing into life.

Conclusion

A dark, mysterious and exciting storyline that should appeal to most fans of the visual novel genre, whether you’re looking for otome or not. For those who are looking for romance, dig in; you won’t be disappointed with the line-up of gorgeous guys. Tight writing, fantastic Japanese voice acting and beautiful art – we’ve fallen in love with Collar X Malice.

S J Hollis Rating – 9/10

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S J Hollis

S J Hollis has been a keen gamer since the Atari 2600. She freely admits she thought E.T. was a good game but would like to stress her tastes have since dramatically improved. She is also an author, a morning person and thinks Elf ears are sexy. Follow her on twitter @SJHollis_