8
Our overall verdict "silver"

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Ten years after the Wadatsumi Incident, a horrific and mysterious tragedy that still stains Shin Yokozaki City, highschool student Touya Kagari hears a strange sound coming from the still-devastated site. From there his life spirals into anarchy and confusion as he becomes the focus of attention of some powerful enemies and a bunch of highly strung young ladies. Unions, Drives, Seithr, the Magic Guild, the Mitsurugi Agency, the Ten Sages, curry – Touya’s world is suddenly a dangerous and peculiar place. Only with the help of his friends can he decipher the chaos around him and discover his own links to the Wadatsumi Incident and the Embryo.

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XBlaze Code: Embryo is a Japanese visual novel by developers Arc Systems Works. For those new to the genre, a visual novel is almost exactly as it sounds. Lots of lovely reading and it’s, erm, Japanese. Gameplay, as such, is minimal and the story is everything. Generally, visual novels have several different endings and the fun is influencing the story in order to find them. In XBlaze’s case, the story will twist depending on which articles Touya reads on his TOi app. The app, which during normal gameplay is always available to the player, will display articles that are specifically geared towards the user’s (Touya’s) interests. Think of it like targeted Google adds. The only thing is, Touya’s TOi has gone a bit tits up and is showing random articles, some of which are of interest to his friends rather than him. Reading articles that his friends have read or not reading ones they have read will, in varying degrees and sometimes dramatically, alter the timeline and lead Touya to a different outcome.

It’s an interesting approach. All visual novels need to find a way for the player to alter the story. I can’t honestly say that I totally dislike the TOi system, but I’m not its biggest fan either. It often feels very disconnected from the game and I didn’t always feel like I was making thoughtful choices. On the first playthrough it makes sense to read all the articles. After that you will be able to see, before you the click the article, who else has read it and you can start to figure out how to influence the game. There are numerous endings to find including some bad ones that don’t have trophies and a gag timeline that leads to one good and several bad gag endings.

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While the TOi system does work perfectly well once you get used to it, it’s XBlaze’s story that is the star of the show. Zombies, magic and kung fu fighting – what’s not to like?? The plot is well-paced, intriguing and exciting in all the right places. Touya is great character. He’s a shy sweetie with a big selfless heart. In other words, he’s a doormat. Aside from one male friend, Touya is usually surrounded by female characters who seem to like slapping him about. There’s a hint of gender reversal in Touya’s character when you put him next to the girls. They are headstrong and sure of themselves whereas Touya is a little bit of a damsel in distress, bless him. I would definitely get on my big white horse and rescue him if I had a big white horse or I could be bothered to get off the sofa.

There are lots of characters in XBlaze and if you’re anything like me you generally like to pick a favourite. I always go for the bad guys and here you have the choice of several awesome antagonists all with startlingly different personalities. Ever since the days of Sephiroth I’ve had a thing for tall, long-haired and enigmatic opponents with tortured souls, and if that’s your thing too, you’ll love Sechs with his total disregard for humanity and his quiet confidence. He doesn’t say much. I like that quality in a man. On the other side of the scale, if you like your bad guys crazier than a box of barking bonsai, either Ripper or Unomaru should be right up your alley, although get prepared to be a little bit sick in your mouth at the sight of Unomaru in a bathing costume.

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The good guys are just as diverse. I’m proud to call myself an Es fan. She’s tiny, she’s uncomplicated, and you could say she goes through an intense journey. It’s really worth finding her ending. In fact, all the endings are worth finding because they’re all very different. If the TOi system has you more foxed than Basil Brush, don’t be afraid to reach for a guide, and you’ll certainly need it to find the highly bizarre gag playthrough.

Dialogue is in Japanese with English subtitles. It’s certainly the way I prefer it (I like to think if I play enough of these games I’ll wake up one day completely fluent in Japanese). The voice acting sounds pretty much perfect and pretty much what you’d expect. It’s pleasant to listen to and, don’t worry, there’s plenty of maniacal Japanese screaming, which is an absolute must. If a visual novel doesn’t have some weirdo bloke screaming like his mancave has just been invaded by a horde of fluffy kittens, put it in the bin and walk away.

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XBlaze’s origins come from the BlazBlue fighting game series. This is a prequel to all that and fans will, I’m sure, get a kick out of its references. Personally, I’ve never played any of the other games, but in no way did this effect my enjoyment. XBlaze Code: Embryo stands up proudly by itself, so newbies to the franchise need not fret.

Very occasionally, inferior visual novels can feel a little flat and lifeless after several hours of reading. Static images and lots of text don’t always grab you by the short and curlies. XBlaze’s fighting game origins, however, have influenced this visual novel in the best way possible. Prepare to have your curlies well and truly seized. Cut scenes are energetic, colourful and full of movement. There is lots of variety throughout the game so you won’t get tired of seeing the same old boring image. It’s a gorgeous looking game and with the exciting visuals and the staggeringly different endings, XBlaze does not at any point become a chore to play.

Conclusion

A fine visual novel with energetic and fluid animations that look dazzling on the Vita. While the TOi system isn’t the greatest way to create divergence points, the alternate endings make all your efforts worthwhile. The story is intriguing and exciting, and the characters are diverse and likable. XBlaze Code: Embryo is a great game that fan’s of the visual novel genre are sure to enjoy.

S J Hollis Rating – 8/10

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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_