Confession time: This is my first otome game. It’s also my first visual novel. Actually, in the interest of fully coming clean, this is probably the most recent video game I’ve played since Pokémon Platinum. Even in my childhood or teen years I was never much for gaming, so I don’t know anything about the medium other than the snippets I occasionally read online or stories I hear from friends. I’m therefore approaching Yo-Jin-Bo and other games of its ilk as more or less a total outsider, with scant prior knowledge and morbid curiosity as my main source of motivation. (Also I just thought it’d be fun to spice my Otaku Lounge reviews up a little by going for a game as opposed to an anime this time around.)
First released in 2005, Yo-Jin-Bo isn’t a particularly new game, though it does seem to be a relatively popular one – likely in part because it’s one of a small number of Japanese visual novels to have been given an official English-language license. However, its storyline also renders the game fairly accessible; a fantasy set in feudal Japan complete with stalwart samurai, deadly shinobi, and a generous dash of humour to keep the mood from becoming too serious. The story focuses on Sayori, a typical high school girl who is sent back in time and into the body of a princess, who Sayori must save from assassination.
It’s an easy and engaging enough story to follow, if not exactly original. Of course, since this is an otome game, we need some ruggedly handsome and/or androgynously pretty male heroes to pine for, and Yo-Jin-Bo has six romantic interests to choose from. Alas, while the character designs are for the most part quite pleasant, the rest of the characterisation is where I feel the game really lets itself down.
Muneshige, Sayori’s loyal servant, plays the role of childhood friend effortlessly but is also known for his truly awful puns and off-beat references. While the random breaking of the fourth wall has its charm at first, it quickly gets old when Muneshige’s dialogue scenes drag on and on, constantly interrupting the flow of events. Yo makes for the most interesting character in terms of backstory, but this is not explored anywhere near as much as it should be, and the man himself looks and sounds like a 12-year old. Jin’s got the whole ruffian-with-a-heart-of-gold thing down pat, but he’s as dumb as a box of rocks, and his inexperienced awkwardness around Sayori sometimes borders on the creepy. Bo is the most stereotypically bishounen of the bunch, but his backstory is just so incredibly shallow that it comes across as not only ridiculous but also vaguely insulting. Ittosai gets ALL the angst but is basically psychotic, and the ultra-muscular Mon Mon is nothing more than the comic relief, whose running gag as resident “non- capturable bachelor” is trotted out to excess.
Another point against Yo-Jin-Bo is the gameplay itself – or rather, one specific aspect of it. The plot is about as generically serviceable as it needs to be, and as I’ve already touched on, its relatively uncomplicated story and ease of player participation is actually something I see as a plus, especially for a beginner such as myself. However, the choices Sayori/the player must make in the process of the story’s unfolding are all time-limited (the game will simply decide for you if you yourself don’t make a decision in the small amount of time given), and with a significant number of ways to screw up and die, I don’t think the added pressure of having to choose a route quickly is a wise move on the game’s behalf. I have no idea whether or not timed choices are the norm for visual novels, but I personally didn’t see the benefit of such a feature, particularly given how text-heavy the game is in general.
Thankfully, there are also a few technical characteristics of Yo-Jin-Bo that are fairly well done. I may not be entirely sold on the character designs, but I won’t deny that there’s a decent spread in terms of variety here, and that purely in terms of physical aesthetic, none of the characters (with the possible exception of Mon Mon) could be seen as ugly. I’m also able to appreciate the colour palette as a whole – again, there’s a good amount of variety, and the richly vibrant shades used throughout the game greatly enhance its overall appeal.
I’d also be remiss if I did not mention the audio. While I’m not overly fond of any of the voices, the actors do a lively job of it and the sound quality itself is high, hence everything on that front comes out crisply and clearly. The background music is surprisingly cool at times, with one or two unexpectedly enjoyable and very well-chosen instrumental tracks, and only a single piece of music (the one used for most comedy scenes) which I found myself actively disliking. Oddly enough, the music grew to be one of my favourite elements of the entire game.
I don’t know that Yo-Jin-Bo was an especially fun experience for me. It certainly wasn’t a downright terrible one, but a couple of play-throughs also hasn’t encouraged me to seek out any other visual novels in the meantime. The satisfactory plot, combined with the game’s technical merits, save it from being a complete chore to work through, but the characterisation is definitely Yo-Jin-Bo’s weakest aspect, and I’ve always viewed this as being the most important factor in any fictional medium. Despite its beginner-friendly feel, the negatives unfortunately outweigh the positives on this one – albeit not in embarrassingly large quantities.
Question of the post: Have you played Yo-Jin-Bo, and if so what were your impressions? How do you think it compares with other female-targeted visual novels?