Originally released as a duology composed of the first tale and the latter tale (the former released by MangaGamer and the latter is coming soon), ef tells the “fairy tales” of people in the town of Otowa, with each tale connected to previous ones, and an overarching story that is related to all of them.
The town of Otowa is an unusually European-looking city that was rebuilt in such a way after being struck down by an earthquake followed immediately by a large-scale fire on one Christmas Eve many years ago. On Christmas Eve (decades later), Himura Yuu meets Amamiya Yuuko, a girl dressed in nun attire but is not one, in an empty church. They certainly share a past, although only Yuu remembers the details. Before revealing the tale behind the two of them, they recall the tales of various people in Otowa which eventually led him to her.
The visual novel is pretty much linear, and divided into approximately 5 parts. The first four chapters tell the tales of four pairs, separate yet related to each other. In the first chapter, we have the story of anti-social high-school student and shoujo manga artist Hirono Hiro and the eccentric but also lonely Miyamura Miyako. The first chapter is a fairly standard love triangle with Hiro falling for Miyako while his childhood friend and little sister figure Shindou Kei struggles to admit her crush on him. The second chapter follows the first, and stars Hiro’s more outgoing (and seemingly the perverted friend type who actually got laid before) friend Tsutsumi Kyousuke and his efforts in making a film with Kei as the star. The third chapter has Asou Renji, who dreams of being a knight in shining armour, meeting the mysterious but cute Shindou Chihiro. The fourth chapter features Kuze Shuuichi, Renji’s violinist neighbour and Hayama Mizuki, Kei’s kouhai and Renji’s cousin who was present in all of the previous chapters. From chapter 5 onwards, we have the story of the main pair, Himura Yuu and Amamiya Yuuko, both of whom seem to appear in the other chapters to offer advice.
The couples are all set, and the changing protagonists means that the visual novel takes care to write them well and differentiate them from each other, and never settling for an empty shell intended for self-insert from the reader. All the major characters have hidden depths, since they eventually become a main character. The plot for most of the chapters may not be the quick-moving, exciting kind, but ef is a character-centric eroge that shines for in-depth characterization and well-handled drama. If you’re sensitive or bad at controlling your tear glans, you might want to prepare tissues or something. The first chapter is the happiest of them all, and the rest get progressively more depressing. Not to say this is an utsuge though, since things end off on a happy note despite the events, and the characters go through great development and pull through.
The drama is definitely dramatic, but not written in such a way that it would seem forced. There are a lot of plot points that will usually earn a facepalm from me (like the “I DON’T DESERVE YOU YOU CAN DO BETTER” that writers normally like to drag on), but ended up being engaging and making a lot of sense in ef. The eroge switched POVs quite often, so the heroine’s feelings are shown rather than explained, making their actions more understandable. The dialogue was delivered well, and the pacing was generally well-done.
The soundtrack is full of calming music, and the visuals are very high-quality. There is a high amount of CGs, so much that the whole visual novel is told through CGs with the exception of some scenes in the standard background-portrait setup. Rather than the usual vn, it felt like watching a very long movie told in still, as there is a variety of CGs to convey different shots and angles. It totally made sense that ef was split into two, since the amount of work that went into the duology is pretty stunning. Even the first half had more CGs and variations than a lot of full-length visual novels I’ve played, and that’s half of a linear game. The CG quality is also highly polished with effective lighting, and the character designs are attractive.
ef is definitely worth a play if you’re in the mood for some romance and drama. The visual novel is beautiful, and does not skimp on characters, writing, visuals, or music. The whole duology is available if you search for the fan-translation, but the MangaGamer release has a more polished translation, and was worked on by the original translators anyway. I was honestly shocked at how good the writing in the translation was, considering this being released by a company infamous for errors and general dullness in their scripts.