I don’t usually play otome games, but when I do, I end up picking lackluster ones. I’d like to believe this was a case of expecting way too much from some concept art and premise, but it’s been a while since I’ve tasted such bitter disappointment. The word sci-fi generally instills in readers (okay, maybe just me) a certain expectation in the plot where the grandiosity of the plot is directly proportional to the number of major characters. Add in psychic powers, and I ended up imagining some chuuni fights. Either way, Norn9 seemed like it would have a detailed setting, good plot, great character dynamics and possibly a burning grand finale.
Lesson learnt? Unless something is from a beloved writer or a reliable company that consistently produces stuff I like, read reviews before laying down the cash. Especially when it comes to a genre I’m not experienced with. Oh who am I kidding, I realized that long ago and will never learn my lessons.
Norn9 has three heroines each with their own set of three romantic interests they can pursue. The prologue, however, is told through the eyes of Suzuhara Sorata, a kid who likes science and is quite smart for his age, but is cheeky as hell and looks down on everything unscientific such as fiction. On a field trip in the year 2015, he timeslips to the year 1919 and is found by Koharu, one of the three heroines, They board a gigantic spherical airship called the Norn, which has gathered ten other people with abnormal powers and is headed for America on orders of The World, an organization that regulates the world that people are taught to never disobey. Their powers are to be used for peacekeeping once they arrive at their destination, but for now, the twelve people are supposed to get along.
That is easier said than done though, as the ship comes under attack and various discoveries lead to the evidence of a perpetrator within the members of the Norn. To better discover the identity of the perpetrator, everyone is split into teams of two in order to watch out for each other more efficiently.
For one thing, what can be considered the common route of the game is incredibly short. You don’t get much time to see the entire group’s interactions before being split into pairs (where the character routes start). That stuff is in the character routes, which is entertaining at first but eventually gets repetitive due to too many similar scenes from different points of views. The character routes are too short, and until the last three or so (the locked routes), the plot is thinly spread out and revealed in bits and pieces. The problem is that there are nine routes, most of them revealing nothing or repeats the revelations from another route. That is a lot to trudge through, especially since most of the routes sacrifice plot for some slice-of-life and romantic development. Even that aspect is on the iffy side, as the romances either feel too rushed or too dull. Rather than developing the romantic relationships first and then cramming in some plot-related stuff at the very end, a more effective way is to develop the two side-by-side.
Being a mix of sci-fi and fantasy (because the sci-fi elements are so poorly explained they might as well be fantasy), one would expect a detailed setting and plenty of infodumps. Unfortunately, the stuff that needed detailed explanations were glossed over and left mostly to player assumption, and most characters’ backstories are simply mentioned and never fully explained or resolved. Many of the routes opted for a “who gives a shit about your potentially dark and traumatic past, we can live happily together like a married couple in the countryside so all’s well” resolution. The game never explains in detail what you actually want to know, and even by the end the world’s problems aren’t resolved and the only thing that seemed to matter was the heroine being able to live happily ever after with her guy of choice (which theoretically would be difficult to do given the current state of the world and how its future is predicted to be).
The setting would’ve benefited more from meticulous details rather than this lazy writing that leaves too much to assumption. When you’re trying to write a story taking place in 1919 with the existence of strange technology that isn’t issued to the general public, do not make your towns near America speak perfect Japanese and immediately recognize the daughter of a Japanese noble family! Or if there are any difference in technology (like communication devices) compared to the familiar real world 1919, properly describe it! I might have criticized Bullet Butlers for its pacing, but at least it described its setting to the fine details so most things made perfect sense.
At the end, I think the writers bit off more than they could chew with the ambitious concept. The true antagonist is poorly developed and leaves the impression that rather than wanting a proper antagonist with understandable if disagreeable motivations, the writers just desperately needed some sort of evil bad guy. The whole almost dystopian concept of The World that no one should disobey is barely ever tackled, Sorata is completely forgotten about in some routes and ignored until the very end in others despite being seemingly important in the prologue, and the grand finale which ties in wit the prologue is too short and feels like a giant asspull due to insufficient development. Even in the most engaging and plot-relevant route (Natsuhiko’s), the writers clearly wrote themselves into a corner as they had to resort to some temporarily memory loss just when the story got moving to give the couple room for romantic development without pressing matters like battles and plot to tend to. Then everything gets resolved off-screen because apparently having a legitimate face-off with the villain is too much trouble to write. Seriously, just stick to writing charage, would you?
Despite my gripes with the story, the characters were mostly enjoyable. The best written routes were ones that dealt with the couple’s internal conflicts rather than plot-related external ones. Character interactions were fun, and I ended up liking a lot of characters that I didn’t expect to. Even when you’re in a guy’s route, everyone else remains relevant and present.
One of the main drawing points was the three different heroines, who are very distinct from each other in terms of upbringing and personality. Having 3 POVs didn’t bring much to the overall plot, but it helped romantic chemistry-wise.
Koharu is a kind, naive girl who grew up alone and has the terrifying power of fire. She’s easily deceived to the point that those who prank her end up feeling guilty, but is angelically kind and has the motivation to actually decide to do something when the situation calls for it. She’s cute, but ultimately not really a protagonist I can relate to and see the world from.
She gets Senri, Kakeru, and Masamune in terms of persuable targets. Senri is a hikkikomori shota who gets good character development in his route and ends up being much more likable than I imagined. Kakeru is a bully with (probably) good intentions deep down. His route was badly handled and his backstory should have gotten a lengthy explanation but didn’t. He’s funny when interacting with others, but not that likable as a love interest. Masamune is the responsible adult of the group, with an unsatisfying route since the romance was rushed and the revelations that should have happened didn’t.
Kuga Mikoto is muh delicious black-haired tsundere who can erect barriers and keeps one around the Norn 24/7. Her pride is high due to being from a noble family and she’s a hard-worker with a strong sense of responsibility. Although she’s tough on the exterior, she’s more sensitive and thoughtful on the inside but has a hard time letting that out. I have a major bias towards tsunderes with long black hair ever since Dies Irae sparked that in me, so Mikoto is my favorite heroine. Hard-working prideful tsunderes who have difficulty being honest to themselves and others are the best. Even on the other heroines’ routes she is still a huge bro.
…The fact that I have gone one about heroines longer than I have the male romantic interests says a lot about my compatibility with the genre, but having a protagonist I like is crucial to my enjoyment. Even in eroge, a protagonist with a likable personality makes a huge difference. Anyway, Mikoto’s guys are Sakuya, Itsuki, and Natsuhiko. I say on average she got the best of the lot, since I liked all of them. Sakuya is the gentle and caring childhood friend who borders on being overprotective, especially when things involve Mikoto and other guys. I ended up really liking his route, even though I didn’t care for him at first. Itsuki is a womanizer who is the number one victim of comic relief violence, but is otherwise a huge bro in everyone else’s routes. Definitely one of the best guys. Natsuhiko is the guy who attacked the ship, and while he’s tsun, he’s got that caring side to him. He’s also got the point of view I agree with the most.
Shiranui Nanami is a girl with a constant pokerface and makes blunt comments, but is just really bad at expressing her feelings. She has the power to erase memories, and uses kunai in battle due to being from a family of ninjas. She’s also a really entertaining heroine, with her being a lethal chef without self-awareness and her response to problems is to whip out the kunai.
She gets Heishi, Akito, and Ron. Heishi is an energetic guy who sucks at reading the atmosphere but is really fun to be around with (has an A+ confession). Akito is a tsundere guy who looks and acts like a delinquent but is actually the perfect waifu who makes everyone’s meals. Ron is a suspicious-looking guy with shades and an open shirt. He is too lazy to do work and doesn’t even bother remembering anyone’s name. Out of her lot Akito had the best route whereas Heishi has the best personality and interaction with others. Ron is creepy (and I’m not just talking about his appearance).
The characters and their interactions are the high points of the game. Clearly, Norn9 would have worked better as a charage instead of attempting to craft a grand plot that the writers cannot adequately execute. 90% of the game has the atmosphere of a bunch of students with psychic powers on a field trip, and making it a charage would have preserved the good points while leaving more time for better character development rather than the lackluster plot. The short length of the routes mean that as a charage, most of the characters don’t get enough development.
Backgrounds look nice, music is generally good, and the character designs strike a good balance between being too dull and too flashy/flowery. I don’t have any major complaints here, except for some of the kiss scenes looking strange. Of the otome games I’ve played (decidedly not many), I liked Norn9’s art the best.
Character interactions were fun but the plot was a huge sack of disappointment. I’m not sure if I should trust Otomate with plot again, but I do hope they use this artist again for a better written game. Don’t get deceived by promises of plot, sci-fi, and magical powers! I sure get easily lured into non-contemporary settings, but kids, don’t take the candy or go into the truck unless you really know what you’re in for!
Honestly I was wondering how a game with 9 routes came on only one UMD when the Grisaia no Kajitsu port came one two and now I know. This is decidedly a prime example of quantity over quality.