A small number of us (well, several million of us) have been living with virtual reality gaming for a few years now, watching as the format has grown from shooting galleries and walking simulators to more and more immersive and complex experiences. However, one genre I didn’t necessarily expect to make the jump to VR was the visual novel.
While not a devotee of the style, I appreciate the ways in which visual novels can offer a new take on interacting with a written story. In ALTDEUs: Beyond Chronos, the usual visual novel style is expanded to include full voice-acting and some basic physical interaction.
The style and storyline of ALTDEUS: Beyond Chronos is about as anime as you could wish for. Whether you’re a long-time fan of Japanese culture or a relative newcomer you’ll instantly recognise many of the clichés and tropes, but as is often the case, these generic visuals conceal an interesting story of technology and emotion. Experiencing this in VR genuinely manages to enhance the central themes and ideas of the story, and more than I initially expected too. This perhaps shouldn’t have been a surprise given MyDearest’s previous VR visual novel, Tokyo Chronos, was very well received, though I came to ALTDEUS with fresh eyes.
The game is set in a post-apocalyptic world where giant alien entities known as Meteoras have destroyed the surface of Earth and forced the remaining human survivors to live underground, using their own virtual reality systems to augment the environments. This blending of system and setting is a clever way of getting past the usual barrier of the screen, and works especially well in VR.
You play as Lieutenant Chloe, a ‘designed human’ (sort of like a cyborg but never fully explained) and pilot of one of the massive battle robots entrusted with defending against the Meteoras. To begin with, Chloe is a blank character with little emotion or defining features, but as the game progresses she becomes increasingly human and distinctive. Once you find out that she is still suffering from the grief of her friend Coco having been eaten by a Meteora, the game develops into a story of vengeance.
Visually, ALTDEUS is striking in a very anime way. While the environments are plain, there’s plenty of detail on the character models. These range from the obligatory spiky haired dudes to embarrassing ‘waifus’, with the most interesting being Professor Julie, a scientist who has created a replacement body that looks like a cross between Edward Scissorhands and a Barbie doll. In true anime style, if you look down you’ll discover your own set of virtual boobs, so that’s a thing. This would have made sense with you playing a female character, but with no body below your anime bosom, it’s an eye-rolling inclusion.
Most of the action takes place in the game engine, but you occasionally switch to flashback sequences in cutscenes and there are some fun immersive concert scenes in later playthroughs.When I say later playthroughs I don’t mean idly repeating the game, but instead that the structure requires you to play multiple times to find out the real story. This makes the overall playtime surprisingly long for the format, but it isn’t immediately obvious that there is so much more to see after first completing the game. It would be far too easy to think you’ve reached the end and uninstall the game, but to do so would mean that you missed it getting truly interesting.
I fell into this trap, but was lucky to be prompted by the press release to play again. The second, third and subsequent playthroughs aren’t just a simple matter of repeating the same content and making different choices, but actually take you on entirely different routes through the game and open up new perspectives. While that the initial playthrough left me pretty cold, the game became genuinely emotional in ways that I was not expecting after multiple plays.
The story’s writing here is perhaps the most important aspect and it is fine. The overall narrative is interesting and goes in some surprising directions, characters are well defined and there are few moments that were particularly jarring. That being said, this isn’t groundbreaking prose in any way, with the overall effect being a result of the combination of writing and performance. Most of the cast do a good job of bringing the characters to virtual life and I was happy to listen to a lot of the dialogue, although a quick skip option is available if you read quicker than the delivery. The subtitles are clear and not too distracting if you choose to hear the voiceover instead.
I was, however, surprised by how low the soundtrack is in the mix considering how prominent the pop music is in the game’s marketing and storyline. There are occasional moments when it takes centre stage, but I was expecting more from it than I got.