JRPG fans were treated to a trifecta of hits on the PS4 last month, from the sublime Disgaea 5 to the excellent Tales of Zestiria. On Vita, visual novel aficionados are facing a similar (albeit more spread-out) renaissance of the genre on that system, starting with August’s Amnesia: Memories. The latest game in this trend, Norn9: Var Commons, is here, and I’m pleased to report that it’s a thoroughly enjoyable — if somewhat uneven — otome/science fiction hybrid.
The Surreal Life
Describing the plot of Norn9 is actually a bit difficult to achieve without spoilers, given how much is left a mystery at the beginning of the game. The prologue begins with you in the role of Sorata Suzuhara, a boy genius from the Heisei Era, but eventually transitions to place you in the role of one of three heroines: Koharu, a mysterious but bubbly pyrotechnic; Mikoto, a calm and mature girl with the ability to create force fields; or Nanami, a blue-haired and quiet kunoichi who can erase other people’s memories.
These three girls — as well as nine eligible bachelors, all of whom are power-possessing “espers” like the gals — find themselves aboard a floating ship called the Norn. They’ve been placed there by a mysterious, omnipotent entity known as “The World,” who has some sort of mission for them. And…that’s about all you need to know, because going any further would spoil a great deal of the fun and intrigue aboard the globe-shaped vessel.
Of course, having twelve budding youths stuck together on a ship sounds like grounds for a reality show, and indeed, the drama kicks off shortly after everyone is introduced. Someone’s blown a hole in the side of the ship, and all indications point to an attacker being inside the ship. One silly scene later, it’s up to you to pair off your chosen girl with one of three corresponding guys…and let the sparks fly.
The Ethics of Espers
Romance can feel forced in dating sims, and otome games are hardly a genre that appeals to everyone, but Norn9 defies most of its genre conventions by presenting some pretty interesting, likeable characters and giving them dilemmas to work out. For example, Kohaku’s pyro powers — which she keeps a secret at first — make her a prime suspect in the case of the ship’s hole. On the other hand, Nanami’s memory abilities, which allow her to remove moments at will from her chosen guy’s brain, give her a totally different set of ethical concerns.
It’s not unlike some of the superhero movies of late, in which fantastical abilities are looked at with regards to real-world consequences. Sure, it never really reaches any level of literary artfulness, but did anyone really expect it to? Remaining fully grounded in its anime absurdity allows the story to avoid the dark and brooding nature of narratives that take themselves too seriously, and the balance of levity and drama makes a lot of these characters feel more human as a result.
That’s not to say it’s perfect, of course. Like a lot of other visual novels, Norn9 stumbles a bit in its structure. Combining a dating sim with an overarching story means you’ll need to date everyone in order to see the tale told to its conclusion, which somewhat trivializes the intimate relationships you’ve spent so much time building in the process; you definitely can’t feel satisfied just by dating the guy you’ve picked (not to mention the fact that some of them are locked out from the start).
There’s also something jarring about the way each individual arc happens within a given pairing: most of these focus on character development for the vast majority of their running time, leaving the plot to come stumbling back in at the end. This means a lot of the big reveals happen through vast swathes of expository text, which sort of reduces their impact; when I found out who The World was at the end of my first playthrough, I was pretty underwhelmed.
Norn9 gets the vast majority of the important, little details right, though, and that’s what matters. It gets a few of the big ones, too, though: both the audio and visual aspects of its presentation are phenomenal. Freelance illustrator Teita has designed a slew of handsome gents and lovely ladies to populate the ship, and background artist Akiba Minoru creates a series of memorable set pieces for them to populate. Kevin Penkin’s background music, particularly when it comes to the emotional piano pieces, is beautiful. And who would expect anything less than a masterpiece when it comes to the main theme composed by Nobuo Uematsu? Someone who’s never heard Uematsu’s work, that’s who.
With Great Power Comes…Eh, You Know the Rest
Norn9: Var Commons blends its otome/dating sim elements and science fiction plot with a good deal of skill, turning out a visual novel that can be enjoyed by a broad audience. Its cast of characters is varied and likeable, and their explorations of their flaws call to mind the themes of recent superhero movies — specifically, the responsibilities of those who hold power. It’s a bit uneven in its pacing across its individual character arcs, and the overall story isn’t blindingly original, but there’s more than enough in the details to get VN fans absolutely hooked.
Review copy for Norn9: Var Commons provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation Vita. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.