Despite the fact that I am ostensibly not the target demographic for otome games, I’ve always found a special place in my heart for them. Perhaps it’s on account of my having been indoctrinated into the niche cult of folks who like Japanese games with their absurdity turned up to 11, or maybe it’s the fact that I got into journalism in the first place because I find other people’s interests and passions – no matter how bizarre, to include the aforementioned genre of games – absolutely fascinating. I find it a somewhat happy coincidence, then, that after reviewing such gems as Norn9: Var Commons, Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ and Amnesia: Memories for PSLS back before my departure in 2016, the second game waiting for me upon my return is the next game in Idea Factory’s Otomate line: Collar x Malice.
What sets this particular visual novel apart from the pack is most certainly its premise, which is probably the most compelling of any I’ve reviewed. The gist of it is this: after a terrorist organization named Adonis has orchestrated a number of killings in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, including one that involves the broadcasted murders of police (and actually incorporates giant plush animal costume heads), the state quarantines the ward, drops the country’s famous anti-gun law and gives each of its citizens a firearm. This, naturally, creates a tense and volatile environment: the cops haven’t got a single lead on the true motives, whereabouts or identities of Adonis, while the ordinary citizens aren’t quite convinced the police are doing everything they can to crack the case… a particularly worrying bit since each of the killings was associated with a number, counting down to an event known only as “X-Day.”
Solving the Mystery
Our leading lady is a police officer in the ward, unwittingly thrust into her own bizarre and terrifying set of circumstances when she’s captured by the terrorists and outfitted with a collar apparently carrying a significant amount of poison. She’s rescued by a group of – you guessed it – five dudes with predictable personalities and color-coded hair, who are using an old detective agency as a front for their not-so-official investigation into Adonis (they all have some relation to the police force, with three of them specifically introducing themselves as ex-cops). For some reason, Adonis seems willing to lead all of them to the truth, with the caveat that if the main character slips up and reveals the wrong thing to the wrong person, she will be summarily executed via her collar. The terrorists will know because, of course, they have outfitted it with a microphone that lets them listen in on everything that’s happening.
Structurally, Collar x Malice is most similar to Code: Realize in that it’s framed as a mystery story – with the main character’s strange affliction at the center – that then branches off based on which of the Dreamy Guys™ she aligns herself the most with in dialogue. The difference here is that the mystery is actually incorporated into things a bit more, with gathering evidence and coming up with theories about possible motives, etc., serving as part of the gameplay. That’s not to say there’s none of the usual silly nonsense in this game – one early choice, which involved me simply choosing which direction to walk, ended with my violent assault and death by multiple bullet wounds at the hands of two characters I’d never met. But hey, I guess Shinjuku is a pretty dangerous place in this universe.
What I found exceptional about this particular story is the way it starts in such an icy, dark way and then melts to reveal a lot more heart as you get closer to its center. I have to admit I was really not a fan of any of the potential “suitors,” as you might call them, at the very beginning – from a verbally abusive, aloof Hacker Dude to a quirky eyepatch-wearing guy imitating the style of 1500s-era samurai, I was preemptively annoyed, ready for a cavalcade of “grimdark, edgelord-y” archetypes. But while these may not be the most nuanced characters in the universe, I was pleasantly surprised to see that – once you’ve gotten yourself assigned to any of their individual arcs – the guys’ narratives open up a lot more, making them scores more sympathetic and attractive than they first appear to be (or, at the very least, more interesting and complicated). Things aren’t also all about just the relationship between the girl and her chosen guy; Sasazuka, the hacker, has a really sweet and sort of funny scene involving the main character’s brother; other characters also create funny and/or compelling situations with some of the other side characters, including the protagonists’ drunkard friend.
A Protagonist with Agency
That also reminds me how nice it is to see an otome game where the main character holds her own and has a significant amount of agency in a fairly dark and mature story. There are some eyeroll-worthy lines, to be sure, but I was thrilled to see the protagonist stand up for herself in situations where the men around her are being jerks – she reacts with disgust when one of the characters insists he’d never let a woman pay for his meal, for example, and has nice moments of solidarity with two of her female coworkers about the creepy behavior of another. A lot of times, otome games involve a lot of stereotypical fantasies where the woman just bounces around being protected while the guys do all the exciting stuff. There’s a little bit of that at play here, but overall, I’d say the leading lady’s characterization is downright excellent compared to other stories of this ilk.
Unfortunately, the writing is not always equal to the story in Collar x Malice, and I suspect a lot of that has to do with an uneven localization. It’s far from the worst I’ve ever read, but there is a disappointing tendency to slip from what read like overly formal direct translations (the infamous “It can’t be helped” shows up a few times) to instances where characters outright pilfer dialogue from movies (“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man,” says one of the boys at one point, prompting me to cringe). Considering the vast majority of this game is text, it can be annoying and distracting, but this is one area where people’s mileage will vary greatly – I was able to move past it, but I’m sure others will find some of the cutesy, winking in-jokes and stilted speech too much to bear.
The art, on the other hand, is phenomenal. Even minor characters get their own character portraits here, and all of it is a pleasure to look at. I’ve always found it a bit silly how the big romantic moments in otome VNs are just still images, but I had more of an appreciation for them here – there are some genuinely beautiful pictures created across the story, including the very first one, where one member of the investigation group holds the main character against a light-filtering stained-glass window. If production values are going to be “cheap” like this, I’m glad they spared no expense when it came to the artistic talent involved.
A Fun Read
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Collar x Malice, but I was admittedly a little afraid its darker tone would result in a nastier, more sadistic streak across the board. I couldn’t be happier to have been proven wrong: while the writing leaves a lot to be desired in some regards, the story told is a compelling one, and earning the trust of the icy suitors was a more nuanced and sweet process than I expected. If you’re of a mind to enjoy this silliness like I am, forget the New York Times bestseller list – your over-the-top romantic beach read is just a Vita download away.
Collar x Malice review code provided by publisher. Reviewed on PlayStation Vita. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.