So, say you decided to go to the past and kill yourself. You’d jump in your little time machine, warp back a couple of days, on the night you PM’d that girl you like the awkwardly written confession of love over Facebook that would cement your standing with her as some creepy stalker, and perhaps off yourself somehow. What would happen after that, though? Well, you’d probably chide yourself for taking such extremes, but what about after that? What would the consequences be on your version of the present? You’ve just killed yourself, of two days past. This means that the girl you like couldn’t sternly reject your feelings the day after, preventing you from becoming dejected enough to listen to your crazy friend about the time machine he had discovered, making it impossible for you to check it out out of boredom and depression, or to come up with the idea to use this time machine to go back into the past and kill yourself. And if you were never alive to kill your past self, how would you have traveled back then to do the deed?
This all would certainly be quite the dilemma, granted if time was simply a linear, self-correcting concept. But what if time wasn’t just one straight line of events, but rather a branching network of possibilities and alternate outcomes? What if what we called “history” was actually a network of tributaries rather than a singular stream of events? This sort of “multiverse” thinking suddenly makes the killing of one’s past self a possibility, as doing so wouldn’t alter the time traveler’s present, but rather create an entirely new “present” in which there is no time traveler. The you of that timeline would never be able to travel to the past, due to being killed by you, who has not only come from the future, but from a different future of a practically different timeline. You’d not only be a time traveler, you’d be crossing into entirely new dimensions.
The Girl that Chants Love at the Edge of the World: YU-NO (この世の果てで恋を唄う少女：YU-NO） is a Japanese Adventure game that looks into this particular view of time travel, and uses it to present a unique take at its genre. It’s a pretty old game, released late 1996 as the last game for the NEC PC-9801 personal computer from publisher elf, but it holds up surprisingly well even now due to its unorthodox storyline and game play mechanics.
The story of YU-NO follows Sakaimachi Academy delinquent Takuya Arima and his life after the death of his father, Dr. Koudai Arima. His old man was a historical researcher with controversial theories on history and the concept of Time, with views dealing with the occurrence of significant events in human history at 400-year intervals, and how history itself may not be the result of a singular timeline, but rather a network of different timelines and realities which happens to converge into the present. Initially, as he had while the man was alive, Takuya regards his father’s theories as utter BS. But when his supposedly dead dad sends him a package containing a few items; namely a mirror, a couple of glass orbs called “Jewels,” a slotted device called a “Reflector,” and a letter telling him to head off to Triangle Mountain with these objects in hand; Takuya’s doubt turns to curiosity as he heads off to the mysterious local landmark by the beach.
What he finds there, however, is a whole slew of other questions. At the foot of the tall rock, Takuya witnesses the death and disappearance of a mysterious golden-haired woman who knew his name for some reason. There, he also finds a worried Ayumi with Ryuuzouji, headmaster of Sakaimachi Academy and colleague of Dr. Arima. The man pulls a gun on Takuya, demanding that he hand over the Reflector his father gave him. Before he can comply, however, a bright light envelops Takuya and spirits him away to another Triangle Mountain, sans Ayumi or Ryuuzouji.
Takuya later realizes that he’s been dumped into an alternate timeline, where he has approximately fifty hours to find the other six jewels for the Reflector. Until he can find the other jewels and bring the fully assembled Reflector to Triangle Mountain, he’ll be stuck in this two-day time loop where no two-day period is exactly the same. In the process, Takuya will learn of mysterious rumors, political corruption, underhanded corporate dealings, unrequited love, double lives, impractically dressed news reporters, and of the full, otherworldly implications behind his father’s research.
In terms of game genre, YU-NO is a bit of a mixed breed. The first half of the game (Takuya’s time loop dilemma) can be classified as a sort of point-and-click adventure game, kind of like Myst or The Journeyman Project. The prologue and second half (what happens after Takuya gets all eight jewels) is more akin to traditional Japanese adventure games, like Snatcher or Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. Both parts blend in a visual novel-esque first-person focus and emphasis on a detailed and branching storyline, creating a mix of Eastern and Western interactive fiction ideologies. What’s more, the segregation between the two play styles is integrated into the story; Takuya’s possession of the Reflector in the first half of the game completely affects how the game is navigated, saved and played in that section. While it’s not as internally consistent as other Japanese adventure games, the seemingly eclectic fusion of game play is fascinating in how it all works together to provide a unique experience.
This is a screenshot from two different parts of the game. Notice how the former lacks the action menu of the latter. Also note how the former has an inventory bar and a Reflector with jewels in the right-hand side of the screen.
Take the way the game handles saving for example. Unlike most other visual novels and adventure games, with numerous save slots and almost unlimited opportunities for saving, YU-NO offers only three save slots, and the game’s traditional save method only allows for saving in the slot the game was created in. Additionally, for the menu-driven prologue and second half of the game (more on the latter in a bit), the game only allows saving in particular parts of the narrative, rather than at every decision point. The branching main game will allow for saving at nearly any time, but doing so will automatically kick you back to the title screen (essentially like a “memo save” or “field log” in certain RPGs, except it doesn’t delete the data after loading). This effectively kills the ability to spam saves before each critical decision point, making each move Takuya makes all the more crucial.
However, that’s not to say Takuya hasn’t a little insurance on his side. Enter the “Jewel Saves,” saves granted by the glass orb macguffins that function in the same way traditional quick saves in a visual novel with one critical difference: they’re limited to the number of jewels Takuya has in his possession. Each jewel save sets one of the jewels at that particular moment in time, to which Takuya can warp back to by pulling up the “Divergence Map,” a feature of the Reflector that serves as a sort of temporal “auto-map” feature. Every time Takuya is sent back to the first day, he’s given an opportunity to redo the events of those days, opening up alternative routes and scenarios. This Divergence Map helpfully shows the branches of time he’s travelled, as well as the jewel saves you’ve placed and the general “areas” in time the other, unaquired jewel saves are. Placing a jewel save will leave a feathered square at that point in time, one which the player may click on to pull Takuya back or forward in time to that particular point in time. Doing so will return the used jewel to Takuya’s reflector to be used again if needed. One will need to use a fair bit of strategy and intuition when deciding to place a jewel save, as the Reflector requires at least one jewel still in the device to pull up the Divergence Map. When all of the jewel saves have been expended, Takuya will be forced to go through the game with no bearing on the passage of time or with a way to load a jewel save until he either finds another one in-game, or the player decides to go back to the night before the first day through the game’s load menu.
A critical feature about both loading jewel saves and restarting the main game from the main menu is that both options allow Takuya to keep the progress and items he puts in his inventory prior to loading the jewel save. For a Japanese adventure game, there’s an uncanny emphasis placed on item management. While inventory space isn’t an issue for Takuya, the player will have to be mindful of when to use an item. Some paths are blocked from the player until Takuya uses a particular item, while others will open up if Takuya does not use an item when prompted. Vital items for one route may only be acquirable on another timeline, and once an item is used, it’s gone until Takuya manages to get the item again. So, say Takuya decides to use a jewel save before giving a certain character a certain key card he received from clearing another route. If he were to give the character the requested key card, Takuya will no longer have that card in his inventory. So, if Takuya were to reload the jewel save before this event, he’ll have no key card to give and will need to retrieve it again by traversing and clearing that other route. Consequences can be dire for those who don’t utilize the jewel saves and items wisely, as situations like this can potentially result in hours of backtracking to fix a careless mistake.
Now, difficulty is not usually an issue in Japanese adventure games. In fact, one of the more prominent arguments against these and visual novels is how non-interactive these games tend to be. Not being one to conform to previously set standards, YU-NO punches up the difficulty, though this doesn’t quite work to its advantage. One of the more glaring of YU-NO’s flaws is the Nintendo Hard “Guide Dang It”-ness the game presents the player. Without the included walkthrough, and if you’re being careful, this game is still quite difficult. To be fair, the game will hint, sometimes with great subtlety, on the actions you’ll need to take. While he may give some cues in his dialogue and monologue, Takuya will sometimes outright state where he needs to go or when you should use a Jewel Save. But other times, you’ll just need to use your own common sense and intuition to make your way through the Divergence Map. It’s not always obvious where to go, what to click, or what item to use, and sometimes it’s impossible to clear a route without first picking up a key item from another route, much like my previously stated example. The game presents no recommended sequence of routes, leaving it up to the player to experiment. Doing so requires viewing a number of events multiple times, and the experience can get quickly stale because of it (the last night of Mio’s route is a particularly dastardly example). It’s typically recommended that you use the bare-bones walkthrough included in the English translation installer, as it saves the player a whole lot of backtracking. Personally, if you’re really not the type to use walkthroughs, I’d recommend consulting it after clearing your first two-day loop, when you’ve got a better grasp on how the game is played.
Also, don’t forget that the Shift key fast-forwards through the text. This will soften the pain of backtracking a great deal.
Of course, on your first play-through, you’re probably not going to want to fast-forward the text and descriptions, given that YU-NO’s storyline is the game’s most defining trait, which should be a given considering what kind of game it is. What is surprising is just how epic it is in scope and size, compared to its peers of both past and present. To wit, a full play-through, straight to the credits without going for 100% completion will clock in at a little less than 50 hours WITH the walkthrough material included in the English translation. While not as monstrously long or wordy as, say, Fate/Stay Night, the story itself integrates a greater variety of literary genres together. As a whole, one could consider it a work of sci-fi, given the amount of focus the narrative gives to Takuya’s discovery and understanding of the parallel world theorem Dr. Arima and his associates formulated. There are also elements of mystery and suspense, as Takuya delves deeper into the intrigue surrounding his father’s disappearance and how Triangle Mountain, Ayumi’s company, Ryuuzouji’s actions, and a reclusive girl at school all tie into this. Romantic elements play a significant role in the development of the different characters, as each of the four-and-a-half different timelines focus on a pairing between Takuya and one of the game’s main heroines as both focus their efforts towards solving a specific piece of the overarching puzzle. The second half of the game takes on a strong fantasy flavor, but retains its sci-fi grounding from earlier in the game near the end, making what would seem like a mishmash of different genres an ambitious and mostly coherent tale. Many claim YU-NO to be the late Hiroyuki Kanno’s magnum opus, who also designed a number of other famous Japanese adventure games and visual novels, such as Eve Burst Error and Desire. Though I’m not familiar with his other works, I’ve gotta say this one’s especially intriguing. At times, the game almost reads like a Dan Simmons novel, with its blend of fantasy and sci-fi.
Now as defining and intriguing as the story is, I can’t actually say it’s the BEST aspect of YU-NO. Don’t get me wrong; as a video game, it has one of the most well-written, well-thought out stories to have come out of the medium. It is by no means perfect, however. As seemingly grounded in logic the game attempts to be when approaching the subject of traveling across time and dimensions, some of the solutions to the various plot twists seem like contrived cop-outs with little explanation, while some are simply nonexistent. By journey’s end, after 100% completing the game, I still had a number of questions unanswered about the events of the story. Granted, this is a very general complaint, with little in the way of non-spoilery evidence and one that can be leveled against the best of game stories, but it’s especially irksome in standalone games with large, epic stories like this. Plus, with the recent passing of Kanno, we may never learn of the universe of YU-NO outside of what is present in the story.
The characters of YU-NO also are a little lacking, though this is probably more because the game’s a product of the late 90s, which shows in both story characterization and character design. For example, many (if not all) of the heroines tend to fit a little too well in anime girl character archetypes that, by today, have gotten a little trite. Mio Shimazu, resident rich girl and tsundere, is initially cold towards Takuya’s lecherous joker personality, but she predictably falls for him if he so much as engages a serious conversation with her. While the reserved Kanna Hatano is a little more hard to win over, her silent girl personality is a little more than reminescent of girls like Rei Ayanami from Evangelion or Yuki Nagato from Haruhi Suzumiya. And, per the usual for these types of characters, her quietness provides a ruse for a deeper, darker side. Neither Eriko’s aloof chain-smoking school nurse shtick or former teacher Mitsuki’s flirtatious older woman act will be anything new to even the most casual of anime fans. And Amanda and Sayless, two girls Takuya encounters in the second half of the game, get surprisingly little characterization, which is especially egregious considering their significant contributions to the plot. Perhaps the most interesting character is protagonist Takuya, whose initial “perverted jackass with a heart of gold” characterization makes him comparable characters like Lupin the 3rd, but with the few layers of angst and self-conflict prevalent in teenage heroes struggling with their pasts. This works especially well for Takuya, who is able to maintain great chemistry with comparatively bland co-characters through insightful jokes, keen observations about the who and what around him, and the occasional disregard for the fourth wall. His character is surprisingly fluid, adapting to the many heartwarming and dire situations the story presents him.
The character designs, as stated before, are also a little dated. While the graphics themselves are bright and well-defined, how the characters are built anatomically is a little laughable. The most noticeable example once again lies with the female cast, with unnaturally curvaceous dimensions abound. Nearly all of the main females are well-endowed in terms of bust, hips, and waist; which makes the game kind of hard to take seriously at times. And Takuya suffers from the faceless syndrome many Japanese adventure game/visual novel protagonists shared at the time. His front bangs completely obscure the top of his face, and this seems to never bother him or those around him. While not a big issue, it does look pretty silly in some scenes.
While the story and characterization is a little lacking, special mention should be made concerning the music, which is by far the game’s true best aspect. Much of the soundtrack was composed by the late, great Ryu Umemoto, made famous in the Western world with his work on Cave’s bullet hell shooters like Bug Princess (Mushihime-sama), Espgaluga II and Akai Katana. It’s said that he worked closely with Kanno when composing for the game, and it really shows. The soundtrack covers a wide palette of emotion and feeling, with each track suited perfectly to each scene. Heck, a lot of pieces, particularly “Manifestation,” “Fate,” and “Turnover” add to the suspense and drama in the narrative. The character themes also fit well with the characters they’re tied to. Mio gets a soft, elegant piece that nicely represents both her harshness towards Takuya and the emotionally delicate side her character type tends to hide. Yuuki, Takuya’s bumbling underclassman subordinate, has a slow piece that reflects his relaxed, somewhat dopey nature. And Mitsuki, former instructor at Sakaimachi Academy and old flame of Takuya’s, has a jazzy, sort of sorrowful piece that expresses a mature air about it. How Umemoto and fellow composers Ryu Takami and Kazuhiro Kanae pull this off is certainly no small feat, considering the sound capabilities of the PC-9801 are equivalent to that of a slightly beefier Sega Genesis/Mega Drive.
In terms of audio, the game’s voice acting also deserves praise. Originally an exclusive to the Saturn port, the team at TLWiki Translations was nice enough to include the Saturn voices in an optional patch for the game. It really says something when a company can afford to hire an all-star cast to do the voices in a console port of one of their games, and elf certainly didn’t disappoint with their selection of voices for this game.
Nobuyuki Hiyama, who would later provide the grunts and yells of Adult Link in Ocarina of Time and Smash Bros., plays the role of Takuya. He’s well known for the hot-blooded protagonist roles he plays in various games and anime, and it translates very nicely to his character. As the main character, Takuya goes through a wide variety of emotions in the narrative: frustration when recalling his late father, joy in teasing Mio, irritation from dealing with Yuuki, fragile calmness when dealing with a critical situation and shock when finding a lifeless body. Hiyama’s experience as an anime voice actor shines through in his voice overs, which is quite apparent even to those unfamiliar with the Japanese language.
Also impeccably cast is the voice of Ryuuzouji. Akio Ohtsuka’s more recent voice work includes voice of Rider in the excellent Fate/Zero anime adaption, as well as the Japanese voice for Seth in Street Fighter IV, Batou in the Ghost in the Shell Series, and Solid Snake’s voice in the Japanese versions of Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Metal Gear Solid. His gruff, serious voice gives the mysterious and morally ambiguous school headmaster a heavy helping of character, rugged, badass character. Yeah, his character’s supposed to be more of an academic, but his characterization in the story certainly benefits from Ohtsuka’s voice. If anything, Ohtsuka adds to Ryuuzouji just as much as Kanno’s script.
The female cast is similarly star-studded. Kikuko Inoue (Belldandy in Ah! My Goddess, I-No in Guilty Gear, Lust in Fullmetal Alchemist) provides the gentle voice of Takuya’s stepmom Ayumi. Aya Hisakawa (Sailor Mercury in Sailor Moon, Xianghua in the first three Soul Calibur games) adopts a lower tone for the voice of Eriko. Rei Sakuma (Shampoo from Ranma 1/2, Sanrio’s My Melody in her recent anime series, Jiji from Kiki’s Delivery Service) provides a classic tsundere haughtyness. And Yuka Imai (Arisa from Fruits Basket, Misaki from Excel Saga, Rutee from Tales of Destiny) subdues her emotions nicely for emotionless girl Kanna.
With top-notch presentation, unique and original gameplay mechanics, and a flawed yet enjoyable story with an ambitious scope, YU-NO is certainly worth the look for people curious about the Japanese adventure game genre, especially for those more accustomed to Western fare. The storyline is, if nothing else, genuinely interesting, the soundtrack is outstanding, and the gameplay is quite a ways more involved than the average visual novel (though it’s also a little difficult). If you’re looking for a good bit of interactive fiction, and if you can get around its erotic elements and how difficult it is to legally acquire the game, then you’ll find YU-NO well worth your time. Of course, if legal restrictions don’t bother you much-
Huh? “Erotic elements”? Oh… right. Looks like I forgot something. *sigh*
Right, so YU-NO classified as an “eroge,” or “erotic game.” You see, publisher elf’s main thing was (and still is) publishing adult games for the Japanese market, and YU-NO was one such game. So, true to its genre, there’s an overdose of panty shots, quite a bit of nudity, and a few explicit sex scenes. While their inclusion isn’t absolutely terrible or game-breaking (save for a couple of instances), they don’t add much other than reasons for people to steer clear. Which is a shame, because I strongly believe games like these shouldn’t be defined by the sexual content they have. While classified as an “eroge,” it’s hardly porn. For one, the explicit sexual content comes in hours into the story, behind layers of gameplay and logical thinking. This is a costly investment for someone just looking for nekkid chicks to oogle at. Plus, the H-scenes aren’t presented as rewards for solving puzzles or clicking through enough scenes, but rather as simple events in a narrative. They’re really more akin to sex scenes in a movie or novel.
Regardless, the sex and nudity is still there, and it still makes YU-NO a game not exactly safe for work, children or those who have little tolerance for naked anime girls. BUT, if acquiring the game poses no moral dilemma for you, and if you’re willing to put up with the erotic elements, this is one adventure you won’t regret playing through. This is easily elf’s best work, and one of the best Eastern adventure games out there.
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