Saturday, February 10, 2007

Animamundi Review

Animamundi: The Dark Alchemist (Originally reviewed for ERWA).

Before I start this review, I thought it would be useful to explain something about the genre from which Animamundi has emerged. Extremely popular in Japan, dating sims are primarily an excuse for hentai with a touch of emotional depth, if you’re lucky. Generally, you control one character and make key decisions in a simple narrative to charm, cajole, and canoodle your way into the beds of the supporting cast. This concept is still at the heart of Animamundi, but Hirameki, have taken the concept to a whole new level with their Animaplay range of CD-ROM games.

Animamundi is part interactive visual novel, part strategy game, part collectable treasure hunt. It’s perhaps best described as a ‘read-your-own adventure’ novel for adults, with multiple endings. It is definitely not just a videogame, a role-playing adventure or a linear narrative.

Anima Mundi is a Latin term, which describes the alchemical soul of the world. Appropriate, since alchemy is one of the specific themes of this game.

You are Count Georik Zaberisk, an improvished nobleman and former royal physician. Georik was forced to resign his post to care for his fragile younger sister Lillith. When Lillith is accused of witchcraft and beheaded by a mob of angry villagers, she somehow survives, and Georik is determined to restore her through the outlawed and forbidden art of alchemy. He is aided and abetted by a supporting cast that includes his friends Count St Germant and Viscount Mikhail Ramphet, Captain of the Royal Guards.

The story takes you on a journey through a cosmopolitan renaissance version of Europe, ruled by a crumbling monarchy, to the very shores of heaven and the darkest pits of hell. The imagery is beautiful and heavily influenced by both the manga and anime genres, although it is two-dimensional, and views like a slideshow rather than smooth animation. There is also a strong yaoi flavour to the game, but it can be played from a purely heterosexual angle.

Personally I’m a sucker for pretty men with long flowing hair, but what actually hooked me about Animamundi was the seriously immersive and twisty storylines. Alchemy aside, you are also confronted with politics, serial killers, angels, demons, and erm… the Hellfire club. The scenario is also charged with eroticism. Unlike other games in the genre, it lacks actual graphic depictions of sex, but this increases the impact of the tense clinches and half-unwilling kisses when they do occur. The game isn’t nearly as unflinching when it comes to violence, however. Many of the images and themes are exceedingly dark and disturbing, or even genuinely horrific. But this is not gore for gore’s sake, and shocking and as some of the images and concepts presented are, they also add emotional depth to the story. This is a world where morality is measured in shades of grey.

It’s worth noting at this point that the musical score and Japanese voice acting add both impact and depth to the story. I think it was a wise move to keep the character’s original voices and translate the prose only into English.

As stated, there are several possible endings. Some are good, some are bad, and some.. well, that depends on what you define as closure, really. It’s hard to summarize my feelings at the end of each journey because in reality they cover a whole range of emotions from anger, to tears, to genuine delight. My first trip through Animamundi ended in tragedy and the teeth grinding frustration of a ‘bad’ end, but successive attempts were increasingly rewarding. It does help that you can fast-forward through the parts you’ve seen before. Even once I’d got an ending I loved, I still kept playing, because each variant only gives you part of the story, leaving other threads loose until you chase certain characters along their individual destinies… and yes, I wanted to see who I could get into bed with each other. I won’t say which one was my favourite pairing because it’d give far too much away.

Animamundi is every bit as engrossing as a really good book and infinitely more addictive. As a writer my time is invariably precious, and it did take a fair slice out of my life, but yes, it was worth it, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys exploring the darker side of the human psyche and the concepts of sexual ambiguity, alchemy, morality and spirituality. If you’re looking for light, fluffy, and wholesome, stay well clear.

Animamundi is published by Karin Entertainment, part of the Hirameki International Group Inc and available from J-list and Amazon . You can view the trailer here.

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