What happens when you cross a visual novel like Doki Doki Literature Club with a lewd Bejeweled game like HuniePop? Well, you probably would get something like Kotodama, except that Kotodama seems to forget what made those two games work.
Honestly, I had a hard time coming up with any sort of pro for this game. One thing I always try to do with my reviews is to find at least something worth praising, even in the worst of games, but I just couldn’t do it here. If anything, I liked the story concept that it went for, but it was executed so poorly here that I don’t even think it deserves its own spot as a pro. So with that said, let’s move right onto the cons.
Awful, tacked-on gameplay elements. One thing you should understand about Kotodama is that it is a visual novel first and foremost. Despite how the game may be advertised, the gameplay elements definitely take a backseat to the story. The vast majority of your time will be spent reading, so do try to go in with the right expectations there. However, if you are playing for the gameplay segments, be prepared for disappointment. Not only does the entire gameplay side of the game rely heavily on RNG, but it just doesn’t feel like it fits in a story-focused game like this.
Given that the gameplay is based on Bejeweled, it is understandable that there would be at least some RNG involved. However, Kotodama‘s gameplay doesn’t operate entirely like Bejeweled. Instead of being able to move tiles up, down, left, and right, you’re only able to move a tile to the top of its column and earn matches that way. This seems like an interesting twist on the formula, but in reality, it just takes a lot of control away from the player and makes the whole ordeal a lot more RNG-dependent.
And as if that wasn’t already enough, you’re limited with the amount of moves you can make. The game provides you a way to get more moves while in a puzzle, but that mechanic is also straight RNG. By straight RNG, I mean that you actually click on buttons that tell you your percentage chance of getting a certain number of moves back. And of course, in order to be able to use this mechanic in the first place, you have to string together chains of matches in the field. It’s pretty much RNG that leads to even more RNG. Because of this, a lot of the late-game puzzles take multiple attempts to clear, which really isn’t all that fun considering that they can take upwards of ten or so minutes to get through each.
So it comes back to how exactly this gameplay fits into the story, given that this is a story-focused game after all. Well, Kotodama tries to provide a story reason for this gameplay, but in the end, it’s obvious that it could have been written without. The gameplay is tacked-on and it shows. It was like the devs knew that they couldn’t sell the game purely based on its story, so they decided to jump on the HuniePop train and throw in these cheap gameplay elements just to make a quick buck off of that audience. The fact that there’s a “fantasize” mode which is unlocked for each character as you clear their puzzle is evidence enough to back up this claim.
However, what they failed to understand is that there is a reason why the gameplay in HuniePop works so well: that being that the game is built around it, rather than the other way around. As someone that generally enjoys games like HuniePop, all of this came as a massive disappointment.
Extremely repetitive story design. Given that the gameplay side to the game is awful, you would at least expect the story to redeem it a bit, but unfortunately Kotodama fails there too. I could go on about the bland characters, boring tropes, and twists that aren’t really that well-written, but the story’s main problem is just how repetitive it is. You may be thinking, “how does a mystery story like this become repetitive?”. Well, that’s actually rather easy: by forcing the player to replay entire sections of the story over and over again with little difference. If you’ve ever seen Haruhi Suzumiya‘s Endless Eight, that’s pretty much what they did here, but at least Haruhi had a good story going for it.
In order to get Kotodama‘s full ending, you’ll have to replay the story several times, going through all of the puzzles and such along the way to reach the point that you were at before. At first, I had thought that perhaps they could do something interesting with this, but by the fourth time I was replaying the game’s first several chapters, I had completely lost interest in whatever the story was trying to convey. If anything, it makes a game that should have been maybe five or six hours double that time, but it’s honestly just a waste of time at that point.
Quality of life problems. Unfortunately, Kotodama also has a bunch of other quality of life issues plaguing the experience. Most of them are rather minor issues, but when combined, it becomes pretty apparent that the game was not entirely polished before release. One such issue is the game’s inability to hide the mouse cursor. Like most other visual novels, Kotodama automatically moves the mouse cursor to choices and other HUD elements during play, so as to make it easier to select said elements. Normally, after you do this and then advance the text, the cursor is supposed to disappear. In Kotodama however, it does not. Combined with the inability to toggle automatic cursor movements and you’re left with a cursor stuck on the screen until you move it away. As someone that plays with a keyboard during the VN segments, this did become a bit annoying.
A bigger issue would be just how slow the game’s skip feature is. Given that the story repeats itself so often, I made heavy use of this feature, to skip all of the text I had already read. It’s definitely faster than spamming enter, but compared to how fast other visual novels can skip through text, it’s actually really slow here. What makes it worse is that it doesn’t even skip most of the animations, further slowing down one’s attempt to skip past read scenes. The game could really benefit from a “skip to choice” option or at least some form of faster skipping.
Aside from those issues, I did notice a number of typos and grammar issues throughout. It actually wasn’t as bad as some of the other visual novels that have come out this year, but still an issue worth noting regardless.
Visual issues. On top of all of its quality of life issues, Kotodama also has quite a few issues with regards to its visual presentation. Take for example the game’s UI. Going along with the slow skipping feature, the UI also makes use of some incredibly slow animations, including everything from saving, to entering new areas, and even navigating the settings. This seems like a minor complaint at first, but considering how much you’ll have to interact with it while playing through the same scenes over and over, it quickly becomes a nuisance.
Outside of the UI, the game’s art does have a few issues as well. One that I noticed early on was the lazily done facial animations when a character is speaking. To make the experience more immersive, characters actually move their mouths when speaking. This feature is one I have seen in quite a few recent VNs and one that usually works quite well. However, the problem here is that these animations play even during pauses in voiced lines and when a character is speaking at a different pace or in a different tone. It’s the same animation regardless and it’s quite hard not to notice
And, while the art style itself is at least passable, it does have some issues when zoomed in on. The game appears to run at 720p, so if you go fullscreen, the character assets become noticeably blurry when enlarged. This is a pretty common problem with visual novels like this, but again, still an issue worth mentioning.
Kotodama tries to tell a decent story, it really does. However, a series of bad design choices, quality of life issues, and visual problems combined with the awful tacked-on gameplay just make this one not worth the time. There are far better games out there that do the gameplay and story elements better, some that even do both at the same time. Being PQube’s first development project, I really hope that they can learn from it and bring us something cool later down the line.
You can buy Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.