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A masterpiece in progress

Visual novels tend to get a bad rap.

Whether it's the old "they're not really games, they're just Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books" argument or the "they're all just fanservice and corny stock characters for lonely teenage boys / girls" over-generalization, it's no small wonder that they are still something of a "niche" product when compared to, say, RPGs, adventure games or first-person shooters.

But this is a pity, because it's entirely possible to find games-that-are-barely-games (Final Fantasy XIII, anyone) or corny writing and gratuitous fanservice (I shall refrain from examples, because one man's fanservice is another man's poison ^_^) in other genres. And by focusing on the "story" element of a game, visual novels have a unique opportunity to allow a truly good or great writer to ply their wares in the gaming world.

In two earlier reviews (April Was A Fool and Ribbon of Green), I've discussed some of my ideas on the visual novel and what makes it tick (or not) in my opinion. However, in this review, I wish to focus mainly on the "story" or "writing" aspect of the visual novel, because that is where Crimson Rafflesia shines in a way that even better-known visual novels (looking at you, Katawa Shoujo and Narcissu) somehow cannot quite achieve.

Plot: (5 out of 5)
Crimson Rafflesia instantly wins points with me because part of its charm is viewing fragments of a larger plot-line from different characters' points of view, and then leaving it up to the player to piece them together in the fashion of a jigsaw puzzle. When done badly, this can be a source of endless frustration, as the unfortunate player / reader tries to iron out inconsistencies, plot holes and clumsy tonal shifts before finally giving up. While it's easy to call it an "urban fantasy" or a "horror story", such categorizations capture only part of the enigma that is Crimson Rafflesia - it seamlessly blends these elements with those of other well-known forms, such as the political thriller and the dark family saga, to achieve a rich tapestry of literary flavours. And given that the version of Crimson Rafflesia that I have access to is only a playable demo, one can only imagine what awaits us when the full game is released.

Writing: (5+ out of 5)
As much as I may have ragged on Ribbon of Green (and, yes, perhaps that "crawling in my skin" line was a bit of a low blow), I'm going to say it outright: Kirroha is probably one of the best writers we have in the indie game scene today. Whether it's goofy comedy (RE: Prince of Nigeria), feudal tragedy in sheep's clothing (Six Rules) or religiously-themed psychological horror (Mica: Apoptosis), he is able to pull them off in style, bringing his own original perspective and favoured plot elements to all these genres. (And even though Ribbon counts as a misfire in my book, that does not take away from the excellent quality of its writing.) Moving effortlessly between different points of view and evoking a multitude of emotions - from fear and horror to sadness and nostalgia and even laughter (that guy in the tea shop is hilarious!) - Crimson Rafflesia is perhaps the work that (at least in my eyes) exemplifies what Kirroha is all about as a writer.

Artwork: (4.5 out of 5)
The artwork for Crimson Rafflesia is a blend of two seemingly disparate genres: the backgrounds are those of a dystopian urban fantasy / thriller with an Oriental flavour, while the character sprites and designs are straight out of the best anime tradition. All this is achieved without any excessive or gratuitous gore or fanservice, and it works very well together.

Music: (5 out of 5)
Crimson Rafflesia boasts an excellent selection of tunes, including a haunting theme song ("Scarlet Flower Girl") that would not be out of place in a full-length film. My other favourite among the soundtrack is the tune that plays in the Temple during the scenes with Aurelia Primer - understated and yet menacing, it captures the flavour of the entire game very neatly indeed.

Unfinishedness: (0 out of 5)
My spell-checker informs me that "unfinishedness" is not a word. What the heck, I'll take credit for its coinage in the next Oxford English Dictionary, assuming they've descended to trolling RPG Maker reviews for neologisms. ^_^ Honestly, this is the game's only flaw - it ends, not on a cliffhanger, but in what seems to be the build-up to one. If only it had continued just a little longer...Oh well, one can always hope.

Famous last words before Sho Reilen puts me six feet under: Crimson Rafflesia is an evocative, cinematic and brilliantly written "multi-genre" game that does a wonderful job of expanding the horizons of the visual novel beyond "anime dating sim, squee!" I shall count myself a very happy man on the day it is finally completed, and the 0.5 points I dock are solely to motivate Kirroha to complete it. (Go, Kirroha, go! ^_^)

I award Crimson Rafflesia 4.5 stars and a custom-made coffin.

Highly recommended.