Thursday, September 22, 2011

Review: Love Plus, the most misunderstood, awesome, game (DS)

Japan is gearing up for the release of one of the most important 3DS games to date. No, it’s not Mario (well, that too), but rather, it’s Love Plus 3DS; otherwise known as ‘that dating game that is absolutely massive in Japan.’

The 3DS game isn’t going to get a western release, of course, but over there there’s going to be special edition 3DS consoles available, and the new StreetPass features should go down really well in Japan and get people involved in the series all over again. After all, in Japan StreetPassing is an inevitability – at one stage I picked up five StreetPasses just walking down a local street in a quiet corner of Kawasaki City (Tokyo’s next door neighbour).

The 3DS sequel's trailer

The English speaking world doesn’t really understand Love Plus though, hence this review. Contrary to popular belief amongst people who haven’t played it, it’s not a cheap or dirty production. In fact, in 2010 at a digital/ interactive art exhibition in Tokyo, Love Plus was chosen as an example of interactive art.

It’s also not a titillating game, which will be really confusing to many who mix up dating games with hentai. Games like Ar Tonelico Qoga are far, far less wholesome than this game, which is really more of a high school life simulation than anything else.

What makes this game so special is the writing and characterisation. There’s a number of different virtual girls to flirt with and eventually fall in love with. Each has markedly different personalities, problems and quirks that, just like in real life, the protagonist needs to come to understand and appreciate. In the early stages it’s all simple enough; you’re introduced to the girls, and you need to set yourself a schedule that strikes a fine balance between athletic training, mental discipline and socialising that will make the character attractive to the girls.

It quickly becomes more complex though, as the girls start to expect the right responses to their questions and opinions, and start to fill your virtual mobile phone with messages that you need to respond to. It’s all very charming and innocent, and it’s easy to become enamoured; not to the girls (forget the man that married his Love Plus character, that’s one in a million copies sold, and World of Warcraft has far stranger people), but to the sheer class of the game.

So popular in Japan there's an arcade game!
As I pre-empted at the first, the presentation of Love Plus is truly incredible and I can’t think of a time I’ve seen a better, cleaner, more aesthetically pleasing interface. The relaxed jazz music just helps pull that atmosphere over the line. For those of you who have played Style Boutique; it’s somewhat similar to that. The girls themselves are well drawn, but surprisingly, there’s not a whole lot of animation in the game. There’s the occasional moment when they’re walking along the street, or talking to the protagonist, but important scenes are displayed as still images, and the game is very text, rather than speech, heavy.

Critically, and proof this game is poorly understood in the west – the girls keep their clothes on. Yes, they’re wearing school uniforms, but just about every real schoolgirl in Japan wears something far less modest to their classes, and in this instance it’s not sexualised. Yes, there’s the occasional still shot that shows some leg or swimwear, but how many people have seen the best ending to Metroid? It’s much the same here. This is a game about high school romance, rather than sex.

The best looking 3DS console yet?
It’s for that reason that I think it’s unfortunate that Love Plus didn’t get a western release. It would have a following here, however niche it would be. Look at EA – one of its more successful mobile games, Surviving High School, performs much the same function as Love Plus just at a far lower quality and with a less serious tone than Love Plus.

Unfortuantely, the weight of text and the fact that this is more interactive story book than game means that understanding Japanese is necessary to get much out of this game at all, and the 3DS game will be much the same.

Still, if you have a working understanding of Japanese, have a go at this game. Once you push thought the stigma, it might just surprise you.

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