When it comes to making your first game the choice of genre is often dictated by how hard it is to program the mechanics. Arcade style games such as platformers and horizontal shooters can often be programmed in several hours with relative ease allowing for more time to be spent on graphical design and fine tuning. For games with a focus on story however there are few genres more popular than the Visual Novel.
As the entry point for many first time developers the quality of visual novels available on the marketplace varies wildly; for every Hatoful Boyfriend and Katawa Shoujo there are a dozen that make the average fan fiction look like Lord of the Rings by comparison.
Bad writing, cliches and a lack of depth abound causing many would be fans to write off the genre completely and as a result many developers fail to find the lasting success needed to continue their careers. In spite of these pitfalls developer Harotobira has endeavoured to create a game that will no doubt leave a lasting impression.
Cyber City 2157 is a visual novel that immerses the player within a transient world of image, sound and colour. A world where urban development moves so fast that new buildings and roads can appear literally overnight and a person can become lost if they stray from paths familiar. Provoking and at times disorientating it is for all its flaws a game that straddles the boundaries between entertainment and art.
Disjointed internal conversation makes way to bizarre scenes of an ever changing urban landscape as the game begins with a with a request for the player to insert a cassette to begin. Clicking forward we are presented with a conversation between two nameless voices while in the backdrop a space shuttle launches into space and begins to deploy its antenna.
Shifting between bickering and commenting on the scene unfolding before them the voices and the player watch on as the crew of the spaceship attempt to deploy their antenna only to find that it has become stuck. An astronaut departs from the ship as the voices continue their non-sensical conversation until disaster strikes and the astronaut is blown from the ship by an unknown wind. As the astronaut floats further from the ship and is informed by mission control that he was successful in deploying the antenna the voices remark how sad the astronaut is.
The games opening moments are confusing enough that even a player well versed in the obscure would have issue following on however it becomes a serious issue when the script reads like a poor google translation. Struggling past this however we continue onwards, awaking from what was apparently a dream to discover that one of the voices, apparently titled “The voice inside my head” is the protagonist, a “holographic mold designer” and that the second voice, titled “the voice inside me” is apparently some sort of internal companion. The player is then treated to a similarly disjointed narration of “The Voice inside my head”‘s daily life coupled with screenshots of the world around them.
Visually Cyber City 2157 is unique. With a graphical design that mimics those of early digital images it sets itself apart from the multitudinous anime based visual novels flooding the marketplace. With almost no animation the game simply transitions from slide to slide adding to the retro aesthetic. it’s avant-garde without alienating the player: experimental yet somehow familiar. This quality is fortunate as at this point the story offers little appeal due to the poor translation of the script.
As the protagonist’s monologue continued throughout their day I began to get the feeling that they were not entirely human. The disjointedness of the script contributed to my assumption however it was the next revelation by the protagonist that reinforced my belief. After coming across a pair of old books the protagonist reveals that they are unfamiliar with the concept of night and that some sort of calamity or disaster has befallen the world prior to the games beginning which has been covered up in all but the oldest books. Following the conclusion of the protagonists monologue the first branch in
the story appears and players are able to delve further into the mystery of the protagonists Identity.
Adding to the game’s surrealist evocation is an ethereal, symphonic techno soundtrack that melds well with the visuals without feeling anachronistic. It has a modern yet retro feel which coupled with the games visuals makes for an overall aesthetic that would make Ramona Andra Xavier feel right at home.
The story branch I continued on eventually began to meander from a futuristic dystopian novella into more of a supernatural mystery as I made my way between the tombstones of the cities cemetery and conversed with various ghosts none of which commented on the peculiarity of the protagonist leaving my theory in tatters . Upon reaching the climax of what felt like little more than a side story I was abruptly greeted with an end of game screen and a mind full of fuck. After composing myself and replaying through several other story branches I found that many if not all result in a similarly open ended and unsatisfying conclusion that, rather than leaving me wanting more simply left a bad taste in my mouth.
As what is essentially the worlds first Vaporwave video game, Cyber City 2157 is worth experiencing in spite of its deficiencies for the novelty alone. Because of those deficiencies however I expect it will be a game purchased while on sale on a whim rather than out of any genuine desire until it finally achieves its cult status, much like “Deus Ex Machina” before it.
Cyber City 2157 was released for Steam on May 5th and can be bought either singly or as part of a bundle released by publisher Sometimes You.
Chris Senz is a freelance journalist and contributor to PN2.