Some time back a commenter on my Muv-Luv review stood up and mentioned Grisaia no Kajitsu as an example of a visual novel with prime characters and a good plot. I started it immediately after I finished Muv-Luv, which is why this is awkward, I finished Alternative over a month ago.
Why's that a problem? I finished the Muv-Luv games within a couple of weeks. It's taken me this long to go through three of the five routes. It's just not the same caliber in so many ways.
I'm not finished with this game, but I decided to take a page out of Rock's book and put down some thoughts since I might not even get to a review at this rate.
This article is basically going to be musing on my opinions. These are my opinions, I'm not saying anyone is wrong, but I feel the need to verbalize the issues I have with this visual novel because it just needs to be done.
Disappointing Main Characters:
I think most of my problem with these characters basically comes from the fact that I played Grisaia right after one of the best-paced and best-characterized visual novels in existence: Muv-Luv. I also played Katawa Shoujo and Sharin no Kuni not so long ago too.
I'll sum this up fast: Grisaia absolutely is Katawa Shoujo meets Sharin no Kuni. Unfortunately, that is all it is and it suffers for it.
This plays into the characters. Honestly, I love tropes. Tropes enrich my life and they make everything more enjoyable. I can even enjoy terrible shows because I can pick out the tropes and make fun of them.
Grisaia is hurt because it plays every trope straight and clumsily attempts to subvert them. Subversion is one of the most important tools in any writer's book, it can turn an audience's expectation on its head and enrapture them. It can raise the stakes and make the story more satisfying. That... or it can fall completely flat and mean nothing. Grisaia does the sin of subverting the characters exactly as you expect, undermining the subversion. In essence, it subverted the subversion.
I went in expecting to have their personalities subverted, because that's what it says on the box, but what I didn't count on was seeing such stale cliche' trope subversions repeated as if they were new.
That's where the real problem with these characters comes in though. In games like Katawa Shoujo and Muv-Luv, I was actively pulled into the main character's shoes in many ways. I became them, especially in Muv-Luv. In Sharin no Kuni, I put myself in his shoes because I understood his situation and what kind of person he is. In School Days, I clapped when he died because it was perfect.
In Grisaia, the main character is effectively made an enigma from the onset. They reveal so little that I'm not him, I'm a mysterious person floating above the novel watching. It actively pulls me out of the novel because I'm not him. I know nothing about him. Even after three damn routes I still know next to nothing about this guy. There's a difference between making the main character mysterious and just making him a black box.
Alright, I get it, the main character is a badass that does some kind of kill-for-hire contract work on the side. Tell me about that. Tell me about who he is. Tell me something about that sob story family you keep harping on about. Sure, I get it, I'm supposed to sympathize with this guy because something something something freudian excuse something something something, but there's a difference between showing and telling. Don't tell me he's an immortal badass that can kill anything that moves. Don't tell me that he can take down a sniper from 1400 meters with a max-range 900 meter rifle. Don't tell me that his life sucks because his parents died, SHOW ME DAMN IT. I'll never sympathize with a Gary Stu if all you do is go on about it in idle conversation.
I feel like this story is designed such that you aren't supposed to actually be Yuuji in a lot of ways. I'm just nameless ghost hanging out over the heads of everyone in the game.
What's worse, I just hate how these heroines are portrayed. The subtext I gleam from this game is that these girls are incapable of making any progress in their life without Yuuji coming to clean up the mess afterwards. They aren't strong female characters at all, they're some of the weakest I've seen since I started Gundam Age. From the Kuudere to the "obedient maid" character, Yuuji has to do absolutely insane things to get them to overcome their "problems".
Basically what I'm getting at here is that making the main character an impossible-to-beat badass makes the entire heroine cast feel ridiculously powerless at... err... everything. That's a problem. This particularly ironic since Yumiko's arc (the one I find the strongest so far) uses this as a fricking plot point.
People will come out and say, "But that's the point of the game! They're broken birds because of their pasts!" Yeah no, that one won't fly with me. They look weak and they feel weak. It's bad characterization.
The Horrendous Pacing:
Say what you will about pacing in Muv-Luv, but when you make me, a person rather famed for my patience, actively avoid playing because of horrendous pacing, you've crossed a line.
A problem I have with this game is that at it's best, it's absolutely brilliant and I love it. At it's worst, it's absolutely painfully average at everything. The problem is that it's painfully average over 90% of the time. The only thing that keeps me going in every route is the promise of a drastic increase in quality near the end of each one. I noted this peculiar quirk in the game in the second route I played.
Basically, the common route and first two-thirds of all the routes are painfully average. There's nothing interesting to anything that happens, I'm not kidding. I doubt the other two routes are much different since we're 3/5 on this. The end of the routes always see a marked increase in quality and always were close to making me love the game, but it's just not consistent. It takes hours of relatively boring exposition to get to the part of the game where anything interesting happens.
This is the first visual novel in my history were I would consistently be hitting the "fast-forward" button (conveniently placed by the developer) during several scenes of the game. My justification for this? I won't miss anything anyway.
That's the problem.
Hours of nothing happened that ostensibly help me relate to the characters, but in reality the cart has been put before the horse. I haven't even related to Yuuji yet, there's no way in hell I'll start relating to the heroines just because you spend four hours saying, "Ah, look, isn't she such a nice broken bird THAT YOU SHOULD REALLY HELP FIX OKAY?"
Having about an hour of brilliance and excellent characterization will never and in no way make up for the hours of exposition slogging I had to go through. I admit that the routes tended to end well, but that still means the majority of the game had nothing to tell me.
Honestly, the game isn't all that bad, but it pales in comparison to its contemporaries in so many ways. If you try desperately to look past the fact that the plot is... well terrible frankly, then you'll probably enjoy the characters. They are well written and their personalities feel real. It helps that they're well drawn too.
The problem comes from the fact that it's generally sleep-inducing most of the time and you'll walk away from this game gaining nothing. It's probably the straightest example I've ever seen of something being "Excellently executed, but painfully average."
It's well made and everything comes together nicely, but it has little to tell us. If Muv-Luv was a visual novel that made me think, Grisaia no Kajitsu was a visual novel that made me sleep. It's basically a dating sim for damaged girls that has nothing particularly profound to say about anything.
At least Katawa Shoujo set itself apart by making the female characters pretty damn strong (even Hanako wasn't that bad). It showed us that even physically hindered girls deserve respect for overcoming their problems. Grisaia just had a bunch of girls that were only vaguely capable of doing things themselves.
Unless the Makina route (which people say is the best) really knocks something out of the park, I'll stick to my guns on this one. It's just not that good overall. But really, if I need to play one particular route to enjoy the game, then what was the point of the rest of the game. It's a critical flaw and I will not let it go.
It has moments, a lot of moments, but there's too much nothing in the game to justify playing it. You won't gain anything from playing the game that you wouldn't get by playing either Katawa or Sharin no Kuni. I don't assign numerical scores because those suck, but if someone twisted my arm, it would be around 6/10 right now, which is my code for "Worth playing if there's nothing else around."
You can see all my articles on Dex's Corner.