It's not unusual for us to review visual novels, regardless of whether they are family friendly titles like Cherry Tree High School Club, adult-rated stories like Conquering the Queen, or those that remind you that you aren't a heartless human being, like Katawa Shoujo. Because of this, it's really hard to grasp what the content of a visual novel is going to be like until you play it, if you have no prior knowledge of it. This is the situation I found myself in with Saya no Uta.
That was probably my first mistake. Hit the jump for the first scene you see in the game, as well as my thoughts on why you should check it out.
Saya no Uta (PC)
Publisher: Nitroplus/JAST USA
Release date: December 26, 2003 (JP), May 6, 2013 (US, EU)
Price: $24.95 from Jlist.com
Successful visual novels, for obvious reasons, need a well-written and absorbing story. Visuals and audio also play their parts, but if the story is boring, unbelievable or buried under a complex web of information you just don't care about, you likely won't hear people talk about it long after release. The same is true for video games to some extent. Fortunately for Saya no Uta, they had someone more than capable in control of the story.
This was one of Gen Urobuchi's earlier works, having completed only a few titles including Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom beforehand. However, with almost ten years since the release of this visual novel, we've been able to see even more of his works. Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero and even the currently airing Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet have all seen his involvement, so that should give you an idea of what kind of story we're getting into. It's dark, exciting and tragic.
As you can see from the first image, the story starts off in a pretty grim manner. This is how Fuminori Sakisaka sees the world around him. Everything he sees appears as rotting flesh, crawling maggots and gruesome monsters, with the outside world seemingly unaware of his torment. Unfortunately for him, that's not the end of it, as even sounds are muffled into inhuman tones and smells are replaced with the scent of the dead. It's an unfortunate complication from pioneering brain surgery, having needed it to survive the same car accident that claimed his parents.
Faced with such a hell on a daily basis, it's a wonder how he manages to put up with it all and not lose his mind. The reason he continues to endure this hell is Saya, the one person that still appears to him as human. He doesn't know exactly why she is the exception, but being able to see her, speak to her and even touch her like a human being gives him enough hope to see the day through. Saya no Uta lets us see how Fuminori is rebuilding his life with the help of Saya, as well as how his condition is affecting his relationships with former friends.
Do bear in mind that this visual novel contains a lot of sexual material. If you've given visual novels a go you'll likely have ran into stuff like this before, but do consider this a warning! If you haven't already guessed, Saya no Uta also has plenty of dark content, so if you don't think you can handle themes like murder and rape, or simply do not wish too, this may not be for you.
It's when this questionable content is paired with a superb musical score that scenes really start to strike that much harder. This is very much a fantasy visual novel, but there are some parts in particular that really get your hairs standing on end. In fact, the music does such a great job accentuating parts of the story that the game really made me feel quite ill at parts. Games like Corpse Party have certainly learned a lot from Saya no Uta, that's for sure.
For the most part, the art works really well. All of the screens in this review show that a lot of work has been put into the key visuals, which definitely enhances the story as and when they are used. I have a minor gripe with some of the character art that appears near the start, namely the front view of Yoh and her awkward looking chest, but this doesn't appear often enough to be a problem. It's just a little bit of a shame that it appears near the start, as it got me worrying over nothing.
There are a few branches in the narrative, giving a few 'bad endings' to hunt out. However, there are only a handful of them, and if you play visual novels like most people and save whenever you're presented with an option, you'll find you've only used three of sixty save slots you're given. The more the merrier I suppose, but it seems like overkill when there just aren't enough endings to use them for. All of the key visuals are viewable from the main menu, so there's no reason to use them for that reason either. Maybe they'll come in handy if you're sharing a computer?
Saya no Uta will take you about eight hours to get every bad ending and the true ending, so while it's not that long in comparison to most visual novels, it'll still take you a good amount of reading to make your way through it all. Even if you forget to save at a narrative branch, there is a skip feature that'll take you to the next decision or to new text.
From the very beginning you are absorbed into this story, wanting to know what is going to happen next. It does a fantastic job of building two different sides of the story, and you can't help but feel sympathy towards them both. Terrible things happen in Saya no Uta, and while in any other medium you'd be able to identify the villain and hate them for what they've done, this visual novel provides enough information for you to understand exactly what everyone is thinking and why they choose to perform certain actions.
There may be some minor issues holding it back, but this really is worth your time. Saya no Uta is an outstanding example of how visual novels should be constructed, and one that holds up almost ten years after it was first released. It may have taken us this long to get an official English translation, but it was certainly worth the wait.
9.0 -- Superb (9s are a hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage to what is a supreme title.)
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