Written By: JP
Developer: Dischan Media
Platforms: PC, Mac and Linux
Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi
Release Date: April 2013
This one was difficult.
When I first saw the trailer for Dischan's newest project, Dysfunctional Systems, my expectations immediately hit the roof. I've mentioned before my background as well as the thinks I tend to geek out over (Ghost in the Shell, etc) and this seemed to thematically be in the same ballpark. Over the past few months, I went out of my way to expect trouble: a delay for a year or some other calamity that would force me to temper myself. But not only did it release, it released ahead of schedule.
Not bad for such a bold development group. But, I would not be so easily impressed. Now, after giving myself a month to do not only a thorough play through right after release, but a very recent second play through to double check my impressions I feel comfortable bringing a verdict to the beginning of what they hope will be a noteworthy series. So, with all that said, let's take a look at Episode 1: Learning to Manage Chaos.
One of the things that impressed me about this first episode is the sheer amount of subtle depth that is used to paint a broad picture of not only the cast but the world around them. Chief among them is the main character Winter who, in the beginning, strikes you as an atypical tween (I hate that term but it applies). She's not prepared, not very focused and far outside of her element interfering in the affairs of other worlds. As the game continues, you get a sense of who she actually is underneath her more bookish tone and by the final act, after dealing with a truly cataclysmic event, I found it very hard not to like her. That says a great deal about not only her overall character but how their world views other worlds...more on that in a second. Considering just how broken she is when Episode 1 wraps up, there is a lot of room to grow in the next four episodes and they have a great deal to build on.
Outside of Winter we spend a bit of time with Cyrus and Waverly. Cyrus, her mentor in this chapter, has clearly spent far too much time in worlds outside of his own. His utilitarian worldview isn't new to these types of stories, but it does give us a better idea of the world he originates from. There's a fatalistic sense around him that can be funny or dire when the situation calls for it and it has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way back 'home'. Certainly his plans are morbid, but it's done without blind faith in his world's way of doing things...of course he has quickly replaced it with blind faith in his own intelligence, but good characters are supposed to be flawed.
Regardless, it's hard to see Cyrus as anything other than a personification of the dark side of this world's plans while Waverly is the brighter side. Calm, awkward and painfully naive, the bits we see of Waverly shows us a young girl who wants to do good and sincerely means well in her heart, but doesn't exactly understand how to go about making her desires reality. At best that is what this main 'universe' sees itself as while Cyrus and his methods are the stark reality of such interference: effectively making entire worlds subservient to the whims and so-called wisdom of the more enlightened, or rather the 'master' race...yeah I went there.
This theme is further explored in country both Cyrus and Winter are trying to mediate in, Brighton, and global superpower Gabria. Considering this 'mediation' is the bulk of the game, I'm surprised it worked out as well as it did. Specifically because the driving force of the plot is an increase in Brighton's minimum wage. I'm sure that if the philosophical issues I mentioned earlier , the political and social issues thrown at the reader for over an hour will bore them to tears. Ironically, these are probably some of the same people who claim they watch Spice and Wolf for the economics...I may have checked out one or two episodes myself but that's neither here nor there. I can concede this may turn some people off, but it is as simple as you can make a quasi-political thriller: one nation is tired of being under the economic boot of another nation. For a real-life example of this, check out pretty much any European nations' relationship right now with Germany.
DS explores the issues that not only drive such a relationship but also leads to its dissolution. It also does so by making every Winter and Cyrus comes across as human as possible. I applaud this route and found not only did it add more depth to the philosophy of the series, but it made what was a brutal climax that much more difficult to sit through. It was a dramatic master stroke and it still gives me chills when I think about it.
So then, what doesn't work here? The pacing. While the time you'll spend with DS is more than enough time to tell its story, you cannot avoid the whiplash when they try to throw in another story line in the final thirty minutes. I think it's simply a case of wanting to tease what is to come in Episode 2 instead of leaving it at a pretty dark point, but it feels crammed in. Instead of a resolution by the end of the game, you're left with a feeling of, 'Wait, that's it?' It isn't a deal breaker, but it is an unavoidable scar on what was otherwise an incredible experience.
THIS SHIP IS WRITING ITSELF
Presentation & Gameplay
Outside of that are all of the fun Extra including said soundtrack again just in case you don't like it in MP3 form for whatever reason, all illustrations as well as concept and guest art. While I always love digging into this sort of behind-the-scenes stuff...well...some of the art does dance on my moral line. Because it was left out of the game proper and really are just fan contributions rather than anything official, it's something I can ignore and enjoy the game on its own merits. However, I couldn't do this review unless I could get this one line in: really guys? Really?
And then there's the opening animated movie. I'll just let you watch and enjoy it but this is yet another thing that affirms my belief that a lot of EVNs have what it takes to be, at the very least, OVAs.
This is usually the spot where I report on any bugs in the game...we'll get to that. First I want to actually use this spot to do what it's supposed to do: discuss to technical aspects of Dysfunctional Systems. 'But JP!' You are no doubt saying to yourself. 'There's nothing to discuss! It's just the Ren'py engine EVERY English Visual Novel uses!' Ah shut up you harpies and let me have a minute. This is possibly the slickest EVN I have played since Cinderrs with Ren'py actually pushed to be more than just the typical reading pad. The GUI gives you absolute control of everything without having to switch menus to save and load unless you just want to along with a Codex system that gives background information on the countries and events that happen to Winter through the episode. Also noteworth is that the entire game can be presented in crystal clear 720p.
Yeah yeah, I know what you're thinking, 'Big freakin' deal'. Trust me, when you have a high quality production tied in with hi-definition and a graphics card that can handle presenting it as it's supposed to be, it is a big freakin' deal. And this is where it gets interesting because the more you play it and use it's technical functions, it becomes very clear that DS wasn't designed with your basic computer in mind. I believe it was designed mainly to be played on a tablet; specifically an iPad. Now, since I don't have an iPad I cannot test my theory yet. But I should have one within the next month or so, so keep an eye on my Twitter page for a confirmation message.
Finally is a system that is going to be interesting to see play out and that is the Profile system. After completing Episode 1, you will be invited to see your game to a Profile. This Profile will be the bridge that connects the entire series and allow your choices to dictate the twists and turns of the story. I have yet to see EVNs implement this one correctly so we'll see just how it goes. I went through both paths and saved two Profiles so that I could test them both whenever Episode 2 is released.
Overall the Presentation and Gameplay is not an approach I would suggest for everyone as the key would be to actually have the artist do both high quality backgrounds and character art. But at least for commercial EVNs I hope to see a DS nudge things in the direction it is going. Oh yeah, there was a day one bug that didn't load one illustration into the Extras menu. If you just want it instead of, you know, looking it up online, it'll cost you your saved files to update the game. It's not a big deal, but hopefully in the future it will cause Dischan to be more observant during the beta stage for something that could actually break the game.
So considering the overall production value, $5 isn't asking a lot. Many of you probably spend more on junk food during the day so just keep that in mind before you wail and gnash your teeth over the ticket price.
+ Excellent Dramatic Story With Great Use of Politics
+ Interesting And Likable Characters
+ Excellent Presentation
- Ends Too Soon