Developer: Zeiva, Inc.
Platforms: PC, Mac and Linux
Genre: Drama, Supernatural
Release Date: January 13, 2012
Where do we begin?
Outside of Katawa Shoujo, and some awards thing some weirdo was doing, January was set to be a pretty quiet month here at the VNs Now Global HQ. In the beginning, I thought that would be fine but then I fell across a VN by Zeiva Inc. Now, I’ve never played any of their games, but I do know their reputation. On top of that the VN in question, Train of Afterlife, had many things that I enjoy: mystery, death mythology and supernatural what-not. So of course I played it! After all, I figured if nothing else, it would be a nice way to escape chasing skirts.
So for all of my critics, you finally have proof positive that I’m not always right because Train of Afterlife is a pretentious, dissociated, muddled wreck.
I don't enjoy doing these kind of reviews, so I’m going to do my best to be objective and stick to the core issues with this title…but just in case, please excuse any sarcasm that may come out of my general direction. The story puts you in the shoes of two young people, Wind at first then Wing. Wind has just died and is on a train heading to…well…your guess is as good as mine. The ‘End’ is a pretty good umbrella, so let's go with that. Wind is accompanied on the death rail by other spirits who have also recently parted from the world and they all ride along awaiting the moment they disappear into the eternal ether.
About five seconds after getting the basic layout of the game, you run into your first major problem: there is zero tension here. There is a certain logic to no one on the train knowing what’s going on; after all, they‘re dead. However, everyone is so passive about their situation that any potential for conflict is drained away. Conflict is necessary to create tension and tension is an absolute must in a title that boast itself to be in the ‘mystery/psychological/horror’ genres.
Without any tension to keep the player emotionally invested, it’s up to the characters to make the story work and again ToA falters. All of them perfectly fit a character stereotype you have seen before: ranging from innocent kid to jerkass. And outside of few sparse, forgettable conversations they add nothing to the tale. Well, that’s actually 99.9% true, but I will touch on that momentarily.
So if the cast isn’t helping and none of the genres listed make an appearance, where does that leave us? Excellent question! That leaves us with a healthy dose of existential questions….and by ‘existential questions’ I‘m talking about things like, ‘Does your past define who you really are?’ ‘What are your memories really worth?’ ‘Can you fight death?’ Questions like those have been tackled in nearly every medium known to man again and again and again and again and ToA approaches them like you have seen again and again and again and again.
All together, the differing tropes get shoved into a blender without any attempt to try and make sure there is some harmony in the flavor. With the use of tropes being the only potential hitter in ToA’s story I have to admit when I figured it out, I was expecting for something substantial to be put into it but it all comes out as high school philosophy at best. Most of the time, you’ll be lucky just to not be frustrated trying to figure out what you were supposed to take away from what you just heard.
This all brings us to the main character, Wind, who is currently the worse protagonist I have ever played and I’m including Duke Nukem in that assessment. As apt of a name as you will ever find for an original character, Wind is a complete cipher: drifting through this title with zero inner reflections or outer drive unless shoved along by Wing: who is pretty easy to figure out as far as back stories goes. This would be understandable if the story wasn't about Wind's life and afterlife, but since the entire narrative is reliant on Wind to be more than just an empty shell, it's impossible to not put the bulk of this title's troubles on the main character.
With the themes of the story and supporting cast what they are, Wind’s weaknesses as a lead are brought out every time I clicked the Next button. Ironically though, this is where the 0.1% I mentioned earlier comes in. For all of the faults in the supporting cast, they at least have personality. It repeatedly pimp slaps the established rules of this world for them to have personalities, but they do. You can tell them all apart from one another and get a feel for what they were like before their untimely demise. Wind doesn’t and his back story cannot save him from being a black hole. Duke Nukem may be an arrogant, muscle-bound dork drowning in his own testosterone, but at least that dork had a personality and purpose. Wind has neither and is, for the most part, perfectly happy to just keep floating along.
Wind and Wing’s back story is the last issue with the story thankfully, so just a minute longer and we will move on. In order to, well, have something to do on this crazy train, you are presented with a set of faux Tarot cards that will help you unlock memories from your past life. Again, we’re sorta pimp slapping the whole ‘nobody remembers who they were’ idea set at the beginning of the game with this, but there is a bigger issue here that needs to be addressed. Just like with Wind himself, the memories you unlock just aren’t that interesting. Like everything else in Train of Afterlife, Wind and Wing’s story has been done before and done better: leaving you with a mechanic that simply passes the time between the time you turn this game on and turn this game off.
So, to summarize, this is a story held together by boring and predictable characters, nothing to relate it to its intended genres and Zeiva’s best interpretation of Hamlet. Where can it go from here?
Presentation & Gameplay
The same goes for the event CGs. This happens whenever you select one of the faux Tarot and for the most part it conveys the story each card unlocks. It usually works, but again it does just enough for that particular scene and then divorces itself from the rest of the game with Wind not even discussing what he just saw with anyone.
Gameplay itself is pretty bare bones. I haven’t actually said what Train of Afterlife is about, so lets do this. The goal of ToA is not to figure out how Wind ended up dead, where the train is going, or even find out who Wing is. The goal of this game is to collect all nine endings which, in order to accomplish, you have to fill certain parameters: specifically two meters that measures Awareness and Darkness. These choices range from something as simple as looking out of a window to something as simple as responding to a question. As you do so, you will unlock an ending that will also give you a piece of a password you will need to unlock Wing’s path .
Now, with your goal being to collect endings, there is no wrong choice here. All choices lead to an ending you will need to get anyway so its up to you to grind your way through. The game play at least accomplishes that, with the exception of one more thing that I have to address.
When I started this review I called Train of Afterlife a, hold on let me recheck, a ‘pretentious, dissociated, muddled wreck’. The ‘pretentious’ part comes in when you find out that there’s no Save option: at all. While I don’t know this for sure, I believe the original intent Zeiva had was to make this a pure online release: making a Save/Load option a little more complex. However, with ToA available to download and coming soon in disc form, not having that option is confounding as it leaves the player with the option of either mindlessly grinding through it to try and get to the end in one sitting or just shut it off to mindlessly grind through at a later date.
These are options no game writer should want to leave its audience. So while all of the gameplay mechanics work per se, the overall issues of the story gives it the feel of a Jigsaw Trap and, again give the choices, I’m not sure who is going to be able to rip the key from their eye socket before their head gets impaled.
…Yeah that was more favorite trap from the only Saw movie I ever saw. Glad it finally came of some use.
...I had to pay ten dollars to play this game.