Written By: JP
Platforms: PC, Mac and Linux
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Release Date: July 3, 2013
This is going to be rough.
And that's mainly because it really isn't fair to judge something by one bad choice. As I often say in my personal life, if we were all defined by one bad choice we made at some point, it would just be simpler swallow a glass of buckshot and end our pain now. However, gaming doesn't always get that out. Sometimes one mistake is all it takes to derail what could have been an interesting experience and despite any effort to be more just, there's just no getting around it.
The first effort from the group Moleworks has a lot of good things going for it. It makes the most of its direction and animation and gives a presentation that aspires to challenge the likes of Dischan and Sakevisual. It introduces RPG elements to bring variation to the often stilted dimensions of the visual novel engine. And it's FREE. On paper, this should be one of the strongest new titles released this year.
However, it's not.
I'll be upfront here and say I was hoping and praying that this game was good. I don't play a lot of free EVNs specifically because at some point its just like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey without a blindfold (do kids still even play that?). You'll get a few gems but a lot of it are from writers and artists who still have a long way to go and critique them often does more damage than good. Here though I'm making an except because, as I alluded before, what this comes down to is one mistake. Molegames put all of its chips on red and hoped for the best, only for the ball to land on 00. But let's just run through some smaller 'issues' first, so I can feel like I've earned my Snarky Reviewers Union card today.
The writing isn't bad, but it is weak. There is an strong effort here to set the tone and characters by using very descriptive pose, when it really isn't needed in this particular medium. I said it in the past and I'll say it again: it is a visual medium. You can SHOW some of the things without having to rely on telling the audience constantly what sword boy is feeling every five seconds. And I've seen some people defend this since visual novels is a limited medium and you can only portray so many emotions without using prose, to which I say Bullshit. Plenty of games that I've reviewed just in this year alone were able to use a little dialogue and artwork to get across feelings of love, despair and even insanity. Hell, Dysfunctional Systems hit a strong emotional point with ONE CG timed exactly right, but the medium's limited?
Nope, not buying it. You WANTED it written this way for a reason.
Next there is no effort made to make this world plausible. To understand this you need to look at something like Sword Art Online or the superior .hack series...in fact let's just go with .hack. The driving point of the plot all happen in the virtual world with the effects of what happened there directly impacting the 'real' world. In order to make this work, .hack takes its time with each series building the rules of the world so when the crap hit the fan, no one looks around and asks how that's possible. On the offset with Duael we're given the basic plot and we roll along without much focus on the threat of the Black Mist or even bothering to explain the concept of 'Linked Player'. Just using the EVN's own logic, if this game is as popular as they make it out to be then Cadfiel could be linked with thousands of people so why is Walter the one who chooses? More importantly HOW does Walter's actions directly affect this world? Cadfiel's is shown to be the team strategist and apparently survives fine most times without Walter's cooperation. Our main character's exact use isn't totally clear until you begin to let go of the fact that it isn't supposed to be clear....I'll explain in a minute.
Finally we have the characters and for all of the flowery dialogue, they just weren't very well developed. Things happen around them, true but they never come off as anything other than tropes of popular character types. Walter is the loner looking to be defrosted by the right influence. Cadfiel is the intrepid hero who does no wrong and confronts the evils of his world with almost childlike innocence despite his 'brutal', copy-and-paste back story. Lucielle is the childhood friend who deeper feelings are threatened by Walter's very presence...threatened by a window: think about that one for a second. They all act exactly as their respective tropes demand without any real evolution. But you see, they can't be more than tropes because if they did then Duael couldn't accomplish it's primary objective.
So now we've come to it haven't we? The one big mistake that sent Duael flying off the proverbial rails. Following the complaints so far, you'd think this game really didn't have an interest in telling a decent sci-fi or fantasy story and you're right: it doesn't. Take off those glasses for a minute and put on something I like to call ~Fujoshi Vision~ and once you shift your eyes to that magical plane, then all of the faults suddenly become positives because they all help the writer build this star-crossed, inter-dimensional romance between Walter and Cadfiel. Every over-written thought just builds the tension between them since they OBVIOUSLY can't talk to each other without declaring their love. Who cares about the world outside of them anyway? Everything exists just so they can be together! And so what if the characters are wooden? Have you seen how Cad blushes around Walter? ohohohoho~
...Here's the problem with that.
Their relationship is supposed to be based originally on Walter's abilities to help them out against the Black Mist, but as I pointed out earlier there is no time taken to explain how the world works so that plank breaks almost instantly. The flowery prose doesn't establish or strengthen their bond, it makes it pretentious and banal. And without interesting characters that do something other than walk around and pine for someone in another world, you cannot get attached to them to want to see them together. Duael was, in my opinion, built from the boy love out with the twist that the two male leads were linked across different realities and it is the decision that caps this one in the knees well before the midway point.
And, on a personal note, it doesn't help that the implied relationship between Cadfiel and Walter is...is...is really creepy. This kind of gamble could only work with two guys because if Cadfiel was a women...not even going to cross that line. But that doesn't change the fact that when you wash away the unexplained, other world BS, he's basically falling into love with a video game character. If you went the .hack route and made Walter into one of the characters in the party WITH Cadfiel, then it's a bit more palatable because he's an actual part of the group with actual contributions that we can see. When they stop in this world and rest for the night, it's not a GITS style window following Cadfiel around it's actually him and there you can build tension between them.
But the entire game it doesn't stop being a 'game' for Walter. Their interactions are limited to the time when Walter's playing with the rest leaving them to pine for one another. In another writer's hands (mine), the entire plot could be changed with a different ending. Walter would just as easily be going insane from staying in the house too long and you'd know that because the True Ending of the game would end with him in a psychiatric ward talking to 'Cadfiel'. You just can't shake how pathetic the entire 'romance' is and being bashed over the head with the literal red string of fate doesn't change that fact.
Move Chick! GET OUT THE WAY! GE-GET OUT THE WAY!
Presentation & Gameplay
The Gameplay is awful. In theory the RPG system is a good idea to add to a world inspired by gaming, but in practice you need two basic things for an RPG system to work. You need to know how to level up your character and you need to know what it takes to win a fight: an enemy health meter would help in that regard. There is no enemy health meter and there is no real cost to level up stats for your party. So most fights are you attacking until the bad guy disappears which could take anywhere from one hit to twenty. A lot more time was needed to work on this system and hopefully in the future it'll be more fleshed out.
Choice is almost a joke with only a handful of options that will dictate the path you take towards one of the three endings. Why wasn't more dialogue added? See the above statement on the Story.
Wait...When Did We Start Playing Pokemon?
Hopefully something good will come from this team in the future: they have the talent for it. And that's the real tragedy here. They are a group that has the potential to put out good work. But, thanks to one bad decision, Duael is a strike-out: no other way to put it.
+ The RPG Has Some Promise, But Needs More Development
- Story Suffers From Plotholes and Cliches
- Characters Are Empty At Best
- The Romance Is Unsettling At Best