After choosing either a male or female protagonist, you’re thrown into the life of a transfer student with minimal knowledge of your new higher-education institution; Fujisawa Academy. From the off you’ve formed a pact with a fox demon giving you the power to draw the truth out of any filthy liar you can fixate on. By playing a match-three game. Because why not?
On entering the academy, you’re promptly assigned a tour guide, the super energetic Nanami Kagura. It’s quickly apparent that Nanami’s got an agenda and you know what? It’s far more interesting then boring old classes.
Nanami is part of the two-person strong Occult Research Club who rabidly follow their self-assigned mission; to discover the truth behind the academy’s seven mysteries; The White Wolf, The Library of Wisdom, The Wandering Gentleman, The Clock Tower Angel, The Curse of Mikoto, The Principal of Fujisawa Academy and The Future-Reflecting Mirror. It’s not long before you’re recruited to the Occult Club’s ranks and roped in to the faux-detective job. What follows is mostly you and Nanami going around grilling annoyed students about tales they’ve never taken very seriously, quickly earning you a reputation as being as nuts as Nanami, who appears to have an unhealthy obsession with The Curse of Mikoto, in particular.
The protagonist isn’t the focus here, merely acting as a vessel; an avatar to get you involved. Kotodama is more about everyone else; their backstories, their secrets and, well, their underwear for some reason, but I’ll get to that.
I’ll get my Koto
Each of the little urban tales has a person and a single chapter linked to it. All hold enough intrigue and a few of the early chapters lead to some interesting revelations, beginning with the topic of animal cruelty. Uncovering these mysteries during your first playthrough is really just a matter of going through the motions and leaving the Occult Research Club thinking (or acting like, as the case may be) they’ve solved the riddles.
However, after making my way through a portion of the game and getting a feel for everyone’s secretive nature, it was very obvious that, in true visual novel tradition, most of your time is going to be spent on finding alternative paths through the story which uncover the more interesting beats.
Once you’ve gone through the fairly gruelling trial and error process of working out the next event trigger (I’ll save you some time here; make sure you check your phone frequently), the twists and turns come out in full-force and there are some genuinely compelling developments as you make your way through to the ‘true’ ending.
The protagonist’s demon buddy isn’t visible to other humans (unless they chose to materialise), as such Mon-chan gives a pop-in commentary to keep steering the narrative; referencing newly uncovered revelations during secondary playthroughs and the like.
During your investigations into the 7 mysteries, you’re going to run into the occasional stone wall; a character who doesn’t want to fess up. Once you and Mon-chan have sniffed out a secret, it’s time to turn it up a gear and draw on demonic powers to activate… a match-three mini-game. That’s right.
Go, Go, Gadget Balls
As Mon-chan explains, you’ll need to remove the layers of deceit using your imagination before your mental truth serum like activate. Rather than imagining peeling an onion, or adopting the victim-searing Jeremy Kyle technique, your teenage protag, naturally, has to imagine taking clothes away. They don’t gender discriminate; they just strip any of those suckers down. Points for not messing about, I guess.
Mechanically it’s a match-three game. You hit a sphere and it jumps to the top row, pushing that column down by one. Match the coloured spheres in horizontal or vertical lines of three or more in a bid to keep your target ‘happy’. Aside from the odd minor powerup like dynamite that clears entire lines or character specific spheres that provide bigger scores, there’s a basic function in which you either excite your fantasy embodiment of your chosen liar or royally p’ them off; granting more turns if successful. There’s not much else to it; it’s functional, if one-dimensional, though entertaining enough in its short bursts.
Following certain dialogue trees or visiting certain areas at the right moment during core story gameplay can undercover key words and phrases which are logged in your demon-spawn Word Book, add to sphere colour-specific experience points. Once a level is gained, the subject colour of sphere is powered up. It’s an addition that’s hardly noticed but does nothing to detract anything either, at least offering as a reminder that you’ve uncovered an alternative dialogue line.
Options are up the to usual VN standard, offering the chance to skip text you’ve come across before and quick save features. The in-game equivalent to Twitter (the brilliantly named ‘Quacker’) offers another line of enquiry but my one gripe is that, when triggering certain events, you’re often expected to read a message that pop ups on Quacker, however, the text-skipping features dives straight past these indiscriminately, stopping only for actual dialogue options.
The clean and bold anime artwork has a nice chunky, professional sheen and, for what is a very exaggerated look by definition, gives off some really interesting expressions, keeping you guessing about intentions. I mean, yes, ‘anime character is hiding something’ scenarios will always be obvious by design; that’s the nature of the beast, but the emotive and colourful visual characterisations are well-realised here. The musical score is silky smooth and damn catchy, and the full Japanese voice cast do an awesome job of capturing the tone. Major plot twists aside, Kotodama, on paper is very much a cookie-cutter VN product, however, it’s clearly a labour of love, with a refined, polished presentation, quirky writing and fantastic tone. While the match-three game serves as a decent short-term distraction, Kotodama doesn’t offer a lot that hasn’t been done before from a design and structure standpoint.
How then, have PQube managed to make the game feel unique? To me it’s a mystery, but one I thoroughly enjoyed throughout. Perhaps it’s the delivery of a focussed delight that gets everything it sets out to do just right.
Overall Score: 9/10
With a competitive price, this streamlined visual novel ticks all the right boxes for genre fans. It’s short and not entirely original, but frankly, I don’t give a dama.
Format: PS4, Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Publisher: PQube Ltd
Developer: PQube Ltd, Art Co. Ltd
Age Rating: PEGI 12
Release Date: 31/05/19
Review copy provided by publisher