With 2021 just about coming to its end, there have been a number of dating sim and otome releases that have flown under the radar for many of us.
In order to give them the much-needed exposure they deserve, it’s time for us to take a look at these titles you might have overlooked as the year comes to a close. Because, much like plenty of the other examples we have covered, they’re simply too good to be missed!
Persona 5: Visual Novel
It has been less than a month since I gushed and raved about the brilliance of Blooming Panic, a free-to-play otome that received an expanded version known as Full Bloom on the indie-dedicated website, itch.io.
I’m back among itch’s offerings once again in order to highlight yet another game exclusive to the site that is worth your attention. And it should not be unfamiliar to you — at least by name and appearance.
Persona 5: Visual Novel is being brought to us for free thanks to the efforts, dedication and talent of Catherine and co. The team have recently released a beta (v1.0) that covers the protagonist and Akechi’s moon routes. As a fangame of Atlus’s highly successful Persona 5, the team are bringing female fans and everyone interested in a female protagonist their long-awaited chance at romancing the male characters — much like you could in Persona 3 Portable. It’s most certainly shaping up to be a promising experience when two of its completed routes are this entertaining, but that’s not all!
While Persona 5: Visual Novel can easily be viewed as an otome, its gender-neutral player character whose name is changeable presents the game as a more balanced, “dating sim” stance for any player to insert themselves into rather than confining itself purely to the otome market. Furthermore, the game is still being worked on, with planned routes for Yusuke, Ryuji, and Ann to be included in the future.
It’s a picture-perfect take on Persona 5 adapted as a standard visual novel, with assets being faithfully used to organically portray the style of the original. While the graphics, sprites, backgrounds, BGM and overall art style have been sourced and adapted into a visual novel for the sake of maintaining its staple appearance throughout, some lovely additions of original CGs are scattered throughout the routes.
It also has some solid adaptation of the source material to make way for its routes being centred around romances that advance parallel to the events of the original game’s story. For this reason, be cautious about the game being spoiler heavy — and play the original RPG to completion beforehand!
Going into Persona 5: Visual Novel after having experienced the original is the best way to appreciate it as well, as a notable highlight in the beta is how the protagonist of Persona 5 has been fleshed out from his silent main character status. He is now playful and teasing, but patient and kind to the player character — this makes for an exciting and understandable love interest for this spin on the material. Who knew he could be quite the charmer?
Speaking of the player character, players can relate to them depending on what they settle on between the two pre-set personalities at the start of the game — the moon route has a socially awkward player character, while the sun route has an extroverted, sunny disposition instead. At the same time, players select which character they will be pursuing, and from there, three endings (two good, one bad) are reachable depending on how many affection points you rack up as indicated by the heart icon on the top right of the screen.
There’s a lot of fun to be had with this free-to-play fangame, such as the usage of its mobile messages mechanic as seen in the original, and playing around with archetype twists expected of the dating sim genre — such as making Akechi a yandere! But the best news is that there is so much more to come in the future since this is only its beta, and which may even include a three-way relationship coming to fruition. Trent may have beaten me to it celebrating Ryuji’s appeal in the past, but if it wasn’t apparent enough as is, holding tight for his route in the fangame will be the ultimate testing of my patience!
Akash: Path of the Five
Akash: Path of the Five is a western otome I wish I had gotten to sooner for how it gracefully sidesteps many of the troublesome tropes often seen in localised otomes.
Here we have an unfortunately uncommon example of a brilliant heroine who does a number of things right as the leading star of the product. She stands up for herself, has a variety of options to express the player’s feelings appropriately depending on their temperament, and is able to hold her own in a fight.
In the world of Akash: Path of the Five, our heroine is extremely significant. She’s a real rarity, as she’s the first elemental female her village has seen for over two hundred years, and as such her Coming of Age ceremony is of the utmost importance.
Unlike Olympia Soiree, which shares similarities in premise and themes, Akash: Path of the Five gives its players agency in their preferences related to love and commitment. For example, you’re able to project your own opinions on matters such as marriage and the context in which you might want to settle down and raise offspring; all manner of approaches are approached with refreshing acceptance in Akash: Path of the Five. Players do not need to go the whole mile in tying the knot to get the best endings no matter what they choose in this given moment, solidifying a sense of understanding and respect for players’ wishes and choices.
This is one very notable attention to detail Akash: Path of the Five gets absolutely right and is worth commending for, but that’s not all. The production of the title is also especially notable, with a fully voiced cast of characters where every single line of dialogue, no matter how minor a character is, is voiced, and the delivery is everything you would want.
Veteran names in the cast include YouTuber SungWon Cho, who has also appeared in Boyfriend Dungeon and Monster Prom, voices the playboy Caspian; and Chris Patton, last heard in Fire Emblem: Thee Houses as Linhardt and When The Night Comes as Omen, brings the game’s best boy, Rowan the carefree earth elemental, to life.
The overall package is unexpectedly polished and fine-tuned for an indie endeavour. As the company’s first venture into a genre it’s admirable that they pay such respectful attention to the player for their choices, and in conjuring up such a vibrant and historically intriguing world.
Of particular note is the unusual art direction, featuring watercolour backgrounds, animated through the use of the Unity engine. There’s a sense that all backgrounds are fluid and three-dimensional, unlike the majority of visual novels, which adds depth to its sense of immersion.
With five main love interests and one additional not-so-secret one to be pursued, a single playthrough of any of these colourful yet vastly different bachelors will keep you preoccupied for a whole evening or more with up to 8 hours of playtime, depending on your reading speed.
While the title has its moments of being more serious and dark in tone, such as the early plotline of a war developing due to the Elementals keeping a human hostage in the village, the fluffy bonding moments between the heroine and love interests alongside humorous dynamics and dialogue during school events perfectly captures how much chemistry the characters have with one another. There are enough light-hearted scenes to balance out the tougher and more realistic themes.
If I had to mention just one issue with the game, it’s one of the more major complaints players usually have with it — routes can and do get repetitive due to the story beats that don’t change regardless of route. It makes the majority of the plot feel a bit monotonous in the long run, but thanks to the solid script that balances comedy, serious themes, and rare portrayal of healthy relationships with loveable love interests who have layers, I’m still more than happy with the end result.
On a final note, its last update included Steam achievements that are a sight to behold on their own — you’ll get plenty of laughter out of them for sure!
The Cloud Dream of the Nine
The Cloud Dream of the Nine is one of the latest otome releases we have seen in the west. It had a quiet release on Steam after recently emerging from early access, and while it could have most certainly done with a bit more time in the oven to iron out its less than stellar English translation, what it currently offers is a product I believe is still well worth its asking price. The title was originally planned for a localisation back in 2014, so it’s safe to say that we’re excited and appreciative that it finally got the western release announced all those years ago for PC!
With a total of 9 love interests — with one having been added for this release — its premise is comes from the title of a 17th century Korean novel that shares the same name. The well-known novel, written by Kim Man-Jung, is a staple of Korean literature, and is highly regarded to this day as a masterpiece.
The main characters’ genders have been switched in the game, and its main motifs focus on the exploration of Korean society and religious conflicts within the era. Take it as a sort of fanfiction in this respect — and know that both pieces are massive in Korea.
The game follows its main character, Yang Soyu, in search of her best friend after their house is burnt to the ground. Having grown up without either of her parents — her mother died shortly before her father disappeared back to his own world — Soyu’s origin story is just one of the many mysteries of The Cloud Dream of the Nine. And with so many love interests, they vary in story relevance, themes, genre and personalities.
It’s safe to say that their varied temperaments and senses of romance will satisfy a variety of players in their preferences. For example, Cheyun serves as both the game’s poster boy and the childhood friend archetype; Kyungwon is a tsundere; Simyeon is probably the game’s most popular boy as the only mysterious/edgy type; and Wol is a playboy and absolute flirt.
Speaking of Wol, many players will be thrilled to see and hear familiar voices if they ever had the good fortune of being an active gamer and otome fan during the craze of the Mystic Messenger heyday — Wol is voiced by Lee Hosan, who voiced V; Bengnan is voiced by Shim Gyuhyuk, who portrayed Yoosung; and Haerang is voiced by Shin Yong-woo, who played Jumin.
I have saved the best for last in why The Cloud Dream of the Nine is worth looking further into, and it is for its exclusive gameplay mechanics. There are a number of rhythm segments — intended to depict things like flute performances and poem recitals — that break up the visual novel formula and add a nice touch of interactivity to the product. While the game’s awkward translation once again holds things back a little here — I recommend playing on easy mode to make it a bit more manageable — it’s still refreshing for the genre.
It is also worth noting that the game’s design and visual works are beautiful, with over 200 gorgeous CGs that never fail to show off its artist’s exceptional talent, and an opening theme and animation that starts off the game the best way possible.
The same can be said even for its UI, as its design captures its motifs and time period splendidly, though it also proves to be awkward to navigate, once again due to the questionable translation. This should hopefully become easier to manage over time and with familiarity — and perhaps another patch or two — but it’s worth noting that some players may even have an issue successfully changing the language on initial startup!
The Cloud Dream of the Nine has strong worldbuilding and an intriguing narrative — albeit one that deserves a better English translation than it currently has. It has so much foreshadowing that it’s well worth replaying multiple times to truly appreciate, though it’s also worth noting that the love interest routes are nowhere near the runtime of the common route. But with such varied shifts in tone and genre across each of them, the game deserves much more attention for how much ground it covers — and what a sight it is to marvel at.
Find the game now on Steam.
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