The uncomfortable truth of Buried Stars

Buried Stars released on July 30, 2020 as Studio LARGO’s first home console title. Word of the surprise announcement of this Korean visual novel with a premise similar to that of the Zero Escape series and Danganronpa quickly spread online, but regrettably, I was late to the party!

Still, it’s never too late to talk about a great game, and Buried Stars definitely qualifies as one of the best video game releases of this type from 2020. So let’s dig deep!

As cramped as can be

Buried Stars is named after the in-game reality TV show our main cast has auditioned for. The “music survival” show in question is in a similar vein to Britain’s Got Talent and The X-Factor, and at the time of the game’s story is now on its fourth and most popular series, about to announce its finalists.

Disaster strikes before the results from the fan voting are announced, with the whole building and stage coming down. While the audience and most of the staff are safely evacuated, five contestants and two staff members are trapped in the ruins. All they can do now is wait to be rescued — but time is not on their side as the crumbling building closes in on them. On top of all that, the discovery of a dead body being discovered suggests a killer might be on the prowl. Will there be a happy ending?

The plot of Buried Stars is well-paced, with hints and revelations that make a certain target more suspicious over others, until yet another discovery is made across its many playthroughs. The amount of layers to the central mystery in Buried Stars will make anyone who enjoys escape room games gravitate towards it. But Buried Stars is so much more than just another Zero Escape game.

First, though, the gameplay details.

Buried Stars

Gameplay and design

The UI is dynamic and fresh, portraying a flashy production overlay much like the show our characters were involved with. It’s all for show after all, and nowhere is this any more cleverly integrated than with your most important tool — the Smart Watch. This is compact with multiple features to navigate through and tinker with, and you can even unlock in-game achievements by doing so.

The customisation options and amount of navigation in the Smart Watch’s menu is a nice attention to detail, and does well in reinforcing a prime theme of the game: addiction to social media. As your only source of information from the outside and as your only resource for help and clues to advance the story, our characters are susceptible to the power that is the Phater app. As an obvious analogue to Twitter, the app is used to scroll through media posts to obtain new keywords to use in the investigation segments. Protagonist Do-yoon can respond to certain posts — but depending on what follows, this can either negatively or positively affect Do-yoon’s mental state.

Buried Stars is a visual novel title, with the narrative progressing during lengthy sequences. The game does thankfully have an autosave feature during transitions, and when it comes to its interactive segments, the manual save is always handy to go to for easier access to key chapter moments when replaying the game, as many endings are buried deep in its branching routes.

The investigation segment is often one of the first phases encountered when reaching a new environments or when a disaster has occurred. It is the simplest segment as players merely have to point to areas of interest on the screen. Communication portions take up the majority of time other than the visual novel narration, and these are important as they affect both your rapport with the other characters and the protagonist’s sanity. When conversing with your fellow survivors, discussing possible theories, ideas and more clues can progress the narrative. However, discussing all the clues you have accumulated is not a must, as your own sanity and relationship with the other characters can decrease with a careless word.

Buried Stars

On the other hand, clues can bring up positive topics that help strengthen Do-yoon’s relationships and his mental state, so debating which are worthwhile exploring further is an important part of the game experience. Considering how to respond to each and every selection is of critical importance, as being fully trusted by certain characters and having a high enough sanity level will lead to different endings and unlock Rapport Events. These events flesh out the characters wonderfully, each covering their origins, hardships and goals, adding a great deal of dimension and character to the entire cast.

The music, while not having many notably stand-out tracks, adds to the penetratingly tense and uncomfortable atmosphere when the time calls for it. But the game deserves every single ounce of praise when it comes to its visual presentation. Character sprites in particular are extremely polished and implemented with a staggering amount of detail quite unlike any other visual novel I have experienced. They move and react to each and every line of dialogue, and are, for the most part, voice acted. Transitions are also brilliantly handled, with movement across different locations and cuts into CGs being fluid and never disturbing the intensity of the game’s events.

An ugly reminder of our daily lives

While building on an incredibly strong and intriguing premise and providing plenty of suspicious characters to point the finger at, Buried Stars shines in yet another department: its exploration of some relevant and relatable core narrative themes.

Buried Stars poses many intriguing thoughts on the topic of celebrities and fame. For example, by playing up a persona for the camera and popularity, to what degree does this affect or undermine your own personality? Is committing to being in the spotlight worth all the risks and sacrifices that can be detrimental to mental health and well-being? (A question I ask myself daily – Ed.)

As the player is put into the role of Do-yoon, his main source of anguish is the first to be addressed. He is viewed by the public as a “betrayer”, having left his band to become a solo artist during his time on the TV competition show. It is quickly evident that Do-yoon is much more considerate and kind towards others than his “label” might suggest, having saved fellow competitor Gyu-hyuk from being killed by rubble at the very start of the game.

And both Do-yoon and the player will begin to understand who the real people are behind the caricatures they are represented as on the show; how they present themselves to the world — or how others present them to the world — is not who they truly are in most cases.

The game effectively puts the player and its characters in a situation where they have to survive. It is no longer just a competition, but just like real life, some people are simply unable to focus on the more important matters.

The character Hyesung, for example, would much rather keep his nose down and buried in the depths of Phater to keep an eye on rumours and how others perceive him. We quickly see how this negatively affects Hyesung in a situation as intense as here; his ultimate fate shows the gravity of being obsessed with such technology. But the character of Hyesung reflects something even greater in regards to showbiz and not just Internet usage: the struggles he faces in transitioning to a “celebrity” lifestyle makes fame seem like a questionable ambition when all the odds are stacked against you.

Buried Stars

In fact, it can be downright sad and distressing seeing parallels between the characters’ plotlines and real-life situations. Whether it’s TV edits that depict contestants in competition programmes as being completely different to how they really are, or simply not abiding by their wishes or desires for privacy, Buried Stars plays out as a bleak and disheartening reminder of such real-life outcomes in TV and entertainment.

For example, the character Inha is depicted as a snob by the show through edits, and is often framed to be romantically linked to Do-yoon despite them not having such a relationship in real life. This negativity is not even given a morally correct treatment even in the endings, where the show’s management claim they will take better care of their contestants’ well-being and mental health in the future — primarily by not encroaching on their personal lives and sharing them. But they qucikly turn their back on that promise, because that is how showbiz works — and fans will always find a way to gossip and crave such informatio, regardless of how they get hold of it.

But through this mistreatment and mismanagement, Buried Stars excels at highlighting how everyone deserves a second chance, regardless of first impressions — and that we should never take anything at face value. The idea of hiding one’s true self is not only relevant to the characters, but for how the show functions — its one and only goal is to bring in the maximum amount of viewers, regardless of how it treats its cast, rather than to actually advance a young wannabe star’s career. The game addresses the toxicity of such industries and is particularly relevant to its native Korean market — there are obvious parallels to how K-pop idols and groups are managed and manufactured.

Buried Stars

A beautifully human cast

The main characters of Buried Stars often feel relatable, both uncomfortably and reassuringly so.

Juyoung is hounded online for supposedly pretending to suffer from panic attacks, and on top of this negative perception, she marches on with life while dealing with real anxiety and depression. However, she does not let her setbacks stand in the way of her aspirations or confidence; she is a consistently shining example of positive representation for many players who can relate to her.

Gyu-hyuk, meanwhile, is often labelled as being “silver-spooned” by having his popularity kickstarted by his famous father — but in reality his upbringing is both unkind and troubling, and goes completely against the way others view him. In this case, the truth is much harsher and far more unfair — but the badmouthing is just as unnecessarily cruel and hurtful.

Buried Stars is ultimately not shy when putting the ugliness of humanity on full display, both in its online world, and for the backstories of its characters. Suicide, stalking, familial abuse, and work pressures are just a few examples that consume our main cast. And alongside their tragic pasts is a present and future where mass bullying, haters and trolls will always be waiting around corners to verbally drag and harm them even further for their own amusement.

Furthermore, the power of Phater directly links to our own online world, where any attention you attract, especially the very worst, can easily be uncovered and pushed back into your face as disheartening reminders of a past once forgotten. One of our main characters learns this the hard way, and in a situation already as dire as this one, you can expect the result to be as damaging as you could image.

But even the most dislikeable of characters ends up much more sympathetic by experiencing all of their Rapport Events. Buried Stars successfully portrays a realistic representation of how morally grey the everyday person is, with even the most famous of individuals still being humans with their own feelings and hardships.

Our characters’ struggles and traumas greatly shape them to be quite unlike one another due to how they each adapt to their own situations, and learn to cope with them in their own ways. There is so much to its characters and its players — and as Do-yoon himself says, no-one can be described in just a few sentences.

Closing thoughts

One of the strongest parts of Buried Stars is in its layered characters, who have enough depth to feel human, with their many flaws and strengths combined. Additionally, their responses to both the dire situation around them and the truths of their own traumas are penetratingly realistic and raw, with the majority of impact coming from the impressive voice actors. The same can be said for the game’s clever use of social media, both useful as a gameplay mechanic, and its relevance to the narrative.

Buried Stars has been very well-received since its initial release. While its asking price may make more thrifty potential buyers contemplate the purchase, be sure to keep an eye on it for any decreases in the future on both the PS4 and Switch stores. Or better yet, nab its physical for around the same price as the digital, if possible. Copies of the physical cartridges in the west seems to be relatively hard to come by, but chances do thankfully arise on second-hand sites such as eBay. It’s out of stock at Play-Asia at the moment, but that site’s “agent” options can notify you if they happen to get hold of any more.

While you’re at it, keep an eye out for the developer’s upcoming second game, Project HOUSEHOLD. We’re in for yet another rollercoaster it would seem! Until that rolls around, though, Buried Stars is a definite recommendation for any visual novel player, mystery fan — and for anyone who finds intrigue in a game that explores the modern day effects of our acceptance of celebrity and online usage norms.

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