A grab bag of great games from the first quarter of 2022

There’s some great games on the way in the next couple of months, so there’s a lot of catching up to do before it all becomes too much! Today, let’s take a look at a handful of titles from the first quarter of 2022 that I think deserve more praise — and a few better-known ones that are still worthy of mention.

Let’s get right into it!

Otomes

Great games of 2022

Let’s cover my primary genre focus first: the ever-fascinating world of otome games!

Since giving the demo of LuckyCat’s upcoming otome/RPG The Silent Kingdom a go, I found myself looking around for other promising-looking indie projects — and my eyes quickly alighted on another romance title aimed at a female audience.

Heart Sigil Elchemia, developed by shibalist, the same creator behind Yrsa Major, one of my favourite Otome Jam projects of last year, released a demo that is an hour long and available to play in your browser as a taster for what is to come.

The full game promises about 20 hours of entertainment, and this has me pretty hyped after experiencing shibalist’s previous work; they have a talent for creating intriguingly lore-deep and uniquely fantastical worlds. In this case, Heart Sigil Elchemia is set in the same world of Elesse, and casts players in the role of Risu, an alchemist tasked with finding a means of restoring balance to the world. The peaceful union between elementals and humans has been disrupted, and the ishim are being turned into monsters.

Its heroine, who is both mentally and physically strong, can find love along the way with a companion of her choice while attempting to find a solution to the mystery. The love interests include an old friend, an esteemed professor, a standoffish soldier, and an unreformed ishim.

The demo gives a preview of the four love interests’ routes and the common route. It manages to pack in a load of CGs and plenty of dialogue between the characters to highlight how humorous and well-written the final product should hopefully prove to be. There is also a cameo of Uribel from Yrsa Major to highlight how shibalist’s games unfold in a shared universe.

The dialogue is a particular highlight; it provides enough detail that it doesn’t feel overly expositional and instead breathes some much-needed life into the setting. This helps make up for one of the game’s few weaknesses in its design: some rather distractingly basic backgrounds that lack complexity.

Thankfully, the degree of polish evident in the varied spritework is noticeably impressive, and the lore and central mystery alone have me well and truly hooked already. After the joy that was Yrsa Major, I feel confident that Heart Sigil Elchemia will definitely be one to keep an eye on when it finally releases.

Onto my next otome that’s already taken up a considerable amount of my time both before this last month and during it: it’s Our Life: Beginnings & Always, which recently saw a new update with the paid DLC “Cove’s Wedding”. Yes, it’s finally time to tie the knot with one of the greatest husbandos out there!

Developer GB Patch Games have been building up the excitement for this DLC that concludes Cove’s route, and they’ve also announced a Cove plushie. On top of that, they’re in the process of unveiling more and more information about their next title Our Life: Now & Forever — and we’re loving every second of it.

But about that wedding story DLC for Cove. The purchase will net you another 2 to 3 hours of additional new material for the free-to-play base game. It sees players planning their wedding, reconnecting with old friends for a final hooray, seeing the whole town grow up in this final stage, and closing out the romantic journey with your childhood best friend.

The title is still thriving, as well it deserves, and there’s a lot more set to come our way with additional story DLCs for two supporting characters: Derek and Baxter. It’s been an emotional ride, but we’re not done here just yet!

On the topic of otomes, mentioning Variable Barricade is a must after dedicating most of my February to it. It was one of my most anticipated otomes of the year, and I found it interesting how my feelings at its outset and its full completion contrasted quite considerably!

The common route is as entertaining as you could hope for. Its cast and dialogue are brilliant, and its localisation is excellent, particularly when it comes to the humour. On top of that the art is absolutely gorgeous — we have the one and only Kagerou Usuba to thank for that side of things — and the overall package initially seemed to be a sure-fire knockout.

So it’s unfortunate that the game didn’t keep hitting those lofty expectations as I went further into it — and since my chosen route order (Nayuta, Taiga, Shion, Ichiya, true route) ended up somehow progressing from the least troublesome characters and situations to the most, I found myself rolling my eyes more and more as I finally hit the 30-hour playtime mark.

The game did, on the whole, deliver a cast of trashfire love interests as it promised, and they turned sympathetic and humanly flawed by the end of everything — but I found the true route a bit distasteful, and it left me feeling like Variable Barricade wasn’t quite as perfect as it could have been.

But I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: the best aspect the game has going for it is its heroine. It was a very pleasant surprise after what we’ve had to say about otome game heroines in the past, but Hibari is a great character. She is not a blank slate for players to project themselves onto for a nice change — she’s very much her own character.

Variable Barricade was, overall, a good time — but with everything I’ve said, if you’re looking for your first taster of a romcom otome, I would recommend Cupid Parasite first for its consistent quality in route writing, and its humour being consistently on point throughout its runtime. You can read my in-depth thoughts of it in my review.

Now that Variable Barricade has been wrapped up, there will be a lull in otome releases until we reach around June/July time, which is when we’ll see Birushana: Rising Flower of Genpei. So with that being the case, I’ve picked up a couple of Voltage games to dip in and out of until then. And since I ended up enjoying Star-Crossed Myth far more than I had anticipated, I’m going to see just how good a few others within their catalogue are. It’ll be good to brush up on the company’s releases before even if TEMPEST drops!

Visual Novels

Great games of 2022

Milk outside a bag of milk outside a bag of milk is the sequel to the hidden gem of Milk inside a bag of milk inside a bag of milk, a cheap, short, and disturbingly horrifying visual novel. We follow the same main character here after her eventful trip to the store for a bag of milk.

The game is as abstract as before, with its stylised appearance upping the horror and nightmare fuel factor significantly through more expressive character portraits, and an improved art style overall thanks to the higher production values.

The backgrounds now boast additional detail and almost always have movement in them to reinforce how surreal the world is, and there’s animation evident in video segments and in the spritework throughout.

The game extends everything the original set up by adding depth to the main character, and it’s brilliantly pulled off since the player and the main character have secured a sort of trust and connection between one another after the events of the first game, where we successfully helped her buy a milk bag. Her backstory and personality are much more evident here, as we once again embody the main character’s inner voice, and we can either help or sabotage her in order to attain various endings.

The entire ordeal this time around is to help the main character overcome her insomnia, which she has been suffering from for nearly a week now. References are made to the original game, with side characters alluding to prior events that shaped the main character’s current mental state as we try to comfort her.

Mechanically, the game’s creator Nikita ups the ante when it comes to player interactivity by driving home the fact that we are ultimately influencing the main character rather than commanding her, with scenes sometimes progressing without the player managing to interject to stop her from making mistakes and spiralling out of control.

Additionally, the fourth wall is broken here and there to reinforce the penetrating sense of existential dread, and there are now multiple endings that help to reinforce the main character’s nightmarish feeling of endlessly looping. The title is even more of a horror game than its predecessor, made all the more noticeable by its brilliant soundtrack. The OST manages to knock all of its sounds right out of the park to reinforce multiple intentions: atmospheric, emotional, haunting, and toe-curling, with some of the latter in particular being on the same level as the unforgettable droning tracks found within classics like Saya no Uta and sweet pool.

It represents every facet of the main character’s life, such as when the track quells into a gentle strum of strings or synths during her time conversing with the player in her own bedroom space, or until the very worst of her visions are reflected by the onslaught of distressing and loud death metal-influenced tracks when faced with her mother. But best yet is how it capitalises on the concept of repetition; a necessity to reinforce the mental state of the main character, whose constant looping day in and day out is reflected by the soundtrack of her life, and the varied genres represent her own battling emotions.

Nikita Kryukov’s endeavours remains some of the only indie visual novel games I keep genuinely close to my heart, due to how well he manages to present the reality of those suffering from mental illness.

Elswhere, I decided to jump on Red Embrace Mezzanine by Argent Games, a free-to-play, one-off game that is part of the broader Red Embrace series. This actually led me on to their prior releases within the series — something I simply had no space to insert my thoughts of during my in-depth review of the insanely brilliant Red Embrace: Hollywood.

The game is the newest release of the two-man studio, and offers about half an hour of playtime. It plays out as a perfect introduction for anyone new to the Red Embrace universe by providing a constricted storyline that shows the central themes of its vampiric motif; veterans, meanwhile, can enjoy the introduction of an exciting new gameplay addition with point-and-click adventure segments: something I hope we’ll see more of in the team’s future works. There are two conclusions to reach in its short run-time, and the game as a whole is thoroughly engrossing.

The music is atmospheric, its art style feels suitably bleak, and its writing remains punchy and poignant with a load of choices throughout to shape the main character Beth’s ultimate decision of choosing to “rise” or “fall”. It continues to focus on the overarching central theme of Red Embrace: Hollywood – do the benefits of immortality make the pain of living an endlessly bleak life a good decision? It’s safe to say that I like where this series is going.

Adventures, both big and small

Great games of 2022

Most of my time has unsurprisingly been taken up by everything otome related that has dropped since the new year, but two other, rather more “hands-on” titles caught my attention and helped break up all the heavy reading.

Fayburrow was truly a blessing to stumble across upon its release earlier in February. As one student’s third-year project, it offers relatively little playtime, but it does manage to present a fantastical world of very pleasant exploration, filled with creativity and originality.

It has plenty of untouched potential that makes me foam at the mouth for the endless possibilities of what it could become if it was to ever be expanded upon. The character and location designs in Fayburrow are the some of the most eye-pleasing I have seen in years. Everything is exceptionally gorgeous, and its cosy, central village area, adorable fairy characters and endearingly pleasant villagers made having to say goodbye so soon all the more sad.

On top of its highly fantastical design that is basically steampunk meets The Spiderwick Chronicles, its plot involves a thoroughly intriguing detective/mystery story. Players take on the role of Beatrice, who returns to her educational campus after receiving a letter from a close friend of hers. Upon arrival at this tranquil, tiny village, her friend is nowhere to be seen, and the villagers are either none the wiser to her sudden disappearance, or are suspicious as hell.

The game’s journal tracker, which keeps all the information you’ve uncovered and updates on your investigation, is a delight to flip through, and its dialogue choices and short but sweet sidequests to advance the plot ensured that there was never a dull moment. It all mades Fayburrow like a dream come true of a game — there just wasn’t enough of it! I can only hope we see more from it in the near or distant future, because from what we already have, the sheer potential is enormously exciting.

And finally, the big one. I am continuing to take my sweet time with Pokémon Legends: Arceus, since it has been a while that a Pokémon game has gripped as much as this one is currently doing.

If we’re talking specifics, it was Platinum, SoulSilver and Black/Black 2 that were my previous Pokémon addictions, and with Game Freak finally shaking things up with the newest mainline entry in the Pokémon series, it has been an absolute blessing despite a few irritations that came alongside its overhaul.

Let’s tackle those disappointing aspects first, because I wholeheartedly agree on many of the weakest points that the majority of its players have already pointed out. The plot could be much better, the side quests are almost always far too repetitive in their handouts and goals, and the optimisation on the Switch as well as the graphics leave a lot to be desired.

But then there’s no denying just how much I’ve enjoyed my time exploring this story and setting. I enjoy the more political approach to the characters’ dynamics here, as well as the emphasis on the survivalist aspects to life in this world. The crafting system is just one example, and there are plenty of reminders that attempting to catch Pokémon in this ancestral world we’ve been isekai’d to can lead to death out in the wilderness.

The many recurring elements of the series feels at home here compared to every other entry, with the “catch ’em all” element being more significant here than it has ever been before, reinforced by the main goal of filling up its world’s first ever Pokédex.

Then there’s the battles, where players can now see and catch the Pokémon for once, finally tossing random encounters out the window — hopefully for good. There is an attempt at a stealth aspect when obtaining new Pokémon, where hiding, rolling to avoid attacks, using berries to lure and timing the ball throw all provide interesting twists on these new and dangerous encounters.

The new gameplay elements of real-time battles and the ability to move your player character around while commanding your Pokémon makes Arceus the most immersive mainline entry in the series to date.

Overall, I’m so glad I skipped the remakes of Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl to instead place a pre-order down for Arceus. You can ride certain Pokémon, which makes traversing the free-roaming map an actual delight, AND it has Pokémon sized correctly for the environment! Plus, it has Adaman. Thanks for the 2D husbandos as always, Game Freak.

What I’ll be playing in March

I already know which games will take up all my time this month. In fact, two games I have been extremely excited for since the new year rolled around are coming out soon.

Rune Factory 5 will certainly be the one to take up the lion’s share of my attention, time, and dedication, while Tokyo Onmyoji should be releasing anytime now on Steam — but we’re all still holding out for that announcement since there has been a delay since it was first listed there. It has been made available via Moonchime Localization’s store page since the 25th however.

I may prioritise starting up Uuultra C instead then; this is another BL title expected to drop on the 24th of March from MangaGamer, and which should also be available via Steam.

Either way, I’m looking forward to spending all my time debating which suitor to romance in Rigbarth first and foremost!


What’s been keeping your attention for these last couple of months? And what are you looking forward to this month? Let us know down in the comments, via the usual social channels — or pen us a note for the Rice Digital Friday Letters Page!

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Lilia Hellal
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