What would you do if an all-knowing, all-powerful entity gave you a supernatural ability, a power of your very own? Would you use it to protect others, or would you use it for profitable gain? Would you be proud of it? Would you see it as a burden? Of course, this all depends on what type of power you have too. What if your power only took away something precious from others, or only trapped them inside a fictional world… Would you still use your power if the entity ordered you to? Would you even question it? Norn9: Var Commons is for the dreamers, the romanticists and the sci-fi voyagers. Get ready to step into a world full of beauty, technology, questions and budding romance!
Norn9 is a visual novel developed by Idea Factory and published by Aksys Games. The game was released in both physical and digital form for the PS Vita, with the EU having digital copies available since November 4th, 2015, and NA having a digital and physical option available since November 3rd, 2015. The game was initially released in Japan on May 30th, 2013. Its growing popularity has meant that a fandisc titled Norn9: Last Era was created earlier this year, and an anime adaption has been scheduled for January 2016. Can’t decide if Norn9 is your kind of game? Then read this review! It would be my pleasure to share with you the ups and downs of this unusual otome game, and all without revealing any major spoilers!
A young boy named Sorata is out on a fieldtrip with his classmates. The huge building they are touring has some pretty features, but overall Sorata isn’t very interested. Suddenly, a song that only he can hear reaches his ears. Confused, Sorata only has a moment to consider where the music is coming from before his whole world is turned upside-down. No longer surrounded by his classmates, Sorata is instead surrounded by a crowd of people making their way down a busy high street. Lost and a little frightened, Sorata is saved by a kind girl wearing a school uniform. The girl, who can’t remember her own name due to living alone for many years, tells Sorata that they are currently in Japan and the year is 1919! Sorata is shocked. The year should be 2015! No way could he be in the Meiji period! With nowhere to go, the helpful girl convinces Sorata to join her aboard a ship. Sorata agrees in the hopes that this journey to America, a country that should be more technologically advanced than Japan in this era, may spring some clues as to how he got here. The thing is… no one told Sorata that this ‘ship’ was a giant, floating, mechanical biosphere! None of this makes any sense!
The prologue focusses on Sorata, but once you start the main game you actually see very little of him. The focus is instead passed onto one of the three available heroines. The first heroine you meet is the girl who saved Sorata. The other girls, Mikoto and Nanami, are already aboard the ship. It soon becomes apparent that the people here are more than your average teenagers and young adults. Not only do they have secrets, but they also have powers giving to them by a god-like entity called The World.
Norn9 is an otome game, meaning one of the goals of this game is to have one of the bachelors fall in love with the heroine. This game is unusual in that it has three heroines, rather than just one. Each heroine has three bachelors to choose from. You choose which heroine you want to play as before starting the main game. You then choose which bachelor you would like to pair up with, and subsequently try to form a relationship with, early into the main game. The fact that the creators were able to fit in over ten different stories into one visual novel is quite impressive, but squeezing in so much content does come with some minor downfalls. Some stories are developed better than others, and some of the characterisation is lacking in places. To this day, I have no idea where Ron’s mystifying personality comes from, nor do I fully understand the reasoning behind Masamune’s story ending. I have nothing against using memory loss as a plot device, but when it’s used three times across different storylines, you do begin to question the quality of the writing slightly.
It would be wrong to say that Norn9’s story is shallow, however. Far from it, the way that certain characters’ backgrounds come together to show a larger picture is very inspiring. You are kept on your toes when you are suddenly faced with the question of traitors among the group, and some very emotional scenes are sure to evoke some passionate responses. However, one small quibble I do take from the plot is the lack of significance surrounding the three heroines. Throughout the game I was waiting for that moment where all three girls’ backstories suddenly joined together to reveal something spectacular, for their personal reasons for being on the ship to lead off from one another and expose something bigger. Sadly, that moment never came. The point of having three heroines seems to be based on a whim rather some amazing plot twist. Having three heroines doesn’t spoil the plot in any way, but I feel as though the game could have been so much more special if a bit more thought had been put into how the heroines could stir the story.
Sorata Suzuhara is an elementary student from the Heisei Era. He is the first character you are introduced to, and is the only character you will play during the prologue. He loves science and spends a lot of his time studying. His enjoys thinking up his own experiments in his free time. He does have family, however he is not close to them. Although Sorata doesn’t believe in time travel, he can find no other explanation as to how he supposedly ended up in the Meiji period.
The young girl who came to Sorata’s rescue is later revealed to be called Koharu, although she never remembers her surname. The 17 year-old has lived alone most of her life, due to the destructive nature of her power. A mysterious traveller would visit her, and it is because of his help that she was able to survive for so long. He is also the one who told her about the ship. She is very naïve and trusting, but also very kind and helpful to her friends.
Mikoto Kuga is a young lady who strives for perfection. She comes from a long line of aristocrats, and always tries to act in a way that reflects her noble heritage. She was described as a tomboy as a child, and she does have a bit of a short temper. Mikoto is extremely hardworking. She sees her power as a gift meant to protect people, but due to her own high standards, she often exhausts herself. She has a strong personality and a very good heart.
Nanami Shiranui comes from a family of ninjas. She wears an unreadable mask, and her personality is very aloof. She hates her power as it takes away something precious from people. Nanami loves to eat, but she is a horrendous cook. She spends her free time playing a card game called Old Maid with Itsuki and Heishi, an activity that often lasts all night! She has no particular interest in forming relationships with other people. She hopes that The World will be able to make use of her power for a justiciable cause.
Kakeru Yuiga is one of the three bachelors Koharu is able to romance. He has no quarrels about showing off his power, and it is quickly revealed that Kakeru can control plant life. Although he always wears a smile, a certain amount of sadism can be seen reflected in his eyes. He is a good person deep down, but he will be the first to admit that he only likes to do things for their entertainment value.
Senri Ichinose is one of the three bachelors Koharu can romance. A shut-in, Senri hates to leave his room and gets very nervous when talking to people. He is especially fearful of Kakeru, who seems to have made it his mission to bring Senri out of his shell. Sadly for Senri, this mostly consists of Kakeru dragging him around by his collar and using him as target practice for his powers. Senri doesn’t like to use his power as it exhausts his energy.
Toya Masamune’s route is unlocked after playing either Senri’s or Kakeru’s route first. Masamune is the fatherly figure of the group. He feels responsible for everyone on the ship, and so you will often find him breaking up arguments and coming up with quick solutions to keep the peace. Masamune is the group’s only point of contact with The World, although no one questions why. He reports to this all-knowing entity every day, and with such a full workload he has very little time to relax.
Sakuya Nijou is one of the three available bachelors Mikoto can romance. He has had strong feelings for Mikoto ever since they became childhood friends. As a child he was rather sickly, and so Mikoto has always had the urge to protect him. Sakuya is a princely character with perfect manners and a gentlemanly personality. People say he is a kind person, however he claims to be the exact opposite. He has little control over his powers and prefers to keep them hidden.
Itsuki Kagami is one of the three available bachelors Mikoto can romance. He is the group’s womaniser, and will often come out with a flirtatious comment. He has a good heart, however his view on what kindness is can be controversial. He has lived a trying life and was able to use his powers as a way to put food on the table. He is a survivor, and although his actions aren’t always the most morally correct, he nevertheless always puts his friends before himself.
Natsuhiko Azuma’s route is unlocked after playing either Sakuya’s or Itsuki’s route first. Natsuhiko is one of the antagonists in Norn9’s main storyline. He doesn’t have a power, and rather than listening to The World or helping the group on their journey, he chooses to sabotage the ship in an attempt to stop the journey altogether! He is an excellent pilot and a pioneer of science. He is quick to anger but secretly has a soft spot for Mikoto.
Heishi Otomaru is one of the three available bachelors Nanami can romance. Heishi is like a bouncing Labrador puppy. He feels it is his duty to keep the group’s spirits high, and so he is always smiling and coming up with ideas to keep everyone entertained. Heishi’s power means that he finds it easier than most to read people. His friends find his power to be annoying at times, as it has a way of disrupting their sleep! Heishi’s cheerful persona isn’t as pure as it seems however. After all, nobody can be happy 24/7, right?
Akito Shukuri is one of the three available bachelors Nanami can romance. Akito is a talented cook with a chip on his shoulder. He is very standoffish with the crew members, although if one of them were to compliment him he would become a happy, blushing mess. Akito is one of those characters that are all bark and no bite. He is also terrified of the small, adorable, robotic chicks that help maintain the ship. He seems to have a history with Nanami, and is especially cold to her.
Ron Muroboshi’s route is unlocked after playing either Heishi’s or Akito’s route first. Ron is a bit of an enigma. He is very carefree and never remembers anyone’s name. As the oldest member on the ship, you would perhaps expect Ron to be the most mature. It turns out Ron actually likes ‘to be taken cared of’, and is often seen sleeping and skipping chores. Heishi insists that Ron is harmless, but it’s hard not to be suspicious of a character that likes to ask questions about others, but never answer questions about himself!
Visual Novel – Norn9 plays in the form of a visual novel. This means that the game plays like an interactive storybook. Text choices appear during key points in the game. The player then chooses between these choices to progress the story. Norn9 has different endings depending on what character route you play. Every route has a ‘bad’ and a ‘happy’ ending for example, but other characters may also have a ‘tragic’ or ‘comic relief’ type ending too. There is an affection stat that you can check on to help decipher which text option is the correct choice.
Hiyoko Channel – While playing the game you will get the option to ‘watch TV’. A segment involving hiyokos (the robotic chicks that help maintain the ship) interviewing characters will then play. You can collect all of these interviews by completing the game.
Norn9 Quest – Norn9 Quest plays like an early Pokemon game. You play an 8 bit game where you encounter random lucky or unlucky scenarios. It you are lucky, your player will receive points that can be used in the Norn9 Store. If you are unlucky you will lose points! A lucky scenario could involve Koharu enjoying Akito’s delicious cooking. An unlucky scenario, on the other hand, could involve Koharu tripping over her own two feet!
Norn9 Store – Points are collected as you progress through the story. You can then use these points to purchase items in the Norn9 Store. Items include character short stories, which after completing will get you an extra CG, music, comics and illustrations. The illustrations aren’t exactly original drawings; rather they are background images with character portraits edited on top to create new scenarios, sort of like a Photoshop work. Although not exactly ‘new’, they are pretty hilarious.
Music – Replay all the music you have listened to during Norn9 gameplay.
Extra – Here you can view all the images you collected in-game. You can also watch all of the game’s opening and closing movies. Last but not least, there is a section called Norn+ Ensemble. Whilst playing the game you will collect things called ‘keywords’. You use these ‘keywords’ in Norn+ Ensemble to create conversations between the Norn9 characters. Everything is voiced in Japanese, but English translations are available to read beforehand.
Norn9 certainly displays a variety of art styles, including pixel art, chibi art, and the beautiful images showcased in CGs. There are some gorgeous examples of how light can enhance artwork, and although the angles don’t differentiate too much, I am nevertheless happy with the overall quality of Norn9’s art. The game had numerous artists for this very task, with the background art created by Minoru Akiba and the main illustrations created by Teita, so I am glad the visuals meet expectations. It is also worth mentioning that the pictures you collect in your gallery utilise the PS Vita touch screen! If you tap certain points on the screen, you will hear the characters in the picture talking to you!
Norn9 has some very sweet, very gentle songs that are sure to get you in the mood to play an otome game. The opening song is a romantic melody called melee by Yanaginagi. The ending theme, called many universes by Yanaginagi, has a faster pace but is just as beautiful. Players will also be happy to know that the game is fully voiced in Japanese with excellent voice acting.
Alright, so the story has the odd plot hole and some of the characterisation isn’t as deep as I would like, but you know what? It was still fun to play. Norn9 scores high in entertainment and replay value. The amount of fun extras that are packed into this game is highly impressive. In fact, you may not be surprised to learn that extra content was especially made for this version of the game, meaning that those who played the original Norn9 on PSP have an excuse to buy and play Norn9 on the PS Vita. Despite the title’s missed opportunities, as I still stand by my opinion that, with a bit more thought, this otome game had the potential to be something truly special, I enjoyed my time playing Norn9. The art is lovely and the music is charming. The romance is sweet, and although the scenes never really go beyond the PG-13 rating, for those of you wishing there was more, there are times when the game hints that other activities are going on off-screen…
I do have to mention a technicality that has nothing to do with Norn9’s story, but which still plays a large part in gameplay experience. Aksys Games seems to have missed a number of typos after finishing their translation process. The quality is far from being a mess, but there are enough mistakes for it to be noticeable, distracting even, at times. I know the company can do better, as their previous otome release, Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~, was edited to a relatively high standard.
North American otome fans can buy Norn9 Var Commons for $39.99 via the Aksys Games store. European otome fans can buy a digital version of the game via the PlayStation Store for £28.99. If you are a big otome fan, then I would definitely recommend you buy the game!
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