Is sleeper hit Return to Shironagasu Island worth your time?

As a visual novel which sits comfortably at 98% positive feedback on Steam at the time of writing — and often being favourably compared to the likes of classics like Higurashi and Umineko — Return to Shironagasu Island seems to have flown over many heads since its initial release in March 2020.

So with that in mind, I decided to take a somewhat belated look at this title, developed by novelist and illustrator Hyogo Onimushi and published by Tabinomichi, and see whether or not it is a visual novel worth its reception and recommendation.

Let’s get into it!

Return to Shironagasu Island

We play as detective Sen Ikeda and his younger, rather reserved underling Neneko, whose impressive memory makes her an asset in his investigations. They are asked by a client to investigate the mystery surrounding her millionaire father’s death.

What initially seems to be a suicide ends up turning into something far more sinister, all leading back to the titular Shironagasu Island — a place known for the fact that its arrivals never tend to depart again — and secrets yet to be uncovered.

How you interact with the other shady visitors will have a hand in determining your fate; who can you trust, and will you keep your identity a secret? Will you get out of here alive before it’s too late?

A gritty presentation

What is immediately apparent from one look at the title is how much of a budget visual novel it is. It has an appealing design due to its dark and gritty appearance, and that grittiness helps to reinforces the overall atmosphere of an island no one in their right mind should be snooping around on.

The blinking sprites work wonders in bringing more life to the game’s characters, and elevates the overall sense of style despite the obvious budget limitations. Especially notable are the few graphics which move, such as the elevator indicating its motion as we explore different floors.

While the game’s overall production values are nothing to write home about, it again frames the many desolate scenes nicely, and projects a sense of dread and anxiety onto the player. Additionally, the small cast of characters and the setting predominately being a small and cramped island further aids this sense of dread.

The game’s outdated menu will be off-putting to some players; moving the cursor to the top of the game’s window is the only way to make it appear, and the game never tells you this. But in some ways, this suits the overall simplicity of the title with it being a hand-crafted doujin game from an individual producer — but a more stylised UI would have reinforced the atmospheric aesthetic even more.

In the end, that aesthetic is the game’s main charm, as we get into the more disappointing elements of it now.

Return to Shironagasu Island

Something familiar, yet different

Return to Shironagasu Island is built on a premise similar to many brilliant “escape room” visual novels — Uchikoshi’s classic Zero Escape series will doubtless come to mind as soon as you start exploring the setting.

The game mostly runs as a traditional visual novel with choices to make at many intervals, but the addition of point and click segments spices up the otherwise straightforward gameplay. It’s a charming addition that helps us make us feel closer to protagonist Sen, effectively putting us in the shoes of our detective player character and making us do some of the detective work.

But it often feels redundant when clicking the screen so many times takes a while to pinpoint the right area to progress. It becomes increasingly bothersome when a timer is added on certain sections. Nothing quite like putting me on the edge of my seat through a countdown with no indication of how many times I should be clicking on the same spot to advance!

Return to Shironagasu Island

Disturbing is not a strong enough word

For a game centred around the mysteries of a secretive and dark island, it’s no surprise that the twists in Return to Shironagasu Island are as shocking as you can imagine. Conspiracy, murder and betrayal are par for the course in this sort of thing — but if child torture, paedophilia and organ selling are too much for you, think carefully before you jump in to this.

The narrative of Return to Shironagasu Island does very little to weigh in on the problems of these in relevance to their place in the game, and instead, they feel hammered in by the final point of the game without enough coverage on each to give them substantial impact. On top of this, characters appear unaffected by them for some bizarre reason. And worse yet, the characters who have previously been established to have even a shred of empathy fail to demonstrate any sort of emotional response.

This is one sign of a problem Return to Shironagasu Island had in its overall sense of progression, where characters would act out in ways completely unlike how they had behaved before, and additions to the narrative sway the overarching plot far too much to keep it focused, ultimately doing damage to it instead.

All this could come down to the fact that Return to Shironagasu Island is Onimushi’s first attempt at a video game having previously worked in other media — and this does not mean that I am not excited to see more. The groundwork was there; it just needed some refinement.

On the topic of Return to Shironagasu Island’s characters, it is a shame that the majority of them don’t feel worth our own empathy or notice. It would have made the events and twists that much more impactful if at least a couple of its characters had more merits to their personalities; it would make us care a little more for their fates.

Return to Shironagasu Island

The very worst offender of this is our own main character, who feels so above the rest of the cast as to always be condescending and dismissive of them — particularly the women. And out of all of them, his assistant comes under fire the most by him. It’s frequent enough to be noticeable, though it shouldn’t be considered a dealbreaker, since this dynamic is nothing new in visual novels starring a male lead with a female sidekick.

The extra chapter makes things even worse. It is a lighter toned segment, intended to be somewhat humorous with its characters interacting in a sweet slice-of-life event to give you a break from the dark main narrative. But it highlights the problematic portrayal of the women in the cast in an even more twisted fashion than before, with the underage, malnourished-looking, bikini-clad girls making for uncomfortable viewing at times.

On a final note, the initial release of Return to Shironagasu Island saw the game come out in English with what read very much like a computer-generated translation. It was thankfully proof-read and corrected by the time I purchased the title, and this is noteworthy — there are some developers and publishers out there who wouldn’t have bothered to come back and fine-tune it. That alone is reason enough to support Onimushi’s first attempt in the gaming market, especially as the game is an overall very distinctive and individualised product — you can definitely feel how this was the work of a single creator.

Conclusion

The small asking price of only £3.99 and the fact it only takes about 8 hours to fully complete means that Return to Shironagasu Island offers great value for money. It’s a very easy recommendation to those who enjoy mystery visual novels with a dark edge — if the intrigued person in question has already played the classics of the genre such as the aforementioned Zero Escape titles.

And while the writing and characters could have been better in some parts, its premise and uniqueness is worth a look into at the very least. Filled with penetrating atmosphere, and with a very well thought out mystery brimming with ideas, Return to Shironagasu Island is a welcome arrival for Hyogo Onimushi in the world of visual novels.

Pick up the game on Steam here.

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Lilia Hellal
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