Do it for Hibari in Variable Barricade

Variable Barricade is one of two otome titles I was especially excited for following its announcement alongside Aksys’ other otome localisations. The reason for this was simply due to seeming similarities between it and Idea Factory’s Cupid Parasite — the two are both romcoms whose core concept sets up the heroine and love interests living in the same house.

Cupid Parasite ended up being my favourite video game of last year despite this element being only a small portion of the game, so I the excitement for this one to drop was uncontrollable — albeit understandable, I thought.

It marks the first time the western otome audience has had a chance to play a title from the Wand of Fortune and Reine des Fleurs team — and that means an opportunity to experience Kagerou Usuba’s brilliant artwork as well as surprisingly interactive gameplay mechanics that stand out compared to other otomes.

It goes without saying that this one was hyped up to high heaven — but was it all worth it?

Synopsis

Hibari is a member of the Tojo clan, and having reached her 17th birthday, her cunning grandfather sets in motion a plan to have her married off as soon as possible — something she’s not all that happy about.

Worse yet is the fact that the four bachelors are all unemployed and have… issues uncovered by background checks, such as fraud and gambling. Will they be worth the effort of Hibari breaking down the barricades she’s steadily set up around herself since childhood? The short answer is yes, but as far as the long answer… well, read on.

The premise of Variable Barricade appears quite barebones at first glance, but it manages to pack very entertaining revelations within certain routes — and most notably in its “true” route which, for better or worse, is a wild ride all on its own.

Go into Variable Barricade knowing that arranged marriage is a big part of the story, with our heroine actively trying to deny fate and avoid having to settle down with a seemingly undependable suitor. It’s also worth noting that three of its five routes have some scenes that some may find a little challenging, thanks to the behaviour of some of its central characters, along with some surprisingly darker moments. Don’t let those bright colours and pretty illustrations fool you!

The heroine

Variable Barricade

Hibari remains as one of the most striking heroines I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know in an otome game. She’s opinionated, reactive, goal-orientated, and a tsundere to boot — and that’s just barely scratching the surface of her character, which is refreshing for a main character, to say the least.

She is voiced by the talented Saki Fujita, previously seen in Attack on Titan as Ymir, Working!!! as Inami Mahiru, Yuru Yuri as Ayano Sugiura (BEST GIRL – Ed.), and, most notably, she’s the original source of Vocaloid Hatsune Miku’s voice. It’s fair to say that Fujita is a talented and experienced individual, and she really brings Hibari to life.

She’s as much of an appeal element for Variable Barricade as the love interests are, because she experiences her own character development, comes to recognise her own flaws — and perhaps most importantly, has her own agency as a heroine who is truly in the driver’s seat.

Due to her sheltered lifestyle and upbringing, she learns about her own weaknesses and confronts them head-on. She discovers how easily swayed she is due to her ignorance, and she learns to build bonds, trust others, open up her heart more. Eventually, she comes to understand what it means to admit her feelings — even if it hurts or scares her. Hibari ultimately learns to express her true self after years of just keeping up appearances as the Tojo family heir.

Takamune, Hibari’s grandfather, highlights the importance of the love interests for Hibari’s growth in the common route, and it proves to be a brilliant detail in the narrative to keep in mind as we witness her growth and maturing. It means that the heroine’s motives are clear to both herself and the audience, and we understand that she can and will learn a thing or two from her suitors — even if they might initially appear to all be good-for-nothings in need of as much development as Hibari herself is. Don’t judge a book by its cover and all that.

But for all the chaos and stress the love interests bring into her life, they also bring her the opportunity to discover and feel a number of emotions for the very first time in her life — many of which she had tried specifically to gloss over for years before.

Overall, if you need just one reason to play Variable Barricade, Hibari is one of the rare examples of a heroine being a major selling point. In this instance, I can absolutely understand why all the love interests became enamoured with this otome title’s heroine!

Love Interests

Unlike many other otomes, which tend to have a recommended route order, Variable Barricade can be enjoyed in pretty much any order you see fit — though it’s probably best to save Ichiya’s route for last, since his route is arguably the most significant to the overall narrative.

I’ve listed the love interests in terms of my enjoyment of their characters and routes, from least likeable to most — other than Ichiya. He really does need to be saved for last, in every sense of the phrase.

Shion

Variable Barricade Shion

Shion is called the “kept suitor”, since he lives a carefree, easy life as a freeloader. It’s evident enough by his place within the shared house: he never lifts a finger to do any chores, nor does he offer favours to anyone else if they might require effort or dirtying himself. He’s arrogant beyond words, deceptively calculating, extremely perceptive, and even manipulative — and that’s all within his best ending.

If I’m sounding critical of him it’s because he’s hard to deal with in almost every way. He is arguably the most selfish of the love interests due to his egotistical way of thinking, and he ends up voicing and admitting some heavily questionable ideas of love during his route. So while his strong feelings reinforce just how hard he’s fallen for Hibari — and how he’s fixated on making her his own, since love has sent him into this state — it comes across as conniving and cruel. This is especially apparent in a scene where he backs her into a corner to admit her supposedly honest feelings.

His behaviour can be seen as understandable considering his sheltered life, but it comes off more as wasted opportunities to make him truly sympathetic. Shion is the only love interest Kasuga, Hibari’s butler, retaliates against, and it’s understandable as to why when considering his mindset and behaviour alone.

His route focuses on the misfortunes and hardships of fame along with the shaping of identity, but does very little to present anything new to these themes. His effect on Hibari is teaching her how and why to treat herself more often, and to learn that wanting things is a natural part of living she should not ignore, for the sake of her own wellbeing.

But for all him and his route’s faults, I still took enjoyment from it. I had a lot of fun with how the number 30 was a recurring element, and Shion’s attitude with Hibari was sometimes very endearing.

He picks up on multiple traits of Hibari’s that he loves from the outset, more so than the other love interests, and finds her cute despite her supposed drawbacks as a person. And in the end, he comes to understand Hibari’s wants without her explicitly telling him. Meanwhile, Hibari herself was a joy to see squirm and get to grips with her emotions here — and the way in which she becomes protective of Shion is a refreshing take on how other heroines interact with their love interests.

Taiga

Variable Barricade

Taiga is a sharp-tongued, laid-back and juvenile gambler. His approach to Hibari as a suitor is suspiciously “off” compared to the rest of the guys, since he barely puts in any effort at all to win her over. If anything, he speaks without thinking and wears his heart on his sleeve, to the point where he says things out loud that are too honest for their own good. His words can hurt — but as you probably guessed already, his backstory hides plenty of vulnerabilities and weaknesses.

He hides a heart of gold, being extremely family-oriented — which actually links to his motivation in gambling. With this way of living life, he opens up Hibari’s eyes into understanding how going “all in” results in obtaining more freedom with her own life’s direction and decisions — even if it can be risky.

He has many facets to his personality, sometimes coming across as thoughtless, but he’s also knowledgeable and extremely reliable. He’s great with everyone, and has a good head on his shoulders.

He likes every side of Hibari, be it her flushed, embarrassed side or her more fiery, opinionated one. The two complement one another really well, with them bonding over similarities in their past, and their way of going about recognising their feelings and expressing them as two paired-up tsunderes is adorable.

At the same time, they take very different approaches to life but learn to see eye-to-eye on them, with their habits raising each other up and improving one another; they learn to become their best selves for each other through their words and actions.

Taiga’s route has an exciting revelation to kick off with, and never stopped impressing from there. His route highlights the importance of overcoming self-sabotage and developing an understanding one’s own self-worth. The route also explores the everyday joys of romance in the simplest of forms, and feels the most grounded in its touching and relatable themes, with an overall message of addressing inadequacy.

Funnily enough, Taiga can do no harm, as I find him a near-on perfect love interest. You know when you finish an otome and already know which route you’ll be revisiting? Yeah.

I especially love the callback to a certain “flan-gate” moment (you’ll know it when you see it) regarding Nayuta to close out the route — and, of course, the common trope of a love interest never calling the heroine by their first name until their relationship truly blossoms into a fully confirmed romance. It was a heck of a sweet time.

Nayuta

Surprising almost no one, my favourite guy is, of course, the genki himbo, Nayuta. He is the accidental debt generator, and has a tendency of almost always behaving like a hyperactive airhead. He gets easily tunnel vision when he has a job to get done, and he wants to please and be praised for his efforts.

He is gullible and very impressionable, he’s loud and he’s boisterous. He has endearing origins, and acts as a polar opposite to Hibari. For one thing, he’s quick to dote on others and clearly shows affection to everyone around him — and especially towards the elderly ladies in their local park, showcasing his natural talent of making connections with others even if they don’t know him.

His tendency to say things he shouldn’t ends up being the catalyst for a surprising character revelation exclusive to his route. The route, for the most part, plays out with the most comedy of the game, taking the form of a bodyguard romance story. Throughout, Nayuta presents the duality of man, being both a foolishly high-energy and spirited good boy and a stoic, well-measured protector — or, as the game puts it, “border collie mode” and “butler mode”.

He’s unexpectedly strong in many ways, and there are numerous humorous parallels drawn between Nayuta’s route and Hibari’s favourite movie, “The Guardian: I Will Always Love You!”. She takes the movie as actual guidance for her romance with Nayuta, who is otherwise far too dense to read between the lines. His acting as a strait-laced and serious bodyguard masks his genuine feelings — feelings which he’s confused about — which makes the slow-burn romance all the more satisfying. This is topped off with Hibari being the one to instigate the romance for once!

His route has an overall major theme of fate and love at first sight. Whilst I enjoyed his certain character quirks, his relationship with Hibari is one of the most satisfying. They are on the same page, with the pair having never fallen in love before; plus he is the quickest to see Hibari’s kind side, take notice of her behaviour and recognise her change in attitude when she’s feeling overwhelmed, sad or tired. It all indicates that he is attentive and thinks about her well-being.

Not only was his route the funniest in my opinion, but his dialogue was the most entertaining out of the entire cast throughout the game. A couple of lines referring to his “man cave” and how he “thinks” were particular highlights.

Ichiya

Variable Barricade

Ichiya is the marriage fraudster, and is the biggest surprise of the game for me, playing out as an absolute knock-out of a route.

Otome game poster boys are usually my least-liked love interests, because they are almost always flawless and perfect, with little to no attempt to convince us as to why they are supposedly the “best” option for the heroine over the other suitors. I was worried about Ichiya being the same, what with his confident flirt being on at all times — I was concerned he’d be one-note like many other poster boys — but thankfully that wasn’t the case!

While some of the usual poster boy issues crop up — such as him frequently being framed as Hibari’s ideal match-up throughout the common route, even by the other love interests — Ichiya is, overall, a breath of fresh air in terms of how much depth he has. That said, it goes both ways to a certain extent; his route and behaviour may not to be everyone’s taste due to some events which occur for the sake of adding drama. I found him almost always appealing, though; he behaves like the mother of the love interest group — even more so than Taiga at times — what with his cooking, and his position as the oldest of the love interests.

He has the best development, but that’s a given considering his very eventful route. His romance with Hibari was also very well developed, as the pair of them manage to floor one another with their authenticity when they start showing more of their genuine feelings and disproving their assumptions about one another. They express their honest thoughts when confiding in one another, and learn to see and appreciate their flaws and faults for what they are.

Hibari and Ichiya are genuinely ideal for one another, due to their similar backgrounds and shared trauma. They complement one another splendidly, and their relationship feels much more eventful and grand compared to the other routes.

For once, I’m not complaining, since Ichiya was such a well-explored love interest. He ends up having the biggest insecurities, which are all hinted at early on, even during the common route — and these help juxtapose his true nature and hidden emotional baggage with the front he likes to put up to others.

He’s continuously trying his best, making him the most likeable love interest of the lot; he gets us supporting him as much as Hibari does, and in the end, he’s the most complex of the bunch. It’s just a shame that his route slips up in its perfection by the finale for a somewhat distasteful “soap opera” moment, all for the sake of laughs, but I think we can forgive that.

Characters

One of my favourite parts of Cupid Parasite was the sequence where the heroine and love interests lived together and had a whale of a time — though in Cupid Parasite I found this section unfairly short. In Variable Barricade, which features a similar sequence, this part runs for considerably longer, with plenty of new scenarios and events that bring the “comedy” label right to the forefront.

It should be a no-brainer that the interactions between the love interests are some of the best moments of the game, then — as well as the most heartfelt, since they all grow closer to one another, despite being “rivals” for Hibari’s affections.

There’s a lot of teasing, but at the same time, their good intentions and respect for one another is highlighted across the game, from their supporting one another’s progress in their dates with Hibari, or keeping their heads screwed on straight when trouble and drama is brewing. You’ll love to see how they get into trouble — and how they choose to fix it together.

Additionally, the other, non-love interest characters closest to Hibari were a real pleasure to encounter. Many offer conversations and exploration of the different sides of Hibari — and the real stand-out example in this regard is Tsumugi, one of her friends. She’s a fellow student who wants all the juicy gossip and updates on Hibari’s lack of interest in romance — and this is completely at odds with her other female friend Noa.

Tsumugi is one of the best examples of the BFF supporting character to the heroine of an otome I have ever had the pleasure in getting to know. She speaks for the player frequently, with dialogue that is filled to the brim in meta otaku and otome references, all of which are said with enthusiasm and the intent to encourage Hibari.

She is the opposite of Hibari in terms of how she approaches others, shown by how they first meet being such a thoughtful gesture on Tsumugi’s end. Her wisdom comes from her own life decisions, and she never fails to be Hibari’s cheerleader. Her heartfelt care for her on top of her unintentionally comedic moments make her all the more charming.

Variable Barricade

Noa, the other signficant friend who appears later in the common route, was also appealing as a recurring character. Her dynamic with Hibari parallels Tsumugi, since Hibari is surprisingly thrilled to seek a friendship with her. In this instance, Noa is the initially distant and cold one; she’s one of the few people who is not interested in Hibari for her title and position. It’s a strong juxtaposition with the relationship between Hibari and Tsumugi; their “guidance” has different purposes, particularly since Noa has more experience with boys.

It’s always a highlight to see Hibari getting overly emotional with Noa as she forgets her own personal boundaries; in this sense, it’s very much a contrasting dynamic to the one she shares with Tsumugi.

You’ll want to keep seeing how Hibari grows bonds outside of her romance with the guys, and they never fail to bring the comedy and life-lessons to boot. Each and every one of them are some of the most entertaining parts of the game. Kazu is a helpful, older figure who walks into Hibari’s life during the common route and effortlessly brings out her honest side, whilst the development of her stunted relationship with Takamune makes me wish we saw much more of him when their relationship got its closure.

However, I will note that the game’s true route is where Variable Barricade’s overall impressive quality is at its most… variable. A certain revelation that explains Hibari’s resistant attitude towards others feels in rather poor taste, and relies heavily on typical tropes such as amnesia. Worst of all, though, is the involvement of a “sister complex” element that proves to be the main reason for Hibari’s lack of social growth. It’s badly handled and really spoils an otherwise likeable character — plus its conclusion gives them positive reinforcement despite how villainous it truly is.

Thankfully, the true route does at least provide the satisfaction of giving Hibari the ending she was wanting all along — so it’s still worth enduring!

System, sound, art and localisation

Variable Barricade

Variable Barricade has a unique presentation style that provides a sense of increased player interactivity compared to other otome titles. Notably, it has a few additional gameplay mechanics atop the traditional visual novel structure, such as the WHIS app and RABI.

Across the routes and chapters, new characters will appear and exchange their WHIS IDs with Hibari, opening up a new contact and message threads to read through. The WHIS app makes for bonus short conversations that can be experienced and unlocked as you advance through the game. RABI, meanwhile, is a robot gifted to Hibari during the common route to spy on the guys to assess their qualities when Hibari is not at home.

Choices are selectable when responding as Hibari in the WHIS section, while short scenarios are played out in the RABI screen after you choose to place the robot in a certain location across the house. These moments come and go in a flash, and once you’re deep into a route, it’s easy to forget about these two mechanics, since there’s a ton of radio silence from both of them for quite some time — there’s never quite enough of either. Plus, the RABI mechanic has a false sense of interactivity, since players can simply leave RABI on standby and it picks the scenarios up automatically without any manual movement being needed.

The intermission screen itself is designed after a chess board called the Barricade Board, and it’s a lot more simple than it might appear in the tutorial. The game is absolutely still linear, requiring all squares of all boards, both common and character-specific, to be cleared to get to the true route. The design of these boards also helpfully indicate which chapters contain illustrations, as well as providing a skip function when reliving chapters via the Gallery for swift access.

Taking aim for the route you want is easy in Variable Barricade, since selections are always a 50/50 chance, and a visual prompt is shown on-screen to indicate the result of your choice right after you make a choice. This makes it very straightforward to aim for either the best “Love End” or the bad endings, since you simply have to select either the “affection up” or “reason up” choices to arrive at your intended ending.

At the end of certain interactions with love interests in the common route, and at various points across their own three boards, you’ll encounter a Barricade Battle: a cutely chibi-styled and animated “fight” scene that determines which of the affection and reason choices have outweighed the other. It was never boring to witness when they appeared, and is a very endearing way to capture the game’s entire motif in animation, as well as capitalising on how these important moments turned the battle of Hibari’s heart in being swayed by the love interests.

Compared to Aksys’ other recent localisations, Variable Barricade has been one of the best upon initial release. Home screen dialogue has been translated — unlike in the case of Olympia Soiree’s, which required a patch to add the translations — and textual errors appear to be very few and far between. When they do crop up, they seem to simply be typos, with the rest of the sentence still being easily readable.

Finally, as can be expected from the artistic talents behind the game’s appearance, the art design overall is a major plus. CGs are consistently well proportioned, and the sprite works are of high quality as one would expect from the talent behind it.

Sound production may be the weakest point, being completely outshined by almost every other recent otome — I found myself remembering music from Cupid Parasite, Olympia Soireee, and even Dairoku: Agents of Sakuratani much more than I did tracks from Variable Barricade. But it does do well in reinforcing plenty of its events when things get out of hand or chaotic, with an overall, suitably quirky sound to compliment the vibrant and colourful visuals throughout.

Hit-and-miss comedy, satisfying romance

Despite its colourful appearance, Variable Barricade hides a number of darker elements within its overall sense of romantic comedy. This should not be a surprise if you’re familiar with the writing talent behind the game. While Fukase Kaeru is unfamiliar in the west, both Kojima Nao and Nakayama Satomi are, with the both of them having previously worked on routes of Code: Realize – Guardian of Rebirth and Café Enchanté.

A few endings and even routes in the latter segment of the game (specifically Ichiya and the true route) could easily be seen as a tad unsettling, depending on the player’s perception. Notably, topics such as drugging, kidnapping and suicide are touched upon in these two routes in particular — quite the tonal shift from what originally appears to be a well-intentioned, fluffy romcom premise.

Furthermore, its comedy may be questionable to certain players. For example, I rolled my eyes when a love interest jabbed at Hibari’s chest being flat, much like an eroge protagonist would typically do. Likewise, while the love interests’ group dynamic is typically entertaining and chaotic, occasionally their opposing personalities and temperaments results in some less than complimentary language being exchanged; this side of things even rubs off on Hibari herself at times.

On top of that, we have Hibari’s overactive imagination being played for laughs — but in one case, it drops the ball with a rather distasteful presentation of a cute chibi illustration contemplating suicide. As always, your mileage may vary on this, but I found it rather jarring.

Variable Barricade

These scenes do, however, help to shape the player’s opinion of the love interests — since for the sake of the story, we need to side with Hibari’s initial dislike of them. These traits make her initial reaction understandable — and almost all of them are redeemed in their own routes by highlighting their own good morals and hidden good intentions.

That said, there are still some of the typical toxic otome tropes present and correct — for example, one love interest emphasises that Hibari shouldn’t enter his room because he’s a male by pinning her to his bed, suggesting that men are all insatiable wolves when a pretty girl shows up and no-one else is around.

Structurally, I could not help but notice quite early on that the story beats are repetitive. Even after clearing only two routes, it became evident that each route was rather similar in structure — perhaps emphasised by the way in which chapters are divided into smaller scenarios in order to fit on the “boards”.

There’s inevitably a sequence where Hibari and her suitor will have a sequence later in their route where they are split apart from one another due to a conflict, with them reconnecting just in time for the final chapter. Then there’s the expected cover-ups and setups that supporting characters participate in to help the chosen pairing finally get together, almost every single time.

So alongside the visual aid of the baord design, the narrative becomes all the more obvious with each playthrough; on the other hand, however, the sense of relationship progression is well-paced, and the overall themes for each route are very different from one another, with each facing extremely different conflicts. It’s also nice to see certain chapters shift narrative perspective from Hibari to the love interest themselves, allowing them to vocalise their thoughts on prior routes, making for a steady and well-presented depiction of their relationship progression and helping to paint a full picture from both sides.

While the game does take a decent amount of time to clear — my own playthrough for full completion took about 45 hours — it manages to feel like it ends a bit too soon; the chunkier chapters at the conclusion of each board felt like there could have been more fleshing out beforehand. But maybe that is actually proof as to how entertaining it all is. Maybe I simply wanted even more from it on top of what I already got.

Variable Barricade

Luckily, that’s as far as my main grievances with Variable Barricade go. Its meta jokes are translated splendidly well for the western audience, and are real highlights of the game’s comedy, such as Tsumugi pointing out that Hibari’s situation is just like a “real life otome game” that she could possibly “end up chained in some makeshift dungeon” if her suitor ends up being an obsessive psycho, and that she could be using her real-life situation as an idea for her “doujinshi fodder”. Hibari is also prone to this, having read stories that “spur character growth and advance the plot” — just one example of how hilariously self-aware she is at times.

Additionally, the barbecue scene in the common route will most certainly go down in history in becoming a favourite comedy scene for many players of the genre. It’s got highly entertaining slapstick comedy and idiocy presented in the best way possible: highlighting how incapable all the love interests are when a situation gets out of control. Shion mixing up oil and water is perfect.

There are also so many great and subtle foreshadowing moments in each route, such as how Taiga addresses Takamune in other routes, or Nayuta’s quick deciphering of a kidnapping threat in the common route providing hints of the more dependable side to him we discover his own route. It never fails to show great writing and consistency.

Finally, its epilogues were even more of a delight than usual for the genre, depicting Hibari and her suitor’s thoughts and feelings retrospectively about the route, with her finally embracing her genuine side with her playful bantering with the guys. This is topped off by a gorgeous CG either depicting their marriage or after story.

Conclusion

In many ways, Variable Barricade can be seen as a bit hit and miss. It does a few things refreshingly different for the genre, such as making Hibari truly her own character and with her own development, but manages to slip up when it comes to completely embracing its premise; it has some bizarre diversions that could possibly make or break the game for some players.

For what it’s worth, Variable Barricade was an addictive read despite the hiccups along the way, and it was a greatly appreciated release to have after the slog of Dairoku: Agents of Sakuratani just prior.

So, to sum it up, do I think you should play this game? Yes, I do, but take note of its darker plotlines and more challenging themes! Rest assured that it remains highly entertaining throughout — even if you might encounter the odd eye-rolling moment.

Buy the game now digitally on the Nintendo eShop, or via online retailers such as Amazon or Aksys’ own store.

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