I have yet to discuss one of my favourite places on the Internet to discover obscure indie projects and promising new talents within the video game and visual novel industry: itch.io. It’s a home for some of the most creative minds online — and a great place to explore the work put out by developers during special events such as game jams.
Otome Development, in collaboration with Devtalk, presented this years Otome Jam on the website, tasking creators with developing their own otome game within the space of just two months. While there have been many different jam categories that have existed for years now even outside of the visual novel genre, well-known examples relevant to our beloved dating sims include Itch’s regular Yuri Game Jam, which started back in 2016, and the NaNoRenO Jam category, which dates back to 2015, to name just a couple.
The Otome Jam is a considerably newer addition. Since 2018, the Otome Jam continues to gain more interest and traction from both indie developers and players alike. This year saw the Jam get its highest number of submissions yet, with 28 games for us to enjoy!
So what better way to join in on the fun than by exploring some of these great games and giving the event as a whole the exposure it deserves.. Because trust me when I say this: you’re missing out on some visual novel hidden gems if you happen to dismiss these games just because they’re game jam titles.
Let’s get into the games I’ve actually managed to play to date!
We’re starting off strong with one of the best-performing titles of the 28 entries — one that received a tremendous amount of players, feedback and attention, as its subject matter of popular chat app Discord proved to resonate strongly with a modern audience.
It’s actually one of two entries within this Otome Jam based on such a plot and design (the other one being In Game Crush — which I must admit I have yet to play!), and a game that its developer Robobarbie was inspired to create due to their own encounters and experiences within Discord.
Players are put into the shoes of the overworked and overtired main character, who has become increasingly invested in a certain webnovel. While reading its latest chapter, a mysterious link to a fan server appears, and our love story begins.
Blooming Panic has it all. Friendship, romance, mystery, drama and even a little bit of spice — depending on the guy you go for, that is. The entire cast of Blooming Panic are thoroughly enjoyable and loveable to interact with, as they capture a believable group dynamic of fellow forum users whose closeness and consideration for one another only ever grows over sharing a common interest in such a short amount of time.
The text-based conversations were extremely well done, full of individual quirks and recognisable traits depending on the user speaking, such as typos, emojis and memes used exclusively by each individual. But it was the video calls with the love interests that made this Mystic Messenger-esque otome stand on its own two feet as a distinctive spin on a game about modern messaging systems.
The character routes are all very well thought out and presented, each linking to the focal point of the webnovel that brought the strangers together. The game goes from being light-hearted and hilarious to projecting heartfelt and emotional truths of its characters, cleverly exploring its own fanfiction literature within the game and featuring real-life significance in the lessons its characters learn.
It can be deeply moving and relatable at times, and with well-written routes that nicely complement one another in certain endings — and thoroughly engrossing characters even in supporting roles makes this indie otome a must-play visual novel.
Alongside its distinctive artwork and cosy soundtrack (special shout out to its catchy theme tune!), the writing and themes of Blooming Panic reflect its team’s genuine and heartfelt desire to convey a sincere message. Its characters make for an impactful, emotional and engaging time — and here’s hoping the upcoming additional route for the hilarious troll user character “xyx” hits the same notes, because Blooming Panic is a game I wish would never end.
For now, it is time for me to play two of its routes for a third time — and Quest’s route for the fifth time!
The Witch and Her Assistant
MagicBench was previously responsible for another lovely little otome gem known as Fujiwara BitterSweet and is currently working on the upcoming COLORS OF FATE. The Witch and Her Assistant is a great example of why MagicBench’s other stuff is well worth a look.
The short game clocks in at just two hours or so, but it appears to be leaving an extremely positive impression on its players — so much so that its creator has considered making an expanded version of the game in the future. While we cannot be certain if such a move will truly come to fruition (although my fingers and toes are crossed!), what we already have of The Witch and Her Assistant is a must-play within the catalogue of Otome Jam games from this year.
The Witch and Her Assistant has players put into the position of the hard-working and lonely main character, who has no default name. She lives in her tiny and snug cottage alongside her cute salamander companion, Sally. Her wish to not feel so lonely and overworked is met when she has a fateful encounter with the character of either the shy deer spirit Zailehl, or the confident and assertive merman, Miryhn. The two are complete opposites in personality and appearance, making both routes very different and providing two extremes that will cater to different player desires.
The characters are all lovable enough to make the game worthwhile, since we bear witness to some small yet charming character arcs — and especially so with how much emotional backstory there is to our main character.
But the slices of brief worldbuilding is where the majority of The Witch and Her Assistant’s intrigue lies. It has very interesting details concerning its fantastical world, from different species of creatures being hinted at to be coexisting, and even humans being seen as fiction.
On top of all that, the game has an overall cosy and comforting vibe to its short and sweet story with super adorable and playful artwork, and a fittingly peaceful and soothing OST, making the entire package feel captivatingly charming and endearingly wholesome.
In Yrsa Major, we play as the titular Yrsa, a woodcutter who uses her trusty tool to fight and defend her small village from monsters. Due to the low funds of her village, it is unable to pay for alchemists and their elementals to protect it — but a chance encounter with an alchemist allows Yrsa to summon her very own ishim.
The only issue is that he is not the tough and combat-ready fire ishim she was expecting to see, but one who instead specialises in water based, healing abilities! Through a beautiful and truly healing journey shared between the two, Yrsa learns that there is much more to strength and love than she first thought.
Yrsa Major is what I love about indie projects. In the context of otome games, Yrsa Major spins the trope of the “damsel in distress” heroine so commonly seen in the otome genre almost completely on its head. Our heroine is physically strong, mentally sound, and has a much more masculine character design compared to what we might typically expect for an otome heroine. Our main and only love interest Uribel is also in clear contrast to her, being a soft spoken, water-based spirit who is a pacifist with a delicate and airy character design.
On a related note, what happens to be even better than an ojisan love interest? How about a considerably older heroine? Two automatic wins in my book. This already unusual character dynamic is further highlighted by their actions in the story and what roles they play as a pairing — such as Yrsa protecting Uribel during combat, and often initiating the romance, even with hand-holding and kissing. The game challenges the stereotypes of gender roles, whilst also presenting a well-crafted and detailed high fantasy world, playing with the tropes of such a setting and providing a lot of heart and wittiness to the experience as a whole.
The relationship development between Yrsa and Uribel is a great watch, feeling effortless and natural, with their personal growth also being compelling and heart-warming. Yrsa Major also happens to be a very mature take on the genre — and not just due to the otome being centred around the pairing of two much older characters. It also deals with darker themes and situations during its two-hour runtime — which ends far too quickly. But at least the two hours is jam-packed with action and adventure, and never loses its steam.
Additionally, the sheer quality of the expressive sprite work and occasional animation keeps the action scenes eye-catching and engrossing, and gives this otome gem an impressive coat of paint, giving it an extremely professional, polished and big-budgeted look. This is especially worth complimenting for it being an indie project — let alone its developers’ first ever release! I, for one, cannot wait for the second installment in this series, Heart Sigil Elchemia, set to release later in 2021.
And there’s so much more where that came from. Check out all the games that were submitted this year for the Otome Jam 2021, and be sure to keep your eyes peeled on the game creators’ twitter accounts and other socials for any further projects. Because these indie endeavours deserve so much more support, love and attention, even if the genre is targeted towards female gamers. We’ve told you once before, and we’ll say it again, you’re missing out in the long run if you don’t explore otomes — regardless of your own gender and sexuality!
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