Game Review: Oblivious Garden ~Carmina Burana

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This review was originally posted to Steam.

December 29th, 2014

Oblivious Garden game splash image, showing the game title and a white-haired lady in a frilly dress looking bored and aloof

You are a proud and successful military general, you have won many wars and conquered many kingdoms. But during the deciding battle you make a grave mistake, and you lose everything. Shamed and shunned, you return home to your emperor. How can you ever redeem yourself? As it turns out, the emperor already has a new task in mind.

Oblivious Garden ~Carmina Burana is a romance-themed visual novel set in a post-medieval fantasy world. You are a humiliated ex-general and your new job is to teach the art of fencing to the seven princesses of the kingdom.

The first thing you'll likely notice when you're looking at Oblivious Garden for the first time is the unique and stylish artwork. The character portraits and CGs are gorgeous without exception and the gothic/baroque-inspired character designs mesh surprisingly well with the pastel-focused watercolor art style. The VN has a refined visual identity that sticks out of the crowd and will secure it a second look from many prospective readers. The backgrounds are unfortunately of lower quality on average and range from nicely painted landscapes to crude photo manipulations of rooms. The soundtrack is fitting and atmospheric, but a little repetitive. This would have been counteracted by either a bigger selection of tracks or at least less obvious loops (they're not jarring but very apparent after the first few times). There's Chinese voice acting available that complements the character designs pretty well and provides fitting voices to go along with the faces. It has a spiffy opening animation and the technical aspects (controls, save system etc.) leave little to be desired.

The story is set in the titular “oblivious garden,” where the emperor has sealed away the seven princesses. The many parallels drawn to the royal courts in 17th century Europe extend not only to the opulent garden itself, but also to the complex social rules and codes governing the interactions between Irell Reis, the ex-military main character, and the princesses residing in the area. Don't expect much in the way of historical accuracy though, I got the impression that the social aspects were influenced at least as much by the developers' Chinese background as by their impression of past European nobility, which is not a problem at all considering it's a fantasy world. While this sort of setting has been attempted before in fiction, it deserves recognition for originality in the realm of visual novels, even though admittedly I am generous with my praise for any setting that is not a Japanese high school.

In another contrast to the visual novel archetype, the main character is a young adult with a sizable amount of life experience as a military general. Thematically, in accordance with that choice, Oblivious Garden does not shy away from the heavy-hitters: Recurring topics are the justifiability of war and violence, the vicious circle of revenge, the guilt of enabling and orchestrating mass slaughter versus “just following orders,” and of course the dichotomy between fate and free will. The VN uses these issues quite expertly in the interactions between the central characters.

Rounding out the package is a charming little mini game about brewing different kinds of tea that maybe could have been slightly more forthcoming with its solutions (or maybe I'm just bad at it), but offers a fun break from the plot and an entertaining experience nudging you to perhaps make a nice cup of tea for yourself as well.

I would have loved to love Oblivious Garden. I saw almost all the building blocks needed for a fantastic visual novel, I really liked the art and the concept, the setting seemed unique and interesting. Yet, I can't love it. I can merely bring myself to say that it is pretty good all things considered. That is because Oblivious Garden commits my one cardinal sin, the one thing that a visual novel can do that I really cannot forgive: The writing is bad. Or rather, it has its good and even great moments (lots of them in fact) but it just can't sustain a consistent level of quality throughout the whole story. And for a visual novel, that is a huge problem.

To be clear, I am not talking about the low-quality English script that is rife with grammatical errors and vocabulary mixups. I know this can be a dealbreaker for many of you, so it deserves pointing out, but personally I can usually gloss over shoddy translations easily if I set my mind to it. In any case, it is something that can be fixed by putting the script into the hands of a better qualified translator or at least a native English speaking editor, which I have reason to hope might still happen. There were only one or two spots that I straight up didn't understand for which I would blame the lackluster translation. My main gripes run much deeper.

But if the writing isn't good, then why do I still give Oblivious Garden an overall “thumbs up” rating? There are reasons for that, I like to think they are good ones, and I will tell you all about them, but first I'd like to elaborate on the specific ways in which I consider the writing lacking and the ways in which it actually succeeds, so you can draw your own conclusions about whether or not your opinion would differ from mine and whether the things that bothered me might be non-issues to you.

There are many different granularities to storytelling, from the finest details all the way to the broad, overarching themes, and in this case they have to be examined separately. Oblivious Garden actually does very well in regards to the moment-to-moment writing, subtle word choices, and believable character interactions (which I will examine in more depth later). Above that, from a scene-to-scene point of view, the construction starts to wobble a little: You can see a general progression in the way that the central characters treat each other and it is pretty believable for the most part; the pacing, the ebb and flow of the story, has slower introspective or meditative scenes contrasting with fast-paced or dramatic ones in a successful manner that is highly enjoyable to read; but I started to see small issues at this level, like problems relating two consecutive scenes to each other when the first one should definitely had more of an influence on the next than it actually did. At the top level, looking at the chapter-to-chapter progression, I find the biggest problems. Of the four available routes, the first one succeeds in creating a believable conflict and having the central characters grow close to one another, but near the end the plot pace goes from 0 to 100 in an instant, leaving me rubbing my neck due to whiplash and wondering what in the world just happened. The second one, the worst of the bunch in my opinion, also starts out well, builds some tension, raises some questions, and then hits a certain point where everything suddenly stops making any sense at all and the main plot thread gets lost in a pile of spaghetti until there's a ham-fisted ending that somehow made me happy for being allowed to stop reading in spite of the many open questions. This leaves the third route as the only one that I would consider well-constructed the whole way through, it is the highlight of the VN even though if I were to judge it by itself I'd have a hard time calling it anything above “good,” at least as seen from a high-level perspective. Lastly, there's the fourth route that comes across as more of a stocking-stuffer due to its length, a short bonus for the people wishing for more interactions with that particular girl, and as a result it can be completed considerably faster than the other three. (And yes, because I'm a big ol' meanie I'm not going to tell you which is which.)

All that being said, I am willing to make a positive recommendation for Oblivious Garden thanks to a significantly better-handled aspect of its writing: the character interactions.

Visual novels with a focus on interpersonal relationships, and romance in particular, tend to derive their stories from the pitfalls of human interaction. Now if every character had a strong emotional and social awareness and would just talk frankly about their feelings like an adult, things would get resolved quickly and there would not be much of a story to read. Looping back to the VN archetype, many authors solve this problem by making their main characters extremely socially awkward and drawing conflict from the ensuing misunderstandings and the divide between what the main character thinks and what he is courageous enough to say out loud. Irell Reis on the other hand has plenty of social awareness and makes diligent use of it, but is thrust into a situation where he is unable to talk frankly due to the complex and strict social codes governing all interactions between him, the princesses, and the maids. In an environment where he could feasibly be executed for telling the wrong person at the wrong time that they look great today, the aspect that makes the character interactions so interesting is the second-, third- and fourthguessing of the possible intentions behind any smile, any little remark, any glance over the shoulder. And this is where Oblivious Garden really, truly shines. It manages to create believable characters that interact under immense social pressure in a way that I have never seen done in a visual novel before, and in my eyes that counts for a lot. If compelling character interactions are something you value highly, this one might be a real treat for you.

As a short side note, when I initially looked at the screenshots on the store page, all the low-cut dresses and maid outfits had me fear that Oblivious Garden would go the full fanservice route, but thankfully that is not the case at all. There's no nudity, no obvious “cleavage cam,” and apart from one slightly suggestive CG that is well-justified by the plot, there is no sexual content whatsoever.

In summary, Oblivious Garden ~Carmina Burana is definitely not the best visual novel on Steam, the badly constructed plot is further marred by the low-quality English script, but the character interactions are well-crafted enough to wring a positive recommendation out of me, and it's all wrapped in a complete package that is certainly pretty to look at. My “thumbs up” comes with the biggest figurative asterisk I have ever had to add, but if you've read all this and still think it might be for you, it probably is.


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