Game Review: eden*

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This review was originally posted to Steam.

June 13th, 2015

eden* game splash image, showing the game title and a purple-haired anime girl looking wistfully into the distance

If you knew that the world was going to end soon, how would you want to spend your remaining time? What would change for you, how would your priorities shift? Assuming you'd find an opportunity to escape, would you choose a future of perpetual narrow walls and cramped spaces over a short time of ultimate freedom followed by certain doom?

For the people living in the world of eden*, these questions are no longer abstract.

MangaGamer delivers the English release of this 2009 title by minori to Steam and its own oline store. eden* is a kinetic novel (a story without choices or gameplay) about the last few people on a dying planet. Its most unique selling point compared to similar titles is its visual presentation: Instead of the waist-up character sprites positioned in front of static backgrounds that we are used to from most modern visual novels, it relies almost entirely on scene-by-scene custom images, each one carefully designed to take character positions and camera perspectives into account. This gives the experience a very cinematic feel, quite literally reminiscent of movies, compared to other titles of its kind. Most scenes also features blinking eyes and lip syncing with the Japanese voices, which makes it impressively lively.

Needless to say, the asset quality is excellent throughout, starting with the backgrounds ranging from the painterly to the borderline naturalistic. The same attention to detail extends to the characters who, despite the multitude of poses and perspectives, always appear consistent, unique, and alive. From what I can tell as someone who does not speak Japanese, the voices really fit well, and coupled with the competent sound design and the soundtrack by Tenmon (if you happen to enjoy Makoto Shinkai's movies: yes, that Tenmon), which expands a small number of recurring motifs into a gripping soundscape, this is an aural experience that you are unlikely to forget.

The story revolves around Warrant Officer Ryou Haruna and his assignment to guard a remote research facility during the planet's final moments. A peculiar (but largely unspecified) astronomical phenomenon is going to wipe out all life on Earth, and humanity is putting the finishing touches on a centennial plan to migrate into space and search for a new home. One component of this plan are the felixes, genetically engineered superhumans whose intellect propels scientific progress far beyond its normal pace. However, there are dissenting voices claiming that humanity should face its ultimate fate head-on instead of trying to escape, so military protection is granted to essential actors within the plan – in particular to Sion, the supreme felix, mastermind behind the giant starships and humanity's savior.

The central themes of eden* include destiny and free will as well as the morality of living one's life for someone else. Ryou, as the self-described “military's attack dog,” and Sion, as the people's only hope to keep on living, are both so devoted to their duties that they have fallen out of touch with their own humanity. Circumstances force them to confront their deeply buried sense of self and be thrust before the most pivotal decision of their lives: to keep on living in the narrow golden cages of their own design, or to choose the ultimate act of defiance and experience the freedom and joy that they had always denied themselves, living life to the fullest until the curtain falls.

The writing tends to focus on character interaction and personal growth over story complexity – eden* is all about the human condition, not about hard sci-fi. In fact, even the scientific details of the end of the world are almost completely glossed over. If you are looking for an apocalyptic sci-fi story with cool technology, this isn't it. Rather, the focus on the characters is so strong that it could be described as downright melodramatic in parts, insofar as that can be a good thing. It features countless charming and memorable moments that easily smooth over the fact that some of the tension maybe could have been resolved in easier ways, or that there's a certain degree of plot convenience constructing the situations that are most interesting for the characters. It all ends up feeling very complete and satisfying.

All in all, I can recommend eden* without much in the way of caveats. If you dislike visual novels or anime-style art, odds are you have not read this far down. If you like visual novels but you're not sure if this one is worth your time, my answer is that it is. I also recommend avoiding playtime estimates. Reading speed varies from person to person anyway, but the later parts of this story work best if you can empathize with the sense of impending dread that the characters are feeling. For them, any day, any moment, could be the last one. It'll be more fun for you if you can get lost in that feeling as well, instead of calculating how many hours you might have left. Even if you have little to no experience with visual novels, this one is probably a better one to get started than most titles currently on Steam. With the above-mentioned reservations in mind, eden* easily gets a positive recommendation from me.

In the interest of fairness, I usually don't directly reference or compare other titles in my reviews. However, these parallels are too useful to ignore, so I'm including them as an appendix:

The plot framework that leads to the particular juxtaposition of the two main characters in eden* calls back to older genre mainstays like planetarian (in contrasting the innocent and sheltered girl with the cynical and battle-hardened hero, compelling one to grow beyond her cocoon and the other to remember what makes life worth living) and Narcissu (in using the impending certain death as a critical literary device, evoking the ever-present dread that any day could be the last one). If you already liked those two VNs, eden* is a very safe bet for you. At the same time, before delving in, you should understand that it has a much more ambitious plot than the two above-mentioned influences: If planetarian and Narcissu are parables, eden* is a novella. Expect a bigger cast of characters with more complex motivations and personalities. I'm not saying that this is an unambiguously better thing, just that it's different.

About version differences: eden* as sold on Steam is rated 17+. This is the original, full release. The publisher later released the AO-rated “PLUS+MOSAIC” version, which includes some additional blood and light nudity as well as some “bonus” adult scenes. These were apparently created without the involvement of the original writers and are not part of the story even in PLUS+MOSAIC. Instead, they are unlocked in the Extras menu after the end of the story. The info section and FAQ on the eden* website offer more detailed information. If you want to take my word for it: you are not missing much if you skip them.


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