Game Review: Sweetest Monster

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This review was originally posted to Steam.

February 13th, 2017

Sweetest Monster game splash image, showing the game title and a young girl with short black hair and striking green eyes lying on a cobble stone background

No matter how rewarding it can be much of the time, a full family life comes with its own hardships, especially as the years wear on. Routine can smother the spark, if no effort is made to keep it alive. The protagonist of this story feels unloved and abandoned, his wife argues with him day in and day out, his daughter avoids him altogether. So when a pretty young girl appears, seemingly out of nowhere, and offers him a new perspective, will his familial loyalty manage to subdue his base desires?

Sweetest Monster is the newest kinetic novel born of ebi-hime's quill and published on Steam by Sekai Project. Its 40 000 words of non-branching story translate to three hours of reading time, give or take one. It boasts widescreen visuals (although the assets are not quite 1080p) as well as a custom original soundtrack and all the quality-of-life features we are used to from modern VNs, like multiple save slots and a skip-read-text mode. It's available on all three major platforms, and as always, I'll note that the presence of a Linux version makes it that much more convenient for me personally.

It's difficult to talk about Sweetest Monster's technical and artistic choices without delving right into the atmosphere. Every piece of artwork and music in this title is bespoke, and the resulting coherence and intensity of the mood is something that would be impossible to achieve with the stock sprites and elevator music often seen in the lower priced VN market segment. Everything is gloomy and eerie, not so far outside the norm that it would scare you away immediately, but just far enough to make you doubt your own judgment. Bell is a very interesting take on the femme fatale, the art as well as the writing convey very clearly that there is more to her than meets the eye.

Speaking in terms of genres, what can one expect from Sweetest Monster? I'd say that “psychological horror” is a good enough fit, even though it paints an incomplete picture. There are also slight allusions to cosmic horror, and if you like your stories to make you feel small and insignificant, this one may be a decent bet. There is character drama, of course, and a story centered around a young seductress may be particularly appealing to some. Though no matter your expectations going into it, and even if you pick up on more details than I did, the final act should still leave you thoroughly disturbed.

Those who have read my other reviews may already be aware that I'm generally fond of genre subversions. Granted, if Sweetest Monster were nothing more than a boring rehash of moege catgirl clichés, I wouldn't be writing about it in the first place, but just as a general note: I like being surprised by the fiction I read, and this VN managed to keep me on my toes, even though it was nothing if not upfront about where its story would be headed. On the contrary, watching the main character slide from one careless mistake into the next and seeing the potential consequences pile up, it comes with all the morbid fascination of watching a train derail in slow motion.

I'm going to dwell on Robin Hawkins a bit more, just because apart from his being rather timid and indecisive, he is pretty far outside the norm for male VN protagonists as well. He is around 40 years old, has a full-time job and a family. He's not a blank slate at all, we start the story learning about his life, his hopes and worries, and it's made very clear that he is a full-fledged character. This also opens him up to being potentially unlikable, depending on how well the reader's views align with his own. Reading some other reviews of this VN, I found that the whole gamut was covered from “very relatable main character, highly immersive” to “implausibly dumb protagonist” and everything in between. Even though Robin likes to prop himself up as a hapless victim, I fall into the faction that thinks the story might have unfolded very differently if someone had told him earlier and more often that his problems are largely his own damn fault.

Any discussion of Sweetest Monster would be decidedly incomplete without an intertextual perspective. By the author's own admission, popular moege like Nekopara were a major influence on this title, but – again – if this were a mere attempt at going with the flow and pandering to market forces, I wouldn't be writing about it. Nor is it a shallow dismissal of the genre or of its audience – it's a tough balancing act, but this VN manages to deliver a rewarding story in its own right while also calmly holding up a mirror from time to time, but without becoming overtly preachy. (If there is an Aesop in here that goes deeper than “don't trust strange catgirls,” it has evaded me.)

Are there any negatives to this VN? Well, on a technical level, I'll say that the highly ambitious sound design was perhaps just slightly too ambitious for its own good. It makes very good use of rain, of heavy footsteps and other sound effects to build its atmosphere, but there were a few spots where the attention to detail took a momentary dip, such as when outside footsteps sound like they're happening in a closed room because of too much reverb. But as I often seem to say, if that's the heaviest criticism I can come up with, then that already speaks volumes about the work as a whole. Everything else is largely a matter of opinion: some people might find the story distasteful, others may have wished it to be longer. If you like your catgirls only when padded with cotton candy fluff, chances are you've already figured out that this isn't one of those cases. But if you're yearning for something disturbing that can be finished in an afternoon, then be sure to give it a shot.


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