I've been a big fan of Christine Love's games ever since my first experience with Digital: A Love Story, one of the most emotionally affecting games I've played. She's also formed almost the entirety of my experience with visual novels, a subgenre of adventure games that are text-heavy and relatively linear, accompanied by striking character and background art. Analogue: A Hate Story was brilliantly designed with clever mechanics and a compelling story, and Hate Plus has the best example of breaking the fourth wall that I've ever seen in a video game.
Given all those positive experiences, I was eager to pick up her latest, with the Fionna Apple-esque title "My Twin Brother Made Me Crossdress as Him and Now I Have to Deal with a Geeky Stalker and a Domme Beauty Who Want Me in a Bind!!", but almost universally referred to by the relatively short title "Ladykiller in a Bind". I was also hesitant: the game is cheerfully pornographic, shifting from the more cerebral romantic thrust of her earlier games into a joyous celebration of queer and kinky sexuality. That sounded intriguing, but also intense, and I held off for a while before picking it up.
Due to the subject matter, the rest of this review should probably be considered NSFW. I'll refrain from any naughty images, but there's some suggestive captions in the screenshots.
Christine Love continues her tradition of mechanical innovations. Where Analogue featured an in-game command prompt and a nonlinear database of records, Ladykiller's marquee feature is probably its conversation system. In a typical game dialogue system, you are presented with a node of text, and then select one of several mutually exclusive responses, each of which leads to another node (similar to classic "Choose Your Own Adventure" structures). This system has been a hallmark of computer games for approximately five centuries.
Ladykiller upends that. Now, conversation prompts are shown as soon as they become relevant, and continue to display while they remain relevant. It is extremely rare for you to be forced to choose something to say. Most often, other people will continue speaking, and the initial responses might be joined by others that become relevant as the conversation continues, different items eventually fading and disappearing as they cease to apply.
I'd read a description of the system before playing, and it ended up being a lot better than I expected. I had thought it was a real-time system, with constantly advancing text and a quick trigger finger required to pick the best option in time. Instead, the actual mechanics are the same as any visual novel: you read one node at a time, and can click any node to proceed. The big difference is that you almost always have a "continue" option, which advances to the next node, but does not necessarily dismiss the existing options.
The overall effect is terrific, a natural-feeling conversation that ebbs and flows, one you participate in but do not dictate. Personally, I tended to play it cool, always waiting to hear as much information as possible before interjecting (which, as I'm typing this now, I realize is exactly my conversational style in real life), and only making choices at the last possible moment before they fade away. And quite often I would choose no option, either because I was unhappy with any of them or because it seemed most in character to remain silent.
I was intrigued by the silence option. I was reminded of an experiment I made back in the original Antumbra which felt like a pale imitation of this: I had a goal that the player character could go through the entire game as a silent protagonist, and so every conversation had a "Remain Silent" option. I really liked the concept of it, and thought way too much about the meta-implications of it (I, as a developer, cannot anticipate every action that my players will want to take, and so I wanted to always give them the opportunity to protest the limited options I gave). In practice, nobody seemed to care much about it one way or the other. It was also a bit of a pain to write for, since I always needed to give a believable reaction to the other speaker AND still manage to advance the plot, so I dropped it for the sequels.
Anyways: here, skipping conversation prompts doesn't necessarily mean that your character ("The Beast") will remain silent. Sometimes she'll just shrug, sometimes she'll say something neutral like "I really couldn't care less", and sometimes she'll actually make some other statement not covered by the earlier ones. So it's a bit less pure than I'd been imagining, but still works really well. In particular, it feels like a great out to give to the player, even if the character doesn't necessarily remain speechless.
I write a lot on this blog about the links and divisions between players and characters, but Ladykiller puts those to shame, creating an almost dizzying level of mediation between you and the story.
So: there's you, the person playing the game, who can be anyone (male, female, other, straight, gay, other, young, old). There's the character you're playing, The Beast (18 years old, female, lesbian). Then there's the character SHE'S playing, The Prince (18 years old, male, possibly asexual). The Prince has a very well-defined character: he's an asshole, manipulative, ruthless, bright. The Beast's character is fairly well-defined (rebellious, poor student, confident, amorous), but you can exert a fair amount of influence on its expression (how generous she is, how trusting, how ambitious).
So, for almost any choice you face in the game, you need to process through three questions, which are almost guaranteed to be in conflict:
How do I, the person playing the game, feel about this action? (Personally, I'm drawn to the boring "be nice to everyone and make everyone like me" school.)
What would The Prince do in this situation, so I can avoid blowing my cover? (He would probably be cruel and haughty.)
What should The Beast do here? (Kind of a mediation between the two, but I'm trying to hold true to my perception of her character.)
And certain scenes go even deeper down the rabbit hole: when spending time with The Flame or The Lieutenant, they may ask you to play out a scene to advance their own goals, adding even another layer of indirection to make my head spin.
My overall strategy, such as it was, was to try and be compassionate around the people I cared about, even when it led to increased suspicion. (In the mechanics of this game, you lose when suspicion rises high enough, although it's relatively easy to lower... for a price.) I would compensate by acting like The Prince when it wouldn't bother other people or when around people who I disliked. This worked... okay. I had to sleep with Beauty once to erase my suspicion, and did so again the next time it rose high, although in retrospect I could have skipped the second time since I didn't gain any suspicion on the final day.
Oh, yeah: sex is mandatory in this game. But, in the theme of mediated experiences, it isn't mandatory for the PLAYER. There are options to skip all sex scenes, and a hilarious option to make all the characters wear ugly Christmas sweaters during otherwise-nude scenes. But story-wise, each night ends with you making love to either the shy and sweet Stalker (named the Hacker in my game), or the scary and sexy Beauty. There are mechanical benefits attached to each: more votes to win the contest from the Stalker, or a free pass on suspicion from the Beauty. You can either pursue the mechanics and select your romantic partners to advance that goal; or you can select a romantic goal and then adjust your behavior to negate the mechanics (e.g., avoid suspicion during the day to ensure you can spend every night with the Stalker). I kind of muddled through both. In retrospect I kind of wish I had focused on the Stalker... but that would have made it harder to pursue some other the other characters' storylines in the direction I wanted, so, idunno.
Like a lot of visual novels, LKiaB features romance "routes": series of scenes related to potential partners. The first route I followed was that of The Flame (née The Photographer), the only "pure" lesbian on the ship. But, of course, since this game is confusing, she doesn't see you as a natural partner: she sees your asshole brother.
I liked The Flame. Everyone in the game acts scared of her, and she is manipulative, but... I dunno, I liked the way she talked? She's clearly ambitious, but you get a hint of the insecurity underlying it?
Like most (?) of the daytime routes, you can get up to some hanky-panky with The Flame, but it isn't really fully consummated in the same way as The Stalker and The Beauty are. I might have played a little differently if I'd understood that - heck, I probably will if and when I replay. It's still good, you really get to know the characters well and have a relationship arc with them, but you can't end up with any of them.
My next focus was The Lieutenant (aka The Nerd). Man, I really liked her! I'm not usually into the tsundere thing, but she was AWESOME, and I probably laughed at her dialogue more than anyone else's. She's SO uptight and rigid and sheltered and AGHAST at all this ILLEGAL UNDERAGE DRINKING going on around her.
I might have been bummed if I'd done her route first, but since my expectations were tempered by The Flame, I ended up really loving it. I like that you kiss, and it isn't this magical wonderful enjoyable experience. (Her reaction is terrific, befuddled and slightly incredulous.) There are some really good lessons that The Beast imparts near the end of this route, which (as is so often the case in Christine Love games) I'll be seeking to apply to my own life.
The Lieutenant is one of the few characters where I felt like I (as the player) was very out of step with how The Beast perceived a situation. I really, genuinely, honestly liked The Lieutenant, but The Beast canonically finds her shrill and untalented. The Beast only begrudgingly finds a limited aspect of The Lieutenant to like, while I admire all of her.
I didn't get through much of his "route", but I was surprised by how much I liked The Athlete. It just was... nice, relaxed, friendly. In retrospect I wish I had done this first, and I'm pretty sure I will if I play it again: he's an ally, someone who provides useful information and advice, and seems like he could make a perfect wingman. Plus you don't need to worry about suspicion with him like you do for most other characters.
In the end: I "nope"'d out of the Day 7 stuff and got what appears to be the default ending. Which I'm happy enough with. I was actually basically on-board for the whole kidnapping plot and ransom demand, and might have cooperated from the start if I'd known what was going on. Based on the information received in the game, the father seems like a thoroughly unpleasant man, and I'm all about striking a blow against the imperial capitalist system. (I do really enjoy the ridiculousness of the dialogue in these sections. "Don't even worry about it!") I did kind of kick myself for not taking the opportunity to get back my motorcycle, though... it looks like that might unlock another ending. I'm pretty sure that, if I do replay, I'll shoot for an ending where it's just me and the Stalker riding off into the sunset.
I haven't written enough about this, but the dialogue is HILARIOUS. There's always been great humor in Christine Love's games, but usually it's sandwiched between dark and ominous themes. Here, the bulk of the game is joyous and silly and ridiculous, with just some darkness coming near the end, but most of the time it's a great forum for terrific one-liners, catfights, obscure pop-culture references, and just straight-up silliness.
The art is also terrific, with every character very well defined and unique, attractive in often-unconventional ways. I also loved all the animations, subtle movements that really help sell the characters: the little wobble The Stalker makes when she's embarrassed, the screen shaking whenever The Lieutenant is chewing you out, the incessant winking from The Beast. And the backgrounds look gorgeous: I've never been on a cruise ship, and I find it hard to believe that they actually look this nice.
So, yeah! I really enjoyed this game. It definitely isn't for everyone, even people who enjoyed the earlier Digital/Analogue games, but it's a really fun and unique outing, both as a game and as a story. Speaking personally, it was a really interesting introduction to some sexual and gender-related interests and experiences that I'd been vaguely aware of before but hadn't really known much about; I'm not going to pursue any of them, but I think I've gained a greater understanding of the different types of people in this world and things they like, and I think that's a good thing.
Albums! I debated how much to censor these, and ended up taking out all the ones with exposed naughty bits but leaving in the ones with fully-clothed sexiness and adult language. They're still NSFW, just not as NSFW as they could be.