I love visual novel games. It’s an unique genre that is hugely popular in Japan yet is only known in America by otaku. It’s probably because of this cultural oddity that I find myself fascinated with the genre. Since learning Japanese, I would occasionally import a game and play through them in their native language. Just recently, I’ve been playing The Idolmaster SP import on my PSP system. In college, I gave my final presentation in Japanese pop-culture studies about this genre of video game. I even wrote an essay about the Phoenix Wright series and its impact on American otaku culture on this blog a year ago.
We very rarely see visual novels translated into English and released into the US, so when one does come around, I usually play through it with a lot of praise and fanfare. So when I was offered a review copy of Ignition’s American release of the Nintendo DS game Lux-Pain, I gave them quite an enthusiastic “yes!” at the opportunity.
Lux-Pain puts you in the position of a paranormal investigator in search of the truth behind a series of unexplainable murders and suicides in the quiet Kisaragi City. Your special weapon, Sigma, is the ability to erase through the physical world and uncover the Silent, little psychic worms of tragedy and despair. Going undercover as a typical high school student, you search around the city for these worms left around the crime scenes or buried in the psyche of your friends and classmates.
The game play is a rather passive experience, but that’s common with the genre. As the term “visual novel” would imply, you spend most of the time reading dialogue between you and the other characters. It’s like reading a manga where you see the story through the eyes of the protagonist. The story is a typical murder mystery, so it is not particularly deep or meaningful. But because it is so detailed and gives you that first-person perspective, you do find yourself being drawn into this fictional world. That way, the little interactions you do encounter while playing only serve to drive you deeper into the story.
* Screenshots taken from the Japanese version. US version is in English.
Every 15 minutes or so, you go into Sigma mode to search for a worm by an echo location-like technique. Once you spot them, you destroy the worms by exposing and attacking them with your DS stylus. When you’re done, an alphabet soup of words and phrases appear to show you a stream of consciousness of some unfortunate past event, giving your character new information to unfold the story. While these alphabet soup moments might be a little hard for the player to take in, I think it’s a very clever way of showing the chaotic nature of the mind and feelings.
The one aspect that Lux-Pain shines at for being a “visual novel” is in the visual department. It looks fantastic. The game contains lots of characters – at least 40 from what I can tell. Each one of them is drawn perfectly to portray a uniquely charming personality, taking away the cartoon goofiness of the Phoenix Wright series and replacing it with a more conventional style of anime. The prettiness of all the character designs are highlighted in an extra art book that comes with the game.
One of the first characters you’ll encounter in the game Natsuki, a fellow psychic decked out in a hot Gothic Lolita outfit. There’s the sophisticated look of the local bookstore owner Ryu. The mischievous look of computer hacker Shinji. The down-to-Earth look of the art teacher Aoi. Or the cute kid-sister look of Nami.
And with those charming personalities comes a feature that really blew me away…
There’s English dubbed voice acting in the game!
Whenever I’ve played these type of games before, they are either in English with no voice acting (Phoenix Wright) or they’ve been in Japanese with Japanese voice acting (Idolmaster SP). This is the first time I’ve ever played a visual novel with English voice acting, and I must say, I like it very much.
Given the size of a Nintendo DS cartridge, only selected scenes are actually voiced over. But the quality of the acting was so good and added so much more to the game that I started every scene hoping it would be voiced over.
The voice actors are the typical voice actors you’ll find in the “Texas Dubs” of FUNimation and ADV, like Monica Rial and Greg Ayers. While I’m particularly not a huge fan of their dub work for anime, their quick single-line delivery in this visual novel style of game play is fantastic. This is some of the best work that these actors have ever done, and it is a shame that they go uncredited for it.
But maybe there’s a reason they keep their name on the down low with Lux-Pain. This fantastic game does sport it’s own Achilles’ heel. Well, maybe that’s not the right metaphor to describe it. Achilles’ heel was not huge, throbbing, and had a million neon signs pointing to it saying, “Here! Hit this! It’s an easy kill!”
So what is the game’s fatal weak point? Well, have you ever watched an anime DVD with both the dub audio and the subtitles on at the same time? Notice how the subtitles are basically saying the same thing as the dub actors are saying, but using different words here and there?
That’s the entire localization of Lux-Pain. For a text-based visual novel, the only thing that’s wrong with it is.. well… THE TEXT! It’s crappy. It’s horrible. It’s a complete and utter embarrassment!
More often then not, the text you are reading on the bottom of the screen differs from the words you’re hearing over the speaker. Being well-establish professional anime voice actors, the dub team improvised a little from the script in order to make the language sound more natural and to sync with the lip flaps of the sprite.
In some ways, this is the reason why the dub works so well with the game. But unfortunately, the game’s localization team never adjusts to these changes. They keep the literal translation of the original text in the game, making the text impossible to read along with the voice actors.
Just for a random example, when the character of Rui is describing a vision she’s seeing,
You hear: “A happy family… Your mom is beautiful.”
You read: “Your family seems happy. Your mom… She’s beautiful.”
Again, that happens in almost every scene containing voice overs. You’ll rarely find an example of the text and audio actually syncing up like it should be. It’s unbe-freaking-lievable! You’re left with only two options:
1) Always read the text with the sound off
2) focus completely on listening the audio without ever looking down at the text.
You can’t do both at the same time or it’ll drive you nuts. And since the voice acting is so good, I highly suggest going for the latter. (-_-)
But on top of that, there are bits of the text that are filled with grammatical errors and embarrassing typos. The localization team have seemed to run into some technical space limits that come with translating the condense characters of Japanese to the wide letters of English. But instead of graphically adjusting the width limitations, they squeeze in as much as they can and put in inappropriate hyphens if they run out of line space.
This game’s American production looks more like some fan translation hack rather than a professional video game release. It simply reeks of laziness, and it’s an insult that they expect you to pay full price for a game that’s only haft-baked.
If there’s one thing that I can give the localization credit for, it’s that they translated the game specifically with American otaku in mind. When Capcom localized the Phoenix Wright series, they tried to make it speak to a more mainstream audience by changing the names of the characters and eliminating many Japanese cultural elements. There’s none of that in Lux-Pain. All the Japanese names remain the same and certain jargon is used that would only be understood by American anime fans.
It’s a faithful adaptation, and it would have been perfect if only they had taken the time to completely proofread it.
Who was the QA person over at Ignition who played the final beta of the game and gave it the final OK to go gold? That person needs to be fired because this game was clearly not ready. For a text-based adventure game, screwing up the text completely kills the player’s experience.
The Good: Charming characters, otaku-friendly adaptation, visually stunning game play elements, great artwork, and anime dub actors putting through their best work yet.
The Bad: The localization is an embarrassing distraction for the player. Game was rushed and released before it was ready to go.
Final Verdict: A poor localization job completely ruins what could have been the best visual novel game ever released in the US. If you’re a fan of the genre, then do try to seek it out in a bargain bin sometime in the future. But don’t pay full retail price for a release of this amateur quality.