A quarantine, rooting out the corruption of police, and gun control debates. The only reason this doesn’t represent 2020 is because there’s no pandemic.
In the long string of Otomate-developed and Aksys Games-published otome ports we’re getting this year, I was not ready for what Collar X Malice laid down. There’s a lot of elements in the game, both in plot and characters, that hit a little too close to home right now, but it was powerful enough to keep me playing for basically an entire holiday to see the golden ending. Technically, CxM has more than its share of issues, but it’s carried hard by its storyline.
Unlike the Code: Realize duology, Collar X Malice takes place in the “real world” and in the modern day. Specifically, it’s set in the Shinjuku section of Tokyo, which has been placed under the perpetual threat of a terrorist group known as Adonis. Each month, the group commits a murder of one individual or group who is seen to deserve it—a cop who makes false arrests to boost his numbers, a serial stalker, people who drove a young girl to suicide—counting down to an event called “X-Day” that will occur on January 1 and allegedly cause the “rebirth” of Japan. This has caused Shinjuku to be placed under quarantine, and the “Firearms And Swords Control Law” to be suspended to the point that every adult resident of Shinjuku is required to carry a gun. The POV character, Ichika Hoshino, a police officer who works in a community relations role, is kidnapped at the start of the game and has a collar placed around her neck that is capable of poisoning her to death. She is rescued by a “detective agency” of former/active duty police officers and their oddball bodyguard, who all serve as her suitors and guides as they seek to get the collar off and take down Adonis before X-Day happens.
The structure of the game is the standard Japanese adventure novel format, with four paths for other suitors that have to be cleared before the canon love interest takes over for the “golden ending.” Thankfully, it’s not necessary to speed through eight chapters of text before reaching the decision point for the suitors unlike in Code: Realize. There’s one question with each of the first four suitors in the prologue, then it’s straight down their path—choosing properly can get you on the road to stop skipping text in about five to ten minutes. CxM has two other major differences from the last full game in this line: Getting the best ending with the suitors doesn’t unlock the bad ends, and there is at least one quick-time event on each route. The timing window is incredibly generous for these events, but blowing any of them WILL cause a bad end immediately (because they’re centred on the protagonist firing a gun). Although the realism is appreciated, I only found this when I missed one at the end of a route and got the “total party kill” ending where the other suitors were either dead or left as empty shells. Then again, the alternative involved the protagonist developing amnesia (she got better), so it’s just questionable booking all around. If going for 100% completion, the game does offer the ability to skip to chapters and even adjust the trust rating when doing so to unlock the ends.
The modern setting helps with making the characters more relatable, and if the goal was to make the player feel sympathy for the murderers, then the writers did a fantastic job. I also found myself relating to the “mean guy”/hacker character a little bit too much, to the point where I was reading his lines out loud later on in the game. The protagonist (also the youngest character among the main six) is realistically nervous, being a rookie police officer who is under the constant threat of death. Although the characters get their point across all the time, I did eventually stop taking screenshots of typos because they were coming up too quickly, and sometimes (possibly due to localization limitations) a part being spoken out loud would scroll into a part that was meant to be an internal monologue or vice versa. I’m not sure if this was the case in previous localizations, but I would suspect it’s not easily patchable in any event.
Collar’s characters are a mix of the typical gruff-looking police types and the beautiful suitors, with some younger looking characters thrown in for variety (though I never really got comfortable with the one suitor who kept sticking his tongue out). The camera is a little bit more dynamic than in previous games of this type I played, but there will be familiar backgrounds coming up a lot just due to the nature of the storyline. It’s hard to get environmental variety when you’re stuck in one section of Tokyo, even if it’s the size and population of my current home city. The voice acting isn’t dubbed, but it’s well acted and the suitors especially do a good job of bringing out their emotions, while the music has a few ear worms in it as well.
If you’re OK with dealing with text issues—or will speed through too fast to notice—then Collar X Malice is going to hook you. The themes may be disturbing to some, and the M rating the ESRB gave it is definitely deserved, but it left me thinking for a long time after I hit the title screen for the last time. Sometimes, that’s just what I need.