Only about fifteen shades of gray here, and that’s all in the environment.
There’s a couple more fruits coming off the Aksys / Idea Factory romance tree this year, and they seem to be up my alley—one is a fan cart, and the other is explicitly starring a heroine who is not looking for love, which I definitely know the feeling of. Dairoku: Agents of Sakuratani dropped at the end of 2021 and does some things that are pretty standard for romance games, but it also takes some unusual roads with the game’s format.
The events of Dairoku take place in a world the opposite of ours called Sakuratani, where frequently-cited creatures of Japanese mythology (oni, tengu, kitsune, serpents) can live away from the prying eyes of the “real world.” The peace of this world is maintained by a police force/security agency known as the Ayakaroshi, which is staffed by humans who have the ability to see spirits. The heroine (default name: Shiro) is taking an exam to join the Japanese civil service when she spots the shikigami (aiding spirit) of the leader of an elite Ayakaroshi squad, who quickly recruit her into the squad. Along with her squad leader, there are four other suitors—each the leader of a faction of Sakuratani—who form the traditional five romantic options for the heroine as she tries to get used to handling a world that routinely causes fatigue in the humans who live in it.
Most of the time, romance adventures have certain suitors locked off until other routes are completed: Dairoku is unique among Switch romance releases as everything is open by default. It’s even possible to get the “Finale End” on the first try purely by accident, though it will not make a lick of sense if it happens to be the first ending you get. There is a long common route that leads to the suitor paths, and each chapter of the common route involves selecting which suitor to go for from a map of Sakuratani. One quote I saw while reading up on the game described it as Shiro “stalking” the suitor, and they’re not wrong. In a bit of an oddity, the intention of most otome games is that the romantic endings are unlocked first, then some method is used to skip back to decision points to get the other endings. However, in my playthrough, I got the “friendship” end the first time through on EVERY route that wasn’t the Finale Ending, which only ends one way, and had to double back and set the affection rating to “high” to get the romance ending on the second attempt. This was despite picking the option that increased my relationship with the suitor every time. When I got the friend ending the first time, I actually walked away from the game for a few days out of frustration and/or confusion.
Interaction with the game is largely text options, on the suitor routes. There’s one “tap buttons in sequence” style quick time event on the common route, so it’ll have to be done once every few hours, but the Finale Ending involves picking seven of these events in a row. The multiple paths through Dairoku are maintained by an extensive flowchart for both the common route and the suitors, which made doubling back quite easy. The flowchart also allows for two “boyfriend perspectives” per route, which serve to explicitly give the player the perspective of their potential beloved.
The text editing is always a concern with adventure games, but Dairoku is carrying on the strong editing of the previous otome title from Aksys (Olympia Soiree). There were a couple of minor typos, but nothing gamebreaking to the point that it would need a patch. Because of the setting, there’s a lot of dark colors used—the sun doesn’t shine here—and even the brief scenes in the real world are either placed at night or in the Akihabara section of Tokyo. It lent itself to a very oppressive atmosphere, especially when I played docked. There’s some good background music, with the oni leitmotif being a personal highlight for mixing hard rock with Japanese folk, which helped make me enjoy the oni suitor most. The fact that one of the oni is literally Oda Nobunaga, and they namedrop a legally distinct Nobunaga’s Ambition because these oni play games, was especially cute.
When you’re going back-to-back-to-back with one genre of game, they can start to run together. I’m glad Dairoku: Agents of Sakuratani avoided the urge to lock portions of the game behind completion, and hope this happens more in the future—though hopefully the next romance game I play will have a little more sunlight in it.