Inside Pulse 12

Review: Strawberry Vinegar (PC)

Strawberry Vinegar
Genre: Visual Novel
Developer: Ebi-Hime
Publisher: Sekai Project
Release Date: 01/05/16

So, let’s get this out of the way up front: Strawberry Vinegar is a hard game to process, and even now I’m not entirely sure I get it. In theory, it’s a visual novel based around a fish-out-of-water outsider friendship plot, and we’ve been seeing those sorts of plots in anime and television for decades, from ALF and Perfect Strangers to Monster Musume and even One Punch Man to a certain extent. In practice, however, Strawberry Vinegar takes that concept and uses it to pair a nine-year-old girl with a demon, and then bases that concept in a plot that feels like it was written by someone who really loved Yumeiro Patissiere, which is (essentially) an anime about baking. In other words, it’s a game that defies conventions, but not in the same way as something like Kokonoe Kokoro (AKA “the game where you date a grasshopper”), so it’s harder to “get” in a lot of respects. That’s not to imply anything of the quality of the game, mind you, as Strawberry Vinegar is honestly a well-written piece of work; rather, it’s meant to explain that, even if the game is quite well written, it’s also… interesting, and whether or not you can get into what it does will be a big factor in how much you take from it.

Feed me, or I’ll reap your soul!

The plot of Strawberry Vinegar takes a bit of explaining, but basically, you take on the role of Rie, a nine-year-old girl whose life is clearly fine, but hardly ideal. She has a father who is both a doting caretaker and a great cook as well as a mother who is a famous actress (and kind of a terrible person if we’re being honest), and she’s clearly the child of her parents, as she’s inherited her father’s love of food and her mother’s worldview. In other words, she loves cooking and spends more time playing with stuffed animals than interacting with people, because people mostly just ask her about her mom. This all changes one day when a demon girl, Licia, shows up in Rie’s kitchen with an ultimatum: make me tasty food for a week or I’ll take your soul. While this declaration would probably work better if Licia herself wasn’t around nine as well (and also if she weren’t in the process of eating Rie’s food from jump), Rie more or less goes along with it, and the resulting game follows the two around for a week as they bond over their mutual oddities and love of food. In its own way, Strawberry Vinegar is fairly endearing; Rie’s situation is surprisingly relatable for the outside spectator, and her interactions with Licia are rather cute in an anime-style fashion, so anyone with a passing enjoyment of anime storytelling will probably take a lot away from this. The game also works with a small cast, as outside of a few bystanders, only about five characters total get real development, and this works in the game’s favor, as it gives the important cast members a chance to shine rather than featuring lots of poorly developed characters.

Surprisingly, the part that was the most head-scratching for me was the heavy focus on food; most of the game is devoted to it in some way or another, including the plot, and the extensive descriptions of foodstuffs were confusing as often as not. Even as someone who can kind of appreciate an anime like Yumeiro Patissiere for what it is, I found the at-times lengthy descriptions of food and food preparation to be a bit hard to really take, due in large part to the fact that they don’t do much to service the plot. Now, lots of visual novels have an odd storytelling gimmick that drives the narrative in a way that allows for exposition and story within the world; Steins;Gate has its time travel monologues, The Fruit of Grisaia has its ruminations on army life, and If My Heart Had Wings has glider technology. As such, in theory, extensive discussions on food preparation aren’t unreasonable for Strawberry Vinegar to fit in. In practice, though, while these sorts of things generally act in service to the plot in some games, here it just feels like Rie is talking about food, which is fine, but it tells us nothing about the world or the characters except that “Rie likes food.” Foodies and fans of coming-of-age tales might find this game’s plotline to be quite interesting, but for everyone else, there are definitely going to be some head-scratching moments to be found, and given that the plot is focused around said moments, well, the end result is a plot that’s cute, but hard to really process at times.

Visually, the art style of Strawberry Vinegar is adorable in most respects. The characters are well drawn and emote nicely, especially Rie and Licia, and the environments are also nicely done overall. The game also features a good amount of cutscene-style artwork that’s well done, though the majority of it is of foodstuffs; the writer, Ebi, notes this is because she discovered the artist is good at drawing food, and she certainly is good at drawing food, so that’s a fair assessment. Whether or not pretty drawings of breakfasts, snacks and dinners are your thing is an entirely different matter altogether, of course, but they do look nice, so there you go. Aurally, the soundtrack is very light and cute, and it fits the tone of the game nicely, and a few of the tracks stand on their own well enough to enjoy on their own merits, though the majority work more within the game than as standalone songs. The effect palette is also well assembled and chosen, and in the instances where sound is needed none of the effects seem out of place or odd. There’s no voice work here, though that’s honestly not a big deal for a ten dollar VN, and given that two of the cast members are nine-year-olds, it’s probably for the best that such isn’t included, as there are a lot of ways that could’ve gone wrong.

You just broke into my house, and now you’re telling me you’re a demon!

Strawberry Vinegar is a fairly mechanically standard visual novel; environments and characters appear in the main window, a text box appears at the bottom of the screen, and you can either click the left mouse button or press Space/Enter to advance the conversation as needed. Unlike most standard visual novels, Rie meets basically everyone who matters to the plot in the first day, and the objective in this case is simply for Rie to make various choices (based around food and other things) that drive her toward one of the game’s six endings through those choices. Mechanically, the game is focused around multiple endings based on choices made, and as such has some mild comparisons to dating sims (again, think Katawa Shoujo if you’ve played that). What that means is, instead of making a couple of major choices to advance the plot down a set route towards an ending, Strawberry Vinegar features several minor choices along the same common route that drive toward different endings, which can pop up at various points in the common route based on your actions. Since the game is based almost entirely around the interactions between Rie and Licia, however, the game is almost entirely focused on their interactions, and your choices will ultimately dictate what sort of relationship they have at the end of the game, as opposed to the sorts of VNs where you meet lots of characters, then end up with one of them by the end.

Outside of the core plot advancement and choice mechanics, Strawberry Vinegar incorporates most of the important and useful mechanical options one would expect from a visual novel at this point. The title bar offers an instant save button (though loading can also be done from the Preferences menu on the title bar), as well as the standard Auto Advance and Skip functions for when you want to let the game move forward on its own for a bit. The Skip function can also be customized to instantly skip after choices are made or even to skip all messages instead of just the ones you’ve seen, if that’s your thing, and you can customize how fast text scrolls as well as how fast Auto Advance is for automatic play. It also offers you the option to save at important choices via a simple right click, making saving at any and all important choices a snap, so you’re not stuck replaying part of the game if you make a poor decision. Basically, Strawberry Vinegar is pretty user friendly, and while it doesn’t have any oddball mechanics to make its interface stand out, it doesn’t really need them either.

Is my soul so cheap it’s only worth a few cookies?

You can complete a single storyline in Strawberry Vinegar in around six to eight hours (or, in one case, twenty minutes), depending on the choices you make, but the game offers plenty of reasons to go back and play through the storyline multiple times. For one thing, there are six different endings to unlock depending on your choices, so you’ll want to play through several times to see each story path through to the end and see how your choices pan out. Further, many of the choices you can make unlock various artworks that appear in the CG Gallery for review, and there are several instances where you’ll have to choose one meal or another that can unlock different artworks, so revisiting these scenes unlocks more art to review. Aside from the CG Gallery, there’s also a Music Gallery that allows you to listen to the songs from the game whenever you wish, and in a nice touch, there’s an Author’s Notes section so you can learn about the creators a bit, as well as see some concept art that went into developing the game. Finally, there’s a full complement of Achievements to unlock, and Trading Cards are coming in February (according to the creator’s community posts), which gives you more incentive to spend some time with the game, so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of the experience.

However, while you can draw certain comparisons value-wise between this and something like No One But You, for example, Strawberry Vinegar is harder to really recommend to the casual player than most VNs for a few reasons. The heavy focus on food, both narratively and aesthetically, is a part of that, as is the focus on small children as the core characters in the plot, but these are minor points. The bigger point, I think, is that the game’s narrative is mostly interested in this story being one of romance, which is fine to a point (I’m all for same-sex romance stories), but is kind of a little weird here. Part of it comes from how it’s handled narratively, as the story of a friendless loner discovering how to live through an enigmatic free spirit often works better when the enigmatic free spirit isn’t a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl. The bigger head-scratcher is that there is a simple friendship option, but the creators handle it in a way that implies they did it because they felt they had to, which is odd. The romance ending is sweet and adorable, and features a nice cutscene picture to accompany it; the friendship ending, in contrast, features a conversation about Rie’s boobs and no cutscene artwork, and it feels like the creators didn’t care much about it. Don’t misunderstand; I’m all for the writers telling a romance story here, but either commit to that thing or, if you’re going to offer an alternate option, make it feel as important. That’s not what happened here, sadly, and the game feels less effective for it.

In the end, Strawberry Vinegar is a cute visual novel that’s just right for the asking price, and while the heavy focus on food and romance from a child’s perspective won’t be for everyone, if you’re into what the game is doing, it’s worth the ten bucks to pick it up. The story is cute and carries the experience along nicely, the artwork is very well drawn, the interfaces are clean and easy to use, and the music and effects fit the experience quite well. Mechanically, the game is your standard visual novel, though it features only a small, developed cast and a consistent path that only branches slightly for endings (and for some choices that fold back into the main plot) so you’ll find it’s easy enough to work with, and there’s a lot of content to keep it going for more than one playthrough. The game is based around the perspective of a nine-year-old and focuses heavily on food, which may not be things you’re interested in, but even if you are, the plot also uses the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope as its romance driver, and narratively is clearly more interested in romance than friendship, which is fine, but it leaves one wondering why they bothered offering friendship as a narrative option at all. If you’re a foodie who loves romance stories, you’ll probably find Strawberry Vinegar to be a purchase well made, but it’s clearly not for everyone, even if it does what it does well enough for those who’d be interested in it.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Strawberry Vinegar is the very definition of a niche title, and while it does what it does well and should appeal to those interested in its efforts, as a visual novel focused on small children, demons, romance and food, it’s a game that’s clearly for a smaller market in thought and deed. The story has charm and cuteness in spades, the artwork is well drawn and pleasing to the eyes, the interface is uncluttered and easily processed and the aural presentation is great, thanks to a solid soundtrack and effect palette. The game is a visual novel featuring one core plot path and choices that either offer branches to the same resolution or major ending forks, and as such it’s easily played and understood, but also offers enough content so that it’s worth playing through more than just once to see and unlock everything included. That said, the game is based around the perspective of nine-year-olds and the plot revolves heavily around the making and eating of food, which on their own may not be a thing players are going to be able to embrace as plot conceits. Even then, the plot is also based around a Manic Pixie Dreamgirl narrative trope to drive its romance plot forward, and it’s clearly mostly interested in the romance options, but offers a clearly not as good friendship ending that the writers honestly might as well not have bothered with. If you like food and romance tales, Strawberry Vinegar might be up your alley, as it does what it does quite well for the ten dollar asking price, but it’s such a narrowly focused experience that it’s hard to recommend unless you’re into what it’s doing from jump.