Review: Norn9: Var Commons (PlayStation Vita)

Norn9: Var Commons
Developer: Idea Factory/Otomate
Publisher: Aksys Games
Genre: Visual Novel
Release Date: 11/03/2015

The first I’ve heard of Norn9 was this track. Upon looking up more information about the game, it looked like an interesting premise with some nice artwork and (obviously) music. Of course, it being an otome meant it was right up my alley. But I’d figured that we’d never see it on this side of the world, so I put it out of my mind. I’m glad to be proven wrong on that front, and it was an even nicer surprise to see Code:Realize come out around the same time.

The plot starts off with Sorata Suzuhara, a 12-year-old boy who’s teleported back in time while on a field trip to the Diet building. He ends up on a ship with espers, people who possess a power of some sort, heading towards a destination determined by The World, an authority that oversees international affairs. Someone attacks the ship (which has been a recurring incident), and the group begins to suspect there is a traitor on board. They decide to pair off so everyone can watch each other more closely (and get to know each other better). From there the perspective shifts to one of three female protagonists (whose first names you can change) as they pick their partner. Each protagonist is voiced and has her own personality and group of guys to choose from. Like in Amnesia: Memories you choose the guy who you want to pursue from the onset. Each protagonist has a “recommended” character to pursue first (Heishi for Nanami, Sakuya for Mikoto, Kakeru or Senri for Koharu). Technically you could do them in whatever order you like (except the locked routes each require beating one other route first), but I’d say at least play through Senri’s route before Akito’s, and save Natsuhiko for last (or close to last). I went through the recommended routes first and saved the locked routes for last, and that seemed to work out fine. I’ll admit I was a bit lukewarm on Koharu while going through the prologue, which was part of the reason I went with another protagonist first (OK, that and it was hard to resist the chance to play as a ninja while wooing pretty boys). But she grew on me as I went through her routes, and she provided a balance in personalities with Mikoto’s outspokenness and Nanami’s cool calm attitude. All three have their good points, but I did have a blast playing through Mikoto’s routes and her lack of mincing words.

Each route only provides an incomplete picture of the whole, which in a way makes sense since you’re only getting a limited perspective and different focus depending on who you’re playing as and who your partner is. There’s no clear timeline for when events are taking place and how long the journey actually is, so in some routes it seems like the characters are jumping the gun straight to “I love you”s while in other routes it seems like the relationships develop more naturally. Sometimes the overarching plot and the whole reason everyone paired up in the first place (namely trying to root out the traitor) can get left on the wayside in favor of romance (granted this IS an otome so romance is a given, but still). In some routes (I’m looking at you Kakeru’s route), there’s what looks to be setups for some important plot threads, but they get resolved hastily or offscreen. Taken as a whole, things make more sense, and some conversations take on a new significance if you have details from other routes, but individually the routes focus much more on character interactions and the growing relationship between the protagonist and her love interest than the overall plot. As a result, some things don’t get explained or resolved satisfactorily until you’ve played through other routes, which can make the details a bit harder to keep track of if you wait a while between routes.

There’s typos riddled throughout the script e.g. “you don’t know where’s it’s going to go”, “the year must be prior than 1919”, “a war as big as the one are talking about”. There’s also odd comma splices e.g. “Could we, redo this drawing?”, “You don’t, have the talk about that.” There’s also at least a couple of attribution errors. At one point Sakuya asks, “Nanami, did you get some proper bed rest?”, with the answer being in the affirmative. The problem? Nanami is not present in that scene, and the person he’s directing the question at and responds is Mikoto. In a scene in Itsuki’s route, there’s a line with the speaker labelled as Itsuki when Mikoto’s voice is saying the line. While the text is still readable, errors like these make it seem less polished than it should be.

The art style is generally aesthetically pleasing, and the character portraits are varied and expressive. One little niggle is that there’s basically one town background, even though it’s said they’re traveling a long way and stopping at different places for supplies. Since they spend most of the time on the ship anyway, it’s not a huge deal, but I did notice when I first saw it and went “Hey, this looks exactly like the town at the beginning of the game.” Nobuo Uematsu composed the main theme of this game, and naturally it’s an aural treat. The other tracks are also nice to listen to as well, and they set the mood well for the scenes they play in. As I mentioned, one of the tracks was my introduction to this game, and it was nice to be able to hear it in context. You can turn off all voices or individual character voices as you like. With so many otomes opting to leave the protagonist unvoiced, it was refreshing to have three of them voiced here. As an interesting trivia bit, two of the voice actors from Hakuoki are also in this game (Heishi and Itsuki’s voice actors, Hiroyuki Yoshino and Koji Yusa, played Heisuke and Harada respectively). Additionally one from Sweet Fuse and Corpse Party is also in this game (Kakeru’s voice actor, Yuki Kaji, played Wakasa and Senri’s voice actor, Hiro Shimono, played Satoshi). Of those three, the only one I recognized right away was Heishi’s voice – it probably helped that both the name and character type were so similar. I had to listen closely to Itsuki to hear the resemblance to Harada. Senri kind of mumbles and talks fast, so I did have to listen to the other characters a bit as a comparison to hear the resemblance there as well. Admittedly I don’t normally pay close attention to things like that, but Heishi’s voice jumped out at me so much I was curious enough to do a little research to see if any other familiar voices were in this game (hence the mini trivia dump).

There’s a total of nine routes, all of which have a good ending and a “tragic” ending. Some of them even have more than one bad ending (yes there can be a tragic AND a bad ending, have a field day with that). Getting all of the endings can be a bit counterintuitive, as in some cases, doing everything your love interest wants and maxing out his affection doesn’t get you the best ending. However, you can save anytime except for during timed choices and fast forward through text, which makes it easier to go back and shoot for another ending. In subsequent playthroughs, you can get the option to skip through a couple of scenes you’ve seen before that occur in each route. For some scenes, you see the same dialogue when playing with different protagonists but cannot use the skip read function initially. An epilogue unlocks only after you’ve reached the good ending in every route, so there is payoff in playing through every route (in addition to the pieces of plot you pick up along the way). For one character in particular, you learn more about him in another route than you do his own (which sort of detracts a bit from his route, though not from his character).

The Norn9 Quest mini game is unlocked after reaching the good ending in any route once. You pick a character and three “enemies” are randomly chosen from the remaining characters. You then watch little events for each of them, from which you can either earn or lose points. Sometimes Aion might appear and increase the chances of a good event happening (there’s also a chance nothing happens or the chances of a good event occurring goes DOWN). There’s also the possibility of one of the characters to be replaced by a “new challenger”. You can’t do anything to influence the outcomes one way or the other (there doesn’t seem to be any effect from having completed a character’s route).

When exiting Norn9 Quest the screen sometimes goes black after saving system data and I have to close and reopen the game to get back to the main menu. I didn’t lose any points from this, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but it still stood out to me when it did happen. As you play through the regular game you unlock keywords to be used in Norn9 Ensemble. In Norn9 Ensemble you can arrange the keywords (which have accompanying voice clips) in any order you want and play it. The keywords for a character only unlock if you get the good ending for that character. Also, a small tip: if you want the Norn9 Quest Master trophy, don’t spend any points at all until after you unlock it. I made that mistake and had to grind longer in Norn9 Quest to unlock that trophy. You only earn points from playing through the good endings of each route, and accruing points Norn9 Quest is entirely luck based. If you get a negative total of points, close the game and reopen it. If you luck out with a particularly lucrative run, back out of the mini game so it saves the points. While saving up the points can take a while (depending on your luck) and can get tedious, it’s still less so than finding all the voice samples in the gallery in Amnesia: Memories (at least the locations of such samples are marked in this game’s gallery).

The otome enthusiast in me rejoices at the fact that we’re getting more of them – two of them from the same company within a month of each other, at that. However, I do wish they’d been spaced out a bit better and each allowed to stand on their own for a bit. Norn9 could’ve also benefited from another round of proofreading. The occasional sparse typo here and there is understandable in a text heavy game like a visual novel, but it did take me out of the experience a bit to be practically tripping over them in what seemed like every other line at points. While I know honorifics can be difficult to find English equivalents for (if you’re not going the Atlus way and just appending them to the end of names), hearing one name being said while the text indicates otherwise (like Koharu saying “Kakeru” while the text says “Yuiga”) is somewhat incongruous. It’s also a bit strange having her refer to her boyfriend as Mr. (name). More egregiously, it made this whole scene confusing (Heishi’s complaint there is Koharu addressing him less formally than Sakuya even though he and Sakuya are the same age). Even without knowing honorifics, it’s inferable from the context and characters (one more outspoken and laidback, the other more reserved and formal). All this being said, I did like playing through this game and getting every ending (even if the bad ones don’t unlock anything). It was fun putting together things I’d learned from other routes and building a bigger picture with them. As I was playing through each route, I wanted to get to other characters’ routes next so I could see what their deal was, and while I wish the aforementioned issues weren’t issues, they weren’t enough to deter me from playing through everything.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Norn9: Var Commons is the third big otome to come out this year. The art and music add to the experience and provide eye and ear candy. Three voiced protagonists with their own personalities is refreshing to see when other otomes leave the protagonist unvoiced and more bland in terms of personality (even if in some cases the latter has a plot reason). There’s a bunch of routes to get through, though the main payoff in terms of story comes from an aggregation of information learned from each route rather than any one route providing all the answers. However, typos, misattribution errors, and inconsistencies in translation mar the experience somewhat. I do wish it had been given more room to breathe (and another round of editing) and stand on its own rather than coming right on the heels of (and possibly being overshadowed by) Code: Realize. That being said, I’m still glad to have a chance to play it and that this got an official release.



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