Title: Shikkoku no Sharnoth
Release date: 11-21-08
Everyone thinks of Victorian London as a place of pomp and glamor, tea and fine dining, romantic balls and forbidden rendezvous. Soft-spoken women in gorgeous dresses tread along foggy streets, dashing gentlemen engage in deadly duels of chance.
This is not that London. Here, the grime of corruption is just barely tucked behind corset strings and swept under the carpets. Steam has become the crux upon which all technology is hinged on, but these new steam-based inventions come at the price of polluted skies and sickly citizens. Within this darkened city, Mary lives in modest happiness, attending classes by day with her childhood friend Charlotte, retiring to her humble home in the evening―but her peaceful days are shaken by disturbing dreams of carnage, isolation, and darkness.
Her nightmares become reality when Charlotte begins acting suspiciously, and Mary encounters a monstrous creature she barely manages to escape from. The next morning, she wakes up in her bed, assuming the evening before was simply a nightmare, only to be informed her dear friend has fallen into an unbreakable sleep, with no discernible cause. Days, then weeks pass, and Mary is determined to scour all of London and beyond in order to find her a cure.
Soon, she comes to learn of the black city Sharnoth and the Metacreatures that dwell there are much more than mere rumors, intent on devouring her golden right eye. In desperation, she swears loyalty to the mysterious M, a member of an underground criminal organization simply known as the Society. Her task is to lure the monsters to him, and he will eliminate them in return. If she obeys his demands, then he promises Charlotte will awaken.
Filled with whole dictionaries’ worth of terminology, the complicated plot is anything but light reading, with almost every character harboring a scheme of their own. While many may warmly extend the hand of friendship, another hand holds the knife to stab innocent Mary in the back. Betrayals are made, long-forgotten promises are exposed in their harsh and horrifying truths, and what ties these characters together is not just the smog-filled skies, but their eternal fear of what lies beyond tomorrow.
Also, the unique system must be mentioned, as there is more than just the traditional selection of choices. Each time Mary faces an enemy, it becomes a literal battle for the reader to guide her through a map of the city, avoiding lethal monsters at every turn. As inventive and ambitious as the concept is, however, the intense level of difficulty and few opportunities to save make the battle system more of a chore, which ruins the immersion and pacing of the story, rather than a delightful change of pace.
With eloquent prose, an original story, and deep characterization, it is an excellent game for those interested not in the romanticized version of London which populates so many trite, third-class pieces of literature, but London in all its dark allure: brutal murders and unflinching pollution, beggars dying and kings corrupted.
Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie
“I’ve never forgotten about the contract. Whenever and wherever I am, I’ll run away from those monsters in the black city for you. But if you’re going to hurt someone again, I won’t forgive you.”
A student of the Royal College, she is an exceptionally intelligent, logical girl who refuses romantic notions. She always treats others with warmth and respect, taking pity on orphans and speaking to servants on an equal level. While other girls pursue gossip of gruesome murders, she avoids such grim talk, as it easily frightens and disturbs her, often plagued by sudden, nightmarish visions. While her determination and will to succeed is considered unbreakable, even she is vulnerable to feelings of grief and despair in her darkest times.
“I’m scared. I’m scared of God. God watches all the bad things we do. Then, He punishes us. I’m scared…when will He punish me?”
Kind, motherly, polite, level-headed: these are the words which describe the ideal Victorian woman, and they describe Charlotte well. As Mary’s best friend and schoolmate, she is deeply concerned for the well-being of others, always seen with a sunny disposition and a gentle laugh. However, even she seems to have her share of demons to face.
“You are bait, so act like bait and keep quiet. If you continue to speak this nonsense, I could take your words away completely.”
Truly a man who escapes description, as his image changes drastically depending on whose eyes he is seen though. Emotionless, uncaring, and even cruel, his thoughts and motives are forever shrouded in mystery.
“I will not allow any to interfere with my master. That is my role.”
A female soldier who serves M as his weapon, she will never hesitate to fulfill her master’s wishes, even if they are contrary to her own. Seemingly emotionless and cold, internally she battles with her confused emotions of jealousy, loyalty, and unrequited love.
“Thus, I deny the future. It is nothing but flames of abominable destruction.”
Despite being one of the professors at the Royal College, his image is anything but professional: always carrying a suspicious case, with rumpled clothes, sallow cheeks, and dark bags hanging beneath his eyes. Constantly wary and seldom speaking, he is an unsavory, unwelcoming figure most students do well to avoid.
“If I lose my blood, I’ll replace it with ambition. If I lose my flesh, I’ll replace it with resolve. Everything will be mine. London…no, the British Empire, this unrivalled millenium empire will be reborn under me.”
An extremely prideful and fiercely independent young man, he views all others as mere tools at his disposal to be used and forgotten. Despite his cynical world views, he can be truly charming when seducing young ladies. He hates to be indebted, and craves a position of power to rid himself of his own weaknesses.
“Such a beautiful blue sky.”
Despite her impressive bloodline and prestigious family, Viola is modest and innocent. While initially presented as indecisive and meek, she will never change her mind once convinced of something, and possesses a startlingly keen sense of perception.
“No one will ever forgive me. I know that. Even God would not forgive a sinner like me.”
A famous horror novelist, Stoker has recently been adopting works of Shakespeare for a more modern audience, hoping it will have widespread appeal. He frequently works together with his close friend and star actor, Henry. Despite the image his magnum opus, Dracula, has perpetuated, he is a rather well-spoken and mannerly gentleman.
“I’ve never revealed this to anyone before. It’s an important secret.”
Due to her boyish figure and masculine clothing, Henry is often mistaken for a man. She frequently takes on the male lead in Stoker’s plays, and considers him to be her dearest friend. However, beneath her confidence and suave charm is a hesitancy to express her true feelings.
“Making people believe lies is so easy.”
Jane is a high-ranking member of the Society, known as the “nameless witch”. She seems to have two halves: a comforting maternal figure to Mary, and a coy, flirtatious woman around both M and Moran. She is firm in her desires, and is not above manipulation in order to meet her demands, showering praise onto others while lying effortlessly with a smile.
Kaned Fools has outdone himself this time, with unique illustrations that resemble a time when the extremely lavish, classic shoujo-style reigned supreme. Paper dolls are plentiful, and each one has dozens of different expressions and poses, although many of the characters are allotted only one outfit apiece. Facial expressions are filled with raw emotion, tiny patterned details on costumes create a subtle yet elegant flourish. Nor is the palette spared any luxury, with color schemes ranging from the obscenely gaudy for otherworldly monsters, to dark and muted for the dismal London population.
If there was any complaint, it would be that the half-body paper dolls look less detailed than the full-body paper dolls, something which becomes rather noticeable when the two are side by side. The half-body illustrations have thicker lines and less sophisticated coloring, something which doesn’t suit the intricate detail of the rest of the artwork.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack does not reach perfection. Several of the best pieces are not used as often as they should be, and there is a rather eclectic selection of instruments (bagpipe, electric guitar, and drums), which do not mesh together quite as well as they could. But most noticeable of all is the underwhelming quality of some tracks, failing to convey the massive impact of key emotional moments. Although in some cases, this could simply be seen as a case of poor direction and placement, when a more appropriate track could have be used instead.
However, these shortcomings are matched by the positives the soundtrack has to offer. The tracks which are not understated are instead seething with atmosphere, no longer mere accompaniment, but masterfully enhancing the heart-pounding thrill of suitably high-tension action sequences, or wrenching hearts and tears alike during the genuinely tragic moments.
Although the game is only partially voiced, when they are used, it isn’t the sound of actors playing a part, but the characters themselves, expressing their innermost thoughts aloud to a rapt audience. Mary makes the most powerful transition, from the pleasant young woman she is when wearing her public facade, to the confused, frustrated girl who feels lost in something much bigger than herself. Moran, too, seamlessly switches between her usual stiff, mechanical manner of speaking, to a woman tormented by painfully human desires.
Sometimes devastating, other times distressing, but rarely are the erotic scenes truly gratifying for those seeking out solely carnal satisfaction. In any other title, this would be a hindrance, even a fatal flaw, to spend so little attention on what many consider to be the highest objective of the medium. But here, it is forgivable, for while there are only five scenes within the entire span of the game, each one is deeply entrenched in plot significance.
It aims not for the appeal of intimate enjoyment, instead thick with an atmosphere of desperation and tragedy, as these women are trying with all they have to make a visceral connection, to leave an impact on whom they love through physical expression, despite knowing their efforts are in vain.