So as one of the few people on the Popzara staff (and one of the few people in general, apparently) who reviews visual novels, they tend to end up on my desk when they come in. I don’t especially mind; if you’d told me they’d make up a large part of my work when I started with the site, I’d have laughed, but I’ve gradually grown to enjoy VNs. They’re usually endearing little snippets that fill up an hour or two nicely. Well, usually. Then something like Asphyxia comes in, which is certainly a little snippet, but not the saccharine sweet type you’d expect after playing a large number of Steam-released visual novels.
So this is basically a story about classical poets represented by young girls and…well, you already know if this is your bag or not, huh? Specifically, it’s a look at the Lake poets of 19th century England. Interestingly enough, the details of each author’s life are expressed via the actions of their associated character, so literary snobs might find a special place in their hearts for this one.
You play as Samantha (based on Samuel Taylor Coleridge), a student at a boarding school who’s been dealing with depression and with a giant fight with her best friend Lillian (William Wordsworth). If you know much about Coleridge you can see where this is going. During a trip through the country with her classmates she’s going to have to figure out how to deal with this and with the other girls. Naturally, the trip doesn’t go entirely as planned. Unlike most VNs, Asphyxia is strikingly dark; Samantha’s inner monologue can become highly frustrating in a way that’s only really comprehensible if you’ve dealt with someone depressed in your own life, as the necessary emotional investment in that sort of relationship is central to the game.
It’s worthwhile to try the previous game in this mini-series, Dejection: An Ode, which is available for free; it’ll give you an idea of the sort of writing you’re getting into here and if you’ll enjoy it or not, since I found it to be a little unusual by VN standards. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of humor and endearing writing to go around, but fans of previous cutesy or fanservicey VNs like the various Sakura games are in for a shock here as this is a heavier game on the whole. I didn’t find it especially “enjoyable,” though that’s not necessarily the goal for a plot-based game anyway. The literary aspect at play contributes greatly to this, as anyone who’s familiar with the average classical author knows that they had issues to spare and that’s reflected accurately here. Well, maybe with a little less laudanum.
Asphyxia doesn’t boast as many endings as some other VNs; as far as I can tell there are only four, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to see them all as the game only runs for three hours or so. The defining point of this game if you were to glance at the Steam page is its gorgeous watercolor art, which leaves quite the impression compared to the average anime-focused title. The colorful nature of the art is a sharp contrast with how grim the plot can become; I found this to be a little disconcerting, but it’s nothing that makes or breaks the game.
Again, interested players are probably best off checking out Dejection before they try Asphyxia, just to make sure they know what they’re going to get. If you’re interested in a slightly more serious take on the genre, then Asphyxia might be the game for you. The personal nature of this one means that it’s a little more difficult to recommend it directly, but familiarity with the themes or the historical figures involved is probably a good sign that you’ll get something out of Asphyxia.