A week after the fact, my PAX roundup will finally be complete! While the last few articles have been a collection of the indie games I found to be the most interesting, I wanted to dedicate an article to Ysbryd Games. The self-described boutique publisher has consistently been one of my most anticipated booths each year at PAX (with good reason).
Ever since I first found out about VA-11 Hall-A a few years back, Ysbryd Games has been on my radar. Their list of published titles, while small, captures a unique brand of innovation and creativity. At PAX West this year I had the opportunity to not only play their upcoming releases, N1RV Ann-A and World of Horror, but to also sit down and talk with Fernando “IronicLark” Damas, the writer and programmer behind VA-11 Hall-A and N1RV Ann-A.
Exploring a Grim and Gruesome World of Horror
It’s been a year since I last tried World of Horror, and this new demo featured at PAX West 2019 truly lives up to the game’s name. Styled as a 1-bit PC adventure game, solo developer Panstaz has imbued World of Horror with a palpable sense of terror. The droning ambient soundtrack, the scratchy eldritch visuals, and bleak text create an aura of unsettling dread that immediately sucks you in.
World of Horror is built as an anthology of horror mysteries taking place in and around rural Japan. Panstaz’s draws heavily from acclaimed horror manga artist, Junji Ito, and it shows. In the developer’s words, the isolation of rural Japan -where Ito sets many of his stories- claws at an underlying fear present in all of us. When you run into trouble, there’s no one there to help you. No one to hear you cry out your last breath.
This year’s PAX West demo offered two stories: a repeat of the 2018 demo involving a scissor monster roaming school grounds, and a new adventure where you play Mimi, a young woman invited to attend the funeral of a grand-uncle she never knew she had. Mimi’s story eases you into a lonely world that crescendos into a Lovecraftian fever dream where corpses move, dimensions merge, and flesh demons yearn for death.
Taking control of Mimi, you explore the mansion’s dilapidated halls through a series of maps and menus. Inspecting new locations progresses time forward and opens up new exploration options, unique events, and combat encounters. Like many other survival horror games, combat is tense and harrowing, pitting you against horrific creatures in turn-based battles. Your arsenal includes everything from the mundane to the mystical, depending on what you loot.
Several elements of the game, like pickups and encounters, are randomized, allowing for some degree of replayability. Due to the time mechanic, certain events may get locked out if you fail to complete goals in a specific order, which can lead to one of several possible endings. In my runthrough of Mimi’s story, she failed to properly perform funeral rites, her grand-uncle’s corpse disappeared, and the mansion entered a state of rapid decay. After fighting back shambling horrors with a bloody meat cleaver, Mimi peered into a black abyss that swallowed her whole, only to spit her back out.
Everything about World of Horror, from its visuals to gameplay, embodies a philosophy of less is more. By providing just enough detail and mechanical depth, developer Panstaz has created a terrifying gameplay experience that will stick with you long after you finish playing.
Welcome to N1RV Ann-A
Following on the heels of their first game, the massively successful VA-11 Hall-A, Sukeban Games is back with another installment of cyberpunk waifu bartending. The story this time around is about Sam, a cheerily wholesome bartender who works in a high rise lounge on the artificial island paradise of N1RV Ann-A. Like its predecessor, N1RV Ann-A explores deep sociopolitical themes in a stylish package, balancing it out with engaging mechanics, sleek retrofuturism, and cute anime girls.
Sukeban had previously shown off N1RV Ann-A at PAX East, with its expanded game mechanics a welcome change of pace for returning fans. This time around the demo introduces Olivia, an executive at a biotech company who carries more baggage than she lets on. Depending on how you converse with Olivia and what kind of drinks you make for her, she’ll respond differently to Sam. If you act coy with her and play it easy with the alcohol, she maintains a reserved, yet critical attitude of her corporate workplace. If you joke around with her and manage to get her sloshed, she loosens up and has an emotional breakdown over the choices she’s made to move up the ladder.
As a visual novel, the core gameplay revolves around conversing with bar patrons and getting to know both them and the world around you. All of the text is character-driven dialogue, with bits of interactivity thrown in every few minutes. Here in the sequel, however, N1RV Ann-A gives you much greater freedom of choice in how that interactivity creates a relationship with your customers.
There are two core mechanics at play in N1RV Ann-A: bartending and reactions. Fans of VA-11 Hall-A will note the absence of the dangerously chemical-sounding ingredients like karmotrine, adelhyde, and bronson extract. In their place is a massive stock of ingredients; real liquor ranging from tequila to gin to actual factual beer. There’s more nuance built into the bartending mechanics, which in turn creates a greater sense of play. While there are cocktail recipes you can follow, N1RV Ann-A allows you to freestyle your bartending and create a drink you feel would fit a certain customer.
The second mechanic, reactions, occurs when you choose how Sam responds to something a customer has said. In the demo, for example, Olivia cracked a joke about the bar you work in being the setting for an old TV show. Sam could then either respond with a joke in turn, act clueless, or be flirty. It’s a small thing, but in a dialogue-heavy genre like visual novels, these bits of gamification greatly improve the gameplay flow.
Fans can rest assured that Sukeban Games haven’t been resting on their laurels. A short snippet of things to come, N1RV Ann-A’s demo proves that Sukeban aim to explore what the visual novel genre is capable of.
Sitting Down with Sukeban games
While the games were my main reason for visiting Ysbryd’s booth, the real highlight was speaking to Sukeban Games’ writer/programmer, Fernando “IronicLark” Damas. The first thing that stood out to me with Damas was his incredibly down-to-earth attitude. A few minutes into conversation with him and it was abundantly clear why: he never expected VA-11 Hall-A to reach even a fraction of the success it’s gotten. A longtime fan of Japanese media, Damas had simply set out with Sukeban’s visual artist, Christopher “kiririn51” Ortiz, to create a game that they would have wanted to play. The result was VA-11 Hall-A, a viral phenomenon that took the internet by storm.
While playing N1RV Ann-A, it struck me how different it was from its predecessor. Sam’s cheery, friendly compassion stands in stark contrast to Jill’s dour, moody reticence. The pleasant familiarity of chemical pseudo-ingredients has been replaced with dozens of high class liquors, framed within a bright metallic interface. This was a conscious decision on Sukeban’s part: they didn’t want to trample on VA-11 Hall-A’s legacy. Rather, they wanted an organic opposite for their next game; the opportunity for a new experience in the same world.
This is no small feat for a narrative game, much less a visual novel where most of your playtime is viewed from behind a counter. Yet, as Damas puts it, that stationary perspective is his greatest asset. When writing VA-11 Hall-A and N1RV Ann-A, the Venezuelan writer looks at his cyberpunk anime world through multiple character lenses.
In VA-11 Hall-A, Sei Asagiri gave us an on-the-ground perspective of Glitch City’s authoritarian police force, while Kira Miki shone a brilliant light on pop culture and music entertainment. N1RV Ann-A aims to accomplish the same level of narrative depth. In the first demo, players met Parka, an erotica author who laments the perception that creative work is inherently politicized. Now Sukeban has introduced us to Olivia, a biotech executive riddled with guilt at the people she’s stepped on to get to the top.
As Damas explained, this writing didn’t develop in a bubble. It shared a symbiotic relationship with game mechanics as the two developed in tandem, something which he feels is sorely lacking with many contemporary visual novels. There’s a distinct absence of context in VNs at large, a dearth of gameplay in what are ostensibly games.
Damas hopes that he can continue to push against the boundaries of the visual novel genre by creating consistently engaging mechanics that work with the narrative, rather than in spite of them. There’s a common misconception that streamers don’t play visual novels because they’re boring. Damas disagrees. Streamers don’t get tired of reading; they get tired of no interactivity.
With VA-11 Hall-A under their belt and N1RV Ann-A well on its way to becoming an instant classic, Sukeban Games has earned their meteoric rise in popularity. They’ve shown how visual novels can be more than just words on a screen or dialogue box choices. They’re windows into another world, an experiment in the power of narrative ludology.
Plus, it never hurts to have cute anime girls.