In Japan, fall is the time for bunkasai, (school festivals) which are usually festive affairs. Typically held on Saturdays or Sundays, it’s an opportunity for each class to show off some of the things they’ve learned to their families, through spirited exhibitions or skits. But that’s not the case at ‘Miniature Garden’, a school named for its location within a much larger forest. Rumor has it that when the Miniature Festival is held every three years, there are several bizarre mysteries which coincide with the event. One of the most worrisome pieces of speculation is that a student dies the day after the celebration.
Delve into Miniature Garden, the latest publishing from Fruitbat Factory, and you’ll likely begin to believe these tales. Players take the role of Yasunari Iguchi, a perpetually wisecracking and cynical student caught in the middle of an escalating sequence of unnerving events. While his constant carping make seem to make him an unlikable lead, the possibility of supernatural events appear more menacing when viewed from the perspective of a skeptic. Caught up in the enigmatic happenings are Ayana, a childhood friend who’s banter with Yasunari resembles the type of familiarity found in long-married couples. There’s also Itsuki, who’s the protagonist’s best friend, even if their personalities are oppositional, as well as Sumika, a bubbly, blonde, first-year, who also get along with Yasunari.
On the day before the festival are set to begin, the lead spots a silver-hair girl looking wistfully in a distant courtyard. Confounded that he has noticed her unusual beauty before, Yasunari asks around. Seemingly, no one else knows of any girl that fits the description. But when the protagonist sets out to look for her in the now-vacant piazza, a mysterious incident occurs to both Yasunari and his friends, thus cultivating a sense of intrigue that Miniature Gardens manages to largely maintain throughout a six-to-eight-hour reading.
While violent acts can erupt when progressing toward the visual novel’s seven different endings, Miniature Garden isn’t chasing the visceral fear found in Corpse Party or even Danganronpa’s tangled tapestry of social interactions and plot twists. Instead, the title excels in plumbing psychological horrors- from finding yourself alone in environments usually packed with people to speculating how one might react to the loss of a loved one.
Like some visual novels, Miniature Garden doesn’t offer closure via a single play through. Instead each ending reveals a few additional elements, advancing the notion that seeing ever ending will deliver a sense of finality, as each mystery is explained. But in execution, that’s not the case, with readers potentially disheartened by several lingering ambiguities. As such, Garden’s journey, rather than destination is going to be what resonates with readers.
Largely, Fruitbat Factory’s localization is adept, helping to establish a sense of immersion. While a few instances of tense shifting occur, instances are rare enough to be forgivable. More concerning is the tendency toward direct translation. So when Yasunari refer to text messages as sending SMS, dialog can seem a bit stilted. But if players are able to overlook these minor transgressions, they’ll find a rather rich vocabulary in Miniature Garden that helps articulate Yasunari’s inner thoughts.
Visually, Korie Riko’s character models and CGs are thoroughly pleasing, extending a pleasing variety of facial expressions. While there’s not a substantial variety in hair and eye designs, the art style is thoroughly agreeable, especially when viewed on a high-resolution, wide-screen monitor. Save for the silent protagonist, all Miniature Garden’s other characters showcase voice acting during the game’s dialog sequences. Thoroughly, performances are great, with professionals like Hidaka Rina (Yuru Yuri, Sword Art Online) and Tokui Sora (Love Live! The School Idol Movie, Little Busters!) helping to bring the cast to life. Unfortunately, the novel’s soundtrack isn’t as proficient. While there are some tuneful melodies, there are some songs that loop incessantly, while others exhibit a short but noticeable delay when cycling.
Save for some residual ambiguity after all of the visual novel’s endings have been viewed, Miniature Garden is a contenting experience. For fans seeking intrigue without an excess a violence, the title comes recommended, offering an indulging sense of intrigue. Moe and menace are always natural partners, but Garden cultivates a distinctive crossbreed that will likely find an enthusiastic audience.
Miniature Garden was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Publisher: Fruitbat Factory
Release date: March 30th, 2017
Launch Price: $14.99 via Steam, regularly priced $19.99