For decades, the interactive entertainment industry has entranced us with action games. From the phosphorescent glow of Phoenix’s belligerent birds and Dig Dug’s feisty Fygars to the thrill of a long-range, un-scoped head shot in Battlefield 1, dopamine-producing diversions have been exceedingly abundant. And across the last few years, visual novels have steadily grown in popularity. Extending more than just visceral thrills, in many cases, visual novels have cultivated feelings of empathy and raw sentiment. At its best, the medium can even induce introspection, giving insight into our place within the world.
Largely, that’s the case with Enigma:, the inaugural effort from doujin developer Uzumeya. Following a brief preamble that signals tragedy, readers eavesdrop on a conversation between two concealed, unnamed characters. Delivered in medias res, we learn of an epidemic sweeping the world and how transmission of the disease is still not understood. Before the scene ends, the two discuss the fate of an infected soldier named Chester. Although sympathetic, both concur that his death in imminent.
Yet, when we see Chester in the next scene, there’s little indication of illness. Instead, he looks enigmatically healthy, despite being shipwrecked and left unconscious on a remote beach that’s detached from civilization. His rescuers are Colette and Lauro, a pair of kind-hearted and slightly naïve siblings and well as Greta, the island’s local herbalist. Unsurprisingly, the trio, along with two other characters, play a major role in each of Enigma’s nineteen endings.
Several elements elevate Enigma above its contemporaries. Most interesting is the novel’s microcosm of human existence. With Chester confronting his final days, every action and decision carries a heft of emotional weight. Recalling director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s bittersweet films, 21 Grams and Biutiful, what follows is a stirring rumination of life and meaning, as Chester strives to facilitate the self-actualization of Enigma’s secondary characters. While death is a ubiquitous topic, using it as a launching point to examine our capability, is a rare treat.
Notably, those altruistic ambitions are rooted in Chester’s characterization. Shirking the world-weary, misanthropic soldier trope common across media, the character is largely likeable, articulate, and valiant. He’s also exceptionally composed, facing his own mortality with dignity, making the purchase of tissue almost obligatory. For those exhausted by visual novels that feature unexceptional love-magnets or superheroes destined to elude defeat, Enigma’s protagonist offers an especially gratifying respite.
Beyond the likable lead, the title weaves in a number of metaphorical elements. From isolationism to environmental degeneration, there’s plenty of symbolism across Enigma’s twenty-hour read. What’s pleasing is that it’s never obvious and typically relegated to a subtext by savvy audience members. Narratively, Uzumeya adopts a measured pace, that allows musing but doesn’t move so slowly that it might turn off readers.
Complementing the game’s intriguing storyline is artwork that transcends doujin standard. Not only are characters well drawn, but they also come alive with a variety of poses and facial expressions, adding non-verbal nuance to the adeptly localized dialog. Backdrops are just as pleasing, flaunting a strategically ambiguous context that might remind some of GUST’s Atelier franchise. On the downside, the title is limited to a fidelity of 800×600, which can produce image quality that looks a bit dated. Likewise, those with widescreen monitors might be disheartened by the novel’s 4:3 output.
Enigma’s opening cinematic is exceptionally well crafted, with fluid animation and a surprisingly upbeat song with Mineko of MN-logic24 contributing ethereal vocals. In game, the track selection is satisfying, offering a diversity of styles and long play loops. The only disappointing aural element is the lack of any voice work in the novel.
For years, games have managed to get the adrenaline flowing, providing interaction action sequences that outshine Hollywood blockbusters. But until recently, they struggled to with the more challenging ambition of generating sentiment, making us empathize with their characters and reflect on our own lives. Despite some dated technical elements, Enigma is able to stir emotions, weaving a tale that transcends genre, exploring tragedy as well as the capacity of our existence.
Enigma: was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Publisher: Fruitbat Factory
Release date: November 15th, 2016
Price: $14.99 via Steam, on sale for $13.49 until 11/22