What is the concept? With a single protagonist able to simultaneously woo several perpetually eager characters, it’s understandable that dating sims are often dismissed as male fantasy. Recent Steam release Just Deserts does little to contradict that notion. After the main character is deployed to a desert-based task force staffed with attractive anime ladies, players will notice that any semblance of reality is absent at this forward-operating base. From a mess hall that serves donuts and pudding, the ability to take leave whenever you feel like it, to coed sleeping quarters, the title makes military life seem like pure wish fulfillment.
And if wasn’t for a looming alien presence, Just Deserts might seem more like a vacation than a soldierly push against an extraterrestrial foe. Sure, part of your day is spent tackling the threat on the frontline. And since the aliens have an ability that can weaken the brain functionality of your fellow soldiers, you’re at the tip of the spear, going out on daily patrols to gather intelligence on the mysterious threat. But just as important are the relationships you’ll forge between Just Deserts’ quintet of combatants, who prove essential for survival against an encroaching threat.
Days are directed by energy, with tasks like patrols seizing a significant amount of your vitality, while even moving to any of the game’s ten locations siphoning a bit of your vigor. As long as you have enough energy, your deployment is largely autonomous. From chatting, gifting items, and changing the attire of your fellow soldiers, working out, or going to the range with them to improve your basic stats, and patrolling to earn a bit of currency, you’re free to find your own path to the final boss within a calendar month.
What are the game’s strengths? To paraphrase a popular axiom, a harem is only as strong as its weakest girl. Fortunately, Just Deserts finds a gratifying balance between character development and amount of dialog for each of its romanceable soldiers. The game could have easy succumbed to protracted conversations that attempt to provide insight into each personality. But for the most part, conversations are succinct, getting the point across without any needless meandering. As such, visual novel readers with short attention spans will undoubtedly appreciate developer Vifth Floor’s expositional economy. Another benefit, aside from one character’s uneasy cursing, is that each girl is easy to like, without the type of personality defects that can convert a lovely lassie into an ex-waifu.
From Eve, the taciturn, slightly naïve, sniper who sleeps without a hint of trouble (recalling the clear conscious of Saving Private Ryan’s Daniel Jackson) to Jennifer, the flirty American helicopter pilot, the game’s ladies are rooted in traditional tropes. But the decision is hardly detrimental, each signifying a soldier’s disposition, allowing players to get down to business. Later, the pursuit of each officer won’t produce any profound insights, but does offer comfort in its broad and largely non-boorish simulation of romance.
Although Just Deserts shows its indie heritages, the game’s aesthetics occasionally transcend its roots. Character portraits are attractively drawn and exhibit a pleasing range of emotion, even if they aren’t fluidly animated. CGs and backdrops are attractive, flaunting nice-looking locales which help to establish context. Visually, the only weak point are the aliens and their attacks. Early on, you’re be assaulted by Rubik’s Cube-looking opponents who lash out with pebbles that resemble giant Rice Krispies. Sonically, Just Desert delivers an agreeably-sized selection of tracks that stand as one of the game’s high points. Battle selections are especially well done with a number of groove-driven melodies that recall gaming’s golden age.
What are the game’s weaknesses? Woefully, battles are both too simple and suffer from a lack of nuances. When repellent isn’t used to deter opponents, players will enter traditional turn-based combat to settle the conflict. While there’s novelty in the use of each girl’s distinct combat ability, the tit-for-tat trade of blows can grow tedious. While Vifth Floor might have wanted to keep encounters accessible, there’s no excuse for not offering a way to speed up the protracted battles. As such, veteran role-playing fans might have trouble staying engaged while journeying to Just Deserts fruition.
Another blemish stems from some of the voice talent. While most of the cast does a decent job, British Brigadier General Cornelia DeAyana has an accent that meanders all over the English plains. One moment she’s pure RP BBC and the next she’s channeling Downtown Abbey. While French mechanic Cecile Chevalier’s pronunciation is a bit overdone, at least it’s mostly bearable. While the developers would be commended for their multinational cast, they probably should have sought out voice actors who can perform in their native inflection.
Is it worth the money? On the surface, Just Deserts would seem to offer an impressive value proposition, with each play-through lasting between six and eight hours, which offering seven different endings to seek out. But alas, some of the conclusions are painfully concise, discouraging a sense of closure. On top of that, the game’s simplistic combat would put a damper on repeat playthroughs. But if the prospect of enlisting in a harem fighting force appeals to you, Deserts’ initial run is worth consideration.
Just Deserts was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PC, Mac
Developer: Vifth Floor
Publisher: Sekai Project
Release date: July 25th, 2016(US)
Price: $9.99 via Steam, currently on sale for $8.99