Last year I reviewed the first episode of Dysfunctional Systems and was left feeling a little conflicted by it. However, it managed to grab my attention quite thoroughly, so I naturally decided to check out how the series continues… with an incredibly brief prequel chapter that was released 4 years after the first episode following the tumultuous development history that I mentioned in my prior review. And it… it’s fine, I suppose.
Dysfunctional Systems: Orientation Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Dischan Media
Dysfunctional Systems follows Winter Harrison, a fourteen-year-old girl who for reasons unknown to her, is appointed by her world’s unified government to become a mediator, a person who travels throughout various worlds in attempts to manage and organize chaos. This installment, Orientation, details her first half week at mediator school as she tries to overcome her inherent social awkwardness and meet what are set up to be recurring characters for later installments of this series and learning just what a mediator is supposed to be.
Now, in my review of episode 1, I went on about how interested I was with the world that Winter comes from and how I was left immensely curious about it after only a few hints and throwaway lines were scattered throughout that episode, and Orientation certainly delivers on that. I was left eagerly awaiting and consuming every bit of information that the game threw my way about this world, its history, its values, and how its people think and view all manner of things. This was a highlight I found in episode 1, and here not only does the world building feel more direct and pertinent, it established a far, far better foundation for the story that the game wants to tell because it actually sits the player down and explains things from the very beginning, as opposed to in media res.
By the end of the episode, I was left with a lot of questions about the main world the series takes place in, but I had a solid enough foundation to feel like the story could progress, while there were enough plot and character threads raised to effectively fuel a series of visual novels. On its own though, well, Orientation does not amount to a whole lot. The game is just a brief kinetic visual novel, a visual novella if you would, centering around the socially awkward bumblings of Winter as she learns more about her professions and the lore of her universe, while meeting up with her fellow mediators in training. Not a lot happens throughout the entire story, as characters are introduced, but that is about it before the story meanders into its conclusion.
It is a prologue chapter that brought with it exposition and set-up above all else, and the only non-lore highlights to me centered around two of the characters that Winter meets, Irie and Margaret. Irie is a mad scientist in training, or at least she both looks and acts like it, bringing a level of charisma and bombast that overshadowed the entire cast, and almost instantly won over my affection. Margarete meanwhile is this ridiculously cool looking mostly blind black woman whose years as working as a mediator have left her jaded, to the extent that she struggles to see the difference between right and wrong as she is thrown into morally grey situations on a daily basis. Yet despite these two’s presence, they do not really do much, and come off more as minor characters in a story that, exposition aside, is minor as well.
Going back to the development of this title, following the Kickstarter that was supposed to fund episodes 0, 2, and 3, there were plans to switch the lead artist of this series from Doomfest to Ryan Miller, and while the original lead artist will reprise their role in the sequel titles, Ryan Miller handled the art in Orientation. This in turn leads to a remarkable change in visual style between this and episode 1, and I really do not care for it at all. I do not want to directly compare the artwork between titles, as the artists have very different styles, but that in itself is my biggest problem, that the artwork is jarringly different. It is a shift from a grounded presentation to a abstract one, taking realistic proportions and replacing them with more stylized ones, even though the grounded presentation was one of the bigger strengths of the first episode.
Dysfunctional Systems: Orientation is a story that mostly consists of set-up and world building while not offering much in the way of substance. One that explains valuable information to better understand just what was going on in the vaguely explained episode 1, while not doing much of anything to inspire confidence in the future of the series, after it underwent such a rocky development. I still hold out hope for the future of this series, but whether or not the developers are able to reach the untapped potential of the series remains a shaky proposition.