Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Publisher: Unwonted Studios
Sickness is a visual novel centering Suoh Tesla, a young man whose life turns upside down after his parents are suddenly killed in a suspicious accident, and he is forced to drop out high school in order to financially support himself and his sister. During which he finds an unscrupulous job and, in a fit of rage, winds up murdering his employer, sending him down a path of crime as he is recruited by a loosely defined crime syndicate, where his adaptability and lack of defined morals allows him to move from unwilling debt collector to assassin in an attempt to, well, make money.
As it stands it serves as a punchy well paced set-up that establishes the characters, their personalities, and general relationships. All while also delving into darker subject matter, with families being murdered, attempted rape, drug references, and characters being brutalized before death. Yet this escalation from passion driven unwanted murder to cold calculating assassinations spans only the first half of the story, with the second half being divided amongst various routes that are all tied to the same general framework of escalating stakes, and more writing than I anticipated differentiating each of them. That may sound like a bit of praise for the game, and while it is to some extent, it is also where I feel the story starts losing some of its identity.
Looking at the Sickness from a broader perspective, I feel that the writer originally intended for the second half of the story to deal with how Suoh copes with the titular Sickness that he suffers. An evasive voice in the back of his head that encourages him to engage with and enjoy acts of depravity, such as unwarranted sexual advances and, of course, the act of murder. It thematically ties in with the earlier parts of the story, and would make sense to rise in prominence throughout it. Yet the story as a whole never seems to afford this crucial plot point the attention it really deserves. To the point where I genuinely forgot about it at points, and where the story actually never resolves or even identifies the cause of Suoh’s sickness. So, what does the story focus on instead during its latter half? Aside from continued assassinations and a greater ploy that is. Why, heavily emphasized romances of course.
Depending on the decisions the player makes throughout the game, they will be guided along one of a few routes, all of which place a heavy emphasis on Souh’s relationship with a select female character. These include Souh’s kind and caring twin sister Sara, whose route involves the two entering an incestuous relationship that manages to be surprisingly affectionate and weirdly cute. Misa, a mute teenage Japanese assassin who I’m sure was in no way inspired by the character of Cassandra Cain, yet remains a cute and interesting character who even gets her own storyline upon completing her route. Along with Lucia, a girl Souh kills during the first playthrough, and sparring her leads to an interesting storyline that seems like it will have some greater significance, but instead ends with a premature bad end.
It was upon completing these routes, and the sidestory that focuses on Misa’s perspective, that I assumed I was done with this game, but much to my surprise the game actually housed yet another route that I didn’t even know about until I searched through the forms, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s the closest thing to a true ending in this game. The route focuses on Suoh’s friend Cecilia, who provides insight into Souh’s past, the predicament that got him in this situation to begin with, and his relationship with Sara. It is an interesting route that dramatically changes the rest of the game, and while it does end a bit too sudden, as they all do, it was a very much appreciated addition to the greater story. Also, it can be found by playing through the game neutrally, and then stepping out when attending Sara’s ceremony.
Throughout all of these routes and all variations I played, I found plenty of enjoyable scenes and moments to uncover and partake in, story concepts that I was rather fond of, and parts that kept me asking myself eager questions as to where the story would go. Yet none of these routes ever felt like a proper follow-through for the beginning of the game, and even when I try to combine all of the information I learned throughout the story, there are still many things left unexplained. From the motivation behind certain characters to details about the aforementioned Sickness possessed by Suoh. Because of this, I could not help but feel underwhelmed by the story, and leave with the impression that the writer did not fully explore the potential of the story that they set out to create.
Just to illustrate the untapped potential here, let me highlight a single plotpoint. Early on it is explained that Suoh was caught in a car accident that killed his parents and inflicted him with his Sickness. The circumstances around this, why their deaths were seen as suspicious, why their parents assets were frozen, along with why they were removed from their own home are all never properly addressed throughout the story. Even though it really would not be hard to just pull some sort of connection out of thin air. For instance, perhaps it could have been revealed that Suoh’s parents were actually involved in some shady business and were killed by the same organization he would go onto join. It would add more depth to the story and other storylines, while also changing the relationships of the primary characters. Instead, the game gives me… nothing.
It is hard for me to look at Sickness and not feel as if it should be something greater, something more detailed and elaborate than what it ultimately becomes. It has so so many unexplored or untouched aspects, an inconsistent focus in its second half, and myriad minor oddities in its storyline that are never really addressed, such as Suoh’s healing factor. I enjoyed aspects of the game’s story, and there were many scenes that on their own are genuinely great, but when everything is brought together into a cohesive whole, its cracks seem all too obvious to me.
Speaking of obvious shortcomings, as you can assuredly tell by looking at the screenshots accompanying this review, the presentation of Sickness features very mixed art style and for a rather simple reason. The various art assets of Sickness came from a variety of different creators, amounting to a total of 12 sources according to the game’s credits. Including 8 background artists, 2 sprite artists, and 2 CG artists, all of whom have a slightly different art style, and bring something different to the game, but also a lot of inconsistency.
The sprites are ultimately, fine, acceptable, and serviceable for the story. They present the characters well enough, come with a variety of clearly conveyed expressions, and are certainly appealing enough. Yet the lack of detail in their designs and plain anime art style makes them look like they were either made from some premium visual novel sprite creator (which is something I would genuinely love to see by the way), or like they were drawn by somebody who learned to draw thanks to a “How to Draw Manga” book they picked up three years ago.
Meanwhile, the majority of the CGs, which I believe were drawn by the artist Chocojax, feature a more angular style with thicker line work that, while clearly anime inspired, attribute a lot to this game’s general aesthetic. It is a style befitting of the edgy subject matter, and while it can look a bit wonky at times, it ultimately looks good and represents a style that I wish was more pronounced through other aspects of the game. Conversely, the minority of CGs come from the artist Flora, whose are features a notably less exaggerated style with softer line work and more detailed coloring. While I actually do like both art styles, having the game shift between these two styles is honestly rather jarring, and is particularly notable during a single scene early on wherein CGs from both artists are used.
As for the backgrounds, they tend to be paintings based around photographs, and all follow a loose enough style to never be too drastically different. They are plentiful in quantity, and while there is some disparity in their quality, it certainly is far less notable than some other visual novels I have covered, and ultimately gets the job done just fine. Yet not unlike the sprites, I feel that they do not inform the game’s aesthetic or even its world particularly well, with the setting or Richmond being described as a crime riddled classist cyst of a city, yet the backgrounds only really support that image… maybe three times ever.
Sickness is a visual novel with strong aspirations, many great moments, and a novel concept, yet it is neither as deep, interesting, or edgy as it initially appears to be, and its story fails to properly follow through on everything introduced and, in most cases, deliver a truly satisfying conclusion. Combined with one of the most mixed presentations I have ever seen, somehow even more mixed than games like Press-Switch and Student Transfer, and Sickness is a game that I genuinely want to like more than I actually do. Its potential is bountiful, and there is some true talent here, but due to the myriad of issues that may arise in the turbulent field of game development, things did not pan out as well as I genuinely feel as they should have.