So, remember how I mentioned that there was yet another TG visual novel from Dharker Studios? Yeah, this isn’t it. It’s actually a predecessor, at least in name only, and is completely unrelated, but I felt obliged to talk about it. Plus I’ll take any opportunity I can to review a shot visual novel, because it keeps my schedule nice and full.
Highschool Romance Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer: Chronofire Arts
Publisher: Dharker Studios
Highschool Romance follows Shoji, a young man who was recently admitted into a prestigious private school to end his high school career, only to discover that it is an all-girl school that he was accepted into due to a clerical error. Because of the lateness of this reveal, the school’s principal, Lea Rowen, decides to allow Shoji to attend, assuming he spends the entire school year presenting himself as a teenage girl. Thus leading to a series of crossdressing related shenanigans that take place throughout a school year broken up into small vignette-like scenes that also give Shoji opportunity to romantically pursue one of three female characters at this school.
Said characters are the athletic, energetic, snarky, and playful Selina. The reserved, dedicated, and homely classic president Hoshi. Along with Lea, the school’s president herself who has the academics and white collar background while also being kinky, having a nice attitude, and is described by Shoji as being the “best of both worlds” in a rare instance of a dating sim declaring who the best girl is. And they’re really not wrong either.
As for how this all fares, the writing is lighthearted and generally pleasant, even making me chuckle at a few points. The characters are well realized for what they are, each having a discernible personality and appealing to a different niche. While the scenes have a generally good rhythm to them, and there is enough going on throughout the story for things to remain interesting.
At the same time, the pacing and sense of time passing is very loose and ethereal, with certain key events like the end of semesters creeping up seemingly out of nowhere. The minutiae of the school strikes me as somewhat unrealistic based on my own high school experience, not helped by how the game flips flops between western and eastern ideas of high school, wanting to be set in Japan sometimes but, well, not feeling like a Japanese production. While the game’s general priorities seem a bit iffy to me, mostly with regards to the whole crossdressing angle.
While my thoughts on crossdressing are a bit complicated on account of the whole being transgender thing, it is something that I have tangentially learned about throughout my gender transition, and its presentation here strikes me as… off. Shoji begins the game as a very androgynous looking male with long hair and a limber frame, and seemingly all it takes for him to pass as a female student in an all female school is changing his hairstyle and putting on the school uniform. While he does eventually begin wearing a female underwear and there is some discussion of the physical mannerisms of men and women, the story largely ignores the details that one would realistically contend with when presenting themself as another gender.
I mean, there is never any reference Shoji training his voice to become more feminine, worrying about certain facial features looking too male, or tucking away his genitals. This lack of attention to detail strikes me as odd given how crossdressing is such a major component of this game’s story, and how, when broken down, this really is not complicated stuff. Though, that is far from the only place Highschool Romance cut corners, as I’m pretty sure the programmers just… forgot to finish programming the game before it was shipped.
What do I mean by that? Well, when playing a visual novel, one expects character sprites to shift and change between various poses and expressions throughout dialog scenes, and Highschool Romance does this throughout its prologue section. After that however, it barely ever uses the alternate poses or expressions for any character other than Shoji who is properly expressive. At first I thought it was some sort of bug with my save file, but no, looking through the game’s code, the developers simply stopped programming character expressions at a certain point. I hate the whole “lazy devs” rhetoric, but given how simple it is to code expressions, and this game’s brief 4 hour length, I cannot see this as anything other than the programmers, one of whom is the owner of Dharker Studios, not doing their job and shipping an unfinished game. I mean, if you are going to commission seven character expressions and four poses, I would expect you to use each of them at least once!
On the subject of art assets, Highschool Romance seemingly mirrors Highschool Possession, not only in the fact that they sound like they should be part of the same series, came out within a month of each other, and have the same writer, but they both also feature a westernized sort of anime art style. Though this time, rather than it being a western emulation of an anime art style, here it is clearly a western style that takes many clear cues from anime with regards to general character and environmental designs and, well, I like it. It’s cute, bubbly, and can be quite expressive when the programming will allow it to be. Furthermore, the UI is leagues better than it was in Possession, even if the choice of a red textbox is a very… befuddling one, and instead of listing the music artists as “Various Artists”, Romance flat out does not credit anybody for its blasé score. Because I guess you can just do that nowadays.
As a whole Highschool Romance is… fine. It can be amusing at times, nothing about it is particularly horrible, and while it has a number of, quite frankly, baffling drawbacks, including bushel of more nebulous ones that are not even worth mentioning, I can understand why somebody would, to an extent, enjoy this game. Hopefully this serves as a launching point for the pseudo-sequel to this game, Highschool Romance: Magi Trials, but given the slapdash approach seen with prior Dharker Studio titles… I’m going to keep my expectations very low.