The Return of Dharkness!
Dharker Studios is a somewhat infamous developer and publisher known for releasing a plethora of middling, underdeveloped, and explicitly sexual visual novels after Steam opened up the floodgates back in 2015. They’re by no means the only company operating under this business model, but they are one I have some familiarity with, as I covered their makeshift trilogy of TG/TSF/gender bender titles back in 2019.
This included Highschool Possession, a visual novel extensively about a young man possessing his classmates written by somebody who clearly did not understand the appeal of a possession story. Highschool Romance, a decent crossdressing romance story that was completely fine, aside from the fact that the programmer forgot to code in character expressions after the prologue. And Highschool Romance: Magi Trials, a pretty decent TSF visual novel that, at least somewhat, implied that Dharker Studio’s library was getting better as time went on.
I assumed that this was the end of TSF offerings from this publisher and that they had accepted their fate as providers of more broadly appealing erotic visual novels. But then Nigma Box reader Mikachu so kindly informed me that Dharker made yet another TSF visual novel by the name of Chromo XY.
Chromo XY Review
Developer/Publisher: Dharker Studios Ltd.
Chromo XY follows Shaun, your standard laid back and generally untalented relatable protagonist as he goes about his doldrum days of avoiding work, sleeping in, and hating math. Only for his life to become extraordinary after his roommate and experiment-loving childhood friend, Rebecca, volunteers Shaun as the first human test subject for an immortality drug she’s been testing. Things, naturally, don’t go as planned, and through the magic power of science, the drug instead winds up turning Shaun into a woman, complete with a bombshell body and waist-length hair.
From this initial starting point, the remainder of the game follows Shaun as he deals with this transformation, either embracing or fighting against it while dealing with workplace shenanigans, alternate personas, experiencing life as the other sex, and making life-altering decisions from this unprecedented transformation. Much like the premise itself, the story is very much a by-the-books TG story with little in the way of deviation from what anybody well versed in the genre would imagine.
Including a shopping trip where the MTF protagonist is forced to put on a fashion show for their now dominant female friend. A burgeoning romantic relationship between the protagonist and their sole male friend. Branching lesbian and heterosexual relationships for the player to explore. And scenes where the player can choose to have a protagonist that decries these changes as unwanted, or goes with the flow of the transformation and takes it in stride, learning to embrace their new identity.
As somebody who’s deeply entrenched in this sort of stuff, Chromo XY doesn’t offer anything particularly new, but originality is never the be-all and end-all for me. What I typically want to see from more premium experiences like this is good ideas done right and while Chromo XY did ultimately exceed my low porn-game-quality expectations going in, the end result is a bit more… mixed.
Starting with the positives, the writer from the other Dharker Studios games I covered, Kayzda, reprises her role as the sole writer yet again. And while her work has ranged wildly in quality from what I’ve seen, Chromo XY is definitely among her better scripts. Dialogue is quirky, jokey, and puts the characters’ clashing personalities front and center. The story knows when to shift from fluffy shenanigans to something more serious or emotional. The sex scenes are implemented organically and make sense in the context of the overall story. And the cast of characters, despite their simplicity, they’re well defined and surprisingly likable.
Shaun is something of a hapless dork, and while he does not give the best impression during his lackadaisical actions during day 1 of the story, he steadily grew on me throughout my playthroughs. He is never annoyingly stupid or inept, shows enough competence to feel like a real person, and remains an endearing protagonist throughout the story. Rebecca is a dominant hoot who gleefully veers the story into more interesting directions as she subjects Shaun to some especially creative “experiments,” but despite her eccentricities and silly demeanor, she ultimately looks out for her friend’s best interest, and cleanly avoids coming off as a sociopath… Not that there would be anything wrong with that.
Meanwhile, the third main character, Greg, is your archetypal male best friend of the transformed protagonist who muddles through mixed feelings of masculine kinship and sexual attraction as he tries to adjust his relationship with his best friend. In the context of the story, however, he can be presented in multiple ways. He can be brushed aside by not keying him in on Shaun’s secret, hardline friend zoned by denying a sexual encounter, or be given the opportunity to force himself against Shaun. Which the game refreshingly acknowledges as being outlandishly wrong before giving the player the opportunity to veer the two’s relationship from there. Overall, I admire how versatile he is in the game, and find him to be a pleasant enough ‘regular dude’ type when he does crop up in the story.
So the writing’s good and the characters are solid, but as for the actual story… It has some pretty significant issues. Mostly with regards to its structure and the TSF content itself.
After my first two playthroughs of Chromo XY, I was a bit confused as to how the game’s structure ultimately worked. So I did what I always do when I’m stumped by the inner workings of a Ren’py visual novel. UnRen to unarchive the game’s files, Un.rpyc to decompile the script, and draw.io to create a flowchart for the title, which you can find at the end of this review.
In doing so, I learned that while the game has a plethora of choices during a run, most of them are character scenes that don’t affect the game’s story or characters significantly until the very end, when the game funnels the player into a conclusion based on a check of unseen variables. I understand what the developers were doing here, focusing on a single core route with small temporary branches, rather than creating completely unique paths based on player decisions.
It’s an economical approach that saves on development resources and allows the team to focus on one core route, instead of a sprawling web of choices. However, by having the route close in on itself so regularly and by only focusing on a few variables to determine the ending, certain character developments are overwritten by later events of choices, and there are some continuity issues.
For example, you could have Shaun speak highly of the transformation and find it to be an insightful and positive change in his life, to the point where he has doubts about ever wanting to turn back. But you can still wind up with the bad end where Shaun comments on how he needs to go back to being a guy, needs to be himself, and cannot stand to spend the rest of his life as a woman. Conversely, if instead of choosing the neutral ending option and choosing the Rebecca option, it is possible for Shaun to turn back to his original male self and for him to enter a romantic relationship with Rebecca. Same playthrough, same situation, the choice Shaun makes should have no bearing on the results of the transformation capsule, but it does!
Even beyond these issues, this lack of scene-to-scene ramifications for the player’s decisions and Shaun’s development prevents the story from ever feeling like the characters are truly developing or changing as a result of the changes that have happened in or around their lives. Because it all comes down to the ending, and while the endings could in theory wrap everything up nicely and dissect the characters on a deeper level, they all only last about five minutes, and never feel like true send-offs to the characters.
In other words, the story lacks the long-form depth that I was looking for, and it similarly disappoints when it comes time to explore its subject matter. Despite having experience with the genre with Highschool Possession and Magi Trials, Kayzda does not strike me as a fan or connoisseur of TG/TSF fiction and lacks the same genre-savvy understanding that you can typically see from those who devote themselves to making a TG game. Such as the developers of re:Dreamer, P.D.A., Press-Switch, Student Transfer, Student Transfer Scenarios, and so forth.
There are some parts where I thought the game was going to veer into a more sophisticated direction, such as the scene where Shaun describes how their transformed body is affecting their mind, making them more sensitive, emotional, and perceptive of other people’s feelings. This is an idea not explored in TG fiction all too often, and one that has a lot of merit. Anybody who has taken HRT, such as myself, can attest to how much hormones can affect one’s emotional spectrum, and I can only imagine that the effects of this would be even more extreme if one underwent a full and instantaneous biological transformation.
It teased me with interesting concepts like this, filled my head with a handful of ideas that I personally want to incorporate into my own works, but beyond fleeting moments like the aforementioned, I never got the impression that this game was coming from somebody who thought about this subject on a particularly deep level. Nor do they come across as particularly knowledgeable about gender issues, or even terminology. Now, I don’t expect most TSF media to get this stuff right, but when you are making a game, making a premium product like this, I expect the creators to at least use the right terminology.
The term gender is frequently misused as a synonym for sex. The term transgender is never used, and when the concept of gender transition is mentioned, it is always referred to as a “sex change.” And most bizarrely, during the Rebecca ending where Shaun/Seline decides to live the rest of their life as a woman, she narrates how she never underwent any sort of formal or legal gender transition and instead continues to use the name Shaun and claims to be a crossdresser. This just raises so many questions about what the character and writer actually know about gender transition, because there’s ignorance, and then there’s… this. I get this is some wack malarky that has only been mainstreamed for a couple of years, but if your character was born and identified as male, and they are now living their life as a female full-time, then they’re trans. Learn the lore, ya dorkus.
Anyway, that’s about all I have to say about Chromo XY on a story front, so let’s move onto its presentation, starting with a few tidbits that just strike me as… bizarre. Dharker Studios, despite being a high-volume visual novel manufacturer, has this habit of releasing games with bizarre minor choices or failings in their presentations, and Chromo XY is no exception.
Firstly, despite being a third-person visual novel where the protagonist is almost always on-screen, Chromo XY insists on inserting a headshot of Shaun in the bottom corner of the screen. When he speaks, it’s a blank expression version of the sprite in the center of the screen, and when he thinks, a black silhouette appears. I’m typically not a fan of this headshot approach when it does crop up in first-person visual novels, like Magi Trials or Sickness, and when this is applied to a third-person game like this, it’s just… completely pointless.
You identified the speaker, you’re representing them on screen, so you don’t need to represent them in the gosh darn corner! And even if this is a carryover feature from an earlier stage in the game’s development, you could just replace these headshot files with transparent PNGs of the same resolution and names, then the headshots wouldn’t be visible in-game. This is a problem that could literally be fixed through five minutes of rudimentary image editing and a project export.
Speaking of minor yet frustrating problems, if you look at the banner image on the game’s Steam page or the title screen of the game, you’ll see Shaun’s female self dressed in a top with a studded collar and jacket, and Rebecca dressed in a cozy cream-colored turtleneck sweater. Both of these are based on the character sprites in the game itself, but neither of these specific outfits is used throughout the game itself, and they aren’t even in the game as unused files. They only exist for the sake of the title screen.
I think that’s just a bad use of budget, commissioning assets, and not using them, but what confuses me more is how there was seemingly a communication snafu between the developers and the production of certain art assets and clothing continuity. Early on, the player can have Shaun dig through a pile of Rebecca’s sister’s clothes to put together a decent outfit for themselves, and he winds up wearing the outfit depicted on the title screen in a CG. The scene ends with Shaun still wearing this new outfit, but when it cuts away from the CG, Shaun is seen wearing the casual clothes he was dressed in beforehand.
Then, minutes later during a shopping trip with Rebecca, Shaun is seen trying on a series of clothes, as you’d expect from any good long-form TSF story. But when the script says Shaun is trying on a little black dress, the CG shows him dressed in the same studded top, jacket, and jeans combo. The same outfit he is wearing on the title screen, and the same one he should wear to the store in some playthroughs.
I don’t really fault the developers for letting this snafu happen, but this isn’t a hard issue to fix. You would need to rewrite maybe 200 words of dialogue, add a variable, omit a brief scene depending on said variable, and bam, they could have masked their mistake. I don’t like speaking lightly about game development problems, because I’m kind of an idiot when it comes to programming, but I can confidently say that the developers could have fixed this obvious continuity error within two hours, tops.
Now, beyond these two baffling issues, I actually think Chromo XY’s presentation is very well managed. Character sprites may be a bit limited, with each only having one pose, eight expressions, and a handful of outfits, but they’re well-drawn, well-shaded, and given a greater sense of presence as the sprites regularly wiggle to the left and right. Which is at least some animation. Despite some surprise copyright infringement with anime posters, the backdrops are pleasantly detailed, look nice, and I admire how the developer recycled some backdrops from other games. Such as the lab hall that is actually a cropped school hallway presumably from some other game. That’s not lazy, that’s just smart.
And lastly, this game has an insanely robust CG library for a 5-hour-long $10 visual novel. There are 25 unique CGs with 71 variations. And what’s more, they’re good CGS, with nice posing, solid anatomy, and… lots of nudity, because that’s a selling point for this game, I guess.
To conclude this roundabout and petty review, Chromo XY is… just okay. The dialogue is good, the characters are fun, and the presentation is surprisingly robust for such a niche low budget title. However, the greater story is shallow and its structure does not truly allow for character growth or any consistent internal transformation. I think a lot of its problems can be traced to the writer and creative team’s lack of familiarity and genre savviness. It’s something that typically and partially differentiates between good TSF media and not-so-good TSF media. While I won’t chagrin the developers for not ‘getting it’ as much as I do, it caused a diehard devotee like me to walk away from this title pining for something more and something better.
Here is my flowchart of Chromo XY. If I made any errors or mistakes, please leave a comment below:
As a postscript, there were two additional things that bothered me about Chromo XY that I couldn’t fit into the review itself, as it was already too ramble-some and tangent-y for more nitpicking:
There does not appear to be any way to view the credits in-game. I found a credits.rpyc file in the game’s files, that how I knew Kayzda was the writer, but the credits never showed up with any of the endings, and there is no option to view credits from the main menu.
The game’s protagonist, Shaun, shares his namesake with the protagonist of Magi Trails. They are both young men who accidentally turn themselves into women through powers beyond them, but their personalities, designs, and life situations are starkly different, so I’m not sure if this was an intentional nod to Magi Trials, which came out 4 years before Chromo XY, or if the developers just forgot they already made a TSF visual novel following somebody named Shaun.