Preamble (a.k.a. Why Am I Doing This?)
Some of you may recall a month ago; I played a smattering of visual novels for charity. If you have no idea what I am talking about, an archive of that stream is available in a follow-up comment. My experience during this stream encouraged me to start a new series about visual novels in between my Final Fantasy blogs. More importantly, I have a personal interest in visual novels in general and feel like, for the most part, they have a bad rap in the video game community. Now, to the internet's defense, much of this negativity is justified. By that, I mean, the genre has inundated Steam and made a mockery of its community curation tools. Obviously, rather than be an ambassador, I'll be playing the same visual novels that largely justify the genre's negative reputation.
For my inaugural entry, we are throwing things back to a "classic" Giant Bomb moment! That moment is when Drew Scanlon played Paca Plus, a dating sim in which the protagonist's girlfriend transforms into an alpaca. At the time, it was a genuinely bizarre affair, what with the images of a man nearing to kiss an alpaca wearing a Japanese schoolgirl outfit and all. With this blog, I hope to get to the bottom of a handful of burning questions from that brief "taste" of PacaPlus. For example, why does your girlfriend transform into an alpaca? Have they "fixed" the original English translation? Is this game worth playing outside of the novelty of seeing an anthropomorphic alpaca?
What's The Deal With The Story?
First, as you can see in the demo, there's a nigh hour-long prologue in which you go on a date with your girlfriend, Yukari, to the "Alpaca Kingdom." What that demo cuts out is another hour-long sequence in which the game painfully introduces all of its side characters. These introductions play out in excruciating detail, even if the only characters that matter are the protagonist and Yukari. Regardless, these expository and supporting characters get so much talking time in the game it's not even funny! To illustrate, when you find out the protagonist has a part-time job, you meet his boss, who then drones about the ins and outs of running a cafe! This lecture lasts for SEVEN GODFORSAKEN MINUTES! I mention this example to suggest, there's a lot of "fluff" in PacaPlus' story, and I'm not even trying to make a pun! This game is a constant exercise of patience, and it extends its straightforward premise to a breaking point! In yet another example of the game wasting your time, the story stretches the simple task of organizing a maid cafe for a school rally for the better part of three in-game chapters! All the while, you'll listen to the Student Council President instruct you about how to sew together cosplay outfits for ten minutes!
When I first saw PacaPlus, my initial reaction was to dismiss it as nothing more than a syrupy carbon copy of Saya no Uta, and congratulations to all five of you who understood that reference. Oh, how wrong I was about this game! After Yukari's "transformation," the protagonist spends about half the game taking notes and trying to confirm if the alpaca is his girlfriend. On one such occasion, he spends FIFTEEN fucking minutes observing her using her violin and marveling how her hooves don't crush the instrument into dust. It's as excruciating as it sounds on paper, and worse, the game presents blocks of poorly translated text more often than the ridiculous visuals you would expect to see in a game like this one. Nonetheless, I know what many of you are wondering! Why in the world does Yukari become an alpaca in the first place? Well, on that point, PacaPlus delivers some anime-ass nonsense I can get behind. In the game's final arc, after the player character has confessed to seeing Yukari as an animal, they begin researching Yukari's past. Eventually, they discover there's a curse on Yukari's family after a distant relative of hers hit a baby alpaca with a car and killed it in front of its mother. As a result,
Overall, PacaPlus is anywhere between six to ten hours. Despite that, this game felt like it took an eon to complete. The shortest possible ending is the game's "bad ending," wherein you blow off Yukari, and she breaks up with you. The three additional conclusions involve you either: a) failing to break the curse and marrying Yukari in alpaca form, b) breaking the curse and living happily ever after as a human couple, and c) the curse reflecting onto the protagonist and the two of them living the rest of their lives seeing each other as alpacas. There are four dialogue choices to make in the game, and the story spreads each of these choices across such a significant continuum of time you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a kinetic novel. The interactivity is minimal, and all the while, you'll experience standard anime standbys, idioms, and tropes.
Is There A Nudity Tag?
For Jason's sake, let's address the obvious elephant in the room: do they show "it?" And I can safely say "no,". While the game indeed has a handful of anime-esque set pieces and moments, nothing crosses the line into "adults-only" territory. For example, let's return to the characters needing to organize a maid cafe because, OF COURSE, THEY DO! But this moment shows how there's nothing explicit about the content or visuals in PacaPlus. Yes, you see Yukari in alpaca form dressed as a maid. Nonetheless, the game doesn't inundate you with lecherous panty shots or situations in which minors are forced into compromising positions. Though it is worth mentioning, the publisher of PacaPlus, Sekai Project, is not above producing visual novels that err towards a more adult audience. They are, if anything, the studio that continues to "green light" the Nekopara franchise!
I have to say; I was genuinely relieved Yukari's transformation didn't "spark" a carnal desire in the protagonist. Instead, he spends half the game taking notes while observing the alpaca-human hybrid and unwilling to make a move on her until he confirms it is the same person. As you can see in the demo Drew played, the protagonist spends most of the game's prologue fawning over alpacas as if they are his spirit animal. There's one "questionable" scene in which you see the alpaca version of Yukari in a pair of Japanese schoolgirl bloomers as she attempts a high jump during P.E. As was the case before, there's nothing explicit about the scene. Yet, and this is another example of how cheap this game is, you rarely see any of the characters outside of their dialogue portraits. PacaPlus provides none of the production values of a kinetic visual novel but still employs the same plodding narrative structure of one wherein you feel like banging your head on a wall because all of the characters are morons.
If anything, and it pains me to say something positive about this game as I felt like it sucked away years of my life force, it deserves credit in how it depicts the relationship between the protagonist and their girlfriend. First and foremost, the two of them are in an entirely reciprocal relationship. I'd go so far as to say Yukari is the best character as she goes out of her way to notice her boyfriend is acting out of the ordinary. Even better, there are several scenes in which she tells him that he doesn't need to push himself to reveal what's bothering him as "trust is the most important part of being in a relationship." The fact this game has a better notion of a healthy and consensual relationship than 95.99% of all video games blew my goddamn mind. Likewise, there's a scene in which they spend time together, and Yukari has to spell out to him she's open to pursuing an intimate relationship after years of platonic dating. However, he's too busy observing how soft her fleece is, and I swear this sentence makes sense in context. Nothing happens, and it's one of the few genuinely funny scenes in the game.
Does The Art Make Me Feel Like I'm Pouring Bleach Into My Eyes?
This next nitpick might seem odd, but whoever picked the English font for this game should be kicked in the pants. There were times where I felt like it was nigh impossible to read the text. Seriously, who the FUCK thought it was a good idea to have a white font, with a shadow effect, on a light blue text box? WHO?! As if that weren't enough, if you attempt to play the game fullscreen, you'll immediately notice the game outputs at 4:3, and everything looks stretched as if a teenager using Microsoft Word for the first time made this game. And we haven't even talked about how shitty the character and background artwork is in this game!
Maybe I expected too much out of PacaPlus. To the game's credit, there are dozens of distinct locals and backdrops. Sadly, you often forget that because the plot wastes your time by having your buffoon of a protagonist think about what is afflicting his girlfriend for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. The character work isn't horrible, but the look of the game is so dated I felt the game became a blur by the second hour. Every location has the same pink/blue/purple color palette, and the juxtapositions are sudden and awkward. You can also tell the character artist for this game spent more time on the alpaca girlfriend than any other character as she's the only one that visibly animates. And when I say "animate," I mean her dialogue portrait transitions between a happy, sad, or angry face depending on your in-game choices.
The biggest indictment you can level against PacaPlus is that it does not lean enough into its bizarre premise. Instead, it plays out like a typical romance dating sim wherein you read over mountains of text with next to no pictorials other than static character portraits. But in PacaPlus' case, you are stuck mainlining a single romance option every time. Worse, there aren't as many zany visuals in the game as you'd expect. Obviously, there's the initial shock of seeing a cutesy alpaca wearing a Japanese schoolgirl outfit, but that subsides as you see that same static image, over and over again, for ten hours. Beyond that, there's one scene, which I detailed earlier, in which the alpaca is wearing a P.E. uniform. However, that's one of two scenarios in which Yukari does something other than statically stand in front of the protagonist! The other scenario, as I have mentioned earlier, involves seeing her attend to patrons at a maid cafe. To add insult to injury, the game even repeats that same P.E. high jump cutscene TWICE! The game is so goddamn cheap it recycles the same fucking scenes over and over again!
What's The Quality Of The Writing And Gameplay?
Alright, for those of you who remember this game from its UPF appearance many years ago, you may recall PacaPlus' original, albeit highly questionable, English translation. The publisher "updated" the game for its Steam release, which included a new and less grammatically dubious translation. But don't get too excited, as the update only marginally improves the quality of its localization. Sure, legendary sentences such as "And I'm so sad if you got hurn [sic] on my birthday," have been corrected, but that doesn't mean you're free from spending minutes upon end looking at awkward sentences trying to figure out what the fuck you're reading. Trust me, I did a live reading of the game and continuously struggled to act out the game's text as written. The basic grammar is mostly right, but the syntax is atrocious, and there is a non-stop supply of word salads.
To go back to my earlier point about this game not knowing its audience, it is far more interested in talking to you about what Yukari is doing, rather than showing you. This design choice deprives you of some of the game's funnier moments as, instead of feeding you wacky anime visuals, it serves mountains of paragraphs with questionable diction and syntax. To illustrate, there's a scene where Yukari uses a cellphone, and you don't get to see her hooves to tap away at her phone! Instead, the protagonist lectures about the anatomy of alpaca hooves for five fucking minutes. Speaking of which, there are "lectures" in this game about the biology and taxonomy of alpacas. On paper, that might sound charming, but in execution, these play out like a close reading of Wikipedia pages.
And now we need to talk about this game's nigh non-existent gameplay. If you come to the visual novel genre hoping to experience some form of player agency, you need to look elsewhere. As I suggested earlier, there are four in-game choices to make in all of PacaPlus. If you crunch the numbers, that equals to about one interactive element every two hours. What I found especially insulting was when the protagonist tries to "research" what might be afflicting him or Yukari. The game builds up this detective endeavor as the culminating story arc of the game, and yet, it provides you with next to no gameplay hooks to connect you to the events of the story. The entire investigation plays out like a fucked up PowerPoint slideshow from "Anime Hell," and all of the characters continue to behave like marionettes from a fever dream.
Should You Play This Game?
Even to the six or seven of you down to laugh at "wacky anime nonsense," I can safely say your time is better spent elsewhere. PacaPlus is a visually monotonous and narratively dubious experience, even at the price of $5. Based on my personal experiences with the game, I can tell you that I grew tired of it by hour two. It's bad. It's a bad game, and I feel bad for having played it. Do as I say and not as I do.