Koenchu! follows the character Souta who wishes to become a professional Seiyuu, or voice actor, in Japan. In his adventures he meets many girls who also have the same dream. Will Souta make it in the competitive seiyuu world in Japan? Why does a creepy talking bird keep bothering Souta? And with so many girls around what is Souta to do!? Find out in Koenchu!
Art in visual novels can usually be broken down to background art, "paper doll" art, and fully illustrated event CGs. In Koenchu!, all three are of high quality. Backgrounds are photographs from location shoots that have had filters applied to them to soften and defamiliarize them. There's a good variety of natural, urban, and indoor scenes, and a several areas have both day and night versions. Paper doll art is detailed, with shading and blush effects. Characters have on average three different outfits, and around eight facial expressions. Many characters are given dynamic poses to prevent dull talking head situations. Each character keeps only this one pose throughout the game, so it's hard not to feel uncomfortable for a few of them. Poor Rino looks like she could use a nice deep tissue massage after the first playthrough. Regardless, the art is well done, with nice touches such as regularly blinking eyes. As is standard for visual novels, most "cinematic" scenes are given a fully illustrated still CG image. There are around 40, which is enough to provide a good variety while also making each unlocked image a reward. The introduction movie also contains a brief sequence of full animation of some of the characters.
The text is a mixed bag. Most of the translation is exceptional, while other bits are no better than web translation service nonsense. The primary difference seems to be whether the text is Souta's inner monologue, or spoken dialogue. Souta's thoughts tend to be messier, with some bits of nonsense, and other parts that are intelligible but retain the awkward Japanese sentence structure. In the most egregious example, the character thinks, "I feel so quiet out in the ghost. No, a ghost of a pair of cute girls." It's a throwaway line, and is later translated correctly, but it throws you out of the scene. That said, a majority of the text is translated at a very high quality. Jokes are reworked to make sense in English, and dialogue flows naturally. During the most engaging conversations, it never even occurred to me that I was reading a translation.
Background music is pleasant and quietly complements the on screen text. There's a good variety, so you don't end up hearing the same tracks over and over as in some visual novels. Sound effects are excellent. Every time there's a reference to something, such as splashing water or crickets, there's an accompanying sound effect. One cool example is when the class splits up to rehearse lines, and you can hear the background chatter echo through the classroom. Japanese voice acting is well done, and the title also contains English voice acting done by an English speaking class. Performances vary, with definite A, B, C classes of performance, but most of the main characters have good voice work with voices that fit the characters. Incidental characters often sound somewhat awkward, however. Also of note in Koenchu is the estimated 10 hours of radio programming. Each night, before bed, you have the option of listening to the radio, which has both music and scripted shows. Most of these, unfortunately, are in Japanese-only, so I'm not able to offer a full review of their content. The radio does offer a good variety of music, including J-rock, techno, and some Vocaloid tracks, so players who only speak English should be able to find something interesting to listen to.
For the review copy, I only received the disk in a clear DVD case, so I am unable to review the packaging.
The menus in Koenchu are extraordinarily well done. All options are presented in Japanese and English, and there are easy to navigate menus and submenus to allow you to easily find the options you're looking for. The main menu features a looping video of a busy Tokyo city block, which helps to set the scene. Besides starting a new game, loading a saved game, and setting your video, audio, and text options, you can also review CG scenes, radio programs, and mini-games you've unlocked. Also of note are unlockable achievements for winning with different endings, or scoring especially high on a mini-game. In-game menus are equally convenient. You can skip scenes you've already played through, set it to automatically progress through the text with the voice acting, or view a log of previous text. Clicking a line of dialogue will replay the voice for the text. Pressing escape brings up options to save, load, or return to the title screen.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Koenchu! is unique for a visual novel in that it was written for both English and Japanese audiences. It was also premiered in America, at A-Kon 21 in Dallas, Texas. I asked the producer, Masashirow, why Zero Zigen had decided to do this, and he offered two reasons. First was to beat out the fan translations so that they could offer a definitive version of their novel, and second was to demonstrate to an American audience that not all visual novels are pornographic in nature. While Koenchu! can still be described as a dating sim, there are no sex scenes that would limit it to an 18+ audience. It's a very ambitious undertaking, and much appreciated for English-speaking visual novel fans. So, Koenchu earns an A+ for effort, but what is the game really like?
Koenchu takes place at a vocational school for seiyuu, or voice actors, in Tokyo. There are an estimated 10,000 working seiyuu in Japan, and there are in fact 130 seiyuu schools throughout the country. And these aren't just fly-by-night scams that rip off the naive: Megumi Hayashibara, Kotono Mitsuishi, Koichi Yamadera, and Toshiyuki Morikawa are among the graduates of these types of schools. As with all acting jobs, chance of hitting the big time are slim, but the ambitious, and the curious, enroll each year, hoping for a big debut. It's a fascinating, if somewhat self-referential, setting, and I'm surprised I haven't seen it used more in the past. You play as Souta Uehara, one of the curious, who enrolls just because his childhood friend Mikoto has. Of course, he has potential and the makings of a great star, if only he'd stay awake in class and memorize his lines. However, this isn't a shonen epic about Souta's rise to fame: it's an intimate look at the summer of his first year, as he gradually learns discipline, and grows closer to the women who will shape the outcome of his life.
For the purposes of the review, I played through three times, and got three different endings. As with most visual novels, the branches in the story are navigated through choices you are given at certain points in the story. Koenchu also contains two types of minigames that can also affect story progression: trivia quizzes and a speed typing challenge. I found the quizzes to be great fun, but the typing challenges were a bit frustrating, as the phrases are all in a somewhat non-standard romaji, or Romanized Japanese, which requires you to pay careful attention to the upcoming letter. I tried succeeding and failing at each challenge to see what the effect on the story was, but it was difficult to determine. For those who don't want to bother with these minigames, however, the option to bypass them completely is available. There are seven different women to pursue, as well as "failure" and "true" endings, so there's plenty of replay value.
For my first playthrough, which took around eight to ten hours, I decided to try and court my talented and knowledgeable sempai, Wakana. She'd started coming by the beginner class to help the teacher with assisting with stretching and vocalization exercises. After I'd made a fool of myself in the recording booth, however, she started paying special attention to me. After school, we'd go out for coffee occasionally, and discuss how to improve script read-throughs, or how I needed to work on my super objectives. For Souta, of course, it was love at first sight, but why was Wakana-sempai spending so much time with him? Would the power of Souta's love make a sempai-kouhai relationship work? I won't say, but I will note that I was impressed by the maturity of the storytelling. There was no rushed development, no deus ex machina to save the day, and the final scenes were skillfully understated. It was like reading a nice slice-of-life story, and I immediately wanted to play through again.
Koenchu! is an interesting, fun, and ultimately successful experiment in releasing a bilingual dojin visual novel. As with most dating sims, it starts with many of the cliched character types and themes that are standard to the genre. However, as any fan can tell you, the true strength of a visual novel is how it works within and against those themes to produce an emotional response in the reader. Zero Zigen found an interesting (and somewhat educational) premise, and populated it with a cast that should please every personality type. Though this review is now finished, I still plan on going back to capture the last few difficult-to-earn endings. Recommended.
Check out the Japanese trailer for the game below: