School Days HQ is a visual novel about a highschooler trapped in a love triangle with the girl of his dreams... and the friend who helped him get the girl of his dreams. Recently released in the West in the form of an HD remake, it is one of the most famous visual novels in the past decade. And while there is a lot in School Days deserving of such fame, it is a game that also serves to exemplify the worst possible traits of the visual novel genre.
Note: contains minor spoilers about the nature of the game.
Good — More An Interactive Anime Than A Visual Novel
The first thing I did upon receiving my copy of School Days was spend a half hour watching it install. After all, the game itself is over 12 gigabytes in size. Intrigued as to why the game was so large, I booted it up — expecting there to be a large amount of FMVs. Sure enough, the game began with a mid- to low-budget anime cutscene... a cutscene that continued for the rest of the game.
The entire game is a fully voiced anime — making it share as much in common with interactive movies as visual novels. In this way, it was amazing and I felt far more drawn into the story than with past visual novels I have played.
Good — Control Over The Visual Novel Environment
The interface in School Days is excellent as well. Not only does it have all the bells and whistles present in most visual novels (back log, save slots, fast forwarding), but it also allows you to skip back to the beginning of the scene (and further) or forward to the next choice at any time with a few simple clicks. This is a godsend when playing the game several times, searching for all of the endings.
Mixed — Railroaded Into Drama
In most visual novels, the player's choices are rather limited and are confined to the most important turning points in the story — if they affect the story at all beyond the ending. School Days, on the other hand, allows you to make a myriad of choices — at any point except at the most pivotal moments of the story, so as to force you into stupid and easily avoidable "dramatic" situations.
Moreover, the choices you do get to make over the course of the game are really just the same question restated in countless different ways: "Would you like to totally screw up your relationship?" If, for some reason, you are like me and answer "no, I think I'm good," the game constantly questions this decision, pestering you with countless opportunities to rethink your non-self-destructive point of view.
Of course, little did I know on my first — or even second — playthrough that the game becomes much more interesting if you're constantly going back on your decisions. The game seems designed for you to be an indecisive and terrible person (more on that later), and if you don't stay the course on your choice of girl, things can get really dark really fast. And that's by far the best part of the game.
Mixed — Play To Lose
Going in to the game, the only thing I knew about School Days was that it was famous for its shocking endings. Of course, by keeping my character on the straight and narrow my first time through, my ending was about as normal as could be. So I let myself go wild on subsequent playthroughs. Most of the endings were mundane. Others were comically hilarious.
But the "bad endings" — those are where School Days shines. They are so shockingly ultra-violent, so psychologically haunting. It seems the whole reason the game constantly pesters you to make bad choices is that this is the game's way to get you to see those endings.
This, however, creates the counter-intuitive quandary that to experience the best parts of the game, you have to actively try to lose it — sabotaging your own relationship and those of the other characters at every possible turn.
In addition, having such tonally different conclusions makes the game seem wildly schizophrenic when the endings are set side by side. From ending to ending, solid stable characters can abruptly become murderously psychopathic. The "bad endings" scream of being shock value for the sake of shock value, with even the darkest moments of the worst possible playthroughs never truly preparing you for them. Of course, that only makes them more effective at dishing out their sudden psychological damage, not less.
Bad — An Irredeemable, Unlikeable Protagonist
Makoto, the player character, is the single most unlikable protagonist in any video game I have ever played. He is cowardly, untruthful, indecisive, stupefyingly oblivious, and basically just a useless sack of flesh in all respects. I would add that he's dumber than a sack of rocks, but I fear the earth itself would swallow me whole for using it in the comparison. Moreover, he has no useful skills or hobbies — other than cooking — which is, of course, why two beautiful girls become suicidally/homicidally in love with him.
Worst of all, there was nothing I, the player, could do to affect any of his shortcomings. I felt less like I was guiding Makoto through key points in his life and more like I was instead the conscience in his head that he constantly ignored. It was not an enjoyable way to play a game and the more I played, the more I wanted to actively search out an ending with a suitably horrific death for him. In the end, the only reason I didn't is because I, ironically, cared more for the well being of the other characters in the story than he did.
I have very polarising opinions on School Days HQ. On one hand, it really is a beautiful looking and sounding game — in addition to being very user friendly. On the other, Makoto was the antithesis of every character I've ever wanted to be in a game, so being saddled with him and his problems is about the furthest thing I can imagine from "fun." However, if you can take a perverse pleasure in messing up his life and the lives of all he is connected to, you can experience some of the most shocking endings in the history of gaming — or if you just want to see something ridiculously messed up, you could just watch the end of the anime instead.
School Days HQwas released on June 27, 2012, for Windows. It can be purchased online at the official website.