Game Reviewby Todd Ciolek, May 8th 2012
Cherry Tree High Comedy Club
Hyperactive Miley Verisse sets out to rebuild her high-school's defunct comedy club, only to come up shy of the five members required under academic rules. So she seeks out new talents among the student body. She finds six good prospects, but she'll have to earn their trust and friendship before they're willing to join her group. And that proves to be a good deal more complicated than Miley expects.
Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is about nothing more than high school. Driven entirely by dialogue and minor exploration, this little specimen from the tiny studio 773 builds a chunk of teenage life into an elaborate quest. That may seem humble next to the typical tasks of murdering ancient gods or exploring entire planets, but Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is nearly as challenging. And in some ways, it's more enjoyable.
The ferociously cheerful Miley Verisse goes about her high-school days unconcerned with cramming for college exams. That's because she has one goal in mind: reviving an old comedy club started by two of the school's most famous alumni. Ignoring the sneers of the student-council overseer (and her former childhood friend) Octavia Richmond, Miley vows to fill the required roster of five club members.
With her roommate Harriet Sinclair already on board, Miley rounds up six other possible recruits: shy transfer Sara Croft, mallpunk delinquent Cindy Smith, candy-store clerk May Bonbon, over-enthusiastic Swedish exchange student Vivian Bergman, media-savvy manager Tyler Perez, and reticent, eye-hiding loner Curtis Campbell. Miley has six weeks to meet them and convince three to join. Should she come up short, her club disintegrates. If this game were still set in Japan, Miley would then be declared a failure for the next 65 years of her life, as per the rules of the country's educational system. Fortunately for her, the English version of Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is set in America.
Miley tracks her quarries throughout the city, but simply talking to them isn't enough. Each of the six supporting characters has specific interests, helpfully divided across such major categories as art, history, cooking, video games, romance, and fashion. At first Miley is marginally versed in all of these subjects, but she gains levels of familiarity by reading magazines, attending museum lectures, going to movies, and watching random TV shows. The more she learns, the better she bonds with her friends—and the closer she is to getting a new comedy-club member. Miley's also forced through the humdrum side of high-school life: working odd jobs, doing homework, and avoiding a complete nervous breakdown should her “fatigue” meter fill up. It's all reminiscent of Persona 4's social side, without those pesky dungeon crawls or romantic entanglements.
It's a game focused mostly on character interactions, however abstracted, and Nyu Media went beyond the boundaries of a typical text translation. Together with Tezuka Productions, they thoroughly Americanized Cherry Tree High Comedy Club. Characters names, in-jokes, and a few background details (Vivian was originally a Yank, wasn't she?) were all changed to set the game in the U.S., but it hardly detracts from the tale. No matter her name, Miley is a fine heroine with an undefeatably upbeat approach. Perhaps she'd be annoying in real life, but she's the ideal driving force for the game, and the rest of the misfit characters play against her rather well.
It may not have the brilliantly odd cast of Shu Takumi's Phoenix Wright and Ghost Trick games, but Miley and her friends are all likable in their own stereotyped ways, from the vaguely preternatural shrine priestess to the gambling, smoking ex-biker of a dorm manager. The game also ignores any real chances to pander, and it rarely pushes past a PG-rated movie (even though one scene of Miley mock-romancing her roommate might come off as creepier than the writers actually intended). That said, the humor's surprisingly laid-back for a game allegedly about comedy, with basic references to Star Wars, Bad Dudes, Chun-Li's thighs, and so forth. It's more charming than hilarious, more briskly cute than laugh-out-loud funny.
Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is also deceptively hard. Every day of Miley's quest has three segments in which to cram her explorations, work, studying, research, and meet-ups. Players who approach the game with its heroine's same easygoing style will find themselves at the worst ending, especially if they try to befriend all six prospective members at once. It takes some genuine strategy to manage Miley's school life, to narrow her focus to three emotionally malleable friends, and to make sure that she gets a little closer to them every day. It's not a particularly long game, but it's hard to see everything on the first trip through, and a “new game plus” option carries over Miley's stats for a smoother replay.
At times Cherry Tree High Comedy Club even hides that it's the work of a one-man developer and a handful of guest talents. The side-view perspective may resemble a basic graphic-adventure game, but the character illustrations capture a perky, professional appeal while sidestepping the glob-eyed abyss of dating-sim anime artwork. Still, 773 probably should've avoided putting words on characters' clothing; it makes it especially obvious when their conversing portraits are flipped. The small-staff production values show elsewhere. Despite Miley's freedom to explore, the storyline doesn't branch out, and casual discussions repeat after a few weeks. The side attractions, from cleaning a shrine to organizing a museum, call out for some sort of mini-game, but there's nothing to be found. The dialogue also shows a few more typos than the typical localized script, and there's no voice acting to speak of. There is, however, an annoying repeat of department-store music for the soundtrack. At least it can be turned off.
If it's lacking in substance, Cherry Tree High Comedy Club has a marvelously cheerful surface. There simply aren't enough modern games like this: a dialogue-propelled adventure that avoids the pitfalls of its hazily defined genre. Neither uncomfortable nor mundane, Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is an unexpected joy.
Overall : B
Graphics : B-
Sound/Music : D+
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : B
+ Bright and enjoyable atmosphere, complex in unexpected ways
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