Game Review

by Heidi Kemps,



In this kinetic novel, readers discover a cheerful robot girl - and the planetarium she tends - amidst the ruins of a ruined, war-torn city and a ravaged Earth.

Yumemi is possibly the best employee anyone could ask for. She's cute, polite, and cares deeply for each and every customer that sets foot in the planetarium at the top of the giant Flowercrest department store. She's also exceptionally knowledgeable about the displays of stars and heavenly bodies. Of course, this is likely due to her programming for than anything – for Yumemi isn't actually human, but a robot tailored especially for the purpose of running presentations at the Flowercrest planetarium, a job she's handled expertly for several decades.

But the last few decades have been exceptionally quiet. Unbeknownst to Yumemi's robotic consciousness, a great war has ravaged the earth, and a bioweapon strike thirty-odd years ago has left the city as an abandoned husk, populated only by roving, mindless mechanical weapons. The smattering of humanity that still exists on planet Earth fights for their lives, shielding themselves against the ever-falling poisonous rain while risking everything to scavenge the ruins of cities for scant valuables. Yet every day that Yumemi is operational, she calls out to customers who never come, imploring them to visit the planetarium. And then one fateful day, a new “customer” actually comes…

planetarian marks the first official English release of a title by Key, the much-loved brand of major visual novel publisher VisualArt's. Its scope is considerably smaller than that of Key's gigantic, multi-route, mega-popular titles like Kanon and Clannad. There's not even basic menu-based gameplay here, just a pure, linear narrative presented through text, voice, music, and graphics. It's the “novel” part of visual novel taken to its logical extreme- so much so that VisualArt's even coined a new term for it, “Kinetic Novel.” It's not a particularly long novel, either – you can probably power through it in about three or four hours, making it more of a novella than anything. But semantics aside, since planetarian isn't really much of a game, its merit rides on the back of its story, characterization, and presentation.

The game begins with the unnamed protagonist stumbling into the long-abandoned Flowercrest building. As a “Junker,” he scavenges for materials left behind in the ruins of civilized society and barters them off to eke out a living. After a fierce struggle to simply get inside the heavily fortified coffin of a city, he's surprised – and more annoyed than anything – to discover that the sole noteworthy thing inside is a naïve chatterbox of a robot girl. She's ignorant of the world outside to the point where waving heavy armaments in her face gets no reaction. All she wants to do is please her long-awaited customer, which she does by presenting him a cobbled-together “bouquet” of electronic scrap and inviting him to see her planetarium presentation.

From the outset, it's not hard to guess the way the story will run. The hero is bitter and grizzled, having never known anything besides war and the horrible legacy it's left behind. Stars are merely legends to him, as the polluted sky has long prevented humanity from seeing anything above. His outlook on life as a constant struggle for survival ended only by inevitable, horrible death clashes sharply with Yumemi's boundless enthusiasm and eagerness to share the wonders of the stars. It's not too hard to guess that eventually Yumemi will present the hero with an experience that opens his heart and radically transforms his fatalist outlook on life. If you're familiar with the tropes usually seen in Key works, it's also not too hard to anticipate some of the emotional swings that will be presented.

I went into the game knowing how Key stuff tends to play out, story- and character-arc wise, and still enjoyed it immensely. It's a charming story about two characters growing and changing as people (or, rather, one person and one robot). The narrative flow is helped along by an excellent localization, with well-written, nicely edited text making the game's constant stream of text boxes a pleasure to read through. Yes, the melodrama comes on layered ultra-thick at points, and it can hit very hard – while I didn't get teary-eyed while playing, several friends testified to breaking down sobbing at emotional climaxes. I sincerely doubt they were exaggerating.

There are some issues, though. Besides that whole “no real gameplay” thing – which isn't really much of fault, since planetarian never made claims to being anything but a strict novel – the presentation of the game is a bit lacking. Some of it can be chalked up to age: the game's first release in Japan was a decade ago, so it doesn't properly support things like widescreen resolution (if you play it fullscreen, you're going to have an image with black bars along the sides). The character and mech designs by Eiji Komatsu are very well done, but there aren't very many of them: Yumemi is the only real character, and she's only got a handful of static illustrations throughout the game. The event CG images – a reward in many a visual novel – are few in number, and the amount that feature Yumemi are scanter still. Sound-wise, the game is a bit better: the Japanese-only voice acting is uniformly superb, and the background noises and music are well-done and pleasant (though the Metronome song drives me bonkers).

It's easy to see why planetarian was the first project published from the VisualArt's/Sekai Project collaboration: It's short, sweet, and serves as a good first example of what makes Key works so appealing. The next game coming from the pair is the much-beloved Clannad, a much bigger visual novel with several different routes through the game, and going from the solid work Sekai Project put into this localization it's safe to say that the title is in good hands.  But for right now, planetarian is quite sufficient. It makes for a nice read for a lazy afternoon… and who knows, you might just find your heartstrings pulled in the process.

Overall : B
Graphics : C+
Sound/Music : B-
Presentation : B

+ Charming, easy-to-read story that entertains and inspires emotion
The visuals show their age, no "gameplay" to speak of

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