Visual novel Buried Stars is an interesting one. With many saying online that the game has come from nowhere, its sudden release has surprised, and delighted, a lot of people. From Korean Studio Largo, Buried Stars follows the events of the titular reality show, which is set in the final stages of a K-pop talent contest. Unfortunately for our characters, tragedy befalls the event, and the building that it's filmed in collapses, trapping the five remaining contestants and members of the production staff. Playing as Do-Yoon Han, one of the contestants, it’s down to you to unravel what has happened, and survive until the rescue squad arrives.

From the off, the concepts within the game are well explained. Each contestant has been given a smartwatch by the show’s sponsors, though some have more features than others. The smartwatch functions as normal, with access to call contacts, voice notes, photos, and the in-game social media network, Phater. All of these are mechanics which will become integral as the game progresses.

The main story of Buried Stars is really intriguing. Unravelling the events leading up to the building collapse seems to pose more questions than it answers, and it leaves you in a cycle of cynicism towards the production staff. Just when you think you’ve got to the bottom of what happened and know where to point the finger, something else will get mentioned or found, and there’ll be another revelation to consider. The plot constantly develops and leaves you reeling, and has you feeling as the characters in Buried Stars would; panicked and unable to think rationally.

The cast of characters is nicely varied, and provides an exciting array of personalities. Primarily the characters are Doo-Yoon Han’s fellow contestants, who outside of competing in the show have little in common. Each of the contestants has their own backstory to unravel over the course of the narrative, and their own history within the industry. What's refreshing about the interactions is that they progress exactly as you would expect; these characters already have established relationships with each other. Buried Stars doesn’t try to pretend otherwise, or have the characters asking for basic information from one another. As such, the situation unfolds in a way that feels realistic and natural.

Gameplay is broken into three main parts. You have the standard visual novel type sections, where the majority of progression is seen on screen. Then there are the Investigation sections, where you’ll explore your surroundings and uncover potential clues or escape routes. And finally, there are Communication sections, where the bulk of character development takes place. In the Communication portion of Buried Stars, you can chat with the other characters, sometimes opening up additional topics to talk about.

Buried Stars has multiple routes for you to play through, influenced by character rapport and the mental state of Do-Yoon. Talking to other characters often has an affect on your relationship with them, depending on the dialogue options that you choose. Doo-Yoon’s aforementioned mental state is affected by a number of factors: the reactions of surrounding characters, events during the game, and how others perceive him on Phater, the in-game social media.

While Buried Stars' plot does split off in different directions based on rapport and mental state, there's no way to check these story branches, or go back to a point in order to force another outcome. This is something that might have helped you get the most out of the experience, but when a game is as gripping as Buried Stars is, playing it from the top doesn't feel like too much of a chore.

Buried Stars poses some really interesting questions about the concept of celebrity. Through conversations with contestants, you learn about the parts of their private lives that have been unearthed during the course of the show, and the extent to which their privacy has been disrupted. The way each character deals with this is different; some create a whole persona around it, while to others try to squash the rumours before they surface. It’s an interesting concept to touch on, and ties in really well with the game's popularity ranking aspect, which portrays how easily public perception is altered.

Not shying away from any form of social commentary, Buried Stars also has a lot to say about social media. Phater works as Twitter would, with users able to post and reply to other posts. The contestants are able to write posts directly from their watches, with the option available to schedule posts for certain times. The types of posts you see on Phater represent the extremes of the show. Each contestant has die-hard fans as well as critics, and as you become attached to certain characters, it can be either surprisingly uplifting or downright crushing to see what is being said about them on Phater. Through Phater you can also pick up on how the outside world is reacting to the contestants and their dire situation, and this unlocks new topics to discuss with the other characters.

You can interact with your fellow celebrities through Phater as much, or as little, as you want. There’s a delicate balance at work here as you attempt to win over other characters without pushing them too far, which can have a negative impact on their rapport with you. There’s a temptation to simply exhaust all available dialogue choices, but only some will open up further conversations branches, and there’s always a risk of certain topics blowing up in your face.

Conclusion

Buried Stars is an intricately woven visual novel with a lot of cool concepts. An interesting and varied cast keep you on your toes, while a plot filled with twists and mystery makes Buried Stars a must for fans of the genre.