A visual novel prequel to the BlazBlue fighting games, XBlaze Code: Embryo has been available on the PlayStation Vita in Japan since July 2013, and North America since June 2014. Having finally reached European players, has it been worth the wait?
The premise of the game is relatively simple. The main character, Touya, is faced with a mystery of sorts to unravel: the connection between a disaster which occurred ten years ago and the appearance of infection 'Unions' who display superhuman qualities and have begun causing havoc across town. He's assisted by a legion of beautiful girls (with varying degrees of ridiculous endowments) who all have special qualities of their own. As the story unfolds, it's increasingly evident that each girl and organisation have their own agenda at the heart of their motivations, causing friction between Touya and each of his female companions.
Even characters that aren't directly involved with Touya's investigation are, for the most part, female, and it's here we veer into harem anime territory. The problem with Touya is that he falls into the same trap that many harem protagonists do: he has little-to-no personality and is generally quite bland. We know little of him, other than that he's curious, which is evident through his desire to investigate areas more sensible characters would avoid. Meanwhile, his best friend Akira actually has more personality than he does, and is a more interesting character to explore.
By offering little in the way of interest, Touya's fate throughout the story is inconsequential, and at times you may find yourself wondering whether you really care about what happens to him. There are also the moments of gratuitous bikini shots which ultimately don't seem to have any place in the story and certainly do nothing to progress the plot, but have come to be expected within certain genres.
Similar to the young adult tropes of today's films, the game is guilty of introducing new, made-up words just to explain them and link them to key concept points in the plot. This is to be expected during the early stages, when the story is being introduced, but it evolves at such a rapid rate that new concepts and phrases are being introduced and explained at points where you'd expect to have a full understanding of the world already.
Where other visual novels offer the chance to branch off from key plot points through giving different options of actions for the characters take, Code: Embryo is a little more convoluted. Early on in the game, it's explained that the cast each have a piece of technology, the Technology Of interest (TOi, pronounced 'toy'). The TOi, for all intents and purposes, is basically a smartphone, and gives the characters suggested articles based on things that they've previously read as well as their perceived interests. The articles that you choose to read on your TOi affect which storyline branches open up to you. It's a nice idea, but it's clumsily executed.
The depth of the TOi's impact isn't completely clear through the game, but every so often a scene will unfold and there will be a box in the top right corner of the screen which says 'TOi Event', signifying that this part of the game is being revealed because of an article that you've read. The articles range from the obvious, such as stories about the spate of murders which form the plot, to the frivolous – a story about a sale on sweets springs to mind.
Where the paths of other visual novels are obvious from the given options, Code: Embryo is frustratingly vague: just how will reading an article about bikinis give a different playthrough? If you ignore the article on the recently discovered body in a certain area, are you foregoing the chance to explore that avenue, or will you be taken there anyway? Little to no explanation is given on the consequences of reading articles, and perusing contradicting articles doesn't seem to have an effect on gameplay at all. The temptation is there to read everything that TOi throws at you, as there are no clear definitions about where each article is going to send you, and which doors will be locked or opened as a result.
By failing to provide reasonably clear routes, you're prevented from making informed choices about the options that you're taking. This means that the fun is somewhat removed from the replay factor as there's a certain amount of second guessing to do before you decide whether to read a particular article or not.
Clunky techniques aside, the game is visually very appealing. Each of the characters are bright, colourful, and memorable – Touya aside – and their interactions with each other are at times witty, but it often feels that too much stock has been placed in Touya's non-existent appeal.
XBlaze Code: Embryo is a visual novel at heart, so expect very little in the way of traditional gameplay. You can alter the fate of the story by reading different in-game articles, but while the system that the title employs is unique, it's also far too ambiguous. All in all, you're left with a visually appealing visual novel that doesn't really have a strong enough protagonist to carry it.