Review by Hikuusen
There's always a manor; there's always a green cat; there's always that weird freaking aquarium in the living room.
Otogirisou is the Japanese name for St. John's wort, and - whoa, déjà vu; didn't I grab the Kenkyusha when I introed Kamaitachi no Yoru? If you're dabbling in Otogirisou in 2020, though, there's likely a Kamaitachi connection on your mind, since Otogirisou was Kamaitachi's direct predecessor and Chunsoft's inaugural "sound novel," as it labeled its text-heavy adventures for the Super Famicom and beyond. It derives its odd name (literally, "brother-cutting herb") from the curtain-raising campfire tale told by its hero, involving a family of falconers with a knack for treating wounded birds; when the younger brother divulges the secret ingredient in its poul...trices (the titular herb itself, of course), the elder resorts to...fowl play.
That's a long road to an unwieldy title, but it serves to establish a time-honored Chunsoft tradition: that of naming its sound novels after terms that are completely nonconducive to a horror atmosphere when translated into English.
Like Kamaitachi, Otogirisou's setup is very classic - a man and woman take refuge in an old manor after a car accident. (Here, the pair is a romantic couple instead of the brother & sister from Kemco-Seika's Uninvited, but the resonance still holds.) No prizes for guessing that more danger lurks within the mansion than without. There's no puzzle to solve here, no meta-narrative that has to be overcome before the "good" ending materializes: in fact, there are no wrong choices at all. Your couple always will have some manner of car failure; they will discover the apparently-abandoned mansion, whereupon some manner of threat will always force them inside. As they explore each room, they will encounter a series of strange phenomena - based on your choices - until they happen upon some clues to the past (and perhaps present) residents of the manor. You cannot reach a failstate ending, as each and every path leads to a wholly-realized, full-length story. This gives you exceptional freedom to experiment, which is well-rewarded in terms of actual variation in events and outcomes.
You see, Otogirisou's distinguishing characteristic is that your choices affect not just your character's actions and the plot's consequent twists & turns but the very nature of the story being told. In my first playthrough, the plot introduced a curse blighting the residents of the manor but gradually spotlighted the fallout from a disastrous love affair in the mansion's past and how that involved the protagonists. The second did away with the romance angle and put the curse front and center, delving into the manor's history and construction in Europe. The third went in a completely different direction that had our unlucky couple...chased around by a giant killer fish. That stood on its hind fins, somehow. Each tale stars more or less the same dramatis personae (and involves our favorite allegedly-spooky herbal treatment for depression in some capacity), but the roles, backstories, and allegiances of individual participants will vary with each new plotline - even the identities of our hero & heroine are mutable. The relative prominence of features of the environment will shift as well: in one path, certain elements may be present only for atmosphere, fading from the story after starring in a quick scare, whereas in others, they may be central to the plot. The constant changes yield a bouquet of new delights with each playthrough: In what direction will the plot go this time? And will I finally learn how that cat that pops up now and again got to be green?
It's a neat approach that to this day sets the game apart, but being Chunsoft's very first sound novel, there are aspects of the nascent genre that aren't quite smoothed out in Otogirisou. First, Chunsoft wasn't using photorealism at this point; the visuals instead consist of hand-drawn pixel art that's serviceable but often has the flat, grade-school style of Amiga game assets. Furthermore, the graphics are largely limited to basic backgrounds that reflect the current setting (bathroom tile, forest leaves) and often serve as little more than frames for the text. The characters are not depicted, and several remarkable incidents - a carnivorous plant, a snake attack, the appearance of more malevolent parties - go conspicuously unillustrated. (An interview with Chunsoft founder Koichi Nakamura reveals that visuals were such an afterthought in the project that much of even this art was a late addition, included only at the prompting of marketing partners.) The flashier punctuations are occasionally effective - a pair of cat's eyes opening in the dark, for instance, or a set of oncoming Mode 7 headlights - and I'll readily admit that at many points, ongoing events were so engrossing that I didn't care about the art. But the title suffers here in comparison to Kamaitachi regardless. The music and sound effects are fine and frequently effective, but, again, they're not of the iconic caliber of Kamaitachi's.
Second, the same malleability that makes the game so versatile and distinctive also makes it a kitchen sink at times. With the modular futzing around in the manor during the opening chapters, the stories are more shaggy-dog and less focused than Kamaitachi - and while fun, the eventual main plotlines of the four branches I played were, I have to say, a bit melodramatic and...doofy. There is tension as your protagonist sticks his hand in a massive aquarium filled with seaweed in which...something...appears to be moving, but the stories lack Kamaitachi's keen observation of human behavior that makes you identify with the characters' desperate reactions and makes the horror hit home. As a result, I was significantly less involved in Otogirisou - which, again, enhances the player's willingness to experiment, but makes for an ultimately less memorable title. None of the many and varied plotlines I experienced in Otogirisou featured storytelling that was as strong as that of Kamaitachi's single headliner scenario.
While Otogirisou saves automatically, there are no chapter selects - though a single playthrough will probably take you about two and a half hours, making for a brisk and breezy adventure. Otogirisou is more than a proof of concept for Kamaitachi - it's its own game, with its own identity and rewards, but its writing and production values are not of Kamaitachi's caliber, and despite its distinctive approach to the visual novel - one that remains noteworthy even in the modern era - its successor would leverage the genre's strengths to overall better effect. If you're looking for a sound novel experience, you should absolutely go to Kamaitachi first. But this has its pleasures.
Product Release: Otogirisou (JP, 03/07/92)
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