Visual novels have been around for a lot longer than some people realise — and, like any art form, they’ve changed noticeably over time.
An excellent example of the way they’ve changed — aesthetically, thematically and in terms of gameplay — comes in the form of Nocturnal Illusion, a title first brought to Western shores by localisation specialists JAST USA all the way back in 1997. It’s noteworthy in that, unlike many more recent visual novels, it’s not a “slice of life” affair focusing exclusively on romantic entanglements between the protagonist and the members of the cast who are love interests; while the game does explore the nature of love and sexuality in places, it’s actually much more of a surreal, fantastic, symbolic and at times horrific affair — and it’s hugely compelling as a result.
Regrettably, Nocturnal Illusion is extremely difficult to get running on modern machines owing to its age, though it is possible to get it going through a bit of fiddling around with ViLE — a “virtual machine” project for older visual novels that appears to have been dormant since 2011.
Alternatively, you could just read on and find out more about this unusual and remarkable game.
Nocturnal Illusion (or, more literally translated from the original Japanese, Illusionary Nocturne) has actually seen two releases over the years, though only one made it to Western territories. First released in 1995 and translated into English in 1997, the original incarnation of the game sported the distinctive 16-colour high-resolution look of many early visual novels. The anime-style aesthetic was present and correct, but the smooth lines and gradients of more modern artwork were absent due to technological limitations. This actually made for quite an effective look, however, since the colourful characters contrasted strongly with the monochrome backdrops.
In 1998, Japanese publisher Apricot put out an enhanced version of the game. Coming on two CDs instead of just one, the new version included completely revamped artwork that filled the screen rather than being contained in a smaller window, and also added both voice acting and a number of additional scenes to the original story. Regrettably, this version never made it West in any official capacity, though the aforementioned ViLE version runs as a strange hybrid between the two editions, making use of the artwork from the 1998 enhanced version, but the translated English text of JAST’s 1997 localisation. This means that, at present, there’s unfortunately no way to get the full experience of the 1998 remake in English, but don’t let that put you off; the original game, while flawed in a number of ways — most notably a translation absolutely riddled with textual errors — is still absolutely worthy of note.
Nocturnal Illusion casts the player in the role of Shinichi, a young man who is dissatisfied with life and, as a result, decides to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life during his spring break. Things don’t go quite according to plan, however; a storm picks up while he’s out walking in the wilderness, and as a result he suffers a serious accident when he falls off a steep incline in the bad weather.
Nocturnal Illusion uses sex as a potent symbol throughout the course of its story — a symbol of healing and growth.
When he awakens, he’s surprised to find himself in a comfortable mansion room, and within moments a beautiful, mature-looking woman is straddling him naked, making love to him in an attempt to warm his body up and bring his consciousness back to the land of the living. Nocturnal Illusion wastes no time in getting to its erotic content, in other words, but despite what this initial impression might suggest, the game is far from being a straightforward nukige in which its sole reason for existing is the sexual encounters depicted therein. Rather, Nocturnal Illusion uses sex as a potent symbol throughout the course of its story — specifically, a symbol of healing and growth.
Nocturnal Illusion’s narrative is, it transpires, about “lost souls” — people who have become somehow disconnected from reality either deliberately, through their own actions, or as a result of subconscious desires to suppress things that they don’t want to — or can’t — deal with. The mansion in which the story unfolds is populated exclusively by these people who have attempted to escape from their lives — in some cases, literally, by attempting suicide; in others, more figuratively through alcohol abuse or sexual deviance — and appears to exist outside of normal time and space. The gates to the mansion grounds remain resolutely locked no matter how hard Shinichi tries to open them, and everyone within the mansion — with the curious exception of one character, who stumbled across it accidentally as a young girl rather than by deliberately running away from her life — is frozen in time.
Despite Shinichi’s symbolic role as the “wind of change”, he doesn’t act as a “magic bullet” to solve characters’ problems for them; rather, he acts as a catalyst for their own healing process.
Shinichi is described numerous times by the mistress of the mansion — the mature-looking woman who provides the aforementioned first erotic scene — as a “wind of change”. Initially, it isn’t altogether clear what she means by this, as Shinichi appears to be just as confused and bewildered by existence as everyone else he comes across. However, through his interactions with the game’s almost exclusively female cast, the other inhabitants of the mansion gradually start coming to terms with their own problems and issues, with the culmination of each character’s arc tending to come in the form of an erotic scene between Shinichi and the character in question — the sexual act itself being used as a symbol of healing and acceptance; the character’s willingness to open themselves up to the ultimate act of intimacy with Shinichi, the “wind of change”, proving that they are finally able to make the important changes they need to move on with their life and no longer be frozen in time.
It’s worth noting here that despite Shinichi’s symbolic role as the “wind of change” throughout the story, he doesn’t act as a “magic bullet” to solve the other characters’ problems for them; rather, he acts as a catalyst for their own healing process, and often unintentionally. In most cases, he provides a sympathetic ear to their plight, helping to show them that it is possible to confront and even accept the most difficult things from their pasts; in other cases he simply shows up in the right place at the right time to discover a secret that the other characters normally prefer to keep hidden.
And what a cast of characters there is, running the gamut from the mundane to the fantastic. There’s news reporter Maya, who has suffered endless sexism as a result of her work in what is perceived to be a “man’s world” — and consequently has come to feel an extreme distrust towards most men. There’s the submissive, masochistic young maid Miwako, who suffers some pretty extreme sexual torture at the hands of an image from her own past — a history she just can’t seem to let go of, despite the fact it causes her pain, both physical and mental — on a nightly basis. There’s the extremely shy Yukina, whose fear of pretty much everyone stems from being assaulted by her drunkard father. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s Sari, who turned into a bloodsucking demon when her desire to wait for her killed-in-action lover to return from war caused her to completely lose touch with reality. And the actual Little Mermaid, who lives down a well on the mansion grounds. And Little Red Riding Hood, who features in a scene late in the story where the game explicitly lampshades the fact that everything that has been happening so far is symbolic of personal growth, acceptance and healing.
With the appearance of Little Red Riding Hood, the game explicitly lampshades the fact that everything that has been happening so far is symbolic.
Despite the disparate cast — which you might think would leave the game feeling disjointed and inconsistent in tone — Nocturnal Illusion manages to keep things hanging together in a coherent fashion thanks to its deliberately surreal, dream-like nature in which the reader is tacitly encouraged not to question the strange combination of characters and the odd circumstances that have brought them together. Shinichi’s narration throughout the game emphasises the fact that not everything is as it appears in this mysterious mansion, and the mysteriousness of many of the characters — even the more “mundane” ones — helps to cloud everything in a thin mist of unanswered questions, leaving the truth just tantalisingly out of reach at all times.
Even the way the game is structured makes advancing through the story feel more like a lucid dream than a linear narrative — even though it really is a linear narrative. By adopting adventure game-like mechanics and providing the player with seeming “freedom” to explore the mansion at will, examine seemingly irrelevant details — many of which change subtly over time — and discover the story for themselves, there’s a strange atmosphere to the whole experience; a feeling that, while Shinichi is still in control of his own actions, he’s still being swept along in events beyond his control.
There’s a strange atmosphere to the whole experience; a feeling that, while Shinichi is still in control of his own actions, he’s still being swept along in events beyond his control.
And even the end of the game leaves certain things up to interpretation: after eventually escaping from the mansion with one of the other cast members in tow, Shinichi’s attempts to rediscover the mansion at a later date all end in failure, since he himself is no longer a “lost soul” unsure of what to do with his life — and such is the case for his partner, too. Did it all really happen, or was it a dream? Were the people he met real people, or just aspects of his own personality? And, if the latter were true, how is it that he was able to “rescue” someone from their ordeal?
Nocturnal Illusion leaves its readers with plenty of questions even after its credits have rolled, then, but far from this providing an unsatisfying conclusion to the experience, it keeps you thinking about the game long after it’s over. And that, for me, is the sign of a particularly strong work of fiction; Nocturnal Illusion can and will stay with you for years to come — and that’s why it’s a real shame it’s so difficult to get it going on modern machines.
If, however, you’ve still got an old machine, or are willing to indulge in the tinkering required to get it running with ViLE, you can get yourself a legitimate copy of the game as part of publisher JAST USA’s $12.95 Memorial Collection, which also includes remastered versions of Three Sister’s Story, Season of the Sakura and Runaway City, which will work on modern systems. You can grab a copy from J-List.