Due to the fact that they are often rather substantial, ambitious undertakings, in many cases with multiple narrative routes, visual novels are often treated as “standalone” affairs. As such, it’s relatively rare to come across multiple works set in the same narrative universe.
There are exceptions, of course: the Grisaia series, which we covered last month, presently comprises three very long visual novels, with the series set to continue further later this year with Phantom Trigger, which unfolds after the conclusion of Yuuji’s adventure. And this month’s Cover Game, Ne no Kami: The Two Princess Knights of Kyoto, also falls into this category, with protagonist Len’s story unfolding across two games, the second of which is yet to be released.
Ne no Kami doesn’t stop there, though. At the very outset of the game, we’re introduced to two young women named Hitsuji and Arissa, the former of whom is a friend of protagonist Len. We don’t see them again for the duration of Ne no Kami’s narrative because they’re not directly relevant to Len’s story, though there are a couple of occasions where Len comes across things in her new life that remind her of her friend.
It is possible for us to find out more about these two mysterious young women, though, through the visual novel Sacrament of the Zodiac: The Confused Sheep and the Tamed Wolf, a title that unfolds in the same narrative universe as Ne no Kami, but which has a very different focus indeed.
While Ne no Kami’s narrative is rather epic in scale, dealing with humanity’s struggle against the forces of an ancient, evil god attempting to reawaken and (probably) wreak havoc on the visible world, Sacrament of the Zodiac is a much shorter, much more intimate affair that primarily concerns the aforementioned Hitsuji and Arissa, who attend a religious boarding school together. Arissa has been there most of her life as the story opens, while Hitsuji is a new transfer.
Arissa is a privileged young woman who comes from an affluent background. We can interpret right from her very first words that she has had a somewhat sheltered upbringing, and her subsequent behaviour only goes to reinforce this.
“I, Mokose Arissa, experienced love for the very first time in my life,” she says, recalling the surprising and immediate attraction between Hitsuji and herself. “It was shocking to say the least, and made my heart waver so. That very first kiss you imparted to me… Those few seconds changed my world completely.”
Arissa is privileged in another way besides her background, too: she is blessed by the “Goddess”. Said blessing manifests itself physically in the form of a stigma on her cheek that resembles the Aries zodiac sign. She is one of twelve such individuals blessed with such a mark at the time of the story, with legend having it that those marked in such a manner are destined to bring happiness to those around them.
Arissa, being an innocent sort of girl, instead finds herself drawing happiness from her “position” and interpreting things in the best possible light.
“In just half a month after moving up to the next grade, I had already made lots of new friends,” she explains. “These events may be by virtue of the blessed ‘stigma’ bestowed upon me by the Goddess.”
Hitsuji, meanwhile, is, in many ways, the complete inverse of Arissa. While Arissa is confident and assertive — though in the latter case, it’s more due to her lack of “street smarts” than genuine assertiveness — Hitsuji is initially too shy to even make eye contact with Arissa. It seems that her name, which means “sheep”, is entirely appropriate.
“I find it rather adorable how you avert your eyes out of embarrassment,” Arissa tells her. “So a cute name like that suits you perfectly.”
Hitsuji’s apparent reticence is short-lived, however; within a matter of minutes of meeting Arissa, she is blurting out a confession that she has fallen in love at first sight. Arissa, naturally, doesn’t really know what to do about this.
“I’m frantically flipping through all the pages of the little dictionary in my brain,” she muses. “This may be the very first time this phrase has entered my ear. Thus, I am unable to grasp the true meaning behind those words being used together. She fell for me…? Fell where?”
It transpires that Hitsuji isn’t really sure what to do, either, so she attempts to convey her feelings through a kiss.
“You conveyed your feelings to me rather well,” confesses Arissa after their kiss concludes. “Well enough to scare the living daylights out of me, actually,” she adds to herself. “You are inept at conveying your feelings to others, huh?” she continues, addressing her sudden new lover. “I do not dislike that about you. Up until now, I have never been hit with such strong emotions in my life.”
From this initial meeting, Sacrament of the Zodiac explores the growing and changing relationship between Arissa and Hitsuji. It appears that Hitsuji’s feelings are genuine, if rather sudden and something of a surprise to even her, though Arissa’s motivations for pursuing the relationship are initially a little more selfish, led by curiosity rather than genuine affection.
“I would like to see the many different expressions Hitsuji-chan can make,” she admits to herself, “so for now I will pretend to be clueless about it.”
Both Arissa and Hitsuji have their own reasons to be hesitant about their relationship. Arissa initially believes her actions to be “shameless” in the eyes of the Goddess, whom she worships devoutly; Hitsuji, meanwhile, has no such religious predilections, though acknowledges and accepts the presence of Arissa’s stigma, which tends to come out when she is experiencing strong feelings or arousal. Hitsuji’s hangups instead largely stem from her insecurities about herself.
During her first day at school, having immediately latched on to Arissa as a “safe” person, Hitsuji finds herself stifled by the inevitable attention she receives as “the new girl”.
“Having everyone stare at me is kind of embarrassing,” she thinks to herself. “And on top of that, suffocating.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Sacrament of the Zodiac is the fact that, at most points in the narrative, it is possible to switch perspectives from Arissa to Hitsuji and see what both are thinking. During this particular scene, we can see both Hitsuji’s anguish at what she describes as being “mobbed”, and Arissa’s feeling of guilt at being “powerless” — both to “save” Hitsuji from a situation that obviously brings her discomfort, and from her inadvertently making a negative first impression on her classmates.
“Oh, Great Goddess,” prays Arissa to herself, watching the scene unfold. “Please forgive me for being so powerless. I vow to clear up the misunderstandings surrounding Hitsuji-chan come next breaktime.”
When the two finally get some time alone in the cafe after the events of morning classes, Arissa reveals herself to be rather perceptive, despite her relative innocence about the world outside the school.
“You fear others thinking strangely of you, isn’t that right?” she asks Hitsuji outright. Hitsuji’s immediate response is a guttural growl, since her new lover has immediately hit the nail on the head.
“It’s embarrassing to have her see right through me,” Hitsuji thinks to herself. “But it’s nice and comforting. At the same time, I feel kinda scared.”
Hitsuji’s nerves primarily stem from the fact that she believes that, having kissed, the next step for the two of them is to do “pervy stuff”. And she knows that, given Arissa’s innocence, it will be up to her to be the assertive one in this regard. Indeed, when Hitsuji first brings up “pervy stuff”, Arissa initially wonders if it is “some sort of French gourmet dish”, and misinterprets Hitsuji’s suggestion that they should take showers to be a request to “purify my body because we are going to perform some sort of ritual”.
When the two of them first indulge in sexual play together, Hitsuji takes the lead, which sets the pattern for much of their relationship. She is the one with a certain amount of “knowledge”, after all — albeit knowledge that only came from conversations with Ne no Kami’s Len and some magazines she borrowed from her. Arissa, by now, is still curious to learn more about the nature of love and how it is expressed between two people, but is also willing to put her absolute trust in Hitsuji.
Hitsuji, meanwhile, starts to show a little of her own selfishness in this first encounter: she even stops Arissa from invoking the name of her beloved Goddess at one point, saying that she “won’t let her utter anyone else’s name at a moment like this!” At the same time, though, she emphasises to Arissa that she “studied really hard for this so that [she] could make [her] feel good”.
Hitsuji’s selfishness, or rather “possessiveness” is perhaps a better descriptor, becomes something of a running theme throughout the rest of the narrative. Whenever another member of the school addresses Arissa directly — particularly if the subject of her being one of the twelve beloved Zodiac stigma bearers is brought up — Hitsuji becomes very prickly and jealous. Her reactions are so strong that Arissa starts to describe her as a “beast” or “wolf” — a marked contrast with that first, timid impression she gave during their initial meeting, and also with her name. Arissa, bearing the Aries Zodiac mark, is the “sheep”, after all.
Hitsuji’s paranoia isn’t helped by the fact that the other students at the school look up to Arissa and frequently seek her advice, counsel or blessing for all manner of things. Not only that, but certain conversations suggest that someone taking a stigma bearer for themselves is frowned upon.
“If you did that,” explains one senior student to Hitsuji one breaktime, “lots of people would resent you. Those who have been given stigmata at the Sacrament are like idols at this school. If someone were to take one for themselves, well, I’d hope they’re ready for the ramifications.”
Said ramifications are only ever implied and never made explicit, but Hitsuji’s feelings by this point are so strong that she’s unwilling to contemplate letting Arissa go. This doesn’t stop her from worrying that someone will take her away by force, however, so she seeks a symbolic gesture for them to demonstrate and pledge their love to one another and, seeing an opportunity to take their relationship to the next level, decides that taking Arissa’s virginity would be a suitably emphatic symbol of their love for one another.
She remains uneasy, however. “What should I do?” she thinks to herself. “If I asked her straight out for her virginity, would she hate me?”
It turns out she doesn’t have much to worry about, since although she feels a certain amount of uneasiness as the prospect, Arissa willingly submits to Hitsuji’s request.
“It’s kind of scary,” she admits, “but if I think to myself that this is for Hitsuji-chan’s sake, all of that fear goes away.”
“I’m so happy,” thinks Hitsuji to herself. “Now Arissa will be mine. She may show that angelic smile to everyone she meets, but her soft body serves only me.”
Despite Hitsuji’s words to herself, she remains somewhat uneasy about other people, particularly when a classmate called Saginomiya asks to speak with Arissa one lunchtime when Hitsuji is unavailable, mysteriously muttering to herself that it will be “perfect” to get Arissa by herself. Hitsuji naturally believes that this means Saginomiya is trying to take Arissa away by force, but feels there is nothing much she can do about it if so.
“I’m just worried about you,” she says to Arissa before she leaves. “It’s because you are too pure. Sorry. Don’t hate me.”
Arissa’s response is simply to say that she believes herself to be “blessed”, which helps set Hitsuji’s mind at ease a little. And her conversation with Saginomiya leads her to the conclusion that Hitsuji just needs to be “trained” to understand that it is all right for her to let her guard down and to trust Arissa completely. At the same time, Arissa learns, it is important for her to learn how, when and why to say “no” to Hitsuji.
It works. The next time they are alone together, Arissa refuses to allow Hitsuji to kiss her on the grounds that it is more than likely they will both get carried away if either of them initiated anything sexual. Instead she asks if they can just talk and find out a little more about each other. Chipping away at each other’s emotional defenses a little at a time, Hitsuji eventually crumbles and confesses that she has been on edge ever since she came to the new school, finding it overwhelming and difficult to handle. Arissa brought her stability and a feeling of safety, though, which is why she is so scared of losing her.
“There are a lot of things that’re making me uneasy recently,” Hitsuji admits. “It’s a dream come true that you’re this close to me. You are always there to listen to what I have to say. I even took your virginity… I can’t stop worrying that someone is going to snatch you away from me… that you’ll grow tired of me and be swept away by somebody else. I promised myself that I wouldn’t cry in front of others and yet… I didn’t want anyone to see my weak side, and yet…”
“Hitsuji-chan is as fragile as a vase made of thin glass,” muses Arissa, looking on her tearful lover. “By painting her frail shell with grandiose colours, she tries to cover up her underlying insecurities. I will strip her of the wolf skin that she has been donning all this time. The real Hitsuji-chan is the type who would cry at the drop of a hat.”
Hitsuji is ashamed of her true nature, but Arissa accepts it entirely. This is a turning point in their relationship: Arissa is the one with power now, so she takes the opportunity to demonstrate her love for Hitsuji — which, by now, has grown beyond simple curiosity into genuine feelings — by being the assertive one.
“I have imparted my stigma to you,” she says. “With this, you belong only to me, and I am only yours.”
Hitsuji willingly submits to Arissa this time, with Arissa being the one to take Hitsuji’s virginity with her fingers. Hitsuji, however, is unable to endure the pain — a fact which she feels guilty for, given that Arissa pushed through her own feelings of discomfort during their previous encounter — and continues to believe herself to be “weak”, though Arissa demonstrates clearly, beyond all doubt, that she accepts everything about Hitsuji, her own self-perceived flaws and all.
This incident, and the couple’s subsequent discussion over it, lead them to understand one another more fully than they have done prior to this point. The pair go so far as to lay down some “rules” for their relationship — which include keeping it secret so as not to make those who idolise Arissa as “Aries” resentful — and pledge to make a commitment to one another, meeting back up at the place where they first met once a year to exchange a kiss and reaffirm their love for one another.
Two months after their relationship began, the pair meet back up in the cathedral where they met to express these vows for the first time. And, for the first time in the whole story, switching between the two characters’ perspectives shows that their thoughts are, at last, perfectly in sync with one another.
“As if sharing our joy with each other,” they both say, “we kiss.”
Thanks to Eve at Denpasoft for supplying the review copies. You can purchase the 18+ version of Ne no Kami or the 18+ patch direct from Denpasoft. An all-ages version is available on Steam. Sacrament of the Zodiac is only available in an 18+ version direct from Denpasoft or via adult gaming portal Nutaku (NSFW).
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