Over the last few years, UK-based outfit PQube Games has become a force to be reckoned with in the localisation and publishing space.
Since its inception in 2009, PQube has brought Western fans a variety of games that might otherwise have never made it out of Japan, including Inti Creates’ Gal*Gun Double Peace and Gal*Gun 2, Kadokawa Games’ Root Letter and Red Entertainment’s Our World is Ended; they also played a key role in popularising and expanding the audiences of titles such as Nitroplus’ classic visual novel Steins;Gate and Arc System Works’ anime fighting series BlazBlue.
It’s a company serious about what it does, in other words — and so when I heard it was developing its own game for the first time, I couldn’t help but take notice. That game, Kotodama: The 7 Mysteries of Fujisawa, is finally here, so let’s take a closer look.
Before we start, a foreword: for those of you feeling a sense of trepidation about a Western company that primarily established its reputation by localising Japanese games suddenly deciding to develop a game, fear not; PQube’s involvement in Kotodama is primarily on the production side of things, while the game itself is the work of Japanese dev Art Co. Ltd. This is an authentically Japanese game, in other words; this isn’t a Western game trying to be a Japanese game. PQube just happens to have been the company that made it possible.
With that out of the way, let’s examine the game itself.
Kotodama is a mystery visual novel that centres on a Japanese school named Fujisawa Academy. The player-protagonist (who can be named and binary-gendered as you desire) arrives rather late in their third year under mysterious circumstances, which naturally arouses the curiosity of the student body.
Those exact circumstances are at least partly left up to interpretation, but the end product of what happened is that you (as we shall refer to the player-protagonist hereafter) made a pact with a demon you know only as Mon-chan that allows you to uncover the truth inside people’s hearts by manipulating their emotions until you strip away all their defensive layers of deceit. That sure escalated quickly, huh?
Despite all this, you can’t help but wish for a quiet academic life upon arriving at your new place of learning; it seems that the circumstances of your departure from your previous school very much had something to do with your powers, but again, the specifics are at least partly left up to your own imagination. This is not a story about what happened then; this is a story about what happens next.
Fate has plans in store for you, you see, and they most certainly do not involve a quiet life. On your first day on campus, you discover an energetic girl named Nanami who is frantically investigating something she refers to as “The Curse of Mikoto”. This is one of the titular “Seven Mysteries” of Fujisawa Academy, and a topic of particular interest for the school’s Occult Research Club, of which Nanami is one of the two current members.
The idea of a school campus having “seven mysteries” is a common trope in Japanese popular media, particularly those works with a mystery, occult or horror theme about them. The actual origin of the trope as specifically being seven mysteries isn’t entirely clear, but Jenni Lada of Michibiku argues that they stem from urban legends such as the Seven Mysteries of Echigo — which include inexplicable mysteries such as a one-sided reed or bamboo that grows upside-down — or the more light-hearted Seven Mysteries of the Yoshiwara, which includes how locals refer to locations in ways that have nothing to do with their actual placement or purpose.
Lada notes that Seven Mysteries are often used as a storytelling and worldbuilding device, providing an ideal opportunity to explore a narrative world from a variety of different perspectives, and this has been true ever since those original examples she cited. In those cases, the “mysteries” were established as a means of bringing colour and character to a real-world locale, while in fiction they allow the reader to get to know an unfamiliar world in more detail, affording them a deeper connection with the setting, characters and even the author.
Kotodama is quite interesting in that it becomes clear over time that most of Fujisawa’s Seven Mysteries are relatively recent creations; these aren’t longstanding urban legends passed down from generation to generation by any means, but rather things that seem to have cropped up over the course of the last few years.
One possible explanation for this is the fact that the population of a high school is extremely volatile, changing significantly from year to year as the top year leaves, everyone moves up and a new year arrives at the bottom. This is particularly true in Japan, where unlike in, say, the UK, where secondary schools cover years 7-11 of compulsory education (and in some cases two more years of non-compulsory further education on top of that), a senior high school consists of just three years’ worth of students in non-compulsory education. That means that every three years, there’s a complete turnover of student population, which means the opportunity for an almost total “reset” of the school’s sense of community — including urban legends.
A mystery is still a mystery, however, and so as Kotodama progresses you find yourself unavoidably swept up in the Occult Research Club’s investigations and feeling increasingly determined to get to the bottom of everything. Particularly once you encounter a demonic acquaintance of Mon-chan, who insists you keep re-experiencing the same events over and over again until you discover the complete truth behind everything.
Herein lies one of the more interesting aspects of Kotodama’s structure. On your first playthrough, you don’t have very much agency, since you have no idea what is going on and are mostly being dragged along by Nanami’s energy, powerless to defy fate. On your second playthrough, you attempt to make use of the knowledge you obtained in your first run through this sequence of events, only to find yourself unceremoniously killed for trying to “pre-empt” the truth by charging in before you’re fully armed with the facts. It’s only from your third time around that you start to get the opportunity to change the future, using a combination of your prior knowledge and the new information you’re able to uncover through making different choices at various critical junctures.
Your grand goal in order to beat Kotodama completely is to fill up your “Word Book”. This represents pieces of key information you uncover in each of the game’s seven chapters, with each word or phrase relating to a particular emotion. As you gain more words or phrases for a particular emotion, it levels up, and successfully finding a critical piece of information that relates to a specific character results in you acquiring a rainbow-coloured “SP Word”. Reach the end of the narrative without meeting an untimely demise and with all the words in your possession and you get the true ending. Fail to do this and it’s another loop around for you — though thankfully the story’s relatively short length, helpful “Skip” feature and colour-coding of important decisions makes subsequent playthroughs for word collection a breeze.
This aspect of the game is where the title comes from — the Japanese concept of “kotodama” concerns the supposed spiritual power that is held within words and names. The interpretation we see in this game concerns how the ritualistic use of words can influence body, mind and soul; the words you know are allowing you to more successfully influence and manipulate your target’s emotions and mental state.
This isn’t just a game about passively reading and making occasional decisions, mind you — and this is where your power comes in. Upon reaching something of an impasse with the central character for a chapter, you’re thrown into a mental battle against them, whereby success causes them to blurt out whatever it is they’ve been repressing or hiding.
These battles unfold as puzzle game sequences in which you’re presented with a mental projection of your opponent and a grid of coloured gems, each of which represents one of the emotions the words relate to, and tasked with — as ever — matching three or more like-coloured gems in horizontal or vertical arrangements. Kotodama differs from the usual Bejeweled or Puzzle & Dragons formulae, however, with its own unique mechanic: rather than swapping gems around, you select one to send flying up to the top of the column it’s in, causing all those that were sitting above it to drop down.
As you match gems, you fill up a “Happy” meter for your opponent. As you might expect, matching more gems simultaneously or causing chain reactions means the meter fills up more quickly, and your ultimate aim is to fill the meter completely before running out of moves. There’s no time pressure here, so careful and strategic play is essential, particularly later in the game.
You do, however, have a few ways of making life a little easier for yourself. Matching gems that represent a character’s “favourite” emotion — conveniently marked with a sparkling symbol — allows you to build up a star meter that can subsequently be expended on “Challenges”, which each carry a percentage chance of success and inversely corresponding number of moves that will be restored. The Challenge with a 90% success rate, for example, only restores a single move, while the one with a 30% success rate restores a whopping five if it works.
Failing a Challenge isn’t just a matter of wasting a meter, mind you; depending on how badly you fail, your opponent may decide to counter with a mental attack of their own. This is unique per character; one causes the entire grid of gems to be obliterated and replaced with a completely new arrangement — which can actually sometimes work to your advantage — while others create obstacles, “lock” gems and otherwise make life awkward for you.
The other, safer way in which you can restore your moves is by reaching one of the three milestones on the Happy meter. At each of these stages, your opponent will lose an item of clothing (representing you stripping away a layer of deceit or repressed feelings) and you’ll recover 10 moves. Fill up the Happy meter entirely and your opponent apparently has an absolutely thundering orgasm — a mental image that Mon-chan gives you a lot of shit for, understandably.
The experience points and SP Words you acquire elsewhere in the game become relevant in these sequences, too. The higher level a particular emotion is at, the more a successful match of that colour will impact the Happy meter. And SP Words cause skull-shaped “obstacle” gems to become rainbow gems which, when matched, fill a huge amount of the meter in one go. Thematically, this represents you being able to use your knowledge of a significant truth about the character to convince them to spill the beans once and for all.
All right. That’s enough drifting around the point; let’s delve into some specifics of the narrative, because there’s a ton of interesting stuff going on with this game.
As you might expect from a game whose core hook is the manipulation of emotions to uncover repressed or hidden truths, Kotodama’s narrative leans pretty heavily into mental health-related topics. And it does so in a manner that is emotionally engaging, impactful and realistic; this is not a game where you magically “fix” people with your mysterious powers nor, for that matter, one where discovering the complete truth behind everything necessarily leads to a happy ending for everyone involved. Sometimes learning the truth simply lets you understand a situation rather than resolve it in a way you might find satisfactory.
Let’s take the first chapter’s core conflict as an example. The mystery under the microscope in this particular chapter is that of “The White Wolf”. This creature, supposedly seen around the school grounds, is said to bring great happiness to anyone who touches it, but it’s apparently near-impossible to do so.
During your tour of the school’s campus with Nanami, she takes you to a wooded region behind the school building, which is well-regarded by most locals as a particularly soothing spot in which to hang out and relax. The local animals apparently feel this way, too, since the forest is heavily populated with both wild and stray animals.
As part of the visit, you encounter a white dog who is apparently injured. It seems desperately afraid of humans, and bolts when you and Nanami attempt to comfort it. This, of course, pretty much immediately explains where the “White Wolf” mystery came from, but raises a number of questions of its own.
During the chapter, you meet a girl named Honoka who is rather quiet and meek. She supposedly loves animals, but they don’t seem to like her much; indeed, when you and Nanami come across her during your forest visit, you witness her being scratched by a cat when she’s apparently just attempting to pet it. She seems extremely upset by this.
On your first playthrough, during a subsequent investigation of the forest to further explore where the rumour might have come from and why, you uncover the shocking sight of a wild-eyed Honoka violently beating the white dog you saw earlier; she’s screaming about how no-one understands who she is or accepts her. Attempting to uncover the truth using your power at this point simply reveals that she’s been taking out her frustration at her grades slipping on the local animals — and the frequency with which she does this is, of course, why they are all afraid of her.
But of course, it’s not quite that simple, as you discover on your subsequent “loops” around the events of the game.
As part of your “orientation”, Nanami tells you about the social network that everyone in the school uses: a Twitter-like called Quacker. By checking this, you discover that Honoka is the daughter of a famous actress named Asuka Ichinose. And, having acquired this information, you can come to some conclusions about the rather heated conversations you witness Honoka having over the phone if you’re in the right place at the right time.
Using this knowledge and your memories of your first “loop”, you’re able to beat Honoka to the place where you found her abusing the dog and discover that her fury is the result of the pressure her famous mother has been placing on her. Honoka wants to live out her life as she sees fit, but has grown so terrified of bringing shame on her mother by “failing”, and feels she has no other outlet for these frustrations than abusing the local wildlife. Still totally unacceptable, of course, but at this point you at least understand her a little better.
As noted above, you don’t “fix” Honoka as such; throughout the rest of the game, you only have her word that she is no longer going to the forest to abuse animals, but she does make a point of cropping up at several points and highlighting the positive impact you had on her by listening to her troubles and at least seeming to understand what she was going through. Of course, this raises its own issues over her becoming dependent on you, but it is at least progress from beating a dog with a stick over test scores.
The chapter in which you investigate the mystery of the supposedly wish-granting “Clock Tower Angel” is another interesting one. During this particular investigation, it becomes apparent that Wakaba, the president of the Occult Research Club, is hiding something from you and Nanami. This seemingly coincides with the growth in popularity of a Quacker-based fortune-teller named SAKURA — who has, in turn, caused the fickle student body to mostly forget about the “Angel”.
Your investigations reveal that the supposed “Angel” was actually a student who frequently plays hooky and hangs out in the clock tower, but who discovered he had something of a talent for giving advice and fortune-telling. It transpires that Wakaba sought his advice with some personal problems in her love life, but the situation escalated until she became completely dependent on him.
This chapter provides a great example of “show, don’t tell” in that it never specifically tells you what exactly Wakaba’s problem is, but it becomes clear as you continue to investigate that it is something to do with her boyfriend.
From her reactions to your investigations and the truths you uncover, you can make a pretty convincing deduction that she was being abused by him — though whether physically, emotionally or both is never made explicit — but, once again, you don’t have the means or the capability to “fix” her.
Only she is able to take the steps she needs to free herself from her situation — though in her case, she actually lives up to the strong, assertive character she establishes in the early hours of the story by proudly strolling in the next day and declaring she broke up with the boyfriend in question. Sometimes you just need a good cry — and perhaps a bit of a nudge — to bring yourself a bit of perspective.
Wakaba’s story is particularly interesting because it’s quite rare to see a character in a story like this react in a vaguely realistic way when it comes to sensitive subjects like abuse. Often in visual novels, we find the protagonist developing such a close relationship with the victim in question that they open up and provide all the details without us really having to “work” for it; here, however, Wakaba always feels slightly like she’s at “arm’s length”, and as such she talks about her experiences much as real victims of abuse do: vaguely, hesitantly and extremely fearful for the consequences of doing so.
Throughout the rest of the game, each of the other chapters focuses on a single character from the core cast, and they all have their own issues to deal with — some more serious than others. In each case, there’s the same “layered” approach; you can uncover a partial truth that simply shows you what they’re doing and how that relates to one of the supposed “mysteries”, or you can discover all the information you need to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Much like real life, their reasoning is often messy and nonsensical, and sometimes their opening up about their situation seemingly makes things worse rather than better. But ultimately what we have here is a series of stories about emotionally engaging, relatable issues and how people struggle to deal with them — sometimes with tragic, shocking or unconscionable results.
And the fact that the whole game is wrapped in a vibrantly-coloured shell in which everyone’s default expression is smiling broadly somehow makes this all the more powerful. In many respects, Kotodama as a complete experience presents a potent metaphor for modern life today: while people may do their best to put up their best possible front to the world — whether this is in person or making use of tools such as social media to create a convincing illusion — more often than not everyone is struggling to one degree or another… and depressingly often we have no idea how much someone is suffering until it’s too late.
On top of that, there’s an interesting message about consent to consider in all this, too; are you violating these people by delving into their minds and toying with their emotions? Do you have the right to make them bare their souls to you? If the concept makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, that’s entirely deliberate; remember that your power comes from a demonic source, and demons aren’t exactly known for being “nice”.
But anyway. There’s a lot more I could say about this game, but I need to leave some things for you to discover. For now, I’ll just say: play Kotodama; it’s great. And let’s see many, many more games like this, huh, PQube? I like it when my games make me think in more ways than one.
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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