Have you ever wondered what it would be like if, for once, everything went your way? I know I have.
Doubtless many of you reading this have, at some point in your lives, wondered “what’s the point?” and contemplated giving up altogether. “I work my ass off,” the train of thought inevitably goes, “and I never get any recognition for it. Why bother?”
Well, unfortunately I can’t help with your own personal circumstances — my hands are plenty full with my own, believe me — but I can both prescribe and recommend a healthy dose of the new kinetic novel from Nekopara developer Neko Work (under their new Neko Work H label), because Love Cube is one of the most potent pieces of wish fulfilment fiction I think I’ve ever enjoyed.
Some sexually explicit NSFW images and themes ahead.
Ichinari Tsuzurigi is a struggling hentai manga artist. Technically he’s gone pro, having been both serialised in a magazine and put out a book, but he’s really having trouble making ends meet as his sales figures are pretty pitiful. As we join the story, he’s reduced to eating tissues rather than actual food, since his bank account contains a grand total of just 18 yen.
It is fair to say, then, that Ichinari is on the verge of giving up altogether. He doesn’t know what to do; he knows that his sales aren’t bad because he’s bad at what he does, but this only makes things more demoralising. If you’re already doing your best and that isn’t good enough to bring you success, what then?
Thankfully, Ichinari isn’t entirely alone in all this. His editor, Akira Higashibojo, has been looking out for him since the very beginning, acting as something of an older sister figure whenever he needs it. In an early scene where Ichinari is looking like he is approaching rock bottom, Akira reminds him that “humans can flourish anywhere, so long as they’re meek and sincere”, and promises that she’ll “marry him and make him a kept man” if he still finds himself at a loss.
It’s clear from the affection with which she treats him that she’s not joking… but Ichinari is also too proud to just fall back on a safety net like this. He doesn’t say as much directly, but doubtless the simple presence of such a safety net keeps him going, however. Not everyone has that luxury in similar situations, but the story in Love Cube is not a tragedy.
Akira, forever looking out for Ichinari, manages to arrange him an appointment to interview for a position that may allow him to develop his skills. It seems that the legendary, prolific and mysterious professional hentai manga artist Ishitaka-sensei is looking for an assistant; could this be Ichinari’s big break?
Thus begins a heartwarming story of what life might be like if you have the courage to follow your dreams, regardless of the potential consequences. And, as noted, it’s quite literally a story of wish fulfilment, too; there’s a light spiritual angle to the narrative setup, with much of the ensuing story resulting from one particular popular superstition turning out to be rather more real than anyone anticipated. And from that point on, Ichinari’s fate is irrevocably crossed with those of three remarkable young women who have made similar wishes; sometimes everyone just needs a little “nudge” in the right direction for their fates to intertwine.
Before we delve further into the plot, one thing about this visual novel cannot be emphasised enough, and that is the fact that it’s immaculately presented. This will probably not be a surprise to anyone who ever played Nekopara, which remains a beautifully slick presentation throughout all its installments to date, but Love Cube sees Neko Work’s central figure Sayori collaborating with another artist to create something really rather wonderful.
The majority of the artwork in Love Cube is the work of Ishikei-sensei, a prolific and popular doujinshi artist renowned for their beautiful full-colour work, their expressive characters, their excellent sexually explicit parodies of series such as To Love-Ru, Gochuumon wa Usagi Desu Ka? (aka GochiUsa or Is the Order a Rabbit?) and Lucky Star… and their absolute mastery of the relatively vanilla sex scene, including (if you can find them in uncensored format) some of the most detailed dicks you’ll ever see.
When I started reading Love Cube, I tried to look into Ishikei’s history further, but I came up pretty blank on actual biographical details. Their works have been shared all over the place — and many of them can even be purchased legally from hentai localiser Fakku, who published Love Cube here in the West — but an answer to the simple question “who is Ishikei?” is incredibly elusive.
This was initially frustrating; I wanted to know more about this artist with such a distinctive style about their work, and the reasoning behind some of the things seen in that work. You can joke about those super-detailed dicks all you want, but presumably Ishikei made a specific effort to master drawing them for some reason — especially given the knowledge that they would typically end up censored when published in Japan!
I even found a few threads around the Internet claiming that Ishikei was a woman, which presented an interesting potential new perspective on things. But nowhere could I find any definitive information, and no-one else seemed to know either; this was clearly an artist that liked to keep themselves to themselves.
I wanted to know, and the more I ran into brick walls, the more desperate the “need” for this knowledge felt like it was becoming. That is, until I reached a particular scene in Love Cube, where Ishitaka-sensei — or, rather, Ichinari’s childhood friend, Iori, as Ishitaka-sensei turns out to be — is giving her first ever interview with a member of the press.
“She’s so cute,” says the reporter to Ichinari, who is attempting to comfort a deeply uncomfortable Iori, struggling with her social anxiety more than she has ever had to endure in the past. “I bet if she showed her face in the media her sales would go up two-fold…”
“Ishitaka-sensei doesn’t want to be seen that way,” explains Ichinari, having rekindled his relationship with Iori well enough to truly understand her by this point. “That’s why she doesn’t show her face. Ishitaka-sensei takes her manga very seriously. And she doesn’t want to be judged on anything but that work. Working as her assistant, I’ve learned a lot from her approach.”
“I’d rather people focus on my work, rather than on me,” pipes up Iori, finally finding her voice after Ichinari’s support. She doesn’t want to be “a cute girl who draws hentai manga”; she wants to be Ishitaka-sensei, the creator of consistent, popular work that she is proud of and that her audience loves. She wants her work to be the star, not her.
By this point in the narrative, I’d already harboured some suspicions that Iori might be something of a representation of Ishikei themselves — and my findings (or lack thereof) might initially seem to confirm that.
That would be fine and pretty straightforward, were it not for the existence of the third heroine Nodoka, who is another figure from Ichinari’s past — this time a high school sweetheart who was in the manga club with him. Nodoka, like Iori, has made something of her life in the intervening years; while Iori has reached the pinnacle of the professional manga world, Nodoka has reached doujinshi superstar status on the self-published amateur circuit.
One thing I found particularly fascinating about Love Cube’s narrative was how it highlighted this distinction between these two discrete parts of Japanese manga culture, with Iori and Nodoka acting as prime examples of what happens when it goes “right” from each respective angle.
Iori demonstrates that it’s possible for a professional manga artist on top of their game to be extremely well off — to such a degree that “money isn’t an issue”, as she frequently notes, not out of pride, but out of practicality — without having to make themselves particularly “known”. The professional life is perfect for her desire to allow her work to speak for itself; she’s under no obligation to show her face, promote her own work or do anything other than actually create. This fits her personality — and her issues — perfectly.
Nodoka, meanwhile, demonstrates that the doujinshi world is one of constant, hard graft — but one where the potential rewards are huge, and not just from a financial perspective. In Nodoka, we see a young woman who is able to express herself and explore her sexual fantasies freely through her own work, but who also enjoys speaking with her fans, hearing what they have to say about her work and even meeting with them at doujinshi events. And we also see a confident, self-assured young woman who doesn’t take any shit — someone who, like Iori, wants to be known as more than just “that cute female hentai artist”.
To bring this back to the mysterious case of Ishikei-sensei, it’s likely that the truth of the matter lies somewhere between these two extremes.
If one were to look at Ishikei-sensei’s Twitter feed, for example, one would see an artist who is more than happy to chat with their fans, answer questions from them (which, from casual observation and my limited knowledge of Japanese, always seem enormously respectful) and promote their work in person at events such as Comiket.
But at the same time, one also has to take into account the fact that none of these fans appear to have taken any photographs of Ishikei-sensei, biographical information on them is seemingly non-existent and everyone seems perfectly happy with that. Ishikei-sensei doesn’t want to be found online except on their own terms, it seems, and I can both understand and respect that, particularly having spent some time with Iori.
To put it another way, we can interpret Iori and Nodoka as the two distinct “lives” an artist such as Ishikei-sensei has; some artists doubtless choose to lean further in one direction or the other depending on the sort of person they are, but most tend to err on the side of privacy, from what I understand.
And to put it another way still, Love Cube taught me that it doesn’t matter who Ishikei-sensei “really” is, because their work does indeed speak for itself, just as Iori says.
And what work. If you’ve never seen Ishikei artwork before, be prepared for a treat. It’s packed with detail and typically features characters who aren’t “perfect” — or rather, they have details about them that might not be explored by certain other artists.
We learn that Akira is a former judo champion, for example, which explains why her overall build (massive breasts aside) is so muscular. This is mentioned in passing a few times in the narrative, but there are some event scenes that make it quite clear, particularly when she’s showing off her legs. And it’s especially apparent on the occasions when she gets naked; we can see clearly defined muscle tone, particularly around her back and abdomen.
Nodoka, conversely, is someone who grew up as a bit of a nerdy girl, but has subsequently made an effort to reinvent herself. There’s no denying that she’s blossomed into a beautiful young woman, but she also has a certain amount of adorable pudge about her still, particularly around the legs; those who enjoy “thigh squish” will be a big fan of her first event scene.
Another key characteristic of Ishikei’s art is that it typically incorporates girls with luscious, full, shiny lips rather than the simple line that is an “implied lower lip” you get in a lot of simpler anime-style artwork. Given how there are quite a few instances in the game where kissing is involved… well, you can imagine how well this works, surely.
What makes Ishikei’s artwork all the more remarkable in Love Cube is that much of it is animated. Just as Nekopara made use of a variant of Live2D that it dubbed E-Mote, so too does Love Cube feature fully animated characters. And it’s even better than it was in Nekopara; characters are now able to move their arms, turn their heads, dynamically and smoothly change expressions and, in general, look incredibly believable.
This is most apparent when it comes to large gestures such as arm movements, but some of the most interesting work in this regard comes in the more subtle animations; one of the most wonderful things to see at several points of the narrative is a character gradually breaking out into a smile or welling up with tears while they’re speaking with Ichinari; with a few exceptions (primarily major changes in pose or orientation), the movements are smooth and seamless, creating a wonderful illusion that you’re spending time with a person feeling real emotions rather than a static piece of 2D artwork.
Credit for this side of things primarily goes to Sayori, the artist behind Nekopara, the driving force behind Neko Work and clearly an absolute maestro of Live2D choreography at this point. Sayori also contributed chibi character art for interstitial scenes between major episodes in the narrative and it is, as ever, absolutely charming.
Love Cube has been described by some as a nukige — in other words, a visual novel whose primary purpose is to get you from one sex scene to another with the minimum of fuss. Pornography, in other words, rather than a narrative with erotic elements. While the latter half of the game is certainly extremely sex-heavy, it should already be apparent that considering it simple pornography is doing it something of a disservice.
We’ve already talked about how the narrative as a whole explores the different ways members of Japan’s manga and doujinshi communities end up living their lives, but there’s a very down-to-earth aspect about the whole thing, too. While Ichinari is initially awed to discover that two of his biggest heroes in hentai manga are actually his childhood friends, it doesn’t take long for him to discover that they, like him, are only human.
Iori, for example, is depicted as someone who struggles with social anxiety to such a degree that she finds it difficult to go shopping or even to answer her own intercom. Like most people who suffer with this affliction — be it through a condition on the autistic spectrum or other factors at play — Iori has a small circle of people that she feels she can trust and be herself with; among those people, she is able to talk normally and be honest about her feelings.
Akira, meanwhile, works a thankless job for a company that clearly doesn’t appreciate how hard she works, and regularly suffers from stress-related anxiety that she does her best to cover up. Having spent this much time with her, however, Ichinari is able to tell when she’s having a bad day, and on more than one occasion — increasingly frequently as the story progresses — he finds himself being the one who comforts her, rather than the other way around.
Of all the cast, Nodoka seems to be the one who has it most together. She had a dream, she followed it, she achieved it. And she only continued to achieve further dreams from there, be it reuniting with Ichinari, becoming lovers with Ichinari, drawing a collaboration doujinshi with Ichinari. If she has any “flaws”, it’s that she’s single-minded, stubborn and occasionally insecure, but those sides of her have motivated her and brought her great success over the years, so it’s debatable if one can really consider them “flaws” at all.
Ichinari, too, undergoes a considerable amount of growth over the course of the narrative, progressing from starving, tissue-eating poverty to a situation where he feels like he can develop his own skills without feeling like he’s being constantly knocked (or held) back. It’s absolutely heartwarming to bear witness to his growth in self-confidence as the story continues; at the outset, he’s about ready to give up, but by the end he’s being proactive and assertive about all manner of things he wouldn’t have even considered in the opening chapters.
Love Cube front-loads its narrative with a lot of character development, and we get to know Ichinari and the three main heroines very well before there’s the slightest hint of explicit sexual content. There are a few “teases” along the way — some more in-your-face than others, with Ichinari’s initial reunion with Iori being a particular highlight — but no full-on sex until the core “conflict” (if you can call it that) of the game’s first act is resolved.
That conflict is, quite simply, Ichinari attempting to decide who he loves the most out of Iori, Nodoka and Akira, and, by extension, deciding who he will give a positive answer to. It’s clearly a source of considerable inner turmoil for him, and is ultimately resolved not with a choice of “routes” as in a conventional ren’ai visual novel, but with him deciding that he loves all of them and that he is unable to choose. Love, cubed.
From here, the game handles the subject of a polyamorous relationship sensitively and with grace, and this is another aspect of the story I found to be particularly interesting.
Speaking personally, I’ve always struggled a bit to understand the thinking behind polyamorous relationships, as my sensibilities in that regard are fairly traditional. There are also plenty of works out there (anime, manga and visual novels) that depict a protagonist having a harem as something sleazy, or the domain of pure fantasy, so my judgement has, in the past, been coloured somewhat in that regard.
However, with first Alicesoft’s Evenicle and now Love Cube, I’ve had my eyes opened somewhat to the reasons why people might engage in such an arrangement; it’s still not something I’d want for myself (or my wife, she’ll be pleased to hear), but I feel like I kind of get it now.
It’s about family. A polyamorous relationship allows for the formation of a non-traditional family unit, with everyone playing a role to keep one another happy, comfortable and satisfied in various ways. The main difference is that rather than a single couple being at the top of the “tree” and the remaining members forming the “branches” beneath them, the arrangement is a little different. In the case of Love Cube, Ichinari is the central, focal point of this “family”, and each of the three heroines radiate out from him in a different direction, complementing him in some way; he, in turn, helps them to come to terms with and accept their own character traits; the things they perceive to be their own “weaknesses”.
In this way, we get the opportunity to explore all the characters equally. Ichinari is a decent sort of chap and really means it when he says he loves all of them equally; each of the heroines get the same number of chapters in the narrative, the same attention to detail… and the same number of erotic scenes. So let’s talk a bit about that latter aspect.
When we’re taking about sexually explicit works, it’s important to be able to talk about them frankly and openly, because, let’s face it, at least part of the appeal is in that sexual aspect. We’ve already talked about how the game’s pacing — how it takes the time to establish its characters and setting before providing any sort of sexual “payoff” for the reader — and so now it’s time to share some candid words about Love Cube’s H-scenes.
The first thing I’d like to state up-front is that the first H-scene in Love Cube is an absolute masterpiece. It’s one of the most erotic scenes I’ve ever seen in a visual novel, and it achieves this without getting particularly outlandish about anything. Aside from the whole “four people are involved” aspect, it’s pretty vanilla — especially as Ichinari takes the time to give each of the girls some attention individually rather than attempting some sort of contrived “do everyone at once” scenario — and as such, the fact I found it so impactful is all the more remarkable.
Before I get into specifics, I want to (perhaps over-)share what I mean by “impactful” in this situation.
Doubtless many of you reading this are already familiar with how narrative-centric games — and particularly visual novels — are able to grasp you by the heartstrings, tugging and tugging away using their potent combination of visuals, music, voice acting and text until, on certain occasions where the blend is just right, they have an actual physiological impact on you.
Your heart rate might increase during a dramatic scene; you might feel nervous tension during a climactic encounter; you might feel scared when entering the unknown or expecting something unpleasant; you might even find yourself starting to cry during an emotionally intense scene, whether the scene itself is happy or sad. For me, it always provides an odd sense of pleasure and satisfaction when this happens; it’s a means of exploring and expressing emotions that everyday life doesn’t always provide us with. And as the old adage goes, everyone feels better after a good cry.
Well, what I’m describing here is also true of good erotic scenes. I’m not simply talking about some hot porn making you pop a boner (or lady equivalent) — that’s a simple, instinctive reaction to pretty much any sort of sexually explicit material if you’re in the right mood to be receptive to it. No; instead, I’m talking about an erotic scene that absolutely wraps you up in its whole mood; an erotic scene that truly makes you feel part of the action; an erotic scene that immerses you in that private little world you find yourself in whenever you have the opportunity to share an intimate moment with someone.
Love Cube’s first H-scene starts hot, with the three heroines lying topless on the bed, waiting hungrily for Ichinari with visibly soaked panties. Once things truly get underway and each of them gets their own unique, animated scene, that was, for me, when things crossed a line from “huh, nice porn” to “I am living this moment”.
It’s actually quite hard to describe how it achieves this. We’re not talking Grisaia-style H-scenes here, where they’re an opportunity for character development as much as they are for fanservice. The dialogue between Ichinari and the heroines during the sex itself is fairly pedestrian; the exact sort of thing you’d expect from a sexually explicit romantic visual novel. I think the magic of the scenes comes from their context; they immediately follow an emotionally intense scene in which Ichinari, having been agonising over which one of the three beautiful girls before him is going to be “the one”, finally explodes in passionate anguish and makes his decision… or rather fails to make a decision.
As previously mentioned, prior to this point we’ve had a number of suggestive scenes, and a number of instances where it looked like Ichinari and at least one of the girls would cross that line between friendship and physical love, but up until this particular scene, the game — or more specifically Ichinari himself — blueballs the reader at every opportunity. Consequently, by the time something actually does happen between everyone, I defy anyone who has been engaging with the story and characterisation fully to not be in possession of a set of genitals that are bursting at the seams, desperate to be unleashed in a gushing torrent of righteous erotic fury.
There has been such a lengthy leadup to this initial erotic encounter, in other words, that it feels like it has real meaning. And that meaning makes it hella hot. That meaning made it so hot for me that it is not an exaggeration to say that halfway through Nodoka’s part of the scene — she’s up second, after Iori gets first dibs — I felt like just shifting in my seat in the wrong way would provoke the sort of thunderous, earth-shattering orgasm that only comes around once in a blue moon.
By the time Ichinari was finished with Akira, I’m not ashamed to say that I had an uncontrollable urge to step away from the keyboard for a short period to enjoy a little bit of personal time, during which I was keenly aware that several of the characters (particularly Iori) had had to do something similar at numerous points in the prior narrative. Life imitates art, or something. We’re all human. There’s no shame in it.
Anyway, I honestly can’t remember the last time a visual novel’s H-scene had such a profound impact on the way I was feeling; beyond simple, primal arousal into an honest-to-goodness feeling that this was a sexual encounter with true intimacy between everyone involved… including the reader. It was a delight.
And the best thing? Those scenes only get better from thereon, giving Ichinari and each of the girls the opportunity to experiment in various ways, taking in a few light fetishes along the way. We’ve got a bit of soft S&M, we’ve got public sex, we’ve got a passionate encounter after an exciting but stressful day. We’ve got sensual screwing in a love hotel after a romantic date, energetic shagging in a spa and urgent boning in the middle of the day.
Each and every one of these scenes is super-hot, and it’s clear that great care and attention has been taken to give all the heroines equal time in the spotlight, with every encounter allowing each of their respective relationships with Ichinari to develop and deepen in new and exciting ways — and again, allowing each of the heroines to complement rather than compete with one another.
And that’s how it continues to unfold from there. Love Cube isn’t a game about high drama and tugging on the heartstrings — though there are more than a few scenes that brought a tear to my eyes when the girls were encouraging Ichinari to press on with his dreams — but it is a game about making you feel good, in more ways than one.
I went into the experience not sure what to expect from it other than some lovely artwork and probably some hot scenes. I came out of it feeling genuinely uplifted and positive. While I’ve never quite been in as desperate a position as Ichinari is shown to be in at the outset of the story, I certainly understood a lot of his pain and frustration, and it felt good to be able to ride along with him as he weathered the storm and came out the other side into bright sunshine… particularly with all the erotic fun he got to have along the way. Vicarious wish fulfilment, if you will.
All in all, if this is the calibre of work we can expect from Neko Work H going forward — and, it’s worth noting, the extremely high standard of localisation by Meru of Love Lab Japan — then we’ve got an eroge label that is very much one to watch on our hands.
Better stock up on those tissues, hmm?
Thanks to FAKKU! for the review copy. Pick up a copy of the game for yourself here.
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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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