Looking over my past posts, it’s easy to get the impression that I enjoy picking on the early projects of known-creators. After all, project #1 is a guaranteed to be their worst. But, truthfully, I enjoy playing the first VNs for my favorite creators because it helps me appreciate the ones I love so much. Such is the case with the gaming company Unbroken Hours, who gave me my one of my favorite Life-Sim/Visual Novels to date: Heartstring Bugs.
-Link here if you wanna read that-
This game especially caught my eye since Heartstring makes mention of it a few times and even features costumes of the characters. This is Frozen Essence, their debut game that started it all.
We open to a cult – complete with capes and dark foreboding attitudes – checking up on their prized possession: a girl, frozen in crystal. Suddenly, through some mildly confusing wibbly-wobbly magic, the girl is freed from her prison and rescued by a different cloaked figure. She learns that her name is Mina and that she created a realm of perfect blue crystal to live in now. The man identifies himself as her Oracle and warns her that she is not safe on the outside world. She is to remain here, where her three bodyguards will feed her life essence to keep her alive.
But a voice called out to Mina, claiming that it needs her urgent help. She steps outside her safe place and suddenly finds herself in the clutches of that same evil cult, The White Order. They have information about what she is and they want nothing more than to keep her sealed yet again for an eternity. Because, like it or not, her very presence brings nothing but sadness and death.
As mentioned prior, this was one of Unbroken Hours’ early projects. The gameplay itself isn’t bad, but the story is very rough around the edges.
Things here work like a typical Otome in the Ren’Py engine. As the story unfolds, you get prompted to make decisions that alter the main story either a little or a lot. The goal is to get closer to a specific character in the first two arcs, with a third arc that’s unique in each path. What’s fascinating about the choice system is that there isn’t really an easy way to figure out which character you’re earning points with and it requires you to spend time with almost all of them at any given point. In a way, I feel this makes the game a bit more complete than others.
The story itself is pleasing – it smacks of a 90’s anime and hits all my nostalgia love – but the writing is where some of the “First Time” mistakes start rearing their silly heads. It occasionally sounds unnatural and clunky, with sentence structure that made the perfectionist in me start twitching. The dynamics of the game were also rather strange, as the actions characters took weren’t always described very well. Funny enough, fights were accompanied by a smacking clip that sounded like they were getting into slap-fights constantly.
But, I’d be remiss not to mention what was, salvageable from this game. The plot itself has a lot of replayability with two or sometimes three endings per character. And, while the effects were a bit lost in absurdity, I do applaud the game for having lots of movement to it, be it moving sprites or blood spatter. I can see the beginnings here of what made me love Heartstring Bugs, and I’d much rather have an intricate read than a generic one.
And now we get to the part where I have to take away points. Since this was the first VN for Unbroken Hours, and the debut for artist VenusEclipse, it’s expected that the art won’t be professional grade. I was pleasantly surprised at the backgrounds, which were very oil-painting-like and beautiful, but I was very disappointed with the sprites. What they had in expression and pose variation, they lost for looking skewed with awkward proportions.
That being said, you have to fall before you fly. Artist VenusEclipse has gotten much better, and I highly recommend checking out their DeviantArt page. If they were willing to update the art for the game with the talent they display now, I’d be willing to pay money to see it.
Rune is one of the first bodyguards you meet. He’s a bit uptight and super protective, demanding that you remain in your created realm for all eternity strictly for his own sake. He has nothing but disdain for the outside world and wishes to remain in your peaceful, everlasting realm to sleep… and sleep… and sleep some more…
But, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Rune’s obsession with peaceful slumber – and overall hatred for life – has some damn good reasons and I won’t spoil any of it, because it is pretty fascinating, but I can safely say Rune earns his spot as the longest story in the entire game. It’s an intense, but time-consuming path, but it’s well worth the play.
Ah, the bad boy, and super popular with the fans. It’s just a shame I could barely stand him.
Caius is dangerous, no ifs or buts. He was a former assassin who kinda got tricked into being your bodyguard and he’s not happy about it. He enjoys seeing people sad and/or in pain and can’t fathom why in the world anyone would worry about him or show any kind of attachment. That won’t stop him from using said feelings to his advantage and, predictably, falling head-over-heels in a real sudden fashion. And I do mean sudden, as Caius’s fall from Jackasshood seems awful quick.
I was never into the “tame the bad-boy” routes in these games, so I was more annoyed by Caius than anything. I found his antics grating and that sudden turnaround rather amusing. I think he’d make a better impression if he had more character development or if more time were devoted to him slowly being socialized. He still wouldn’t quite be my type, but at least it wouldn’t give me mood-whiplash.
When you do decide to step outside into the big bad outside world, you’re rescued by a strange-looking fellow hanging around your realm and an Inn in the southern continent. He’s on the persnickety side and seems to be constantly busy, so interacting with him is a bit difficult. But if you can – and I highly suggest it – you’ll see that something clearly has him conflicted. This man, who holds his morals so dear, who truly wants to be the hero of the world, looks like he’s suffering from quite the inner struggle. And it all has to do with you.
Writing-wise, I was very impressed with Varian’s route. He displays the kind of character development I think Caius was missing, making his eventual “epiphany” at a later date much smoother and more realistic. While there were still points that could be smoothed out, I can safely say that Varian as a character was a well-written example of just how skilled Unbroken Hours can be with making likable people.
Speaking of likable people, I want you to meet my second-favorite route of the game. Aurelius is one of the Hex-Guardians, people who watch over the five hex spheres that keep balance in the world. He’s one of the more popular ones, here at the glorious Sapphire Festival to bring gifts from his home-kingdom of Luveria, where he finds himself drawn to the dark, foreboding aura around Mina. He pledges that he will lift it from her and make her the happiest woman possible and he’s not taking no for an answer.
Aurelius hits what I have dubbed the “Tamaki-Suoh Sweet Spot.” For those who haven’t seen Ouran Host Club, this is when a character is, indeed, flirty and thick as a brick, but is genuine in their want to help people and just doesn’t really know any better. It’s really the only way I can like any kind of Charmer Path and I found it oddly satisfying to see the White Knight played straight.
Secret Path – Oracle
But let’s say for a second that none of the above appealed to you. Caius is a jerk; Rune is grumpy; Aurelius is a flirt, and Varian is whiny. That just leaves you to trust your Oracle, that dark shadowy figure that’s been keeping secrets from you, with an unhealthy obsession with keeping you in your realm. Can you really trust this loyal but risky fifth party?
Asi t turns out, yes, because you’ll finally learn what started this whole mess if you do. Once again, the secret path turned out to be the best part of this entire game as it gives you all the answers and provides you a unique romantic interest. If you wanna find out just how deep this rabbit hole goes, give this one a try. Be aware that this will be a lengthy exposition-dump.
Or, you know what? Screw all of them. You are death incarnate, should you so choose. And maybe it’s about time you exacted some revenge on the group that put you inside that crystal in the first place?
In short, you have the option to say “screw the world, I have evil,” and give into Mina’s dangerous powers. It’s very rare that a game gives you the option to be a total badass/villain at the end of the game and it’s insanely fun. But I would only do so after exploring all the other options.
For all of its faults – and there are several – I did enjoy playing Frozen Essence. I can see the seeds that led Unbroken Hours to become as good as they are now, and the story was good enough that what did go wrong can be brushed off.
Next Time: Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town.
-Announcement: This part of the blog will be moved into the rotation of Saturday posts. This is not only to accommodate the large project I’m about to embark on but to allow for more time to cover more extensive games and for new ones to come out. Thank you to my readers for their patience and understanding.