Review – Venus: Improbable Dream
It’s important to know your audience when you move forward with developing a video game. For example, if I were to make a brand new, ultra-realistic baseball simulator that had terrible swing mechanics BUT gave plenty of backstory on why each player joined the league, it would probably be well-received by the right critics. However, a vast majority of players would pan me because they come to a sports game to play sports, not to understand who was inspired by Mike Piazza back in ‘97.
By the same swing, if I’m making a dating sim about cat girls in a cafe (what a wild notion, right?) but give you more information about the day-to-day of the economics instead of the girls’ details, I’m pretty sure it would only be embraced ironically while my actual sales plummeted. It’s about striking a balance and understanding where things lie, and Venus: Improbable Dream teeters a bit too wildly on the line.
Venus: Improbable Dream stars Kakeru, would-be shut in who is a loner in school because of a growth on his face. Okay, given the pictures that we see of Kakeru, it’s more because he’s super focused on the growth on his face and blames everyone else for his demeanor, but that’s not the point. His parents and the principal are both worried about his social growth, so they come up with a proposal: try the music club to make acquaintances and also nurture his piano skills. After a decent but stumbling audition, Kakeru follows the sweet sound of flute music to find Haruka, a blind musician who feels similarly disconnected. Both lovebirds then embark on tandem journeys together, discovering their own feelings and dreams for what could be, and slowly coming to the realization that their fates may actually be intertwined, depending on your input.
Venus: Improbable Dream is a branching visual novel, but players should be aware from the getgo that the number of choices in the game are shockingly few initially, almost to the point that I was beginning to think it was a kinetic novel. You’ll spend a long, long time reading Kakeru’s views and thoughts on what’s going on and his reactions before you finally get to have any kind of interaction with the game. As a visual novel, the play time is rather short: a dedicated player could probably ferret out all four endings within a day or so, and do so without too much stress. If you set the text speed to maximum and skip everything you’ve already read, this could be a half day’s journey in total.
Presentation-wise, Venus: Improbable Dream is a standard affair that’s pleasing without being extraordinary. The visuals are a blend of filtered real-life settings with anime characters superimposed whenever they engage in dialogue. It reminded me a bit of how the original Higurashi looked, though the cast is far from being as rounded and childish. The developers clearly wanted to capture a good range of settings for Kakeru to walk through in his life, with the result being authentic and, at times, comical.
Naturally, you’ll spend a lot of time within the classroom, the music room, your own home and the halls of your school, that’s just a given. But Kakeru also takes the same walk home a lot, causing him to pause at the same corner with the sun just peeking around to wax poetic about his thoughts and his own opinions about the world. Additionally, I know that Kakeru has to use the bathroom (and it’s a good place for “guy talk” confrontations), but we spent way too many frames chilling in front of a wall of urinals, and it all started to feel like a parody of itself.
The soundtrack for Venus: Improbable Dream is a pleasant, simple selection of instrumentals, ranging from straight piano solos to discordant synthesizers and almost nostalgic-feeling backbeats. The result is something that brings a deliberate but successful vibe of anime from the 90s, like I’m witnessing a G-rated Golden Boy or a less quirky version of Ranma ½. It’s quite enjoyable as long as you’re moving along with the text at a decent rate, but it can really falter during long stretches of reading. Certain tracks, most notably the more classical feeling tunes, aren’t looped properly and end up with a jarring ending as they suddenly stop, give you silence, and then begin from the top in a way that expresses some annoyance on the game’s behalf.
For a visual novel, we all know that none of the fireworks are worth watching if the bones aren’t good, and Venus: Improbable Dream is in a very tenuous spot. On the one hand, it’s good to have a game with such a lofty title still be rather cemented in reality in terms of both possibilities and execution. I was genuinely concerned that we were going to find out Haruka was some kind of celestial being like Yu-No, but she was grounded in reality, both in terms of her ambitions and the reality of her disability. Haruka isn’t limited by things, but she also doesn’t pretend that she isn’t blind.
The supporting cast, for the most part, has a good range to them, from some supportive but tough-love parents to the leader of the music club who only cares about Kakeru as much as what he can do musically. The journey for self-discovery and knowing where you are in this world is an important one, and I think Kakeru mostly has a relatable trip that gives way to different but still very understandable endings. Nothing is too dark or too light: no one is going to need trigger warnings for when they reach the climax of it all.
On the other hand, there are moments that are so bone dry that they made me beg for something chaotic to happen. The moment when Kakeru started to have a panic attack was a time when I thought there was a big twist or turn coming, but nothing came of it. He went home, skived off his promise and went to school the next day, receiving nothing but understanding and good natured ribbing. When I finally got a chance to make a choice in the game, it was to go to the library or eat lunch with Haruka. I made my choice, read through the unfolding connection, and eventually got to make the same choice again.
Several times in a row, my only branching concern in the game was where I would next hang out with Haruka, and I only got those same two choices. There were so many moments that happened previously where I was sure I would get a chance to throw in my two cents, but no: Kakeru bumbled on ahead without my input, and I was reduced to where my school date was going to be. Thankfully, the “Back” feature of the game allows you to even rewind through choices, so I had multiple save slots to confirm that nothing really changed except for final decisions much later on.
Venus: Improbable Dream sits in a very odd position in the visual novel world, and I’m not sure if it’s for better or worse. It doesn’t nearly have the teeth of something like Steins;Gate or The Way We All Go, but it also isn’t as saccharine as Strawberry Vinegar, instead floating somewhere in between. Kakeru and Haruka are a cute pairing without too much insinuation, and Kakeru himself is a fine protagonist, but just fine. He doesn’t have enough humor in his self-loathing, and he has too much awareness in his talent to make his modesty seem genuine. He isn’t unlikable, but he also isn’t the best dude to have to follow around.
Truthfully, I would have liked to see the game from the other side: it would have been interesting for Haruka’s vantage in darkness to be our focal point and how her life evolves. Maybe not as exciting visually, but it could be a fascinating approach. If you aren’t super into visual novels, Venus: Improbable Dream is a decent little investment in terms of both time and understanding the mechanics, and it’s enjoyable both in how the story plays out and the soundtrack itself. It is, however, a very limited trip, and I can’t say that I’ll be back to play this one again when I’m scratching my head for what to do. It’s good, but it just falls flat.
While the characters were a bit rough, the overall effect was satisfying and captured the spirit of the game.
Too few choices to do anything of impact, but on point with how the protagonist lived his life.
Excellent balance of instrumental and electronic, just wish there was more variety.
While we did get to the heart of Kakeru’s identity, there wasn’t enough that grabbed me to keep the party going.
Final Verdict: 7.0
Venus: Improbable Dream is available now on PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Venus: Improbable Dream was provided by the publisher.