Review – Blackberry Honey (Switch)
One of the greatest appeals of visual novels is what they bring to the table to help offset them from traditional novels. Besides superb writing, players who dive into a visual novel expect that the experience of the “game” will elevate an already wonderful story through graphics, audio and purposeful pacing. After all, it’s one thing to read about how someone dressed or reacted, and it’s quite another to have some minor cues to help build an even better understanding. Visual novels also often (but not always) give choices and agency to the story, putting the reader in the shoes of the protagonist in order to craft something immersive. Classics like CLANNAD, Robotics;NOTES and Higurashi: When They Cry are incredible tales that are thrust into a parthenon of works through the act of bringing the stories to life.
With Blackberry Honey, a visual novel developed by ebi-hime and published by Ratalaika Games, the deck feels stacked against it from the start. First, from a purely mechanical standpoint, it’s a kinetic visual novel. Kinetic novels means there are no choices, no interactions other than moving the story forward. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: one of my favorites, The Way We All Go, uses the forced direction to bring about a truly unsettling tale. There are others that are quite successful, including the romantic story Highway Blossoms or the melancholy On Earth As It Is In Heaven. However, kinetic novels are inherently a harder sell: without the choices, you then need to lean into the core story itself.
Blackberry Honey is a quasi-romance story set in the 19th century, focusing around Lorina Waugh, a maid who has just been hired at the Hartwell estate after a rather abrupt departure from her previous job. As one might expect, being a maid in the Victorian era is hardly a treat, and Lorina is worked like a dog and bossed around pretty heavily, primarily by the 12 year old daughter of the house, Constance.
Lorina gets along well enough with her fellow servants, but Taohua, an older maid, seems to have taken a real shine to her. Lorina feels a tad uncomfortable with all of Taohua’s attention, and it’s only increased when others begin to say that Taohua might have a connection to the dark arts. But fear not, gentle readers, for Taohua is not a witch: only a lesbian, and a bit of an aggressive one at that, and now we’re into a forbidden love story where the only thing that’s forbidden is the choice for whom Lorina will ultimately go with.
Now, it should be mentioned immediately that Blackberry Honey is playing for a targeted audience, but I can’t quite figure out who it is. On the one hand, a kinetic novel allows you to read it more smoothly without worrying about how the game will be affected by your choices. Lorina is on the same set of tracks from beginning to end no matter when or how you play it. This means you can focus on the writing and the visuals, and the character art is, I must say, decent. It’s got a distinctly Eastern influenced vibe from Western audiences, and the mashup is good, especially in the creation of Taohua. My singular gripe is that Lorina is almost shockingly over endowed, and every single pose that she has looks like she’s trying to hold up her breasts to prevent them from suddenly dragging her, face forward, to the ground.
On the other hand, the kinetic nature also allows you to pick apart certain elements more easily. There’s an overarching theme with a violin that feels like it should have meant more, and it’s constantly in the shadows due to also trying to focus on the burgeoning romance happening within the house. Instead, I feel like we mention the importance of the violin only as a sort of grounding tool to keep us from getting fully wrapped up in the romantic subplots, which feels like a wasted experience. Look, the violin is importance to the history of one character and the horrid decision to sell it in order to start a new life/gain freedom is something that I would argue should be critical, but, instead, we touch upon it and then get interrupted by another makeout scene. Like, where are your priorities, ladies???
Also, Blackberry Honey only has one ending, but the game seems to insinuate others, including the part where Lorina gets kissed by Constance, which is a big no no regardless of era, because Constance is your boss’ daughter, technically also your boss, and distinctly twelve, while Lorina is nineteen. Part of this could easily be construed as an “awakening” moment, but Constance is a mostly unrepentant brat, and she basically punished Lorina later for allowing her to get kissed.
Lorina also gets a bunch of vibes from other maids, but thankfully sticks with Taohua throughout, which is good: Taohua, for all her overt sexuality in the beginning, has a dramatically great backstory that mixes in both classism and race and is told very well. I sincerely enjoyed it when we reached the 9/10ths mark of this game and finally decided to talk about how it might be for a half British, half Chinese woman trying to live in England at that time.
Sadly, there is no voice acting, so Blackberry Honey can only fill the silence with some pleasant but ultimately generic chamber music, which fits the mood yet does nothing to assist with the evoking of feelings. Like so many other games that I’ve played recently, Blackberry Honey suffers from the hard shift from one piece to another, which doesn’t feel dramatic, only jarring. It’s a nice enough soundtrack, but the mixing leaves something to be desired, which leaves me desiring a better experience overall.
When everything boils down, what you’re playing here is a short story. It’s a pretty short story, and the details are well done, particularly with the settings and some of the better portraits. Blackberry Honey paints a tale that I’m sure is wistfully endearing to players who can align with this sort of semi-forbidden love amidst a world deadset on controlling you, and I won’t downplay the importance that it might evoke in certain people. Yet it should be noted that this is an edited story.
The original Blackberry Honey has some heavy sex scenes that, for very obvious reasons, are removed from the Switch version, and there’s no way to patch it in (unlike the Steam and Itch.io versions). While that doesn’t the overall story, it does change the tone, and turns this from a potentially hot and heavy story into one that feels like a late 80s love story. You know, they start kissing, the camera pans over to the window or the clock or something to show the passage of time, and then you pan back to see them wrapped up together in a bedsheet. So it’s up to ya’ll to imagine Lorina and Taohua just FURIOUSLY going at it, and I wonder if it would have been better just to leave the scenes in and have a toggle.
Blackberry Honey is a long afternoon of reading and enjoying some dulcet music with periodically good artwork, and that’s the long and short of it. While it’s far from the worst visual novel I’ve ever played, I think you need to want something sweet and lusty in order to fully enjoy it, and I have a hard time getting into that headspace while holding my Switch. Come for the premise, stay for the game icon of two women kissing on your Switch home screen, and then enjoy a ton of maid outfits that only fulfill a fetish incidentally, not purposely. But please remember: if a woman kisses you and then demands you go out in a storm to look for her doll, something has gone wrong with your life.
Sweetly drawn with some good details, but Lorina’s chest is just confusing.
As straightforward a visual novel as can be. A kinetic novel, meaning there is little to no intereactivity involved.
Not a bad soundtrack, but not really a good one either.
The story really chugged in the first half, but the back half does give closure, relief and some actual connection.
Final Verdict: 5.5
Blackberry Honey is available now on PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Blackberry Honey was provided by the publisher.