Review – Jack Jeanne
It’s important to pursue your dreams, any teacher or parent will tell you that right up until they actually hear what your dream is. It’s easy for adults to encourage children when they think children are having the same dreams they did: become a doctor, a basketball player, an insurance salesperson. Once the child says what they want, however, an adult will immediately regret this encouragement because the adult thinks the dream is terrible. This isn’t exclusively for parents who have to hear that their kid wants to become a professional VTuber: I mean, it’s still disappointing, but it’s not isolated. Even my parents were disappointed that I wanted to become a video game designer, since I had no coding skills, no art skills, and no storytelling skills. Hey, they were practical, not monsters.
But it’s always impressive for someone to follow their dreams against all odds, even when they are practically insurmountable. Take our protagonist, Kisa Tachibana, from Jack Jeanne, an otome title from Aksys Games. She really wants to get into the Univeil Theatrical Academy, following in the footsteps of her brother, Tsuki, who seems to have vanished after graduation. However, Univeil is an all boys school, and schools tend to frown on you dodging their most basic application standard.
But when the principal of the school just happens to be hanging out in a park and actively encourages you to apply in spite of this, what else can you do? Naturally, Kisa gets accepted, and now has to deal with multiple obstacles. Become the star of her year or get expelled. Hide her sex from all classmates. And figure out how an otome and a rhythm game can coexist in harmony.
Mechanically, Jack Jeanne feels a lot more like the Tokimeki Memorial series of games, like an incredibly boiled down version of Girl’s Side that takes place in gender-swapped Takarazuka. Each weekday, Kisa has to decide which class she’ll study to boost a stat, all of which center around stage performance. So increase your charm, your voice, your drama and so forth a bit at a time, which will, in turn, help you out with your aptitude and your connection to other characters. Come weekends, you can run around and visit different people to build your skills/relationships, or you can rest, which I highly advise players not to forget. There’s nothing worse than being in a rehearsal week and running out of juice, collapsing and needing one of your classmates to give you CPR or whatever you’d imagine would happen in this scenario.
Everything about the game centers around the performances, which are progress markers for the school year and, ultimately, the game. As you move forward, Kisa’s ability to thrive and perform are the decider if she gets to continue at the school. Getting trophies for the musical and dance numbers means better overall recognition, and also allows you to build with characters more. Even for an otome game, things progress exceedingly slowly, and failure to engage with the NPCs around you means boiling everything down to a purely stat-based gameplay, which is, frankly, boring. I had to resort to that at several points simply because things stopped happening. You just get a run of days where you go to class, buff a stat and call it a day. It’s awful.
Before anything else, let me put a couple of concerns to rest. Anyone who wanted to bail when I mentioned rhythm games can sit down and hush, because this is EASY. Using some fairly traditional lane systems that are more Tap Tap Revenge than Theatrythmn, the game has no penalty for doing musical moments on easy mode, which is almost insultingly easy. Singing asks you to be in the right lane when a note hits, whereas dancing is more “push the button when I say so.” You can scale it to a harder level for your own amusement, but it’s just for personal challenge, and you’ll want to keep it easy if you’re angling to unlock the best endings that come with the game. If you can figure out where the shoulder buttons are and not fling your Nintendo Switch across the room in a fit of musical enrapturement, you’re fine.
Easy doesn’t mean boring, though, and I think the musical quotients of Jack Jeanne is something that is woefully underutilized. Besides the stunning voicework front to back, there is a gorgeous arrangement of original music that captures the elegance, beauty, and sometimes absurdity of the seasonal performances your character must engage in. The music lends itself so well to the rhythm aspect that I found myself revisiting the songs time and again upon completion, which is easy to do thanks to the developers allowing them to be accessed anytime after you play them in the performances. It flows naturally, even on higher difficulty levels, making the rhythm more intuitive than memory based. The only gripe there is that there are so few tracks that you run out of replay there quickly.
Thankfully, Jack Jeanne is shot through with a whole host of characters that all have a ton of backstory going on to keep things interesting where the gameplay lags. You’ve got Sou, your friend from elementary school who is the only student who knows your secret.
There’s Suzu, the buff carrot top who has a heart of gold and a knack for not noticing a girl even when trying to stage kiss her. Upperclassmen who both admire and envy your ability to be feminine. Teachers who have different goals of their own. Insane fans who flit in and out of existence at the drop of a hat. Your best friend who is trying SO HARD not to blow your cover and will probably do that by accident on some route. There’s a lot of side story that you can eat with a knife and fork as everyone hams up every single interaction you have inside and outside the class.
It’s a good thing the characters are so engaging because, frankly, I think the artwork is a bit unappealing. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of shots, scenes, and frames that look gorgeous, especially when doing a performance or having an intimate moment between Kisa and another cast member. But a majority of the portraits during standard conversations and exposition look very rough and angular in a wholly unattractive away.
There’s very minor animation when everyone talks, so much so that, if two new NPCs are brought in at the same time, you might not initially know who is who. It also makes some characters more expressive than others. Professor Neji, for example, does wildly exaggerated facial expressions that sell his character’s eccentricity, whereas Mitsuki, a more feminine character, tends to have micro movements for both happiness and irritation.
Yet that’s a big aspect of the appeal is the relationships you build within Jack Jeanne. This could have been an incredibly lazy and easy formula in the wrong hands: only girl at an all boys school, let the awkward 80s tropes role, and then quietly slot this somewhere to age terribly. Instead, there’s almost an atmosphere of understanding that couldn’t exist in games years ago.
This isn’t “boys are dumb and can’t even recognize a girl right under their noses.” It’s “everyone understands that there’s a fluidity to gender and not everyone is a stereotype.” The reason Kisa passes as long as she does is because she’s at Univeil to study, and her classmates are there to do the same. It’s SHOCKING to think that a group of people are there to improve their education and chase their dreams instead of trying to get laid, but that’s the forward thinking we need nowadays!
It’s always a choice to give a protagonist a voice and opinions in any sort of game, and Broccoli/Aksys has done a marvelous job in making Kisa a reliable, fluctuating, and positive centerpiece. She is able to reason out her decisions for why things happen in a relatable manner and connect with everyone – teachers, friends, crazy people from other classes – in a meaningful way. Unlike other otome titles, we aren’t constantly questioning if people are talking down to Kisa or humoring her because she’s the Mary Sue of the whole affair. Not to name names, but I’ve played too many titles where a seemingly dim lead stumbles into all manner of success and love by being the Bella of the visual novel world.
Instead, knowing that her comrades view Kisa as a valuable teammate or dangerous rival leads to more honesty, more vulnerability when it’s time to share themselves. Teachers aren’t just praising her for being “so brave,” they’re astonished at her skill set and can’t help but laud her. Yes, there’s a bit of a blowback once we realize she isn’t playing a girl but is a girl, yet the other elements – her singing, her dancing, her dramatic flair – are indisputable. When an ending finally lands, be it with someone on her arm or not, you feel satisfied by the path that Kisa has walked, and can easily replay for another circuit at the school.
I suppose that’s the last note: as far as otome titles go, Jack Jeanne is rather short, clocking in at just over twenty hours for a full run. Once you’ve hit the major story elements, replay, and uncovering additional character development is a rather short affair. From what I can tell, there isn’t a “true” ending that’ll require multiple plays, but I could be wrong. That isn’t a bad thing, though. Sometimes you don’t want to dedicate the next five weeks of waking gameplay to only trying to figure out how to make Satan fall in love with you or whatever it is Voltage’s next bizarre title asks of you. Sometimes you just want to see a snapshot of life and experience joy through another’s eyes.
Players looking for an epic, sweeping romance or a bevy of boys just dying to be your arm candy should invest their time and efforts elsewhere. Instead, if you’re interested in watching a young woman pursue her dreams against all odds and actually being lifted up and encouraged in the process, then may I invite you to the curtain call of Jack Jeanne. It really is something to behold.
Lovely school and set design, characters look amazing in costumes, excellent moments of artwork for specific moments, yet the individual avatars and portraits look, at times, just rough and ugly.
Take traditional otome aspects of a school life sim. Mix in a decent number of rhythm mini games and choices. Keep the interactions varied, the choices short but poignant, and let the player see where the future takes them. Excellent mixture without over complication.
Stellar voicework from all parties. Background score helps to underline moments of absurdity, triumph, sad exposition, and potential danger. Music for the different performances is unbelievably good and lends itself to the rhythm aspect in an unexpectedly fantastic way.
Fully engaged from the word go, with just enough mechanical choices to keep me active instead of just reading. Couldn’t get enough music, wanted to desperately to live in this world.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Jack Jeanne is available now on Nintendo Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Jack Jeanne was provided by the publisher.