Review – Chemically Bonded (Nintendo Switch)
Chemically Bonded, a crowdfunded visual novel out of the UK and published by Ratalaika Games, comes from a very sincere place. After all, a genre of gaming that is dominated by the Japanese market and often full of incredibly pricey but dynamically crafted works is a tough spot to enter. Even moreso when you consider the amazing titles that have already come out this year, but you should never be discouraged just because there’s bigger kids on the playground. If Omori had hesitated just because Cyberpunk 2077 was launching in the same month, we never would have gotten an amazing and utterly disturbing indie game that haunts my waking life.
Sincerity, however, needs to tread the line when it begins to lean into the position of parody. That is to say, visual novels exist and breathe thanks to tropes and archetypes (look no further than Archetype Academia for confirmation). You have certain posts to hit in order for a game to qualify one way or another. Not enough choices and you end up with a kinetic experience that you have to spin to remain relevant (which Ghostpia did fantastically). Too many choices and you have to keep players on their toes to care about where their fate lands (such as with Inescapable). Threading the needle is the key to not ending up with something too cookie cutter or worse, something that feels mocking. Chemically Bonded, tragically, ends up on the other side of this very fine line.
Placing you in the shoes of a listless and slightly nihilistic high school boy, you suddenly end up joining the Science Club at school because of the insistence and adorability of one Kiyoko, a bookish but exuberant classmate. However, you paying attention to Kiyoko draws the ire of Naomi, who demands you stay away from Kiyoko and does so in an aggressive manner that you don’t entirely dislike. Over the course of a couple of days, you learn that Kiyoko and Naomi were once the best of friends, but had a terrible falling out. This, naturally, leads you to want to repair their friendship by any means necessary, and if that means you accidentally end up dating one or both of them in the process, then so be it. How does that logic track? It doesn’t, or at least it shouldn’t if you’re a good human being.
Chemically Bonded asks you to take a lot of ideas and suspend them right away, and it does so with the same air and atmosphere as a romantic comedy from the 90s. If you defuse a situation by making a suggestive remark, it will fluster the other person instead of you getting beaten. If you just keep hammering away at someone to spend time with you, they’ll relent instead of calling the police. And the most important thing in the world, more than academics or even basic human needs, is you, the man’s, happiness. To HELL with what everyone else is doing, don’t you see how important your enjoyment of other people is???
As a visual novel, Chemically Bonded is well drawn, and I cannot dispute that. Ds-sans (the developers) have done a marvelous job in crafting some great portraits and avatar representation for the characters, even the male side supports. There’s no denying that Kiyoko and Naomi both represent important traits for people looking at a romantic visual novel (body type and curvature), which is icky to type out but still valid for what the game is seeking to deliver. The backdrops are solid, and the love for Japanese culture and settings bleeds through with a good mix of cityscapes, school rooms and the home, though I argue the protagonists’ house looks way too big for a typical Japanese home. Oh, and the inclusion of the “all characters are eighteen” at the beginning wasn’t…like, if you know this is going to get weird, maybe change things up so it doesn’t feel so weird?
The audio is split down the center in two distinct categories. On the one hand, Chemically Bonded does a decent job of a soundtrack throughout, though it’s mostly forgettable. On the other hand, the voicework is, at times, deeply unpleasant. Naomi’s speaking mannerisms are really forced, like its attempts to be tsundere and mean are being done at gunpoint. Kiyoko sounds far too young, and her nasally, high pitched voice makes me feel like an eleven year old girl is confessing her love, which is seriously disquieting. Some of the side characters are decent, but I also feel that’s because I didn’t need to hear them frequently. Satoru is energetic enough, but Mr. Kabeer is rather lecherous, which is never how you want a teacher to come across. Ceri, who is the protagonist from ds-sans other game (Sound of her Love) is surprisingly the best voiced character, so be sure to go check out that free to play VN if you’ve got a couple of hours.
Writing is okay, and that’s as far as I can take that trip: just okay. There are typos that crop up every so often, and the inner monologue of the protagonist is some of the same meat and potatoes “I’m either a genius or incredibly dumb with other people’s emotions” that drives this kind of slice of life story. Also, the main crux of Kiyoko and Naomi’s falling out could and should have been facilitated without the need of a dude. Heck, just from the splash screen and concept, I thought maybe this would be a yuri title, but I’m afraid Chemically Bonded fails the Bechdel test in spectacular fashion. Thank goodness we have this random dude here to leer at everyone, make shallow observations and fix everything with his
Which brings us to the gameplay. You’ll never meet an easier visual novel to navigate that isn’t kinetic. Chemically Bonded makes it crystal clear how to get the ending you want, and it’s actually a bit harder to get the bad or neutral endings. If you want to be with Kiyoko, spend time with her. If you want to be with Naomi, spend time with her. Lather, rinse, repeat. Even the developers realized how simple this is, because the ending shot of you kissing whomever you “win” looks like the same photo with the models swapped out. I’m not asking for highfalutin choices that can leave you in shock, but something better than a character asking “Will you keep seeing her???” and you say yes or no to move the story forward.
The whole thing just feels so bland at times and comes across like Chemically Bonded wanted to draw in a fanbase on fan services alone. There’s a gratuitous underwear shot early on in the game, complete with the protagonist staring WAY TOO LONG and analyzing her body. Why does it feel so frigging creepy to look at a teenage girl and be like “she’s got an athletic build”? Oh right, probably because it’s creepy even if you’re theoretically the same age. Also, when a character is trying to let their emotions out and explain their pain/exhaustion, it’s a panty shot. All of these and more are in the opening cinematic, so you don’t even need to play the game to creep properly. There was even a stretch goal on the crowdfunding page to get “more fanservice,” so I shudder to think what the devs were/are planning for the future of these girls.
Getting from point A to B in Chemically Bonded takes only the effort of reading and little else. There’s a few endings but all can be achieved rather easily. It’s a contained universe that doesn’t feel like it merits sequels, but who knows, maybe more might be on the way? The glimpse of Ceri and the art style makes me feel like there’s potential for more from ds-sans, but I hope they swing for the fences next time. Bring out something exciting and different, not the visual novel equivalent of an episode of Ed. There’s plenty of potential here, but I’m afraid the chemicals never bond: they just fizzle out.
Well crafted characters and backdrops proves a lot of love and interest from the developers. A wide variety of visual emotions and outfits shows consideration for the evoultion of the game, and things generally sit well in the anime styling without being too offputting.
The choices are standard checkpoints and you rarely, if ever, get more than two options. Decisions are very obvious in terms of goalposts desired, and not a lot of replay value creates a rather static experience.
The soundtrack is standard and forgettable, but the voice work is generally unpleasant. From forced anger to uncomfortable age play, the tone set by the game keeps me fully on the outside unless I play with reading only.
There wasn’t any point where I sympathized with a single person in the game. Kiyoko’s sadness and Naomi’s hurt just felt like two people who needed to talk for a minute, and, behold, that’s all that happened. I just read and kept hoping we’d reach the end soon.
Final Verdict: 4.5
Chemically Bonded is available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PC and Switch.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.
A copy of Chemically Bonded was provided by the publisher.