Romance visual novels (often conflated with dating sims) tend to have a particular structure. In it, a white bread definitely-18 year-old boy is whisked away to a new setting because of some unusual circumstance; usually a high school of some description. Once there, he meets a harem of pretty girls—each emblematic of some archetypal trope—one or more of whom falls in love with him. He usually has few personality traits to maximise the reader’s ability to self-insert—although he is often sarcastic and prone to longwinded introspection. He is also bafflingly averse to the idea of a relationship (as if to say “we’re not just doing this so you can fuck the girls, we swear”) while invariably reducing the girls to their physical assets and the puzzle the reader must solve to get at them (as if to say “just kidding, we are”). Missing Stars is no different.
Having formed in early 2012 in the wake of 4-Leaf Studios’ Katawa Shoujo, Missing Stars sought to emulate its predecessor’s success by taking a near-identical approach to the premise: instead of romancing girls with physical disabilities, they would romance girls living with mental illness. Fans of Katawa Shoujo jumped aboard the fledgling project in much the same way as its own developers once jumped upon the drawing by Raita which inspired that game. After six years, Missing Stars released its first public demo on January 6th. Putting all reservations about the premise and troubled development process aside, I will detail my experience and thoughts therein below.
Missing Stars gives a strong first impression. It opens on the protagonist, Erik Wilhelm, in the midst of a panic attack. His fraught narration and sharp music ramp up the tension as he relives a past trauma and his struggle to regain composure as it passes. The following scenes introduce us to Erik’s family and his new setting: Vienna, Austria. It is here the strength began to falter, as the pace slows right down and the reader must sit through this and an entire second and third round of character introductions and setting tours as Erik arrives at his new school, St. Dymphna’s Privatgymnasium (that’s private school, for us English speakers), an institution specialising in educating youngsters battling mental illnesses.
Make no mistake; this is not a ‘special school’ in the common sense of housing intellectually-challenged folk. The narration goes to suspiciously great pains to point out that the residents of St. Dymphna’s are ‘broken’, not slow. This cynicism recurs across the length of the demo, with Erik frequently lapsing into thinking of his fellow students as ‘crazy’ and playing into rather negative stereotypes about people falling under that umbrella. That is, if he isn’t sexualising them. However, at other times he muses on how ‘normal’ everyone looks and acts, and how maybe there’s nothing wrong with them after all. What seems like two ends of a character arc instead flips and flops on a scene-to-scene—sometimes sentence-to-sentence—basis. Ironically, this characterisation comes off as somewhat schizophrenic.
Nevertheless, some character moments do make an impression. Erik reveals a passion for geography and hiking (which may have something to do with his accident) and has a handful of lines that are delightfully quirky (see below). I only wish they were much more prevalent than the overbearing prejudice he displays.
Other characters are, thankfully, much less scattershot in their portrayals. That said, they also have considerably less screen time than Erik. This is due in part to the significant number of them. In the demo alone, there are at least 16 characters introduced to the reader, with most of those back-loaded into the second half (a single 24-hour period of in-game time, even!). Of those, 4 are Erik’s family (with Gustav, a mysterious 5th, never seen), 4 are St. Dymphna’s staff, 4 are potential love interests (per the website) and the rest are mainly fellow students. This is a lot to take in in such a short amount of time, much less leave a lasting impression. And there are still yet more to be seen! Notably, two further love interests don’t even make an appearance in the demo!
With the revolving door of characters, the pace suddenly seems to be going too fast, and I wish it would have eased off the gas a little. That’s not to say I want to see scenes of filler in between the current to space them out. Rather, a stronger focus on the main players (i.e. love interests) early on would benefit Missing Stars greatly, with secondary characters fleshed out later down the line. In that respect, it is hard to give praise or criticism to them with a few notable exceptions.
Katja, pictured above, stands out as the most characterised of the main crew. She has two dedicated scenes to flesh out her personality and both provide some of the strongest writing for our protagonist as well. After her is Anneliese, who, without a single line of dialogue, manages to show the reader exactly what she’s about. Her introduction stands out as a shining moment of subtlety in the demo. The broken English of the Volkova twins (figure 3 below) grated a little, but I am willing to hand wave that as long as it doesn’t continue for the entire story (read: remain a stereotype).
(As a side note, I’ll point out that despite the Austrian setting, St. Dymphna’s enrols students from across Europe, leading to nearly every character introduction involving the respective parties saying where they’re from—a weird idiosyncrasy that tires as quickly as Erik’s affirmations that he is nervous or his sisters’ tendency to elbow jab each other when saying something they shouldn’t. This heavy-handedness recurs often, which is a shame.)
On the other end of the scale is Fran. Their initial appearance invokes the androgynous archetype, which is not in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, given that they seem to be set up to be Erik’s main friend (and probable wingperson), I am quite pleased by this choice. However, the writing belabours the point of their androgyny; in one scene even featuring two other characters (who seemingly are already acquainted with Fran, if only recently) arguing about whether Fran is a boy or girl. With no conclusive answer, I will stick to using ‘they’ forms, which is more than can be said about Missing Stars’ writers.
The ‘are they or aren’t they’ approach calls to mind certain ‘gay panic’ sentiments for Fran. This is only exacerbated when, in an incredibly jarring scene transition, Fran regales Erik on how they once set out with a friend to entrap boys into taking both their virginities, further taking the time to probe Erik for whether he is a ‘kissless virgin’ or not. Compounded with the setting (a school for youth battling mental illnesses, may I remind you) this raises some uncomfortable implications as to why Fran is enrolled there. Perhaps this impression is unfounded, but I’m yet to be offered solace for it.
But, with even all that, I hesitate to label Fran inherently offensive. Misguided in portrayal, perhaps, but an attempt was made to be inclusive. No, I will save that term for my most disliked characters, Lena and Ms. Wieck. The latter is the lesser of two evils, if only because she has minimal presence. Her sins amount to being a poor role model (irresponsible, offering a smoke to her students) and making terribly off-colour jokes about how the administration handles ‘incidents’. The former, however, seemed to actively go about drawing my ire whenever she appeared on screen.
Her first appearance is serenaded by a loud, angry, metal leitmotif, her physical appearance is highlighted by a loud, angry, metal muzzle (!!!) and her dialogue is fraught with lines that sound like they came right out of the Edgy Teen’s Handbook™, second edition. Most bizarrely, Erik seems to react nonchalantly to almost everything about her. I have been told that this is intentional on the part of her writer, but I must stress how blatantly that is at odds with the development team’s mission statement (per the website). I could not believe my eyes each time I advanced the text in her scenes. Lena encapsulates the worst aspects of every component that makes up Missing Stars.
Moving on from characters themselves, the character sprites vary in quality. That’s not to say any are particularly bad. It’s quite apparent that there is a team of artists work on them, and although they’ve tried valiantly to have a consistent style, they don’t quite make it. Some of the best ones include Katja, Sofiya and Ela (whom I suspect were all drawn by the same artist). Of particular note is the voluminous hair they share, which is at once realistic and stylised. There are also a few CGs to introduce major characters, which all look gorgeous. I do wonder about the framing of two, though: Erik’s classroom introduction, which makes him look awfully short, and Katja’s, which—as the text ever-so-helpfully points out—nearly shows her panties.
The backgrounds are similarly varying, although not so much in terms of quality. The majority of backgrounds are photographs that have been filtered to give off a kind of painterly aesthetic. They look fine, although they repeat for different locations on a few occasions and don’t really give a sense of cohesion (with each other and with the rest of the art). A more considered set of photos (preferably without people visible) would be helpful if they decide to go that route. The other backgrounds are rendered 3D, which stand out from the former. They appear to be works in progress, and I have developer confirmation that custom backgrounds are the intended end state; I should hope they will look more finished in that case.
As for the UI, the standard Ren’Py layout seems to be in effect, although with a much higher quality coat of paint, especially on the save and load screens. The lines are sharp and make few distinct borders, instead relying on a translucent fade effect that encloses the text. The blue and white colour scheme matches the title screen, but I can’t help feeling the UI as a whole doesn’t suit the content. I’m not really certain why. It looks nice at the very least, if a bit laggy when navigating the menus. One point of contention is the name tags for dialogue; they are colour-coded to each character, and some get lost in the background. Notably, Erik’s sister is always labelled as ‘Brunhilde’ despite her usually going by ‘Hilda’ as denoted in text.
Besides the opening scene’s theme and Lena’s theme, the music left little impression on me. It was simply inoffensive, adequately backing a scene without drawing any particular attention. One fellow reader noted a piano track that was noticeably louder than others, but I didn’t pick up on it. What I did notice, however, is that often the tracks didn’t transition well into each other, usually hard cutting without even a trace of a fade in or out. The same could be said of the scene transitions in a lot of cases.
The demo ended on Erik going for an early morning walk with Katja and watching the sunrise, concluding with the second of only two choice points in the demo. As nice as the sentiment of the scene was, I felt the previous scene where Erik’s mind runs laps around him and he thinks of the aforementioned Gustav mystery would have made a stronger conclusion, in that it raises a clear question for the reader to want answered and mirrors the opening scene both visually and textually. Since the demo is merely an excerpt of a much larger visual novel, however, this criticism will ultimately be rendered meaningless.
In the end the demo lasted around 3 hours, including time for me to take a few notes and screenshots, as well as clarify a few points with a developer. My understanding is that the demo comprises only a portion of the full version’s Act 1 (implying less than half of it), out of at least 2 acts with presumably multiple routes for each of the stated romances. I can only hope the developers are prepared for a long haul, because 6 years of development for only 10% of a full product (even accounting for several staff changes and internal reboots) does not paint a pretty picture.
I will acknowledge here that I have noted many criticisms of Missing Stars. It is early days for Somnova Studios, so I hope most—if not all—will become non-issues in the future. I would like to reinforce the positives and encourage the developers to build upon them. In particular I would like to stress the words laid out in their mission statement. It reads, in part, ‘Missing Stars is a freeware visual novel project that aims to depict mental disorders and the people who live with them in a realistic, but sensitive and respectful light.’ An honourable goal, which Katawa Shoujo achieved in force with its own subject matter, but which Missing Stars only imitates superficially. For now, Missing Stars is missing something, and that something is, ironically, the core of the visual novel it sought to ape: its heart.
The demo was released on January 6th, 2018.