[VN Review] Sweet Clown ~Gozen San-ji no Okashi na Doukeshi~

2016-02-16-185437Sweet Clown ~Gozen San-ji no Okashi na Doukeshi~
SWEET CLOWN ~午前三時のオカシな道化師~

Sweet Clown is an otome game produced by Takuyo released in July of 2015 for the Playstation Vita. I thought I wasn’t going to get this or review it since it didn’t really seem like my type of game, but in the end, I gave it a shot, because why the heck not. The premise looks interesting and I thought Sweet Clown would be a quick replacement for my thirst for tragic VNs for the time being.

The opening of the game is basically what sold Sweet Clown to me—it’s eerie with a faint childhood mystique with music box melancholic melody. As the title suggests, sweets and a clown is apparent throughout the entire game, but there’s much more than just sweets and a seemingly fun wicked time, Sweet Clown has a hint of tragedy accompanied with some mental thinking. None of the guys appeal to me and I was mainly looking forward to the protagonist and how she develops over time, thus she’s one of the main focus in this review.

Now, shall we begin with tea and have a sweet, sweet time?

The protagonist receives an invitational letter that writes:

Dear ____,
I have chosen you among numerous and rigorous screening to participate in my magnificent
“3 A.M. Tea Party!”
Congratulations!
I look forward to your arrival. Perhaps, your wish may even be granted. …All of which is dependent upon your actions.

 From your Sweet Clown

2016-02-25-175727

Our heroine, Kashino Zakuro, receives that letter inviting her to a tea party at a castle deep in the fogged woods. She recalls back 5 years ago where she lost her twin younger brother in a similar environment and accepts the invitation in hopes of finding him. As Zakuro enters the castle, a ghastly skeleton-like clown decked in frills wearing a glittered tacky outfit addresses himself as the “Sweet Clown” and welcomes her to his splendid grand castle, then leading her into an extravagant waiting room with other guests also attending the 3 A.M. tea party. All the other guests are unfortunately male, different from what one might think of a usual tea party. The male guests are assigned as the heroine’s “Ofrenda,” her servants. They didn’t care much for it and played along like it’s part of an act for the tea party.

Among the guests is of course our heroine, Kashino Zakuro, along with Kobashi Ouichirou, Hinose Takeru, Mitsuhara Seisuke, Kuze Souma, and Manai Tomoki. After they all introduce themselves and make their stay comfortable in the castle, the Sweet Clown prepares the tea party at 3 A.M. The guests all wear gowns fitting for the tea party where the Sweet Clown presents to them some very fine sweets in the chapter, “A Mad Tea-Party.” Kobashi Ouichirou receives a gateau chocolat, but before indulging, the clown provides his own unique meaning to the sweets accordingly, and in this case, it means zero loneliness; Manai Tomoki receives a decorated biscuit, meaning meek docility; Kuze Souma receives a pudding a la mode, meaning audaciously bold; our heroine, Kashino Zakuro, receives a strawberry millefeuille, meaning self-hatred; Hinose Takeru receives rum raisin ice cream, meaning fighting fire with fire; and lastly, Mitsuhara Seisuke receives a macaron, meaning frivolous and thoughtless. The meanings give a slight glimpse and impression of the characters and what to expect of them.

After the tea party, the next day, the guests are ready to leave as they say parting words to the workers of the castle and depart. Unfortunately, despite walking hours upon hours in the fogged up forest, they always return to the entrance of the castle. Wanting a way out, the guests return to the castle and search for the workers. Zakuro stayed behind in the entrance and spots a giant cat, chases after it, which led her in a room with a shrine. Appearing before her is the Sweet Clown questioning her, what will happen if she cannot leave the castle, and then says he has been waiting for this chance to finally see her and become as one with her. The clown puts out his hand toward her and into her chest, magically forcing his way inside her, with some grey red fog or smoke bursting out from her body, known as “malice.” The clown was unable to fully take over her body since in order to do so, she has to have a great desire for something, but since she has none, he can only occupy half of her.

Zakuro faints and in a dream state, finds herself in an amusement park alone with the Sweet Clown. His sole being is to please others, make them laugh, and grant wishes. He can grant her a wish, any wish she greatly desires (beside going back to the past). She has nothing left—her parents aren’t home, her twin younger brother disappeared, and she doesn’t know what she wants anymore. In confusion and despair and since it’s only a dream, Zakuro wishes to be alone and never see day. Little did she know, her wish was granted and everyone is stuck in the dark, forever nighttime castle. With this, Zakuro holds the reign as the Queen of the castle and becomes the new Sweet Clown with the original clown fixed inside her. Her powers are meager, so with the help of her Ofrendas, she must gain enough “desire” to wish the release of their captivity once she fully and truly hails the crown as Sweet Clown. As sweet as it may sound, there is a bitter aftertaste to it. Now that Zakuro is the new Sweet Clown, she must inhabit the castle, and if someone were to make a wish, that person has to sacrifice his life, thus turning into a sweet.

The 3 A.M. tea party was certainly entertaining and I did envisioned it being a mad one. There are several mysteries going on in the story, revealed slowly as I progressed. I don’t know about others, but I can see the answer to several mysteries very early on, though there were a few plot twists I did not expect at all. Early in the game, since the mystery is seemingly obvious, I felt tricked, and had to think twice if the mystery is that easy or there’s something else behind it.

Honestly, I imagined the story revolving around the heroine squealing at the sight of sweets and the gentlemen impressing her with their decantering skills. Thankfully, that is not the case. Kashino Zakuro is a very negative and pessimistic teenager, not a good mood maker, looks unhappy most of the time, and just doesn’t like or care about anything beside her lost twin brother. Her life has been miserable with guilt after holding hands and losing her twin brother in the fog-covered forest. She has nothing else to look forward to beside finding and reuniting with him. She holds a memento of him dear to her; a broken gold pocket watch embedded with a horse. The pocket watch still works in the superficially timeless isolated castle, but the tune it produced stopped working. That tune is called, “The abandoned and forgotten melancholy of the other half.”

2016-02-25-175840So what does Zakuro thinks of herself? As her strawberry millefeuille meaning may have given away, she hates herself. Always thinking about her twin brother and how she could have prevented losing him, always thinking about her parents trying not to blame her for what happened 5 years ago, always thinking about the past. But does she know that concentrating on the past and fantasizing on what she could have done may alter her memory or possibly forget it? Too bad for her, this isn’t some science fiction VN where she can build a time machine and go back to the past, she has to open herself up to her Ofrendas to get them out of the castle. Because of this, even if she wants continue being sorrowful and contemplate on all the wrongs she did, she has to continue moving forward or nothing will happen, plus some of her Ofrendas are impatient by her indecisiveness. At first, Zakuro treats them as strangers and feels guilty for trapping them in the castle, even more so when asking for their help to increase her “desire” when she doesn’t even know what she wants. She finds herself a great burden upon others, and most of the guys agree and actually straight up tell her she’s a burden to them. Half of the guys are kind and appease her, saying it’s not her fault for locking them in the castle, the villain is the Sweet Clown, while the others doesn’t give a shit what she does and doesn’t pay much heed to her in general. Some guys are expressive and blunt for they don’t sweeten their words thus knocking some senses into her. She does gradually open up to the guys as they accompany each other more.
Zakuro is calm in most situations, but is clueless on increasing her desire. Unrelentingly, she constantly says her desire is to release them from the castle and carry on with their lives, unlike her. She doesn’t have an urge to leave at all since there’s nothing out there for her as she has already lost everything. The Ofrendas are skeptical for they are strangers and knows it’s not her real desire. What she doesn’t know is that they do care about her even if they’re strangers, it’s only human. As one may have guessed, they figured out the quickest way to increase her “desire”—she must have the power of LOVE!! (as usual and cliché)

So what do I think of Zakuro? At first glance, she seemed like the usual shy, clumsy, and unconfident heroine who’d always seek help from the guys and is clueless on what to do without their acknowledgement and advice. Not all of what I thought of her is true, but some of them are. She definitely is a kind and shy girl who’s unconfident and doesn’t want the help of others but need it to progress in the story. The guys do give her tips and advice here and there, thankfully, she doesn’t ignore it (sometimes) and take it to heart. She is bold enough to enter a creepy forest to reach a castle all alone, I’ll give her that. In the beginning, she’s at her limit with her past and slowly changed her behavior and view of life over time, thanks to the help of the Ofrendas. In some routes, she is more determined and is just plain happy she’s living, grateful she finally found something important in her life. Basically, she becomes more human.
I was hoped her character development stayed proportionally good throughout all routes, but for mainly one particular route, she assumed one of her dedicated Ofrenda hated her, even if she slowly gained feelings for him, the only way to increase her desire is to switch it around and create hatred feelings toward him. ???? Yeah, she’s a teenager, I get it, but that’s just ridiculous. Was she trying to do reverse psychology? Well it didn’t work. It got solved, however, I didn’t like reading an hour or so of text of her forcing herself to hate him, even to the point of deteriorating one of her sensory perceptions. Even the Ofrenda thought it was irrational and a preposterous act.

Overall, the pros outweigh the cons for her development. She is a capable and slowly a competent heroine, though nothing about her really stood out to me beside her extreme negativity and self-hatred. The writers could have made her greater, made her do something even grander with more intense feelings, more impressive lines admitting her self hate, admitting her faults, talk more often to the Ofrendas about her thoughts and opinions instead of bottling it in, and put more spirit into freeing them all from the castle once she gains a suitable amount of desire, etc. Zakuro takes her a while to change for the better, which is fine, and at times, she relies a bit too much on the guys to help her achieve that. I understand she can’t just fall in love with a stranger as only time can tell if they’re compatible, and it takes an adequate to long time for a dense Zakuro to notice her feelings. Sometimes when I’m close to the end of a route, she finally realize, “I like him.” There’s no impact and I didn’t have any reaction to it at all. Her realization of love and her confessions just wasn’t impressive in the long run. There are times where I don’t understand how she can even fall in love with the Ofrenda after all the events. I know the writers wanted to speed it up, which I’m grateful for, though I would’ve preferred more interaction with a greater build up on their particular romance. This game is heavily story oriented, granted, but the romance isn’t even on par. I’m not saying I want more romantic scenes, because there’s already enough of those, I’m saying it wasn’t done as well as I’d expected it to. There is a slow build up of romance, and she is bound to end up with somebody. From how I see it, although the heroine may eventually find an Ofrenda important and love him in the end of the route, it just didn’t seem authentic.

How about the other characters beside the heroine. Since they’re trapped in an isolated castle, there are no outsiders at all. There aren’t too many characters in the game and all of them are unique and eventually likable.

2016-02-19-171744You know what, I actually like this skeletal Sweet Clown. He makes a decent villain, and since he’s apparent in every route as he is inside her, he has some pretty good development on his part, dare I say, some of his development is even better than the heroine. The Sweet Clown usually appears in Zakuro’s dreams when she’s under stress or when the clown wants to provide a hint. He announces himself as an honest man who only tells the truth and is quite helpful in all routes, leading questions into answers, and guiding the heroine in their own little amusement park dreamland. Never did I hate him even once. Even if he’s seemingly evil, he’s a clown who pleases others, but for a price. He has intense affection for Zakuro on all routes, perplexing the heroine if the clown really do loves her or says it for her to acknowledge her role as the new Sweet Clown.

The recommended play order is: Mitsuhara Seisuke-> Kuze Souma-> Hinose Takeru-> Kobashi Ouichirou-> True Route.

2016-02-25-180040Kobashi Ouichirou is a stiff and silent man, sighing often and doesn’t usually engage with the others while roaming around, sleeping, or doing whatever he has to. He is the serious type and is hard to approach, but lightens up over time. Apparently he doesn’t care if he leaves the castle or not, Hinose even calls him a suicide wannabe. Kobashi is the type to throw away his own life, similar to Zakuro, and feels guilt from his past. He is more confident than Zakuro though and does what he has to to free himself from his past. I find Kobashi and Zakuro’s interaction very normal and realistic compared to the rest of the guys. Even if the atmosphere is heavy and stagnant, they don’t really force themselves when chatting and even though Zakuro may have been a bit overwhelmed by his hard to approach attitude, she often makes cynical and skeptical faces in this route, and becomes more relaxed. Oh, and their love end is not as romantic as the rest, but I believe it’s the most natural.

2016-02-27-004902Hinose Takeru is a seemingly dangerous and standoffish guy who’s really into the occult and torture. Fortunately, he doesn’t threaten (kinda) or torture the heroine and slowly gives her advice on how to accept others, thus she gradually opens up and comes to like him. Hoping for a confrontation with the Sweet Clown, Hinose cooperates to increase Zakuro’s desire even if he had no intention of doing it. He does eventually fall for Zakuro, probably because she always accompanies him, and he’s also curious as to why she has no want for anything. Through his help, she understood how living is important and one can’t take their life for granted. I believe Zakuro relied a bit too much on Hinose; she did change for the better, but it didn’t really speak to me compared to the other guys. I do have to say, Hinose helped her improve her mental thinking about life and human interaction. Also, this route is the most ‘romantic’ and is filled with a bunch of sexual innuendos as there were plenty of scenes that implied them doing ‘adult-like’ things in bed or elsewhere.

2016-02-25-180228Mitsuhara Seisuke is a woman pleaser with what he says, a comely and handsome face. He hates men, he just loves seeing the ladies to make him feel like a narcissist and feel like he’s loved. Expecting a tea party to be crowded with girls, Mitsuhara is disappointed and angered that it’s just a bunch of guys and only one plain negative girl. Mitsuhara is the only character that rages on getting out of the castle or else he has nothing left; his sole being is to impress girls as his attractive face is the only decent thing he has. Of course, after realizing he’s trapped in the castle, and since Zakuro is the only girl in the room, he immediately and desperately offers his help to increase her desire by becoming lovers. Zakuro agrees but doesn’t understand how to love or become a lover, and allows Mitsuhara to take the lead in everything while forcing herself to love him. Overall, I’m impressed with Mitsuhara’s rage, but not so much on his character as the story portrayed him as an one-sided insensitive pimp, wanting girls to shower him with affection and attachment. I didn’t see any good development for Zakuro in this route at all; she falls in love with him because she has to.

2016-02-25-180315*Players should follow the recommended play order and complete Mitsuhara Seisuke’s route before Kuze Souma, as Mitsuhara’s route reveals a lot of spoilers.
Kuze Souma is a quick and super nice guy who immediately protects Zakuro and even offers to become her younger brother to replace the one she lost. Kuze often looks on the bright side and is really dense and ignorant at times, but because of that, he is able to speak out his immediate feelings without holding back. I appreciate how he’s straight forward and does whatever it takes to soothe Zakuro and make her feel comfortable. In this route, Zakuro was able to relinquish her sin and guilt by having Kuze speak his mind often, saying one can suffer through guilt from the past, but there is no guilt in the future. Since Zakuro is always retrospective, I’m glad Kuze keeps her moving on toward the future, making this route the happiest route in the game.

2016-02-25-180541Manai Tomoki is a kindhearted and considerate guy, often pacifying scenes and stopping fights. He’s easy to approach, so Zakuro feels very relaxed around him. He is also the chief in cooking, bringing love to the table. Since he’s so compassionate, it’s effortless to get close to him. Zakuro gains feelings for him early on, and apparently, so does Manai. Manai opposes her becoming the Sweet Clown and instead, want to find alternatives, but Zakuro says it’s pointless, she has to get everyone out for that is what she had truly desired. Afterwards, the route goes downhill. I enjoyed Manai’s character in the beginning, but not in the middle to end, because of story reasons. Even though that’s the case, this route is one of the most well-rounded. I didn’t like Zakuro in this route at all; she’s ignorant and selfish, I had no clue what she was plotting. This route felt very lackluster. Nevertheless, these two are an adorable pair, Zakuro and Manai Tomoki.

I hope you got a good glimpse of the story and characters after reading my dump of text above. Sweet Clown has some interesting backstories and character dialogues, though the romance and some parts of the story fell short on expectations. I imagined the characters having a gradual connection between them as they spend extensive time together to increase desire for Zakuro on becoming a full-fledged Sweet Clown, steadily increasing camaraderie of sharing similar accomplishments with her Ofrenda(s). Well, it doesn’t sound as honorable as I worded it, but they do go through a similar cycle. Unfortunately, sometimes based on the end the player wants to reach, I don’t see her gain any real benefit once she becomes the Sweet Clown.
What I liked from the story is the little bits of description about the meaning of life, different forms of love and how it was derived, psychology, philosophy of the mind, social theory, siblings mentality, morals, existence, and death. The game doesn’t go too heavy into it, but those concepts do appear every now and then. It’s not very complicated and all of those spread throughout the whole game so the player will get accustomed to all of it by the end. There’s no pretentious writing if you may have expected from those concepts, the writers made it quite simple to understand.
The flow of the game was quick at first and began to drag after completing the 2nd route, because, well, I felt like it was just plain romance and not much story. Beginning the 3rd route and beyond, numerous answers and mysteries are revealed, concluded, and the story picked up. Even after completing the game, although several events have been explored, there are some unanswered questions and plot holes. The ending was rushed without any real common end, leaving me quite disappointed by the end of the game. Sometimes the endings made me go, ‘that’s it?’ I guess some of the endings and the true ending just didn’t bode well for me.

2016-02-26-185037There are different definitions and description of ‘malice’ in each route, all with similar meanings. Malice is basically a gas-like form of evil and hatred cooped within others and can be deadly if one were to inhale enough. Malice is a term used very often throughout the game, but you know what, it doesn’t really matter if they included it in or not because it wasn’t thoroughly answered in the true end, nor did it appear in that route either. I expected malice to be of something greater, which it is in mainly Kobashi and Hinose’s route, but in the end, it’s nothing.

2016-02-25-175507A segment of the story dealt with forbidden love. Zakuro means pomegranate, a fruit used in numerous myths and religions as a forbidden and spiritual fruit. If Takuyo included forbidden love in the game, they should have gone all the way through with it to the end or at least finish it properly. I’m very saddened they didn’t. Takuyo could have done what other companies did not, instead of following the regular pattern of ‘forbidden love must be forbidden,’ the only way to change that is to not have it in the first place. Why leave the players expecting something and not fulfilling it? I know Sweet Clown is bound to go that route of refuting forbidden love to make it bittersweet because hey, that’s what a bunch of other VNs do too just to be on the safe side. I didn’t find it tragic, I found it unfortunate. But like I said, they could have gone beyond and exceeded what others couldn’t.

That was some bitter ramble, how about we talk about sweets. Sweets talk is everywhere in the game. During the tea party, you’d think they’d have a fun girly time eating sweets and drinking tea and chatting with all the other guests. But after knowing they themselves may become sweets, the atmosphere was heavy and slightly creepy. It’s an interesting concept, like what kind of sweet would someone turn into based on their characteristics and past events, similar to the meanings of different flowers. Even I have a difficult time thinking what sweet I can become. The game probably wanted to create a sense of guilt when eating sweets and has you thinking twice before you eat it.

Alright, onward to the technical side and gameplay of Sweet Clown. Sweet Clown has quite a lot of choices, around the normal amount in a regular VN. You can choose to either increase affection or desire– the greater the affection, you end up with the good end, desire for bad end. Most of the time, the choices are redundant. In rare cases, the sentences following a choice doesn’t really correspond, but matches with the other choice instead. The accompanying sentences after a choice are usually a few short lines with not much added value. Some choices seemed forced in a scenario and are unnecessary. There are a few comedic ones, though the dialogue seems to brush off the comedic value.
What I liked about Sweet Clown is the ability to auto save which is awesome because I got several C2-12828-1 errors during gameplay usually at scenes where the heroine is threatened and panicking. No game has ever gave me more than one error, so I feared the constant errors were going to corrupt my save files as I progress further, fortunately it didn’t. I liked how easy it was to skip the text to the next choice. What I found slightly annoying is that the quick save and load is used with the same left joystick. It can be confusing as I have accidentally saved at a spot when all I wanted was to load. You can replay some previous scenarios in one of the options, mainly to obtain trophies to platinum the game, which I find strange and mundane, but I do like how each chapter has its own unique name. Also bizarre is the voices in the backlog are more quiet than when played in real time. The overall interface of the game is simple, yet lackluster and can be improved.

In the Special Area, we are presented with the characters’ profile, countdown voices, opening and ending movies, and a special artwork. I highly enjoyed the different eerie endings, as it’s steampunk-ish and mysterious. The visuals and animations creates a sense of movement and gloomy atmosphere in the OP and ED. The endings are what made me continue on with the game. If the opening didn’t sell the game to me, I don’t know how I would’ve got Sweet Clown. After completing routes, we are awarded with beautiful special artwork. Hirose Azumi, the illustrator for Sweet Clown, might have been on a tight schedule with the game, as the special artwork is very well done, while most of the CGs are not.

zakuro

If you’re the type who plays VNs for the art, don’t get your hopes up for Sweet Clown. Sure the cover, promotional art, and sprites are pretty and all, but the CGs are nothing spectacular and can be inconsistent and unpolished. Perhaps the CGs I posted in this review doesn’t reinforce my claim since I only pulled the decent spoiler-free CGs. If I were to put a name to it, sometimes the characters have ‘pancake’ faces and falls flat. It can be disappointing, however, I’m more of a story over art kind of person so I don’t really care as much compared to others. I’m charmed by the heroine’s lively smile sprite and some of the guy’s smiling face sprites are striking. Most of the characters need more expressive face sprites, especially Kuze Souma who needs an angry face at least once for one scene. At times, when the characters are screaming, their face sprite is neutral and doesn’t complement the dialogue and voice acting.
Each route has 10 CGs, the game has a total of around 60 real CGs, all of them excluding variations. If I were to include the variations, the total CGs in the game excluding backgrounds would have a total of 199 CGs. When beginning the game, the CG boxes are locked with question marks so you’d expect the game to have a lot of different CGs, but sadly, most of them are just numerous variations of the same CG. After a while, the CGs doesn’t provide me gratification after all the variations that keep appearing.
I’m still glad they added backgrounds in the CG area. It’s nothing amazing and since the characters are stuck in the castle throughout most of the entire game, we are left with 16 backgrounds excluding variations of daytime and nighttime lighting.

I expected some good music to blend in with the story. I didn’t presume the music to be rather normal and plain though it’s very tea party-like with some circus and music box tunes. There are 22 background tracks and two vocal tracks. The music is suitable for the overall game though it wasn’t outstanding or powerful. No track really stood out to me beside one or two classical tracks and the opening and ending tracks. When used in scenes, the music wasn’t very intense and felt weak and watered-down. The music is not bad at all, it’s OK, and thankfully the game doesn’t implement the same tracks too often in scenes.

2016-02-27-005031Sweet Clown has a proper story and concept, and it’s a shame I wasn’t blown away by it. It wasn’t suspenseful and tragic as I thought it would be and some ends did not reach my expectations. The character interactions and dialogue is probably the best thing about this game. There’s quite a lot of romantic scenes too, that could’ve improved. I really like the heroine’s negativity and the fact that the guys don’t swoon for her immediately. I liked how she gradually opens up to her Ofrendas and trust them when she didn’t even trust or care about herself in the beginning. Although most of the guys have stayed generally the same throughout the game, the heroine is the one who changes the most. Proper character development for our sweet protagonist I guess. A few of the endings can be improved, especially the true end. It doesn’t warrant a fandisc though just to answer the few plot holes and increase romance as the game is pretty much already done and concluded and I doubt a FD is going to add more to the actual story. Plus, the sales for this game is unfortunately low which is quite a shame. I’m surprised Sweet Clown included some Freudian theory and morals in several dialogues as it did have me thinking where the character is heading, adding a bit of mystery and reasoning to their routes. If I were to choose, my favorite character is the skeletal Sweet Clown—his antics are extreme and wicked and his backstory felt more powerful than the rest, surprisingly. Overall, Sweet Clown is a decent and enjoyable game I would recommend to people looking for a good story. The game does have its imperfections, but the rest are all that much sweeter.

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