DRAMAtical Murder Review – One More Time for Good Measure

    Title: DRAMAtical Murder
    Developer: Nitro+CHiRAL
    Release Date: April 7, 2021
    Reviewed On: PC
    Publisher: JAST BLUE
    Genre: Visual Novel

When DRAMAtical Murder officially launched in the west from publisher JAST Blue, the rush of fans to the store page crashed the publisher’s website. It’s exciting that a game released nearly a decade ago and even received a fan translation can still generate that much hype. Having experience with the fan translation, I was glad to see the publisher deliver in terms of characters, writing, and beautiful aesthetics, as this remains one of my favorite visual novels.

DRAMAtical Murder is set in a cyberpunk future on a fictional Japanese island, Midorijima. A corrupt megacorporation controls the island, and citizens are unable to leave freely or enter the wealthy area of the city known as Platinum Jail. It’s a kind of mundane, relatable dystopia where advanced technology is commonplace, and no one seems to be struggling to survive. Hence, people go about their lives ignoring the problems bubbling below the surface.

The protagonist, Aoba Seragaki, is an average young man who works part-time at a junk shop and lives with his grandmother and a robot dog. He’s friends with some of the leaders of street gangs, but isn’t really involved in the fighting-as-entertainment scene, either in its traditional form, Rib, or the newer virtual reality version, Rhyme. Pretty soon, though, he’s dragged into a Rhyme fight against his will and discovers a hidden ability that starts to disrupt his peaceful life.

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My favorite of the love interests has to be Clear, a bubbly and quirky character who hides his face with a gas mask, uses polite, formal speech, and insists on calling Aoba “master.” He gives off lost puppy vibes that hit me in just the right place, even if they don’t quite work on Aoba. The other love interests are Noiz, a hacker, and Rhymer with piercings all over his body; Mink, deep-voiced and stoic, leads a gang of ex-convicts; and Koujaku, Aoba’s childhood friend and a hairdresser with magic hands, according to the ladies.

The characters’ appearances and personalities are all stylized, but not so over-the-top as to be unrelatable, and they all give hints about the secrets that come out on their route. The adult scenes (removed in the Steam version, but included in the full JAST release or available as a patch) are notable for not just providing generic titillation, but further exploring the character dynamics. Aoba is also a fully developed character, not just a self-insert protagonist, and the story is just as much about his journey and discovering his own secrets. Clearing all four routes will unlock the true ending, which is a wild ride, especially if you’ve managed to remain unspoiled, with a weird but satisfying conclusion.

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The character routes prior to the true end, however, are a weak point. They’re relatively short, making the romances feel rushed, especially for the love interests who were strangers to Aoba when the story began. Additionally, since some characters are more invested in defeating the villain than others, the endings feel uneven.

For example, the showdown at the end of Mink’s route is action-packed and intense, in part because he actively drives the plot forward and has a lot personally at stake. In contrast, Noiz’s route involves a lot of Aoba napping, waiting for plot to happen. Because Noiz has no personal connection to the villain, the fact that he “has” to be there for the villain’s downfall takes the focus away from his own character development and makes the ending feel anticlimactic.

Developer Nitro+CHiRAL is known for their dark boys’ love stories, and at first glance, DRAMAtical Murder seems downright wholesome compared to their previous works. It’s certainly no Sweet Pool, their first official English release, a Lovecraftian tale of male pregnancy as body horror. But don’t let the colorful, bright aesthetics lull you into a false sense of security; the story does involve multiple acts of sexual violence against the protagonist, as well as violent and bloody bad ends, and should be avoided if those are things you absolutely don’t want to see.

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However, I think DRAMAtical Murder is more accessible than other romance VNs to players who aren’t necessarily into dark content or might just be dipping their toes in the water because of how the content is presented. Often in VNs with bad endings where the love interest goes yandere or otherwise acts violently toward the protagonist, knowing that they have that capability can make the good endings feel ominous to me rather than happy.

In DRAMAtical Murder, though, the bad ends feel more self-contained; the love interests’ potential for violence is brought to the surface here, but explicitly healed over the good endings. Even if you make all the wrong choices along the way, you’re not locked out of the good endings—you just have a tougher puzzle to solve to bring your love interest back from the brink—an unusual and fascinating design choice. As a result, the bad ends feel more like a safe fantasy to me, and I wonder if that’s part of why the game has achieved so much more popularity among English-speaking audiences than Nitro+CHiRAL’s other works.

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The new translation is stylistically different from the fan translation and should make replaying the game a fresh new experience for old fans. I’m sure some of the style choices—for example, using copious amounts of swearing to reflect characters’ rough or casual speech, or Koujaku saying “bro” an awful lot—won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I’m a fan. Of course, the fact that the game is fully voiced in Japanese by a top-tier cast helps the tone of the dialogue come across. But the new translation is just fun to read, and while I haven’t done a full comparison, there were a few lines that I remember being contradictory or unclear that make a lot more sense in this version.

My only complaint about this release is that it doesn’t include the extra route from the Vita port of the game, and that last I heard, JAST BLUE had no plans to license the fandisc, which contains epilogues for each route as well as extended bad ends. The epilogues in particular solve some of my complaints about the character routes, since they expand on the romances and make them feel more conclusive. I’m not sure how complicated those licensing issues are, but I hope we’ll get to see at least some of that extra content officially released in English in the future.

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Years after I first played it, DRAMAtical Murder remains one of the most gorgeous visual novels, with striking character and set designs, dynamic art direction, and attention to even small details in the UI. The soundtrack, particularly the OP and ending songs, are incredibly catchy. I fall in love with the characters more every time I replay it, and even though the plot has some weak points, it’s still an intriguing exploration of themes of humanity, technology, and identity.

Highly recommended for fans of boys’ love, of course, but I think many visual novel lovers would enjoy it.

A review copy of the title was provided by the publisher for review purposes

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Amy Scholl

Fan of unusual visual novels.