Iwaihime Review – It’s All in the Pacing
Developer: DMM Games
Release Date: October 23, 2020
Reviewed On: PC
Genre: Visual Novel
A new Ryukishi07 title, localized in the year 2020? Wow, this came out of nowhere. However, unlike the last chapter of Higurashi: When They Cry, it didn’t take 14 years to come out officially in English. Developed by DMM games and Regista, then brought to the west by ShiraVN, Iwaihime is a visual novel that takes a few cues from the When they Cry titles but then carves out an extremely distinct identity with a romance/horror hybrid story about sin and retribution. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see how this goes.
Iwaihime stars Suzumu Susuhara, a young man who is part of a long-standing family tradition, where members must strike out on your own and refine their mind and body in perfecting the Susuhara style of martial arts. However, this style is not made to inflict pain, but to instead give thanks with. It also has the super cool declaration line of “Hajakensho,” or “Crush evil, and demonstrate the righteous path.”
Transferring into the Susuda Prefectural High School due to some family drama, Suzumu is told by his childhood friend Tsubakiko to stay away from one of his classmates, Toé Kurokami. A mysterious and frail girl who is always clutching a strange doll to her chest and everyone excludes. Suzumu is not fond of this treatment, and so he tries to get closer to her only to find himself rejected by her with claims he was too late, and he’s corrupted.
However, the hero that Suzumu is, he’s not going to let that slide and decides that he’s going to save her from whatever her ailments are. Little does he know, he’s just wandered headlong into a curse where untold horrors await him.
Along the way, he joins the LCSC, a club whose members have been hand-picked by an eccentric teacher and consists almost entirely of cute girls who all fall for him. Now, if you think that’s weird and that it feels a bit tonally dissonant from the whole creepy curse thing, you’d be absolutely right. That’s the entire modus operandi of Iwaihime right there.
This visual novel thrives on putting the horror right next to a story filled with every eroge cliche in the book. We’ve got the transfer student, the obligatory side-kick dude who serves no other purpose aside from comic relief, and everyone else is a cute girl who falls head over heels for Suzumu. This all takes place in the opening scene of a girl vividly imagining getting crushed by a train. Or should I put it alongside the grotesque Sches king ripping body parts off another girl? Or the giant flesh monster who really likes breaking things?
This title is not subtle about the horror. It uses various techniques to keep you putting all the creepy stuff that literally happened five seconds ago on the backburner so it can punch your stomach with maximum impact repeatedly.
Step one for accomplishing this is found in the art direction. Aside from being very nice to look at, it’s straddling a fine line that allows it to freely jump comfortably into the scary face territory without changing the art style. This extends to backgrounds, which features a substantial number of CGs that look appealing, whether they be pristine scenery or fleshy hellscapes. Or both.
Character portraits are quite soft and cute and even get environmental shaders to have them fit their location better. It’s a stellar visual style. However, I warn you that some of the more horror-based CGs are actively framed to be reminiscent of sexual violence, which can be very disconcerting to some people. There is no R-18 patch for this game, though, so there is no actual explicit material.
The most important part of the art in this game is that the boy himself, Suzumu, has a face. I personally think it is so much easier to step into the shoes of a character who has a defined appearance that is reinforced, no matter how vanilla they are. Suzumu has got a set of (stunning) portraits the game makes liberal use of, and he’s voiced, as you can see from the opening. Which is something you will see a lot, as the game is broken up into distinct chapters which all carry the suffix -hime, which means princess or ‘lady of noble or higher birth.’
These chapters have pacing comparable to that of the earlier chapters of Higurashi: When They Cry, which means they start off with more slice-of-life school stories before the horror elements set in at the end. Although in Iwaihime’s case, the chapters are both much shorter and jab in the horror quicker. So, after each freakish creepy event that happens, you get treated to an opening that heavily plays up all the romance before you move into the next chapter. It’s rather amusing since it happens so often.
I didn’t really enjoy how the game paced itself in the first few hours. I found myself bored during some of the school life segments and disliked how the horror focuses mostly on grotesque imagery rather than actually being scary. The early chapters are paced out and can make them feel like they’re filled with a lot of artificial padding to increase their length.
However, at just after the halfway mark, the game decides it’s had enough dallying and is going to actually start plotting. When it does this, you are in for some great storytelling. The length of the previous chapters is there to set a sort of cathartic line, so when the last arcs occur, you can get maximum enjoyment out of problems being dealt with. After all, this is a good romance, too, and Iwaihime utilizes its emotional beats to deliver solid gut punches to make you feel both very happy and very sad. The music immensely helps in this regard with several triumphant or tear-jerking tracks that help emphasize how good that last half is.
Iwaihime plays the long con with its narrative and convinces readers that it’s not the unique horror thriller they were promised. However, that all changes when it shows its hand, and you are taken through some gripping story scenarios that will send several chills up your spine. This worked well with the game’s presentation, aesthetic, and blend of romance and horror. I couldn’t recommend this more.
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