Symbiotic Love is the first entry in the Linghua Yuri series of visual novels centered around an all-girls private school in southern China. Although Melancholy Love is the second game in the series, it was the first entry released in the west and, therefore, the first one I played. Sadly, Symbiotic Love was a bit of a letdown in comparison.
Symbiotic Love opens in media res with Zihua discovering her girlfriend Jisuo’s apparent suicide. The scene sets a dark and dramatic tone. As we wind back to the beginning of the school year, the reader’s knowledge of the apparently inevitable tragedy casts a shadow over the protagonists’ first meeting.
It seems like a fated reunion, as Jisuo recognizes transfer student Zihua as someone she knew as a child. But Zihua has no memory of this past encounter, and she’s trying to avoid making friends at all so they won’t be targeted by her controlling and abusive mother.
Zihua’s resolve doesn’t last long, though, nor does the tension set up in the opening scene. The middle of the story is made up of lighthearted, meandering scenes with their other friends, serious Qingwei and airheaded Jianyu. They’re enjoyable enough if you like cute, slice-of-life friendship stories, but they go on for so long without any sense of direction that it almost starts to feel like an entirely different game.
There’s not much of a sense of romance, either, until much later in the story when the students are preparing for a performance of Romeo and Juliet — an obvious but also ironic metaphor for the protagonists’ doomed love. Even then, there’s a huge time skip between Zihua and Jisuo’s love confession and the final act. After that, we get some sense of the characters’ internal conflict, Zihua’s jealousy of Jisuo’s friendship with Jianyu, and Jisuo’s difficulty accepting her own attraction to women. Still, we don’t really get a chance to see their romantic relationship develop.
The pacing problems in Symbiotic Love felt especially frustrating because I could see an obvious fix. Even after the opening scene, the story occasionally flashes forward to Zihua trying to make sense of Jisuo’s death. Spreading those scenes more evenly throughout the game instead of weighting them towards the end would create more breaks between the slice-of-life scenes to keep them from getting boring. Further, it would help draw clearer parallels between characters and situations and reveal information more gradually throughout the story to naturally build the tension so the ending wouldn’t feel so rushed.
One of the scenes late in the game stands out stylistically, where Zihua’s memories of the past and experience of the present start to blur, and conversations begin to overlap. It’s an intense, compelling moment with an intriguing presentation, but it also emphasized how the time jumps earlier in the game weren’t used to their fullest potential.
The game engine also contributes to the pacing problems. It’s the same as Melancholy Love with all its technical issues, the most frustrating of which is an incredibly slow skip speed. There are five different endings, but the story is linear until the last handful of lines, and the effect of each choice is unclear. I highly recommend playing Symbiotic Love with a walkthrough to optimize your saves and minimize skipping time.
It’s also hard not to draw comparisons with Melancholy Love regarding Symbiotic Love’s presentation. The soundtrack features the same melancholy piano-based tracks, and while they generally fit the mood, a couple more lighthearted tracks for the slice-of-life scenes would have been more apt. The music probably wouldn’t have felt so repetitive, though, if I hadn’t been familiar with it already.
The user interface is the same, along with many of the backgrounds — it’s the same school, so fair enough. The character sprite art is more limited, with some alternate outfits but no pose variations, although the use of close-ups and side images and full-body sprites lends some variety to the art direction.
On the positive side, though, playing Melancholy Love first improved my impression of the endings of Symbiotic Love since I know the hanging threads get at least somewhat resolved later in the series. Additionally, the Chinese setting and full Mandarin voice acting make the series stand out among similar visual novels available in English.
If you enjoyed Melancholy Love, Symbiotic Love is worth playing just to experience the backstory that its predecessor only hints at. As its own story, though, Symbiotic Love plants the seeds of a romantic tragedy with an intriguing dramatic twist but is ultimately dragged down by its slow pace and abrupt, unsatisfying endings.
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