Title: The VII Enigma
Developer: Spire Games
Release Date: January 25, 2022
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Spire Games
Genre: Visual Novel
Time travel is a concept that strongly meshes with the visual novel medium. The existence of alternate routes and unlockable choices forms a ready-made metagame that casts the player themself as a time traveler, perhaps blurring the line between the player’s knowledge of events on other timelines and the protagonist’s.
That’s not to say time travel VNs need to be interactive to be interesting, of course. Unfortunately, however, The VII Enigma takes a particularly frustrating approach, adding meaningless interactivity to a mostly linear story in what might be the worst of both worlds.
Most of the choices amount to “advance the plot” or “die an abrupt and unsatisfying death,” and when we finally get a choice that looks like it might lead to divergent plotlines, the choice itself turns out to be fake, with both options leading to the same result.
Some of the meta elements I was hoping for do pop up late in the game: experiencing one bad end does give you the necessary information to help your past self avoid it, and information from the extensive in-game codex is needed to unlock a password-protected file within the story.
But those moments weren’t as satisfying as they should have been, thanks to the appearance of an intrusive, fourth-wall-breaking tutorial to explain what you’re supposed to do. It’s not even possible to fail the password entry and get a bad end; the game will helpfully tell you where to find it, but you can’t progress until you get it right. It annoyingly feels like the game is insecure about offering this level of interactivity and doesn’t trust the audience to be paying attention.
Even if The VII Enigma were presented as a linear story, though, with no bad ends, fake choices, or interactivity, that wouldn’t eliminate the underlying structural issues. The amnesiac protagonist isn’t just a convenient plot device to give other characters an excuse for info-dumping at the audience. A central theme is questions of memory and self, whether “you” in a different timeline with different memories are even the same person.
However, the story is frontloaded with an exhausting amount of exposition, mainly in the form of other characters directly explaining to the protagonist how time travel and the setting work, which is hands down the least exciting way for an amnesiac protagonist — and by extension, the audience — to learn about the world.
The bland writing style doesn’t help matters. In particular, the frequent comma splices and lack of commas in places where they do belong give the text a clunky, unnatural flow that takes a while to get used to. In addition, there’s a large cast of characters, and except for one delightfully over-the-top villain, none of them has a particularly distinct voice, which makes a lot of the dialogue — especially in the expository scenes — feel interchangeable.
To give The VII Enigma credit where it’s due, the take on time travel is unique, one I haven’t seen explored in fiction before. The time machine in the story is based on the phenomenon of quantum entanglement. Essentially, affecting one particle in an entangled pair also affects its twin, even if they’re separated by space and time, allowing information to be sent from the future to an observer in the past.
The problem of branching timelines and paradoxes is solved by introducing a third dimension of time. When information is sent back in time, it causes a new loop to form, and the old loop simply ceases to exist. However, there aren’t any issues of cause and effect because time has still increased in a third dimension, so the development happened after the cause on a 3D scale, even if it seems like it happened first based on a purely linear measurement of time.
While this idea of 3D time neatly solves some theoretical issues with time travel, it introduces some new existential ones. For example, the aforementioned themes of memory and identity, as sending information to your past self, essentially mean you are killing your present self.
The idea of accelerating technological and medical advances by sending research back to the past also has a pseudo-religious theme that I wish had been explored in more depth, where people start focusing more on the “next world” rather than on trying to improve the current one they’re actually living in.
Finally, the visual presentation of The VII Enigma is one of its highlights. The art looks like 3D renders passed through a rotoscope filter. While it’s rough around the edges, it certainly stands out from anime-style and computer-generated artwork in other visual novels. The direction of late-game fight scenes work particularly well to create movement and tension with minimal art resources, and the soundtrack is excellent, with some catchy themes that set the mood.
The VII Enigma‘s unusual time travel mechanics should please fans of the genre, but it doesn’t make the best use of its format, and the bland writing and frontloaded info-dumping don’t do a great job of drawing the reader into the story. Instead, it feels a bit like a prototype of a more interesting visual novel — a disappointing experience that nevertheless left me wanting more.
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