I’m still not sure why I decided to buy a visual novel for the first time, I guess it was something of an impulse buy since I was just bored of all my current games. It’s possible you’ve noticed, considering I’ve contributed only one article this April. But I was scrolling through the New Releases on Steam, saw Army Gals was both brand new and discounted and thought “Eh, why not?”
Army Gals is the most recent release from Dharker Studio, a Kickstarter-funded company who releases visual novels that come with off-Steam patches to add nudity and adult content for those interested. Other writers have called out this practice for violating Steam’s terms of service, but I think Steam’s sex/nudity policy is absurd so you won’t see me complaining.
In Army Gals you play as Kyle, a possibly-framed delinquent who’s been court-ordered to attend a woodland retreat with other (coincidentally, all female) troublemakers, where Warden Shelton and his assistant Cheryl plan to reform them into upstanding members of society. But when Cheryl and Shelton head into town for supplies on the first night and never return, Kyle and the others enrolled in the program find themselves stranded in the woods with no easy decisions on what to do.
The survival premise was the first reason I decided to give this visual novel a shot. I love the wilderness, and my list of favorite video games is full of titles set in spooky dangerous forests, like Miasmata and Alan Wake. Army Gals‘ premise also justifies why nobody has a phone; it was against the program rules for the delinquents to bring anything beyond the clothes on their back, and even then it appears everyone was given the same grey-and-camo uniforms.
Since the days of myth, authors have used ‘liminal space’ to kickstart a character’s development. Whether its a deserted island, a derelict spaceship, or the arctic snowscape, liminal space is any harsh and unforgiving setting that strips the characters of everything they know and rely on. Bereft of familiar comforts, characters in liminal space are forced to discover their inner strengths to survive…and the audience gets to see who they really are when society’s influence is worn away. And while Army Gals admittedly doesn’t get that involved with its literary devices, we certainly learn a lot about the four main characters. Kyle–due to the requirements of the genre–is a relatively generic protagonist, but otherwise the game puts a lot of effort into distinguishing the personalities of each girl. Edda is reserved and hints that she’s survived something like this before, Raen is far more outgoing than her hair and eye color made me predict, and Andrea alternates between sarcastic and shy. None of the characters are going to win any Pulitzers but I was invested in everyone on the core team of survivors.
One thing I found surprising was that the story did not seem particularly focused on “choosing a girl and getting her to love you.” There are sex scenes, but most of which have no requirements beyond selecting the right choices from dialogue/decision trees. For the most part, the basic plot of the story is going to involve the four characters forging friendships through hardship, coming to minor disagreements and getting on each others’ nerves but always keeping in mind the main objective of surviving long enough to reach civilization. It was a pretty reserved stance for a visual novel to take, and I’m pretty pleased with the survival tone it maintained throughout.
There are only a few characters beyond the primary quartet, and they aren’t going to stick around for very long, though they usually make life harder for the main characters on accident or purpose. I don’t want to go into detail on their characters because they’re pretty much all spoilers, but each one is interesting and took the story in unexpected ways.
Speaking of unexpected ways, there’s an entire dynamic to the narrative that took me completely by surprise, when one day Kyle makes a discovery that calls his core situation into question. An unexpected mystery drops clues here and there, which even the girls seem to be involved in, and after three playthroughs I haven’t fully gotten to the bottom of it. For the price tag, Army Gals has a pretty healthy amount of content and I didn’t come away feeling my money was wasted.
However, I do need to complain about the number of reused assets. They could have done well to create one or two more backgrounds of treescapes, as I only counted a handful endlessly replacing each other for the entire ten days the storyline covers. For example there are three different cabins the protagonists might come across, and the interiors and exteriors are copy-pastes of each other with only a few items added or deleted. Same for the rivers you might come across, or the campsites you end most days in. Not to mention most endings involve the same hotel room, even when the various epilogues have months or even years in between them.
Speaking of endings, there are almost two dozen of them, and most don’t involve just mindlessly dying on some bad decision in the middle. Most of them are full-fledged resolutions to the main story, and the various dynamics with which the main quartet can end the story exceeded my expectations. Not only does the resolution care about how Kyle fares in the eyes of each companion, the story can end with the girls forming various degrees of friendships with each other. In general, the game’s focus on the girls’ relationships with each other was something I really appreciated. It didn’t feel like “the player with three girls that like him to varying degrees,” instead there are whole conversations where Kyle is neither participating nor the focus of the conversation.
Of course, some people might not like that due to it causing huge dialogues where the player isn’t participating. I personally got annoyed several times at just how much story would pass without me getting to make any decisions. For example, on Day 2 you have to click through screen after screen after screen where Kyle keeps his distance from the girls, explores the forest, finds nothing, and later returns and decides to get drunk with everyone that night.
Switching gears from plot to non-diagetic structure, I was very pleased with the various buttons available for scrolling through the story. They should all be ignored for your first playthrough, but after that you’re going to love having the save, load, autopilot, and “blitz through dialogue until another choice comes up” buttons. Most endings also come with an achievement, and I’m still missing about half of them, so the game has decent replay value. Considering it was barely 4 hours of gameplay for my first playthrough, this is less of a plus and more of a ‘saving grace’.
So, in conclusion, I was impressed with the writing and dedication to characterization. I was less impressed with the art, especially how frequently they reused assets, and I’ll give the soundtrack a 50-50 for being sufficient but forgettable. I can’t say whether or not it’s a good purchase, especially for actual fans of the genre, but I enjoyed it and feel I got my money’s worth, especially if they fulfill their promise of adding to the story with DLC expansions.