Visual novel games are prevalent and extremely popular in Japan. Here in the United States, they are still a relatively niche category trying to stand out amongst the sea of open-world games and first-person shooters. But, when a visual novel does make a splash here, it’s likely to garner a cult-like following.
Unfortunately, The Midnight Sanctuary is not one of those games.
From the moment the game boots up, you’re met with a messy and confusing title screen. The first thing you’ll notice is the rather unique, surrealist art style chosen by the developers for this game. They took a heavily-ornate background and overlaid transparent 3D models on top of it. What it creates is a visually striking contrast, and one you’ll find rather distracting for much of the game.
The story of The Midnight Sanctuary begins with a girl named Hamomoru Tachibana who is investigating Daiusu Village, a mysterious location tucked away in the mountains of Japan. What she finds is a village struggling to put their past behind them and embrace the future. She meets Jyuan Daiusu, the son of the village chief, who is set on modernizing their village. He tasks Hamomoru with researching and compiling all of the village’s rich history, so that people can learn about Daiusu Village when visiting.
As she begins investigating, she starts to discover things are not as they seem. For starters, a mysterious Girl in Red appears that nobody else but Hamomoru acknowledges. As the story unfolds, you learn about the history as told by residents of the village. The moment-to-moment gameplay has you looking at a map of Daiusu Village and clicking on relevant locations to begin a short cutscene between different characters that reveals some more information. Ultimately, the story is broken up into five chapters, each of which takes anywhere from about 30-45 minutes to complete. There’s not much else to do other than clicking on locations and watching cutscenes, unfortunately. It would have been great to be able to walk around and explore the village, as bleak as it is.
The overall story also has very overt religious themes woven throughout, which may turn some people off from this title. It took a while to pick up, as the first chapter is a lot of introduction, but near the end of the second chapter, you’ll find yourself a bit more invested in what was happening in Daiusu Village. At one point, it took a downright supernatural and unexpected turn, which is the only enjoyable part of a rather lackluster story. The conclusion was not as satisfying as you’ll hope for, and because there are no decisions made in the game that can alter the narrative, there is really no incentive to go back and replay through the three-hour story.
The highlight of The Midnight Sanctuary is its superb voice acting. It’s worth noting that this game is voiced completely in Japanese, with English subtitles. The characters all have fantastic voice acting work done, led by Yu Shimamura, the voice of Hamomoru. She has also appeared in such games as: Final Fantasy XV and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Even though Japanese is not my native language, the characters conveyed true emotion to their lines, and at times I was genuinely intrigued in what was happening. The rest of the sound in the game was very hit or miss, however. Some of the musical scores were catchy and fit the tone of the scene well, while others felt out of place, or of lower-quality. Oddly enough, some scenes would have music just abruptly stop, possibly to convey some sort of emotion, but it ended up doing just the opposite and ruining the moment.
The game will also be receiving an update later that adds full VR support on PC, as well as a release on PSVR. While many would normally welcome these experiences, Daiusu Village itself is so bland, it’s improbable that anyone would even want to step foot into that world.
Superb voice acting, led by industry-veteran Yu Shimamura, is entertaining from start to finish, and a genuine pleasure to listen to.
A confusing and convoluted story that takes too long to really get started might lose much of the audience initially. Those that do stick around will likely be distracted by the questionable choice in art direction that actually make some scenes visually difficult to understand.
As a fan of visual novels and the unique stories and art styles they traditionally bring, The Midnight Sanctuary falls flat on its abstract face from the moment you boot the game up. Excellent voice acting is not enough to hold up a story that struggles to captivate the player. Much of the actual game feels like a chore to progress through as you mindlessly click icons on a map to play short cutscenes, many of which don’t actually add to the already-sparse three-hour narrative. Add in a confusing and visually unpleasant art style and you have the recipe for a story that is better left untold.