Giant bell ruins everything for everyone, handsome electric Batman saves the day. More at 11.
I have a lot to say, so let’s dive right in.
JP title: 黄雷のガクトゥーン -What a shining braves-
Official English title: Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning
So, Ourai no Gahkthun, huh? It was my first Liar Soft VN, so I didn’t really know what to expect going into this. All I knew is that it’s an alternate history / fantasy VN with steampunk elements and characters based on a whole array of real historical figures, Nikola Tesla included.
The first thing that really stands out, though, is the writing — other than the usage of lots of terminology, the script is written in an almost ritualistic way, with heavy usage of repetitions and melodic phrases. This, I felt, was somewhat of a double-edged sword. First off, I’m told Sakurai changed her style in Gahkthun, making its script a lot more accessible and less difficult to follow, potentially robbing it of its poetic value. Having never read another Steampunk VN before, I can’t exactly confirm this, but the constant repetitions in the narrative are sort of hit and miss, that much I can definitely say. I liked some of them (Tesla’s repeated and sometimes altered catchphrase comes to mind, which is just pure badass, and I could practically hear the fangirl squee in the background every time he opened his mouth), but at other times the repetitive prose didn’t have much of an effect on me — I didn’t really feel there was any weight in the lines, and often they rang hollow in my ears.
By contrast (since we’re talking about unique writing styles), some of Masada’s lines in Dies irae I found tremendously powerful, to the point that they give me goosebumps even after repeated readings/listenings: lines that just give you a feeling of catharsis. Sadly, I couldn’t quite feel the same magic here in Gahkthun. Not that it’s a big deal, anyway, I only really brought it up because Sakurai’s prose was supposed to be really unique, and while it certainly is, to a certain extent, it never made me go “wow”. And I suppose it’s kinda unfair to compare Gahkthun to Dies. So yeah, bottom line, you sort of just have to get used to the repetitions — hell, you might even like them.
Visually speaking, Gahkthun appears very otome game-ish. Which is fine, quite honestly. The art is quite well-made, rich in colors and style (even in H-scenes!), and there are enough classy ladies and cool-looking guys to appease both genders, I suppose — we do have two protagonists, after all. Maybe the lack of a large variety of backgrounds is something that could be mentioned (the whole game takes place in the same city so a lot of the scenes are set in the same locations, which might get repetitive), but it’s really such a minor thing it’s hardly anything to really get upset about. The colorful character designs and various awesome CGs make up for it in full. I believe the screenshots I posted speak for themselves. Similarly, the soundtrack is also something I’ve really grown fond of over time, and fits the atmosphere perfectly — uplifting when it needs to, toned down at other times, and just outright classy as hell on other occasions. Once again, the only downside to it is that there aren’t a whole lot of songs, and many of them are recycled quite often, so get used to hearing the same 3-4 tunes for most of the time.
Although in terms of the Steampunk series, the setting will often be brought up as one of the more unique aspects of each title, for me, it wasn’t really the world itself that held my attention. Of course, the game does have a very cool atmosphere, and the little steampunk-y tidbits that get thrown at you are a nice touch, but it’s the characters -the main duo in particular- that really sold me on this one. Tesla and Neon are a fantastic main pair, but I enjoyed some of the other characters as well, including Izumi and Albert (just make out already, you two) as well certain members of the Sinister Six, most notably Emilie (aka best girl, sorry Neon).
This is going to be hard to express in words, but there is a definite sense of maturity and restraint in the script. There are no “guy sees girl naked, she screams and calls him a baka” moments. There are no overdone tsundere outbursts (which can be cute, but do not fit Gahkthun). There’s no over the top slapstick and such. The characters just feel… real, somehow, as opposed to being easily identifiable VN stereotypes. This is heightened by Neon’s constant (and voiced!) inner monologues, which all give a good glimpse into what’s going on in her mind, all narrated in her calm, soothing voice.
The romantic development itself is *extremely* toned down and subtle, in a good way — it progresses slowly, very slowly, and for the longest time, Tesla appears to treat Neon as a child, with him being 72 years old and all. Even when the inevitable does happen, there are no tearful, over-the-top confessions, no dramatic music, just a modest, quiet realization that yeah, I suppose that’s how I feel about him. (Tesla, in good old Tesla fashion, is reluctant until the last minute, trying to give Neon more time to think about what she feels before making rash judgments; but even this aspect of him felt refreshing compared to other VN protags). Even when it indulges in tropes (Tesla and Neon’s relationship is put to a test after a major revelation, she sulks around a bit being heartbroken, etc.), the game never goes overboard with it — once again, no screaming, no overdone theatrics. It really made the entire thing feel more than the melodramatic puppy love we see all so often, and instead showed us that we’re dealing with thinking adults.
I think most people reading the VN are going to greatly enjoy the interactions between Tesla and Neon — the former can say the most amazing things with a complete poker face (eliciting this exact reaction from me), while the latter finds herself slowly but surely warming up to her extremely odd, but kind-hearted Master, occasionally snapping back at his rudeness / peculiarities, and indulging in a really cute speech habit when she’s angry (sorry for those of you that don’t speak Japanese — she’s basically using a differently inflected version of the same sentence multiple times, going from normal form to subsequently shorter (and more rude) forms the angrier she gets). It’s also refreshing to see Neon shifting from melancholic introvert back to her proper, lively self as she starts living with Tesla — the two practically act almost like a married couple halfway through the game without even noticing it, which once again shows how beautifully subtle the romance is — it’s really always been there, it was merely never realized, nor said out loud until the final scenes of the game. I do have to say, though, it was hilarious seeing Tesla go on a date with Jo, with Neon following and observing his tryst in secret, armed with nothing but jealous grumpiness and a blanket-disguise.
Moving on. I have to say that other than Tesla being totally dreamy every time he transforms into his ass-kicking self (天届く巨竜顕れようとも、鎧を纏い、私は、お前の元へ来る = *faints from squeeing too hard*), I did not enjoy the fight scenes very much. This is primarily because Tesla is pretty much invincible, and also because the fights themselves are fairly bland. Of course, it’s a given that the hero’s not gonna die in the first chapter, but Tesla’s unshaken confidence and pure OPness lends a complete lack of suspense to every fight in every chapter. The reader never really feels that Tesla would ever be in any actual danger, save for that one fight against the final boss.
The story itself was alright, with a couple of interesting twists and revelations towards the end — they weren’t particularly mind-blowing, but I found them good enough (particularly the bits about why Tesla came to the Academia and why he lives together with Neon, as well as certain revelations about Tesla’s own backstory). The main plot itself takes ages to get going, though, with the final boss not appearing until the absolute very end; most of the VN is pretty much spent in an episodic format, with each chapter focusing on someone’s life problems that Tesla has to solve — this ties into one of the major themes (“radiance”), with each character overcoming hardships and discovering what’s truly important to them in life. I do like episodic narratives, and in certain select instances this works very well in Gahkthun as well, but in other episodes it kinda… doesn’t. I’ll elaborate in a second.
The VN seemed to have some fairly weird priorities in terms of which characters to focus on in its episodic story. Several chapters deal with random no-name characters that are introduced first in their respective chapters and are barely ever heard from again once their respective problems are solved (here I mean the violinist girl or the guy that tried to destroy the Mega Engines with his mech — see, I don’t even remember their names anymore). This would normally be fine, but in Gahkthun, so little time is spent on developing them that we barely get to know these new people, and as such, their dramatic self-discovery loses its impact. Some of the episodes just feel like filler, truth be told, while others simply did not have very much of an emotional impact on me even though they were dealing with a “major” side character (Berta’s arc was kinda meh, for example), and in general, as I have previously stated, not enough time is spent developing said characters for the reader to actually come to care about their plight.
For every awesome chapter and scene, there’s one that simply didn’t leave a lasting impression on me — the game does have its cool moments, but not nearly often enough, and that just kills me. Furthermore, characters that I would’ve loved to see more of (Izumi, Albert, Annabeth and JJ come to mind) simply don’t get enough screen time: I was hoping each of them would have his or her own dedicated chapter with a personal issue to solve, and was very disappointed when this never happened. Instead, the VN wasted precious time on relative nobodies.
There are exceptions, though. The chapter dealing with Emilie and her complicated relationship with Louie, for example, was one of the highlights of the game for me — it also helps that I’m an absolute sucker for star-crossed lovers and similar setups. Even their H-scene was more heartbreaking than anything due to how integral it was to her character arc. I never felt like I was reading porn, but rather an exploration into the repressed sadness and longing that was central to her chapter. The chapter itself ends with a really beautiful scene and was an absolute emotional rollercoaster from start to finish. Here’s the thing, though — this was only one chapter, and she -or Louie- never really appear much in subsequent ones (only very briefly), nor is their past shown in any flashbacks or anything. Same goes for Anne and JJ — a seemingly great duo that you’d love to know more of, but ultimately they’re given barely any screen time outside their own (very short) chapter. It’s an absolute bummer.
Disappointingly enough, similarly little time is devoted to Tesla’s own backstory, which definitely has a strongly bittersweet tone to it. His past is referenced very briefly here and there in the narration throughout the game, which I very much enjoyed — it kept things low key, preferring to retain a level of mystery regarding his true nature, as opposed to certain other VNs that infodump you with all the special abilities of a character. Okay, I can appreciate this — I was fine with keeping it mysterious during the story, but at the end it would’ve been nice to hear a bit more about his past, because what little we did see of it was, in itself, a fascinating concept (by this I mean that parts that explain why he’s called “the enemy of the world”) that could’ve been utilized to further flesh out his inherently tragic existence.
What I’m trying to say is that Gahkthun basically presents you with a number of potentially interesting characters, but doesn’t equally give all of them the treatment they deserve — it would’ve been amazing to see members of the Sinister Six interact more with Tesla and co. and become a more integral part of the main cast (there was a beach episode for this, though), especially considering certain late-game revelations regarding their relationships, but once again, not much is done with this. It was really heartwarming seeing them all join up at the end to help out Neon, and we even see most of them get short epilogue scenes, but by this point, it’s too little, too late. In other words, Gahkthun would’ve benefited from either a longer scenario, or a somewhat re-worked chapter structure, dropping less interesting side characters and focusing more on those that I would assume many other readers would’ve loved to see more of. I simply can’t shake the feeling that a lot more could’ve been done with this VN, had it been handled a bit differently. Granted, Tesla and Neon are still awesome, but you had a bunch of other cool people around them as well, many of whom were often pushed into the background.
In the end, though, despite all its shortcomings, I just can’t be mad at Gahkthun. It’s a flawed VN, this much I will maintain, and it’s a letdown in certain aspects. But some of the characters did end up growing on me by the end — all the people Neon had come to know during her year at the Academia coming together in the climactic finale, fighting side by side was most definitely cliche to the max, yet so pleasant at the same time that it melted even my grumpy old heart.