How I Became a Visual Novel Guy – Collar x Malice

When I last left you on my quest to become a visual novel guy, I gave up on Aokana before even completing one route. Turns out, taking an eroge and stripping all of the pornographic elements makes for a really boring game. Lesson learned.

I would have to flip to the other direction, and enter the world of otome. I have maintained a passing familiarity with otome games, mostly through my much better-informed acquaintances on Twitter, but hey, I like pretty anime boys too. If I complained that Aokana skimped on the plot in favor of…plot, then I’d just have to find a visual novel with a stronger focus on story.

However, going into Collar x Malice, I could not predict I would enjoy myself as much as I did. I finished my first route in about five hours, and for context, that’s how long it took Aokana to spin its wheels before I gave up on it. Plus, I didn’t even get a verbally abusive boyfriend at the end!

Having played three routes so far, I’ll have finished the game long before this comes out. I will tell you to not expect me to play every route of every visual novel I play, just because this was a delightful exception to the rule. I’ve gotten complaints that I didn’t complete a 30-hour game for a review, and I want you to know that those people are stupid and we’re not listening to them.

If we can agree on that, let’s go ahead and look at every himbo in Ichika Hoshino’s harem.

Shinjuku and Japan at large have been shaken by a series of terrorist attacks carried out by the shadowy organization Adonis. They’ve murdered cops, blown up classrooms, and orchestrated car accidents, all under the agenda of bringing justice to where the police won’t. They’re counting down with each crime to X-Day, where all malice will be punished and purged.

Ichika Hoshino is a rookie cop just trying to make the best of a bad situation: she watches the crimes while serving as a glorified receptionist for angry citizens, she tries to look after her little brother Kazuki, and can’t seem to do anything about any of it. That changes when she’s attacked on the street and collared by Adonis, who claims she’s important to their mission of justice and will surveil her as their plans unfold.

This brings her into contact with the motley crew of ex-cops, investigating X-Day after the brass just couldn’t get it done. Their leader, Aiji Yanagi, brings Ichika into the fold so she can learn the truth of Adonis and break free of her collar.

Each route has her work with a different member of Yanagi’s team: cold computer whiz Takeru Sasazuka, beautiful idiot Mineo Enomoto, enigmatic profiler Kageyuki Shiraishi, and the unaffiliated officer tracking their movements Kei Okazaki. There’s Yanagi himself, although Ichika won’t get the chance to work with him until she completes the other four routes.

Now, I could talk about all those pretty boys who will vie for your favor, and I will, but first, I’d like to talk about strong art direction and a cohesive aesthetic that sells all that gritty crime thriller stuff I just told you about.

Behind every good detective noir is a powerful sense of atmosphere, and Collar x Malice’s tone and presentation do a phenomenal job of introducing you to this world. It might just seem like the Shinjuku you’re familiar with from games and anime, but those usually focus on the ward’s nightlife. I haven’t seen any story try to embroil Shinjuku in a dark crime drama, and it’s rather refreshing.

While I would say that Collar x Malice’s visuals can remain quite subdued in its grounded backdrops of places both real and fictional, it attempts to blend its complex character designs into that realistic world. I would say quite well, although some characters do scream of being overdesigned. I’m not mad, Mineo, but an eyepatch, paper fan, charm necklace, bracelets, and a ponytail are a bit much when added to your sloppy cop aesthetic.

The CGs which serve to punctuate important romantic moments in the plot range from brilliant to rather confusing, with some hit and miss anatomy. They can’t all be winners, but I also think you can tell which bishonen bad boy was the artist’s favorite. Hint, it was still not Mineo.

Ichika is perhaps the best example of what the art team has done right. She’s not just an audience insert, although her personality based on caring for her family, doing the right thing, and whatever pretty boy she’s working with does leave enough room for the player to fill in the gaps.

Her design is simple, but by no means is it overshadowed by her costars; having an understated appearance helps her pair nicely with each romantic interest. No matter who she’s with, their designs don’t clash, and integration of character designs between love interests is an underutilized tool in creating a story. The two best romance anime, Horimiya and Kaguya-sama, do both spectacularly well.

But it isn’t just about how the characters look, it’s about how they act, and across the board, Collar x Malice has some fantastic routes…except for our problem child.

I began with Takeru’s route. I don’t know what it says about me that the twinkish elf prince grabbed me and told me he was going to use me if it accomplished his goals and I swooned, but whatever. I won’t dive too deeply into most of the routes to avoid spoilers, but I was satisfied with Sasazuka’s.

He has compelling reasons to want to restore the Sword and Firearms Control Act, it both informs his character and affects the story at large, and I have a soft spot for tsunderes. Ichika functions best when she can play the straight (wo)man, and Takeru is eccentric without being weird for the sake of it. I’m looking at you, Shiraishi. 8/10.

I played Mineo’s route second, and I’m glad I did, because if this was my introduction to Collar x Malice, I probably would have given up. It is written so badly that it completely undermines everything the game is trying to say in its other routes. Somehow, in a game that focuses on cops working to improve the flawed system they work in, it actively defends a cop who ruined people’s lives by arresting them to advance his own career.

Yeah, spoilers, but Mineo looked up to a piece of garbage who arrested multiple people without reasonable suspicion because he wanted a promotion. When that scumbag gets killed by Adonis and his crimes revealed, Mineo goes through this deep, complex character arc, only to come out the other side thinking that he wasn’t wrong to respect an actual monster.

After that, they arrest the guy who killed him, even though that guy was already found not guilty. This is treated as a heroic moment where they finally get justice, but in reality it is a violation of the double jeopardy clause in the Japanese constitution, and the arrest is going to get thrown out, and Ichika and Mineo may face civil suits for gross negligence. 1/10.

After that, I nearly didn’t play Kei’s route, but I’m glad I did. Not my favorite of the three, but Okazaki has some real chemistry with Ichika and he doesn’t play around about his feelings, unlike our previous two. The only downside is that they try to create this character arc for Kei about why he works as an SP, the police bodyguard division, and how it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism.

No problem, he gets over it pretty much as soon as Ichika finds out about it and gets upset. They argue a couple times, and it’s resolved in about one chapter of six, when it should have been an overarching problem for the entire route. He has this entire toxic philosophy for life, but best girl cried about it once, so better get your act together. 7/10.

I’m in the middle of playing Shiraishi’s route, so I don’t have much to say about it except I’m enjoying it, and might amend this after I finish his and Yanagi’s stories.

Collar x Malice is a lot of fun. I like watching the story of these complex terrorist attacks from different angles and how they intersect, even if Mineo’s route is complete garbage and wastes your time.

I appreciate that the game forces you to look at them all as pieces of a puzzle, with no route except (presumably) the final one completely resolving the issue. It’s a shame that in order to get that you have to play through one of the worst stories I’ve seen in a video game, but hey, you can skim it if you want, because no one on the internet will tell you that’s cheating like they would if I did it. So, Collar x Malice gets Entertaining Pleasing. Some room for improvement, but not much.

I’m looking forward to the movie, which was recently announced as of writing this, though by the time it comes up on your feed, it’ll probably be a distant memory. In any case, Takeru is best boy, check out my Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku, and recommend a new visual novel for me to play. Until next time, thanks for reading.

MediocreAokana: Four Rhythms Across the Blue
PleasingCollar x Malice

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