Mark Twain once said there was no such thing as a new idea - and never has a quote been more apt than with regards to Period Cube: Shackles of Amadeus. A romantic visual novel, Period Cube sees you trapped in an online multiplayer game where dying in-game means you'll die in real life - and if you're thinking the premise sounds somewhat familiar to a well-known anime series then you're not alone. Swap emo loner Kirito for a bubbly, naive and innocent teenage girl, add in a missing sibling, and you have what is essentially Sword Art Otome - not that that's a bad thing.
Playing as Kazuha Hanamiya, a devoted younger sister, the game opens with her becoming increasingly concerned, as she hasn't heard off her older brother, Shiki, for some time - texts have gone unanswered, phone calls have rung through, and his apartment looks like it hasn't been lived in for weeks. A computer monitor is your only clue to his whereabouts, stuck on a screen that says 'Accessing World V', accompanied by the logo of online role-playing game Arcadia. Fortunately, your childhood friend, and brother's fellow nerd, Hiroya understands the significance immediately - a recent rumour has it that if you play on the World V server, you'll be stuck in the game forever. So they do what any responsible teenagers would do, and boot up the game themselves to investigate…
Landing in the digital fantasy world, the protagonist finds herself caught in the middle of a conflict between Arcadia's two races, the angels and the demons. Fighting for the right to leave the deadly game, as only the faction that manages to clear the high-level dungeon known as the Ark will be able to log out and return home, the protagonist ends up in a unique predicament. You see, she is neither an angel nor a demon, but a whole separate race of her own - the Almighty - and she herself is actually one of the legendary weapons needed to clear the Ark. Effectively putting a bounty on her head, she soon finds herself the centre of attention, hunted by angel and demon alike - but fortunately, not everyone in Arcadia is a bad egg, and she'll soon find herself getting to know an eclectic selection of characters who'll help her on her quest to find her brother and escape the game world.
As this is an 'otome' game - a story-driven game aimed at women, with a romantic twist - these friendly, and sometimes not so friendly faces make up your eligible bachelors, whom your character can develop feelings for over the course of the story. Pick the right conversation option, or choose the right move mid-story-driven-battle, and you'll grow closer to the character in question, heading into one of fourteen unique endings to the story, with each revealing a little more about the mysterious circumstances behind your brother's disappearance in the process. What's nice is that each guy's story is largely separate from the others, with minimum repetition along the way, only sharing the first chapter or so before they branch off into their own stories (with the exception of bonus bad guy route, Demento, who branches off of Astrum at Chapter 5).
For romance options, you have seven different guys to pick from, starting with the aforementioned childhood friend, Hiroya - the main man and all round nice guy who'll do pretty much anything for the heroine, although he can be a little overprotective at times. A member of the demon clan (hence the fuzzy ears, apparently), him and the heroine seem to almost stumble into a relationship as the story progresses, as they start to realise they have feelings for each other that go beyond a simple friendship. Astrum meanwhile is the cringe-worthy leader of the angels, who's confident and competitive in-game nature is a direct contrast to his oh-so-shy and geeky persona in real life, while his tendency to role-play and talk in archaic, flowery language makes him the butt of many a joke throughout the story. His demon equivalent, Radius, the most powerful player on their side, is a bit of a moody loner - the obligatory tsundre - who gradually warms up to the protagonist as things unfold, and you'll eventually learn what made him into the antisocial player he is. As a side shoot to Astrum's story, there's also a mini route for wanton 'PKer' Demento, a fallen angel who's been marked for killing other players, and is your stereotypical emo-who-needs-your-help-to-turn-his-life-around story.
The latter half of your romance options then take a turn for the more unusual, starting with Libera. She's a bit of a different one - a playful and friendly female demon, she's doted over by many a male Arcadia player, earning her all kinds of items and freebies - however, she has a rather large secret hidden behind all her wiles and smiles… Zain meanwhile is an amnesiac NPC, a digital character who lives in the game, who manages to become more self-aware, growing somewhat creepily attached to the protagonist over the course of the game. Finally, there's the frankly rather bizarre romance route with Poyo-Poyo, a flying fairy-like monster who's sole purpose is to provide players with 'intel' about the game world - or so he claims anyway, but you'll soon uncover the motherload of WTFery with this one!
It's a colourful, and rather unusual, cast of bachelors - but that's not to say they're the only stars of the show. Period Cube has a fair dollop of cool side characters too, with the constant banter between the demons' pro team Forte a particular highlight, whether it's their flirty healer Jocus trying to chat up any female player, or the adorable badass Ira's constant optimism as she swings around an axe so large it could only ever exist in a Japanese game. However, Period Cube's story is a bit of a hot mess; a few holes here and there, a few explanations that don't make all that much sense and a few too many convenient coincidences - but its also strangely compelling nonetheless, with some great characters and plenty of twists along the way.
Also, while Period Cube does feature 'battles', they're not exactly role-playing game standard fracases - they're much more akin to picking different dialogue options than any meaningful, strategic battling. Whether you choose to use your knife or your harp, or elect to leg it to safety and live to fight another day, it usually just simply serves to bump you onto a particular characters' route, or increase your affection with your current compadre. In truth, Period Cube is a romantic visual novel through and through, meaning its role-playing references aren't really more than skin deep, meant to add to the medieval fantasy game backdrop rather than offer anything in the way of traditional gaming.
Really, we have but two major gripes with Period Cube. Firstly, the way you access your affection meter is a bit cumbersome, as it's done by checking the character in question on your list of party members. However, half the time the guy you're after isn't officially in your party, so you can't actually find out how close the pair of you are, and at other times your list is full of non-romancable characters instead. But perhaps the biggest issue is, again, one of quality control - Period Cube has less niggly little typos littering its dialogue, but at some points in the story the characters will start referring to a 'Kazuha' - which is the default name of the protagonist. That might not be a problem, but as the game gives you the chance to change your name, it can make certain key scenes rather confusing, as it seems like an extra, previously unheard of character has just strolled in unannounced, and is potentially making moves on your man to boot!
All in all, Period Cube: Shakles of Amadeus is another winning romantic visual novel from the grand poobah of otome games, Otomate/Idea Factory, lovingly localised by our friends at Aksys. It may not be as epic as Hakuoki, nor as mysterious as Code Realize, but its 'unique' video game setting (which admittedly does shamelessly rip off Sword Art Online), some well-written characters and some rather unexpected twists in the tale certainly make for a solid story, providing you can overlook a few minor plot holes and a weird romance or two.