Another month, another mystery, and another otome game from our friends at Aksys. Part of a summer line-up known as the 'Summer of Mystery', the niche Japanese publisher plan on delivering not one, not two, but three story-driven games, promising a mixture of typical roMANcing, paired with a much more of a mysterious story than your average otome game. With the first in the series, Psychedelica of the Black Butterfly hitting the PS Vita last month, June brings with it another new otome game in the form of 7'sCarlet - a game set in the suitably seasonal sunny summer holidays.
The protagonist this time around is Ichiko Hanamaki, a rather naive and innocent young girl whose brother mysteriously went missing a year ago. With the help of her childhood friend Hino, they set off to the remote town of Okunezato - the place where her brother was last seen - for a meeting with an online forum called the Okunezato Supernatural Club - a group dedicated to learning more about the strange stories, legends and disappearances that emanate from the small village. But, as more and more murders start occurring over the course of their little summer vacation, things soon start to take a more sinister turn, especially as Ichiko seems to inexplicably linked to the strange goings on.
Together with Hino, and the other Okunezato Supernatural Club members (all of which, bizarrely, seem to have some kind of connection to both Ichiko and the town), it's up to you to set off on a quest to find the truth behind your brother's disappearance, and recover some of your long-lost childhood memories along the way. And of course, as this is a visual novel with a bit of an otome flavour, if you play your cards right, you may even managed to find love with one of the game's bachelors along the way... There's childhood best friend Hino, who's always looking out for you; the hotel's cheery flirt of a pastry chef, Isora; as well as the shy, cat-loving Toa and the serious Sosuke, who's training to be a doctor. There's also a couple of secret routes to be hunted out too, if you're a bit of a completionist.
Like most games of its ilk, 7'sCarlet is pretty much as story-driven as they come, and most of your time is spent sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the many twists and turns of the plot. Every so often, you'll be faced with a conversation option or decision to make, which will in turn influence the direction the story takes, with each bachelor having several of their own endings you can achieve - some good, some bad. 7'sCarlet differs a little from your average otome game however, in that on your first few runs through the game, you'll only have a handful of dialogue options available, as the game steers you towards the endings it wants you to get first - something which can feel like a bit of a let down, because nothing particularly notable happens in them. The more times you play, however, the more the dialogue options will open up - and as the game goes on, and you play through the later routes, you'll suddenly realise the gravity of the 'meaningless' scenes from earlier.
That's not to say any of the routes are rubbish, per se - we just kind of expected more from Hino's "childhood friend" route (in which almost literally nothing happens), while Isora the creepy hotel pastry chef's route just ends up getting weird towards the end. However, once you hit the third and fourth romances - the socially awkward cat-loving Toa, and the seriously serious med student Sosuke, things do soon start to pick up, with the hidden routes and true ending both being pretty solid. There's some fairly unexpected plot twists in places too, as the true mystery of the town, and its link with Ichiko and her brother are revealed. It just all feels like it takes a long time to really get going, while the individual guy routes can feel a little on the short side, too, at about three hours or so each.
But arguably the biggest issues with 7'sCarlet lie in the technical department. During the course of the game, we had a number of problems with the save system, where the usual PS Vita save dialogue/list would fail to pop up. Instead, sometimes the game would only save system data - and not your actual progress - or worse it would fail to save altogether, with the only real work around being to just keep retrying until it works. We also found that the game's Quick Save/Quick Load system was a bit lacking. We usually make a point of quick-saving at each decision point, just in case we end up in one of the deadly game overs - and in every other Otomate game we've ever played, that's been fine. You can quick load after a game over, no problems - but not in 7'sCarlet. As soon as you get a game over and it returns you to the main menu, it'll also completely wipe your quick save - meaning if you haven't made use of the manual save system, you could end up losing a lot of progress...
On the typo front, 7'sCarlet is pretty light on errors compared to some of the more recent localisations (*cough* Code: Realize ~Future Blessings~ *cough*), although we did spot one mistake, where it looks like Ichiko's talks about running every day, working out, and the effects of a leg injury, where it really should be Hino that's talking. What does seem a little sloppy is that the 'Tips' - essentially key words and phrases you might want extra explanations for along the way - are meant to be highlighted in yellow, but the vast majority, after the first chapter or two, aren't highlighted at all. As such, the only way you can tell you've come to a 'Tip' is the little icon that appears in the top right corner - and even then, you have no idea which bit of the text it's referring to either, which is a bit of a pain.
But for all of our complaining, we don't actually think 7'sCarlet is a bad game either. It may not be one of our top otome games, but the mystery that starts to emerge as you play has enough intrigue, twists and turns to keep you playing, even if it does take a while to get going. However, we also can't ignore the strange saving issues, which can cause a real problem at times, while the somewhat lax highlighting of 'Tips' does make it feel like the game was a little rushed. All in all, if you're looking for your next otome fix, 7'sCarlet isn't a bad choice, although the likes of Hakuoki, Code: Realize and Amnesia: Memories are probably better options, if you haven't tried them already.