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  • Writer's pictureNate Hermanson

REVIEW: Amarantus legitimately is about the friends (and lovers) we made along the way

Road trips are always emotionally fraught. Arguing over who gets to make the plans, followed by arguing over the plans that were made. Hours of bubbling-over tension caused by companions traveling in tight quarters. But then the sudden relief of shared loopiness as the trip's exhaustion settles in for all.

Revolution holds an undoubtedly heavier emotional blow. Holding the hopes and dreams of an oppressed people. Carrying the weight of the hard decisions that one in the middle of a revolution must make. But feeling — and fighting for — hope for the future.

And yet somehow, as ub4q is eager to remind you, relationships are much messier than either of the other two. Wondering if your decision about something important could jeopardize your romance. Losing the respect of a dear friend for the romantic path you've chosen. But the rush of catching someone's eyes and seeing a blush creep over their cheeks...

These three Rs are at the heart of Amarantus's visual novel experience, and it makes for one of the most painfully empathetic gaming experiences I've played in years, as I broiled in the angst of watching a hero yearn for a better future, for a smooth journey, and for a warm body to hold onto at night.

A piece of illustrated art for Amarantus that depicts the main character Arik sitting at a campfire, with their sword at their side. There is room for others to sit around them on logs but no one is there. A canopy of trees surrounds Arik. It's got a great warm vibe, if not a little foreboding.

​Just the Facts

Developer: ub4q

Publisher: ub4q

Platform(s): PC

Price: $17.99

Release Date: June 27, 2023

Review key provided by developer.

Like any revolutionary (dual meaning intended) concept, Amarantus started as a twinkle in the eye of an Australian solo game developer, mess-lover, and interactive fiction expert known as ub4q, or Ruqiyah if we're not on the game development streets. Assembling a superteam of artists and musicians around her, ub4q took this passion project from its humble beginnings in 2019 to a full-fledged masterclass of interpersonal writing that has forever evolved what I expect from visual novels moving forward here in 2023.

Amarantus wastes no time in tossing you directly into the fire. It opens with our protagonist, Arik Tereison, woken up in a panic by his father and literally shoved out the window "for safety." Your political dissident parents have made quite a stink about the tyrannical Lord Caudat's unending war and that kind of thing usually has repercussions. Like, the "raid a home, burn it to the ground, and imprison anybody living there" kind of repercussions.

From this point forward, Amarantus is full of branches and fun detours that could drastically change your perspective on this world and its characters. But the endpoint remains clear from the start: revolution. Lord Caudat must answer for his crimes and this nighttime raid proves to be the catalyst for the already frustrated Arik to take matters into his own hands. To change things for good, even if that means figuring it out as he goes.

Arik eventually gathers up a patchwork team of people as broken as the nation they're hoping to mend.

It all starts with Mireille Bellegarde, Arik's longest friend and deepest confidant — the person Arik thinks he understands fully but comes to be surprised by most throughout their journey. She pulls along with her a paid mercenary known simply as The Major, whose militaristic upbringing and dedication to duty obscures the person underneath, and her shaky step-brother, Márius Abaroa. Márius has been living on the street for a while and, well... he's got some issues. Deep-rooted ones about identity and self-worth that the whole party comes to see unearthed as the journey goes on. Need any proof he's working through things? Well, he invites one of his feral criminal buddies on the journey, Raeann Alastor, partially on a whim and partially with the hopes of using this whole revolution backdrop as the perfect reason to smooch. Raeann is a force. A force with a knife and a mischievous smirk. She skitters about each scene, ready to pounce, punch, and pulverize anyone that gets in her way (or, really, anyone she "likes," too. It's complicated).

And that's the team. That's who Arik has by his side to head into the great unknown of revolution — and to keep from tearing each other apart and to fall in love with along the way.

Arik is obviously driven and passionate in his cause; he cares about the people who've decided to take up the torch alongside him in a deeply relatable way. But his life is truly in your hands. The choices you make dictate what kind of leader he is, what kind of revolution you are leading, and what kind of romance he'll fall into. Tap into the animalistic violence you see within Raeann or attempt to change minds through diplomacy and compassion as your closest friend might do. It's up to you.

Amarantus has a batch of some of the most realized characters I've ever run into in gaming. The years of tinkering, of living with these characters in her mind, it comes through in Ruqiyah's writing.

An animated GIF depicts the four main potential friends, lovers, rivals, and teammates of the game Amarantus. Appearing from right to left, there's The Major in a green military outfit, she's got brown braided hair and a lightly concerned look on her face. Raeann in a big brown jacket with a fluffy fur collar, she's got blone hair and a fairly laidback expression. Next is Marius, who stands nervously with the bottom of his shirt bunched in his hands. He's got messy brown hair, a purple scarf, and an uncertain look on his face. Lastly, there's Mireille who stands in a proper purple buttoned blouse, with a matching dress, leaning on her cane.

Amarantus is a through-and-through visual novel, don't get me wrong. Most of the action manifests as you read through fixed pieces of dialogue, broken up now and again by choices that can alter your path in big and small ways. But, for a myriad of reasons, it feels like so much more.

Amarantus is a game of tender moments, quiet admissions, painful realizations. One where you feel the social impact of each decision you make, not only because of the importance of the mission you're on but because of the ways those decisions reverberate within your group. You feel it when each choice changes how your companions individually perceive you, both in that selfish romantic way and in the overall "do we trust this guy to lead us to glory" kind of way.

A big part of that is the liveliness of its characters and world. The physical reactions of its characters. The literal pacing of their dialogue, unfolding in a naturalistic way. Characters ponder, stutter, and interrupt each other. Lines are very meticulously delivered. You're always reading but it feels like speaking. The radio play style of sound design gives these relatively simple animations against static backgrounds new life. And don't get me started on the post-rock soundtrack that perfectly scores moments of sudden chaos, romance, and burning stress.

Because it's all so alive, you feel the impact of everything the story lays at your feet. Letting someone down comes with a downcast face, an inability to meet your eyes, and an unnerving silence as they wander out of the scene. Making a choice that affects the whole group allows you to catch each one processing it in turn, maybe catching an eye roll here or snickered murmuring between two characters there.

It's almost theatrical the way characters line up against the stunning half-screen backgrounds that give these scenes a sense of place. They shuffle along the scene with their layered blocking, and in and out of the foreground (into the spotlight if you will) to have one-on-one conversations with Arik. It's all tricks of sound and light — I loved the way some scenes were lit with simple rays meant to simulate light filtering in through trees or the loose bricks of a ruined building — and just like theatre can transport you to a whole new world, ub4q does that for the visual novel.

A lot of the visual novels I've played and enjoyed fail to match the level of liveliness and the overall elevated feel that ub4q pulls off here, and Amarantus continues to earn the "next-gen" visual novel title we placed on it back when we covered its Steam Next Fest demo.

The batch of artists ub4q lined up for this experience all deserve their flowers: Syd, the game's primary artist, whose character design ensured it felt unbearable to break any character's heart. Hien Pham, who provided the art for the game's comic-book-like inserts that pop up to anchor some of the game's most intimate moments. Khoaisama, who provided a key hand in elevating the visual novel experience with their UI design. Saf, Ruqiyah's narrative editor who certainly had a hand in crafting this writing I fell head over heels for. And of course the sound magicians Hanif Patel and Nic Dullow.

An in-game screenshot of the game Amarantus depicts an embarrassing moment of some sort for the game's protagonist Arik. The top half of the screen features an illustration of a forest, painted with dark blues and purples to depict a night's sky, with a splash of orange meant to simulate a campfire's light. In the bottom left of the screen, a character portrait for Arik is holding a palm to his face. He's got shoulder-length hair pulled into a ponytail and a large white scarf. Dialogue for Arik reads: "I can't decide whether I'm going to let this haunt me for the rest of the night, or make an enormous effort to forget this happened."

If there's anything I can call a negative here, it's that the game basically calls for more than one playthrough — both to get close to any sort of "happy ending" and to have a grasp on some of the world's dense politics and worldbuilding. From the moment you're tossed out the window until the eventual clash with Lord Caudat, Amarantus rarely holds your hand. It tosses out names, concepts, and locations in the least exposition-friendly way possible, sacrificing some bit of understanding for the sake of that naturalistic approach. So if you intend on getting a full sense of the world and its characters after just one playthrough, which should only take around 3-4 hours, be prepared to have to hop right back in for another playthrough or two.

It's worth it though, I promise.

It's worth it because these characters and the relationships you can form with them through Arik are so powerful. The various types of romances and friendships on display are truly heart wrenching in both the best and worst possible ways. Some lines cut so deep I found myself clutching my chest and reeling back from my PC, a true testament to any media's effectiveness if you ask me.

Because of how good its writing is, you'll even find your own personal relationship skills put to the test. At one point, my pure and innate people-pleasing tendencies found me making a huge mistake, setting a friend on a dangerous path and into a toxic relationship. It was something I had to live with for the rest of the game as I watched it eat away at that character and the party at large. Regret, much like in real life, doesn't wash away easily in Amarantus. These kinds of interactions are littered about all of Amarantus's relationships, decisions whose impact may not be clear in the moment but persist from end to end. If it was a Telltale game, you'd see that "____ will remember that" line over and over and over again.

It's so stressful but so narratively juicy, and you get the sense that the game knows what it's doing to you at all times.

An in-game screenshot of Amarantus depicts a tender moment between two friends. A comic book style insert shows two people's hands gently touching while holding onto a railing. Behind that, an illustrated scene depicts some kind of opening in a rock face, with a cloudy blue sky seen through it. This is framed with an ornate design. Dialogue from a character named Arik reads: "I'm so used to relying on you. To counting on you. To having you there."

Amarantus is special. It's a passion project in every way imaginable, a journey started by one person who gathered a ragtag team to help them reach that one clear endpoint: revolut- I mean... creating a piece of art so purely realized on all levels that it coalesces into something that pushes the genre forward.

Video Games Are Good and Amarantus is . . . GREAT. (9/10)

+ choices that have genuine repercussions from start to end; incredibly grounded writing that brings its characters to life with ease, especially when supported by lively presentation not really seen in the visual novel genre

- more than one playthrough needed to get the full picture; your first playthrough will not end well; it may cause you to rethink some of the ways you approach social situations

The key art for Amarantus depicts three characters standing near eachother with a white scarf draping around them. Arik, the main character, stands in the center. Grasping a sword, their brown hair sits in a ponytail behind them and a gray scarf is wrapped around them, draped over a yellow sweater. Marius stands to Arik's right, with fists raised. He's got messy brown hair and a loose scarf (or undone bow tie) draped around his collar. Mireille stands to Arik's left, leaning on a wooden cane and staring at the ground with a worried look on her face. She's wearing a purple outfit, with a choker around her neck.

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