Steam Next Fest February 2023: Amarantus is a "next-gen" visual novel
My journey with visual novels is an interesting one. As someone who initially bought into loving video games for their storytelling potential and was generally not able to access a lot of games, free visual novels were a refuge I lived in for a bit. Then my gaming world started to get a bit bigger and I drifted away from them.
In recent years, I've found myself pulled back in by the likes of your Danganronpas and VGG 2022 GOTY nominee I Was a Teenage Exocolonist. The genre has changed a lot over the years, making greater use of growing technology and hybridizing itself with other genres, but none have really made me feel as excited about the genre on its own like the 2023 release Amarantus has.
Just the Facts
Release Date: Q2 2023
Preview key provided by Post Horn PR.
Amarantus comes to us from ub4q, the development studio of Australian solo game developer Ruqiyah, a self-professed developer of "narrative games about messy relationships" who started out in the micro-fiction space.
To work on Amarantus — a visual novel "about trainwrecks, trysts & treason" — Ruqiyah has built a fascinating team, including Syd as the primary artist bringing their expressive character art design to the table. They're assisted by Hien Pham, who provides some unique comic book-style inserts. Their visual style is all wrapped together by a fascinating post-rock soundtrack from Hanif Patel and Nic Dullow that, while unexpected, fits the game well.
Amarantus starts at maximum chaos. Your character, Arik, wakes to the sound of fighting. Your parents are fighting off incoming invaders, and rush you out the window with a whispered plea to find refuge in the arms of a trusted friend and confidant. Just as quickly as the story starts, you're suddenly out in the world fending for yourself.
Most of the story unfolds through careful consideration of your every conversation. Exposition dumping is not on the agenda, as Amarantus is more interested in keeping its dialogue natural and realistic. It can be a lot to take in and understand in the early going, but it helps to immerse the player in the immediate chaos and confusion as Arik's life is abruptly in a free-fall. You learn about the tyrant, Lord Caudat, who is running this country into the ground — the tyrant your parents were actively speaking out against, eventually leading to their capture. After a brief recouping period, it's time to act. Life in fear, life worrying, you decide, is not the life you want.
Then, the crew assembles: Mireille, your dear friend and crafty confidant; Marius, her scrappy brother who struggles with where he's come from; Raeann, a rough and tough presence who, like you, is ready to do something big (and the target of Marius's affections); and lastly, The Major, a mercenary under Mireille's employ, tight-lipped but more than competent. Together, you're off to explore a forest that's the center of great intrigue — because a lot of the Lord's forces and supplies go in. And very few come back out.
You head off on the road and... just as the demo's adventure begins, it comes to its end. The demo is around 35 to 45 minutes long and doesn't feel it. It's over just as you feel the excitement building, which is obviously in one way disappointing, but clearly a sign the demo has done its job well. But the demo itself is just a tiny piece of what has me excited about this game.
Let me explain while we talk about the way it all works.
Amarantus's tagline is "Revolutions are messy... relationships are messier." And I promise you, after playing through the game's chaotic opening, that warning is true all throughout the surprisingly complex web of relationships between the game's core group of five "heroes."
Romance is certainly a focus, but the interpersonal bonds between this ragtag group of revolutionaries are tenuous at best, and the developers stress that locking in even platonic relationships with some characters may be impossible: "Not every relationship is a guaranteed success, and some romances might leave you feeling worse."
Balancing the needs of your potential lover, your dear friends, and the revolution at large will be no light task.
As you might expect, Amarantus is choice-driven. Intriguingly, decisions appear from time to time as empty blocks, hidden until you hover over them. It leaves you anticipating what your options really are and gives the feeling that your character is carefully thinking through possible responses.
The demo only offers a few seemingly inconsequential decisions for Arik and company... but my excitement goes beyond this short and sweet demo to the features planned and promised for Amarantus' full release.
On their store page, ub4q advertises the following things you can do in Amarantus:
Announce your brilliant plan...then glimpse a party member silently rolling their eyes in the corner of the screen
Learn to correctly pronounce someone's name, permanently updating the UI
Have a poorly judged hookup really early on and then spend the rest of the playthrough awkwardly trying not to address it
Make one bad decision and then try to redeem yourself while everyone makes snide comments
Above all else, it's about selling natural, realistic relationships. It's all about balancing the delicate emotions of an already on-edge batch of humans and figuring out how to get them through the hardship of revolution. Find romance, companionship, and fight for your country.
Decisions suddenly have so much more weight when a whispered insult might be the response to your leadership. I'm already insecure about everything I say in my real life, ub4q, why'd you have to make me anxious about what cute digital people think of me? :(
The visual novel genre has certainly embraced more engaging visuals since my early foray with the games, but it's usually in one of those "visual novel meets ____" kind of games. Amarantus feels like it's doing something completely innovative, but in a pure-as-it-gets visual novel. This could be some VN naiveté on my part, but I think ub4q still deserves a lot of credit for doing a lot of cool little things in my book.
One of the first things I noted about Amarantus upon booting it up was how... alive it was. With the aforementioned high-quality character art from Syd, featuring more than a handful of poses per character and animation techniques that keep them active (like blinking and subtle hops and bobs), there's a level of polish here that leaves players with that feeling that this is a "next-gen" visual novel.
Characters step forward into the camera and then back into their usual spots, hide behind each other, and generally move about the screen with more life and freedom than I am used to in the genre. They pace. They hesitate and shift through a variety of expressions as they mull things over. They fret in place. Dialogue is delivered in spurts and characters regularly interrupt each other's lines or stop mid-sentence to consider their next words carefully. They stutter, they say things without saying things, and they suddenly run out from a scene just as quickly as they ran in.
Sound effects regularly interrupt the action nicely as well, adding some depth to each scene, more akin to a radio play than the usual ways I'm used to the genre employing similar effects. Paired with the surprising post-rock soundtrack for a game I'd expect to employ classical strings and horns, you've got an audio experience that tickles a unique part of the brain.
It all adds up to a really engaging experience and serves up a formula for future visual novels to follow. Again, these things might be half-present elsewhere. They might have been attempted in other games. But Amarantus has nailed the combo.
Amarantus promises a lot, and the demo certainly showcases a fascinating start while only just scratching the surface of what makes the game so intriguing. Considering the team's history, the demo's confident presence, and the power of its compelling ideas, this revolutionary road trip adventure has certainly shot up our must-watch list and we think it should be on yours too.
Try the demo yourself during Steam Next Fest (Feb. 6 to 13) and consider wishlisting it... to support ub4q's attempts to instill even more social anxiety into me.
Keep up with our week of Steam Next Fest coverage right here on Video Games are Good and then once you're done reading... try the demos yourself and consider wishlisting the games we've written about. Wishlisting goes a long way toward supporting indie developers!