Returning to your hometown is always going to be a jarring experience, especially if it’s been a decade since you ran off. And it’s stories like these that draw me in instantly. Being forced to reconcile your past, while accepting the person you now are, is an interesting concept that can be tough to execute well. Developers Quill Games Studio decided to up the ante a little bit with their visual novel, A Summer with the Shiba Inu. What do they do differently you ask? Well, every character, including you, is a dog.
While having anthropomorphic characters isn’t something that is out of the ordinary nowadays, having a cast filled straight up with dogs is a little more unique. By doing this, you open yourself up to a whole bunch of situations where your mind will immediately think “well how does this work?”, because well… they’re all dogs. But the writing by Quill Games Studio manages to pull this off. The world is so consistent in its wild ideas, I couldn’t help but get sucked in to it.
And wild is not an understatement. What starts out fairly rote quickly escalates into what I would consider “thematically anime territory”. Once Syd, the adorable Shiba Inu you play as, gets back to Shiba Island, you’re quickly forced into an ARIna battle. These are virtual tournaments typically held in your younger years which help choose your status ranking. The better you do, the more respected and powerful you become in society. And now that you are back on the island to search for your missing brother, previous adversaries are coming back for revenge. Or maybe there are other motives behind their challenges.
I won’t get into heavy spoilers as the story is rather engaging overall. But throughout these ARIna battles you learn all about Syd’s past, how she got where she was, and society at large. As you progress, there are three ARIna’s that you go through, twice each. The first time you go back is a memory. It helps contextualize what happened and why your opponent may have challenged you. For the most part, these aren’t all that interactive, leading to long periods of reading and tapping the A button to get through them. Your second entry though takes place in the present and you have to use your knowledge of what happened in the past to navigate your way through and beat your challenger. It’s in these moments where you get to choose who Syd is, and where her story will end. Will you be ruthless and violent? Or will you try and talk your way out of these fights? The developers do a great job at creating branching and distinct storylines based on your choices. In my five different playthroughs, each ending was drastically different, all ending with Syd at a completely unique place personality-wise.
And the writing is consistently solid for nearly all of the characters you meet. In your second ARIna battle, you meet Ai-Yu – a prod-dog who is faithful to you till the very end. Despite only knowing Ai-Yu for 15 minutes, I was emotionally invested in her and was able to relate and feel for all of her anxieties and worries. The fact that I am able to care for these dogs so quickly, or find the shadowy ARI corporation who are behind the ARIna battles and the structure of society as a whole, so intriguing is a testament to the team’s writing chops. There was only one character who I felt disappointed by in all five of my playthroughs, and that was Max.
Max is one of the two allies you meet on your return visit. But despite having the most history with you, he is constantly shoved to the side in favor of Quei-Li, the mysterious Lab who helps you along the way. This feels like a missed opportunity since so much of this game is focused on Syd’s past and why she had to leave. Why would you push the one person who was there for it all, away? Now that’s not to say that Quei-Li is a poor companion. She is consistently charming, funny and a great counterpoint to Syd’s personality. Any time that Quei-Li and Syd interact, she forces Syd to look at herself and really understand why she feels a certain way, especially towards the end of the story. But the sidelining of Max consistently feels off. With how many endings there are, there is a chance that one playthrough may have the Max content I so desired, but in my multiple playthroughs I didn’t find it.
Luckily, if you find yourself invested and curious about all of the different ways the characters can end up, it’s incredibly easy to replay and experience the different endings. Once you finish the game, you have the opportunity to start from the beginning and skip to all of the different choices. This means you get to see how different interactions play out, without having to re-read everything. This is a fantastic quality of life choice that kept encouraging me to go back and try something else. While your first playthrough may take a couple of hours to finish, your second, third and fourth run can be as fast as 15 minutes.
A Summer with the Shiba Inu on Xbox One is a surprise of a game for me. I’ve never been much of a fan of visual novels simply due to how slow the experience can feel, but between the quality of writing and the fact that all of the dogs are in adorable outfits, I got sucked in. Syd’s journey to find her brother honestly feels more like a journey to find herself. And with the help of her two friends Max and Quei-Li, A Summer with the Shiba Inu was a journey I found myself wanting to go through multiple times.