One of the reasons I love visual novels is that they don’t play by the traditional rules of video games. In almost every other genre, games cost a lot to make, so most will try to make something marketable, immediately understandable, and that attracts an audience. They’ll often be focus-tested within an inch of their lives, which leaves you with something perhaps too flavourless or familiar.
But visual novels aren’t expensive to make. There’s a die-hard group of visual novel fans who will buy a lot of them (some of them even contribute to the project), and that frees the writers up to explore unusual topics. I had a good time reviewing C14 Dating, for example, which went all-in on explaining the fine art of archaeology, as well as chucking in some romancing. Where else could you get that? Who would greenlight that game?
Angels with Scaly Wings absolutely falls into this category. Its plot is so outlandish that no one would bankroll it. It explores so many niches and fetishes that it will naturally push away potential fans. But rather than be critical of its other-ness, we err towards celebrating it. We’re not blind to its flaws, as its determination to normalise a lot of oddness takes it into choppy waters, but we’re mostly happy to review something different.
You know that you’re in for something special from the opening pitch. Humans have found a portal on Earth, and have tentatively sent letters through. That’s Endearing Plot Point #1: we love that Earth’s first-contact strategy is to whip out a stationery set and start writing ‘To whom it may concern…’. They’ve been getting letters back, and whoever is sending them seems to be friendly. So, the next step is to send ambassadors: you are chosen, alongside a sociopath called Reza (nothing to worry about there, clearly) to meet these ‘others’. Your aim is to complete a trade: you want their energy technology in the form of generators, and in return you’re offering human knowledge on PDAs (PDAs! Endearing Plot Point #2).
When you cross through the portal, you’re greeted by an actual, bonafide dragon. It turns out that this sister-world is entirely populated by dragons, and they walk around in coats, trousers, fancy hats and spectacles. They know our language, they have jobs and hobbies like you or I, and they live in homes that look remarkably like human homes.
Now, you’re probably full of questions right now, but Angels with Scaly Wings chooses not to ask or answer them. Or, at least, it chooses to only answer them much, much later, and then only in an incomprehensible exposition dump. Everything is accepted on face value, and the issues are wonderfully, innocently ignored. A dragon has trouble going up stairs that are too small for it. Another finds it hard going through a door. They have pencils behind their ears that they can’t use, and neckties that must have been a nightmare to knot with their claws. This world clearly isn’t functional or in any way believable, but Angels with Scaly Wings just doesn’t care.
Now, this is a good metric for whether or not Angels with Scaly Wings is for you. If you find the premise lacklustre and illogical, then we’d suggest shuffling to the exit. It only goes further in that direction. But if you’re happy to embrace the impossibility of it all, and accept the kitsch-ness as a positive, then there’s a good chance that you’ll get a lot out of the experience.
As it turns out, humans are a mythical beast in the dragon’s world, just as dragons are in ours. Now, think for a moment how our world would react if dragon-aliens started stomping around. Well, it doesn’t happen here: the dragons mostly raise an eyebrow, stare a bit, and then go about their business again. You’re the equivalent of someone wearing pyjamas in the daytime.
It’s probably a good thing that you can go about your business uninterrupted, as Angels with Scaly Wings decides to take two sharp turns that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. Your sociopath friend Reza starts attacking dragons and then goes MIA. Each day, dead dragons appear, and all of the evidence points to Reza being the culprit. But rather than suspect you as being in cahoots with Reza, or questioning whether humans are a tad unreliable, the dragons make you an investigator in the case. Sure, you start off supervised, but soon you’re out in the field, on your own, tracking down your murderous friend.
The detective-work is about as rudimentary as you can get, which might be expected from a visual novel, but it would have been an opportunity to do something a little different. You are picking from a suite of dialogue options, making conclusions to see if they match those of the other detectives, and that’s it, really. You might rue the chance to explore crime scenes in more detail.
But if being a human detective in a dragon’s world wasn’t unusual enough, wait for what happens next. You will have downtime between cases, which gives you the opportunity to meet socially with the dragons that you’ve encountered. They’ll drop you a number or invite you for a drink. And then they start flirting with you. The first time this happened, we had to skip back and do a bit of a double-take: we honestly weren’t expecting it. You’ll then have the opportunity to flirt back, and you quickly realise that Angels with Scaly Wings is a dating sim, to go along with the detective story and the first-contact science-fiction story.
The dating steers well clear of being pornographic: the closest you’ll get is washing a dragon’s back. But the fact it’s there at all takes some acclimating. The various endings in Angels with Scaly Wings are determined by your success at dating the dragons, so while it can technically be avoided, you will only get to see the one neutral ending. So, if you want to enjoy Angels, you’re going to be wooing, and hoping to woo the dragons well.
A risky NSFW search of the internet shows that this aspect of Angels with Scaly Wings is hugely popular. There is undoubtedly a kink here that has captured the imagination of a lot of people. It’s notable that it isn’t called out as a perversion in the game: in fact, no one questions the inter-species relationships at any point, not even the physical incompatibility, and while that lack of questioning might be unlikely, it’s a positive message to be sending. Regardless, it puts you, the player, at something of a crossroads: the dating is largely mandatory, and it becomes the core of the game. If you find it too aggressively odd, distasteful, or simply not where you want the focus of the game to be, then you’re effectively shown the door.
In our case, we weren’t swept up in the romancing, simply because we had been enjoying the other stuff more. The dating just feels a bit on the conventional side when everything else has been so unconventional, which is an odd thing to say when you are fine-dining a dragon. But mentally switch the dragons for humans, and there’s really nothing original or interesting here. You date, you succeed or fail in chat options, and a hidden algorithm determines whether you’ll unlock their ending or not. It’s a soggy centre to an otherwise unusual game. Full credit to Angels with Scaly Wings for exploring sensitive topics like bullying, crunch-culture and alcoholism, though, as well as welcoming homosexual relationships.
Minigames are sprinkled onto this heady mix of dating, detecting and politics. In our many playthroughs, we came across a Trumps-like card game, a logic puzzle and even a journey into a JRPG, and they add some interest and further curveballs. Ultimately, though, Angels with Scaly Wings is headed for the same place where a lot of visual novels go: a single confrontation, but with many possible endings, based on your decisions. You are encouraged to play through multiple times, and – to make this palatable – there is a Skip button and a Rewind button, so you can quickly return to forks in the road and pick a different path. We actually found the Skip feature to be bugged, as we could only mass-skip, not just skip the stuff we’d already seen, but otherwise the multiple playthroughs worked well for Angels. You will want to get perfect scores on investigations, take all dating paths, and – while they don’t diverge dramatically – you will want to make sure you get at least one of the good endings.
Giving a score to Angels with Scaly Wings is a bit like grading a dragon that has turned up to Crufts. You can criticise it for not making sense and being a bit morally dubious, or you can embrace the silliness and celebrate it for what it is. Well, we’re in the latter camp.
Angels with Scaly Wings takes its dragon-dating very, very seriously, and doesn’t care much about whether you find it improbable or distasteful. When you add in a detective story and some science fiction, you’ve got the definition of ‘pulp’. But ignore it’s many weird and fabulous faults, including an insistence that dragons are sexy, and a world that has nothing to do with logic or believability, and you have a little charmer of a visual novel.
You can buy Angels with Scaly Wings from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S