Come to Autumn’s Journey with the right expectations, and you might well enjoy it. The first expectation is common to pretty much every visual novel you might stumble across: the emphasis really is on the word ‘novel’. You will find very few interactions in Autumn’s Journey beyond pressing the A button to skip to the next chunk of dialogue. There are choices, but I counted seven plus a missions noticeboard where you make (pretty arbitrary) choices that lead to three-second long chibi montages. The choices diverge oh-so-gently with some romance options, but there’s virtually nothing here that you could classify as an interaction. If you’re on board, and expect a comic book more than a game, then you’ve taken that golden first step.
Autumn’s Journey was also designed to be an ongoing series. What this means for this, the first game in that series, is there is virtually no resolution. You’re going to get lots of set-up and exposition, some character setting, a scuffle or two, and then it’s all over. Equally it means that the epic, world-ending stuff is planned for future installments, and everything here is very relationship-driven and low-key. You’re going to be buying into the Philosopher’s Stone of the Autumn Journey series. Keeping this in mind will probably overcome the issue that not a lot actually happens.
The final expectation is that Autumn’s Journey is exceptionally short, and has no longevity to speak of. It’s two hours long, and the three divergent paths mean that you really only have to play through it three times. The Skip function is superb, rattling through the stuff you’ve already seen at a hell of a clip, so a replay is only going to amount to a few minutes. That gives you just over two hours total, which might be too measly a portion for some. If you remember that this is a pilot episode, and arriving at a budget price of £4.99, then the pennies per hour isn’t all that bad.
Those are three hefty road-bumps to overcome but, if you’re still reading, then there’s a chance that you’re a visual novel enthusiast who can soak up the issues. It’s a good thing, because if you do there’s an endearing and well-written little visual novel here. All of the pieces are in place for a long-serving series.
It’s largely the story of Auralee, a would-be knight who has been home-schooled by her mother, a legendary knight of old. Everyone seems to know her mother and the great stuff she’s done in the past, which casts a long shadow over Auralee. She’s eager to prove that she can be a knight on her own terms, and become more than her mother’s daughter.
At the end of a scouting trip, Auralee trips over a young man lying by a brook, shivering and with no camp set up. On approaching him, she realises that he’s got a funky ear thing going on, as they’re large and made of rock, a bit like a Sphinx’s wing. He wakes up, he’s irritable and wants her to skedaddle, but it becomes clear that he doesn’t know where he is (or who he is, really) and Auralee would serve well as a guide. His name is Kerr, and he’s been sent on a mission to find some altars around the town of Berri, and – after some prodding – reveals that he’s the human manifestation of an earth dragon. Which is, you know, a surprise.
A little later, there’s another addition to your fellowship in the form of Ilmari, who reveals himself to be a water dragon, again stuffed into a human-sized body. The love triangle is complete, and the story develops into something of a dragons-out-of-water scenario, as the two dragons try to get to grips with the world of the heavenkind (just a fancy name for humans). This seems to mostly involve gaining a love for apple pies. There’s a parallel plot with Auralee trying to leverage the mission to get her knight accreditation, but the focus is mostly on the dysfunctional family that Auralee seems to have adopted.
For a genre coined ‘visual novels’, they are too often lacking in the visuals, and far from the quality that you’d expect from a published novel. It’s great to see that Autumn’s Journey is above par in both respects. The character design by Deji, while not original, suits the characters well and is colourful – you’ll find yourself enjoying the company of Kerr and the rest. If there’s a complaint, it’s that too few of the characters are actually visualised: Auralee’s father and an end-of-game villain don’t make an appearance, and their absence feels odd. On the flip, there are plenty of backgrounds and locations, which are uniformly well-done.
The writing holds up too, with only one caveat. Auralee is a refreshingly rounded and strong female centre, Kerr does the old ‘hard man that softens’ trick, which works well, while Ilmari is a bit soggy, but harmless. There are none of the usual localisation issues, and it maintains the interest well. The caveat is that the relationship stuff felt unnecessary and a bit overwrought; there’s a path through the story where you don’t woo either dragon, and we saw that as the ‘good’ ending, particularly as Auralee didn’t need a man to make her arc complete. Or maybe our heart’s black as stone.
The story doesn’t go anywhere spectacularly new, as you’ve probably read or watched countless fish-out-of-water scenarios, so don’t misinterpret this review as gushing: Autumn’s Journey is just some endearing young-adult fluff. Props go to the world-building, which takes a decent stab at creating a canvas that we’d want to see more of in the future. There are even some jokes that land well, which is nice.
That’s the overriding feeling as we emerged from the short-but-sweet narrative of Autumn’s Journey. It’s nice, it’s pleasant, and we don’t feel like we have been challenged or seen anything that we hadn’t seen umpteen times before. It was a two-hour cafe stop while we were on the epic journey of Cyberpunk 2077, and man were we thankful (the swift 1000G was nice too).
Autumn’s Journey on Xbox isn’t long, bombastic or even particularly interactive, but it is a well-crafted visual novel that endears you to its characters. Expect nothing more than a fantastical short story with a hint of romance, and you’ll be on track for a couple of hours of swooning entertainment.