Very quietly, 2021 has been developing into a banner year for Xbox visual novels. Any year which finally brings Doki Doki Literature Club Plus! to the Xbox was always going to be ‘banner’, but it’s more than that. Cross the Moon, C14 Dating and A Little Lily Princess have ranged from great to good, and even the failed experiments of Dull Grey and Angels with Scaly Wings have at least been ambitious.
Four of that list have come from Ratalaika Games, a publishing house that we occasionally malign for the quality of their output. But when it comes to visual novels, they serve up quality and quantity. They’re on a strong run, too, with all of their last five visual novels sitting at 3/5 or above on TheXboxHub. A ‘Ratalaika visual novel’ is becoming a seal of quality.
Well, all runs have to end somewhere. Bai Qu: Hundreds of Melodies is a dull, melodramatic plod of a game, and it’s a textbook example of how to get visual novels wrong. We’re partial to a visual novel, but they do have habits that we dislike, and Bai Qu does its darnedest to exhibit every single one of those habits.
Bai Qu: Hundreds of Melodies is set in modern day China, and kicks off at the house of Xiao Su, a student who finds out his neighbours have moved away following the death of their daughter. A parcel arrives at his house, addressed to his neighbours, and he thinks nothing of it until a graduate named Wei Qiuwu comes to pick it up. He is there to return the package to the family, as it’s the journal of their dead daughter, Li Jiayun. Xiao Siu wants to know more about what happened, so Wei Qiuwu settles down to tell the story of Li Jiayun, and how he came to be in her life.
We can imagine Xiao Siu regretting asking the question. What comes next is ten hours – ten hours – of Wei detailing how he met Li. We didn’t ask for your life story, Wei.
Bai Qu: Hundreds of Melodies plays out almost entirely in flashbacks. Wei meets Li by chance in the hospital where his father is resting. She’s performing an accordion solo in a hotel waiting room, which we imagine is unusual in mainland China. Wei manufactures reasons to visit her again, bringing gifts and food, until their friendship develops. He becomes a cross between guardian, chauffeur, benefactor and lover, teaching her to ride a bike (twice), watching her star in a local theatre performance, inveigling himself into the family and then observing from the sidelines as she pops her clogs very, very slowly. It’s The Fault in Our Stars with accordions.
Let’s wrestle the elephant in the room straight away. Bai Qu is built on extremely shaky moral grounds. Wei is in his second year of college, putting him at roughly twenty years of age, while Li Jiayun isn’t even in secondary school, which – checking the Chinese educational system on Wikipedia – puts her somewhere around twelve. Even allowing for mistranslation, which is perfectly possible with Bai Qu, Li Jiayun is portrayed as an extremely young, slender girl and people keep remarking on the age difference. As you play Bai Qu, you’re meant to be willing these two together, but we mostly shuddered our way through it. While the story might fly in China, it caused extreme culture shock in this reviewer.
What’s bizarre is that Bai Qu seems at war with itself over it. The translation seems to understand that there’s something unsavoury to the plot, so it spends a lot of time apologising. Wei reassures himself that the relationship isn’t romantic. He’s just a man bewitched by some kind of pure, flawless beauty. At a late point in the game, you choose whether you want to be ‘close to’ Li Jiayun or ‘be with’ her. They commit you to a relationship with Li while being noncommittal about what it means, as if to excuse the shadiness of what you’re doing.
But then Bai Qu’s artist turns up. While the translator dances around this relationship, the artist says ‘sod that’ and goes softcore. In a sequence that’s etched onto our retinas, Li performs as the Princess Fox in a theatrical performance, and spends most of it naked. Achievements pop with the text ‘Wait, are those costumes too exposed?’, as if completely confused about whether they should be celebrating the nudity, or shaking a finger.
The dissonance between the art and story runs throughout Bai Qu. With a few exceptions, everyone who turns up is a hilariously nipply and busty girl or woman, with the fabric between their breasts at snapping point. Every girl has the same face, but with different sized hair and boobs. Some scenes are shown as CG stills, and the camera is low, trying to grab a view of some knickers, as the situation is given the most lewd interpretation possible. A girl is putting a fox headband on another girl? Sure, let’s have them spooning and looking lustily into the camera. It’s hard to take the story seriously, especially when ninety percent of it is intended to be deadly serious. The only way we could process the jarringness was to imagine that the writer and artist hated each other.
We suspect there’s some culture shock in the way Bai Qu is written, too. There’s a lot of conversation, particularly from the game’s two main men, about the attributes of a good woman. The conclusion is that polite, homely and obedient women are the most virtuous, while independent women are often given a stern talking to and reminded that they’ll need a man some day. Obviously, the same conversation doesn’t happen around men, and what makes them good husbands. You can get a sense of where Bai Qu is coming from by the way it first describes its female characters: “her body was really proportionate”, says Wei, as a busty woman enters a school room; “I suddenly felt that her back view was so elusive, as though she could disappear anytime”, he says about a thinner woman. “A standard Asian beauty”, he says of a girl he doesn’t find attractive.
Strip out the distasteful stuff, and the story’s a yawnfest. Very, very little happens over the course of the ten hours. We often congratulate stories for not having an ounce of fat on them; that you couldn’t trim it down any further. Bai Qu is all fat. It’s a pork scratching. You offer Li and her friends bike-riding lessons not once but twice, and each is about half an hour of play. The same things happen in both of them, and there’s no character development. You watch several rehearsals for the same play, as if stuck in an interminable Groundhog Day.
The writer would probably offer the counterpoint that Bai Qu is not about what happens, but how the characters develop. They would probably say that it’s more concerned with spending time with these people and, in the case of Li, spending the last moments with them. There’s some truth in that, but the characters here don’t develop: they’re the same as when they started, with the exception – perhaps – of Wei, the character you are playing. None of this is more true than with Li, who starts off as a Jesus Christ figure, a pure, innocent girl who can do no wrong and everyone loves, regardless of what she does. She stays that way till the end.
There are a couple of saving graces in the characters. Li’s best friend is a girl called He Jia, who provides the energy in Bai Qu, and it would probably feel twice as long to play without her. She’s enthusiastic, eats everything, and has a habit of biting people when they’re near. There’s a subtext in Bai Qu that some of the characters are spirit animals like foxes and rabbits, and most of this centres on He Jia. Unfortunately, Bai Qu doesn’t fully explore this outside of an epilogue, when it could have been a real point of interest. Your parents in Bai Qu (never given any character art – presumably because they wouldn’t have been an attractive young girl) are also standouts, as they bicker with each other, eat each other’s food, but clearly still love each other.
But even the best characters have to wrestle with Bai Qu’s writing and translation. You can go several sentences without grasping the point, as English is clearly not the first language on display. “Dear parents were gazing at me with a weird eyesight”, says Wei. You can get the gist of what’s being said, but it takes a little more concentration to get there. The problem is that we’d rather not spend that on a plot that’s stretched thinly for too long.
At the start of the review, we said Bai Qu: Hundreds of Melodies showcases all the worst traits of visual novels. The worst novels are too long, full of fluff that could have been yanked out for the sake of interest. You wouldn’t have put up with the narrative quality in book form, yet it’s worse in a game where you have to press A multiple times. They can be poorly translated, making you stumble through them and their cultural differences. Bai Qu is the poster child of all of these.
By the fifth or sixth hour of Bai Qu, we were willing it to end, which – considering this is a story about a girl living out the last moments of her life – makes us a kind of monster. But we challenge anyone to wholeheartedly enjoy the ten hours of poorly translated, leery guff here. Ratalaika may have been on a real run with their visual novels of late, but this is a long, protracted misstep.
You can buy Bai Qu: Hundreds of Melodies for £9.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S