Chemically Bonded is one of those rare games where everything it does, every decision it makes, is – at least to me – like dragging nails down a chalkboard. I’m not sure everyone will have the same reaction that I had, at least not to this severity but, man, was this an excruciating play for a few hours.
It sounds innocuous enough. You play a student who you get to name yourself. Socially, he’s middle of the road, not hugely popular but not an outcast either. At the end of a school day, after doing a spot of cleaning, he wanders into one of the chemistry labs and encounters Kiyoko, who seems to be expecting him. She’s recently started an after-school Science Club, and – comedy of errors! – she believes you are applying. So, you become the one and only Science Club member, and begin a fraternal relationship with Kiyoko which could well grow into something more.
The wrinkle is that while Kiyoko might seem like the bubbly, irascible science nerd of the school, she is hiding a wound. That becomes evident because Naomi, the school sports champ, tsundere and ‘prettiest girl in school’ seems to be bullying her. You get to observe some tense interactions between them. They have previous, and you take it upon yourself to both find out and resolve that previous.
It’s a perfectly fine setup for a visual novel. Not only is there a relationship to be resolved between Naomi and Kiyoko, but there are burgeoning relationships between you and/or Kiyoko and Naomi too. It’s textbook student romance stuff, and there’s absolutely a place for it in a visual novel format on the Xbox. Our irritation with it has nothing to do with it being a visual novel.
Where to start, then? Well, we won’t start at the art. The art is fine. None of the character designs are particularly unique or characterful, and you will have seen these archetypes a hundred times before (although we did quite like Ken Takahashi, a jock who must always be addressed with both names, and strolls about the school with his abs out). The character art is reasonably polished and not unappealing. The backgrounds, too, are fine, although Chemically Bonded is determined that it’s set in Wales, when everything’s very clearly Japanese.
We start pretty much everywhere else. The writing in Chemically Bonded leaves a lot to be desired. It feels like it’s been written by an AI that took a gap year to have a bash at being a poet. It’s got the vague outline of being artful, and certainly aims high, but interrogate it in any kind of detail and it falls apart. Let’s give you some examples.
“Peering across the room, my eyes move, looking around to see if I can catch a glimpse of Kiyoko”. Let’s count how many times it mentions eyes or sight: yep, there’s five in one sentence when one would have done. That’s quite the achievement.
Or how about “the sounds of club activities still strongly ambient through the grounds provides subtle distractions as my feet meet the ground, casting shadows in the evening sunlight”. There’s something about the scene-setting in Chemically Bonded that makes my eyes gloss completely over it, yet simultaneously get a headache. If you can read that while comprehending it, or even enjoying it, then props to you.
The writing isn’t only extremely hard to read, but it’s meandering. Barely anything happens in Chemically Bonded. So, how does it fill its three to four hours? It pads itself out with constantly repeated conversations – Kiyoko asks the main character whether he’s coming to the next Science Club session more times than I could possibly count – and the main character has one of the most irritating inner-monologues that we’ve ever stumbled on. He mentally wrings his hands, wondering whether he fancies the girls, whether he should get involved with their dispute, and whether he should stick with the club. And he does it, over and over, stepping over so much old ground that he’s made a trench.
Chemically Bonded clearly feels that it’s Shakespearian. The source of the conflict between the two girls is discussed tearfully, with dramatic, soaring music playing in the background. The main character turns the situation around like a Rubik’s Cube, trying to find a solution. It’s the end of the world for everyone involved, which tracks in a way: we were all overly dramatic at school. But Sweet Doki Doki it is overplayed. The situation is so minor, something that you would brush away as an adult with a shrug. It’s hard to take it seriously when it’s as dramatic as losing your keys.
But the real nails down the chalkboard? The voice-acting. We ended up giving up and muting the thing. Kiyoko is voice-acted by an adult who’s been given the direction to ‘play it cute and roughly five years’ old’. We’re shuddering thinking about it. It’s the voice an adult adopts when coochy-cooing a baby, stretched over roughly fifty-percent of Chemically Bonded. We were in actual, physical pain.
Chemically Bonded found our weak spot and jammed fingernails into it for three hours. We don’t imagine that it will be this painful for everyone: you might have a greater resistance to what we found to be aimless descriptions, rambling plotting and terrible voice-acting. But reviews are opinions, and our opinion is that you could randomly pick pretty much any other visual novel and feel less tortured than we were in Chemically Bonded.