Stop us if you’ve heard this before. A boy is invited to a magical school, where pureblood humans are considered ‘lesser’, and young magicians are taken through their paces with lessons on spellcraft, magical duelling and more. It seems that this boy is destined for greater things, as he can perform spells that even the mysterious but powerful headmaster cannot. Teachers hate him, and his schoolmates either want to be him or fight him.
Sable’s Grimoire stops short of a golden snitch, but you probably get the point. It has an extremely familiar set up which, to be fair, quite a few young adult books have been pilfering from for a couple of decades now. But what’s surprising about Sable’s Grimoire is that it uses that familiar bedrock to build a story – or several stories, really – that are well beyond the standard for a visual novel.
The story opens with Sable waiting at the train platform for the Hogwart’s Express – sorry, Amadronia Express – which will take him to the first day of his first year at Amadronia Magic Academy. It’s a school for prospective magic users, but it’s mostly populated by ‘demi-humans’, races that are humanoid or half-human. There aren’t many humans here because we don’t have a natural proficiency for it, so Sable sticks out like a sore human thumb among the half-dragons, elves and pixies.
Sable’s Grimoire has fun with this concept, as it stirs in the usual teenage anxieties. Sable has to study hard to even rank halfway up the school’s league tables, so there’s an inferiority complex at play here. As a human, people also treat him like a weird curio, giggling in the corridors. It’s like a 16-year old’s anxiety dream.
While most of the school gives Sable a wide berth, he still manages to gather a small group of outsider friends. There’s Lisha, an uppity elf who’s also valedictorian; Rei who is a constantly hungry rokurokubi, who can extend her neck like a tape measure; and Jorou, a half-human, half-spider with a hunger for books, and not in the reading sense. There’s another half dozen or so, and – to Sable’s Grimoire’s credit – while they might dabble in cliche, they are mostly fresh takes. It’s not often that a core character is a faceless noppera-bo, bewitching people by slotting on the faces of their loved ones.
You may have noticed that all of the non-Sable characters we’ve mentioned are female. Sable’s Grimoire is a ‘dating sim’, but not in the traditional sense. At points it feels like an anti-dating sim, as Sable has no time for a relationship. He’s busy, there’s work to be done, and ladies aren’t part of that. He’s even – through a clerical error – put in the women’s dorm, and seems particularly put out by the fact. But what happens across Sable’s Grimoire’s sixteen different endings is that his resolve is worn down (often, his partner’s resolve is worn down too), and he finds himself close to one of these women. Once Sable gets a partner (or dies) the game ends, and an achievement pops.
It sounds a bit back-to-front for a dating sim, and the chasteness might put off people who buy Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball. But we’ve always found that traditional dating sims can be leery and sleazy, so it’s refreshing here. Rather than treating partners as goals to aim for, relationships happen as a byproduct of other choices. Your goals are more about surviving the year than they are about hopping into someone’s pants.
A few of the stories are positively heartwarming. Lisha’s story, Man and Elf, shows the gradual thawing of your relationship with the haughty Lisha, and you’ll end up egging the two of them on. Probably the most likable character in Sable’s Grimoire, Drakan the half-dragon, starts with a conventional fish-out-water story as she’s never been to human cities, and she wants you to take her. But it develops into a story about cultural duty and sacrifice, and becomes the game’s best ending. The true test of a multi-stranded visual novel like Sable’s Grimoire is whether every (good) ending feels like the natural, correct culmination of the story, and these two definitely do.
Other stories are slightly less effective. Rei’s story is limp, simply because it doesn’t feel fair to her character and arc, while Jorou’s is probably three shades too dark for the game’s tone. But they are all worth experiencing, and they have something to say about the game’s world or ours.
We’re planning to put together a petition for all visual novels to include Sable’s Grimoire’s visual map of its ‘routes’. There are multiple ways the story can diverge, and Sable’s Grimoire offers up a spiderweb of those choices. Having completed the game, you can select a place where the story diverged and choose another path. It’s a staggering help and almost removes the need for multiple saves. We’re not the type to play every ending in a visual novel – it tends to be a pain in the arse – but Sable’s Grimoire was so frictionless (the skip function also works like a dream, sprinting through at 100kph), that we went for it.
That quality of presentation and user-experience spans across Sable’s Grimoire. It’s always clear who’s talking, which you can never take for granted with a visual novel. The characters have a consistent look across the main game and its cutscenes, and the character designs are great. There’s very little over-sexualisation (Tix, a continuously nude pixie, is the exception, but she has an excuse), and there’s plenty of backdrops, so you never feel like the game is skimping on locations.
The writing’s good too. We’ve lost count of the number of visual novels that have a garbled translation. This one’s nearly error-free, and the writer tends to be on the same wavelength as the reader. If someone does something annoying, they’ll call it out rather than play along.
That’s not to say that the writing’s perfect, though, as it’s still the biggest chink in Sable’s Grimoire’s armour. The characterisation of Sable himself is a problem as, let’s be frank here, he’s a bit of a dick. There’s no self-awareness to him at all, and he has a habit of calling people out for things that he does himself. The story gives him a hall pass to do it, and never highlights his hypocritical nature. He can barely put a foot wrong, either; there’s a connection to Harry Potter here, as everything he does or says comes good in the end, and you half want a comeuppance. But no, Sable turns out to be Dumbledore’s gift to magic, more intelligent and capable than anyone else.
We’d have taken a few more male characters, and the opportunity for LGBTQ+ romance options, while the themes of racism, transplanted to humans, elves and other races, can feel a wee bit too on the nose. The only other human character could have wandered the halls in a Klan hood and we wouldn’t have been surprised: he’s basically a racism foghorn. But, generally, the standard here is high, way beyond most visual novels, and you will be merrily pressing the A button through dialogue, unaware of how long you’ve been playing.
It might be easy to dismiss Sable’s Grimoire as a visual novel take on Harry Potter. It’s even easier to dismiss as a dating sim. But it’s laced with teenage anxiety and social commentary, which builds on the Hogwarts foundations and ends up as a dating sim, almost by accident. It’s not without its cliches and melodrama, but Sable’s Grimoire is a rich, effective visual novel that fans of the genre will fall in love with.
You can buy Sable’s Grimoire for £14.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S