Visual novels tend to fall into two camps. There are the stamina-sapping ten-hour epics, which can be Russian roulette for a reviewer. Nobody wants to be committed to ten hours of reading something if it’s sub-fan fiction tosh. And there are the tiny novellas, like those of Ratalaika Games, barely an hour or two in length. You can spot them from the sub-£5 price tag, and they’re painless if occasionally throwaway.
Starlight Shores is £4.99, which is a decent hint of which camp it falls into. But to say it’s throwaway is to go too far. While it only offers an hour or two of reading and replaying, it’s a good-natured drink around the campfire with friends, and it will linger a little longer in the memory than your average visual novel. Starlight Shores is one of the better ones.
There’s a reunion feel to Starlight Shores. The main character, Will, has been invited to a weekend getaway by his best-friend Theo (short for Theodora, which flummoxed us initially). But they’ve been estranged for the past year, as they’ve both gone to different colleges and been rubbish at keeping in touch. Theo has a new best friend, Lena – someone she has connected with just as strongly as she did with Will. And stirring the pot even further, Will and Theo previously left on awkward terms, as she leaned in for a slightly lingering hug and cheek-kiss that they have both been stewing over.
Theo and Will bring their Dawson’s Creek-like simmering sexual tension, while a few others come along for the ride. There’s Lena herself, who is eager to get on good terms with Will for Theo’s sake, and there’s Will’s best friend Alec, who arrives late with a girlfriend, Erika, whom he has only been on a few dates with so far.
The entirety of Starlight Shores is spent at a beachside resort, booked by Theo for Will’s birthday. The guests arrive, meet each other – awkwardly and wholesomely in different measures – and then they convene to the beach for some hot dogs or marshmallows (your choice) and drinking games like ‘I Have Never’ and ‘Truth, Dare or Drink’.
Anyone who has played these drinking games, or watched various teen dramas that love chucking them into their plot, will know that they can be an emotional spark to a powder keg. Someone reveals a dark past; crushes get aired; and people generally get drunk, fall over, go skinny dipping and find that their clothes fall off. So it is with Starlight Shores.
That might sound formulaic and trashy, and Starlight Shores does go there, but it’s not all spiked punch and beer pong. Starlight Shores mostly elevates itself above the teen melodrama by being likable. With one or two exceptions, the group is a likable bunch and we found ourselves wanting the best for them. There are all sorts of tensions between them, but not in a manner where a clear enemy forms: you want wholesome and happy resolutions for them all, and it’s enjoyable to try to make them happen.
Which is where Starlight Shores’ approach to choice comes in. It may not have a long play-time to work with, and not a staggering number of choices, either – there are roughly twenty in each playthrough – but Starlight Shores does a superb job of diverging from each one. Having unlocked every ending and path, we can say with some confidence that the holiday ends in a multitude of different ways. More impressively, innocuous decisions about food, drinks and drinking-game questions lead down different paths, so you can find yourself down a unique fork in the road simply by choosing to serve beer instead of coolers.
The writing is good, if a little schmaltzy. We invoked Dawson’s Creek for a reason, as each character has a similar willingness and determination to talk about their emotional states, like they were all budding psycho-analysts, and we’re pretty sure no-one talks like that. Plus, the decisions are mostly shaped by who Will ends up with. It’s not that these hook-ups aren’t interesting (and it’s perfectly possible to shed a few tears here), but it’s typical visual novel fare, and we would have taken a structure that didn’t lean on the usual dating-sim scaffolding.
While these are all very much white, middle-class kids, Starlight Shores does have a progressive thread running through it. It tackles non-binary self-identification, bisexuality, toxic relationships and a few more. Will navigates these various boundaries through the choice system, and Starlight Shores has a reasonable deft touch with all of them.
As we mentioned at the start of the review, Starlight Shores is not long. We finished it after just over an hour, and you will have to check your own £-per-hour value-beliefs to determine whether Starlight Shores is worth it. But there are plenty of reasons to repeat a runthrough, not least because the choices spin off in different directions, but also because the Skip Dialogue functions are all fast and on-point. And it’s worth replaying. It may be frothy and typical teen drama stuff, but the writing is strong, the choices are meaningful, and the characters quickly grow on you.
Starlight Shores isn’t a visual novel that will sway the genre’s doubters. It keeps straying into dating sim territory, and that’s when the game is at its least interesting. But there’s something very genuine about Starlight Shores. It’s a nostalgic get-together with friends around a campfire, and there’s a warmth between the characters that’s lovely to share for an hour or two.
You can buy Starlight Shores from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S