Visual novels are becoming commonplace on consoles these days, with developers like ebi-hime getting more of their work ported over from PC. We’ve already seen one of their extensive portfolio of games launch on Xbox One in the form of the linear A Winter’s Daydream, but now another – Strawberry Vinegar – has arrived and features a very hungry demon embarking on an unusual friendship over food. Is Strawberry Vinegar akin to a tasty treat that should be savoured by all, or will it not go down well?
Given that this visual novel (VN) opens up with the rather sinister line of “If you don’t feed me, I’ll reap your soul!”, one could expect a dark and gloomy affair to follow. That couldn’t be further from the truth however, as there’s actually a lovely story just waiting to burst out. It doesn’t hit the spot in every aspect though, unfortunately.
We’re introduced to the main protagonist of Strawberry Vinegar, Sakuraba Rie; a socially uncomfortable nine year old girl who doesn’t appear to have any friends. Upon returning home from an ordinary school day, she’s subsequently startled by the presence of a demon girl – of the same age – scoffing food in the kitchen. Due to the imminent threat of soul theft, there’s only one solution for young Rie: feed and house the demon, Licia, for a week or else face the consequences.
Strawberry Vinegar is a visual novel, which essentially means it’s an interactive piece of literature and you’ll mainly be reading during this experience. The interactive aspect comes about through a number of junctures offering choices which could alter the story trajectory. A general playthrough can last anywhere between like an hour or five, depending on how things play out. With multiple endings to reach – six to be exact – and genuine affects taking place after your decisions are made, it’s safe to say there’s replayability here for anyone wishing to take proceedings off on different tangents. For example, one path leads to a fulfilling ending, while another ends up a bitter conclusion.
Nevertheless, what ensues is a ‘slice of life’ narrative focusing on the potentially blossoming relationship between these two youngsters. It’s an innocent tale of love and friendship that never steps over the line, ensuring an adorable series of events unfold. There’s an incredible amount of detail in the storytelling, almost to a fault, but as a result you’ll really get to understand their personalities and meet some great support characters. That’s especially true for Rie’s intriguing parents, who are like no others and turn gender stereotypes on their head. Being as it’s set in Japan, it serves as a pretty decent lesson in culture as well.
As mentioned, the sheer depth which the on-screen dialogue goes into is impressive, but it does have its downsides, leading to many unnecessarily lengthy scenarios. Most of these moments are just Rie processing everyday life using her inner-monologue, but it can really drag on at times and you’ll be tempted to skip through them. The attempted humour mostly misses the mark too, which is a shame. On the contrary, ebi-hime has a way with words when it comes down to an important aspect of the experience – the food.
Although the anime art style does a damn good job of portraying the cutesy young characters and the irrefutable beauty of the grown-ups, it’s the computer generated stills shining a spotlight on food that are a major draw. The likes of a strawberry sundae, natto, apple tarts, omelettes and various other edibles are an utter delight on the eyes. They look good enough to eat and the accompanying descriptions of each – from the perspective of intellectually advanced Rie – makes them sound ever so tasty. Don’t be surprised if you’re overcome with hunger as a direct result.
In terms of the sounds, the background noises vary from the melancholic and dreamy tracks for outdoor situations, to the annoying hustle and bustle of a classroom. The biggest disappointment however is the plethora of scenes featuring no sound at all; it’s very odd and difficult to tell whether it’s intentional, or not.
While the VN genre is still rather niche in the eyes of many, for those people who appreciate games of such ilk, Strawberry Vinegar possesses plenty of storytelling sweetness and food-orientated delights to enjoy. The selection of choices to be made also add value to the experience, providing the possibility of multiple playthroughs. Sadly, there’s an awful lot of unnecessary text that feels like filler and the characters frequent many of the same places, which is a tad monotonous. The sound department doesn’t do the game any favours either.
Despite the handful of drawbacks, if you like love themed visual novels and appreciate delicious CGs of food, then Strawberry Vinegar on Xbox One is good enough to satiate your taste buds.