Visual novels are often quite hard to fully critique. They don’t usually have gameplay as such and instead rely on the story to entirely drive it. The little gameplay they do have is often dependent on making decisions and replaying it to achieve each unique scenario. On release, Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet offers 10 endings ranging from sickly sweet to uncomfortably dark body horror. But is this boring and cliche? Or utterly fascinating?
Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet is something that punches you with its graphical and musical style right out of the gates. It has a fairly quaint soundtrack fitting with your usual visual novel style – major tones and heavy use of synth, piano and very light percussion. It’s nothing too noticeable but it does its job by providing enjoyably cute background noise. The art style fits the overall tone to a tee too. It feels directly inspired by Tumblr’s art and has all the cuteness to boast. Each character is distinct in their colour palette and the visuals make them surprisingly human for a bunch of alchemists, mages, golems and cat people in a candy land. Yeah, retrospectively, maybe it’s weirder.
Speaking of character, the game’s story and tone get rather strange as you proceed through thngs, relying entirely on your input. You can choose a happy-go-lucky story with friendship, magic and other My Little Pony-style things, or you can choose to disengage, die or end up a capitalistic warlord. This naturally affects the game and tone as a whole. Your very first choice in the game upon booting it up is whether or not you should eat someone!
Maybe I should back up and give a little bit of context. In Syrup and The Ultimate Sweet, there are five central characters. You play the role of Syrup, a magic hating alchemist responsible for making and selling candy in her shop. She is accompanied by her assistant Pastille, a warm-hearted and sweet (pardon the pun) friend. Although friend might be a bit strong, given Syrup’s outward coldness. Syrup’s single biggest enemy is Butterscotch, a small but powerful mage, and her loyal cat person companion Toffee. One day, Syrup and Pastille awake to find a magic-infused golem made out candy in her basement, naked and unaware of her surroundings. Naturally one must assume she is Butterscotch’s doing and you may now make the decisions from here forward.
This brings one to the “dilemma” from before. Do you or do you not eat her? The rational empathetic side of me immediately wants to play the “Paragon route”, but that question lingers throughout your head as you play. Would it actually let me? Would it stop me and carry on anyway? Needless to say, it does let you and gives you some fascinatingly creepy body horror in return. The jarring tone swap makes the descriptions of pawing through a candy girl’s entrails while she cheers you on even darker. I won’t be spoiling any more going forward, so do yourself a favour and try these paths out.
There are 10 distinct endings throughout Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet (five good and five bad), as well as some minor differences, and these are the best parts of this game. You might, after your first playthrough, find yourself skipping dialogue to test out new endings. Luckily, NomNomNami appears to be a developer with experience in visual novels giving you, the player, options to skip already seen text and look at the endings you’ve already achieved. This is a visual novel player’s visual novel. It’s not hugely complex and doesn’t offer a huge amount of content. It opts instead to tell a few nice stories about a likeable cast of rather memorable characters. It works competently with a nice soundtrack, stylish visuals and well-defined character traits.
Unfortunately, the biggest downside to Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet is the fact that some of those stories are so memorable. Therefore a few of the other stories seem lacklustre in contrast and the character motivations start to fall apart as you explore each route. This, like many visual novels, suffers from Flanderization to an extent; a trope where a character’s biggest characteristic becomes their only characteristic. Syrup’s coldness to others is a standout trait that literally overwhelms her. Sometimes, the stories find it difficult to justify your choices without falling apart at the seams. Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet doesn’t handle this poorly but sometimes doesn’t live up to what it could be.
Overall, Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet on Xbox One is mostly delightful, occasionally shocking and a little underwhelming. It follows the stereotypes of visual novels a little too closely but I have enjoyed my time with it. Its characters are charming and develop nicely over the admittedly fairly short playtime. One could see this in a good light as I’m certainly looking forward to seeing what NomNomNami does next. Syrup and the Ultimate Sweet is not wholly as original as some of its better stories, but I’m certainly looking forward to playing whatever follows it.