A fair few of us have been feeling social anxiety. After being cooped up in our homes, riding out the Covid storm, the idea of seeing each other’s ugly mugs and gathering again in larger groups, well, it was always going to take some getting used to.
It’s a global state of mind that suits Venus: Improbable Dream to a T. This is the tale of two extraordinarily anxious and introverted seventeen year-olds, who manage to find each other, and – through a collective willpower – push themselves to face the world. Perhaps by accident, it feels like a parable of our times, and I suspect that it will resonate with those of us who don’t want to emerge from our dressing gowns and blankets.
Venus: Improbable Dream is a visual novel from single developer Borealis. We should be clear up front that if you are in any doubt whatsoever about visual novels, you should probably steer clear. Rather than avoid visual novel criticisms, it welcomes them in for tea. There is almost zero gameplay in Venus: Improbable Dream, and virtually no divergence either. You get six or seven choices through it’s eight-hour runtime, and none of them make a jot of difference. For four of the choices, you are simply deciding whether to sit on a bench or in a library.
It’s also impossibly slow. Borealis has clearly not heard of the term ‘show, don’t tell’ as this is a barrage of telling. Events are seen through the lens of an insular and overthinking young boy, and it slows everything down. Over the course of the eight hours, there are probably three significant events. A more pacey adventure or visual novel would have rattled through the story beats in about an hour.
But yet, we find ourselves wanting to bat for it. Venus: Improbable Dream is a likable visual novel that feels completely authentic, has a beating heart at the centre of it, and – if you’re a fan of the genre and feel even the slightest sense of anxiety when faced with a crowd – it can almost feel like a self-help manual.
Venus: Improbable Dream follows the story of Akane Kakeru, a young boy who was born with a hemangioma on his face. It’s a benign tumour that appears like a large, red blister, and he’s understandably sensitive about it. But his self-consciousness has exploded to the degree that he flees from any interaction, hides in toilets to avoid people, and generally keeps out of sight. He’s ruled by it, basically, and it’s denying him relationships with his family and friends.
At school, he’s called up to the front by his teacher, who effectively delivers an ultimatum: he needs to attend a music club after school. The teacher’s been egged on by Akane’s parents. Akane goes, believing that he’ll only have to attend once, but soon crosses paths with another introvert in the form of Fujiwara Haruka, a girl with ridiculously long red hair who practices alone. She is completely blind from birth. They platonically bond over their shared anxieties, meeting at lunch and after school most nights. Mostly by egging each other on, they become more sociable together and then independently, as they meet each other’s parents, form other social groups and perform at end-of-term concerts. It’s all a bit wholesome, really.
It took us a while to get into Venus: Improbable Dream. We’d go so far to say that we regretted picking it up. It’s that pace that we mentioned earlier: Akane lingers over everything, worrying about what might happen. If he’s going to the shops the next day, he’ll deliberate over which route to go, how to keep his hemangioma hidden, what he’ll do if he meets someone, whether he will go at all, and then what his parents will think about him when he doesn’t. It’s a bit of a rollercoaster, but really slow and it ends up pretty much where Akane started. Which is like most rollercoasters, we suppose. But just really slow.
But as Venus: Improbable Dream progressed, we got dragged in, and that’s down to a few things. The writing and translation are actually really good. They may not be economical, but they read authentically, and you can absolutely believe that Akane and Fujiwara exist. Sure, her hair is Medusa-like and some of their reactions feel dialled up to eleven, but nothing feels unnatural.
It’s also immensely heartfelt. You are willing them both to plop their bums on stools and perform their recitals to the entire school. Venus: Improbable Dream could have easily taken the characters to dark(er) places, but it opts to keep them improving. By the time their baby steps have taken them far from where they started, you might even feel a lump in your throat.
Lastly, it touches on some topics that aren’t exactly commonplace. There’s a lot of classical music nerdery here, as the characters swoon over particular pieces. The actual music is included too, so you can hear the music they are performing and listening to. Classical music and its performance doesn’t exactly get much coverage in gaming, so it’s refreshing. The same goes for frank conversations about mental health. It’s handled with mature sensitivity, and without a hint of patronising.
There are clear negatives. I wasn’t a huge fan of the art, which felt a bit too sketchy, especially against the photo-filtered backgrounds. Proportions occasionally seem off, and you wonder if characters are just wildly different in size or behind each other in the frame. The lack of any divergence feels like a cop out, and sometimes the pace can dip to such ridiculously languid levels that you want to kick the author and tell them to cut it out. This is still meant to be entertainment, after all, and that means occasional dramatic moments and some form of momentum. Venus: Improbable Dream turns up to school without either of them.
Venus: Improbable Dream is not the first visual novel that you’d recommend to a newbie. It doesn’t meet the reader halfway by giving them things to do, like choices or branching endings. It doesn’t even get out of first gear. But we suspect that Venus: Improbable Dream will work as a deep cut, a visual novel for lovers of the genre, who want a wholesome, heartwarming tale with characters they can believe in. That group should lap this up. If you’re in that group and ever felt the edges of a panic attack, consider it a double-recommendation.
You can buy Venus: Improbable Dream from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S