Some of you might had seen a few articles last year proclaiming this game as the VN of the year. Which may had been a surprise. After all, wasn't Doki Doki the big shit? The hell is this? Butterfly Soup is a slice-of-life visual novel following four ninth-grade Asian kids in Oakland, California, from around 2003 to 2008. Key aspects of their lives include baseball and lesbianism. That either sells you on board or scares you away. Down to the brass tacks. Visual Novels are stories, so how does it hold up as one? It's not going to do anything revolutionary for a VN. You go in, you look at pretty art, you click on dialogue choices. Maybe some of the fancier ones put you on whole new paths like a sort of proto-CYOA, but this doesn't. I like to think as myself as a writer. I haven't been published yet, but I have a huge collection of rejection e-mails, a huge pile of trunk stories, and a huge stack of books about writing to help myself improve. I hereby declare myself an initiate authority on writing. So, what works? The characters are the strongest part of the game. To their audience, and this game does have an audience and Brianna is a woman with a mission, they click instantly. Nervous teenagers stifling under pressures outside of their control, applied externally or bubbling internally. The game is divided into four chapters which serve as POVs for the main four. Diya, an athletic, shy girl who loves dogs. Min, a rebellious rebel. Noelle, the studious nerd. Akarsha, the jokester. They're not sure of themselves but they have goals, even if those goals are applied onto them by their parents and they pursue those goals. Min and Diya's goals chase each other, like an Ouroboros. They want each other, but fight about how to get each other, and so they sort of dance around each other for a bit. Min's personality is more direct, and often lunges at Diya, who is too shy to avoid most of it. Noelle is being primed to be some sort of Taiwanese-American billionaire by her mother, who she doesn't want to, or doesn't feel to, disappoint. It's Berkeley and Princeton for her. Akarsha wants an outlet: she's also being pushed for academic success, but is crumbling under the weight set on her. She desperately wants to breathe, and does so by turning her pain into jokes and banters which she spills out on Noelle and Diya, silently screaming all the while. Surrounding our cast is a ring of supporting characters. Jun is Min's brother; and he acts as a voice of reason to Min. Hayden is a childhood friend, who is sort of...well grounded? Mother-figure Chryssa and supporting mom Liz are the captains of the baseball club everyone gets into. Sakura, Yuki, and Esther, who fill out the nine-strong team, live for one thing only: to remind us about how cringey we were in high school, adoring anime and speaking Japanese in casual conversation. Their personalities intrigue the audience, out of a mix of nostalgia and longing. We either knew people like them or were like them, so we have that subconscious 'click' which drives us to follow them around, watch what they do, listen to what they say. It generally works. The art breaks off from the pure anime-style most VNs are known for, with a mix of traced/altered photos for backgrounds and combining elements for our characters in an animesque style. At the least, they're expressive, and convey body language well. As for regular language: the dialogue doesn't breach any real conventions of media. It gets to the point, but does sprinkle those 'realistic' moments and diatribes in a way that feels natural, especially for smart high schoolers (or wannabe-tough ones like Min). So...what doesn't work? There's no real tension. There's no real conflict. There's supporting conflict and defining moments which we see in flashbacks or side-dialogue, mostly with the shittiest fucking 'tiger' parents ever. But between the characters, there are no fights. No one hurts anyone, not even unintentionally. Everyone loves each other, everyone gets along, we see them prevail. The worst that happens is that Min gets blood smeared all over their face by Akarsha due to Min being a violent rebel and flinging fists first. If there's no conflict, there's no real plot. It's just a story, a retelling of events. There is a difference. It's a CUTE story, and it has brought a lot of positive emotions to a lot of people, but so does a picture of a cute animal. The lack of a proper plot, to be brunt, hurts the game when it could really had supported it, fleshed it out, entrapped us even MORE into the story, made us connect more. Now, I might be rambling here, but I'm going to offer a few things that could had 1) padded out the game and 2) added conflict that complements the characters. First thing is that Dina is really, really shy due to outright social anxiety. One of her only friends is Min, who supports everything she does. Noelle sort of just hovers around Dina. So you'd think that Min would be important to Dina, right? So when Min dances around the subject of moving away to Florida, with no promise that they'll ever see each other again, not telling Dina until the day before the move... maybe Dina could, you know, hold some resentment over that? Maybe have lost a bit of that charm, or you know, had moments where she could had really used Min but Min wasn't there and dwelt on that? Nope. Min arrives. They crash into each other. They're completely stuck together for the rest of the game. Cute, but...other than Min's absence in the game play itself, there's little feeling of 'reward'. Nothing changed in five years. Min still burns for Dina. Dina had some thoughts about Min. Kisses ensure. And what about Min? Min's struggle is explained to us via backstory, and while it's a terrible struggle, by the time of the game, it's already concluded. It shapes their character, but it doesn't pull at us as real conflict does. Min had to forge a signature to get onto the baseball team - what if Min's violent and hateful parents, say, found out and confront the gang? Or what if Liz and Chryssa rejected Min outright for forging it? They really don't because Min throws a good kunckleball, but what if they did, and the team started to break down as Diya and Noelle and Akarsha side with her, Min's skills are sorely missed, and so on? Or, how about Noelle and the seemingly goofy and infuriating Akarsha? The girl who is so smart enough to concoct outright joker-esque traps in a High School and pesters Noelle to no end? Noelle who has been emotionally bullied by her parents to be a savant to go to colleges that won't accept you if you even get even one 'B' in high school? Does Noelle snap at Akarsha? Ignore her completely? Undermine her, maybe, by ratting on her either for a prank she did (which I'll leave you to experience, if you want) or for suspicion of cheating? Or how about fighting with herself about how she feels about Akarsha? Worst thing that happens: Noelle slaps Akarsha out of the way to get to Dina. Again, there's some romantic tension between the two, but they were originally side characters and it sort of still shows. They sort of still scream too loud to be just mere side-characters like Liz or Hayden or Chryssa or Jun, but they could had been fleshed out a lot more. Akarsha only drops two hints about her internal struggle in the whole game, maybe three. She also doesn't break down against, say, a condensing and infuriated Noelle, she hides it from everyone but herself. The side characters as well just...exist. There's one rule to side characters: they have to do something to the main cast. They either advise, or instigate. You've guessed it: they don't really do that. Jun advises Min. Chryssa and Liz instigate Noelle onto the team. Sakura, Yuki, Ester, and Hayden just exist with no meaningful interaction with the main cast. Noelle's parent sort of instigates, becoming a sort of antagonist, but doesn't act like an antagonist, just a barrier. Brianna apparently wanted to make a longer game, and hopefully the sequel sorts out this problem, by adding obstacles for the delightful cast to overcome and problems for them to solve. We got the goody-feely heart-warming stuff out of the way and really laid the groundwork for some heavy tension and conflict. How will their parents react, if ever? Do Noelle and Akarsha become a thing (heavily implied), or Jun and Hayden? Liz and Chyrssa are also dating, do they take up some sort of seer position for the young lovebirds as they enter their first fights, peer-pressure in Prop-8 California, parental disparaging? Eg, will the sequel fill out a lot of the criticism above? We'll just have to wait for the sequel which might come out this year or the next. If you have 3-4 hours of your time and feel some sort of instant click with the general premise: jump to get the game, it'll be worth it. Some weird mix of nostalgia and longing emerges which makes it enjoyable. The characters are fine. The premise is fine. It's even memorable. It can be downloaded for free here, with an optional five dollar art PDF. But if you want something a bit more...it may be a pass. If you're not part of the intended audience, it's probably already an annoyance. And it probably isn't the VN-of-the year for you. Is it the VN of the year for me? Sure, because the only other VN I even grazed was about 18th century dramatic frenchies.