Cherry Tree High Comedy Club review
It's no secret that if you dress a game up in anime style that you're going to attract my attention. Through this I've found some real gems like Recettear and Analogue: A Hate Story, which give me a visual style I love and a gaming experience behind it to validate playing it. Unfortunately, this approach does carry a lot of risk and doesn't always work out. As sad as I am to admit, Cherry Tree High Comedy Club is one such case. Despite its charming appearance and promise of a fairly unique experience, the game fails to provide an engaging experience for the player.
Let's start with the visuals then, since that is what attracted me in the first place. The anime style influences aren't hard to spot, especially when it comes to the character designs. Miley's wild hair seems a perfect match, while Octavia gives off the rich girl impression that goes with her background. Everything in the game is so bright and colourful it's hard not to like it. A lot of the presentation is done similar to that of a visual novel, so you have half-body portraits overlaying backgrounds for a big part of the game. This is done rather well, with everyone displaying a vast array of emotions to match the mood of the conversations. In addition, this is supported by sprite based imagery in the background, where Miley is running around town to get to her next task. There isn't a whole lot of animation to it as it is mostly characters moving around and bubbles to reflect reactions, but it's a nice addition to the style.
The one disappointment I do have regarding the visuals is the low resolution and lack of graphics options. Fortunately, the game isn't particularly taxing on a computer's hardware, but there's no options like fullscreen or multiple resolutions like I would hope so I have this small window floating in the middle of my desktop.
The music is nice for the game, usually opting for the high energy tracks you'd associate with a hyperactive high schooler frantically running around full blast. Despite this, the music is never particularly memorable and almost instantly forgotten once the game is turned off. There are a few sound effects here and there which work well.
So the story revolves around Miley, who wants to restart the comedy club at her school. The problem is that you need five members to start a club and Miley only has herself and her friend that she's dragged into it. With recruitment time running out Miley has a little over a month to convince three more people to join. This main plotline has little in the way of substance but this can be expanded as Miley builds friendships with people, which can delve deeper into their storylines. These can involve the likes of a girl chasing her dreams or another who must make some painful decisions on her future. Unlike visual novels that it might be easy to draw a comparison with though, the story in the game is rarely heavy and prefers to go with a much more lighthearted approach. The characters are all pretty likeable. Cindy turned out to be the biggest surprise, as her appearance would initially lead to thinking she will be a harsh rough girl but she's actually a lot nicer than she's like to let on.
For a game whose central theme is based around a comedy club, the humour value of the game is a bit lacking. Miley's attempts at being funny give her a crazy personality and there are some fun humour segments that bounce off popular media, but a lot of the jokes often feel too awkward. Most of the humour that does work tends to come not from Miley but from Elise, one of the sideline girls barely above generic NPC level whose entire character role can be summed up as "shrine maiden".
The translation effort seems to be kinda awkward too. The quality is mostly good, aside from the odd misspelling. Dialogue changes usually make sense as well so that humour doesn't become lost in translation. What is strange is how much the game has been "Americanised", leaving obviously Japanese culture elements in a supposedly American city, such as the shrine temple or a NPC walking around in a kimono. There is attempted justification on some of it and the rest is ignored. I think it would have been a lot better if this had acknowledged the setting was in Japan and limited changes only to dialogue and the like that would make no sense outside of the Japanese language.
During the game Miley has up to six possible recruits she can try to convince to join her club. This is done by raising their friendship levels up to 5, at which point they'll join the club and that is one less person to recruit. As simple as that sounds, it really isn't as there are a variety of factors that go into how Miley progresses through the game.
Each game day is split into three sections: morning/lunch, afternoon and evening. During each period players can talk to NPCs and must decide on an action that will pass the time to the next period. A little thought is required as players must decide on what will be the best course of action for Miley. There's a few different tasks players can choose from, some of which are dependent on the time of day and day of the week. Working is an option to earn some extra cash or you can do an activity like play games or visit an exhibit to increase Miley's knowledge area is a certain subject. You can also shop for items, like magazines that can be used at night to boost knowledge or food items that affect your fatigue levels. Yes, you have a fatigue meter which builds up with certain tasks and goes down with rest or eating. Overwork yourself and expect Miley to collapse.
While this might sound rather cool, the problem is that all this is actually a lot more limited than it sounds. There is no gameplay difference between playing games at the arcade, visiting an exhibit or having a drink at a cafe. You just click to visit a place, move to the location and click to use it to pass the time. It's grinding at its worst since there is little interaction involved and all just seem to end with a token "Miley did this so that increased" message. This is fine for a little while, but when you end up cycling through the same kinds of events again it tends to become tiresome. I like the idea of having to plan the day out, but the underlying mechanics don't seem as polished as they should be.
There's an attempt to inject some variation with special events that occur on certain days, like a picnic at the park or the opening of a museum. These are nice and do feel like you've got something more to do than the same set of motions even if interaction during these events is limited. It's not really enough to completely shift the monotony of the game though.
On a similar note, it feels like there is serious imbalance with a lot of tasks. You can make jewellery at night to earn some extra money, but you earn more from other part-time jobs and it feels like every evening is better spent doing something else. Additionally, I feel like there is too much information kept from players. Progress on knowledge areas and friendships is measured in simple levels that go up to 5, but there's no indication on how close you are to a level up or how much a certain task has contributed to progress. This can lead to a lot of tasks feeling very unimportant. You can hang out with potential recruits during school lunch break or call them in the evening, but I started to wonder what the point of either of these tasks were as they never led to a levelup and I had no means to measure if they were actually doing anything.
Building friendships therefore comes down more to increasing Miley's knowledge in different areas and then hanging out with people during afternoons or non-school day mornings and chatting about those topics. The more the player has increased Miley's knowledge in an area, the more it will contribute to boosting the friendship level. In addition, each person has their own likes and dislikes when it comes to these subjects. Picking a liked subject will boost friendship a lot more, while gains from a disliked subject will be a lot less. The idea here is to indulge in general chitchat with them in order to learn their preferred subjects. The game even helpfully records some, but not all, for easy reference. That said, you will still end up having to guess half of it as some can be a bit obscure, so many players may find themselves slamming into the bad end through bad luck. This is also another element where repetition creeps in as you spend every single day chitchatting to each possible recruit trying to glean whatever information you can from them. This dialogue is meant to change daily, and it does but since it draws from a limited pool of responses then you tend to find these characters repeating themselves often and not giving nearly enough hints. Given that we're up against a tight deadline, this can be rather frustrating.
Despite the repetitive nature of the game, it's surprising that it's still a very short experience. A single playthrough will only take around 3-4 hours, which given the padding isn't all that much. Once players have achieved one of the game's good endings a new game plus option is available, where knowledge area levels and likes/dislikes information is carried over, making it easier to go for an even better ending. It's hard to justify going for it first time around though, nevermind a second time.
It feels like the game had so much potential but wastes it due to numerous small problems that mount up to form a repetitive boring experience. As a result I can't really recommend playing it. If you're after a fairly unique indie game, there are plenty of others on the market already.
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