Soul Link review
A Link to Success
In the visual novel market it's fair to say that the company Navel hit a goldmine when they produced Shuffle, if the amount of additional sequels, media, merchandise and enhanced versions are anything to go by. Sure, it's no Naruto, but it definitely left a mark and it is easily the series the company is immediately associated with. However, it's not the only title produced by them, and MangaGamer have gone and released an English version of another of Navel's products - Soul Link. While the presentation is unmistakeably Navel it is certainly a distinctly different experience.
The overall story starts off as some kind of slice of life with sci-fi themes, as Shuhei Aizawa is a military cadet assigned to the space station Aries as part of his training, but as his brother Ryota and childhood friend Nao are also training there he sees it as a good chance to see them again. The prologue pretty much carries this vibe and Navel's usual script-writing is made pretty clear, especially as it mixes in some great humour with its upbeat events. Once the character introductions are over and the prologue draws to a close the "big" event occurs. A terrorist group known as Jararacas invades the station without warning and attempts to take it over. Evacuation starts immediately while they are still docking, but circumstances result in several people being left stranded. With a few correct decisions Shuhei finds himself leading a little resistance as the good guys lock themselves into the Sheratan part of the station. It's a much stronger backstory than their previous novel Shuffle that really helps set the scene.
The progress of the story is one to really appreciate. For one the viewpoint of the story is not entirely fixed to Shuhei. The majority of the story view is split between him and Ryota, and sometimes we'll get a brief interlude that let's us see events someone else is seeing. I've seen this before and it's always an effective method of providing interesting storyline information if done right, and here is a case of where it is handled well. A novel doesn't have to sit just with one character to manage immersion and Navel realized this. Pacing is another strong point. Once the main events get underway the story tries to balance out the action sequences with the more relaxed social events where the characters make their preparations and something new always happens just before any part runs the risk of slipping into boredom. Yet the novel still manages to provide a very lengthy story that can keep players engaged to the end.
A mostly strong cast of characters provides a very solid backbone to the story. Shuhei has that snarky attitude I've noticed a fair few male VN protagonists have, but this is mixed with a more refreshing maturity that makes his leadership role believeable despite his young age and enjoyable to play out his side of the story. Ryota isn't quite as strong willed as his brother and is a slightly less interesting as a result but it is nice to see him go from a barely trained cadet to someone who has to take on the responsibility of leadership in dire circumstances and his struggles to accept the new position.
Out of the non-player characters there are three girls that Ryota can eventually form a close relationship with. Sayaka is another of a military cadets along with Ryota, who isn't friends but is familiar with him. She is a bright and cheery girl who tries to keep everyone's spirits up, but it's clear that she has concerns over the takeover more pressing than her own well-being and her young age shows itself at times as she struggles to cope with the situation. Aki makes a late entrance and immediate proves her expertise with computers. She is incredibly playful and proud, which can led to her getting into argument with her brother, but dig deeper and she shows a more emotional side to her. Yuu is the mature women who plays off a role as a civilian but is clearly hiding something. Later on it becomes apparent just how different her world was growing up to everyone else and this plays into her story with great effect. All three girls are fantastic choices and I truly enjoyed getting all their unique scenes and endings. The one thing worth mentioning with them is that Aki's and Yuu's relationships with Ryota seem to happen a bit too quickly, but given the setting I am prepared to wave it past.
Nao is basically Shuhei's chosen girl. A military nurse in training with a history with Shuhei and Ryota. The relationship she and Shuhei have has an important impact on the story, such as helping to determine Shuhei's actions. She is a kind caring nurse whose compassion extends even to injured enemies, making her a very nice girl to have in the story. Nanami joins quite late in the novel as apparently a little girl trapped in a storage room until Ryota and Sayaka found her. At first she doesn't really understand what is going on, but as the story progresses she starts to learn more and gets a grasp of the situation . Saying too much would ruin the ending, but she has a very significant role to play that isn't immediately obvious and it is played off well. I think we could have done without her nudity scenes though. Then Cellaria rounds out who I consider the other important characters. She's an instructor at the space station who assists in the defence of the Sheratan and is used as part of the big twist. The literal twist is a good one that helps keep the story going, though the big reveal is dulled a bit by Shuhei making numerous vague references to it beforehand.
The one character complaint I have is with Aya. Whereas others might not have significant roles but still contribute, such as Gale and Kazuhiko, Aya's only role is to be a sexual victim for the terrorist group. She has ties to one of the characters on the Sheratan, but generally the only thing done with her appearances is sexual abuse and it really feels like a missed opportunity. There doesn't even feel like there's any significance to them other than just to show off more sexual content.
Decision making has been improved to a degree since Shuffle. Effectively the novel is split into four segments. One and four are the prologue and epilogue respectively, and have no decision points. Two is from Shuhei's perspective and bears little resemblance to Navel's previous novel. Instead this segment has one proper ending, but making bad decision can lead to a variety of bad ends and prematurely end the story. The decisions needed consist of the usual pick a choice and a more involved map exploration, where you are given a map of th Sheraton and pick locations to visit. Segment three switches to Ryota and goes entirely with normal pick a choice options. While some bad ends exist here too the majority of the choices are focused on setting Ryota up with one of the three girls. For the most part there is a decent challenge in figuring out what to pick and a certain logic that will make you facepalm with an "of course" thought if you mess up. One map sequence early on, where Shuhei needs to figure out a countermeasure to the invasion, is a rare moment of being insanely difficult due to their being no clue on what order to visit what rooms.
The various endings in the novel are mostly fantastic. The bad ends are fairly reminiscent of Fate/Stay Night, with bad decisions leading to an untimely end for the protagonist and quite a collection of endings. Obtaining some of them can require some real thought and experimentation too. In Ryota's arc there are effectively three good ends and three bad ends as well, although the triggers for them are a fair bit more obvious. It makes decision making have more of an impact than just what girl you end up with.
The art style in this novel is easily recognisable as Navel's work. There's no doubt when you see the large distinctive characters with very clear vivid designs. The military uniforms show off the flair for design the artists had shown previously with schoolgirl outfits, with clothing that both looks interesting and part of what can easily be used for those purposes. Then there are the other options like Gale's rough outfit or Yuu's sexy appearance with a form fitting shirt and cut off jacket. The various characters have been drawn out well with varied wonderful designs, meaning characters like Aki stick in the mind long after the novel has come to an end. The background imagery used is great too, giving us a fantastic view of the interior of the space station with plenty of detail in them all and enough differences like checking out the control center, the laboratory or the hangar.
Effects have seen some slight improvement from before. Things like screen shaking, zooming, haziness etc are all used to great degree in order to provide a sense of urgency to the action sequences or to give a little extra impact to important events. CG collection is impressive. These are used to great effect to highlight specific events such as Shuehi's gunfights against the enemy or Nao's tending to injuries. There is quite a few to pick up and can be viewed again later on in the gallery option.
In terms of the *bleep* sequences this isn't exactly perfect. The normal intimate sequences with the girls is done very well. There is definitely a sense of real affection and the designers have gone to great lengths to make the CG art here very beautiful and show the girls at their finest. Other hentai stuff doesn't really come across as good. Several "dream" *bleep* scenes come out of nowhere, and while the later part of the plot tries to explain them they still feel like they were done for the hell of it. Additionally, some scenes are outright *bleep* that really just come off as weird rather than anything else. Strangely this makes the sexual content the weakest part of the novel.
The music is probably a step down from Shuffle but it is still a worthwhile selection of tracks. The OP and ED songs Not Found and Accepted are nice musical numbers that do seem to compliment the scifi aspect well. Additionally some of the backing tracks such as Bitter Fighting and Foreboding really help to set the tone for the events that are playing out. That said, fewer tracks here are quite as memorable as those of other high class novels, including the previous Navel novel.
Vocals are fantastic, with some serious feeling put behind them to give the events a sense of character to really draw the player in. Hearing the mature voice of Yuu is a clear reflection on her differences from the others, or the higher pitched sounds of Aki demonstrating her youth and how frustrated she can get. Nanami's vocal might come off as a little too high in their attempt to convey her young age, but nothing too drastic. Navel have continued to offer the ability to turn individual voices on and off as players choose to. What's interesting to note is that the male playable protagonists, while lacking voices during their story arcs, have clear voices elsewhere. It's kinda odd, because the idea of additional immersion is hit when you've already heard them anyway.
A few bad quirks here and there, especially as it's an adult visual novel that only gets some of the adult content right. Yet I truly enjoyed playing through this. The decision making was a step up, the story was great even if pieces had to be a little rushed and I appreciated the change of setting. I do hope MangaGamer will continue to work with Navel for translating further novels because I find their work to be fantastic and based off this novel and Shuffle I would gladly go after any future ones.
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