Released in August 2013 by The Silicon Sisters, Everlove: Rose (also on Android) is a "narrative game of Romance and Mystery where each choice you make builds your character and brings you closer to one of your four possible romantic laisons."
According to the development company, Everlove is targeted at women between 20 and 25 years old, which makes me the perfect candidate to test this game!
It's the story of Rose visiting her past lives through hypnotic therapy and finds herself in the medieval era, where she realises she can act on the behalf of her past alter-ego, who looks exactly like her present self. She also learns it is said that her disgraced father has been killed by The Best, the creature her contempory self keeps dreaming about.
Of course, the murder plot is pretty much an excuse: the real goal of this game is to explore the romance with all these sensual and attractive male characters in costumes.
Everlove is an otome game, more often refered as a visual novel in our occidental culture. Targeted towards a female market ("otome" meaning literally girl or maiden), the genre is very established in Japan. Typically, it takes the shape of a 2D adventure (its strength is often in pretty graphics and attractive characters) where the objective of the player's character is to find love (among other stuff) with one of the possible romances proposed by the game. Sometimes "courting" all characters in one go, sometimes through a choice made in the beginning of the game (or by buying an addon for a specific character), the game is characterised by a very linear storyline: each romance has a certain amount of "correct answers" to give to unlock the perfect love ending.
The genre is so successful in Japan, you can pretty much imagine any type of romantic adventure. Check out Meta Dating's video podcast #1 testing Hatoful Boyfriend, a school adventure where you play the only girl in a school for gifted pigeons (yes, you read well), with Sean Plott, Bill Graner and Sean Bouchard.
I found Everlove to have some pretty good qualities, such as its art. Characters and backgrounds have a half-painted half-realistic style which gives an authentic feel to the adventure. Despite being a bit cheesy, Rose is not the regular otome character (usually bland to allow any type of player to indentify, also such as Bella Swan in Twilight). She's intelligent, witty and sometimes harsh. I got pretty easily attached to her, despite the fact I sometimes felt she got into trouble and became helpless too easily in order to allow her male counterparts to rescue her and build a rapport.
Some of the characters are more interesting than others but ultimately they are quite stereotypical: Warrick the good thick prince, Garrett the rebel, Braxton the strict and dark Lord and Thorodan the kind but low born court alchimist.
Rose's friend Fendel seems to be the archetype of the lesbian tomboy. She brings a bit of diversity to the bunch of white straight males - apart from Thorodan - as well as Alys the drunk aunt.
However there is a very limited amount of romance choices available, only the four straight males, since Fendel can't be courted. Where are the lesbian choices? Shouldn't a game "made by women for women" include a diversity of available sexualities? Are women all straight?
It also represents a poor example of non-typical expression of "manliness". Indeed, all characters are pretty much conventional in their masculinity (I feel like Thorodan was maybe a bit more sensitive), sending the message that this is the common (and lowest?) denominator for a female-based target.
I won't go into an in-depth analysis about that here, but for a more detailed review check out Chloi Rad's on Indie Statik.
Like you might have guessed, I'm not a big fan of romance novels or other otome games. I recently went to a lunch talk in Bristol's Watershed by Esther MacCallum-Stewart on the subject of representation of love and relationships in video games where she explains although sex is often used, there's still an under-representation of love and romance related mechanics in storylines.
Now, otome games and dating sims have been around for at least 20 years, with mostly the same ingredients: a linear story driven by multiple choice questions.
Wait a minute: you could say a lot of other games develop characters this way! Think Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic or Dragon Age where dialogues are a big part of developing relationships between the main character and NPCs.
Let's study Everlove: Rose for a second. Regarding who you decide to court, some answers have more value than others. For example, some dialogues and mini-games will allow you to gain traits. To develop a relationship with Warwick, you will need to increase Rose's Kindness and Romance traits, as well as choosing the correct answer every time you talk to him.
Through predefined answers, the player conforms Rose to a NPC lover in order to date him. The main goal is to obtain an "ideal ending" by courting a lover in a way to avoid any "mistake". The paths in the game are clearly defined and trying to have it your own way will only make you lose any possibility of "true romance" with your lover.
In Mass Effect, the romance adds up to your adventure, making it more real, tightening the bonds with your companions through fighting and achievements. Maybe it's irrelevant to compare it to Everlove, where the mini-games and the plot are only a support for the romance.
The skip option on the mini-games, which is also the only moment where Rose can use her healing and potion skills, backs up the lesser importance of these compared to the romance. Meanwhile, the replay option of any dialogue in the game emphasise even more on the idea that you need to get the "perfect answer".
Like I said before, you need to conform Rose to the traits and answers your lover is sensitive to. In a few words, you can't shape your relationship the way you want. Instead, the game shapes the way Rose should love.
Except that's not the way relationships work.
In relationships, people make mistakes, change and influence each other! It's a two ways rapport without correct or wrong answers. Visual novels, with their linear storyline and choices, don't seem like the best choice to talk about romance. Manipulation and conformity don't seem like a healthy message to send in a game about love.
Of course, this review is based on my own perception of the game, which I definitely didn't cross compare with other target users. As much as I'd love to convince myself that what I want in a game is what companies should strive for, Everlove had some good although scarce ratings on the Apple Store (4 to 5 stars on about 50 ratings for free and paid version) as well as some positive online reviews.
Also, as in design, it's difficult to guess what The Silicon Sisters have been through in order to design and develop Everlove, so it would be unfair to judge without knowing the project goals.
...But since I'm evil :D, I'll still conclude with a critical aspect towards the game. Generally, Everlove sticks to the status quo, in terms of games "for women". The context here matters: The Silicon Sisters' business goal is to break conventions and push the gaming industry to pay attention to a good half of their female audience. In my opinion, the romance topic is not the problem. Everlove fails to present an innovative gameplay with original characters and instead display an overused approach full of stereotypes.
There are already a lot of otome games available, and the game doesn't add anything to the genre. Worse, it conforms to what we can expect from a "girly" game, instead of proposing a real variety in terms of games for a female audience.
Finally Everlove is not terrible and is definitely worth a few hours of your time, if you like this kind of game. To me, it seems that the future of romance in game is not through romance novels, which fail to represent the interaction essential to any type of relationship development.
Feel free to download and try Everlove: Rose free version (iPhone/iPad version and Android version) and give your review of the game. What about groundbreaking visual novels or otome mechanism used in other games? Is there a future for romance games?