Visual novels are hard to rate as they can’t be considered as “games” in the traditional sense – in other words, there’s no playing required to advance the narrative. Instead, they are primarily judged by their stories and how well they can hook you in. I’m not a big fan of visual novels because I usually want some pay off as I progress through the game. Those few I have tried either bored or irritated me enough to not bother finishing them. I have better things to do than monotonously press a button to advance dialogue and trying not to fall asleep. Then comes along a duo of Japanese indie developers, dubbed Cavyhouse, and present The Midnight Sanctuary. Tagged as a 3D animated novel, it must have done something right because like any good book, I couldn’t put it down until I had seen the mystery through. The game may look like a children’s cartoon but it certainly isn’t a bedtime story!
Sometime during the 1920s, Hamomoru Tachibana, a scholar and a devote Christian, is invited to a small village of Daiusu by the son of the village chief. As a Christian village in Japan, Daiusu has seen its share of persecution throughout history, especially during the Edo period. The village, willingly isolated for centuries, now wants to attract tourists. Hamomoru is not only tasked to record local legends but also to come up with ideas to popularize the village. Fun fact: Hamomoru made appearances in Cavyhouse’s previous titles, This Starry Midnight We Make and Forget Me Not: My Organic Garden, both very peculiar indie puzzle games.
Even though Hamomoru is The Midnight Sanctuary’s protagonist, the player’s interface is her guide, a silent handmaiden – or a little watcher as pointed out later in the story. Handmaiden may have an agenda of her own but the game follows Hamomoru who slowly unravels the burden hanging over the village. As a visual novel, there’s nothing else to interact with other than selecting places in the village to visit from a map and advancing the Japanese spoken dialogue during conversations. Still, the story insidiously pulled me in to the point where I didn’t miss actual gameplay.
A serene beginning lulls into a false sense of security as Hamomoru goes her rounds talking to villagers, all with their own oddities. The village have always revered outsiders and two stories in particular are emphasized in the local legends, those of the Crane Wife and more importantly, the Saint. However, the lines between them are often blurry. There’s also another outsider besides Hamomoru who has recently come to the village, a young lady in red who attracts admiration and wonder. Hamomoru, in her sincere naivety, takes an instant liking to her even though she has tendency to misread the girl’s intentions. One night, the villagers witness a visitor they think they have waited for centuries. Could this girl dressed in all white be the Saint herself, coming back to the village she once saved from a famine? Horror elements creep in and it turns out that The Midnight Sanctuary is a Japanese ghost story at its heart.
Following the theme of isolation, the prevailing mystery is woven from small premises. The story doesn’t ramble all over the place but is contained within Daiusu and a few key characters. The game manages to constantly surprise as its twists and turns aren’t laid out in a plain sight. New layers unfold day by day and even the most morbid revelations come off chillingly mild mannered. Scenes are kept short, avoiding the boredom of most visual novels, and offer a nice pace to an otherwise tranquil narrative. You just have to keep on turning the pages, so to speak, to see the payoff. The story easily holds on for those six hours it takes to see it through (which is longer than most hit walking simulators, mind you!).
There’s no denying that a unique presentation plays a big part in the game’s charm. Even though characters are 3D models, they look like paper cut-outs and are awkwardly animated. Mutually, the backdrops are only indicative with their reduced colors and shapes. Soundtrack is similarly minimalist, with odd spot effects here and there and sporadic church music backing the visuals, arranged into a simple electric organ pop. I’m not versed in the Japanese language apart from formalities but I love listening to it. The voice cast, led by Yu Shimamura (known as the new princess Zelda and Cindy in Final Fantasy XV) as Hamomoru, does such a compelling job at delivering the dialogue that I didn’t want to skip any of the voiced lines even if I had already red the subtitles.
It’s also interesting how a very characteristic Japanese ghost story is played out against Christian themes. The game tells about faith in different forms, from a lack of it to a blind obsession through this small village and its inhabitants, living or dead. The story also points out how a religion can start gaining idiosyncrasies when it’s cut out of the context, slowly developing into something else within a closed community. Again, everything’s told with an icy confidence without superfluous finger pointing, boldly counting on that the player understands, and moreover, can interpret the subject matter.
In the end, for all its oddities and twists – or because of them – the story arc is remarkably consistent and closes on a high, if melancholic note. In many ways, The Midnight Sanctuary is an epitome of a Japanese storytelling; its pacing, nuances and paradigms – and of course, presentation. You can take a look at these screenshots and think the game looks kind of silly but I’m confident that it would be nowhere as absorbing if it were presented in a typical anime-style or photographic quality. If anything, the naïve graphics accent the chilling factor of the intriguing story that whispers through this midnight sanctuary.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.