Norn9: Var Commons
ノルン＋ノネット ヴァール コモンズ
Otomate / Aksys Games
Twelve-year-old Sorata suddenly finds himself in what appears to be Japan from 100 years ago. A girl who doesn’t even remember her own name invites Sorata join her on the ship she’s been waiting for. What Sorata doesn’t expect is for that “ship” to be flying in the sky! What is this ship’s purpose, and will Sorata ever return home?
Norn9: Var Commons‘ fiercest competition, ironically, comes from its own sister title Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~.
If I were to ever interview Aksys Games, I would have to ask why they decided to release two otome games within a month of each other. Not only does this siphon attention away from each other, but these games are extremely dialogue-heavy and require a lot of work to translate. They target the same market, so why not release one and build hype for the other in a couple of months? This also would have been better for another reason.
While Code: Realize and Norn9: Var Commons both are otome games from the same developer and publisher, the two are pretty much opposites. Western setting vs. Eastern. One heroine versus three. Few guys versus many. Long common route versus short. PSP port versus Vita original. In fact, besides the fact both stories blending historical settings with technology, the two games feel like pretty different experiences.
Between the two, Norn9 feels more like an adventure game. Norn9 has more dialogue choices for players — some timed — as well as a silly minigame that unlocks bonus extras. Code: Realize essentially came down to “choose the more appropriate/better option for the best ending, the other for the good ending”. I know that’s pretty much what all visual novels boil down to, but compared to Code: Realize, there are a few more wrinkles in Norn9. I wasn’t a big fan of the randomness of the minigame, but the bonuses were worth unlocking. Even the bonus stories have a couple of choices, but the pictures and comics are by far more entertaining. Norn9 just has more to explore.
But what about the actual story? Norn9 starts off with a short prologue starring Sorata while he is taking a field trip. The smart, analytical boy just can’t believe it when he finds himself over 100 years in the past. He meets an unnamed girl (later revealed to be Koharu) and joins her as she gets on an airship with people who have supernatural powers. After the prologue, you then choose one of the three girls (Koharu, Mikoto, or Nanami) before selecting one of three guys to partner with. One route is always locked until one of the other two are completed. You can complete all of a girl’s love interests one after another or jump between the female protagonists. Complete all the routes with their good endings, and you can play as Sorata again for an abridged version of the game with an epilogue. Having nine full routes plus the beginning/ending is pretty impressive.
Something that surprised me was that each route is its own alternate reality. I thought there would be three main continuities, showing things from each girl’s point-of-view. So if Koharu teams up with Guy #1, Nanami would be shown with her Guy #1 and Mikoto with her Guy #1. Instead, the pairs are often very different from route to route. You’ll see some similar or identical events, but other situations will be completely unique to a route. I’m not saying this is a bad approach; it’s just that you will be seeing parts of many different universes instead of three fully explored ones.
As for route order, the game does provide suggestions. I played through Koharu’s three –> Nanami’s three –> Mikoto’s three, and I think this worked well. The girls each have a main love interest, but you really can’t call any of them canon because of the game’s multi-universe setup. I would recommend playing Mikoto’s main guy last. (You can figure out which three are the mains by watching the opening credits.)
With so many routes and multiple playable characters, I figured the stories would be on the short side. I was pleasantly surprised to be proven wrong. Some paths focus more on the couple trying to live happily ever after while others deal more with the threat of war, but all routes provide plenty of serious, comedic, and romantic scenes. A few key sequences are repeated in the game; Otomate thankfully allows you to skip them. (Now if only they would add “skip to next choice” options as well as some type of “jump to chapter” feature!) Most guys have two endings, and they are not just “happy ending” and “happier and/or smuttier ending”. Some endings are tinged with sadness, and others are downright tragic. However, even some of the good endings really aren’t that happy or great. Overall, I feel like most routes are just okay. A few routes are heads above others, and I did not care for a couple of them. I can’t say the same for Code: Realize. If I were to rate the routes, one path would top the list easily in awesomness, then there are a couple I liked, and then there is a huge drop in the enjoyment factor for the rest. It just feels like Otomate was trying to insert as many different archetypes for the guys as possible, and a few just don’t click with the girls.
I did like how Norn9 is both a tale about a couple as well as a story about a group. Story-wise, one of my biggest criticisms of Code: Realize was the lack of alone time between Cardia and her lover. Norn9 allows Koharu, Mikoto, and Nanami to spend time with their partner, but they still interact with the other people on the ship. The girls all become close friends rather than rivals. Koharu is a hardworking, likeable ditz, Nanami is a quiet, hungry ninja, and Mikoto is a tsundere yet also a kind, proud ojou-sama. The girls all have actual personalities (and voiced names!) and truly want to be able to do something useful. You can actually understand why the guys fall for them. They aren’t doormats but also aren’t some amazing can-do-anything superheroines. Meanwhile, the men range from the quiet sarcastic shut-in to the tough guy afraid of birds to the enigmatic napper. The guys’ relationships are more complicated. I personally found the Kakeru-Senri scenes the best. A guy with hidden sadistic tendencies torturing a lazy, indoor sarcastic mutterer? Hilarious!
Part of me wonders about alternate routes though: what if the quiet duo of Nanami and Senri paired up? Bossy Mikoto and sly Kakeru? Blunt Akito and sensitive Koharu? I know there’s no way to pack all these alternate universes in one game, but perhaps a future game will mix up couples. Otomate has a lot of room to expand the game.
On the downside, the game is pretty terrible at providing timetables. The next scene is “a few days later”, something else happens “for the next few days”, and then suddenly “it’s been months since”. How many days?! How many months?! Some routes felt like they took place over the course of a week or two a la Sweet Fuse: By Your Side, making the romances seem rushed; others felt like years-long slow love stories a la Hakuoki. The story just doesn’t feel like it’s paced very well when vague information is given. In addition, Sorata just completely disappears in some paths. I often forget he existed ! Finally, the big mysteries surrounding the The World are poorly explained and and executed. There’s usually a big information dump all at once near the very end, and even the big revelations leave some gaping holes. I know this is part fantasy, but parts still seem illogical.
The cast includes some big-name seiyuu and familiar voices, from Attack on Titan‘s Eren to Gintama‘s Gintoki to Hakuoki‘s Heisuke. The heroines are also voiced, but I don’t think they’re quite as well-known as most of the male cast members. I was initially surprised by some of the casting choices, but when I played the game, I realized there were particular reasons why the men were cast. A lot of the seiyuu have connections from other roles and/or their real-life friendships, so I really enjoyed the chemistry as they played off of each other. Kaji as Kakeru is probably my favorite otome role of his. Kakeru is not some annoying shouta; Kaji also actually fits the part and doesn’t feel like he’s cast just for name recognition.
I was not familiar with the character designer. Which is probably a good thing with nine main guys and a slew of side characters. Some artists may draw beautifully, but they don’t necessarily have a lot of … range? Fortunately, Teita tries to add variety. There’s a lot of spiky hair and platinum blonde highlights, but the shipmates wear their outfit a little differently to add individuality. I was disappointed by the fact there aren’t that many sprites for the main characters. The game has long periods where the screen is empty because characters are in different states of dress (or undress) and the default sprite wouldn’t fit the scene. I could maybe understand this in the original PSP version. With the added space (and higher quality) of the Vita, it just completely distracts from the story. The stills, however, are beautifully done. The pictures are a mix of dramatic and romantic, and the girls are prominently featured in them. Backgrounds are quite detailed. The fountain area in particular is just gorgeous; the bright blue water and green grass do not lose in beauty to the rainbow in the air. The animations and moving mouths add some nice visual spice to the game. Despite originally being a PSP game, it stands alongside (and surpasses) some of Otomate’s Vita works.
The other reason Norn9 should have been released later is because of the translation and adaptation quality. This is the other reason why I recommend the order of Koharu –> Nanami –> Mikoto: the quality tends to go down in this order. You want to do the well-written routes first.
For more information, go here for my observations and comments.
Norn9: Var Commons is not a bad game, but this PSP port just feels behind the Vita-original title Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~. The extras are the one area it feels superior.
The anime adaptation is available on Crunchyroll and is licensed by Sentai Filmworks. The game’s fandisk (Last Era) has not yet been announced for an English-language release. The game’s sequel (Act Tune) is also in development.