There are spoilers below for all of the content in the game, including the endings.
The game series originated with a series of six adult situation CDs, each introducing a different male suitor for one of the two queen candidates, Menou and Kaguya. Though there are a handful of special scenarios available on limited edition CDs as well, these six situation CDs would have been the first taste most people had of the series.
Eventually a game edition was announced, split into two separate titles and released for Windows PCs. February 2014's Jooubachi No Oubou: Menou-hen would follow the gentle princess Menou and her three drones - the stoic instructor Takanemaru, the dashing hero Hakuou and the cheerful psychopath Ruby. The sister title Jooubachi No Oubou: Kaguya-hen would be released a month later and follow Kaguya, a beautiful outcast who has three drones of her own - the creepy Sumeragi, the timid insect-master Utsuro and the deeply loyal Rin.
I have yet to play the second game, so all of my impressions in this post come from Jooubachi No Oubou: Menou-hen. I'll write a separate post for Kaguya's game once I've completed it. It was actually seeing Kaguya's sample illustrations on the official website which originally persuaded me to give the series a try, though I started with Menou's game demo and decided to enjoy the series in the intended order.
The free Jooubachi No Oubou: Menou-hen demo is fantastic, by the way. I recommend giving it a try. The hive setting offers a rich blend of politics, culture and cleverness when the writing team chooses to take proper advantage of it.
Owing to international shipping times I received my copy of the game around the time that people in Japan (and software pirates outside Japan) had finished their first play-throughs. There was a great deal of negativity about the story on both Japanese and English-speaking forums, which confused me after the great experience I'd had with the series so far. Having now completed the game I finally understand why there were so many complaints. Before going into the game's peculiar issues, I'll give a quick summary of the basics.
The graphics in this game are quite simple; it's a traditional visual novel with very few special effects. It runs flawlessly even though I don't have a proper PC. Since there is no English-language edition I'm playing the Japanese version, which is fully voiced and mostly very easy to understand. There are a few exchanges which use convoluted terminology and bee-specific references, but as you have complete control over the interface you can check the log at any time and play back any lines you want to hear a second time. I'm pretty happy with the game's technical design and there are a large number of save slots to allow you to go back and try out different decisions.
The game's length surprised me, with the three main routes being longer than I was expecting. It's not a title you can finish in a day or two if you want to explore it properly. Although there's some crossover at the beginning, the three main routes end up going in very different directions later on. The game boasts a total of sixteen endings though only three of these are 'good' ends, with the rest ranging from disappointing to outright horrifying. Sensitive people are advised to stay well away from this title for their own good. I'm not exaggerating.
The artwork ranges from below average to excellent, with some of the gallery illustrations being substantially better than others. Most of the character artwork has a rough, sketchy look with thick outlines; I really like it. It's the audio, though, where this title excels. The talented seiyuu - mostly hiding their identities behind pseudonyms - have done a phenomenal job and the music is magnificent too. I can't understand why there's no soundtrack available aside from a few downloadable samples on the official website.
After playing the demo, all three of the love interests in Menou's game seemed great and I struggled to decide whose route to try first. In the end I picked Ruby, because he's adorable and sinister guys hold a certain appeal. I also chose to purchase from the shop which included his special CD as a bonus and played his website demo first, so perhaps I had a soft spot for Ruby right from the start.
After finishing Ruby's route I still felt satisfied with the game, even with the freaky bad endings and shocks - a particularly nasty rape scene in the middle of the game was surprisingly jarring, even though it wasn't completely out of character under the circumstances. That horrible scene aside, Ruby's route was quite romantic on the whole and fulfilled my expectations as far as stories about psychopathic bees go. I told myself that the people posting complaints about the storyline were being much too harsh.
And then I played Hakuou's route.
Erm, well. I have genuinely never experienced anything like this in an otome game - or in any game of any kind. Hakuou started out seeming extremely appealing with his good looks, deep voice and loving personality. I'd felt bad for him when he devotedly supported me throughout Ruby's route and couldn't wait to make it up for him by giving him a happy future with Menou in his own.
What followed was a strange rollercoaster ride of emotions, resulting in me losing any kind of affection for Hakuou over the course of the route. While I don't mind stories which aren't afraid to show a character's bad side (I love the Diabolik Lovers series, after all) this was on a whole new level. By the end I was enduring the sex scenes rather than looking forward to them and the only time I felt anything other than disgust was during a plot twist where Menou lost her temper and started slaughtering everyone around her. I hoped that she would accidentally kill Hakuou too but instead several of the endings had her consumed by guilt for her completely justified rage attack and it was only used to introduce themes of shame into the plot - which apparently wasn't dark enough already. There was no ending where Menou found redemption with her newfound strength; it was just an excuse to go back to being even more submissive to Hakuou and the wretched humans.
Her lover also rapes her for no reason whatsoever at one point. The assault during Ruby's route came when Ruby was under a huge amount of emotional and physical pressure and it still wasn't right; in Hakuou's case it just came out of nowhere, as though the staff felt that a story wasn't complete without an unprovoked assault taking place.
I was so confused by the end of Hakuou's storyline that I found it difficult to concentrate on what was going on, especially because several of his bad endings were very similar and made little sense; it was like the end of Neon Genesis Evangelion all over again. Even the very best ending left me feeling uncomfortable and unconvinced by his feelings.
All I was hoping for when running back through Hakuou's route to collect all of the different endings was that there would be a 'bad' ending where Menou ran away with Ruby or Kaguya; either would have been a big improvement over watching her stay devotedly at her abuser's side. Or maybe she could have run away with Takanemaru, who completely vanished very early on, though I had some misgivings about him already from the way he'd acted in Ruby's storyline. It was not to be, and my interest in Hakuou has never recovered since.
Having had most of my initial enthusiasm drained away by the unmitigated disaster of Hakuou's route, I was a little anxious about starting Takanemaru's. Telling myself that things couldn't get any worse, I persevered.
If Ruby's route was interesting but flawed, and Hakuou's was the worst route I have ever played in any kind of visual novel, Takanemaru's was somewhere in between the two. I'd describe it as 'awkward', in a word. Menou starts off in a trusting master-student relationship with Takanemaru and things gradually go downhill from there. There's a little bit of everything: betrayal, secrets, miscommunication, time travel, cloning, endless plot twists, killing the best character in the game off-screen...
If I were able to travel back in time and mess around with history
This is the fault of the game's writing staff for not making it clear that there was an 'ideal' order in which to play the routes - or for failing to write all three in a way that let them stand alone properly in the first place. You miss nothing playing Takanemaru's route first, but Ruby's is bewildering for a first play-through at times. Hakuou's is probably weird no matter what you do; even so, it too contains a few references which help Ruby's route.
It's quite frustrating. The one saving grace is that Takanemaru's route is unusual for having Kaguya's three henchmen showing up a lot more than in the other two. Even though I felt that I missed out on some coherent storytelling, seeing Utsuro, Sumeragi and Rin hanging out more made me feel more enthusiastic about going straight into the second game afterwards. I hope that the sequel has more variety in the endings since the full cast will have been properly introduced by that point.
My partner turned to me one day after a particularly bewildering play session and said, "You know, I cannot work out whether you actually like the bee game or not.". Looking back, I think that I enjoyed my time with the game overall. It was one heck of a strange experience. Even with the plot issues, it's an eroge so I should have at least enjoyed the adult content - yet it turns out that watching that kind of thing with characters you dislike isn't as fun as it should be. Ruby's scenes were wonderful, thankfully, and even the dodgy squelching sound effects (an unwelcome fixture of the adult moments) couldn't ruin his delightful voice.
My lasting impression is that the game was rushed and could have used a lot more refinement before it reached the market. If the silliness had been spread out better, everything that happened would have been much more tolerable and there could have been less catastrophic destruction of the characters' appeal. The battle for succession in a rigid society was one of the most interesting concepts I'd seen for an otome game and it's a crying shame that it took second place to nonsensical plots about human-bee experimentation and religion. It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming novelisation manages to tell Menou's story properly, without all of the distractions getting in the way.
That wraps up my thoughts about this quirky game about bees. I'm a little nervous about installling Jooubachi No Oubou: Kaguya-hen now, but I need to see the other half of the story. At least this time I won't be tricked by love interests which seem much nicer than they actually are; I'm fully expecting unpleasantness right from the beginning! Do your worst, Sumeragi...
(Update: The second part of this ramble which covers Jooubachi No Oubou: Kaguya-hen is now available here.)
All images used in this article are ©HOBIBOX/PUREWOOL.