April 4, 2015 9:00 AM | Lena LeRay
Indonesian developer Kidalang released An Octave Higher last week. It's a visual novel that doesn't do anything fancy; player choices are few and far between and there are no custom mechanics. The writing, however, is top-notch, with a story that flows naturally from the well-developed setting and characters (and no standard anime tropes in sight).
An Octave Higher takes place in the city-state of Overture. Although Overture proper is just the one city, it has many colonies and is effectively the center of a large empire. It's risen to its place of power in the world via technological and scientific superiority. Science does not work quite the way we think of it, though.
I don't think "magicpunk" is a term anyone actually uses, but it seems appropriate for a setting in which technology is powered by magic the way steampunk technology is powered by steam. The "magic scientists" of Overture have broken magical spells down into formulas based on combinations of traits and abilities. The traits are human traits: intelligence, willpower, courage, faith, and compassion. Every person has an aptitude for two of these and each one is associated with an element (or in the case of compassion, with healing). By charging mana with a trait and using the mana with a certain ability such as summoning or transformation, people can cast spells that do different things.
Everyone in this setting has the ability to work magic if they have mana. However, mana can only be obtained by drinking mana potions, and those are imported from a distant colony of Overture. They're too expensive for the poor, locking them out of better jobs and a better lifestyle. This is the root of the strong class divide in Overture.
The story in An Octave Higher is told from the perspectives of three different characters, all teenagers from different socioeconomic classes. Frederick Godwin is the son of the founder of one of the largest magic machine producers in the world. He's grown up with private tutors and the best of everything and is basically a spoiled brat. Franz Byron is a middle class young man in his final year at a prestigious magic academy. He's an intelligent fellow who is not particularly rich, but has never known the hardships of the lower class. And Elise Shelley is a young woman who was lucky enough to get a job as a factory worker at the age of eleven, some time after being orphaned and two years before the legal age.
Although these teens are from wildly different backgrounds, they come together through chance. The young aristocrat gets lost and sees a beautiful young woman who captures his thoughts. The young scholar finds the same young woman trying to fix a piano with a heal spell right after boldly announcing that his capstone project is to be research into attempts to heal inanimate objects, a task which has thus far proven impossible. The young scholar then seeks research funding from the company owned by the young aristocrat's father.
Exploring the class divide is a major theme of An Octave Higher, both in terms of its overall plot and in terms of seeing the characters compare and contrast their own lives. This happens not just with the three main characters, but in their interactions with others around them. People in the poor parts of town react differently to Frederick or Franz than they do to Elise. People in the rich parts of town barely tolerate Elise's presence. Even Franz's best friend is surprised when she first meets Elise. Although middle class characters like Franz are less aware of the class divide than members of either the upper or lower classes, the class divide still affects every interaction in the game.
It's a very character-driven story, overall, and since all of the characters who get significant screen time are three-dimensional, it's a pleasure to follow along. Even the magic system is tied to character depth. Having so much of how magic works be based on human traits and creating a significant difference in strength between the two traits a person has aptitude in and the three they don't affects what a person might be expected to do or what they can do. Elise got her factory job partly because she has aptitude for fire-aspected courage and no lack of power, letting her melt down a lot of metal in a short amount of time. Frederick only likes one of his aptitude traits and refuses to use the other in spite of his father's disapproval. There are some extras who only exist to move the plot along a bit here and there, but for the most part the characters feel like real people.
My only real problem with the game is that although it's clear that a lot of thought and care went into the magic system and into making sure the player understands it, the player never gets to do anything with it. Every time a spell is cast, there's a splash screen for it and the magical formula is displayed, but not once does the player get to choose a spell or play with the magic. It feels like such a wasted opportunity. This isn't a deal breaker; the story and characters are engrossing enough that if I hadn't played visual novels like Magical Diary or Hate Plus that have stretched what the genre can do, I might not have mentioned it.
It took me about three hours to get through the game. Choice points are few and often far between. They don't always feel that impactful, though there are six good endings and at least one bad one, the one that I got. The background art is lovely, the character art is all right, and the music is nice but gets old after the first hour or so.