Impressions: Namco High

By Cassandra Khaw on January 13th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Namco High is a browsser-based dating game from Homestuck creator Andrew Hussie, starring a cast of officially licensed characters from Namco’s back catalogue. You can play it for free right now with extra characters available to purchase for a small fee. But should you? We sent Cassandra Khaw back to school to find out. Warning: spoilers for the intro and one of the free characters.

Call me weird but I’d totally play a Dark Souls dating sim. Solaire, I imagine, would be an absolute gentleman; the doe-eyed kind that perforates others in your name while spouting eccentrically wistful lines like, “If only I were so grossly romanceable!”

But he’s not in Namco High and neither are other crowd favorites like the bodice-busting babes of Soul Caliber or the iconic Afro Samurai. Instead, we have a cousin of the Prince from Katamari Damacy as the protagonist and a bevy of halfway familiar characters as potential love interests. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The ship from Galaga, for example, takes center stage as Namco High’s beauty … queen?

King?

Sovereign monarch of indeterminable gender and species?

God knows. What’s disappointing is that this visual novel-slash-dating sim starts on a promising note, with your character (I named mine Roly-Polyanna) launching into a soliloquy about how they’re just like you, before nonchalantly adding, “My uncle is the King of All Cosmos.” Well. The complexity of the situation escalates, of course. Eventually you find out that that our leading extraterrestrial is in trouble because they mistakenly rolled half the school, principal included, into a Katamari. (A Katamari is, for those unfamiliar with the word, this weird ball that expands in size by causing everything but its creator to affix to it in a ludicrous, arm-flaily manner.) Detention naturally followed.

As you might have already guessed, this classroom of delinquents is a strange one. Everyone is a caricature or an outlandish impossibility. Donko from Taiko Drum Master? Most popular girl/musical instrument in school, don’t you know. The graphics are equally dissonant. All of the characters are presented in their native art styles, a creative decision you will probably either loathe or love. (I liked it.) Regardless of how you feel about this, Namco High doesn’t waste time: almost immediately after your entrance, you’re accosted by these delinquents. Donko, the talking traditional drum, announces that you look “weeeeeird” (have you looked in the mirror, Donko?) and that segues into a roll call as the characters, one after another, pop up to bicker over you.

After that is done and dealt with, a sequence with Principal Dig Dug (yes, the one from that 1982 arcade game) and the jaguar-headed, detention officer King (yes, that’s the dude from Tekken) will follow and once you’re through with that, you’re set loose amid all these romantic possibilities. My first choice was Donko, obviously. Who doesn’t love the acerbic high school princess? Why settle for the mundane when you can have tempestuous power plays and deep-set issues instead? I nudged Roly-Polyanna, via the help of a single button, towards her, eager to see what a torrid affair between a musical instrument and a jelly bean-headed member of royalty would be like. Can you imagine their kids?

“Uh huh, yeah. In detention again. Yeah, for talking on my phone in class.” Donko drawls, oblivious as Roly-Polyanna rolls up. “It’s, like, hell-OH, of COURSE I’m on my phone, because everyone’s calling me all the time!”

She makes a linguistic error and Roly-Polyanna, ignorant to all the rules of high school courtship, immediately pipes up. Donko ends her call. Turns. Barrels down on my pink-sweatered, rosy-cheeked avatar.

“Are you giving me ATTITUDE? Do you, like, even KNOW who I AM?!” Donko demands.

I didn’t think such a cute little drum could be so scary. Roly-Polyanna whimpers inwardly, possibly in search of reciprocal comfort. I don’t respond. I can’t, anyway. Namco High is a little stingy with opportunities for interaction. And even if I could, I’d probably have left her to her own devices. Roly-Polyanna’s mounting panic and Donko’s haughty reproach are a delight. My joy crescendos when Donko laughingly reveals that her tirade was just an act. What a monster. What excellent narrative opportunities, oh my.

The two eventually go on to have a normal conversation and Roly-Polyanna soon revises her opinion, deciding that Donko is a medley of negative traits but also really cute. There is no accounting for taste but I’m not going to complain. I move Roly-Polyanna away, prompting her to go mingle further. We chat up Anti-Bravoman and the blue-haired Hiromi before migrating to a dialogue with Davesprite, a flaming, omniscient bird-spirit-boy who is hyper-aware of his status as a game character.

“I’m actually kind of flattered?” Roly-Polyanna simpers, after being complimented about her garb.

“Yeah. See? It’s already happening,” Davesprite sighs. “You’re a player character so you’re literally programmed to be all over me.”

Something that Davesprite proclaims starts to prickle. Roly-Polyanna is indeed rampantly attracted to virtually everyone in detention. It’s understandable as to why, though. Namco High’s developers obviously wanted to account for all player decisions. But there’s something stilted about Roly-Polyanna’s burgeoning affections, an awkwardness that only comes when someone is trying to force reason when there’s no room for such.

But I ignore my own doubts. Roly-Polyanna has a romance to pursue. Sapient drums are too rare to give up just like that. I hit the “Just wait for detention to end” button. The day melts into tomorrow where I’m once again faced with a panel of buttons to click. There’s no real introduction, no lateral banter; just click a detention member’s name, won’t you?

Fine. Let’s get down to business.

I click on Donko’s name and Namco High immediately leaps to another brisk exchange where it is revealed that Donko is, unsurprisingly, a member of the band. Before I can even articulate my thoughts on this, a lurid pop-up makes itself known. You have not unlocked this character, it warns. I choose not to purchase access to Donko and the game telegraphs me back to the selection of names. Out of curiosity, I click on Donko’s name yet again and the whole episode replays itself. You have not unlocked this character, the pop-up advises snidely again. It’s the same with any of characters behind the paywall. Every time you engage them in conversation, it will invariably end with a subtle-as-an-anvil nudge to unlock the character. Pay up, or get out.

In the end, I give up and resort to charming the boosters off the Galaga ship. After all, romancing an interstellar vehicle should be fun, right? Wrong. Oh god, so wrong. So wrong that I’m glad I didn’t decide that 2 bucks was worth spending on a joke and a review. You’d think that such a situation would be prime real estate for peculiar antics and zany, over-the-top remarks. But Namco High never capitalizes on it. Instead, it turns Galaga, against all odds, into a teenage Mary Sue. (Which I guess was unexpected, maybe.)

It’s really a bit heart-wrenching to see. So, Galaga’s segment revolves around the theatre, right? There, you discover that as a consequence of her impressive hull and the villa (?!) she docks nightly at, Galaga is immediately given the role of Juliet. Your character, in a fit of armour, auditions to be Romeo. And fails. Miserably. But that doesn’t stop Galaga from later requesting the protagonist’s assistance at rehearsing. You agree, of course. Romance compels you. And after some set-up, your character will point out that Galaga fumbled a line.

“No one ever corrected me on that before. Everyone else just let me do the line wrong…”, remarks Galaga, crowned with a Selphie-inspired wig.

Naturally, comforting words are uttered. But Galaga presses on. “It’s, like, everyone, my whole life, they’ve treated me different. Like they never cared about me. Who I am. What I can offer to the world. It was all about, y’know, my hull. I’ve always been defined by my looks. Even in school, the other kids will help me study or to just cheat. I skip, I talk during class, I miss homework, and the other kids cover for me. I’m just coasting through everything and it’s all about how I look! And they don’t even care about who I really am!”

Criiiinge.

The ordeal continues spiralling downhill. I want to say that this was some kind of brilliant joke hinging on Galaga’s complete ignorance of the fact that she is a two-ton ship capable of shooting aliens from out of the sky. But it doesn’t feel like that. Instead, it feels like a vignette out of High School Musical or an episode from one of those Nickelodeon programs for tweens. Protagonists get detention. Stress mounts. Teenage angst builds. Same drill, stranger characters.

At some point, you’ll be presented with the option to help Galaga with a big, dramatic gesture. Should you agree, the game will progress into this Shakespeare-inspired scene where your character will throw rocks, wake Galaga, apologize for inflicting double detention on her and then proceed to awkwardly confess feelings before Galaga’s parents (yes, human parents) show up to chase you away.

The next day is arguably stranger still. Principal Dig Dug shows up to inform the class that a malevolent, alternate version of Namco High’s cast have kidnapped Pac Man. A rescue mission obviously follows. Galaga will ask your character to consume a power-up in order to increase your combined fighting potential. If you do, you’ll then be treated to flashing images of Evil Namco High and then an abrupt transition to a rescued Pac Man. What happened, and why an Evil Namco High even exists is never, ever explained. Instead, Pac Man will relay his gratitude and the game simply … ends.

It hurts my head. Maybe, the characters behind the paywall are more interesting. Maybe, that’s Namco High’s ploy: to ease players into a false sense of disillusionment before utterly blowing their minds with amazing content. Maybe. But Namco High’s aggressive treatment of the freemium model completely puts me off like the smell of durian. Hang out with the kids from detention if you like, but don’t expect a class act.

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47 Comments »

  1. Prolar Bear says:

    I…uh…what is this? Dating King might be the closest thing we get to Tekken on PC, though.

    Don’t they dare include Asuka.

    • Amakir says:

      Actually Katsuhiro Harada have said on Twitter that he would be interested in porting Tekken to PC.

      • Prolar Bear says:

        Yup, I know, but in the meanwhile we’ll have to console ourselves with a Hot Date with everybody’s favorite Tiger-Man-Wrestler.

        Incidentally this is King’s second appearance in an RPS article in a week, I’m not sure what to think.

        • Press X to Gary Busey says:

          There is the DLC bomb Street Fighter X Tekken on Steam (61 must be some kind of record). Also, Games for Windows LIVE bonus sweetness.

          • dE says:

            61 DLC? Cute. Try 149 from Train Simulator. Comes at the very reasonable price of 2407,51€.

          • Prolar Bear says:

            I appreciate your kind reply, but

            STREET FIGHTER IS NOT TEKKEN
            TEKKEN IS THE ONLY FIGHTING GAME WORTH PLAYING
            etc.

      • int says:

        Tekken and Soul Calibur, two PC servings please.

  2. wilynumber13 says:

    Given that the target audience is Homestuck fans (read: tumblr-using teenage girls) it’s not a surprise that the writing is at that level.

    I messed around with the Meowkie (pink cat from Mappy) route a bit, but I got bored with it.

  3. Shakes999 says:

    I have read this article 3 times and still have no idea what the hell is going on. Its like Frank Zappa made a dating sim using a Namco license.

    • Cassandra Khaw says:

      I think you just squished my review into a sentence. :C

      • Gazpacho Soup says:

        The game seems to be attempting to be a sort of pseudo-parody of dating sims by making everything wacky, à la Hatoful Boyfriend. So I have to ask Cass, was there any actual point were you laughed? Maybe chuckled a bit?

        • Cassandra Khaw says:

          The introduction. I smiled at one of my exchanges with Davesprite.

          Rest of it was, if you’d excuse the emoticon, just: O_________________________________________________________o

          • Prolar Bear says:

            Are you implying your face is infinite, just like Horace?

          • Yglorba says:

            From what I’ve heard, Davesprite’s route is genuinely both funny and touching (but really, really short to the point where it’s hard to say it’s worth the price, especially since you can’t buy it directly — you have to buy the complete pack.)

            They missed the key aspect of Freemium: You have to make the free part fun and addictive enough that people will want to spend money to continue. Instead of selling individual characters, they should have divided the game up into chapters, and made the first few chapters free for all characters, but make it so the last few cost money. I mean, that’s a fairly vicious way to get cash out of people, yes, but it works (it’s basically the shareware / demo model). If you’re going to hit people with an unsightly “PAY MONEY NAO” screen five minutes after starting, why not just sell the whole game from the start?

    • LionsPhil says:

      Wouldn’t that be Hatoful Boyfriend, which is actually good at “weird”?

      Admittedly without the Namco license. I…think that they got that is probably the only actual weird thing about this.

  4. Chicago Ted says:

    without ero content why would anyone ever play one of these

  5. Gazpacho Soup says:

    A game created by Artistic Visionary and Master Storyteller Andrew Hussie consists of awkward and ham-handed conversations with Mary Sues? Well color m- I want those years of my life back Hussie dammit.

    • Gargenville says:

      What’s this, a promising and interesting setting that’s never really explored in any satisfactory matter, focusing instead on endless chatter between characters no one cares about?

  6. altum videtur says:

    So it’s Revengeance without the official Raiden x Jetstream slash?
    Color me crumpled.

    • Premium User Badge

      strangeloup says:

      I am also reminded of the battle(s) between Raiden and Vamp in MGS4, which are the most homoerotic confrontations in the history of combat.

  7. Kefren says:

    At first I thought the backdrops were from ‘don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story’ But then I checked, and saw they are just similar. http://www.indiegames.com/2011/04/03/babe.jpg

    • zeekthegeek says:

      Most of these kinds of visual novels have similar backdrops, its not just these two.

      • Frosty840 says:

        I think that’s because every piece of modern Japanese fiction is required by law to be set in that one neighborhood in Tokyo that people keep pointing out every piece of modern Japanese fiction is set in.

        You know the one. The one with *that* high school, where all the rooms have three rows of desks, a reinforcing column in the window, and then three more rows of desks —doors at front and back of the room—, and *those* houses with the little white walls around them and the dusty streets, and *that* hill, with the line of planter boxes between the pedestrians and the traffic.

        You know the one.

        • Ich Will says:

          At least they’re not all set in that suburb in America or that trailer park in the Deep South or that London street or that Parisian Alleyway with that cafe on it etc etc tv tropes etc

          • Gargenville says:

            I swear to god the hallway set from Saved by the Bell is used in EVERY SINGLE NICKELODEON TWEEN SHOW. Also the upstairs set from Third Rock from the Sun is everywhere.

  8. P-Dazzle says:

    Who buys these type of games?

  9. TCM says:

    I’m reasonably sure the ShiftyLook comic writers wrote their own characters, which I think means that Ryan North (of Dinosaur Comics fame) would be in charge of the Galaga ship.

    EDIT: Nope, I was wrong. Interestingly, there’s a lot of legitimate talent across all fields of the game, so crediting it only to Hussie (regardless of its success or failure) is by his own admission a terrible thing to do. The site identifies Hussie as a creative director, and lots of other people as writers.

    • tormos says:

      man for a person whose comic I really like a lot Ryan North has been involved in the creation of a lot of crap.

  10. KDR_11k says:

    Wait, “DigDug”‘s name is Taizo Hori!

  11. Premium User Badge

    lowprices says:

    Well, the review makes it sound like a big puddle of bumwater, but I think I’ll probably still try it, if only to confirm to myself that this is actually a real thing that exists.

  12. SillyWizard says:

    Ships are “she.”

    Beauty queen.

  13. PopeRatzo says:

    I would also play a Dark Souls dating sim, but only if there were transgender characters.

  14. Baf says:

    Important context to understanding this whole thing: Andrew Hussie is the second biggest troll in the universe, right after Hideo Kojima.

    • crizzyeyes says:

      One of my friends was telling me this was an “ironic” thing, too. Unfortunately, making something ironically bad still makes it just plain bad.

  15. crinkles esq. says:

    I just have to wonder if Namco thought they’d be getting a legit dating sim from this collaboration, instead of this hipster it’s-cool-to-be-nonsensical thing. Would teenage girls really be interested in dating a Galaga ship? Isn’t that a bit abstract for a 16 year-old girl or boy?

  16. Premium User Badge

    Jackablade says:

    I really need to get off the Homestuck habit. I think I may need professional help. The delightful dadaism of Problem Sleuth was like a gateway drug to the harder stuff and now I look out and wonder what my life has become, waiting desperately for that wretched dealer, Hussey, to continue supplying me with the overwrought teen fantasy melodrama that I crave.

  17. Premium User Badge

    Hypocee says:

    Folks should be aware that it’s not written by Hussie. He’s the creative director and responsible for the Homestuck stuff, but otherwise the writing team is Ananth Panagariya (Adventure Time spinoff comic, Applegeeks, Johnny Wander co-writing), Brian Clevinger (8-Bit Theater, Atomic Robo) and Magnolia Porter (The Good Crook, Monster Pulse) with a variety of mostly webcomic artists on character art duty.

    Creative Director & Original Concept
    Andrew Hussie

    Head Writer
    Ananth Panagariya

    Writers
    Brian Clevinger
    Magnolia Porter

    Character Artists
    Cousin, Taira …… Yuko Ota
    Valkyrie …… Ashley Davis
    Anti-Bravoman …… Dax Gordine
    Meowkie …… Geneva Hodgson
    Galaga …… Rich Stevens
    Albatross, Richard Miller …… Tessa Stone
    Lolo, Jane Crocker …… J.N. Wiedle
    Terezi Pyrope …… Alexandra Douglass
    Blue Max …… Audra Furuichi
    Mr. Driller …… Gigi D.G.
    Tomari …… Der-Shing Helmer
    Aki Matsuo …… Tyson Hesse
    Davespite, Donko …… E.N.
    Hiromi …… OMOCAT
    Nidia …… Noelle Stevenson

    Backgrounds
    Lindsay Woods

    On the one hand, I’m a big ol’ Clevinger fanboy and I’ve run into a number of the artists – love Johnny Wander by Ota with Panagariya, love Helmer’s The Meek, like Davis’ stuff in general…And there’s this from Lee Black, who generally knows her stuff:
    ‘Real talk re: Namco High: if you’ve never been a depressed teen girl but want to get what it’s like, pick Lolo. Big props to @MagnoliaPearl’

    It seems like there’s maybe a distinction to be made between a dating sim, with all its numbers, and the visual novel, where this is more like an anthology of goofy visual novels.

    On the other hand, I have no defence against that Galaga sample text. Wow. And it’s super-freemium on a website. I dunno. Complicated. Hopefully variable in quality? Maybe?