Join Ella McConnell for Waifu Material, a monthly column in which she navigates the murky, cherry-blossom-strewn waters of visual novels, dating sims, and everything in between (reader masochism not required but strongly recommended). [Content warning: brief discussion of sketchy consent stuff.]
Pasty Lovers is another game I picked up in the latest Steam sale after it wormed its way into my increasingly otome-flavoured recommendations section. Theme-wise, it’s perhaps one of the most masochistic purchases I’ve made yet considering I’m intolerant to pretty much everything in pastry. However, at the princely sum of 39p (£3.99 full price) and with the promise of being able to live vicariously through a fictional character who can inhale a packet of doughnuts without spending the next few days suffering, who was I to refuse?
As is tradition, let’s start things off with an eyeful of the trailer:
A more sedate affair than those of some of the games I’ve looked at previously (i.e. the glaring lack of throbbing j-pop), the Pastry Lovers trailer opens with three bold keywords:
I can confirm that this game contains at least two of these things.
As well as giving you a brief overview of the setting and protagonist (including her ~SECRET PAST~), the trailer also thoughtfully spoils all the main endings for you, presumably so you know how to most efficiently target your digital affections.
Having by this point been promised “a journey of love and dreams”, it was time to surrender myself to a world of pixellated pastry and pretend that I’m not sitting in my underwear eating rice cakes (the most polystyrene-like gluten free snack).
You are Sakura Asakusa, a poor little orphan girl who was raised in a monastery in a faraway land known as the Carseland Kingdom.
Here, being a pastry chef is a highly prestigious position, so much so that if you’re not lucky enough to be born into one of the five noble families then you should “make efforts” to become one.
However, this is made somewhat difficult by the fact that the noble families are allegedly "strongly suppressing those folk pastry chefs", meaning that civvies have somehow forgotten how to make pastries and as such they’re exclusively the fare of rich people.
Luckily for you, on your sixteenth birthday the stylishly attired Sister Terry presents you with a mysterious notebook filled with recipes and casually mentions that your parents might not be dead after all. This inspires you to attempt the entrance exam – and gain a scholarship – for the elite St Patras College, where the real adventure begins™.
So this is the splash screen you get when you boot up the game, which neatly showcases all the characters (from left to right: William, Henry Yin, Sakura (you), Christopher DM, and Haonan Ye).
I’d like to take a moment to point out that, in this picture, only Haonan Ye is actually looking at you. William is looking smugly at Henry Yin because he’s a peasant who doesn’t have epaulettes, Henry Yin is staring at a piece of chocolate like he’s never seen anything like it before in his life despite attending the kingdom’s fanciest pastry school, and Christopher is peering down his nose at Henry Yin because seriously dude what are you even doing?
That aside, they can be loosely summarised as follows:
- Second in line to the throne but decided to transfer to St Patras to mingle with the (relative) commoners
- Canon prettier than you (“His slightly curly hair looks soft and graceful, and his dark green eyes are as shiny as gems. His white and fine skin is even more delicate than that of girls.”)
- CRAVAT (and sometimes one of those wanky one-shoulder capes)
- “Little fresh meat”
- The Tsundere One™
- Also The One Who is Engaged to Somebody Else For the Sake of His Family®
- Sweater vest
- Has a hot dad (who unfortunately is also a massive dick)
- Wears a cape to school because why the fuck not?
- I’m pretty sure the “DM” is a contraction of the name “Duanmu” (which appears exactly once in THE ENTIRE GAME, by the way), but as he’s always depicted clutching a book I chose to interpret this as “dungeon master”
- He’s your teacher
- HE’S YOUR TEACHER
- The bad boy (to the extent that he’s an actual mob boss while also attending pastry school)
- Sometimes wears a bitchin’ black and red suit
- Seemingly obsessed with fruit
- Never actually wears that crappy beige jacket he carries with him everywhere
Is… is this about side mouths?
See no evil: art
The art of Pastry Lovers is a bit of a mixed bag.
In some instances, it’s outright buggy: you may be able to see in some of the screenshots the trippy ghosts of Steam popups that NEVER. GO. AWAY. Overall, the game also looks a little blurry when run full screen, meaning if you’re playing with a larger resolution there’s a notable lack of crispness visually.
The sprites are by and large decent, but what might be a stylistic choice of adding a white halo of highlighting around a few of them makes them look like they’ve been badly Photoshopped when they’re up against certain backgrounds.
Some of the character sprites also seem to have been done by different artists, which is particularly jarring when you notice the comparatively blurry linework and different colouring styles.
You also sometimes get cookie cutter silhouettes for less important characters, which is understandable from a time-saving perspective but also hugely inconsistent. For example, a minor character who appears for two lines to tell you about spoons might have a fully rendered sprite while another who says a lot more over multiple scenes does not (and another might have none at all). Why not just convey it all in the writing and save yourself some work?
There’s also some not-so-sneaky reusing of assets within the game. For example, the librarian…
Is just the “teach director” facing in another direction:
This also occurs with backgrounds, and while it’s less apparent when the location of the school festival is just the outside of the palace with shitloads of bunting spaffed over it, it’s definitely noticeable when signs are blatantly backwards:
However, perhaps the most egregious art – and literal? – crime is the poorly disguised theft of a stock image of Warwick Castle:
The backgrounds as a whole are an eclectic mix of actual illustrations and blurrily filtered photographs, but the latter is definitely one way to try and hide watermarks so maybe that’s why.
CG-wise some are definitely better than others, and in what is perhaps simply an expression of favoritism on the developer’s part both Christopher and Henry Yin inexplicably have extra ones. For illustrative purposes, here’s one of the better CGs (wherein Sakura’s visible eye still looks a little off):
And here’s a less good one:
I will however happily admit that some of the food drawings are pretty damn cute (and award bonus points for the random animated weather effects such as snow and rain that occasionally occur).
Hear no evil: voice acting and music
There’s not a lot to write home about here as Pastry Lovers isn’t voiced.
The music is a largely inoffensive hotch-potch of whimsical twinkly tunes that can range anywhere between The Sims’ build mode to so stereotypically French that you may start spontaneously bleeding baguettes.
There are a few moments when incredibly short tracks end up being looped a ludicrous amount of times – a majestic fanfare kind of loses it edge the fifth or sixth time you hear it, for example.
Furthermore, some of the sound effects are really weird, particularly the strange bloopy bleeps you get in a few of the menus, some unintentionally creepy laughter, and a weird, jarringly loud cough that recurs more frequently than it has any right to.
There’s also the small matter of the obligatory hot springs scene.
In short, at one point in the game you’re given the opportunity to take a dip with the characters. Whoever you pick, you’re presented with a fairly tame CG of them sitting shirtless in a hot spring.
However, then it says:
Tip: if you touch the body of the character, he will speak to you
Try to touch his body~ so shy~
And sure enough, if you click on different parts of the CG (an utterly mortifying experience even in the privacy of my own home) they say one of a number of awkward phrases.
However, you can also choose to do this with Lina, your friend and the younger sister of Christopher DM. Unlike the guys, she makes weird little moaning noises when you click on her, a bizarre and deeply uncomfortable inequality that means the developer was clearly too embarrassed to track down the equivalent for the male characters.
On the topic of lewdness, Lina is also the subject of one of the game’s spinoff extension stories wherein you, her, and another female friend are at the beach and:
- Everyone is wearing swimsuits
- Everyone talks about their breasts (primarily comparing/lamenting their size)
- You have a tickle fight and your bikini almost falls off
- Lina is heavily implied to be attracted to you in a really voyeuristic way
- There is an uncomfortably long scene describing you catching her naked in the bath
- She is scared by spooky stories and so you have to sleep in the same bed, which gives the game the opportunity to drop the skin-crawling line: “Two young girls' soft bodies closely cling to each other”
This could have been an opportunity for an LGBT route but is instead pure objectification for objectfication’s sake and just makes me sad.
Speak no evil: writing and plot
As touched on previously, the plot follows the trials and tribulations of Sakura Asakusa, a pastry-savvy orphan (but not really) raised in a monastery who manages to secure a scholarship at the exclusive St Patras College.
The story stretches over six chapters and is not a straightforward click-to-the-conclusion affair. You have stats to level up if you want to succeed (it’s entirely possible to fail to get into pastry school in the first place), plus all the guys have specific stat requirements if you want to pursue them.
The stat levelling part of the game was a novelty to begin with but soon began to feel grindy, especially towards the end (but you do have the traditional visual novel fast forward for subsequent playthroughs, at least).
As with The Men of Yoshiwara: Kikuya, there are a great deal of translation issues that manifest as anything from clunky (such as characters stating they’re doing a soliloquy or randomly switching from first to third person) to downright nonsensical dialogue, for example:
He actually appears to be talking about dango, which are referred to simply as “balls” throughout
A deacon cafe is a little more niche than a butler cafe...
There’s also this gem from one of Henry Yin’s backstory flashbacks:
It doesn’t help that this also happens to Henry Yin earlier in the game:
Despite its cheery appearance, Pastry Lovers also has its fair share of dark moments, including:
- A kid from your hometown getting beaten
- Henry Yin’s mentally abusive father
- Your friend Lina's mother being abandoned by her father, who then "gave birth to [her] alone and died depressedly before long"
- Most of Haonan Ye’s route, including bloody mob warfare, his mother’s drug addiction and eventual death, and even just the way it starts (as seen below)
There’s also a sprinkling of the sketchy consent stuff that’s endemic to so many dating sims. This is particularly apparent in Haonan Ye’s route (presumably as he’s meant to be the fiery bad boy), with this storyline also seeing you threatened by multiple men so he has someone to heroically save you from.
Finally, can we take a brief moment to appreciate the fact that this is a world where people wear full platemail and there are possibly DRAGONS but there are also refrigerators, cars, and TVs?
In addition to bugs, typos, missing text, and a generally clunky interface (I’m not sure it’s actually possible to get back to the main menu without quitting the game), Pastry Lovers doesn’t exactly come off as polished.
The stat levelling and mini games are interesting ideas when it comes to shaking things up in a dating sim setting, but the fact that they’re monotonous and buggy respectively offsets this effect somewhat.
Furthermore, despite the prevalence of hints and tips in blue bracketed text (as well as the occasional piece of fourth-wall-shattering advice from NPCs) it’s frustratingly easy to mess up, particularly when it comes to the route-specific segments towards the end of the game (special shout out to the cafe in Henry Yin’s route and pretty much all of William’s).
Also don’t even get me started on the creepy little chibi pets that are never fully explained in world and apparently exist to give you stat boosts by cooking you breakfast:
The game is also by a Chinese developer (Chengguang, whose other games all sound surprisingly sinister compared with Pastry Lovers) as opposed to a Japanese one, which explains the mixture of Chinese and Japanese names (potentially also explicable as part of the setting) as well as some confusing cultural mentions (for example a long sequence in one character’s route where the admittedly similar festivals of Qixi and Tanabata seemingly get muddled together).
It also has random bits of Japanese in the otherwise English translation, which makes it feel a little bit like you’re talking to an overexcited otaku at times.
Finally, as a bonus here is an informative lesson on our fair isle:
Who’s your husbando though?
Haonan Ye, largely because of his surprisingly legitimate motto:
If it was better translated and not quite so buggy, Pastry Lovers might have the potential to be a pretty cute little game.
However, my key takeaway is that I can go into someone’s room at night and ram cake down their throat until they love me, and so this is how I intend to proceed with all my future relationships.