"Night Cascades is on sale," a Steam notification informed me this week. I didn't remember adding it to my wishlist, and honestly I didn't remember what it was. Still, a visual novel about lesbians solving occult mysteries? Oh, and it's made by the studio behind RPS favourites Long Live The Queen and Black Closet? For under £5? Ah, go on. Having now played it, yeah, I'm happy with the spooky investigation and clueless yearning that I got for a fiver.
Our Graham noted the launch of Night Cascades in March 2022 but we didn't take much of a look after. So! Made by Hanako Games, it's set in the American South in a slightly alternate version of the 1980s. The Satanic panic is in full swing and the police are on edge following a mysterious fire which strikes them as a potential ritual. Enter Diane, a teacher and author with a degree in folklore. Consulting on the case, she's teamed up with a no-nonsense cop who... oh, that's her ex-girlfriend, Jackie. Oh no.
Night Cascades is fairly straightforward as a visual novel. None of the intrigue and politicking of Black Closet nor life simming of Long Live The Queen, you mostly click on through text boxes while looking at pictures. We play alternately as Diane and Jackie, each with their own minigame to jazz up investigations. Diane analyses scenes (clicking around to identify points of interest) while Jackie's intuition guides her questions during interrogations (clicking around a hidden overlay to follow energy lines to key points). It's mostly linear too, with only a few dialogue options at times that I don't think changed much. It's a visual novel, yeah?
It's a nice visual novel. A breezy airport read which moves along at a fair clip, raising some heavy subjects but ultimately turning up to investigate spooky crimes and let gals be pals. The spooky crimes unfold and escalate with interesting turns and oh, these gals are such pals!
Diane and Jackie dated in college, intense and powerful and evidently doomed. As the case starts, they've not seen each other in years, have no idea what the other has been up to, have no idea who the other has become. It's a good powderkeg of old yearnings and anger and new assumptions and misunderstandings as they talk through their past, present, and potential future. Their complicated emotions feel real enough that I'm embarrassed to admit that I recognise many lines almost word-for-word from my own breakups. I was not prepared for that in a cute visual novel about occult crimes. Are the writers keen studies of the heart, I wondered, or am I so cliché? Why not both!
I believe one key change in the "alternate 1980s" timeline of Night Cascades is that police reform started sooner and more intensely, which I suspect is partially to disarm any reluctance around playing a cop. In the game's world, public opinion turned after police dropped a bomb on a neighbourhood. That is at least inspired by our world's 1985 event of Philadelphia police dropping bombs from a helicopter onto a house, killing six adults and five children, though I think it's not exactly that same. Diane explains that afterwards, many departments were "completely disbanded and rebuilt from the ground up around what should have been their guiding principle all along: to protect the public, not themselves." Consequences were certainly far smaller in our world. While Jackie believes the police can change and help people, Diane does still thinks Jackie is too hasty in looking to arrest suspects on circumstantial evidence.
Relatively unchanged is the homophobia of the 1980s. Both Diane and Jackie keep their sexuality secret, fearing not just personal and professional repercussions but the "crimes against nature" laws still in effect in some states. It ran through their actual relationship, and even as crime-solving partners it creates anxious tension. What if someone can tell? What if they see us? This edge grounds their romance even while yearnings run fast and wild.
I finished Night Cascades in two hours (as a fast reader) and much like The Flintstones, I had a gay old time. The case develops in an interesting way, the yearning is intense and appropriately clueless, the romance hit me in the heart, the world leaves a few mysteries open, and it whips along at a pace that, ah, maybe is a bit too hasty. I do wish Night Cascades chewed on some themes and plot points a little longer. It raises heavy subjects but often quickly moves on, feeling unprepared for conversations it started and giving me tonal whiplash. This also feels a missed opportunity for chats revealing more of Diane and Jackie and their dynamic. But it's not meant to be a ponderous novel, and I'd certainly rather games err on the side of short.
Night Cascades has a 35% discount on Steam until Monday the 20th, which brings it down to £4.73/€5.85/$6.49. It's also available on Itch.io but still at full price there (though it was in the 2023 Queer Games Bundle, so you might already have it without realising).