Charade Maniacs

Charade Maniacs

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have a major weakness for death game-style, social deduction adventure games. I’ll choose to replay the Danganronpa or Nonary Games series in a heartbeat over the latest Souls-like or shooter. So, when the words “death game” came out of a character’s mouth in the first hour of the otome game Charade Maniacs, I was excited. Giddy, even. The boys were cute, the premise intriguing, and the genre one of my favorites; I knew I was in for a good time. And indeed, a good time was had.

Not that you should run out and buy Charade Maniacs just because you have a weakness for death games or social deduction games like Werewolf or Mafia, even if otome games aren’t your speed. This still works very much within the conventions of the format: there’s a female player character surrounded by cute boys with maybe a non-boy thrown in for variety – in this case, eight boys and one nonbinary person. You get closer to one of the options and fall in love through your choices. The game is split into different routes for each dating option, with a final one that is story-locked until you complete the others. While Charade Maniacs does have a few minor tricks up its sleeve, it doesn’t have much in the way of meta elements. You don’t need to deduce who the traitor is. There’s a flowchart, but it’s mostly handy for going back and picking skipped options and not integral to the gameplay. If you don’t enjoy the dating game genre, this will not be one for you.

However, if you do enjoy them or feel neutral, this one is certainly worth a look. The dating options are sure to be a draw for fans of the genre. The cast is evenly split between sweet cinnamon rolls, problematic buttheads, and mysterious tricksters, so regardless of your type, you’ll probably find someone you like. As for me, I like a boy with broad shoulders, a gentle heart, and an anxiety disorder, so Mamoru Chigasaki was the natural choice; but you might be a fan of tsunderes like Keito Ebana or prefer irreverent tricksters like Souta Gyobu. Illustrator Teita‘s character designs are not the most distinctive, but they’re attractive and avoid falling over the cliff of “generic and forgettable.” The color palette is a bit muted, with neutrals and soft tones tending to dominate, which leads to moments where there’ll be two characters with gray hair wearing mostly gray clothes on-screen, which can be a bit visually boring. However, I’ll take it over busy and over-bright.

Nine dating options may seem like a lot, but the game finds something of a workaround via a split common route: about midway through the game, the player has the option to join one of three groups. From there, you can spend time with the characters without the cast feeling overstuffed or the development feeling spread thin. There’s no “love meter” to track which characters you’re closest to, but the flags for each route are straightforward and determined by who you choose to spend time with and who you hold at arm’s length rather than more opaque personal decisions. This may make things a bit uninteresting to players who actively enjoy trying to suss out the best responses and try different things to end up with different boys, but considering how going down every route is critical to fully understanding the story, the simplified approach makes it easy to stay on the right track and prevents you from ending up on repetitive playthroughs.

Unfortunately, in the grand tradition of otome games, the heroine is the weakest character. Hiyori’s personality shifts wildly between routes, assertively standing up for herself against some characters but passively accepting violations of her boundaries in others. Her choices come down to what serves each route’s storyline the best rather than any kind of consistent characterization. While I do prefer a player character who at least sometimes shoves off a too-pushy suitor over someone who consistently lets others dictate her actions, it makes it difficult to really get into her as a player avatar.

It does, however, make the problematic routes all the more painful. Two of the dating options, Ryouichi Futami and Mizuki Iochi, are in their 20’s, significantly older than Hiyori. I’m not a fan of age gaps personally, but I accept that as a common fantasy, they have a place in a genre that is all about allowing women to explore potentially unsafe fantasies in a safe way. However, Hiyori’s relationships with them have the stink of too-real power dynamics. She craves their attention and approval, drawn to their adulthood in a way that makes it impossible for them to form an equal partnership. The way they respond to her affections, including taking advantage of them, feels a bit too much like grooming, which is not a term I use lightly, considering its position in current political rhetoric and Mizuki’s gender identity. The plot-based nature of the game also makes it impossible to reach the game’s conclusion without going through their routes. However, they’re also voiced by superstar voice actors Tomokazu Seki and Megumi Ogata, who are both a delight no matter what role they’re playing.

However, if you look to otome games primarily for steamy content, Charade Maniacs is unlikely to scratch that itch. Hiyori never goes farther than kissing in any of the routes, with nary a hint of anything more. In fact, most of the ending CGs don’t even show their lips touching. It’s all very chaste, and while I was content that my favorites got to kiss on-screen, I can see it leading to some frustration for people with different preferences.

But hey, maybe you don’t have a vested interest in kissing cute anime boys and just want to experience a story around social deduction games. Maybe you just think mysteries are neat, or want to play a storified Among Us game, and also don’t terribly mind kissing cute anime boys along the way. If that is the case, Charade Maniacs doesn’t hold a candle to more innovative games like Gnosia, but it’s still an entertaining story. With each route, the mystery of the Other World Stream and the identity of the Producer comes a little bit clearer, along with the connection each character has with Arcadia. None of the storylines feel extraneous, either – each one has different bits of crucial information to understanding the world. The game doesn’t expect you to solve anything on your own; there is no pivotal scene where you have to pick out the identity of the traitor. Still, it’s engaging enough just getting each character’s perspective and the narrative twists and turns along the way.

There are a few minor plot holes, and the story’s refusal to interrogate a near-dystopian element of the future world the characters inhabit did leave me somewhat unsatisfied, but not nearly enough to ruin the story. No, the thing that came closest to ruining the game to me was its translation, the same issue that hampers many otome game releases in the US. It careens wildly between “pretty good” and “awkward,” with the average hitting slightly below “competent.” While it’s never so bad that it hampers understanding what’s going on, it’s riddled with typos and stiff, unnatural phrasing, like saying characters “receive” things that have been handed to them. Once I was drawn into the story, I found myself caring less, but those first few minutes were quite rough. I am an admitted translation snob, but had I been playing for my own entertainment instead of as a critic, I would have seriously considered walking away and never coming back.

But I didn’t. I stayed. I took control of the household Switch in the age of Tears of the Kingdom and played the whole thing, not out of a sense of professional obligation but personal investment in watching the story unfold. I played it on the bus. I played it while walking. I played it after I got home from my day job and stayed up later than I should have. I was fully engrossed in the mystery and the characters. Some of the boys were sweet, others unlikable. Some route conclusions were satisfying, others silly. But through all of it, I enjoyed Charade Maniacs thoroughly, and I think you will too.


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