In Amarantus, anything can happen. I don’t mean this in a Game of Thrones kind of way, like a main character being suddenly toasted by a passing dragon. It’s more like you’re playing dolls with a friend, have eaten too much sugar and are ready to go all the way off script.
Designer Ruqiyah Patel says that players might be surprised to learn they’ve only experienced ‘maybe half of the content in the game, after a first playthrough and new game plus,’ including if they’re making quite radically different choices. I’m not surprised here.
The first time around, I chose cowardly, stubborn and self-destructive paths, and each led to valid, fleshed-out content, not the kind of soft diversion away from real agency that I’d generally expect from branching narrative systems of a reasonable scope.
The second time, I played it straight. The goal was the same; confront Caudat, the warmongering Lord and metaphor for various ‘coming of age’ type themes. The characters turned up again, in various plausibly different ways, too. Marius’ delicate personality and fervent crush were coherent across playthroughs, but I did experience more of The Major, if you know what I mean, because this is a visual novel.
Given the branching, Amarantus needs to really embrace replayability.
New game plus, with additional content, explains a lot of what is completely obscure at first. There are certainly many whole conversations that are repeated, but it’s generally those that frame the war, or the mysterious Akhelau, that are worth hearing again, anyway. You can skip and rewind text really fast, with the mouse wheel, which (as far as I’m concerned) is now mandatory for every game that expects to be replayed, even once.
So, after two and a bit playthroughs, I understand most of what’s happened to our unlikely heroes, but also remain intensely curious about what I haven’t yet seen.
The goofy animations also add to the feeling that I’m playing dolls with a particularly silly friend. This story may be her favourite to enact, over and over, but I have no idea what crazy twist she’ll introduce next time, just that she’ll properly let me make decisions, too.
Four Stars: ★★★★
Release Date: 27th June 2023
The PC version of Amarantus was provided and played for the purposes of this review.