As someone who somewhat enjoyed Chris “Scout” Love’s first released Ren’Py project Cell Phone Love Letter, I walked into Heart of Fire with a couple of expectations. One being the high customization. CPLL changed up the standard Ren’Py configuration and made it its own, turning it into something you definitely can’t mistake for any other Ren’Py game out there. Bright colors, quirky art, such and such. Two being the wonderful dialogue handling. I don’t know how, but every sentence that finds its way into Love’s characters’ text boxes sounds natural. I’m happy to say my expectations were more than met with Heart of Fire.
Old-school RPG fans rejoice! Using various resources, Love constructs a visual novel that feels, on the surface, like a classic RPG experience. Underline the on the surface part. There’s no leveling up, no EXP to be gained, the battles are extremely easy even on Hard mode, and, honestly, Heart of Fire is obviously more of a visual novel than a turn-based roleplaying game. If you’re looking for a hardcore VN/RPG hybrid, then look elsewhere. This definitely isn’t it. On the other hand, however, Heart of Fire has the feel, right down to the main menu.
I’ve got to give a hand up to lily of the valley games (that’s Love’s game studio). The level of detail in the customization is downright superb. Hell, the “skip mode” text even got treatment to fit in. As soon as I saw that, I fell for this game’s 16-bitness. I only wish the music could match the appearance. Tracks that sounded like medieval/fantasy .midis would’ve gone along much better. What was there wasn’t bad, though. It got its points across when it needed to and that’s good enough. The look of the visual novel more than makes up for the soundtrack. I mean, seriously, take a moment to admire the hard work. Yeah, yeah, I know they were found resources, but, look, Love put them in all the right places and used them artfully. I’m more than impressed, I can’t say that enough.
You play in the point of view of Mira, whom escapes from orcish capture with fellow captives Sylvia and Saber. In my game, I made Mira the knight, Saber the rogue, and Sylvia the healer. Giving Saber most of the grindstones and buying Sylvia nearly all of her spells made my team virtually unbeatable. There was only one point where I, like you, had to die and you’ll know when ’cause…well, nah. I’m not going to say when. It seemed to frustrate some players, but I’m not going to ruin it for you. I think you’ll know when to give up when you’ll know when to give up, get what I’m saying?
Even though their dialogue exchanges were well-written, I wasn’t overly enthralled with any of the characters. Saber doesn’t get much development until the end of the story, unfortunately; he spends most of the game mostly silent save for a few key scenes. Sylvia, overall, confused me. I still can’t figure out if I dislike her or not. She kinda was just “there” for me. I didn’t care one way or another if she died or not. Mira, ugh. I’m not a fan of her personality type to begin with. I think it was partially my fault, though, that I started not liking them. I made one a knight and the other a healer. Note that the classes don’t affect your game or anything. Those classes only fed into a relationship stereotype I had no idea I walked into until it was too late.
Speaking of the romance, I wasn’t feeling it. It didn’t do much for me. I asked myself, “why was this even in here?” A bit of a harsh question, I know. It all felt rushed. They meet, one falls for the other, and, yeah, it’s pretty obvious from there. It came off to me as being tacked on. Something about it didn’t sit right with me, most likely due to it being so predictable. Some of these issues come from this being a short visual novel and the others come from the writing and characters themselves.
The ending came as a huge slap in the face. Here I was, actually liking Heart of Fire, and, fwham. You get this battle and one fucking line of text and…it’s over? What? It was terribly upsetting. The epilogue, well, you know I didn’t care for it. Double slap. It involves the game’s star pairing, of course. Then, Heart of Fire truly ends. In my mind, they died after they got through the final boss and the epilogue is some sort of afterlife scene. Thinking of it that way makes it a whole lot better, if not a little sad.
In spite of how negative I’ve probably sounded throughout this review, I liked the game’s story and treatment of its setting. I’m so happy that I didn’t have to sit through some stupid cut scene to understand things that are easy to understand based on character conversation. It’s not bad. It’s not wildly unique, either. It’s your usual evil orcs versus “good” humans thing. For what it’s worth, it’s good in Heart of Fire and that’s all that matters.
Play this. It’s a visual novel that looks and feels like an old RPG, which earns major bonus points. Download it here from the lily of the valley games website or here at the RAA. Discuss it here at its LSF thread. I reviewed this while playing version 1.1.
(EDIT – 1/1/2012 – I’ve updated the links.)