No lie, this game is almost a true oldie. Originally released back in 2007, and now on sale on Steam, Fading Hearts is a visual novel that comes the closest to a true emerging narrative experience. While the player is locked into the role of the protagonist Ryou, the capacity for player freedom is massive. Fun, yet at times repetitive, Fading Hearts actually turns out to be pretty good.
Developed by Sakura River, Fading Hearts casts the player as the protagonist Ryou, an orphaned high schooler in the fictional town of Trident City located in the fictional country of Sorayama. Set in the year 2006, the game quickly establishes a believable alternate world with the idea that this particular country made no preparations for “Y2K” and suffered greatly as a result.
Labelled as a “Y2K orphan,” Ryou would be the typical 17-year-old protagonist of a dating sim if he wasn’t written so differently compared to most other protagonists. Nowadays, this has become common, but Ryou is far from the bumbling, oblivious teenager with a secret/superpower/history that the tropes speak of. Nor is he a Mary Sue, but his self-awareness and periodic tappings on the Fourth Wall are refreshing.
Most of the characters are written fairly well. The main heroines are Claire, a dark-haired, spunky lass who apparently wants nothing more than to set Ryou up with their mutual friend Rina, a dirty blonde, honor student with perfect grades and an absentminded disposition. Rina crushes on Ryou, who loves Claire, who is naturally dating another guy, and the triangle plays out from there – however the player wishes.
Fading Hearts is different from most visual novels in its presentation. At first glance, it seems like the player is about to be fed a narrative with choices in between, but a quick note of the date box and ‘Status’ button on the screen disabuse this notion fairly quickly. Fading Hearts takes much more from dating sims than any other genre.
As the first few days pass, Ryou encounters the various activities he can pursue throughout the day. Working part-time jobs as a programmer, hanging out at a manga cafe, reading books, and training are just a few of the many options available to the player.
As the game progresses characters will converse with Ryou, presenting him problems and the like that he can give his attention to. Emails also come in from jobs and mystery people, and the player is free to ignore them. But sooner or later, Ryou will be forced to take action in one way or another.
Just like a standard visual novel, Fading Hearts is not without its mandatory choices. What sets it apart is the importance of the free actions taken prior to those choices. Miss the wrong opportunity or fail to take action in certain ways and you might find Ryou dying in a fairly nasty way.
Indeed, Fading Hearts has its fair bit of the epic as well as kitchen sink romantic drama. Rumors of supernatural and magical happenings in the city inevitably reach Ryou’s ears, and Ryou soon learns he has a gift for magic. Beyond that, it’s the player’s choice as to how embroiled Ryou becomes in the secret war with the shadows. Other events reveal a distant past that might somehow be connected to Ryou and the present struggle.
In a game with so much freedom, an achievement system actually is relevant. After one of the many endings is reached, a small “wrap-up” is given to the player telling them how they did, what ending they reached, and what they might want to try on another playthrough. Fading Hearts is a game necessitating multiple spins through, and playing the game organically, i.e. without a walkthrough, can take quite a bit of time.
Out of the many endings and achievements, some are good, some are average, and some are bad. Getting them all with minimal effort requires two or three playthroughs due to the game’s “randomization” or events, but it is possible.
Looking at the game technically, there isn’t much to praise aside from the artwork which has a unique, pleasing style of vibrant colors. Music is so-so, with no memorable moments. The writing itself is good, although there are enough errors to be noticeable and at times annoying. These aren’t enough to detract from the overall experience, however, and the game is a fairly easy read.
Overall, Fading Hearts is a pretty enjoyable visual novel/dating sim/RPG hybrid. It sets out to give the player a larger degree of freedom than found in others of its genre, and succeeds quite nicely. While it can feel repetitive on the player’s second or third time through the game, exploring all the different options and seeing the various endings makes for hours of visual novel fun.