Review: Aquadine – At the Water’s Edge

Since we recently talked about original English language visual novels (OELVNs), I thought it might be nice to take a deeper dive into Aquadine, an OELVN from developer SoftColors that I recently read. I mentioned I’m interested in OELVNs with a non-Japanese identity, and Aquadine impressed me not only with its stories and characters, but by building a distinctive setting that doesn’t feel like an imitation.

Seaside Idyll

Aquadine’s setting is absolutely enchanting and my favorite part of the experience. In the city of Aquadine, water infuses every aspect of life. Gondoliers scull passengers along canals to a floating marketplace. The local school doubles as an aquarium. Bridges hold a special significance, and there are even monuments to the sea. Aquadine is a warm place full of romance and wonder yet also holds an air of mystery. According to legend, the city was once connected to the merfolk. Fittingly, Aquadine stands on the veil between humanity and the vast inscrutable ocean.

There’s a wealth of depth to the city too. Aquadine draws from Venice and the Mediterranean, and it goes beyond the canals to small details like ferri and touches of Andalusian architecture. There are even fascinating local traditions and a lively folklore. The result is that Aquadine feels like an actual place with a vividly realized culture, one so charming I would be first in line to visit if it actually existed. Yet none of this detail is ever thrust in your face, a mark of effective world-building.

I also fell in love with Aquadine’s mythology. The city’s relationship with water and the legendary merfolk is at the heart of Aquadine’s mysteries and pervades the city and its people. Many of the myths it hearkens back to—Greek mythology, the tale of Undine, the legend of Ys—are stories I’ve lived with since I was young. It was a joy to see them brought to life in this fantastical setting in such a thoughtful way. Aquadine reminds us that the sea is both a mysterious and frightening presence capable of destruction as well as a source of life and boons.

The Warmth in Your Eyes

Aquadine’s characters are just as lovable because they radiate kindness and warmth. Everyone you meet cares about those close to them and is capable of showing empathy. A few may have lost their way and others might be a bit immature, but it’s hard not to feel for them. This made it easy for me to get invested in all the characters’ stories. I genuinely wanted to see them build relationships and overcome their challenges together.

Everything starts with the protagonist, Robin Liyun. His mother is hospitalized with a mysterious disease, and with her mounting medical bills, Robin is forced to balance school with working as a gondolier. Furthermore, he works under the alias Ciel. Robin, understandably given his situation, has a reputation for being aloof and cynical. So he created Ciel to be what he can’t: an elegant showman with an unfaltering smile. Ciel is quite popular, which lets Robin pay the bills, but if word got out that they were the same person, he could lose it all overnight.

Robin’s situation means he tries to keep to himself. But he’s surrounded by kind friends who care about him, and over the course of the story he begins to open up. Aquadine starts with a common route that introduces the cast and features lots of ensemble scenes. After, the story branches into four routes. Each focuses on a member of Robin’s core friend group, their relationship with Robin, and their own struggles.

Friends New and Old

Cameron is a likeable character, and I enjoyed the route, but it was my least favorite because it doesn’t really engage with Aquadine’s setting. Instead, it focuses on Robin and Cameron’s longstanding friendship and their learning to rely on each other. Robin has his mother’s illness and dual identities to worry about, while Cameron has the pressure of leading the school’s martial arts team. The route is endearing but also the kind of generic school story that could happen anywhere.

Anya’s route, which was my favorite, delves into the mythology of Aquadine. Some of the city’s residents believe the legends of the merfolk are not just legends. Robin is skeptical, but legends come from somewhere, and maybe he can find some clue to help his mother. After all, traditional medicine has been of little use. The bookish Anya is also a nonbeliever, but nonetheless knows quite a bit about the topic. Robin sees an opportunity, but Anya has her own burdens and problems trusting others.

Diana is the most outgoing of the group, but is also a bit aimless. She likes to joke around and has a silly crush on Ciel, but as she gets to know her friends better and sees that they are all dealing with their own challenges, it makes her think about herself. She works at her family’s café at her mom’s suggestion, but is that what she wants to do? Diana’s story explores her journey to find something she can jump into proudly and joyfully.

Elisabeth hails from the windy city of Sylphyr. She’s a well-known singer, so her appearance in Aquadine causes a bit of a splash. Locals have even been shipping her with Ciel to create Aquadine’s own celebrity power couple. She’s on hiatus though and seems strangely reluctant to sing. Her family is wealthy and she seemingly has everyone one could want, but maybe there are some things you can’t buy. And like Ciel, Elisabeth has her own secrets and struggles.

After the four routes, Aquadine has an epilogue that I found quite moving. It calls back to the themes of the different character stories and shows how the characters continue to grow and change. It also brings to the forefront Aquadine’s central theme: the importance of treasuring bonds. Robin could have continued to toil alone, but you see the rich life he has begun to build by opening up to his friends. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect or easy. But each time you reach out and take someone’s hand, you create something you can always hold in your heart.

Words of Power

The one way in which I think Aquadine falters a bit is that sometimes the writing lacks the power and deftness to fully accent the story. Aquadine’s writing isn’t bad, but it can be workmanlike. You often see just enough to move the plot along, and the pacing is largely unvaried. Great storytellers know how to modulate the writing—adding extra detail here and there, using structure and tone to build anticipation, lingering on the climactic moments—to strengthen the impact of the ideas and emotions. Aquadine has so many heartfelt moments, and I felt the writing didn’t always let me fully appreciate them. They sometimes flew by too quickly, lacked sufficient buildup, or didn’t differ enough in tone from the more mundane scenes.

To be fair, the lack of full voice acting likely makes things more difficult for Aquadine in this regard. Voiced lines can also be used to modulate the experience, particularly with regard to pace and tone, and I think in truth many visual novels rely on their voice acting to paper over sloppy writing. Aquadine simply doesn’t have that luxury, and so the demands on the writing itself are greater.

Another minor issue is that Aquadine sometimes throws in details that draw on Japanese visual novel tropes in a way that feels out of place. For example, a character who has been established as a skilled Italian cook offers to bring a sick friend congee. It would make more sense for this to be an Italian comfort food instead. The only reason I can think of that congee is used is that this is what happens in Japanese visual novels. This might seem small and ultimately it is. But because Aquadine otherwise so effectively establishes a unique and distinctive identity, it sticks out.

A Town With a View

Visually, Aquadine is beautiful. The character sprites are attractive and each has a distinct vibe. The environments are the real standouts though and bring the magical setting to life. There’s a wealth of detail in every CG, and the artistic designs of the city and its mythology are idyllic and imaginative. There are a lot of event CGs to cap the big moments too. Honestly, Aquadine delivers the level of visual lavishness and quality I would expect from a big budget visual novel. It’s impressive by any standard.

The music is excellent as well. The background tracks accent the emotions and tones of the story, and there are a few voiced songs that make great highlights. Aquadine has partial voice acting, meaning that lines are accompanied by one of several possible brief spoken phrases that set the tone. I have trouble when I’m hearing and reading different things, so I turned it off after a while. It’s nice for those who want it though, and I think the voices were well cast.

Final Thoughts

Aquadine shares heartfelt stories about lovable characters in a unique and fantastic setting. It has a distinct identity and touching message, and the art and sound and bring everything to life in vivid beauty. I strongly recommend Aquadine to fans of visual novels as well as anyone who loves an earnest story.

Find Aquadine on: Steam, itch.io

Thanks to SoftColors for providing a review copy of Aquadine.

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