Voyvod Arts, the team behind the planned original English language visual novel One Spirit reached out and asked if I’d take a look at their recently released demo. One Spirit is set in an alternate history where the Cold War never ended in the fictional Western satellite nation of Sysica. It’s an intriguing setting–not one I’ve seen in the visual novel medium before–and forgoes anime art in favor of a more realistic style of illustration. It certainly seemed interesting enough to warrant the hour or so the demo takes. It’s a public demo, so you can even try it for yourself on Steam or itch.io if you’re so inclined. I’ll share my impressions of the demo below.
One Spirit begins with 18-year-old Yuri on the long bus ride from the capital Svietograd back home to Nevilyovsk, a decaying agrarian town in the countryside. His older sister has been working to fund his studies in the hopes that he might attend university, but Yuri failed the entrance exams and heads home empty-handed. What will his sister, with whom he’s had only sparse contact, think? While Yuri’s failure weighs on him to an extent, he also feels profoundly disconnected. Is there anything left for him in his ancestral home?
From the moment Yuri alights the bus, the oppressive atmosphere of Nevilyovsk hangs thick, a visceral gloom that infuses all. Rusted husks of cars, pavement cracked and worn, and dilapidated buildings greet him, all brought to life in striking environment art that feels like gazing into a dying world. The monotonous tones and anemic lighting show Nevilyovsk is a place where the body might live, but the soul goes to die. Still those who live there do what they can to make it home. Yuri’s family apartment is equally run down but also filled with small personal touches. Mementos from a family vacation, a poster of Yuri’s favorite movie, and the sounds of his sister Lada’s guitar remind you that even amidst the decay, people hold onto what flickering embers of happiness they can.
The only characters we meet in the demo are Yuri and Lada. Yuri is disillusioned and often retreats inward to his thoughts. It’s understandably hard for him to feel at home when he sees Lada as almost a stranger. Yuri reminded me a bit of Holden Caulfield, intelligent and thoughtful but at times immature and without guidance or purpose. Lada is harder to read since we don’t see her thoughts. Despite Yuri’s failure, she treats him with kindness, albeit an unsteady kindness. The pair flit between awkward silences, playful reminiscence of the past, and getting on each others’ nerves the way only family can. I thought it made for a believable homecoming for Yuri under the circumstances, and both he and Lada are characters I’d be interested to spend more time with.
Both Yuri and Lada have detailed sprites with a variety of expressions. I wouldn’t say the character art left so strong an impact as the environment art, but the work is professional quality and consistent with the game’s aesthetic. Yuri and Lada look similar, which makes sense since they’re siblings, but it does mean we don’t get an opportunity to see what the character artist might do with a different type of character.
The demo primarily serves to establish the world, atmosphere, and characters of Yuri and Lada, so it’s hard to say too much about the narrative. However, there are small hints of something brewing. Lada goes out in the morning for hours before her shift, by her own insistence alone. Yuri’s mother is away reporting on another of the endless proxy wars simmering across the region. And the son of a wealthy family has disappeared, the only trace of him remaining the posters his kin have put up seeking information. As Yuri knows, in a city you can be anonymous, but a town always listens. Perhaps Nevilyovsk is not a place where one wants to be heard. These tidbits were enough to make me curious about where Yuri’s journey might take him.
While One Spirit‘s atmosphere and worldbuilding are gripping, I unfortunately found the writing itself difficult to enjoy. Yuri is introspective, and I estimated about half of the demo lines were his internal monologue. The writing for these monologues is novelistic and intentionally measured. I’d guess the writer wants the prose to evoke Yuri’s feelings of stagnation, but it’s not a good fit for the format and often goes to far. One Spirit‘s ADV presentation is not conducive to longwinded philosophical musings, and it’s difficult to process some of the text without scrolling back and forth between lines. If One Spirit plans to frequently highlight Yuri’s thoughts in this way, I think NVL presentation would work better. Musicus! another visual novel I reviewed with a similarly introspective protagonist used NVL, and this choice made it much easier for me to digest the protagonist’s complex ideas.
The prose of Yuri’s internal monologue can also be awkward and ignores some of the common conventions of writing. Phrasing and tenses came across to me at times as unnatural or wrong. (It’s possible English is not the writer’s first language, but I don’t know.) The word choice can stray into grandiloquence. As an example of convention-breaking, the “rule of three” is a common idea in writing: give a concept and then three examples or repeat something three times. One Spirit often expounds or repeats five or six times. Certainly rules are not absolute and can be broken to great effect by skilled writers. But I found the combination of Yuri’s thoughts making up such a large part of the script with the frequently protracted nature of the thoughts themselves made me feel like I was wading through a mire of words. It also creates a jarring contrast when Yuri switches between such poetic thoughts to throwing around casual slang like “word” and “dude” with his sister.
That said, some of the lines themselves are hauntingly beautiful, and I appreciate the ambition to explore complex ideas. The writing needs substantial work in my opinion, but I think a skilled editor could help the writer craft the current script into something more elegant and readable that highlights its strengths. I hope Voyvod Arts are able to do this. I’m interested in Yuri’s journey, but unsure I’d enjoy reading several more hours of the writing in its current style and format.
While writing and art form the core of a visual novel, the production around that is important too. Here, One Spirit left me quite impressed. Plaintive string music fills the air of Nevilyovsk with an aura of nostalgia and sorrow. The text box and menus are stylish and unobtrusive, and the smooth transition from the main menu to the opening scene is particularly slick. The short demo already showcases branching dialogue and choices. Further details of Sysica’s culture and history can be found lore entries (though the entries themselves could be more readable) accessed via a stunning street mural. Unlike most visual novels, One Spirit lets you pan the camera and inspect objects in many of the scenes. These are small details, but I felt they made the experience more immersive.
With its vivid setting, intriguing characters, and distinctive art, One Spirit has the potential to offer something striking and unique. Furthermore, the production values instill confidence that Voyvod Arts have the skills needed to make a quality visual novel. However, the script needs substantial work. There are strong moments, but they’re too often buried under laborious purple prose that’s not a good fit for the game’s presentation. I think this is fixable with better editing though, and One Spirit interested me enough that I plan to follow its development.