Game Review: The Royal Trap

It’s only been a couple days since I posted my first impressions of Hanako Games’ new title The Royal Trap. I have since bought it (using the discount coupon I got for blogging about it) and played through it a few times.

I only have one thing to say:

Buy this game. Right now.

I don’t care who you have to bribe, fuck, or do whatever else you do to get money (I recommend putting in some extra hours at work, I paid for it by selling off some books I didn’t want.)

I don’t care what you need to do to get this game. Get it. Tell your friends about it and get them to buy it.

That’s all I have to say. Good night!

……What do you mean, you want more information? Is my word not good enough for you? *huffs* Fine, I suppose I can tell you a bit about it.

However, I’m going to do something a bit different for this review. I do try to avoid spoilers, but the nature of this game makes it difficult to talk about anything without horribly spoiling things. Therefore, I’m going to try very hard not to spoil things here, and then I’ll go crazy with spoilers after the jump.

SO IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE HORRIBLY SPOILED, FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING, DON’T CLICK THE KEEP READING LINK.

Don’t worry, I’ll warn you again when it’s spoilery time in case you came here via a direct link.

For now, the spoiler-free review.

As I said in my first impressions post, The Royal Trap is a the latest game from Hanako Games, which is probably my favourite indy game company ever. It is a visual novel (in particular, it could properly be called an otome game if it was made in Japan instead of the US). In this world of many competing kingdoms, Kings are guided by their Queens (called Wisdoms) and everyone, noble and peasant alike, is bound by a rigid social structure.

You play as Madeleine Valois, a prince’s companion from a noble (if low-ranking) noble house whose parents had always intended her to grow up in her sister’s shadow. (It’s worth mentioning here that daughters are favoured over sons when it comes to matters of inheritance.) Fortunately for her, she is saved from a life as nothing more than a lady-in-waiting by (unknowingly) befriending the king’s son, Prince Oscar. As his companion, she is expected to be his confidante, advisor, agent and to help him win the hand of the beautiful Princess Cassidy. Part of her job is not, however, to allow him to fall into a complex web of intrigue where everyone has a secret, and certainly not to fall in love with him, ever.

Our heroine, Madeleine Valois

So begins a story of “swords, pistols, and palace intrigue” (as the forum charmingly puts it) that is mind-numbingly awesome. Gameplay is simple….in that there really isn’t any gameplay. You read a section of text, click the left mouse button, read more text, occasionally, you will be asked to make a choice, which will determine which ending you get (there are six main story branches, four of them have three endings each, one has two, and the last has one, for a total of fifteen different endings). You have the option to skip passages you have read before, and you can pretty much save wherever you want.

So, that’s basically it, your job is to read and decide which of the characters you want to pursue (embarking on a character’s route may or may not end in a romance with that character, it could even be fatal, depending on your choices), and before you ask, yes, there’s same-sex romance, and a “lone wolf” option.

Regarding the characters, The Royal Trap has a nice assortment of characters who wouldn’t be out of place in any shoujo anime. Our heroine, Madeleine, is very down-to-earth and takes her job very seriously (and isn’t afraid to kick some serious ass when needed). Prince Oscar, her employer, is the “nice guy”–a character type I usually find irritating. Prince Gaston is a very flamboyant individual who has a tendency for dramatics, Prince Nazagi is mysterious (and comes off as almost sinister), Prince Callum is a jerk, and Princess Cassidy, the woman the princes have all come to court, is sweet, naive, and PINK! OH SO PINK!

The thing to keep in mind is that everyone (and I do mean everyone) in this VN has at least one secret, and no one is quite what they seem to be at first glance. Like other games by Hanako Games, you won’t be able to uncover all these secrets in one playthrough, and events that might merit a passing reference in one route are the entire focus of another. This isn’t a VN you want to read once and put away. Think of it less as a story and more as a puzzle, where each route gives you a new piece of information (although the individual character arcs are self-contained, the over-arching story is revealed in multiple routes, without spoiling anything, you’ll be exploring four different routes if you want all the awesomeness).

You will want to replay this, trust me, or you’ll miss the awesomeness. (Or, of you just don’t care, read the spoilery bits after the jump.)

I’m not ashamed to admit that there were moments reading through this VN that made me cry. I completely identified with one character’s struggle with their nearsightedness, and the notion that they are “flawed” because of it. There were also moments where I laughed, moments that were nail-bitingly tense, and plenty of moments where I needed to pick my jaw up off the floor. The game explores themes ranging from parental neglect to class issues (including love between people of different social classes) identity (including gender identity, which is a plot point in every route and VERY significant to the story as a whole) self-worth, finding independence, you know, light and fluffy stuff, most importantly, these themes are all handled in a very sensitive way. Okay, so there’s plenty of light and fluffy stuff too, Gaston’s dramatics and the palace staff believing that Nazagi is a vampire are  just two such incidents. While you may find yourself initially disliking particular characters, they have a tendency to grow on you. (This is, of course, helped by the writing, which is great, and better than some of the work I’ve seen from professional teams.)

Visually, the game is gorgeous, especially the CGI, whoever did the CGI could easily find work with a triple A studio, IMHO. The character art is also very well done, the only flaw visually is in the background images, which are much less detailed. However, I would much rather trade gorgeous CGI for simplistic backgrounds.

Don’t believe me? Here. have some CGI directly from the gallery:

This small picture does not do the image justice.

and another, in case you aren’t convinced….

His Royal Highness Prince Pain-in-the-Ass Callum not being a pain in the ass.

The actual gameplay footage is not as pretty, but the character designs are quite detailed.

The backgrounds are meh, the character art is something else.

The music, as I said in my impressions post, is mostly made up of stringed instruments (particularly guitar). Tracks that stood out for me are the opening theme (which is JPOP-esque), the “sneaky” theme, and the track that plays during battle sequences/particularly tense moments. The one thing with the music is that it tends to get repetitive.

If there’s one flaw in The Royal Trap, it’s that Madeleine’s inner monologues tend to go on past the point where she’s regurgitating stuff we already know (how she was raised to be demure and refer to her sister, for instance) and while each story branch has it’s own unique ending path, some sections of text are repeated because the first four chapters are the same no matter which route you’re on. If this were a printed book, I’d definitely be giving it looks for repeating itself so much, but in this medium, I’ll forgive it. Suffice it to say that the issues the game addresses are way more significant than the fact that the text repeats a few times (and, actually, replaying each route will take a bit more time than Hanako’s previous games, because quite a bit of text is changed between routes).

Overall, if you like stories with plenty of intrigue and politicking, and don’t mind coming back to it to unravel more of the story (and you WILL want to come back to it). If you like the politicking but want more gameplay, my earlier recommendation for Long Live the Queen still stands. Most importantly, is if you want a game that handles topics like gender identity seriously, you NEED to buy this game, and seriously, that is all I can tell you without delving into serious spoiler territory.

As a matter of fact, let’s get to that, right now.

THIS IS WHERE WE ENTER SERIOUS, GAME-BREAKING, SPOILER TERRITORY, SO DON’T READ PAST THIS POINT IF YOU WANT TO UNCOVER THE PLOT FOR YOURSELF.

ONCE AGAIN, HERE BE MAJOR SPOILERS! DO NOT READ PAST THIS POINT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED!

Is everyone here who wants to be here?

Yes? Good.

*sighs* Do you know how very hard it is to tell people about an awesome thing that’s in the game but telling them what that thing is will spoil the game completely?

Yeah, that’s what this review has been like.

Okay, so, I promised spoilers, so now I’m going to deliver.

In an early chapter of the game, Callum, Princess Cassidy’s brother, asserts that Cassidy is really his brother, Caspian, whom everyone believes is dead. This leads to a somewhat humourous exchange about the differences between men and women. In Oscar’s route, this plot point is subsequently dropped.

At this point, I was thinking “Man, what a waste of a perfectly good plot!”

I went back and played through again, making different choices, and suddenly that one scene became extremely significant, but it wasn’t until completing Callum’s route that my jaw really hit the floor.

If you’re following along, you might have already figured out the Big Secret, and perhaps you’re thinking: “Oh no, they do not go there, do they?”

Yes, they do, they go there, they go there and they plop down on their butts and make it impossible to ignore.

Princess Cassidy is a trans woman. Callum’s route spells it out explicitly (the other routes are a bit more ambiguous as to whether she’s trans or intersex). This explains pretty much everything that needed explaining in the plot: why the King and his Wisdom kept their kids isolated, the speculation that Dolores is more than a simple Page, the entire overarching plot hinges on this revelation.
What’s more, when her suitor’s learn that she might not have the expected plumbing, they….don’t care…at all (although, in Nazagi’s happy ending, this leads to Madeleine becoming his concubine because children, although everyone in the relationship cares about each other).

The thing is, if this story had been told by a bit developer, you can bet that they would have let it drop with those few lines in the earlier chapters (Hel, I was expecting Hanako to drop it, I should know better). These are the kinds of stories that games are meant to tell, IMHO, and they don’t, or they cover it up, relegate it to subtext, and leave fans wondering: “So what’s the deal with this character?”

The thing is, The Royal Trap doesn’t cover it up, it digs down deep, and we get to watch as Cassidy’s notion of herself is called into question (in one route, when she finally decides to take a look at a book of erotic engravings, she realizes she has ambiguous genitalia and suddenly she doesn’t seem to know where she belongs on the gender spectrum, though she has always thought of herself as a woman). Most importantly, once the entire plot is laid bare, the people around her have no trouble accepting her as a woman (although Madeleine does have a bit of pronoun trouble at first).

This is what makes The Royal Trap so awesome, the fact that not only did they venture into territory that other game makers would use as an opportunity for crass humour (hi, Persona 3!) but they do it sensitively, even if it takes the player a couple tries to actually get the full story. (Note that the characters themselves are given this information in pieces, as each route is its own story, but the player is able to piece everything together from all of the routes combined.)

So, if you’ve happened to read up to this point, I’d still encourage you to try the VN for yourself, or tell your friends about it in a less spoilery way than I did.

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One thought on “Game Review: The Royal Trap

  1. Thanks for writing this! It’s a great review! 😄

    *spoilers* I actually felt really sad about Cassidy when I found out, and spent more time hoping that she’d find someone good for her than I did worrying about who I wanted Madeleine to be with, so, when I got the Nazagi good end, I didn’t feel happy at all.

    Unexpectedly I ended up liking Gaston and Pherod the most, like, SO MUCH, probably because they were the most genuine I think out of all the characters? Oscar and Cassidy were nice, but it was impossibly nice to me, so it didn’t feel real (though I do like Madeleine being with Oscar in the end), and Callum was cool, but for all Gaston’s sparkles and poetry, he was so true to heart, so I was in tears of happiness when he and Cassidy got married. *end spoilers*

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