CONTENT WARNING: This visual novel contains blood splatter and descriptions of suicide/murder.
Zetsuna’s back, this time with Miniature Garden! Development was from Muzintou and released in Japanese back in 2015 (under the original title of 箱庭の学園 or Hakoniwa no Gakuen) and Fruitbat Factory picked the title up for localization.
Miniature Garden, the titular school secluded in the woods not far from town, throws an exclusive, eccentric, and esoteric school festival known as the Miniature Festival every three years…but along with the festivities, rumor has it that someone always winds up dead from unnatural means the day after. This year it’s Iguchi Yasunari and four other students who are trapped in the school after hours, with some mysterious force preventing them from leaving via doors or windows. With people’s sanities cracking left and right and the school’s infamous Seven Mysteries looming, can Yasunari save his classmates and escape the forces, paranormal and otherwise, at work?
It’s billed as a dark mystery novel, although far less bloody than the OP’s impression – but still some splatter when someone sustains injury. Art is done by Korie Riko (Lump of Sugar), who did really well with character design, particularly the sprites where certain characters slip into insanity. VNDB.org gives a short (2-10 hours) estimate of playtime, while I spent about 4 hours on auto mode to arrive at one of the endings.
Plot-wise, Miniature Garden is…a bit of a scattershot. Everyone’s stuck inside the school in highly perilous conditions with the Seven Mysteries rumors leading people to go insane when spooky things happen and people abruptly go missing – or worse, wind up dead. Much further into the game, more is revealed but ultimately it’s up to the reader to see what each ending so begrudgingly gives and tie it all together for a complete (as it can get) explanation of the events that occur that night, as well as the heavily stained pasts of all five characters. Then there’s other details, like how the rest of the student body is nowhere to be found, that just beg for willing suspension of disbelief and/or hand waving it with the paranormal in order to proceed smoothly. What does get done right are the long drags of psychological and philosophical ponderings between characters – albeit, not the best setting given threat of mortal peril – that ultimately provide some structure to the events that unfold.
Fruitbat Factory did absolutely great with subtitling the OP, “Miniature Garden” performed by Kanade Nakoto (Lump of Sugar), in Japanese, romaji and English. All the other main characters aside from main character Yasunari are fully voiced from notable actors, though one does stand out… The music is generally pretty good quality on its own, although it’s used to questionable effect in the early-mid game when things seem urgent. Towards the end the music starts to really become good and highly fitting to the scene. Too bad there’s no music player.
Mechanically, it feels a bit clunky and slightly rough in places. For all the blood splatter-motif in the save/load screens, the confirmation panes are instead rather simplistic buttons. Sometimes a text issue appears where the default serif font changes to another default font entirely, but these are minor hiccups to what appears to be a custom engine. When you’re trying to go for more endings, the skip mode doesn’t take into account unread text and zooms right past. The worst of it (which isn’t that bad itself, merely another annoyance) is that the auto function relies on text display and ignores if the voice acting has finished or not. Whether it’s a mere bug or some persistent issue from having to reverse engineer the game engine, I do not know.
However, a great thing Muzintou did was the “Return” button. Happen to mess up and misclick on the wrong choice, or just want to backtrack from an incoming Bad End? Instead of scrolling upwards like with Ren’py-engine VNs (here it’ll just bring up the backlog), simply hit “Return” and you’ll be taken back to the last choice selection.
Overall I found the game decently enjoyable even if I’m not generally a fan of more substantial horror novels. Again, the minor problems are still noticeable but just small annoyances by themselves. With more focused QA from Fruitbat, I’m sure at least the typos could have been caught. If you, the reader, love horror-driven plots, do snag this slightly-dated novel should it go on sale.