DRAMAtical Murder is Cronenberg by way of Lisa Frank, and it’s a shame you can’t play it
DRAMAtical Murder is a wound that doesn’t heal.
The game is Snow Crash with a Lisa Frank meets Vocaloid aesthetic, set to a catchy/corny synth-pop soundtrack. The interface is bubblegum pop, but not overly garish, with neat retro effects when the story calls for it. The character portraits and scenes are dynamic and beautifully painted, and the character designs are uniquely attractive and color-coded, even given their nonsensical fashion sense.
It’s also pornographic, and on top of that it’s filled with moments of body horror and other carnal delights. You can’t recommend it to friends without a litany of warnings about the content.
It came into my life just as I was starting to become interested in Japanese dating sims, particularly titles developed with women in mind, because I had played and enjoyed Aksys’ PSP release of Hakuoki and not many examples of such games existed in the West yet.
I was told the Japanese-only PC release of DRAMAtical Murder had an English translation patch made by dedicated fans and that this cutesy thing was actually a visual novel rated for ages 18 and older due to depictions of sex and violence.
Tumblr didn’t help, as it began drip-feeding me an increasing stream of both cute and sexy fanart. I could no longer resist checking it out. Just a peek, I thought.
The translated dialogue was well-edited for a fan project and all the Japanese voice actors were pleasant-sounding enough. I found all the characters I encountered interesting, particularly the narrator, and the game’s world-building was impressive for a story that I originally thought was ultimately about getting laid.
The dating simulation aspect played out more like an extended Persona social link than anything you’d see in BioWare’s dialogue trees, with simple exclamation or action options being offered at key story junctures. A sexy Choose Your Own Adventure. I had to carefully suss out a path towards the character I found myself most interested in pursuing.
You play from the perspective of the blue-mulleted Aoba, a reformed street punk who seems content working his drudge retail job while living with his grandmother Tae, on the island of Midorijima.
Their island home has come under the grip of the influential Toue Corporation, which built a hedonistic invite-only resort called Platinum Jail on its northern side, leaving the lower slums where Aoba and Tae live to rot. The local youths entertain themselves by joining gangs and competing with each other in brawling competitions or cyber games.
Aoba just wants all his gang leader friends to stop hassling him to join their crews so he can live quietly and not cause any further trouble for his aging grandma — he’s reached the crusty old age of 23 and doesn’t have time for teenage nonsense anymore. But since this is a video game, Aoba is dragged into a confrontation with the megalomaniacal Toue Corporation.
Aoba can initially partner with one of four companions on this adventure: a Womanizing Childhood Friend, a Bratty Teenage Hacker, a Weirdo in a Gas Mask or a Violent Ex-Convict — and there’s usually romance involved at one point or another.
Aoba is sarcastic and relatable, which is a rare treat usually afforded to “boys’ love” games, as the point-of-view character in girl-lead sims is often expected to act as a direct player avatar, unvoiced and observing.
The world that Aoba inhabits is also unexpectedly deep. The cyberpunk-ish worldbuilding is interesting and not overdone, and the story is tied together decently once you play through all the endings — though thinking too hard about the hand-wavy metaphysics in the final unlockable True Route is not recommended.
There are a surprising amount of people in this grim pit of fandom with me. I keep running into folks in real life who have played DRAMAtical Murder, at this point having had many animated discussions about favorite characters in our mutually-played porn game. It’s quite a thing to bond over.
I’ve run into women at indie comics conventions, such as the Toronto Comics Arts Festival and Small Press Expo, who are just as into the game as I am. DRAMAtical Murder appears unexpectedly popular with independent artists, likely drawn to its unique aesthetic and quirky character designs, people who aren’t especially big consumers of anime nor visual novel media in the first place. It’s not this weird niche club like I originally thought it was. I have now made legitimate, long-term friends because of DRAMAtical Murder.
As time went on I realized this fascination of mine wasn’t waning. There was something to DRAMAtical Murder and I wanted to share it with my other friends, like all the game developers I knew who may gleen interesting lessons from it. But it’s really hard to recommend a game with hardcore sex in it to casual buds, no matter how open-minded they seem or how shameless I claim to be.
There are a surprising amount of people in this grim pit of fandom with me
Unlike typical “you died” game overs, the extended failure states of visual novels provide interesting what-if hypotheticals, such as what happens if the player fails to resolve their partner’s emotional turmoil. And since the game’s developer Nitro+CHiRAL isn’t known for pulling its punches these bad endings usually involve romantic betrayal, imprisonment, sometimes dismemberment, the shattering of minds and a total loss of agency for the main character.
So you reset and try again for a hopefully happier ending. But if you’re sensitive to issues such as sexual assault or body horror, it may be too much for you; any encouragement to play the game also comes with a heaping helping of trigger warnings.
That may not be the case for long. Just recently a PlayStation Vita version of DRAMAtical Murder was released in Japan. First-party platforms do not allow overtly sexual content without an Adult Only rating, something publishers usually won’t abide because it limits retail availability.
The Vita adaptation, DRAMAtical Murder re:code, has a Cero-C rating, Japan’s equivalent to 15 years or older, and games with this rating usually get localized to M via the ERSB.
All sex scenes have been replaced with new PG cuddles and kisses or fades, gory bad ends have been made less severe, and most instances of sexual assault have been rewritten. Basically the game has been toned down to the amount of sex and violence you’d find in most other M-rated releases on consoles.
It’s time for a US release
This is the perfect opportunity for a western developer to localize the game for American audiences. There is some interesting evidence that it has at least a moderate draw in the west. YouTuber Pewdiepie, complete with his 30 million plus subscribers, recently asked fans which game he should play next. DRAMatical Murder was on the shortlist.
DRAMAtical Murder ultimately didn’t win PewDiePie’s poll; it placed fifth above Dark Souls 2 DLC. But this unexpected exposure was enough to convince me that there was some semblance of mainstream awareness of DRAMAtical Murder in English-speaking regions of the internet, with over half a million views and 7,000 comments on DMMD’s voting video alone.
Additionally, Tumblr just released its Year in Review stats listing the most reblogged tags ranked by popularity. DRAMAtical Murder wasn’t listed under the Video Games category but instead under Anime and Manga — but it ranked as the number three most used anime tag, beating out the likes of Sailor Moon and Naruto.
Is there not going to be any Western localization company that is going to take advantage of this semi-aware audience?
The downside is that the console adaptation of DRAMAtical Murder still isn’t perfectly suited for the West. One particularly notorious route from the original game has been downgraded in its severity, but is still violent and has troubling implications of domestic abuse. While the means do serve the narrative ends and it does become an interesting character study that ties into the story as a whole, personally it’s still really hard to play through.
Unfortunately this rough route is one of the critical-path playthroughs needed to unlock the final characters and the revelatory true ending, whereas the other routes’ disturbing bad conclusions aren’t required for this. So even the edited Vita version of the game still retains plenty of the original version’s dark themes and it should be consumed responsibly.
Whenever I post screenshots from DRAMAtical Murder to my Twitter I get a variety of people asking me “What is this game? This looks interesting. I want to play it!” And I have to let them down every single time since it’s not easily available in English.
It’s filled with moments of body horror and other carnal delights
It’s an aesthetically appealing game, regardless of if you are into romantic visual novels or not. DRAMAtical Murder re:code not getting localized just feels like a missed opportunity. We saw a similar pattern with the release of cult hit Danganronpa, which started with a popular Let’s Play and growing internet fan-base along with an internal fan working at NISA coincided with a Vita port, that lead to a localization announcement nobody expected but are thankful for.
I’d like to think that if pigeon-dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend can get a successful Steam release and playful fanservice games like Akiba’s Trip and Criminal Girls can get localized to the West then there should be room for a publisher to take a risk on an already-proven-popular weird game like DRAMAtical Murder, now that it’s being handed to them in a more palatable Vita form.
Can some publisher please give me a legitimate answer for all the people who ask me “What is this game? Where can I buy it?”
Please suffer with me.
AM Cosmos used to work in AAA video game development, but she got out. Now she occasionally writes about media that interests her — particularly animation, comics, and games made by and for audiences of women. And she gets real emotional when thinking too hard about sports anime.