Welcome to the Academia, a European, isolated island society comprised largely of students and faculty, artificially created for the sole purpose of teaching students and ensuring they become the best scholarly graduates available. This is where the story of Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning begins, as written by Sakurai Hikaru. Sakurai has written several well-received visual and graphic novels before, and while she has worked with Liar-Soft previously, she has since parted off as a freelance writer. So will the latest steampunk visual novel published by MangaGamer be a decent send off to what the future may bring?
Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning: PC
Release Date: 15 April 2016
Price: £29.99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
The art is brilliant at the best of times and pretty good at the worst of times. Even at the game’s indignantly locked 1024×768 screen resolution, character, and environmental art always looked pleasing and detailed enough to keep the eye preoccupied during the few seconds between reading. There’s consistent use of great color and lighting, I was hardly ever displeased, though I’ll admit there were a few environmental shots where I was left wanting more, particularly some vague background people at the very least. It’s a minor complaint though that’s become standard in most visual novels as it seldom adds that much to the experience. It appears the engine they used to develop the visual novel though is woefully inadequate, as there doesn’t seem to be any instances where there are multiple characters on screen at once, unless in pre-drawn scenes, and the aforementioned 1024×768 resolution does become a slight issue in enjoyment, especially if you’re used to using a monitor beyond 1080p, which leaves you with either a very small window, or a blurry and stretched out image in fullscreen.
I’m still surprised art manages to look as decent as it does in this case. Default sound settings also seem to be rather unbalanced, whether left that way by accident, or by differences in audio systems, but I had to tune the music down quite a bit just to able to hear the game’s dialogue even in the voice actors louder moments. It’s a simple fix however and doesn’t register as anything above a minor inconvenience.
That’s enough about the technical aspects, however, and it’s now time to move onto the actual story itself. Admittedly, the opening scenes failed to draw me in. While Sakurai absolutely shows that she’s a great writer later on, I felt like Gahkthun didn’t deliver in a way that immediately drew me in. As a writer myself, I know how difficult it is to write the first chapter of a story, as you struggle between whether you just want to throw the reader head-on into the action so they are instantly entertained or if you feel you need to explain just about every piece of lore possible just so the reader won’t feel so lost that they won’t feel inclined to read more, and Gahkthun chose a bit of both in this case.
One of the first scenes involves a man standing in a clouded, shadowy area barking on about this enormous bell in the distance, possibly to create some kind of mystery for the reader, but the character on screens repeats on and on about how the bell just keeps ringing, but not speaking. Groaning, but not speaking. It doesn’t speak, it only groans. The man spoke, but the bell didn’t answer. I felt like the scene stretched on longer than it needed to in order to create this illusion of mystique but did so by being as vague as possible for too long. I’ll admit though, this opening scene did crop up in the back of my mind frequently while reading later on, and it sets the tone for the first chapter quite well, which is melancholic. I suppose in that sense, it accomplished what it was supposed to.
The beginning is rather awkward, and other character introductions didn’t feel important. I had a hard time telling throughout the story who would remain an important character during the course of the narrative and who would just be tossed aside later on. This actually happens a few times, as characters who quickly build this background narrative about them are just as suddenly shoved aside, leaving unresolved character progression as you hardly feel like you knew them at all. However, there are quite a few character names you might recognize. Nikola Tesla is actually one of the earliest names you’ll read, and yes, it’s meant to be that Nikola Tesla. When introduced it’s implied that the plot is focusing on the declaration of war between the council governing the school. The school itself is interesting, however, as it’s almost entirely run by the students that live within this “city” of sorts. It’s this small society of its own, and it’s a quirky but settling aspect of the story and it’s steampunk setting.
There’s even a section called the “dropout” district, and despite what the name implies, these students don’t actually leave the school. It seems almost every chapter of the story also begins some sort of new challenge for the characters to overcome, so you can’t blame for the rather lengthy 20 hours or so it will take you to finish this VN for at least trying to be dynamic. Most chapters are well enough on their own to progress the overall story, but there are a few flops. There’s certainly filler chapters, with not much going on and character interactions that add little to the development of their relationships or their personalities. However, the duds weren’t quite enough to repel me from the whole experience.
Character designs are fine overall, though some might find the designs of female characters, in particular, a bit…exaggerated. I wasn’t fazed overall, but I could understand if some people would find it distasteful. There’s also the news that this is ostensibly one of the few Steam Visual Novels to include some uncensored material. Yes, but quite honestly, it’s not too explicit, and it’s not necessarily there just for fanservice material. I feel like it was handled maturely enough, and if you’re not too offended by exposed breasts you’ll be just fine with this VN.
There are small interactions with the narrative as well, in the form of questions that typically require answering. It’s at least something to involve you in the story, and there are multiple endings to strive for, which at least gives it a little something to stand out from the many other visual novels that have popped up on Steam in the last year or so. The story is quite lengthy, so it’s well worth the price of admission, and there are few aspects that are lacking other than a few narrative missteps and technical inconveniences. It’s also easy to follow, as the English translation seems to be more than adequate, and the voiced dialogue is in Japanese only. It’s well voiced but there is some narrative dissonance when the characters talk about speaking English, while actually speaking Japanese, and about having different accents. It’s nothing out of the ordinary though, as it’s understandable when that’s what language the VN is localized for.
For those that like to have an off-hand reference, there’s a very handy Encyclopedia detailing the major aspects of the story and its world, and I found it came in handy a couple times to better understand a facet of the story or just for a brief refresher. It’s handily laid out, both by category and alphabetical, and you can refer to it easily in the main menu. And this is good, because again, this is a lengthy novel with a lot to introduce, and having something to tell you about anything you need to know plainly without it being surrounded by narrative is something I wish more visual novels had.
Conclusively, I can say I was happy to delve into Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning’s world. There are a couple shortcomings that keep it from being magnificent, and if possible they should alleviate the technical limitations or else they are just doing the artistry a disservice. Most of the characters are quite likable, but several do seem to be forgotten, sometimes for the convenience of the story and other times it seems to be for no reason. I didn’t mention the music because there doesn’t seem to be that much. What’s there is very nice, but it lacks variety. If you’re fond of almost a poetic way of written novels, you’ll enjoy Gahkthun of the Golden Lightning and its beautiful art.